Spirit Of The Beehive Have Been Hiding In Plain Sight For Years
Get to know the oblique, inspired Philly indie band and hear their new single "I Suck The Devil's Cock"
Spirit Of The Beehive don’t know why people think they’re mysterious.
The Philadelphia band has changed a lot since forming in 2014, but all of their music consists of a peculiar blend of gloom and euphoria — like experiencing a blissful high and a crushing comedown simultaneously. Their projects have esoteric titles like You Are Arrived (But You’ve Been Cheated) and Pleasure Suck, and their 2018 breakout, Hypnic Jerks, was intended to embody the state between wakefulness and sleep, a headspace that blurs reality and fantasy into a puddle of confusion. It’s often hard to hear what they’re singing because their vocals are usually shrouded in effects or deafened by other instruments, and what you are able to make out are fragments of stories that piece together like a nonlinear dream. They swear most of their lyrics aren’t autobiographical, but it’s hard to refrain from imagining that their vignettes of drug use and despair must have some kernel of truth — the type of songwriting that provides vivid imagery but no bigger picture.
Back when they were a full-time touring unit, they rarely spoke between songs, and their level of intense focus could be mistaken as them being stiff or nervous. They’re not a band that rocks out. Additionally, they only post sporadically on social media, which is increasingly rare in an era when artists are expected to hock themselves online like tummy tea ambassadors. They only made three Instagram posts in all of 2020, and one of them was a cryptic teaser for their exceptional new album, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH.
All of this is to say that for an outside observer, “mysterious” seems like a pretty fair way of describing them. However, while Zooming in from their couch in South Philly, the band — frontman Zack Schwartz, bassist/vocalist Rivka Ravede, and Corey Wichlin, who plays a bit of everything — promise that they’re not aiming for MF DOOM-tier obscurity.
“If anything, our only general aesthetic is, ‘unknown and underappreciated,'” Schwartz jokes, poking fun at two music journalism platitudes that they’ve been repeatedly tagged with. “We had an air of mystery because we didn’t get press,” Ravede adds with a laugh. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t know who I am because you never asked,” Schwartz concludes with a smirk.
One part of that is true. Despite putting out some of the most unique, challenging, and — once you put the effort in — rewarding “indie-rock” albums of the last decade, Spirit Of The Beehive didn’t begin getting any substantial press until months after Hypnic Jerks was released. Frank Ocean, who included a song of theirs in one of his 2018 blonded RADIO mixes, caught on before many of the industry’s supposed arbiters of taste did. However, Schwartz’s suggestion that they’ve been patiently waiting to spill their guts is repeatedly disproven throughout our hour-and-a-half-long chat.
None of the band members are by any means open books, and as conversationalists, they’re hard to read. They’re not very facially expressive, they take long pauses to ponder very straightforward questions, and many of their responses are speckled with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. “We’re just really, really, really stupid people. And nobody wants to talk to us,” Schwartz deadpans. Well, that’s not true either.
Schwartz, 30, grew up in Miami. As a kid, he was super into playing baseball until around 13, when he made a hard pivot to learning guitar. He remembers the exact moment that he knew music was his calling. “This may seem like a joke, but it was when I saw the Baha Men video,” he says while Ravede bursts out laughing. “I’m not kidding. It was a live video of them playing on a boat, and I was really digging the five-string bass, and I was like, ‘That’s cool.'”
He doesn’t seem very interested in talking about his childhood, but he later adds, rather off-handedly, that both of his parents were pill addicts. “My dad died when I was 15,” he says, “but my mom is clean now.” I comment that that must have been a rough experience. “Yeah it was pretty rough because he would always fall asleep while driving and shit,” he says with a quick wryness, the way people who’ve dealt with tremendously hard personal circumstances find ways to humorously or casually talk about their experiences.
“He bought me a parakeet near a dumpster behind a Hooters,” he says. “It lived for a bit.” Ravede chuckles and murmurs something to Schwartz, as if she’s heard this story many times before. “Anyway,” Schwartz adds, ready to move on with the conversation.
Schwartz played in emo and screamo bands throughout his teens, but in 2009 he started a band called Glocca Morra and quickly moved up the coast to Philly. Depending on who you ask, Glocca Morra are one of the most beloved bands of the 2010s emo revival, but like most groups of their ilk, they fizzled out before it could become a legitimate career. Coincidentally, Ravede is also from Florida, but she and Schwartz didn’t meet until she also moved to Philly in her early 20s. The 29-year-old says that her childhood was “pretty fine” and that she had a relatively normal upbringing in Central Florida. She emphasizes that there’s a distinct difference between her home turf and Schwartz’s in Miami.
“It’s not rural, but it’s like the suburbs where there’s not a lot to do,” she says. “To fill the time in Central Florida you do things like brand your friends with cattle irons when you play beer pong. A lot of getting stoned in abandoned cul-de-sacs and then lighting the woods on fire.”
She got into her small local punk scene when she was a teenager, which she describes as violent but in a fun way. “I went to a lot of shows where I was this tiny little person that was trying to prove that I could be in a pit. Trying to shove my entire body into somebody.” She didn’t start making music of her own until she got to Philly, and she taught herself bass to play in Spirit Of The Beehive, her first band.
Wichlin is the newest member of the group, having joined in 2019. At 25, he’s a few years younger than the other two, and he grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago. Wichlin got into bands in high school, played in multiple groups while going to college in Chicago, and then moved to Philly afterwards. He and Spirit Of The Beehive had met through staying at each other’s houses while on tour, but they don’t remember exactly when or why he joined the band. Those types of logistical details aren’t something they seem very concerned with.
The origins of Spirit Of The Beehive are similarly murky. Around 2014, Schwartz knew that Glocca Morra was winding down, and he wanted to start a band in a completely different style. He and Ravede were dating and living together at the time, so they figured they’d start playing music with one another. ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH and Hypnic Jerks feel like fully-realized artistic statements — from the sound, lyrics, and track order, to the artwork and accompanying merch items — but they say they didn’t really have any specific creative vision when they started the band.
“In the beginning, we were pretty heavily focused on a shoegaze element and just a general volume element,” Schwartz says. “We definitely went out of our way at the beginning to play shows where we were abrasively loud,” Ravede adds. “And we eventually realized that just because you’re loud, it doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Their 2014 self-titled debut and its 2016 follow-up EP, You Are Arrived (But You’ve Been Cheated), split the difference between blown-out shoegaze and rickety noise-pop, but everything they’ve made since has drifted further from those sonic sensibilities. They jokingly vent about how they’re still labeled as shoegaze and how they’re miscategorized as a psych-rock band, claiming that they don’t understand those comparisons. It’s tough, because their music is incredibly psychedelic, but in the way you’d describe Animal Collective as psychedelic, not Phish. Meanwhile, Ravede’s vocals definitely have the shadowy yet pretty quality of shoegaze, and the way their music swirls together in a wine-drunk haze feels akin to the genre’s mosaic dreaminess. But nothing they’ve ever made sounds like My Bloody Valentine.
Rather than ascribing any of their albums to a specific genre, it makes more sense to describe them as moods. And those first two, along with their under-appreciated 2017 record Pleasure Suck, are incredibly fucking bleak. Unsurprisingly, the members of Spirit Of The Beehive aren’t interested in divulging into the personal circumstances that informed those albums, but they say that the converted warehouse studio where they recorded all three had a major impact on the way they resonate.
“The mood of [the studio] was that it was fuckin’ freezing cold, we were on a lot of Adderall, we were chainsmoking cigarettes, and there were just a billion people that lived there,” Ravede says. “It was very uncomfortable and weird.”
Up through Pleasure Suck, there were a lot of people coming in and out of Spirit Of The Beehive. Schwartz describes that period as “the band [being] unsure of what it is and who’s in it.” That sense of unease emanates all throughout those gritty, grimy, yet understatedly intoxicating early records. Things weren’t necessarily more settled by the time they got to recording 2018’s Hypnic Jerks, but the album represented an enormous creative leap in pretty much every regard: The production was way less lo-fi, the songs were more linear than the scattered Pleasure Suck, and they were using way more electronic instrumentation.
As the story goes, the songs were initially intended to be quickly recorded and compiled onto a tour tape — a supplementary release to give them something new at the merch booth, not a bonafide album. However, once they finished tracking the songs they realized how strong they were and decided to transform the recordings into a proper full-length. It was also the first album of theirs that featured considerable post-production. The record is flush with snippets of old audio footage that Ravede’s dad recorded as a child, which Schwartz dug through and artfully pasted into the songs, giving the full project an eerie sense of atmosphere. It felt like they had finally unearthed the brilliant melodies and radiant textures that had been peeking out of their songwriting for years, but replicating its majesty on ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH — the band’s first album for Saddle Creek — came with its fair share of obstacles.
The label that put out their last two albums, Tiny Engines, disintegrated in 2019, and once the pandemic hit and killed their touring prospects for the foreseeable future, two of their members left the band. Schwartz says the split was “amicable,” and the three who remained regrouped and made an entire album on their own — no engineer, no professional studio. “Kind of like every other record, this record is a product of its environment,” Schwartz says.
He and Ravede recorded their vocals along with the bass and acoustic guitar from their apartment, and then sent guitar demos to Wichlin for him to replicate through an amp in his basement, where he also recorded all of the drums. The whole process was a learning experience, but it also gave them the freedom to try new things like sample their own instrumentals and reupholster their sound with way more electronic elements.
The result is an album that finds the midpoint between the through-composed madness of Pleasure Suck and the supreme melodic highs of Hypnic Jerks. It’s hard to think of anything that sounds quite like it, but some reasonable reference points are the refracting compositions of Oneohtrix Point Never, the ecstatic beauty of Deerhunter, the squally euphoria of Swirlies, and the emotional mania of Alex G’s last couple albums. Many of the tracks begin with the serenity of a swinging hammock — swooning analog synths, ethereal ambience, and chirping guitar riffs — but like all of their albums, every moment of elysian comfort is transitory.
“I could never write a hit,” Schwartz says with a shrug. “I love a good hook, but I’m OK hearing it once, personally.” Although he says that he’s very into brevity, he also thinks that the album’s second-to-last song, the nearly seven-minute “I Suck The Devil’s Cock” — out today as the project’s third single, with a video they describe as “our take on ‘A Day In The Life'” — should be four minutes longer. He jokingly calls the version that made the album the “director’s cut.”
The three of them have no problem chatting about procedural minutia, but when it comes to lyrical and thematic questions, they start to get a little cagey. All three of them sing on ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, and they write their own lyrics, but compared to the perfectionist approach to the instrumentals, it seems like their words are a lot more off-the-cuff. Schwartz says that they never have to plan what a song is about or dictate a narrative direction. “You don’t really have to discuss the meaning of it, it’ll come together,” he says with a cool confidence.
Ravede says she wrote all of her lyrics for Hypnic Jerks the night before she laid them down in the booth, and although she had more time to plan for this record, she still employed a stream-of-consciousness approach. “I feel like everything I write now is coming from a place where I’m just choosing words that have a kind of pathos,” she says while picking her words carefully.
“It’s kind of like when you read poetry,” she adds. “Whenever I read poetry, I don’t really think about what it means, I just think about how certain words make me feel. I just pick words that feel right to me for that part, that have the same kind of mood as the melody.”
Despite their spontaneous approach, they did come up with a loose motif for ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, which is succinctly represented in its title. “At the time of making the record, it just felt like it was required to produce content on any platform for any artist or creator,” Schwartz says. “We wanted to make a record that literally embodies, ‘You do work, you die.'”
“We’re all pretty deep in the entertainment industry, for better or for worse,” Wichlin adds. “We were all working service industry jobs before COVID happened to support this lifestyle. So for me, it’s kind of about not having too many other options. Not having strong backup plans.”
Those existential meta-themes pop up all throughout the record, but there are only a few tracks that have intentional narrative arcs. The first is the opener, “Entertainment,” in which the narrator dies when a tire blows out on the highway. Everything else on the record is “basically a simulation,” Schwartz says.
“In the first song, you die,” he explains. “You don’t know it. And then every song explains what happens, and then at the end is the actual death.”
I ask what the actual death is. “The death of the soul,” Schwartz says with a smirk, as if he’s pulling my leg. “I might be wrong about that.”
This might be the crux of Spirit Of The Beehive’s biggest mystery. At one point, Schwartz clarifies that every song he writes for an album makes the cut, and the order of the tracklist is entirely non-negotiable — not because he’s controlling or needlessly stubborn, but because “there’s no other option.” Therefore he can tell me, emphatically, that the song “Death” is “the only possible ending” for the record, but he can’t even begin to tell me why on a thematic level. None of them can. They giggle and groan for five minutes while I try to pry something out of them, pining for a one-sentence description about the conclusion of this album that’s otherwise so painstakingly coordinated.
“Certain things are meticulous and certain things just are,” Schwartz eventually snips.
At first it seemed like a bullshit non-answer, but now, having mulled it over for a week, it’s the only sensible response. Entertainment, death. It’s really that simple.
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is out 4/9 on Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.