“You know how it is my friend,
In the boxes of those picture frames
Lay your head in the apple orchard,
You can settle down.”
– ‘Apple Orchard’, Beach House
‘Apple Orchard’ was an important song for Beach House. Its loveliness seduced listeners all over the world, when it made it onto Pitchfork’s Infinite Mixtape #34, and when it was rated as the website’s eighth best song for 2006. Multi-instrumentalist Alex Scully, and Victoria Legrand, singer, songwriter and organ mistress extraordinaire, explain this was the moment of their first break, when international recognition began.
The duo are based in Baltimore, USA, a small-scale town that’s got a lot going for it. Prices are low, venues are small, gigs are intimate and the crowd is welcoming. Now that crowd is growing. A quick look around on the internet reveals some very interesting commentary from fans and critics alike. One listener obviously can’t get enough, describing their experience of ‘Apple Orchard’ with eccentric colour: “It’s like eating a sunbeam with your ears, it’s like having honey drip over your internal organs, this song is so great.” Victoria is instantly taken aback as I read her this touching tribute. “I’ve never heard anything like that before! That’s really neat, it means that the words are having an effect on people’s imagination. That’s just going to breed more weird stuff!” she says with a chuckle. “Our Myspace page says, “visual/visual/visual’. That’s not a joke, it’s very real. We want our music to feel intense like syrup, very visceral.”
This is the Beach House open invitation, a musical mise-en-scene waiting to happen every time you hit play. A quick gaze at the cover art speaks volumes about what to expect from the disc inside. For their introductory album, it’s a close-up of what could easily be your grandmother’s jewelry box, bursting forth precious pearls, giant cubic zirconias and age-tarnished chains, all from another era when keepsakes were not just disposable commodities, but something precious to be handed down for all time. It’s not surprising then that it’s Victoria’s set of vintage organs, keys and pianos that create the starting point for songs. They are integral to the grain of the music, carrying the weight of her heavy-hearted dulcet tones, on the back of dense, textural-tinged melodies, with that special warmth of character that is unique to old analogue instruments.
As she sings (occasionally Alex does too), Victoria summons fragments of old memories blended with the new beginnings of tales not yet told. The inspiration comes â€œfrom the music itself,” she says. “From the chords that ring in the ears and a lot of visualsâ€¦ I’m not sure exactly where they are coming from!â€ she admits. It’s almost like a special talent for synaesthesia. These are personal stories, accessible to all who care to bring their own imaginings to the songs, to make of them what they will.
This process of dialogue between the original intent of the songs and how listeners perceive them is something of great joy to them. A listener once heard, “I want to picture the nature” instead of “I want your picture but not your words” in the song ‘Master of None’,” Victoria recalls. It’s “a happy mistake,” she says, that sometimes when you think you are hearing something correctly (even though you’re not) this can be when you hear it best. To this effect, she gives a comic Manfred Man rendition: “Blinded by the light! Revved up like a deeeeuce!!!” I mean, what’s a deuce? Or is it a douche (as it is often, and absurdly, heard). Mondegreens [mishearings of song lyrics]are funny and Victoria is now chuckling down the phone. I get the impression that as long as the words have some positive meaning to Beach House listeners then that’s really all that matters to them.
There are other things Victoria is less light-hearted about, though, such as the fundamental assumptions that have been made about how Beach House create their beats. Most critics assume it’s the work of a drum machine and have reported this in their reviews. It upsets Victoria, as drum machines are not something she’s into. “I’ve been in bands that use drum machines before. It’s so different, very synthetic.” Beach House is not into precise, complex programming of beats but choose instead to work with the beats that are available on their organs and Yamaha keyboard. Sounds that are much more compatible with their warm, handmade aesthetic. For Beach House, the drum sounds certainly have their place but are far from elaborate. Instead it’s more like a subtle heartbeat that propels the song forward.
There’s also another good reason for the choices they make – there are only two pairs of hands in the band and this has a great influence on their style. It encourages processes to remain simple but harmonious and allows them to get away with doing things like recording the entire first album in their basement. Going on tour does present some challenges, however, like how to travel with an organ from 1973. This is circumnavigated, mainly, by taking along the keyboard instead in some instances, and making do with a minimal set of musical props at best. With the release of their new album Devotion, this is about to change. They are looking forward to a bigger performance with a guest percussionist joining to help create the little accents that will allow for something a little closer to their studio sound. The tour will take the band through the US, Canada, Europe and possibly Japan if all goes well.
Beach House are expected to grace our Australian shores in August this year, and Alex in particular, is really looking forward to this visit as it will indulge his other great passion – rocks. When asked what he likes to do in his spare time, he self-deprecatingly replies, “Mostly just reading books and watching movies, oh, and collecting rocks in a kinda pathetic way.” He explains further, “I studied a geology major at university, because who would think you can make pop music for a living?” The conversation then turns to the inevitable, one of the biggest rocks in the world. There’s a bashful and dare I say almost loving tone to Alex’s voice as he describes the stripes down the side of Uluru, the mammoth rock that demarcates Australia’s central heartland.
As the interview is winding up it’s a relief to note that, despite their growing recognition, Alex and Victoria seem very relaxed and are a pleasure to talk to. There’s not even a faint trace of rock star airs. I decide to sneak in one last question about something that has fascinated me about the letters that spell out the name of the band and the title of the album on the cover for Devotion. They’re laid out on a table at which Alex and Victoria are seated, facing each other with empty plates and what looks like a one-tiered wedding cake in the middle. “Are the letters made of dough?” Because that would be really neat. Victoria laughs, “No, no… They’re actually made of wood, but I should tell everyone that the entire table is made out of cake!” The conversation ends with Victoria admitting she’d be the chocolate mousse, or maybe even, no most definitely, the fruit cake.
Beach House’s Devotion is available from Carpark/Mistletone.