Beach House On Phantom Of The Opera, The Red Shoes, & More Of Their Formative Influences

David Belisle

Beach House On Phantom Of The Opera, The Red Shoes, & More Of Their Formative Influences

David Belisle

Under The Influence is a new revival of a very old Stereogum franchise, in which we ask artists to talk about the inspirations behind their albums. From other music, to film, to novels, to stray notes left behind by friends, and who knows what else, this is what’s on people’s minds when they’re writing the songs we eventually come to know and love.

Beach House have done it again. Their new album, Once Twice Melody, is staggering and revelatory, which is saying something for a band that has so often sounded like a revelation. Its length allows for a little bit of everything that the band has been so good at throughout the years; it is dense and boundlessly creative while still painting inside the lines that the Baltimore duo of Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand established at the start of their now nearly two-decade-long career.

They are masters at conjuring up vivid images. Their songs act like inkblot tests, comforting and unsettling and awe-inspiring beds of sound to project your own emotions onto. The duo encourages listeners to draw their own associations. Instead of talking explicitly with Beach House about their creative process — luckily, I’ve already done that — I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of their biggest inspirations, the kind of art that swirls in the back of their minds while they’re making their own work.

A task like that is easier said than done. “We’re really bad at the whole influences conversation,” Scally admits before we get started. “It’s kind of like if someone says, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ It’s hard for us. Some people are really good at it and are able to essentialize and give really good answers. When we were trying to figure it out, we went back to more formative vibes, things that did something to us at some age that felt like they left some huge imprint.”

Toward the end of our interview, when we run out of prescribed topics to discuss, the band turns the whole exercise back in on itself: “We could have this conversation for years, or many many weeks,” Scally says. “We could get even further out, say that my whole life changed when this one person said this one sentence to me that changed my life — or the way someone looked at me once…”

“Someone could say a sentence, and you never forget it, it’s burned into your brain,” Legrand picks up the thread. “I’m never going to be able to unsee creatures, animals, birds that I’ve seen. There are things that happen every single day that have a profound effect on you and what you make and all of your interactions with people and what you produce as a human being. It’s what makes life interesting.” She mock-sighs. “Yeah, humans … We’re always looking at stuff and ingesting.

“What the fuck?” Scally jokes. “What are we?”

“We should probably just be sitting on a rock and staring at the sky and slowly deteriorating,” Legrand says. “But for whatever reason we get distracted and just can’t be. This stuff also just lets us be, though, so it’s a trap.”

Read on for our Under The Influence interview with Beach House.

The Doors – “The Crystal Ship”

ALEX SCALLY: Do you know how you listen to music when you’re a kid, and it’s like you just hear sounds and patterns and it’s all kind of funny? You’re like, “I like this song!” but there’s no deep relationship with it. I remember having this crazy epic moment, probably at the onset of puberty, when there was a best-of the Doors CD floating around my house. And I would go into my room and play it. That song, I remember playing it again and again and again.

It was maybe the beginning of my awareness that there was all this darkness and meaning and crazy things inside of art and music, and inside of us. It’s slow and it has organs and it has all these things that I ended up loving later. And it’s also like, what the fuck is he talking about? It’s about some crazy mystical place… I wouldn’t even necessarily say that I love this song, but it was the gateway into seeing music in this other cool, wild way.

The Phantom Of The Opera

VICTORIA LEGRAND: It’s funny how I’ve been delightfully embarrassed to admit this sometimes, but it’s a fact that when I was a kid, I listened to The Phantom Of The Opera a billion times. I never actually got to go to Broadway to see it done, I just imagined it in my head all the time. I also had the book, the libretto, that has all of the official photographs of the Andrew Lloyd Webber production. So you get to see Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, and it had the lyrics and everything.

That — among some other things, like The Nutcracker and various other classical music — was something that just took my life over. It was probably four years but it could have just been a year. Time is very blurry — you think it was your entire childhood, but I’ll never really know because there’s no documentation of it. But I do think that somewhere in that, the love or need or whatever it is to perform was somehow birthed.

The love of the Phantom — it’s a real love. The love of the ugly, the outcast, the shamed, you know what I mean? It’s almost like the devil. The history of that story, too, goes far beyond the actual musical. The musical is where you get the rock ‘n’ roll and the glamor, because the music is really glam-rock. There’s a lot of crazy stuff in there. It was so intoxicating. If a kid could be drunk, I was super drunk on it, super messed up. The costumes, so many of the scenes… the boat in the underground of the opera, the candles, “The Music Of The Night” — come on! It’s just totally iconic.

There’s something about the earnestness of a lot of theater that almost makes you want to be embarrassed about liking it. It’s something I’ve struggled with.

LEGRAND: The earnestness you mentioned coupled with the smoke and mirrors — that’s a powerful twist. Where you’ve got the Phantom, who is literally a shrouded, hidden person with an incredibly huge heart. For some people it could be Beauty And The Beast, it could be so many things. It’s such a metaphor for aspects of the human condition, and how it’s so complicated to express ourselves, but everybody feels love. There’s something about that earnestness and the incredibly luxe depiction of it…

SCALLY: I think one of the cool things about getting older is that you really don’t care about admitting the things that you like or anything.

LEGRAND: There will probably be people out there that are like… The Phantom Of The Opera?! What? Because we’re coming to that point now where people are half our age.

SCALLY: We’re lapping people.

LEGRAND: But I just like to tell people I’m a vampire so it’s fine.

My Neighbor Totoro

SCALLY: I feel like a lot of people have seen My Neighbor Totoro, a classic Miyazaki movie. I encountered it at a time when things were really opening up because it was my first or second year of college. I was taking a Japanese art history class, and someone was like, “You have to see these Miyazaki movies.” I remember that this guy would watch them with the Japanese audio with subtitles, and I find that much preferable, it’s a much better experience hands down.

I was also learning about Shintoism at the that time. Something about that film — the way he combines Shinto qualities of there being a spirit to everything with childhood and innocence. That re-birthed a sense of wonder and innocence and mysticism and spirituality in me that was really awesome. It feels like it was very common, being our age, to not grow up with any kind of spiritual relationship to the world whatsoever. It felt very commercial — the ’80s were so commercial. Religion was gone, everything was gone. So at 18 or 19, this threw me into this feeling that there was something so much more meaningful behind every image that I saw.

It’s interesting that people in our age group didn’t really watch Miyazaki films until they were teenagers or older just because of how they came out in America in terms of when you’re exposed to them. I’d be curious to know what the experience would be like to watch them as a child.

SCALLY: Totally, but there are so many environmental themes baked into all of that that I wonder if it would just have gone over my head. I’ve actually never watched the English language dub because I imagine it would be unbearable…

LEGRAND: The musicality of the language is important, too, the subtle rises and falls, the way the children speak…

SCALLY: And I think the seriousness of things is conveyed in a certain way in the native language. There’s something about children’s movies in America where — not all of them — but there’s a tendency to over-kid them. Maybe that’s just some weird perspective I have of it being in my first language, I don’t know.

The Red Shoes

LEGRAND: I still have my copy of this that I had when I was little, the VHS. It’s one of my beloved objects and I probably should be buried with it. I feel like I have a theme going on here with my picks — the glamor, the theater, the intense story. This one ends in suicide, but when you see it for the first time, especially as a kid, you’re not expecting that. That was a very intense moment when she throws herself off the balcony right before the final performance.

It explores crazy in-depth issues about relationships. As a kid, I didn’t pick up on any of this, but watching this as a 30-to-40 year-old person, I can’t believe how accurately deep this film is about the intensity of people wanting things for themselves but feeling like they can’t do it… The insane micro things that occur in relationships between people, the pushes and pulls of people’s love for one another but also people’s need to control one another.

That mixed with the incredible production. The entire montage of The Red Shoes within the film itself is so unbelievable to watch.

SCALLY: It’s really psychedelic, that one passage.

LEGRAND: Where the paintings come to life, and all of the playing with the depth of perception and the costumes. The actress, Moira Shearer, the dancing — she’s really doing that. It’s probably the best ballet movie ever, maybe besides The Turning Point. It’s crazy because Phantom has that ballet aspect to it as well. When I think about the record we’re putting out, “Pink Funeral” totally feels like a theater, a play, the idea that this thing is being presented in front of your eyes but it’s also a reflection of something else.

SCALLY: Someone on the internet cut one of our songs to The Red Shoes once. This happens all the time. Movies that have meant a lot to us, we will notice that fans will have cut songs of ours to them. It’s awesome because it has to mean that things are going through us, translating somehow through. That our interests funnel through the same parts of our mind.

LEGRAND: The potency is palpable. It’s a thing you put in your body. I’ve always said this: All the things you’ve ever liked or been inspired by, if you’ve ingested them enough times, they’re a part of your DNA, your cellular makeup. The things you create have bits and pieces, molecules, of the things you enjoy.

Your music is often described as “cinematic.” What does that mean to you?

LEGRAND: The myriad — all the elements of cinema and the way it can have a really intense effect. From an over-the-top film to a very minimalistic film, like Rohmer or something where it feels like not much is going on but it’s so intense. The compositions of things — a woman’s face, the profile — it’s just incredible. Whenever that has been used to describe us, it’s only meant good things. I’ve never felt a bad reaction.

Return To Oz

LEGRAND: Return To Oz has another aspect of darkness to it. Watching it as a child, it was one of the first times I remember feeling horrified. The psychedelia of that film… For a child to watch this, in a sense it’s what psychedelia is and feels like. Like, this is how you react when you’re tripping but you’re not on any drugs.

A lot of people have not watched this, and I haven’t seen it in years, but I was reminded of it a couple years ago because I saw some images from it. And I watched it so many times as a child, but I didn’t even remember the name of the movie, I just remembered all of the things that I was seeing. It’s funny how life is like that — that you can be obsessed with something as a kid but you don’t even know the name of it until much later.

What strikes me about this movie is that it’s a sequel to such a beloved childhood staple, but it distorts it in such a fucked-up way.

LEGRAND: This is the kind of movie where it’s “for children” but it’s in that realm, that guard of film where it’s for everybody but maybe not really for children.

And Fairuza Balk is in there as a child. If you ever liked The Craft in high school — which I think if you went to high school in the ’90s, you loved The Craft — you wanted to put pillar candles in your parent’s gym. My friend, her parents had a gym and we would put candles all around and sit around and be witches. And I have to say… Fairuza, between Return To Oz and that: Thank you. Thank you, Fairuza Balk.

I was thinking about The Wizard Of Oz in regards to some of the songs on Once Twice Melody, specifically the lyrics of “Sunset” — the descending palaces and all that.

LEGRAND: If you blended this with Andrew Wyeth and Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven. Because the lyrics in “Sunset” aren’t necessarily about Christina’s World, but if you think about that iconic feeling of the fields… And anyone who hasn’t watched Days Of Heaven should run to the video store… [laughs] that doesn’t exist in your neighborhood anymore.

Clarice Lispector – The Hour Of The Star

SCALLY: I read this a few years ago, and I thought it was a really interesting thing to bring up in the conversation of Beach House because there’s so much happening inside this book in an abstract way. It’s about the futility of life, but she’s talking about this kind of doomed love affair, but there’s also this almost carefree quality to it that’s really amusing. The whole structure of identity in it is really amusing as well: She’s a female writer but she starts the book as a male writing, and then the male starts writing about a female character. She’s playing with identity and authorship and the many ways to approach creativity.

I also love the way she uses language — she uses language badly, and I feel like that’s been a core to how we approach music. We don’t want to approach music as musicians, we want to approach it like it’s a weird object we found on the ground and we’re looking at it for the first time. Reading this book, so many of the themes and the style in which it’s created reminded me so much of our creative world and the complexity and wild energetic flows that are moving around us all the time.

It’s such a writer’s book. There’s a lot about playing God with your characters as an author, and I feel like you can transpose that over to music pretty easily.

LEGRAND: For this brief moment as a human, you believe that you’re in control of this thing that you’re making. You are made by someone else — or God exists outside and above, unreachable — but then I think there’s something about creating where you very innately believe for a brief second that you are in charge of something. In a very, very innocent way. But then, like all things, it’s a trick because the thing that you think you’re envisioning and creating will always end up differently than you first imagined it. So you’re never going to attain it, but that moment of creation is so special. You’re playing God in some way, but you’re also creating your own universe.

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Beach House’s Once Twice Melody is out in full on 2/18 via Sub Pop (US) / Bella Union (UK/Europe) / Mistletone (Australia/New Zealand).

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