An Interview with Alex Scally of Beach House

"A lot of times, in interviews, nothing really seems to make sense."

Guitarist Alex Scaly and his band Beach House
Al Pereira/Contributor/WireImage/Getty Images

Baltimore-based duo Beach House were born in 2004, when guitarist Alex Scally met vocalist/organist Victoria Legrand. It wasn't love at first sight —the duo, as they have to keep explaining, aren't actually dating— but it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Their fruitful musical marriage, as Beach House, has found the pair presiding over a charmingly murky kind of comedown balladry. Their slow, droney, opiate songs of suffering are aglow with the light of imaginary Sunday mornings, evoking iconic acts like Nico and Mazzy Star. Over submerged, muffled drums, Scally paints licks of slide-guitar that hang and dangle. Over gurgling organs, Legrand (the Paris-born niece of famed French composer Michel Legrand) slurs her words in a voice deep and despairing. Beach House have, thus far, released two albums: their self-titled 2006 debut, and its 2008 follow-up, Devotion. With critical recognition in their hip pocket, and with signs pointing to their followers becoming cult-like, Beach House are one of the brightest lights to arrive from Baltimore's much-hyped music scene. In conversation, Scally attempted to shine a light into Beach House's shadowy world.

Did you ever imagine, at any point, that Baltimore would become this beacon of pop-cultural cool?
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I grew up in Baltimore, and, in many ways, it’s kind of been exactly the same since I’ve been here. There has been a little more activity, of recent, but there’s always been music in Baltimore, there’s always been cool stuff going on. But I think the era of everybody getting so obsessed with Baltimore’s cheapness has let it thrive. It’s a place where people can make music intensely, because you don’t have to make much [money] to live here.”

Are there beaches in Baltimore?
“No, there’s no actual beaches.”

Did you give much thought to the band name? Was it supposed to embody specific ideals?
“I think like most things we’ve done, it just felt right. We’d been writing music, and we had all these songs, and then there was that moment where you say ‘what do we call ourselves?’ We tried to intellectualize it, and it didn’t work. There were different plant-names, Wisteria, that kind of thing. Stupid stuff. But, once we stopped trying, it just came out, it just happened. And it just seemed perfect.”

Does the name mean something to you now?
“One thing Victoria and I can agree on is that our music is its own world. And, I think that’s very much what the ‘beach house’ feel is: going off to a different world. It’s not really a vacation; vacation for me is when you go away, but you’re still thinking about all the things you’ve left behind. You know what I mean? I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s hard for me to answer a lot of these questions.”

These specific questions? Or interviews in general?
“Questions about forming. It’s hard to talk about them, because I never ever thought of them. We never, ever try to intellectualize things; we don’t talk too much about who we are, or what things mean. We just sort of do things. A lot of times, in interviews, nothing really seems to make sense. Instead of knowing the answers to questions, it’s like you’re searching for what an answer might be. For us, Beach House is the music we come up with when we get together. We don’t think about it more than that.”

Did this second album, Devotion, carry a weight of expectations?
“Not really. It actually felt quite similar to making the first record. We just tried to get equally wrapped up in making it. We did have some extra money from the label, so we probably spent about twice or three-times as long making it.”

Was there more of a sense of exploration?
“Not really. The record had an identity before we even started recording. We knew we were ready to make an album, because we had this family of songs, and they all felt like they were part of this one energy.”

What qualities defined that family of songs to you?
“I think that they’re incredibly high in intensity. All we did in that year of writing those songs was tour and miss our loved ones. There’s a lot of really deep intensity below everything. Tension and intensity.”

Do other people feel that tension?
“I don’t know. We used to read reviews of the first album, but we didn’t do that with the newest one. Our label said the reviews were pretty favorable. But I don’t know what people’s particular perception really is, outside of those people who come and talk to us. And people have come up to us and had strong reactions. When people really have an emotional reaction to our music, that’s my favourite thing that happens. Some people say it gets them through a hard time, and that’s really flattering, because I know exactly what that feels like. That was pretty much exactly what was happening to us when we were writing the songs.”

Your own songs were helping you get through an emotional time?
“Not necessarily that. It was more that sitting down to write, and working on songs, and playing them, and planning them, everything that’s happening to you is just coming out. It was just that year of intensity, and tension, and change.”

Does it read like a journal, to you?
“Not really. I mean, I try not to lie, ever. I try not to present myself, or do anything, that’s untrue. But, I don’t feel as if our personalities, as people, are there to be read in our music. You can listen to it and know our aesthetic, and the kind of things we find really valuable musically and artistically. It’s another world. Beach House isn’t all of who we are, it’s just this one part. But, when we go and make this music together, it’s very much losing ourselves in this other world. It’s not like Saul Williams, putting his heart and soul into it, out there. We’re creating a whole world, not writing a diary.”