In a humid, third-floor space in a warehouse near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Alex Scally lingers over an old Thomas Troubadour organ. The room is a fantasia of garbage: dusty keyboards, random tapestries, makeshift shelves lined with ephemera. A porcelain unicorn head sits next to a novelty microphone branded with a cartoon of T-Pain; a chandelier made from silvery, tinsel-like material sways back and forth overhead like a jellyfish.
There’s no AC in the summer. “And no heat in the winter,” Victoria Legrand says. Scally is 33, skinny and handsome and swimming inside his black T-shirt. Legrand, a year older, wears a heavy silver necklace and rings on every finger. Dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin, clothes casual black. They could be twins from the Criterion Collection or a fairy tale by a modernist Brothers Grimm.
About 10 years ago, they started a band called Beach House, whose music sounds like a lullaby played on a music box the size of a high school gym. They rented this space a while back and tend to practice quietly, so as not to bother the guys in the tie factory down the hall.
This week, they release their fifth album, a moody, enchanting piece of music called Depression Cherry. I volunteer that the title makes me think of the first time you experience depression — as in, popping your depression cherry. Like most of their decisions, Scally and Legrand decline to explain, then explain that it can’t be explained.
“There’s this moment of inception,” Legrand says. “And then there’s this moment, months later, where you’re like, it’s still in me. The depression cherry, the words, whatever the idea is — it’s still there. It exists in your life for a reason. And then months and months later it’s coming towards the music,” as though the words were sentient, apparitional.
Introduced in the early 1970s, the Troubadour was part of a steady march toward the domination of the home-organ market that Thomas started about 10 years earlier. Bob Ralston, the organist on The Lawrence Welk Show, played a Thomas; in one demo, you can see him show off how convincingly it imitates a choo-choo train.
Scally grew up with the Troubadour in Baltimore’s Mt. Washington neighborhood. With its rainbow switches and faux-marble inlay, the instrument looks like something rescued from an estate sale — magical junk bought on a lark and regretted by the time you get home. To hear Scally and Legrand talk about it, you’d think they had just come back from the pyramids. “It’s feeling and heat,” Legrand says. “Something physical.” Scally’s parents didn’t care one way or the other. “You guys don’t want this, right?” he asked. “No,” they said. “Great. Get it out of here.’”
This was just after college. Scally was back in Baltimore and taking the occasional job from his dad, a carpenter. He still designs or builds most of the band’s sets, and loved the work in part because it gave him a flexible schedule and in part because it allowed him to have his hands on something. Legrand grew up between Paris, Philadelphia, and Rising Sun, Maryland, steeping in piano and ballet, graduating from Vassar to theater school in Paris and landing in Baltimore on the recommendation of a man she and Scally refer to enigmatically as Dirk.1
Scally was living in an apartment in Charles Village; Legrand lived 400 feet away. They drifted back and forth between each other’s places, playing and recording. Scally worked on the occasional screened-in porch with his dad, Legrand waited tables at a Mexican restaurant. They make it sound like summer camp with more liquor. “We started writing our first record without even thinking we were a band,” Scally says.
At the time, Baltimore’s scene had become the object of some fascination in the indie-music community. Cheap, dangerous, forgotten by people who didn’t live there, the city presented itself as a kind of frontier. I remember busing down from New York for a festival called Whartscape, which by 2007 had been moved by its founders, known as Wham City, from its illegal home at a warehouse space, the Copycat Building, to a place called Floristree. The address for the venue wasn’t clearly stated; the door to the building was unmarked; the ventilation was bad; the show was sold out.2
Beach House had played earlier in the day, in an alleyway. Legrand’s voice — a husky, seductive instrument, like a fortune teller in a children’s movie — had yet to reach full bloom. In context, their music seemed solitary and detached, an unreachable island off a brightly lit coast.
The show — as with a lot of shows surrounding Wham City — was booked by a mad-scientist type named Dan Deacon, who in 2003 released an album called Silly Hat vs. Egale Hat and in 2012 performed at Carnegie Hall. I saw Deacon about 12 times between 2007 and 2009, during what I think of as his tent revival phase: one guy standing in the middle of the floor over a folding table piled with cheap electronics, commanding his witnesses like a metal rod commands lightning. With his dorky glasses and arbitrary neon shirts, Deacon was the avatar of a particular strain of radness, something you could see in the comedy of Tim & Eric or the early work of artists like Cory Arcangel — a collision of junk culture and surrealism and the general carbonation of youth.
“I remember we were on the same label at the same time in the same city, and we couldn’t be making more different music,” Deacon says, on the phone from Wales.3 He’d seen Scally and Legrand around, the way you do in a small city. They seemed driven, considered, invested in music beyond the contact high of social approval. One show in particular, at a place called the Zodiac, felt special — a conversion moment. “It was this small venue; it held like 80 people,” Deacon says. “They were so thought-out, so thought-through, theatrical without coming across as theatrical.”4
It wasn’t long before they were touring America in a vegetable-oil-powered bus for what Deacon called the Round Robin, a night of music and theater where audiences stood in the middle of the room and performers set up around the perimeter, each playing one song at a time before passing the spotlight. Looking back over those schedules, it’s startling to see what a mishmash of styles Deacon drew together: rap, folk, unstructured noise, a duo called the Santa Dads, one of whom played the ukulele and the other of whom paraded around in a tiger costume. But such is the natural confederacy of life in what the national media might call a third-tier city, where bonds are formed by the mutual recognition of an investment in a place most people don’t seem to care about at all. When I ask Chris Coady, who produced, mixed, and engineered the last three Beach House records, why he thinks he got the job, his first answer is, “Because they lived in Baltimore and that’s where I’m from.”
Legrand’s theater schooling, at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, finished with the performance of two late pieces by Samuel Beckett. One was called “Footfalls,” the other “Rockaby.” In “Footfalls,” a woman paces back and forth across the stage in scripted rhythm while having a dreamlike conversation with her elderly mother, who the audience never sees; in “Rockaby,” a woman is perched static in a rocking chair, which occasionally rocks on its own. Both are spectral, radically spare pieces of writing, not monologues so much as little piles of words, not plays so much as a hole where a play seems to have been scraped out. “I did them back-to-back as an installation for three hours,” Legrand says. “Which is ridiculous, but” — she sucks in through her teeth — “that’s what you do in college, I guess.”
This duality — of being a serious artist and being a little bashful about being a serious artist — lingers over our conversation. Throughout the day, they finish each other’s sentences and clarify each other’s ideas, but they also stop each other from explaining themselves too much, as though trying to preserve the irrational, unexplained — and unexplainable — aspect of what they do.
Beach House’s music isn’t as severe as Beckett, but it does share a similar purity, an ambition to strip art down to the privacy and insularity of a snow globe. Their most obvious ancestors are shy-minded indie bands from the 1980s and ’90s who buried themselves in sound: Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine. But there’s also something Andrew Lloyd Webber about their twinkle and swirl, the naive theatricality of dress-up and pretend. Their deepest root is in old doo-wop ballads, sweet and angelic but steaming underneath, the heat of two teenagers separated by a ruler at a bygone prom. If some bands capture the freedom and joy of youth, Beach House captures its erotic incoherence — the sense of having no clear idea how you feel but feeling it so deeply you might pass out.
Like Teen Dream and Bloom, Depression Cherry was recorded far from home. In this case, it was in the pine forests and fields of Bogalusa, Louisiana, a small city on the Mississippi border.5 The studio, called Studio in the Country, has history: Stevie Wonder recorded there in the ’70s, as did the Neville Brothers, the Wild Magnolias, Professor Longhair, and other New Orleanians. Kansas recorded “Carry on My Wayward Son” there, too. Coady and the band weathered the stink of sulfur coming from the nearby paper mill — the gear was that exquisite. “It’s the most remote place I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. Two months ago, a pipe at the mill burst, releasing a cloud of pulp waste into the sky. They call it black liquor.
Depression Cherry is a quieter album than Bloom, less heavy on the live drums, less bold in approach and certain in touch. If Bloom panted into your ear, Depression Cherry brushes your shoulder and disappears into mist. Scally talks about his fondness for Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, about how stripping back the arrangements and quieting things down left Stone the room to give a more dynamic vocal performance. “There’s a tendency that everyone feels to make something emotional, you have to blast,” he says. “And I think it comes with age, the realization that the real — the deeper, crazier, more complex — emotions aren’t in the blasting.”
Coady says they joke about how recording is like putting together a house of cards, or like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the passion of a madman dragging a boat over a hill in the middle of the jungle. I ask Coady if he’s Klaus Kinski or the boat or one of the Peruvian crew members who died during the shoot. He says he thinks the assistants are the Peruvians. As for the thrift-store organs, those come out in a big truck. They’re heavy and temperamental and produce a huge amount of unwanted noise, especially around sensitive microphones. A nuisance, but essential. “They were never meant to be in a recording studio,” Coady says. Not that Scally and Legrand would have it any other way.
In certain respects, their story is the story of a midsize band remaining comfortably — and defiantly — midsize. Their third album, Teen Dream, came out in 2010 and landed inside the Billboard top 50; their fourth, Bloom, came out two years later and debuted at no. 7. Gone are the carefree days of playing for 15 friends at the Zodiac; here are 6,500 strangers in Central Park.
Still, the band seems to be doing its stubborn, old-fashioned best to stem the tide. To hear Scally and Legrand describe the Internet, you’d think they were senior citizens, skeptical of its immediacy and breadth, happy to have flowered in a time they perceive as slower, more tangible, more substantively intimate. Despite having the infrastructure of a small business, they still write their own press releases, and on a few occasions have taken pay cuts at festivals in order to be moved from a daytime slot to a nighttime one because, as Scally puts it, “night is where music happens.”
The question is what constitutes growth versus an arbitrary change in scale. In 2012, the band declined to have Bloom sold in Starbucks, and later that year contemplated legal action against Volkswagen after one of the company’s commercials featured a song suspiciously like Teen Dream’s “Take Care,” which the band’s management has said it spent months telling the company it couldn’t use. The issue wasn’t a reluctance toward money, but the speed and nature of the money in question.6 “It made things harder for us, definitely,” Legrand says about their need for control, “but we must’ve done it for a reason.”
If Beach House is a throwback, it’s not because of its sound but because of its ideals, which seem dreamy in conversation but are backed by 10 years of road testing. Musically, it hasn’t evolved so much as clarified, turning out album after increasingly consistent album all seemingly born from that time back in Charles Village, a history that doesn’t unfold horizontally but vertically, like oil pumped up from underground. I like what Legrand says about encountering Beckett, about clawing her way to the bottom of why she’d gone off to Paris for school to begin with: “I started really asking what theater meant to me, and eventually it meant nothing.” It’s too soon to know, they say, but they’re thinking of taking their next album back to the basement.
Near the end of my visit, the band leads me to the back of the warehouse, where Scally has built a series of makeshift racks for Legrand’s outfits — hundreds of them, from personal pieces to things she wears onstage, most of them thrifted. She says she thinks it could be fun being a shopkeeper, leading Scally and I through the origin stories of various dresses, her feelings on style, the clothier’s privilege of “watching people get delighted by things.”
Suddenly, Scally becomes animated, dashing to the racks and cycling through wild combinations of clothing, modeling for us, strutting across the floor. He settles on a long coat printed with an Escher-like jigsaw of women’s faces and a mesh trucker hat with a dog on it.
“Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” I say. Legrand knows the dog, too. I tell them a story I remember reading in a Little Rock newspaper about a local Cavalier King Charles who made it to the trials of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The dog’s name was Truman McMath. In the article, Truman’s owner described how Truman liked to sit on the couch and watch movies with her, but freaked out when he saw Sister Act and Lawrence of Arabia. The owner figured he was afraid of hats.
Legrand bolts up. “See?” she says. “Instinct!”
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona.