Beach House’s Victoria Legrand on Minimalism, Commercialism and Depression CherryMusic Features Beach House
Nearly 10 years have passed since dream pop act Beach House released its self-titled debut. Since then, the Baltimore-based duo of Victoria Legrand (lead vocals/keyboards) and Alex Scally (guitar/keyboards/backing vocals) has garnered well-deserved critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base for its characteristically subdued style. Though the word “subdued” carries with it the kind of deceptive marginalization of simplicity, the band’s newest album, Depression Cherry (Sub Pop), is a powerfully confrontational record, taking its marks from the muted opulence of their previous releases while invoking a kind of quiet restraint at the same time.
The complexities of such a combination make Depression Cherry Beach House’s finest achievement to date, with songs that still manage to carry the band’s signature pensive emotionalism, only now with a deliberate curtailment that leaves the music less demanding and far more suggestive in the context of its execution. With 2012’s Bloom, Beach House’s sound reached a zenith of sorts, offering listeners the band’s most aggressive translation of their music yet. While that album worked wonderfully in the context of its purpose, the band’s next creative step with Depression Cherry seems all the more a natural progression and not a return to prior forms—a point the group itself has offered in promoting the album’s release.
In a recent conversation over the phone, Legrand was quick to point out what she sees as a misleading nature concerning the band’s own descriptions of Depression Cherry. Regardless of the wording, though, the record is in fact a strikingly bare collection of songs with little more for the listener to focus on than an unobtrusively expansive sound that carries as much if not more weight than anything else supposedly heavier the band has produced in its career.
Paste: The band has made it clear that Depression Cherry is a return to form, though it seems like a natural continuance for what Beach House has done already. Was that shift or return of sorts something difficult to achieve in the writing process for the album?
Victoria Legrand: To be clear, in our bio that we wrote ourselves, we mentioned returning to simplicity, and I think that was a foolish thing to say because it’s not really a return to simplicity. I guess paring it down is one way of saying it, but it’s not that either because I don’t think that the songs are any less complex or vast than in previous albums. Certain things did change very subtly in terms of arrangement and removing certain musical elements slightly. Nothing major, like maybe slightly less live drums than in Bloom. But also the songs are different, so they’re going to sound different no matter what. As for the simplicity thing, we should never have said that because obviously the concept of this is supposed to be different to everyone, and I think for us before really even making this record, we had gotten to a place of really wanting to be as natural as possible with what we would make and really let the songs dictate the form and not aggressively put anything into it that would alter the spirit of the music in a way that we found to be kind of aggressive. It probably felt after playing a lot of Bloom shows that those songs have a crazy force in them, and we got to know that force, and I think that live drums have something to do with that force. I think we just very naturally wanted to go in another direction. I don’t know if it’s that simple at all. I just think that’s just kind of the natural evolution that we had. I think by not having live drums be such a moment in the writing process, it really freed up a lot of space in certain ways. But there’s a lot of layers to production and the writing process. Generally when asked about this return to this particular state or something or what has maybe changed from the previous work, I always just mention the drum aspect as an example of one thing that was altered or pared down. There’s still live drums on the album. It’s just more like once you’ve made four previous albums, there’s a lot of song crafting that you’ve done and experienced, and there’s a lot of song forms that you’ve made. You just have a lot more experience and tricks. These are just new forms.
Paste: Considering the sometimes misperceived idea of minimalism in music, have there been obstacles either musically or professionally for the band just in terms of perception from audience or even critical expectations?
Legrand: I don’t think we have ever had any kind of difficultly in being perceived. I think because we just don’t think about that kind of stuff. We’re not that aware of the other side, nor do we really care what people think about the fact that we do things the way that we do, because we just do them. The whole thing about minimalism or whatever, to me I’ve never thought about it that way because from the very beginning, Alex and I in becoming the two of us as Beach House—that was something even in itself that was extremely natural in the sense that we’d written some songs but at some point we’d considered just being a regular band. From the beginning we didn’t plan on it just being the two of us. We imagined that there would probably be other people, and we had asked people to play with us, and no one wanted to do it. I even asked my boyfriend, “Would you want to be in the band,” and he was like, “No, no, no. You just do it yourself.” [Laughs.] And he wasn’t the only one, but the fact of the matter is that the becoming of the two of us, I think less is more. I think that that was a challenge, but we realized that we did want to play, just the two of us. We already liked doing it. We were just trying to think about a conventional band in asking other people. There was a kind of innocence in that thought, for just a moment, that we thought that that was the way it should be done, but very quickly it was right in front of us. I think that happens a lot in life, and I think it happens to everyone. Sometimes the big moment that will change your life or the thing that you need the most is right in front of you and actually right inside of you—that ultimate change. I think for me that’s kind of the way we’ve been doing it ever since. We really just wanted to tour at the very beginning. We were just so excited about music and what we’d made. We weren’t super pressed to get on a label, but we were lucky because my friend Jason Urick knew Todd from Car Park and everything just started falling into this place very simply. But it was insanely natural where one thing happened after the next, but the entire time you’re working because you’re believing in what you’re doing it, and you’re loving it, and you’re loving the people involved, and you’re enjoying it. Your life is happening, and this is your life. That’s the way that it’s been rolling ever since, so whatever challenges have occurred, we’ve really tried to embrace those and listen as best as we can. We’re older now, too, and there’s funny things that occur with age. Even now on tour I’m feeling different than the last time I did this, but it’s not better or worse. At worse, it’s just completely different. It’s the same way I feel about discussing new work. In terms of talking about minimalism or simplicity as a natural state, I just sort of reference one of the moments in the genesis of the idea of the two, of the duo, and how that was something that we didn’t plan on, but it fell into place. That’s how Depression Cherry felt. We didn’t know if it was going to happen. We didn’t expect that it was going to happen. I didn’t feel creative at all for about five or six months after coming back from tour with the Bloom cycle. I just thought well, maybe I’ll never have another musical idea. I really didn’t push it at all. I didn’t hear anything. Alex and I work differently. He can go every day and sort of work on stuff. Even if nothing magical happens, he can still work in a certain way. I like to wait for these moments to kind of happen, and that’s what Depression Cherry feels like to me.
Paste: Speaking to that natural evolution for the band, is the creative method one you see as being primarily instinctive?
Legrand: I think in this way Alex and I have sort of a Yin-Yang kind of balance with one another. I think there’s a work ethic, assuredness and discipline, and then there’s also, for me there’s the very first verse of the breakthrough or something like that. And we each have our moments of an idea that comes in our head of a melody or lyrics or chord progressions or things like that. We have those moments, but beyond that amazing moment once you have that thing, it’s kind of like a blessing and a curse because you’re like well, there’s something I’m really into, and I know I’m gonna want that to be a song. It’s this thing that happens, and then you have to chase it. It’s existing now, and you know you’re going to be obsessed with it and that you’re going to follow it. I think that those are sort of, for me, feelings that occur during the writing process. We also spend hours and hours once we have ideas, and we want to work on songs we definitely take it very seriously and spend a lot of time and space working on things and playing. There’s not a lot of verbally hashing it out. There’ll just be a lot of playing and working out the parts and things like that. It’s mostly just listening and intuition, but every song has a different trajectory. Some take months, and some take years.
Paste: With the band’s growth and recognition since its formation, is that concept of success something you see as being vastly different when compared to even 10 years ago when Beach House first formed?
Legrand: I think growth is an interesting word because every artist has a different path. I believe that each artist has the right to a very unique path that’s their own. I don’t think people should feel like they have to compare themselves with other artists like “Oh, this person’s gotten to this level by doing this, so I’m gonna do that exact same thing.” That may not work because it’s unique to each artist’s growth. People make different music. People have different personalities. People have a different grasp on what type of music they like. Everybody is so different, and I think that everyone has a right to create their own way to wherever they want to get. For Alex and I, we started being Beach House because we had written songs that we couldn’t believe had happened. Before even thinking about being a band, we were just in love with some things that we had made, and we kept making them. As we’ve gone through the years we’ve had our moments and many feelings of—I don’t know if success is the right word—but we’ve had so many great things happen, and there’s also been some weird things. You just learn over time and you figure out what is right for you. What does your work mean to you? Is it something that you want to have plastered all over the place? Do you want it to be used by every corporation in the entire world, or do you want to only do some commercials? Or do you want to never do commercials, or do you want to only have your music available on vinyl, CD and tape, and never have it on a streaming service? This age that we’re living in is probably more complicated for an artist to define their integrity or their standards than any other time period, because the fluctuation of record sales and leaking and streaming and all those things that keep changing every six months it seems like. There’s a constant learning going on, and I think it can be exhausting, but ultimately if you listen to yourself, and you understand your work and the nature of it and the force behind it, the key to your growth is inside of you. It might not be as typical or grand as someone else’s fame or success, but it’s your own. We were lucky because we had a period of gestation as artists. There was kind of an innocence then. We had a MySpace and things like that, and we checked our MySpace page and things like that, and that was as complicated as it got for us. I don’t even think we understood what blogs or whatever were. We didn’t know that in 2006, many, many people would become music journalists that weren’t necessarily qualified but it didn’t really matter. That was just the beginning, and I remember checking it one day and there were a couple hundred more views and listens than normal, and that was how we discovered Pitchfork. We’d never heard of Pitchfork before. Things have changed so much. The only still point in the turning world is yourself. That’s all you have. [Laughs.] Your reference point for the crazy world is yourself and what feels right to you, and not what someone else thinks you should do or the way that someone else has done it. The most punk thing you can do is just be yourself, and that is what we’ve been trying to do, and that’s what we’ve been fighting to do, but we’ve also been lucky and found people. You find families and people in the industry that you trust and that you resonate with, and they understand you. They believe in your passion, and then they defend you. I think you have to watch out. I’m sure people think that we’re very anti-commercials or things like that, but that’s not actually true, because we’ve done commercials. We’re not anti-industry. We’re not that political about it at all actually. We’re just very much case-by-case. If we think something is badly done, we’re not going to participate in that. If we believe that it’s evil, then we’re probably not going to do it. The world doesn’t need any more branding of terrible things with a happy face. There’s enough of that, and it seems to only be getting worse. I believe in humans. I believe in people. I really do. I believe in the idea that you don’t have to do it like everybody else does it. You don’t have to participate just because everybody else likes it. Are we approaching conservative times where people can report on each other and report someone’s photograph as inappropriate? I think there’s a lot of learning to be done and perhaps a turning inward. I believe that things can be private. I believe in mystery. I believe in sharing, but I don’t believe in oversharing. I believe in boundaries because I think that there are beautiful boundaries. There’s a respect, and when you give people respect, they respect you. I just think that’s the type of learning and that there’s some values that I have that I’ve always thought to be important. I think that ties into how I think things have changed in music or for people even. I think things are changing constantly, and I think being present and being yourself is getting a lot harder for people.