Drop those expectations of dreamy space-kids. In person, Baltimore group Beach House are not ones to suffer fools, writes Ed Power
I’M SLIGHTLY nervous as I wait to interview Victoria Legrand of cult alternative duo Beach House. Dreamy and star-crossed on stage, in person she is formidably plain-spoken and, based on previous encounters, does not suffer idiots. I could be in trouble.
Initially, it seems our tete-a-tete is bound for choppy waters. Asked whether Beach House’s remarkable recent record, Depression Cherry, was a struggle to make, Legrand sighs and says the question is far too diffuse for her to answer over the course of a 20-minute back and forth. She isn’t tetchy — merely matter of fact and supremely deadpan. As a creative person, how could she possibly reduce the process of making an album to a glib soundbite?
It’s a reasonable point. Especially in the context of music as intense and enigmatic as Beach House’s. Operating out of the troubled, racially divided city of Baltimore, Maryland, (for many years America’s uncontested murder capital) Legrand and musical partner Alex Scally have, over the course of a decade plus, honed a free-floating alternative rock — a beguiling, if far fetched, fusion of My Bloody Valentine and Enya. And yes, we mean that as a compliment (little known fact: Enya is an influence on ethereal US alternative rockers of a particular disposition).
On Depression Cherry, the pair attempt to shake-up the formula somewhat. They’ve stripped back the formal, rock touches — there are less drums, Scally’s guitar playing is more minimalist so that Legrand’s banshee croon has greater space to breathe. As reinventions go it is subtle but no less impactful for that. In fact, it may be the best thing the duo have yet done.
Still the band are clearly not for standing still. Just last week, they surprise-released an entirely new LP, Thank Your Lucky Stars. Recorded in tandem with Depression Cherry, the collection feels like a continuation of the themes delved into on its predecessor. It is dark and mysterious and, assuming you are in the mood for super-dense indie rock, mostly irresistible (“We are very excited, it’s an album being released the way we want,” tweeted the pair. “It’s not a companion to Depression Cherry or a surprise or b-sides”).
“Alex and I have always been really intuitive about what we wanted,” says Legrand, backstage at the 1,200-capacity Town Ballroom in Buffalo, New York, where Beach House are about to start a North American tour (it’s a busy year for the partnership, with a European tour touching down at Vicar Street, Dublin, on Sunday).
“Our eyes and ears are open — we’re always open to new things and also to rejecting stuff we’ve done previously. Wanting to change is very natural.”
Legrand objects to the idea that Depression Cherry is the sound of Beach House purposefully stripping things back — that it is a “simpler” record. Which is a surprise as that is precisely the claim made in the press release which the band put out with the LP. (They have cautioned against reading too much into the title, which has led some to interpret the project as a commentary on depression and societal attitudes toward it.)
“Band bios are a strange thing,” says Legrand. “They are usually terrible. We’ve always tried to have a hand in writing them. This time, we picked some silly words. It’s not a simple thing at all, in fact. It’s actually incredibly complicated.”
Legrand was born in Paris (she is a niece of French composer Michel Legrand) and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating from elite Vasser College in New York state, she returned to France to study acting at the International Theatre School of Jacques Lecoq. She soon came to realise acting was not for her.
Returning to Philadelphia, she made the acquaintance of Scally, a musician from Baltimore. Feeling she had found her “musical soulmate”, she relocated to Baltimore, with the vague plan of forming a duo. Initially the biggest obstacle was an acceptable band name. After rejecting “Wisteria”, “Fuchsia”, and other plant-based suggestions they struck upon Beach House — a handle they were drawn to because it lacked baggage. “Beach House” meant whatever they wanted it to.
That was 12 years ago. She has lived in Baltimore ever since and watched as the town gained notoriety as a case study in urban decay (David Simon’s The Wire was essentially a critique of the inaction that had allowed the Baltimore tumble into permanent recession).
When racial tensions spilled over into protests, then riots, in summer 2014 nobody was surprised. “It’s a tough city. It’s not a destination for people,” Legrand told me in an previous interview. “We don’t have hordes of newcomers moving here. The city has a lot of character.”
“You go out into the suburbs, into the countryside and, sure, you’ll see some really, really big mansions. There is a lot of wealth in Baltimore. If you know where to look, there are lots of really cool neighbourhoods too. Kids are doing some really interesting things. It’ s not like Brooklyn, though, where everybody knows about Williamsburg and Park Slope. Here we’ve got these secret little pockets and nobody else is aware they even exist.”
She has voiced dissatisfaction at how Beach House are portrayed in the media — the idea that she and Scally are moon-eyed indie waifs assembling their music in hermetic isolation.
“It’s just lazy journalism. If people want to be lazy — they are going to be lazy. They’re writing for a bad publication or whatever — that’s not my problem. I’m not a superhero. I don’t give a f**k. Whenever I heard the ‘dream’ word, my response is to say ‘violent’. That’s what our music represents to me. Some words are just lazy. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Does she enjoy success? Her tone suggests some ambivalence. “We’re so grateful that anyone will listen to our music,” she says. “For people to come to our shows, to buy vinyl and stand there and listen to our music — to us, that’s a gift. We’re not shirking any of that.”
Thank Your Lucky Stars has just been released. Beach House play Vicar Street on Sunday, October 25.
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