Behind The Release: Beach House Bloom

May 17, 2012 by  

The Sound

On their latest release, Bloom, Beach House picks a mood and sticks with it in earnest. To their fans, the atmosphere of this album is sure to be a familiar one, and record reviews are abuzz this week with all the expected adjectives – “hypnotic”, “aching”, “sultry”, “languid.”

“Lovely as it is,” writes Jennifer Kelly for Dusted Magazine, “Bloom makes no big departures… If you wanted Teen Dream all over again, and god knows there are plenty of people who do, this is your record.” But while that might be true, so may be Hari Ashurst’s closing thoughts in his review for the BBC: “Once you manage to pull away from Bloom‘s magnified scenery and consider the record as a whole, it’s difficult to think of it as anything other than its makers’ best work so far.”

Although the drenched vocals, repetitious guitar patterns and obscure organ sounds are hardly new territory for the dream-pop duo, Bloom is as satisfying as it is oddly familiar. Much like Stereolab or James Brown, it seems that you can put on a Beach House record and have a pretty good sense of what to expect. But also like those artists in their golden periods, it seems that for now, Beach House keep on getting better at what they do.

The Process

It’s not easy to write a “Behind The Release” story on a band like Beach House. In our age of endless commentary and unprecedented transparency, we’ve come to take it for granted that our artists will be as open-source as our software. Beach House, however, is on a mission to maintain some sense of mystery.

Beach House: Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. Photo by Liz Flyntz.

“It’s the ‘man behind the curtain’ thing,” said singer and keyboardist Victoria Legrand in a recent interview with Pitchfork. “Let the Wizard of Oz be the Wizard of Oz.”

When I talked to engineer and co-producer Chris Coady [Blonde Redhead, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs], he was forthcoming on all the basic details, but stopped short when it came to some of our most specific questions.

Asked about the effects that went into the unforgettable vocal sound on Teen Dream and Bloom, Coady hesitated before saying, “You know, this has been asked of me before in the press, and the band doesn’t want me to say. I don’t think [the answer] would shock anyone, but I think a lot of the reverbs and things are something they’d like to hold onto as something of their own.”

For Beach House, this is a principled stance. Any information that might detract from the emotional impact of their songs is withheld, whether from social media sites or press interviews or from their spare, text-only web page.

The duo take their music seriously, almost abrasively so at times. In their recent Pitchfork interview, guitarist Alex Scally remarked that “writing about us, people have said: ‘Do we need another album by this band?’ What the f* is that? … Did anyone ever say, ‘Do we need another album from the Beatles?’”

While comparing your own band to the Beatles is probably about as elegant as comparing a political opponent to Hitler, Scally and Legrand’s devotion to keeping their music sacred and separate from everyday life is admirable – even refreshing for a contemporary indie band. The pair say they’ve turned down lucrative sync opportunities and even a distribution deal inside Starbucks stores, and are proud to have slowly blossomed over six years into the seasoned performers they are now.

As much as they’re devoted to the aesthetic of mystery, the duo is also wary of having their sound too-easily co-opted by trend hoppers. “All bands are in danger of losing their identity, constantly,” Scally said in the same interview. “It’s the most dangerous world for bands nowadays because everybody’s branding and trying to steal your vibe as soon as you do anything that anyone cares about. It’s very weird.”

But where some reverb-drenched groups hide their deficiencies behind a mask of effects, Beach House’s sound has grown to become as meticulous as it is immersive. Although their instrumentation can be minimal, it’s exactingly performed and thoroughly plotted in advance. Just like with Teen Dream, co-producer Coady says the band “didn’t just bring the songs, but a completely mapped-out demo.” Essentially, they recorded the entire album twice.

“They had drawn out charts, and they had a plan. They’re very hands-on,” he says. “Maybe more hands-on than any band I’ve worked with.”

One of the large tracking rooms at Sonic Ranch

For Bloom, Beach House once again decided to hole up in a residential studio to record to 24-track analog tape – a rare treat for Coady, who got his start on tape machines and now says he tracks to tape about “once a year”.

When they finally arrived at Sonic Ranch studio near the border-town of Tornillo, Texas, Coady and the band were shocked to find it had “almost exactly the same dimensions as Dreamland,” the deconsecrated church studio where they tracked Teen Dream.

“But in the end, the room sounded very different – And we were all different too. Since I’d seen them last, I’d recorded 15 or 20 more albums. They’d toured the entire world, and their lives had been changed by this album they’d made. And we were also out in the middle of the desert, instead of up in Woodstock, so it was all very different in those ways.”

Once again, Coady placed distant room mics to help capture the band’s spacious guitar sounds, and in addition to applying a secret cocktail of effects, he recorded the vocals out in the massive live room with no baffles. Unlike on Teen Dream, the drums joined them in the main room as well.

“For both albums they brought all their own instruments,” Coady says. “We didn’t use any of the studio’s at all. Theirs are all unique found instruments. They’ve got some keyboards that – Well, I’ve never heard anything sound as good. They’re just strange things, you know – Home organs and keyboards I’d never seen before.”

I ask Coady to describe a few of them and he clams up again, knowing this is personal territory for the band. That’s fine, I say – I can understand it. I tell him I think that sometimes when we talk too much about the gear we put too much of the focus on it. And besides – when people try to copy a sound and fail at it, it’s almost always more interesting than when they get it right.

“For sure,” Coady says, laughing. “It’s about them really. I remember playing a keyboard once and saying ‘ah, I don’t like this one’. Alex from Beach House just said ‘every keyboard has got a good sound on it – you just have to find it.’ So he sits down with it, starts scrolling through the banks and says ‘There. That’s the sound.’ He had found this really incredible patch that I had just passed by. I think they have a knack for that – Finding the right sounds.”

But as much as the band seems to lead with their sonic footprint, they’re surprisingly perplexed at how much listeners seem to focus on it. “A lot of people listening to music now just go, ‘Good tones…’ and that’s it,” Scally said recently. “Sometimes, I feel like people aren’t even listening to our songs, they’re just listening to the sound.”

Although it may seem strange for the band to act so bemused about what aspect their listeners notice first, it’s true that underneath all their moody gossamer and painstaking ambience, Beach House have a degree of substance that’s uncommon among bands that presents such an unmissable sonic imprint.

“They’re people that are obsessed with songwriting,” Coady agrees. “I’ve watched them write parts and it’s very next-level. It’s like watching a child prodigy playing violin and wondering how can they be this good at it. With them, the songwriting is something they have down to a science.”

Stream the lead single off Bloom, “Myth.

CREDITS
Artist: Beach House
Album: Bloom
Label: Sub Pop
Producer: Beach House & Chris Coady
Engineer: Chris Coady
Studios: Sonic Ranch, Tornillo, TX; Electric Lady, NYC
Mastered by: Joe LaPorta, The Lodge, NYC

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.