This article ran a few years ago when Beauty Pill was in the throes of their public recording project called Immersive Ideal. After band leader Chad Clark [Tape Op #36] won a second battle against a rare and lethal heart disease, the band is back on the road with the album finished and out on Butterscotch Records (owned and run by TapeOp Senior Writer, Allen Farmelo).
You can purchase the album on vinyl, CD, hi-res digital and standard download here.
"Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are was created in an unusual circumstance: as a commissioned exhibit in a modern art museum. The name of the 2-week project was Immersive Ideal and it allowed the recording process to occur behind glass, but in full view of the public. We recorded one song per day, with no practice beforehand.
I enjoyed the process and I'm quite happy with the resulting album, but there were myriad challenges to recording this way and I'm not sure I'd do it again.
We had to figure out a new, unfamiliar acoustic environment (a black box theater which was not built for music recording), and we had to learn, arrange and perform the songs... all with people watching and listening. As everyone knows, bands sometimes argue in the studio. Our band had no choice but to do this in public.
It was an exercise in radical vulnerability. I now regard it as a heuristic adventure and I don't regret it. Life is short, why not try new things? I feel good about the album we created, but I would very much like to make the next one in a studio, privately...
The Frank Turner piece you're about to read was written and published the summer we did the project."
What happens when a band, Washington, D.C.'s eclectic post-rock Beauty Pill, is commissioned to record their latest album over two weeks in a public arts center and become a live exhibit for patrons? Where fans and strangers can peer down through a large window one floor above as if examining lab animals and listen to every note of magic or misery, unity and dissent, as the group puts their creative process out in the open and attempts to lay down greatness?
So far the relationship has worked according to the band's creative center, Chad Clark: "The biggest surprise about this whole experiment...when there are people at the window or in the room, you can feel them wishing us well."
The recording residency began on July 16, 2011, at Artisphere, a modern art and performance center snuggled among a sea of government offices, including some for the State Department and CIA, in Rosslyn, Virginia — Washington, D.C.'s satellite campus, if you will. The band-in-a-bubble happened somewhat accidentally when Artisphere contacted Clark about creating ambient music for its galleries. That conversation evolved when Beauty Pill, who had much of their latest effort written but not recorded, saw Artisphere's cavernous black box theatre. The design is reminiscent of Abbey Road's Studio Two, due partly to a large window overlooking the space. And so the Immersive Ideal exhibit was born. Visitors are allowed to watch and listen to Beauty Pill record from noon to 10 pm as the label-less group records into pricey gear they wouldn't normally have access to.
But how many bands, filmmakers, painters, or even pastry chefs want a group of potential critics looking over their shoulders before the dough has even been placed in the oven? Beauty Pill member Jean Cook explains the fear, "The mechanics of putting a record together isn't common knowledge. When you talk about the judgment it's that we hear potential in everything... but there's the risk of something not sounding good or understanding how it all fits in together because we don't have time to put that in context for the people that are out there. There's a natural tendency to want people to understand what you are doing at any given moment."
That urge to explain what is going on is particularly necessary when Beauty Pill creates. While ever more bands build and loop sounds on laptops, Beauty Pill often achieves a similar effect live with myriad instruments including two drum kits, various guitars, a Wurlitzer electronic piano, a stylophone and a xylophone. Despite the mini-rock orchestra setting and yesteryear instruments, the band feels more like a lo-fi Gorillaz or, as one visitor said, "very twenty-first century." In one session the group recreated a classic spliced and diced hip-hop drum machine sound using two live drummers. The members, all multi-instrumentalists, swap stations around the room as they bounce ideas off Clark regarding his intentions for a song, which results in musical elements getting mixed and matched like Lego pieces. To sit in at Immersive Ideal feels akin to watching a car be disassembled and put back together as a different make and model. The final product often brings joy and curiosity over how the bits were reshaped and refit together throughout the day.
"I try to keep things open in terms of the process and who plays what and how we shape it because I have faith in the ensemble and I want the energy to go where it wants to go," said Clark. Many visitors to Immersive Ideal have felt that inclusive treatment directly, getting waved down from the observation area into the studio itself. Clark says visitors in the studio serve as quiet barometer for what works and get to witness the classic war that is making art. "You can feel there's a transfer of inspiration. I got a two-page email from someone that was here yesterday saying, 'This is so inspiring to me, I just want to make a record now.' And this person said they witnessed a really awkward moment. What they were responding to wasn't that they had seen something so grand or so amazing. It was the opposite — they had witnessed a struggle and they thought it so beautiful that it had been made available."
Such an exercise in transparency makes sense for someone who nearly lost his life a few years ago. In 2008 Clark had a rare virus that caused an enlarged heart and, after successful surgery, resulted in a lengthy hiatus from music. "It's a hard topic for me to talk about. We have only one song that specifically addresses it, "Near Miss Stories." I found that I didn't have anything to share that wasn't a cliché. What do you say? Life is short. Seriously, life is short. Do what you want to do. I remember being in the hospital because a virus had invaded my heart. Other people with this disease generally die. This is going to sound melodramatic, but every heartbeat can be your last. I remember thinking to myself that some day this is going to be a story that I tell over dinner. The truth is I'm never going to be the same. My life is different. I feel extremely grateful because I'm alive and I have an amazing band. The end of the song repeats the line, 'I'm so lucky.'"
For those that braved unusually hellish heat (temperatures were above 100° for three consecutive days in Washington this week) to see Beauty Pill, that feeling of good fortune resonates. David Strickland, an attorney with the federal government, came to see the band at 8 pm on Friday watching as they assembled a new track Beauty Pill affectionately dubbed their "Fat Albert Song" because of its funky bass line and Wurlitzer keys. Even for a group known for its experimentation, the sound seemed like an unusually pleasant and up-beat departure. "Man, I am so glad I came tonight," Strickland said.
Immersive Ideal concluded August 2, 2011, and the still untitled album will be unveiled at the place of its creation, Artisphere's black box theater, in December (a date has not yet been chosen). The listening party will be presented as an art installation open to the public with the band present. On the walls of the theater will be photos taken during the recording sessions by photographers chosen for the project by Beauty Pill — an ideal coming out for a band that is quite happy to make and share music together again.