Don't call Beach House's sound "dreamy": "It's gotten to be like saying somebody's nice"

Victoria Legrand talks to Salon about their new album "Depression Cherry"

By Mack Hayden

Published August 31, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

  (Shawn Brackbill)
(Shawn Brackbill)

The first song on the new Beach House record "Depression Cherry" is called "Levitation," and it's an apt description of the band's sound and vibe. The interplay of echoing organs and guitars mixed with Victoria Legrand's oracular voice lifts you off the ground just far enough to still be aware of your surroundings, but taken aback by how different the view now is. Don't let that fool you into thinking Beach House is all airy, dreamy aimlessness, though. Theirs is a career of solid, original output within the framework of a specific aesthetic, and the new record bears signs of both restraint and progress. Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand seem to know who they are but, even more important, they're willing to continually probe the depths of what that means, personally and musically.

We talked with Legrand about "Depression Cherry," who Beach House is and who they're becoming.

One thing I see over and over from music critics in regard to your music is how "dreamy" it is. But do you view creating music as a method by which you can escape into a dream, or by which you can deepen your sense of reality and wakefulness?

I think it's more the second thing you said. The "dreamy" word is so lame. It's gotten to be like saying somebody's nice, it's such an easy adjective to describe something. Granted, yeah, it has that effect on people. But it's gotten to the point where it just seems like lazy journalism to say that. When Alex and I are writing, it's a lot about feeling and we play a lot of the music when we're writing. It's very physical in certain ways, there's a violence to things. It's definitely, for me, way more than just dreamy. I don't necessarily feel like it's escaping either. I feel like it's doing what we're all doing, dealing with reality in certain ways. But what is reality? It's different for everyone.

Given the title of the new record is "Depression Cherry," was there any hope the music would help alleviate feelings of depression in those who suffer from it?

I think you can decide for yourself, because I can't. I think having the word "depression" in the title and the word "cherry" is many things. It can be confrontational, it can be completely artistic, it's utterly unique in many ways. It's whatever you want it to be. I don't think it's my place to decide what your response should be. That's music — it affects everyone differently. You should give yourself that freedom to feel however it makes you feel. Granted, we made the music. But ultimately, how it makes you feel is something we may not have been able to predict at all.

Music's kind of the gift that keeps on giving. It's always taking new shapes and forms and meanings over the years. So give yourself that freedom to just have it for yourself for a while. It'll mean new things to you, or maybe it won't. 

Your sound is obviously unique to you guys and identifiable, yet you keep finding new things to do with it, tweaking it and evolving. So how do you go about achieving cohesion without ending up with repetition?

That's the kind of thing where when we're doing it, we're not thinking about what's happening. It's in the doing of it and in the constant work of it. There's newness to be found for something without wishing for it or hoping that it happens. For me, there'll be months where I don't think of a new song or melody but then it happens one day. It's not something that you can control but we've now written so many songs that we're deeply in the matter. It's surrounding us, there are so many songs in our minds that we're just swimming in it and we're liking certain things and not liking other things. I think the things we grab on to and develop may be the result of having a lot of material and we can just go deeply, deeply in. That's as about as intellectual as I can get with it.

We're very inspired by the instruments we play and, because we work so often together and we've worked so many years together, I think there's a fluidity to the things we get fascinated by. The melodies and the chords we get inspired by, we can chase them so quickly together. I could see how if it was a band of five people and we were living all over the world, it would be difficult to chase those ideas. But because it's the two of us, there's a concentration to it. I think we're really lucky in many ways to have found each other and to go deeply into an idea without hesitation. That has something to do with it too.

Within that collaborative process between you two, has there ever been a point at which the vision started diverging and shifting, one person playing catch-up or trying to pull the other person back? Or has it been pretty unified throughout your time as a band? 

I think it's all those things you said. Nothing good comes without conflict. Tension is good. If one is pushing in one direction and the other is hesitant, the hesitant one won't be convinced unless they really believe that idea is good. There are layers upon layers of intuition and feeling going on. We don't talk a lot when we're working. There are moments of "Does this work? Does this not work? I really like this."

We really just try to let the music speak for itself so it's a bit of everything. It's not like we sit down and it's perfect immediately. The most perfect moment is when the first idea comes out but there are many other great, perfect moments. I shouldn't even use the word "perfection". But it's basically the moment that excites you and you're always chasing it and trying to preserve it. That can be a very painful process. Some of the songs come together very quickly, some of them take months, some of them take years. I wish there was a word to describe the process. It's like a crazy spider web of things that click and things that fall apart. Alex and I are catching things and bouncing them off each other. Some things work and some things don't.

Are there ways in which creating a song can almost feel like an existential choice? You start out with all these possibilities and you've got to hone it down to being just one thing. How do you decide when the song is exactly what it has to be?

There's a moment that happens. It's just a feeling that things are bright and it can't go anywhere else. It's gone to the places it needs to go. That initial feeling is still intact in there too. So yeah, it's sort of existential but it's also kind of mystical as well. You're using your intense, intuitive ability and your instinct and you're feeling that it's finished. It's sort of the same way a sculptor looks at a form and says all the forms are just right in their inconsistencies. My intentions and the things that happened, which were these beautiful accidents I couldn't have predicted, there's a big combination of things that can happen. But there's definitely a moment where you just have to let it go. That's the big, ultimate risk, as a songwriter: you go as far as you can but then, for your own sake even, you have to let it go and know it's finished. It's a huge feeling of relief sometimes. In the past, we've had some songs where it was such a struggle to finish them. It becomes very troubling, actually. It feels like you've failed something and just didn't get it. You're in the moment and you try so many things until it feels like a song.

With the stuff I've been reading about this new record, it seems like you intended this to be simultaneously a return to simplicity while also a being a bit more loud and aggressive [to better match bigger venues]. When it came to learning that new vocabulary of both returning to an older style of songwriting and reinventing it in a more visceral way, what made that something you wanted to do and something you knew was doable?

I think, in our evolution, which keeps happening, we're always doing things at least slightly different. Even when people say all the songs sound the same, I always think "No, they don't. They don't sound the same." If we'd come out with a rap album, everyone would say we'd really changed our sound. But, for us, the rules don't apply there.

"Bloom" was kind of the peak of our exploration of what live drums could do in our arrangements. We went pretty far into it. It's definitely our drum record. There are a lot of cymbals and drums in that album. After playing so many songs live, we had "Teen Dream" songs, "Devotion" songs, first album songs, but the "Bloom" songs had this certain feeling. We ended up feeling like we went there and we wanted to peel a little bit back in the other direction to see what happens.

That's not the only reason "Depression Cherry" happened. One of the things in "Depression Cherry" is that we've harnessed the drums again in a way that's reminiscent of "Devotion" or even "Teen Dream." We turned slightly in another direction. It freed up a lot of space for the vocals and for the music to thrive. I think drums can really crunch things down. They're a very competitive sound. Singers always over-sing on stage because the drummer is so loud. Drums, for us, are good in moderation.

It was just another step of evolving. We did a lot of new things with this record. We had a choir. I think Alex's guitar is doing a lot of new things that it hasn't done in the past. There's a whole variety of things that happen on this album that haven't happened on the others. It's not just about bigger venues, it's a combination of many things.

We wanted to take a break. We got back in 2013 and I didn't even want to think about music. I just wanted to see what would happen. Some bands may take five or ten years as a break so, comparatively, ours was not that long. But then "Depression Cherry" occurred. We really didn't want to force it and we wanted to do it on our terms. We just wanted to fully let the songs be what they needed to be. The result was this record.

How do you think "Depression Cherry" stands out from your other records?

I don't think it could've happened any sooner. It couldn't have happened without "Bloom," "Bloom" couldn't have happened without "Teen Dream," "Teen Dream" couldn't have happened without "Devotion" and "Devotion" couldn't have happened without the first record. They're all indebted to each other in certain ways. They owe their existences to the previous work, not just in the sense of their being the follow-up. After four or five records, you have an amalgamation of work and a pool of songs. I think "Depression Cherry" is exactly where it should be.

On the press release for the record, there's a Schopenhauer quote about loss proving the worth of things. Do you feel like that's proven to be true for you as a band in any way? How did other people's ideas influence the writing of this record?

I think loss happens constantly on a giant scale, from the very small instances where you hardly even notice it to the very giant traumas like losing a loved one. The reality is we lose something everyday. We lose that day and we never have it again. That's a whole philosophical world. I don't think we were thinking about it that intensely while we were writing. There were some quotations, after we were finished and had time to reflect on the album, that seemed to fit.

Alex is a very avid reader. I don't read a lot, maybe because I write words a lot. Those quotations were like echoes of what we were thinking or feeling. Particularly, for me and Alex, the Banana Yoshimoto book "Kitchen" had a lot of effortlessness and playfulness in its dark matter that really resonated with us. It felt very natural how she was tackling these larger things we all think about as humans.

The record isn't all about loss or the passage of time, it's many things combined. I have not personally lost someone in that dramatic sense of the word. But, as people, we've experienced our own traumas and things. I think all humans understand what that is. A lot of music deals with that constantly. It's the essential longing for what was and what will be. It's an interesting conversation. We wanted to get people to think and to wonder.

Mack Hayden

MORE FROM Mack Hayden

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alex Scally Beach House Depression Cherry Music Victoria Legrand