Aug 10, 2011, 06:04AM

Through The Looking Glass

An interview with Washington, D.C. band Beauty Pill on the decision to record their new album in public

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Down at the end of a long hallway in Artisphere, a museum that opened in Washington, D.C. last year, a large window overlooks a recording studio where the band Beauty Pill is recording their second album. On a recent afternoon, I watched through the soundproof glass, listening to the two small speakers connected to the studio, while guitarist Devin Ocampo and bassist Basla Andolsun worked out parts for a song called “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed,” listening to and then accompanying a fluttering, gorgeously ornate loop. At one point, Ocampo breaks off and begins playing the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for a minute to amuse himself, and then focuses back on the business at hand. This is the modern recording studio experience, in all its tedium and minutiae with occasional moments of levity or inspiration, open to the public for anybody to come by and watch.

Beauty Pill began a decade ago as the brainchild of Chad Clark, the former frontman of the Washington post-punk band Smart Went Crazy and a producer and engineer whose resume includes every Dismemberment Plan album and Fugazi’s The Argument. From 2001 to 2004, Beauty Pill released two EPs and one full-length album on Dischord Records that displayed a unique configuration of multiple vocalists, several multi-instrumentalists and ambitious songwriting that wedded deep grooves and sample collage textures to darkly poignant narratives.

Beauty Pill hasn't played a show since 2007, when Clark fell ill with viral cardiomyopathy, for which he underwent open-heart surgery in 2008. As Clark slowly recovered from the surgery and began recording demos for the band's second album, he became extremely active on the band’s Twitter, describing works in progress and even sharing excerpts on SoundCloud, perhaps spurred by the overwhelmingly positive reaction a demo of the song "Ann The Word" posted to the band's MySpace in 2006. So when Beauty Pill announced they'd be recording an album in public this summer, it seemed like the final fruition of the band's budding interest in transparency, inviting fans and passersby to watch the creative process unfold.

One recent morning I came by Artisphere before the beginning of the day's recording process, and was let into the studio space by band member Drew Doucette. We sat and discussed the practical realities of an experiment like Immersive Ideal, as Clark, Ocampo and Andolsun gradually arrived (vocalist Jean Cook, who lives in Brooklyn, and returning former member Abram Goodrich had finished their stints in the studio a few days earlier). A couple of photographers helping document the event were also present and joined in on our lively conversation, as did Michael Kentoff of the band The Caribbean.

SPLICE TODAY: So the audience up there hears the overhead microphones above the studio, not what's going into the mixing board?

DREW DOUCETTE: They just hear everything that's happening in the room. There are two little speakers set up there, there's a volume control with some notes on it, one note says "talk," and the other one says "play," so when we're playing in here, you turn it to "play" so it's at a decent volume, and when we stop you turn it to "talk" so you can actually hear what we're saying. And it actually sounds pretty good too.

ST: I noted that the official announcement on the Artisphere site mentioned that there was no confirmed label yet to release this album when it's done. So you guys may actual release a record with someone besides Dischord Records this time around?

DD: Yes. Y'know, we've always had a good relationship with Dischord. But we're not sure exactly what's gonna happen at the end of this.

ST: When the album is done and presented as another Artisphere installation, will the physical release happen at the same time or later on?

DD: Ideally the release would coincide with the exhibit. Is that gonna happen? Not 100 percent sure, but that's the goal to work towards.

ST: Do you have an idea of what exhibit will entail?

DD: It's gonna be presented in surround sound, from what I've seen so far.

ST: It'll be mixed differently from the CD?

DD: Yeah, the only way you'll be able to hear it in that form.

ST: Do you have to record differently for surround sound or is that all handled later in the mixing stage?

DD: Yeah, it takes some consideration when you're gonna be recording things for surround sound. It's not too entirely different unless you really wanna get specific with it. But it's a little bit up in the air; typically things are done with 5:1 audio, and we're debating on whether we should do just a four speaker surround thing or if we wanna do a five speaker surround thing. And then it's like, do we want to present it like a traditional DVD audio surround sound mix, or since it's gonna be just for the theater, we're thinking about setting it up so it really sounds like, you hear the piano over here (points to the piano in the room), how you see it is how you're gonna hear it back.

ST: Are there any cameras in here documenting this?

DD: Brendan Canty's been coming in and doing some filming.

ST: Is Immersive Ideal strictly the name of the project or will it be the album title as well?

DD: I'm not sure. It'll be on the table of possible album titles.

ST: Has anything about this experience totally caught you off guard that you didn't anticipate yet?

CHAD CLARK: I see this kind of as an exercise, not just in vulnerability and transparency, but in empathy, from a social experiment standpoint. A lot of my friends who are artists and musicians, when I told them I was doing it, they were like "Yo, that's awesome... I wouldn't do that. You're so brave." I hadn't really conceived of it that way. Artisphere is supposed to be about a creative energy, it just seemed like a cool thing to do initially. But in terms of how I was conceiving of it, I wasn't fearing judgment that much, I had a feeling that people, as they came to understand what we were doing, would be empathetic with us. And that has been my experience, in terms of the vibe of the room and the vibe from the window, you feel people wishing us well, as we work. We've had small crowds in here, and we're working on something, we're developing something, sometimes we're arguing a little bit or we're just struggling to get the take or whatever, and you can feel in their body language that they want it to work, you feel like they're rooting for us.

ST: Well no one's gonna come all the way down here just to stare you down and hope it goes terribly.

CC: That's not a given. My friends absolutely presumed that would be the energy. I'm gonna tell you something, I'm not gonna name the name. We hired a graphic designer to do some kind of graphic image that we could use. And we said here's the outline of basically what we're gonna do, it's called Immersive Ideal, a phrase from [reading about] artificial intelligence, but I just grabbed it because I liked the way it sounded. I liked the combination of those two words, and I saw it as kind of utopian or positive combination of words. So we described it for him, and then we gave him carte blanche: be inspired by the whole idea, come back to us with some simple graphic images that we could use for this project. And every last one of his images that he submitted, which we are not using, was terrifying and dark.

DEVIN OCAMPO: Cat and mouse.

CC: There was one where the band was a mouse and the audience was a cat. There was one where there was a huge eyeball, and it was a very X-Files looking thing.

DO: The art was really good.

CC: He's a good illustrator, and we hadn't given him any instructions. Everything he had was subjugation, surveillance, really frightening, and basically making ourselves almost like victims. He's being wink-wink about it. Captive, band in a fishbowl, voyeurism in a very creepy, frightening way. Every image that he submitted had this sort of dark hue. Now I wanna be clear that it was meant humorously, but still, I was like, "Why would we broadcast that image out to the world? It doesn't make any sense, that's now how I conceive of this." And he said, “I’m boiling it down. You don't get it. I don't think you understand, I think I'm a little bit more clued into what this is gonna be about than you are."

ST: He thinks by the end it's going to be
The Truman Show.

CC: And that's the kind of metaphor people have been using, and I understand that stuff. But here's the thing that I thought was cool, to me the spirit of the thing is inclusion, an invitation, you say "Welcome into our home, we're working on something, here, have a seat." We've been letting people in the room. If we see someone standing at the window for a long enough time, it's like "Hey, come on down." Bridget is this woman, she just happened to be at the window, maybe she'd read about it, she was just standing there. And I could make out a figure and I sort of waved her down. We brought her in the room, and she was very sweet and very polite and kind of quiet, and said, "I'm just becoming a musician, I'm just starting to learn the bass." And I think she had just started lessons, she was just a novice musician. And she sat there and watched us, and again I could feel that she was excited and kind of on our side. And I can tell, in conversations with the band, I can tell people are silently taking sides with one of us, if it's Devin or me. I can feel, "Are they with me? No, they're not with me, no one's with me right now!"

ST: So you can actually lose an argument by the popular opinion of the people present who aren’t in the band?

CC: Yeah, the feedback thing happens. As the night was ending, Bridget left, and she said "This is really cool, I'm gonna come back tomorrow." And I thought, "No you're not. Why would you?" I thought she was just being nice. And then she comes back the next day, brings a friend, and they stayed for a couple hours. In the very early shaping of a song, it was funny, 'cause we had just started jamming, and they were like "That's it! That's the record! Done!" Like actually shouted out "Done! That's it, you should stop right there!"

ST: This was after one take?

CC: We were literally just learning the song, and then it started to sound kind of cool and fuzzy and rock 'n' roll.

ST: Do you have the mics on and taping everything even when you're just running through parts and practicing or learning?

DO: Not as often as we thought we would. Part of the problem is that the three engineers in the band are sometimes playing.

ST: Do you have any studio technicians here aside from the band members?

DO: We have one dedicated engineer, but he's not fulltime, so it just kind of depends whether he's here or not.

CC: And he's fantastic, his name is Nick Anderson, he's been really great.

ST: I guess it's not that different from playing a show, where you're primarily communicating with the other members of the band, but you feel the audience's reactions too.

CC: Yeah. I didn't expect that to emerge, and I didn't expect it to emerge in a positive way, because oftentimes you have to lose the audience in order to do anything good. It's not a focus group scenario where it's like, "What does the crowd think?"

ST: That's something you've talked about on your Twitter that I think gives an interesting dimension to this experiment in transparency, because for you it's not about being more crowd-pleasing, or even necessarily about having a dialogue with the audience.

CC: Yeah, it's tricky. One thing that's emerged in interviews that I've been doing that I didn't expect is people wanting to psychoanalyze me, as to why I would do this after having not put out music for as long as I have. Why would I suddenly do it in such an extravagantly bizarre and vulnerable way and did it have something to do with my near-death experience? It's certainly not an angle that I had thought about.

ST: Did you have to check out the acoustics of the room before you decided to record here?

CC: You’d think I would've!

DO: It was a done deal before we ever stepped foot in here, it's pretty funny.

ST: Were there any surprises with the acoustics once you got here?

DO: Only pleasant surprises. This space was actually designed as a broadcast studio, a recording studio for broadcast, I'm assuming that because of the window. It was part of the Newseum originally, so they probably had some kind of thing you could look at in real time.

ST: Acoustics are a big X factor, sometimes it's hard to tell how much they benefit or hurt a record.

CC: It's luck, a lot of it. I think there is a science to it, I shouldn't have said it's luck, like pure luck. But there is an element of "I just tried a thing and it sounded cool." Ian Mackaye was in here and he was kinda grilling me on this topic, he was like, "Did you know this room would sound good, what would you have done if the room just sounded like shit?" And I was like, "Um, we would've made a record." I think Ian sees me as this sort of sonic perfectionist, and I was happy to kinda go "I dunno."

ST: I was somewhat surprised by the initial announcement that you were actually going to start recording the album this summer, since I had been kind of waiting to hear that the album was done.

CC: Yeah. And the thing is, I could have, sort of, with the mostly electronic home recording.

ST: Is the process now primarily about taking those programmed and looped demos and having the band replace those parts or play along to them?

CC: Yeah. At the time when I first started doing this stuff, I was really experimenting and learning, and I regarded everything as a demo. One of the things that's happening in this process is everyone going, "Yeah, that's gonna make the finished record." And then I go, "That was me at four in the morning, I didn't think I was really recording for real," and everyone says that sounds good. Some things almost sound entirely completed. It was Guy Piccioto who started to encourage me to stop looking at the electronic stuff I was doing as demos. He was almost singularly responsible for "Ann The Word" in the sense that he was like, "That's a record."

DO: It had to be him that said it, by the way. The whole band had said it, tons of friends had said it, but when Guy said it, it stuck. "You know what? That's a revelation!"

CC: I know! But I didn't have faith. I never saw Beauty Pill as electronic music.

ST: You wanted that to be just a minor element, because you've got a live band. So if you do something at home alone and people say that's the record, you still wanna involve everyone else.

CC: Completely, and not just in a generous sense. These people are badasses and I want the music to have life. I know that I have access to my favorite musicians, so I don't wanna forsake that. And that's kind of kept the music in this unfinished kind of state, 80 percent finished for a long time.

ST: Also when you work in the studio business, people might think "Oh, you're already in the studio, why don't you record?" But they don't understand that you're in work mode and that to take time away from commissioned work is to take away from revenue.

CC: Thank you! I appreciate what you're saying, because it's something that a lot of people don't know.

ST: One thing that struck me about is that between that “Ann The Word” demo being put on MySpace, and you being very active on Twitter, there's now a whole aura of transparency, it's a consistent thread through the whole making of this record.

CC: One of the risks of this thing is someone going, "Oh man, I was in the room when they did that, and then I never heard that part again," or "It sounded so much cooler when it was just this." We're certainly allowing people to hear things as they take form. Hilariously, some people stopped by when we were doing one of the most lunatic inversions of a song a couple days ago. Literally we had turned the song upside down. And that's when Ian Mackaye and Amy Farina and their family walked in, and the song sounded like complete cartoon, bizarre music. And that may never make the finished print; in fact I would say it's almost likely that would make not the finished print, certainly not in that form. Devin was way against us even doing any of that.

DO: I went about two or three hours with it, and I wrote a lot of the guitar parts for it, actually.

CC: Yes. Devin was like, "This is horseshit, I like the original song." Drew had come up with this totally new guitar part that seemed to give off sparks, and I was excited about that. I'm the person whose song would have been completely destroyed and trashed and turned inside out, and I'm the person that's going "This is... cool!"

ST: You've had more time to get used to it or bored with it in its original form.

CC: Possibly. It really sounded bizarre, we went with this sort of absurd and funky kind of darkly comic thing. Ostensibly, a very embarrassing moment for Ian Mackaye to come by, we're in a really lunatic zone. Morgan, our photographer, is dancing maniacally, I'm groovin', and Abram is on the floor with a little tiny analog synthesizer, Jean is helping adjust it, so the two of them were on the floor, we looked like we were stoned. And then I was like, "Oh shit, it's Ian."

DO: And I missed all this, 'cause I was like, "Well, I'm not gonna stop you goin' down the road, but I don't have any ideas for it, so I'm gonna go to dinner." I come back, and Drew's on the floor, manipulating a wah pedal by hand.

DD: It was funny because you end up in this whole other world, and Devin walks in, and I'm laying on the ground looking up at him. It's like your parents just caught you doing something you're not supposed to be doing, like "Oh shit...Where am I? Wait, how did I get here?"

ST: I'm sure there's a lot of stuff you do in the studio when you're focused on sound that might look goofy, but you don't realize it until someone's looking at you.

DO: I don't think this band gives a shit who looks at us, we're gonna do what we do.

ST: How many songs are being worked on?

DO: Good question!

CC: That's a whole discussion.

ST: Have you tracked any vocals or just instruments?

CC: We've tracked scratch vocals to kind of guide people. But not we haven’t tracked vocals, that's part of the process that will begin next week.

DO: We have about 18 solid things that could be roads to go down, and have gotten through about half.

CC: There are certainly things that I knew were strong and needed the band; I wanted the band's input and shaping. I just want the record to have life, and a shape and a journey that's compelling. So there wasn't this grand plan. I was looking at my hard drive, literally having to remember, oh, there're 40 or 50 things that I can bring to the band. Some of them are completely written songs, some of them like "Afrikaner Barista," are basically completed productions. And then I whittled it down, like "Okay, these things belong together, this list of 18 things." I thought that it was unrealistic to get to all of those. So we kind of just went on the idea of we're gonna develop one song a day. The song "Stephen And Tiwonge" is about the Malawian gay couple who were arrested and were gonna go to jail I think for 25 years or something, for just being gay in Malawi. And there was a sort of world outrage, like "That's kind of fucked up, they're just gay guys." Not about gay marriage, but literally they were just a gay couple who were caught being gay, and they were eventually let go. But for a period of time it really looked bleak for them. If you Google it you'll see a heartbreaking photo of the two of them, interestingly handcuffed together, which I think seems very gay. I'm like, if you're a government trying to enforce against homosexuality, why would you handcuff the dudes together? It's kinda hot! But anyway, the song is about the duality. I've never met these people, I'm not doing a lot of intensive research on their history, I know the outline of their story.

ST: You're getting an emotional charge from the concept, and writing based on that.

CC: Yeah. I haven't researched these people, I'm writing from their point of view in the song, and I haven't looked into it, I'm just going, here's what I imagine. I know a lot of different couples, and there's often a division of how you react to situations like that. And I imagine in a couple like that, there's one of them that's very passionate, and who's like "We have to stick together, we must fight them, and I love you and I'm not gonna let the government take us down." And one of them's going "We're going to fucking jail, we have to stop. I love you, but we have to stop. This is not going to work, they're going to kill us, we have to stop." You know, think about couples, there's the kind of mercurial, kind of passionate one, there's the person who's more thought out. One verse is written from one of their points of view characterizing the moment when they're caught, and the other one is written from the other point of view. And I found that I was looking down the list of songs, and this kind of theme of different perspectives was emerging.

ST: Well there are so many “couples bands” now, male/female songwriting duos who are or were romantically involved writing songs about each other, that whole Fleetwood Mac kind of dynamic. And when I posed this question to you on Twitter, a lot of the names people started throwing around in response were the Beatles and so on, but I wasn’t talking at all about bands with multiple songwriters singing their own lyrics. It occurred to me that Beauty Pill is somewhat unique in the structure of one primary songwriter composing lyrics for different voices. In the contemporary indie world, Magnetic Fields is one of the only other acts that has that kind of dynamic, it's very rare.

CC: I appreciate you saying it. When you said it on Twitter, it made me so happy, like "Someone's picking up on this." There's an interview with Pitchfork at the very inception of Beauty Pill, and I got asked this question a lot: "Is she like a guest singer?" Talking about Joanne [Gholl], who was the singer at the time. It was a cool interview, but this question, Ian asked me, a lot of people asked me this in the beginning, basically "What are you doing? You were the singer of Smart Went Crazy, you're a good singer, you're like a frontman."

ST: But even Smart Went Crazy had other members of the band singing on some songs.

CC: Yes. But I think that people kind of regarded me as the lead singer of Smart Went Crazy, whereas for Beauty Pill I was interested in pulling back and trying to kind of do a little bit of a Tricky type of thing. I wanted to do it in my own way, it wasn't a slavish imitation of Tricky, but I was certainly inspired by him.


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