Interview: Victoria Legrand of Beach House
Beach House plays the Siren Festival this Saturday, July 19 at 5pm on the Stillwell Stage.
With the name Beach House, "People immediately think, 'lying in the cabana.' Smoking opium. Listening to Galaxie 500. Spiritualized."
Do those qualify as jazz hands?
After playing together in another Baltimore band, Victoria Legrand (a graduate of Vassar) and Alex Scally (a graduate of Oberlin) spun off and out on their own to form the two person/two keyboard entity with two albums (thus far), their eponymous debut Beach House and the more recent Devotion.
We spoke with Victoria by phone on subjects ranging from philosophies of art and songwriting, performing in daylight as opposed to dark, and cell phones for temporarily orphaned housecats in the early afternoon of July 9, 2008, ten days before her band appears (in daylight) at the Siren Festival.
So since you're a big rock star I'm guessing you haven't been up more than an hour or so.
I am definitely not a big rock star [laughs].
No! I'm way low on the beanpole.
How long have you been up?
Oh, I've been up for about three hours.
So you got up around 10.
[laughs] Well, I got out of bed so I could talk to you.
You needed three hours of preparation?
Yeah, well, I have my makeup on.
My cat actually does my makeup.
I really wish you could send me a picture, because I would dearly love to see cat-applied makeup. I can't even begin tell you. That's like a hobby of mine.
Well, if I had a billion dollars I would invest heavily into research to get cats cell phones so they could text me while I was on tour.
How many cats do you have?
I only have one.
Is that the big regret about going on tour? That you have to leave the cat at home? Actually I miss him a lot when I'm gone because I feel like a bad mother.
And what's the cat's name?
Is there any Mozart connection?
Definitely. I named him after, you know, in the movie Amadeus the actress who has a surprisingly good American accent for being, I guess, Austrian.
I didn't know she was Austrian. Hell, I don't even know her name [Elizabeth Berridge]. I just remember when she takes Mozart's manuscripts to Salieri and giggles when he offers her Nipples of Venus. That seems to be her big scene.
That is a big scene because her breasts are like heaving. All of the breasts in that movie were heaving.
You know what? That's probably why I remembered it and now I'm just so embarrassed I don't know if I can continue talking to you.
No, that's fine. I can handle talking about chocolates.
So your cat's named after Amadeus.
But he also looks kind of like a wolf, too. He's quite hairy and his hair around his neck is thicker than the rest of his hair so he has this kind of a beastlike look to him.
Who takes care of Wolfie while you're gone?
My significant other.
But you miss the cat more?
[laughs] No, it's just a different kind of missing.
Okay, well let me get started with a few short answer questions.
Okay, but I really love touring, though. I really do. I think I'm addicted to it.
Does your significant other know that?
I think after this last tour in Europe I came home pretty much ready to keep going because I had so much fun. And I think he felt that, definitely.
And that's not a problem yet?
I think my feelings would be terribly hurt if my spouse returned from a long trip and was ready to leave again as soon as she got back.
I know. I think it's hard to be a musician, a traveling musician, and also be like, you know, somebody's partner. It's kind of a schizophrenic lifestyle.
Especially if he doesn't want to be the merch guy.
Okay, tell me one thing that you've never ever done before in your life.
I've never bungee jumped. I probably never will. I don't really like heights.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Once and one time only is probably ride every rollercoaster at Kings Dominion (Richmond, VA). I'll probably never do that again.
Because it took so much energy and risk. Like I said, I don't like heights so riding rollercoasters all day long, every single one, going really fast, I summoned up a lot of courage to do that. I have a lot of courage, but I don't think I could do that again. I don't think I could beat that experience again. It was really intense.
Tell me the name of a book that you've read at least twice.
Probably Matilda by Roald Dahl.
And a movie that you've seen at least three times.
Do you own a rake?
No, I don't own a rake because I don't have a yard.
Yeah, that's another occupational hazard for musicians. And who's your favorite Beatle?
I'm going to go with probably John Lennon.
All right, I've read at least two interviews where you call yourself a "control freak." Is that just artistically or do you have to control every little thing in your life?
Well, I would say that I don't like to control myself. When I'm writing I don't like to control myself too much because I like to, you know, let ideas flow. I think that my control freak is actually more about myself and controlling myself, because I have a lot of sides to my personality and I have to kind of like keep . . . You know, I have an overactive imagination and at worse I can be real paranoid or I could want too many things, so I have to kind of control . . . I think it's more about myself.
I think when I brought up being a control freak in music I think it's more of like when Alex and I are working together. You know, I think he's a control freak in a different way. He's more of a perfectionist and I think I'm less of a perfectionist and more controlling about keeping the raw, conceptual ideas in there because I don't like things to be too perfect because I don't believe that you can make something too perfect. I think if something's perfect it's because it has all these like wonderful imperfections in it and they're just all sitting in the right place and so that seems perfect, if that makes any sense.
Sure. You're a believer in happy accidents.
Exactly. I'm a firm believer in spontaneity and I'm a believer in happy accidents. And I believe in the things that you didn't see coming to you that are actually a gift.
You're like one of these Thelonious Monk-types where if you can't get it done in two takes then you're going home.
Where you can't make a mistake?
No, Monk figured that after one or two takes it got all practiced and stiff and so if he wasn't happy with it early then he'd leave it alone.
I am kind of a believer in that. In recording I like first or second takes. I think after you do seconds then you're getting really obsessive and you're getting kind of nervous and your fingers start sweating and you're starting to think too much about it. And I think that's pretty accurate. When I write lyrics, a lot of the things I write, the best things I feel like, the things I'm happiest with, are things that came out pretty quickly. I don't like to force things too much. I think that forced things lose a lot of character.
That makes sense. What song off the first two records took the most takes?
It's definitely not going to be one on the first record because the first record was recorded in a day and a half which meant that all of the takes were done on the first day. And the second day was just putting in, you know, vocal layers and harmonies and things like that. And so it's going to be a song on the second record and I'm going to say in terms of writing the one that took the longest was "Gila." In terms of being in the recording studio, I think it was "Home Again."
It's interesting that "Home Again" is the last track.
That's the last one, and that was the one that, I feel like, took sort of the longest in terms of making it sound right.
Did you ever get it exactly the way you wanted it or was it like, 'I'm tired now and we're not going to do any better than this?'
No, we got it. But the moments leading up to it, there was a lot more questioning of certain sounds and things like that.
Fraught with tension.
I know that you and Alex get along wonderfully and I'm sure that every night before you go to sleep for 14 hours like the rock star you are you say your prayers of thanks that you've found such a compatible musical partner. But if he's a perfectionist and you're a happy accident person, there have to be moments where you've butted heads. And I'm guessing that recording is more likely to bring up those situations than anything that has to do with touring or live performance. The very, very rare times, I'm sure, that you've butted heads, have you ever drawn blood?
Never drawn blood. And surprisingly we pull it together in the recording studio. Like he wants to get it done as much as I do. He's a fast mind, too, and that's why we get along well. The only time we've ever sort of butted heads is after everything was recorded and we're listening to the mixes. Because we have never had like a producer. Basically we are our own producers. I think, in the act of listening to our own music, his ears hear things that I don't hear, so you know he might get more upset or preoccupied with something that I don't even think is a big deal or something.
But there's never ever been any blood drawn. There's just been intensity. Like especially the second one, the second record. There were definitely days when we would leave the recording studio and he would be extremely involved in his own mind and my approach would be, 'Okay, that was intense, listening to this song for, you know, ten hours. I'm going to just not think about it at all. I'm going to not think about it. I'm going to think about swimming, or something that has nothing to do with music.' And he would continue thinking about the problem or the music. So that's where I think that, you know, if there's ever a difference in the recording studio, that's where it is. Some people might say that might be lazy of me, but I think it's completely healthy.
I understand that. It sounds like you're somewhat deferential. Not that you have to be, but it sounds like you realize there's some deference on your part because you are able to let it go, which somewhat goes against your self-labeling as a control freak. But are you letting it go because he's hearing stuff that you don't hear, or are you letting go because he's having aural hallucinations and so he's a crazy person and everyone knows that crazy people are dangerous?
[laughs] No, I'm letting it go because I have faith that the way his mind works and the way that my mind works will meet in the middle and by me stopping thinking about it that will allow him some clarity. Because if we're both going to go down that road, I don't think anything's going to happen.
It's just chemistry. I think that we're just lucky. I don't think one's better than the other. I think that they just flatter each other. Because let's just say that if I was an obsessive nitpicker, maybe nothing would get done. And I think that the way I believe that you can't force things and you can't obsess too much about little tiny things is because the basic artistic idea has to be free. It has to go away from you. You have to give it that level of respect. You have to say that it's more powerful than you. You can control it to some extent because it's coming from you, but then that's what art is. It's not for you. It's for other people, so you've got to let it go. You have to give it its own space. You've got to give it its own house. It's got to have its own room. And then, you know, it will let you come back and do things with it.
I think the thing about music, it's more like sculpture, especially song crafting. It's a little bit like painting, but in the end the actual song arrangement to me is more like sculpture. Because you get parts of songs, especially in arranging instrumentation like drums and, you know, bass sounds and things like that, you will always end up either chipping away at it or displacing it. You're just moving things around until it clicks. It's kind of like one of those little number games. You know those squares where you're just sort of shuffling the numbers around until you get 1 through 10? You're kind of shuffling the pieces around. But like I said, you still want to preserve the basic essence, the original feat. You can't lose that. And I think that's where I'm the most protective and the most stubborn, because I want to keep that initial feeling. I would never want to have a record be overproduced or be like a studio record that you could never replicate live because that would be kind of hindering something that would be much more potent.
I'm not suggesting you make a whole career out of it, but I think it's sometimes interesting to take full advantage of what the studio can give you, whether or not it can be replicated in a live setting. But it sounds like you've almost got a philosophy when you say things like, 'Music isn't for me, it's for other people,' that art isn't art unless it can be shared. And specifically in your case, performed.
Exactly. But I'm not negating studio records at all. I mean, I have some records that I absolutely love that I know are studio records and will never be the same live . And I still think that's art. I'm not saying it's not. But, you know, there's just different possibilities.
So you're just talking about rules for yourself, not for everybody else.
Exactly. I could never see me by myself, or with Beach House, being a complete technological geek, like freaking out about all the things I could do in the studio. I would be, at the end of the day, like, 'Well, okay, but I would really love to be able to play this. I'd really love to be able to share that.' So I think that's probably never going to change.
You mentioned having "faith" in your working relationship with Alex. Have you ever had that level of faith in a personal relationship? I guess personal relationship is the phrase I want to use.
I know exactly what you're talking about, and the answer is no. I mean, I've had that faith in my mother.
Yeah, but that's different because mothers are supposed to love you regardless.
But sometimes a mother's love is conditional as well. But apart from family, which should be the obvious here, a family's always going to be there for you, the answer is no. I've never had that in any other relationship.
The thing is, you know, love has many different things, or colors, to it. I could talk about it all day, but I think that being in love with something or somebody, there's a lot of danger in that so I don't think faith is in there at all. Like because it's so turbulent and swollen and it's like juicy. And I think faith is something that comes with time and when all the right pieces are laid down. But you can't just lay the ground pieces down like a house. You just don't know how they're going to happen. And I think Alex and I have known each other and been through so much together, and we spend so much time together and basically seen each other pretty much in every possible light, that it's like being in jail with somebody, but not a bad . . . I don't know how to say it. It's just we've spent so much time together and said so many things to each other and had every possible word with each other that that's where the faith really can come out.
You said that faith comes over time and romantic love has a level of danger. When you first started playing music with Alex, was danger part of the equation?
Yeah. There was danger a little bit after the first record when we were touring a lot because we wanted to make a second record but we hadn't been through that experience together yet, so there was that danger of, 'Is this actually going to happen?' Because you don't know how long a band is going to stay together. You can't control those things. Same thing in a relationship. You can't control what's going to happen or who they're going to meet.
But the faith thing came very quickly. When it started happening it happened really quickly and happened really strongly because we were working on something, so it's like we have this working relationship together, but we have like this sort of child. Like the Beach House music is like this child. So it's not about you two really. You're working together for this other thing. And I think that in human relationships a lot of people will end up like having children because it makes them stronger together, and it restores that faith. And with Alex and I, it's kind of happened backwards. You know, we have a band, and so the faith was already there, we just had to realize it. You understand what I'm saying?
So it was already there, where in a romantic relationship or a dating boyfriend/girlfriend thing, you will find that faith with time. Maybe it won't be a child. Maybe it won't ever happen. Maybe it will happen it'll just take God knows how long, but it's a tinier faith and I think with Alex we had it at first, it just became re-established. And this is it. This is our lives. I don't know if that makes any sense.
It does. Is there any danger in trusting or sharing your music with another person?
No, I don't think that there's danger, but I think that like if you write a song and then you take it into a room and you present it to someone else and you go, 'These are my ideas. This is what came out of me,' there is a danger there but I think that you can't be paranoid and not want to share it. Like I want to make it more. I want to see what its full capacity is. You know, if you were to be a really paranoid crabby apple, you probably wouldn't ever share with anybody, so I'm not a control freak like that. I actually get excited when I write something and I can present it to Alex because I know that we think alike. We're attracted to the same types of things. We have very similar theories of, you know, artistic freedom and things like that, so I don't feel that there's a danger. I feel like it's a good thing. And we respect each other. It's a thing based on like a deep understanding.
We mentioned family a little while back. I've seen at least one article that said (French composer) Michel Legrand is your father.
Yes, that's a frequent slip-up.
But he's your uncle. And since you have the same last name he's got to be your father's brother.
Exactly. My father is the youngest brother, then there's the middle brother, Benjamin Legrand who's a writer in France, then Michel is the oldest brother. And I have no contact with him. I don't have any active relationship with him other than blood and gene pool or musical notes flowing through my blood vessels. I had dinner with his wife about four years ago and she hadn't seen me, I think, since I was probably three or four. And I'm 27 now.
But even without the contact, having your dad as the painter and one uncle as a writer and another uncle as a composer--and that's completely leaving aside any artistic pursuits on the maternal side of the family--there's a lot of families that don't have that kind of built-in artistic support system. In some families, if you said, 'I want to be an actor or a painter or a writer or a musician,' they would look at you as if you had grown an extra ear out of the top of your head. So even if you don't have any contact, it's still got to be nice to be from an artistic family that I assume is supportive.
I feel very lucky because there's never been a challenge. Like no one ever said, 'You can't do that.' It was more like, 'You can't do enough.' My mother is kind of like this force of nature She left my father when I was about five and a half. And I've had a relationship with my father but, you know, it's been kind of all over the place. He's definitely had an influence on me, there's no doubt, but she definitely preserved that. Even if they separated she still . . . You know, they were together for a reason. They were in love because she obviously loved musicians and artists and I think that in some way, the way that I was raised . . . It's not that she's living vicariously, but she's a doctor, and she's always loved concerts and things like that. She was always very supportive and, you know, she wanted to keep that sensitive thing alive because she believed in it for some reason. Who knows what's in her brain and why it's so important to her, but she definitely bestowed that upon me and so I feel very fortunate that it's been, it's just been very natural.
It's weird. I never thought about being some thing that wasn't some kind of artist or musician. I never had that. I went to school and I went to college, but I just never thought about anything else, I guess. I did at one point. I think it was because I was surrounded by other people that were going to be doing internships or they were going to go to law school and things like that, and I kind of felt like, 'Okay, what's wrong with me? Because I don't feel this urgency. Is there something wrong with me?' And I was like, 'Well, it's too late now. This is just the way that I've been raised.'
Your uncle composes film scores (he's won three Academy Awards). But the music that you're writing isn't all that far from soundtrack work. Do you have any desires in that direction?
Yeah, I would like that. I'm just waiting for somebody to ask me or asks Beach House. I think it would be cool if Beach House did it together. I'm sure my head would pop off and I'd be like, 'Oh my God, this is so exciting.' I mean, it would be really intense. The thing I love the most about Michel's work is his film work, you know. And I think when I write I definitely imagine things. Like I see music as movement and, you know, there's action in certain sounds and I believe that words are like film stills almost. Like that would be somewhat of a description of how my brain works with words.
You're an imagist from the William Carlos Williams school.
Yes [laughs]. Imagist and, probably, I think I'm also a symbolist. I'm really into objects representing things that are intangible and words that we speak becoming drawings, images, and those things. I believe in their power to create story. The story isn't necessarily linear, but it emerges somehow and it means something different to everybody that listens to it.
Well, since you mentioned being a symbolist, here's a question I've never asked anyone before. Do you carry a talisman with you on tour? Do you carry any objects that have seemingly have no set purpose but you take them with you anyway?
I will say I carry multiple objects with me, and I collect things while I'm touring that make memories for me. I don't have one single thing, but I've noticed this about me. I have this pouch of, well, it started off as like jewelry that I really liked. There's no value to it. But then I've noticed as touring goes on I put different other things in there. Like I keep like a rubber ball that someone gave me and put it in there, and I was given a bracelet by someone, and so it's like the talisman thing is definitely inside of me. You should see my house. I have all these little objects and figures. I wouldn't say that I'm a clutterer. I'm not a pack rat, but I have . . . how can I compare it? People who have little altars. Like I've got a couple little areas where I have little scenes put up.
You said that "Gila" took you longer to write than any other song on Devotion, correct?
"Gila" took the most time because we were trying to find the right . . . like the chorus is something that I wrote in a hotel and it emerged a couple of months later so it was like bits and pieces that grew together. It took a while to make sense. But when it did, it was fine. It was good. It was just an example of trying to make something happen too quickly, giving it the time, you know.
What song on Devotion took the least amount of time to write?
"Turtle Island." I wrote that on piano. I remember that being like very bizarre. Well, not bizarre but it was pretty intense. Like I had a complete place in my mind and then I was playing the piano and then it all just sort of (she makes a sound approximate to a quick, short burst of wind).
As if you are a vessel and the song is running through you and your responsibility is to just let it come.
Exactly. That one.
But I think there's songwriting and then there's songcrafting. Songwriting is like the skeleton and then the songcrafting is the putting of the flesh and the Frankenstein bit, like making your own little Frankenstein. That's kind of how I feel about it. There's songs and then the songs need other things. And Alex and I are strong believers in beginnings, middles and ends, because you know and I know and everyone knows there's an end to everything. But the endings are beginnings of other things, but there's always going to be an end. So if you don't write with that mentality it's like not having the final few words of your poem. It's having the little final statement. But I think it would probably put us in sort of a classic genre type of thing, in terms of, you know, traditional pop, I don't know, from like the '50s.
Well, hold onto 'genre' and let me go back to the length of your compositional process. Sometimes when you're doing the vessel thing, like with "Turtle Island," whether you're a songwriter or a prose writer or a poet, it almost seems like a gift. Whereas the kind of painstaking, bleed on the keyboard, getting things exactly right "Gila" situation, seems to be more dependent on craft.
Are you more likely to be proudest of the gift songs or the ones that require the metaphorical blood, sweat and tears?
For me personally, it's the songs that come quickly. Believe it or not, I think I'm like a purist somehow. Like I believe in that sort of purity because I think that the ones that come quickly are the most intense. I think you can make things intense by arranging them and things like that, but for me, romantically, I like the ones that are really intense really fast.
It would be wonderful if you never had to experience self-doubt, but I remember a phrase further back when your friends were going off to law school and you thought maybe something was wrong with you. When songs come do quickly, in those nice, intense, pristine rushes, does that ever give you a sense of validation? Like, 'Yes, this is what I'm supposed to be doing?'
Yes. That's why I like them. Because it's like, 'Oh, okay. This is what I do.' It's a reaffirmation of my existence and my capabilities as an artist, because I know, at the end of the day, if I can't make it work I know that I will hear something else at some point. Something else will arrive. Another vision. Another like musical love affair. It will happen. If it didn't work out this other time, it's going to happen again. It's just the way it is.
I know that bands aren't particularly anxious to categorize themselves into a particular genre, so I'm going to do take the language angle. In reading reviews of Beach House or intros to interviews, I've seen the words "dreamy," "languid," "lonely," "haunting," "strange," "somber," and "wistful." Are any of those particularly accurate? Do any of those words make you wonder what the hell the writer was listening to when he or she wrote them?
I think that they're all right in their own little pieces. I mean, I'd definitely go with the dream aspect, and the wistful, the lonely. The languid, for me, is the one that I think is becoming increasingly less appropriate, because when I think of languid I think about lazy. It's not moving anywhere. And I think that our music isn't lazy at all.
But I think there's a good chance that if the name of your band wasn't Beach House you wouldn't get languid as much.
Exactly, because people immediately think, "lying in the cabana.' Smoking opium. Listening to Galaxie 500. Spiritualized. I know that there's drug references and things like that, but when we write we're definitely not like succumbing to the influence of drugs or imagining that at all. I think it's about pleasure. And I think pleasure can make you feel languid, but getting that pleasure is work. It's like work and play.
I think all those words are fine. It's just funny when read the same words, though, all the time. Or see the same words. You start wanting to have other descriptions, which would be hard, but that's why you make records. You make records because you're changing, you're evolving, because your mind is expanding, so it's going to be similar elements but hopefully it'll always kind of be different. I'm looking forward to the next set of words that will arrive.
Several of those words, but particularly "dreaming" and "haunting," carry post-sundown connotations. They're more nighttime words than daytime words. How much experience does Beach House have playing outdoor, daytime festivals like Siren? And how well does your music translate to the afternoon as playing inside a dark club at 11 o'clock at night?
I think that we prefer the night. We've done outdoor festivals and played outdoors, but there's something about Beach House playing at 11:30 in a cave in Norway that seems more appropriate.
Do you ever get nervous over the daytime shows since the nighttime is so obvious a preference?
No, actually I very rarely get like nervous anymore. I get excited. So I definitely feel that, you know, playing at Siren Festival will be fun. It's exciting because it's outdoors. There's a lot of energy. People have a different energy, so that's something that we really enjoy is just feeling the different energies, you know. You've just got to find the good things in it and go with it. So it'll be fun either way.
But in terms of mood, there's moody types of music, I suppose. That's another word that people have used, "moody." You know, there's something a little more velvety at night. In the day it's much more . . . it's sunny and crystalline and stuff like that. It's still good. It's just a different vibe. But I think it's the same. I think the music sounds the same. It's just a question of, you know, hearing Beach House in a dark theater would be a different experience than seeing Beach House next to a ferris wheel [laughs]. It'll still be totally interesting, but it's just different. I think there are bands that it's the same whether you put them in an outdoor pavilion or a ladies' literary club, you know. The music would probably be the same. It's just like pop-punk is still going to be pop-punk. But I think we're dealing with music that's more emotional or has different colors to it. It doesn't matter where you are. You're still performing. It doesn't matter where you are. The show is the same. Well, it's not the same but you must, as a performer, you must perform. It doesn't matter where you are. Your audience doesn't deserve to get anything less.
Okay, you're playing the Siren Festival. What kind of grades did you make in Greek mythology?
I never studied Greek mythology but I was obsessed with it in high school.
Have you ever read Homer's Odyssey?
So you know that the term "siren song" refers to something alluring yet potentially dangerous. When you look in the mirror, do you see anything like that?
Would you care to expand?
No. Is that okay?
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