Baltimore's Beach House: "We've Been So Lucky to Do This Band" 

Beach House.

Courtesy of Subpop

Beach House.

Beach House is the Baltimore-based duo of multi-instrumentalists Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand — but you probably already know that. For a decade now, and in front of ever larger audiences, the pair has been crafting fever-dream pop songs rich with Legrand's ethereal vocals, shimmering organ tones and Scally's dark, brooding slide guitar. What's remarkable is that in all that time, they've managed to maintain near-complete creative control of their project, seemingly at every level of production.

"We're pretty control freak-y," Scally admits from his home in Baltimore. "Nobody pitches us ideas."

In keeping, the two write their own press releases, build their own set pieces and even handle their own album art. The cover for Depression Cherry, the duo's fifth full-length effort (released August 28 on Sub Pop Records), comes encased in a field of solid crimson velvet, broken only by the band's name and album title in white lowercase letters. The inner jacket features a picture of a fiber-optic rose. The photograph was shot by Scally, of course.

"We have a very big role in the design. The red velvet was our idea," Scally says. "We've been, essentially, the designer for all of our records."

Beach House's drive to control the band's presentation extends, by necessity, to the Internet as well.

click to enlarge depressioncover.jpg

"We get a lot of pressure — and a good kind, it's a positive thing — we get pressure from our manager and record label to do stuff online. Everybody's competing for this small amount of attention," says Scally. "But it feels so cheesy when there's not something important to say. In our minds, before the record, we thought, 'What can we do using the Internet that's exciting or cool?'" Consider the beachhousebaltimore.com setlist generator, where fans in each city on the band's tour route can vote for the songs they most want to hear. The top three will be played that night, without question.

"We change the setlist every night on tour — but what if we're not playing a song someone really wants to hear? Sometimes, randomly in a certain town, a random old song will get a bunch of votes. And it's like, 'OK, cool, we'll play the song that night.' You know you'll make those 35 people happy."

Scally is still preparing the stage design for the group's current tour, which he describes as a work in progress. In the past, designs have taken a variety of forms — obelisks, pyramids and other geometric structures — with numerous shifting light schemes.

"It's still evolving. It's less a set piece, but admittedly, it's looked set-like before. We have something — I don't want to give out too much about it. The Pageant is a great stage for production, so we'll be able to do something really nice."

While the process of releasing, promoting and touring for the record has preoccupied the group for the last few months, its members put just as much energy into writing and recording the latest album.

"It feels a lot like the seasons," Scally says. "Recording is one season, touring another. You enjoy parts and hate parts of them."

It was a cold Baltimore winter when it came time to make a new record. The group packed a rented U-Haul with the contents of its practice space and fled south to Bogalusa, Louisiana, headed for the famed Studio in the Country.

"There's all these great studios from the '70s and '80s, during the era of huge budgets, that are all kind of empty now," Scally says. "Stevie Wonder made a record there. Kansas recorded 'Carry On Wayward Son' there. It's super hi-fidelity, sitting out there in Louisiana, not being used like it should."

Scally says the duo already knew what they wanted to do when they arrived.

"We write completely before we get to the studio, so we know exactly what we need," he explains. "There are very specific arrangements, and we work at them pretty hard. Before we say the song is done, we've worked on them for a long time. The songs don't change a lot in the studio. Subtle things shift within them. Overall, energy or tones shift, but not big changes."

But they made one spontaneous decision: the inclusion of vocal-music majors from the local Pearl River Community College.

"The studio has great engineers that work there — the guy there had connections throughout the area," Scally says. "He hooked us up with the music director at that school, a friend of his. That guy got us in touch with the voice people. They were sweet kids, good singers, and we made a cool-sounding choir song."

That song is the album's final track, "Days of Candy," and it features eight singers doing four parts in two octaves. It's gothic cathedral music, haunting and spacious, and a fitting end to a great record.

Depression Cherry is vintage Beach House in the best sense. The instrument tones and arrangements, like each arpeggio in the standout "Space Song," seem carefully curated, pored over, interlocking. The band went without a live drummer in the studio — unlike on its last two records, 2012's Bloom and 2010's breakout Teen Dream — and returned to the beat machine. It balances out the paced delivery of Legrand with perfectly timed, well-composed fills, as in "Levitation" and "Beyond Love." The lyrical imagery in the latter song, as on most of the record, is dramatic and romantic, but distant — sweet, sometimes sad, but any specific meaning gets hazy around the edges: "The first thing that I do before I get into your house/ I'm gonna tear off all the petals from the rose that's in your mouth."

For a band so firmly in control, there was one thing it couldn't help — the online leak of the new album nearly two months in advance of its proper release date.

Scally is surprisingly forgiving.

"We would've preferred it not to, because we had a vision of how we wanted to release it," he told Rolling Stone in an August interview. "But it's happened every single time we've put out a record. So, to some extent, it just seems completely normal. Once it leaks, it leaks. There's no reason to be upset by that. It's just music, and I'm happy that people even care to listen to it."

It's clear the two members of Beach House invest enormous time and energy in every aspect of their band. For now, they've earned a brief respite from tour life — they'll play 100-plus shows nationwide this year and are resting up before heading out on their next string of live dates, including a September 27 stop in St. Louis. But they wouldn't have it any other way.

"We're heading out in a week. It's been a year of touring," Scally says. "We've been so lucky to do this band now for all this time and have it be our life."


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