Beach House aims to create a unique sound
Alex Scally isn’t at his best when the Straight calls him at home in Baltimore. He confesses that he’s not thinking too clearly, the result of staying up all night for a friend’s bachelor party, followed by a caffeine binge. “I feel okay, but my brain is scrambled,” the guitarist admits.
In fact, Scally is perfectly lucid and faultlessly personable—an ideal interviewee—but he does seem to be in a self-deprecating mood. By way of auditing his own skills, he says “I’ll be the first to say that I do not think I’m a good guitar player. The main thing I’m always trying to do is make the guitar not sound like a guitar. I’ve definitely gotten better. I was really bad at first. I was a piano player and bassist—I was all these other things before a guitarist. I actually picked up the guitar, more or less, to start this band.”
That was in 2004, when Scally teamed up with singer-keyboardist Victoria Legrand to form Beach House. By the fall of ’06, the duo had released its self-titled debut album. A showcase for Legrand’s sedate organ and self-professed “lazy” singing and Scally’s simple but effective slide playing, Beach House is a much better record than the guitarist’s self-assessment might lead you to assume. Its production, however, was positively lo-fi in comparison to the band’s fourth LP, this year’s Bloom. A Technicolor swirl of dreamy melody and lush texture, the album’s sound is instantly recognizable as Beach House—which is to say that it doesn’t sound like anything else.
“When we write music, we really try to make something that doesn’t sound like something we know,” Scally says. “If something we’re writing, or a keyboard we’re using, reminds us of something we’ve heard, it’s not exciting. Because it’s like, ‘Uh, that sounds like the Cure,’ or ‘That sounds like Fleetwood Mac.’ You know what I mean? Like, you pick up an instrument and you start to play it, and it reminds you of something you’ve already heard. This is maybe the most deliberate that Beach House ever gets, because we try to be organic, but we just try to avoid things that sound like something else. We really try to find who we are.”
The two-piece’s aesthetic is so unique, in fact, that it’s a little shocking that the makers of a Volkswagen TV ad thought they could replicate it without anyone crying foul. A commercial for the VW Polo that came out in May featured a track that, while it was not a direct copy of any particular song, “borrowed” Beach House’s vibe wholesale, and had lyrics that promised “I’ll watch over you.” (Compare that with the chorus of “Take Care”, from Beach House’s 2010 album Teen Dream, which says “I’ll take care of you.”)
According to Scally, the producers of the ad, U.K.-based adam&eveDDB, reached out to Beach House in an attempt to license “Take Care”, but when the band declined, the firm hired a company called Sniffy Dog to create a suitable replacement.
“They obviously didn’t care,” he says of the musicians involved. “They were getting a cheque and they got the song approved by these musicologists, so they didn’t care. Those people are rip-off assholes, and there’s a lot of them in the world. They just sit around and copy music and sell it to commercials. They’re pathetic, so whatever. I hope I never meet Sniffy Dog. That’s the name of the ‘band’.
“It’s happened to a lot of bands, though. We’re definitely not unique. It’s happened to many, many bands. It’s kind of a systemic, weird problem in the music world right now.”
In some way, though, the fact that Beach House was considered worth ripping off in the first place is an indication that the duo has, for better or worse, broken through to the mainstream. “Take Care” never made it onto a commercial, but the song was used in an episode of the Fox sitcom New Girl. And, since Bloom came out in May, Scally and Legrand (along with drummer Daniel Franz) have performed on the Late Show with David Letterman, Later... with Jools Holland, and The Jimmy Fallon Show. Beach House was also included in an Entertainment Weekly feature titled “30 Greatest Music Artists Right Now”.
True to self-deprecating form, Scally thinks this is ridiculous. “One of the most exciting things in the music world right now is how endlessly diverse it is,” he says. “There are so many good musicians these days—almost too many to fully appreciate, for sure. And to say that we’re one of the 30 greatest is just idiotic. For someone, we are. For a certain kind of listener we probably are, but certainly not for all. It’s such a pointless thing, making lists.”
That may be so, but Scally might still be amused to learn that he is among the humblest musicians I have ever interviewed—definitely somewhere in the Top 10.
Beach House plays the Commodore Ballroom on Monday (October 1).