“Jackie Chan sings Beach House in a sweaty rage”, reads the video description on a clip that Victoria Legrand, singer/wordsmith and keyboardist for the dream-pop duo, definitely approves of.
“We don’t do many posts or things like that on the Internet, but this was one of the things we pointed out and said, ‘this fan of ours did this amazing interpretation, and you should check it out,’” she says of the video posted on the group’s Facebook page.
It’s a cover of “The Hours”, one of ten meticulously textured tracks from the latest Beach House album, Bloom. In the YouTube clip (see below), a young guy (“Jackie Chan”), cues up his equipment for a bedroom performance. “It’s so fucking hot,” he says, before cutting into raspy, acoustic-charged triumph. His voice slices through dead air with naked intensity. Sweat ensues.
Over the telephone from Baltimore, where Legrand and her musical partner Alex Scally live between tours, she explains that what makes this ragged punk cover so compelling is the guy’s “level of interpretation,” which shows her “that he really listened and discovered something.”
That “something” might be in the “violent, dark energy,” of the song, and a sense of androgyny that Legrand identifies with. It’s something that may have been there all along but waits hidden in layers of soaring multi-vocal sighs and swoony arpeggios.
In this way, Bloom presents a mirror to an audience largely accustomed to the rapid consumption of music through leaked tracks or free downloads. As noted on the duo’s Sub Pop bio page, Bloom is “meant to be experienced as an ALBUM.” There are no rewards for those seeking instant gratification from a single play.
Bloom burst once again onto Pitchfork’s Best New Music list this year when it was released in May. It infiltrated the online music community as the highly-anticipated follow up to Teen Dream, a massively acclaimed record that placed Beach House firmly on the indie tastemakers’ map in 2010.
Teen Dream, like Devotion (2008) and Beach House (2006) before it, is a colourful exercise in instrumental consistency, which Bloom reaffirms in an even more visceral sense. We get enchanting synth tones and smoky vocals that Legrande stretches decadently over single syllables. There are keyboards, the slide guitar, and shimmering cymbals connecting in a sweet nausea of sound, evoking a landscape that is at once surreal and darkly inviting.
But Bloom takes artistic discipline to a new level of craftsmanship.
“The writing process for us is very intense. It’s very creative and intuitive, and we work very, very hard in it,” says Legrand.
“It’s definitely not something that is casual,” she adds, “it starts off that way, but by the end, it’s all-encompassing. It’s a labour of love, ultimately, but it’s a labour.”
For a band that spends much of the year on the road, riding the festival circuit through the summer, and playing to sold-out bars and venues, there is also a time and place for writing that is kept separate.
“We tour and write music. The two aren’t hand-in-hand. It’s not a marriage. The writing process is completely separate from the touring. It’s a totally different universe,” she says.
She later emphasizes that “the touring lifestyle is one of complete and total extroversion, so you’re around people all of the time, and there are few or no moments for introspection. Touring is not conducive to a private and focused moment to actually make something.”
Those moments happen between tours; back at the studio space Scally and Legrand have in Baltimore. The songs from Bloom were developed there, through a process Legrand believes is shared with other art forms.
“For every bit of spontaneity and free form playing music, or playing along, or jamming, or whatever you call it, there’s a point where you want to narrow something down or be specific, or figure out why it’s happening,” she says, adding, “you can write five pages free style and then you’ll go back over it and say, ‘OK, only one or two sentences of what I just spent the last three hours working on are actually good, or worth pursuing.’ ”
For Scally and Legrand, it comes down to the laborious pursuit of something that is sort of difficult to articulate.
“It’s crazy,” she starts. “I can’t really put it into words. It’s so hard to describe what that thing is but when you’re working on it, when I’m working with Alex, we’re basically trying to find the essential, whether it’s the essential melody, or the essential sound, or the essential chord.”
The process makes for some gorgeously precise music. Bloom opens with “Myth”, where the steady tap of a hollow drum machine breaks seamlessly into shimmering waterfalls of piano chords and woozy slide guitar. Each layer builds the song in soft waves, to a sweeping melodic plateau. To include a cymbal-crashing climax would feel insincere to the journey that the listener has only just started.
“This is something we have felt very strongly about from the beginning: a sound can’t go into our song just because it’s a cool sound. It has to make sense as part of the story or fabric of the song,” Legrand affirms.
In Bloom, the fabric is malleable. There is a thrifty quality to Legrand’s lyrics, where not one word goes wasted. She offers just enough of a visual landscape for listeners to locate their reality within it, without pointing to a specific time and place to gather a textbook summary. On “Troublemaker”, the “walls are shaking in their skin”, a disturbing vision that feels at once familiar and completely otherworldly. You can’t quite put your finger on it.
“We don’t analyze that much when we’re writing. It’s impossible to do that, and it gets in the way. You can’t be talking about it [the song] too much, because it really comes down to, ‘That feels right, this feels right’,” says Legrand.
The “visions of a feeling” (“New Year”) throughout Bloom are not as easily identifiable as the queasiness of heartbreak on Teen Dream, but this doesn’t make the record any less accessible for the patient listener. “Wishes” rides out like a merry-go-round in a fantastic dream space, with Legrand as the musical sorceress releasing explosions of rippling Casiotones with the lines, “Once in your life/ It happens once and rarely twice.” The drums thud with gutting purpose, as though the moment really never can be captured again. It glows with triumph, like the punk cover of “The Hours”.
Back in Baltimore, Legrand is counting her hours until the next Beach House tour. “It’s been a few weeks, but we’re generally pretty busy when we’re technically home,” she says. “There’s been a little bit of time here to get ready for the next period of touring.”
From early September until November, Beach House will be crossing North America for the “Frightened Eyes” fall tour, stopping in Vancouver on October 1st to play at the Commodore Ballroom. It’s a tireless schedule that, like the record Bloom itself, serves as a testament to the intense labours of musical artistry. “It’s an amazing lifestyle but it’s also very exhausting,” says Legrand, “so you have to figure out how to maintain everything. Ultimately, in the end, it’s a very positive force.”
Beach House plays the Commodore Ballroom on October 1.
By Sarah Bauer
Cover illustration: Kara Love Eaton