I stumbled across Beauty Pill on Bandcamp while poking around the internet looking for new music. There were a few tracks posted from a forthcoming soundtrack to a play called suicide.chat.room. It was a refreshing break from most of what I had come across that day, and it caught my attention. It was an interesting combination of electronic and acoustic sources, soundscapes, and songs that really captured the emotional space of loneliness and introspection. I went down the rabbit hole, as they say, watching what videos I could find and listening to their available catalog. Their album Describes Things as They Are – recorded while being exhibited in a museum – found itself in frequent rotation (see the online article at <tapeop.com>). I loved the songs, the sounds, and the weirdness of it all. The band’s leader and songwriter, Chad Clark [Tape Op #36], and I got in touch. Check out the recent LP, Please Advise and the Instant Night EP that was just released.
In 2015, Beauty Pill released Describes Things as They Are to much critical praise. How do you make another record when you’ve made something that has had such an impact on people?
First of all, it’s still not a very well-known record. It got a lot of praise, and that’s very nice, but if you ask your friend if they’ve heard of Beauty Pill, it’s very unlikely that your friend will say, Yeah, I know that band.” In that respect, there’s a lot of room to grow. But artistically, I didn’t understand. I was so focused on keeping my band together and navigating that weird project of recording in public. It hadn’t occurred to me when we were done with it. It was my bandmates who first started telling me, “This might be one of the greatest records ever.” My bandmates started getting very, very excited about the record when it was done. I don’t see Describes Things… as a masterpiece. I do appreciate that people say that, because I’m not a rich person or a wealthy person or a famous person, so it’s very nice. This [new] record was something I wanted to do in the midst of all of that; to assemble slowly. It’s more fragmented and damaged in a certain way. I’m happy with it, but the title is Please Advise, which I feel has the right amount of humility to it. It’s a document of a fragmented time. I’m happy with it, but I understand that it’s coming in the shadow of this [previous] record. Everything we do now, probably everything I do for the rest of my life, is going to be post-Describes music. Every motivation I ever have is that I want to make something. I didn’t go into it like, "How can I follow up this amazing record?” I was, "Let me make some music.”
It was at the right time, and it hit at the right moment. It resonated with people, for whatever reason.
Yeah, it’s nothing to obsess over, I guess.
Can you talk about making Describes Things as They Are? It was not a standard run of the mill process.
There was an art museum in Arlington, Virginia, called Artisphere. It was an almost Smithsonian-scale gallery. A jaw-dropping, beautiful, large palatial place right on the Potomac River. The curators asked me to create a sound installation. I would have done that, but I felt everyone has seen or heard sound installations before, and it’s not anything new. I was like, “What could we do that would be new to use this amazing space? Couldn’t we do something more unexpected or creative?” As I was touring the facility with Ryan Holladay – the main curator who brought us in – we took a look at what was called the black box theater; a very large theater space within Artisphere. There was a window that looked down into it, and it reminded me of the [control room] window that looks into Abbey Road’s Studio Two. Anytime you see a picture of The Beatles recording, you see that studio. I started thinking, “What if my band made a record here and we allowed people to watch us from the window?” A lot of my friends imagine that records take as long to make as they take to listen to. When Radiohead or whomever disappears for a year, people are like, “What are they doing?” They don’t even understand. I thought, “Let’s let people see the process of a band making a record, including overdubbing.” Not a live record, where a band is playing to an audience and it’s, “1, 2, 3, 4” and then you go, but rather a band constructing an album in the way bands do in the studio and making it visible to the public. Those watching would see all the boredom, all the ordering of pizza, all the band arguments, and the non-glamorous sides of making music. They would also see the moments of magic. I thought it could make a cool art exhibit to let people see the band at work. We set up a two-week session, where the band came into the room every day. We recorded one song per day. In the morning we would listen on a boom box to one of my home demos, and we would decide what song to record based on whether the band liked it or thought they were in the mood to do it. Largely, the band was being introduced to the song in the morning and having to figure it out all day, which I knew would at least make for an interesting process to witness; watching people scramble to learn parts and figure out how they were going to arrange a song. I knew that would be interesting at a basic human level for people to observe. That’s how the album was made.
Were people invited to come view, or was it something that people came across and were able to see if they were visiting the museum as if it were a painting?
We tried to let people know for two weeks plus that “you can watch Beauty Pill make a record.” Our band has a little bit of a mystery around it. I also disappeared when I had my heart surgery [in 2008]. It had been a long time, and I think that people had this idea that I was reclusive and hard to reach. I dunno. I try to be transparent and accessible. Back then I was sort of regarded as this person who was shrouded in mystery. People came by and watched from the window. It was interesting. I knew that it would affect the recording, and I didn’t know what the outcome would be. We could have become so self-conscious that we froze, or something terrible could have happened, in terms of the interaction between the band and the viewers. Some of my friends warned me against this project. Like, “This is not a good way to go about making art.” There are a lot of different theories: The whole idea of a record is that it’s an intimate personal process. Making it into something that’s public has many perils. I specifically did not want to have it filmed. We have some Japanese fans, and fans in Brazil and other places in the world. They were frustrated that they couldn’t see it, so there was some pressure for us to make it a live YouTube streaming thing. I understood the desire for that. My feeling is that YouTube invites a nasty part of human nature that you see in the comments on any video. If there’s a cat video, someone in the comments is going to say something about Nazis. I wanted to limit the scope of the project in certain ways to make it survivable. People could come to the window and hear us, as well as hear us arguing. They could witness the amazing moments of our performance, as well as the euphoria of doing something that works. They could also witness us being terrible and sounding like the worst local band ever. That was all visible.
You’ve done all sorts of interesting projects. You did the Immersive Ideals series, like the Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk.
Ryan Holladay is an artist and curator. He’s younger than I am, but I look up to him in a way. He was here in the DC music scene, and he and his brother Hays had a band called Bluebrain. They were only here for a short while, but they were doing interesting art happenings. They wanted to shift the paradigm of how people receive music and how they interrelate with music. For example, they have an app where you can walk around the Washington Mall, around the Washington Monument and the beautiful grounds of Washington, DC, and the app changes music as you move into different areas; your experience is scored by Bluebrain. I found them very inspiring. In the age of streaming, people are encouraged to receive music passively and not think about engaging with it, not think about paying for it, not think about its value, and not remunerating the creators. One creative response [to those limitations] is to try new ideas. Why not mess around with the form? I want to always do that. I always want to mess with what people expect. I had a performance series here, a collaboration with the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which is this great literature institution. We did a performance series where we blended poets or novelists reading from their work with a band or musical artist playing right afterwards. It was called Story/Stereo. Our idea was that there’s maybe a literature audience that’s not aware of how great the DC music scene is, and there are probably people who are into music who aren’t as aware of what’s happening in the world of poetry and literature. I like to do projects like that. I know I move slower than people would like, but I don’t want to pollute. If I put something out, I want it to be worth peoples’ time. Just because you can put up anything on Bandcamp or SoundCloud, it’s still worth considering that if you’re going to take three minutes of someone’s time, that’s three minutes of life. That’s a very precious thing. Make sure that what you’re releasing is worth that person’s engagement and time. If more people did that there would probably be less music, but better music.
But I love that creative people can put out music without the blessing of gatekeepers or tastemakers.
I agree, too. I’m a DC punk. I love that ethos of “not asking for permission.”
On the other hand, the bar gets lowered a little bit when you have access to so much technology. That is not to say that there are not amazing and brilliantly recorded and produced records coming out today.
I agree with you. It’s an interesting paradox. It’s easy to dismiss expertise, particularly in technical things like recording, but it’s dangerous and bad for culture.
We see this on a daily basis, currently. When an expert is dismissed, that becomes troublesome.
It is! It’s pretty crazy. Beauty Pill did a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) recently. A couple of people asked, “Can you give advice about home recording and how we can make better-sounding records?” They were essentially saying that they love the sound of Beauty Pill records and are wondering what goes into that. I come from a DC punk culture, and I am into the idea of DIY. That is a very important energy behind everything that I do. I mess around with technology. I’m not part of any electronic music community here. I’m self-taught when it comes to some of the electronic components of Beauty Pill’s music. It’s stuff that I discover on my own. I’m not actually listening to a lot of electronic music. Some people tell me that some of the things I do resemble the band Autechre. I don’t know that band at all. I did a Tape Op interview many years ago, but I still feel I want to encourage people that you don’t need a large budget, and you don’t need to be an expert to do dope shit. However, there is a reality which is that I am a professional engineer. I have some skills that I’ve cultivated that work, and that manifests itself in Beauty Pill. It would be disingenuous to lie about that or be like, "I don’t know what I’m doing!” We also work with recording studios quite often. I get it. It’s troubling to me that the first thing on a 19-year-old kid’s mind is not, "How can I work with a recording studio?” They have no concept that there are actual recording studios where they can go and work. A lot of recording studios are accessible, and are accessible in a way that I think people don’t even realize. You can access actual professionals.
It’s too bad that more people don’t have that experience.
I work with a band called The Caribbean; they record themselves in their basement studios. The singer, Michael Kentoff, has a very nice studio, and they make use of the home studio environment in a way that I think surpasses anything they could do in a professional studio, because they go down a rabbit hole, in a good way. They make very eccentric, interesting, idiosyncratic sonic choices within their songs. They come out with these very "home studio recorded” [pieces] that you probably wouldn’t do in a recording studio or not as easily. I feel there is something to be said for home recording.
Before Please Advise, you released a record called Sorry You’re Here on vinyl; the score to Taffety Punk’s dance play called suicide.chat.room.
There’s a guy here in DC, Marcus Kyd, who I love profoundly. He runs the Taffety Punk Theatre Company. They do underground theatre. He was a fan of a Beauty Pill song called "Ann the Word.” It was an electronic-sounding piece of music, which was not what people expected from me. He said, "Hearing this music, it makes me wonder why you don’t score things. It sounds like a film score. I have this play that I’m working on that I would like for you to be involved with, which is called suicide.chat.room.” The way he put the play together is interesting. He went back and found these transcripts of real suicide chat rooms from the pre-Google internet. It’s a moving and very upsetting [piece of] work. All these words are from real people. I don’t know much about making theatre, but I took it seriously because of the nature of the play. I was trying to reach deep inside and pull out something that would work with the gravity of this topic. The play is a dance play, and it involves a lot of choreography. Actors move. Because they’re trying to convey words that were originally written on the internet, where you have no idea where any of these people are, they tried to convey the surreal mind-space of the online world through dance and choreography in a very impressionistic, artful way. I recorded piano for one of the songs, which is called "At a Loss” on my home studio piano. It’s not a very good recording; I recorded it onto 1/4-inch tape on my Fostex deck. I took that tape and ran it into my sampler, which is an AKAI MPC, and I edited and transposed the chords from that. It’s this very janky, 12-bit analog recording of a piano; definitely not full-fidelity. I manipulated the tape and did all sorts of weird stuff to convey this sense of wobbliness, this sense of instability and uncertainty that is built into the play and the choreography. A lot of the sounds that you hear on that record are inspired by that circumstance. I’m very proud of this record, and I feel it stands up as a thing that people can listen to whether or not they have seen the play.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on Please Advise. How about “Pardon Our Dust”? This one is interesting to me because parts of it feels unsettled at times. The placement of the vocals and the lilt of where loopy elements fall, and then it settles down. It’s not disjointed, and it’s not out of time, but it has this slight feeling of discomfort.
That song was actually recorded in a more straightforward way. We had developed this performance of the song. We added a horn quartet to Beauty Pill, and we had developed this very full band arrangement of the song. We went and recorded it in Baltimore with J. Robbins [Tape Op #13] at The Magpie Cage, which is a fantastic recording studio. My intent was to render the live performance. In the end, it’s a much more manipulated recording than I had intended. Once I pulled up all the faders on what we were doing live, it was just too much. It was not working. It was overwhelming in a negative way, so I had to figure out a path into this song. I did all these reductive mixes that are similar to stem mixing. I printed those mixes onto 1/4-inch tape. There’s a version with just the [Akai] MPC and the horns, and there’s a version with just Devin [Ocampo]’s raw drum kit and the guitar. I printed them all, and then I edited from those by cutting 1/4-inch tape. I don’t know why. I suppose it would have been easier to edit it on the computer with Pro Tools, but I edited it by hand by cutting tape together, which is a skill that I learned at Inner Ear Studios [Tape Op #8] in Arlington, Virginia, where I used to work. The sequence that you hear on the record is stitched together by hand, one night at four o’clock in the morning. I was trying to rescue the song; everyone was unhappy with the previous versions. I wanted to make something that would be exciting and incredible; a path that would be convincing and involving. Honestly, that’s the only thing I ever want to do with music, is to be convincing and evolving. I wanted to do something that would turn my bandmates on and maybe unlock the song. That’s what you hear, this edit from different mixes, which is why the song shifts color every few bars.
How about “Prison Song.”
That’s an old song. If you started listening to Beauty Pill a couple years ago, you might not know about that song. It’s from a record that, unlike Describes Things..., was panned when it came out. I encourage you to read the Pitchfork review. [laughter] The record is called The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and it was hated when it came out! But there are people who love it. There’s a song on there called “Prison Song.” It’s just me on nylon-stringed classical acoustic guitar, and Rachel Burke, who was the singer for Beauty Pill at that time. The song is written about someone who probably has a lot of regret about what they’ve done, and now they’re facing the consequence of it. It’s an emotional song. It has different layers. A lot of the words reverse the meanings of other parts of the song. If you listen carefully, some of the verses mirror the other verses and say the opposite of what the other verse said. We wanted to make a new version of it. If there’s anything that people can get from Beauty Pill, it’s that songs are elastic. I sing some of our songs, and I don’t sing some of our songs. Our idea is that songs can leap from throat to throat. Songs can shift shape, and, if they’re good songs, they will endure transformation. The newer version doesn’t sound at all like the original version, which was very lonely, raw, and minimal. This version has lots of treated electronic sounds, with my bandmates playing. I don’t know that it’s the definitive version of the song, in the sense that I don’t know if I believe in the idea of definitive versions.
How about “The Damnedest Thing”? There’s a video you guys made that accompanies this song. Can you describe it, as well as your interest in the artist and musician William Eggleston?
Yeah. I started writing the song a long time ago. It was during the period where we were kind of warring with our previous label. I was having a lot of problems with insomnia, so I wanted to write a song about the torture of insomnia. I began the song with that premise. But while working on the song, I discovered a New York Times article that I describe in the video, talking about the photographer William Eggleston, who does these corpuscular, very melancholic, and interesting shaded photographs of American life. William Eggleston’s photography looks like it inspired David Lynch and Gus Van Sant. In the interview, it becomes obvious that he’s a severe alcoholic, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s an unusual interview in that he seems calm and like it’s not a big deal to him that he’s an alcoholic. The interviewer asked him how drinking affects what he does, and Eggleston suggested there’s no relationship whatsoever between his drinking and his art. He seemed almost irritated, or like he wanted to dismiss the idea as a cliché, maudlin, tortured artist kind of take. I gotta be honest, I thought that was bullshit. I’m not sure that Eggleston necessarily knows the answer, but there has to be some relationship. It’s definitely the same person. My heart went out to him, and I have so much respect for his art. I don’t think I am in any way a peer to him, and I don’t think my point of view on William Eggleston is worth a damn, but it seemed like it was way too inspiring not to write a song about it. There has to be a lot of torment behind what he’s done, and I wanted to write a song from that perspective. The song was built off of a marimba figure that was cobbled and edited together. I took this figure that I found by accident; I looped it and treated it digitally with this program called [Native Instruments] Reaktor, which is a program that I use a lot. The song is basically two chords. That’s why the melody goes all over the place, because I wanted to find some way to make a two-chord song interesting. It’s a weird piece of music, and it would be understandable if people dismissed it. But people seem to be into it, and I’m encouraged by that. I can probably defend every sound in any one of Beauty Pill’s records in terms of why it was there emotionally. I’m not interested in “production.” That’s not interesting to me. To me, what I want to do is cast a spell. That’s what I like in music; casting a spell. That’s what I hope to do.