I stumbled across Beauty Pill on Bandcamp, just 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, 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 found itself in frequent rotation. I loved the songs, the sounds, and the weirdness of it all. The band’s leader and songwriter, Chad Clark [Tape Op #36], started a conversation via email, and when their latest album, Please Advise, was slated to be released, it seemed like a great time to connect and chat.
In 2015, Beauty Pill released Describes Things as They Are to much critical praise, and I wanted to read some of these quotes. “One of the most unique and engrossing albums of 2015.” “Album of the year. Takes a sledgehammer to boundaries and orthodoxies. Recalls both Revolver and Stankonia.” “This is not a record made by kids, no offense kids.”
I love that one! That one’s great.
“The obstacles, as profound as they remain, have inspired a masterpiece. Flawless. A triumph!” This is some very high praise. How do you make another record after that? How do you approach that when you’ve made something that has had such an impact on people?
That’s a good question. My friends started saying stuff like, “This is the zenith of what you can do. How do you even follow up from this record?” First of all, it’s still not a very well-known record. It got a lot of praise, and I think that critics have figured out that we’re taken seriously, 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.” We’re not a well-known band. So in that respect, there’s a lot of room to grow. But artistically, I didn’t understand. I was so focused on just keeping my band together and just navigating that weird project of recording in public. The whole thing. It hadn’t occurred to me when we were done with it. It was actually my bandmates who first started telling me you know, “I think this might be one of the greatest records ever.” They were really positive. My bandmates are good people, but they’re not given to saying hyperbolic things. But my bandmates started getting very, very excited about the record when it was done. This [new] record was something I wanted to do in the midst of all of that, to kind of assemble slowly. I think it’s a little bit more fragmented and a little bit more damaged in a certain kind of way. I’m happy with it, but the title is Please Advise, which I feel like has the right amount of humility to it. I feel like it’s a document of a kind of fragmented time. I’m still happy with it, but I understand that it’s coming in the shadow of this record that a lot of people regard as like friggin’ Kind of Blue or whatever. Everything we do now, probably everything I do for the rest of my life, is going to be post-Describes music. My answer was that I just wanted to make something. Every motivation I ever have is that I just want to make something. I just want to make something. I didn’t go into it like, “How can I follow up this amazing record?” I was really just like, “Let me just make some music.” Again, I’m making a Beatles reference, but the Beatles’ White Album was reissued recently with new remixes by Giles Martin, and it’s amazing. If you get the box set, there are all these interview segments that are kind of cool about the White Album. And the White Album was following fucking Sgt. Pepper’s. They had just made the most mind-blowing record of the 20th Century, and now they’ve got to make another record. I’m paraphrasing. I don’t remember exactly what his words were, but John Lennon said, “People keep asking me how I’m going to follow up Sgt. Pepper’s, and I don’t want to follow up Sgt. Pepper’s. I want to make music.” He just wanted to make some more music. He’s not thinking about, “How can I outdo this masterpiece?” He just wants to make some more music. And the White Album is a lot of peoples’ favorite album. It’s a great record unto itself. It’s the fucking White Album, you know?
What people say really has nothing to do with you or the music. You just made it and people responded to it in a way. It was at the right time and hit at the right moment and resonated with people for whatever reason.
Yeah, it’s nothing to obsess over, I guess.
These are things out of your control and anyone’s control.
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. It was a museum that was just jaw-dropping. Beautiful, beautiful large palatial place right on the Potomac River. The curators asked me to create a sound installation, and, I would have done that. But I felt like 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?” I was very grateful to be invited to make a sound installation, but I thought, “Couldn’t we do something more unexpected or creative?” As I’m touring the facility with Ryan Holladay, who was 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’s a window that looked down into it and it reminded me of the window that looks into Abbey Road’s Studio Two. Anytime you see a picture of The Beatles recording, you see that studio. I thought “Huh, that looks like a great studio!” Then I just started thinking, “What if my band made a record here and we allowed people to watch us from the window? Couldn’t that be cool?” A lot of my friends imagine that records take as long to make as they take to listen to, you know? Like 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 like 1, 2, 3, 4 and then you go, but a band constructing an album in the way bands do in the studio, but making it visible to the public. So those watching would see all the boredom, all the ordering pizza, all the band arguments, and sort of non-glamorous sides of making music, and 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. So we basically set up a two-week session, where the band came into the room every day, and 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. We recorded one song per day. 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 at least be interesting at a basic human level for people to observe. Anyway, that’s how the album was made.
Were people invited to come view, or was it just 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 think I also disappeared when I had my heart surgery. At that point, it had been a long time, and I think that people had this idea that I was reclusive and that I was hard to reach or something. I dunno. I feel like I try to be transparent and accessible. Back then I was sort of regarded as this person who was shrouded in mystery or whatever. So yeah, people came by and watched from the window. It was pretty interesting. I knew that it would affect the recording, and I didn’t know what the outcome would be necessarily. We could have become so self-conscious that we froze, or something really terrible could have happened in terms of the interaction between the band and the viewers or whatever. It could have been horrible. In fact, some of my friends warned me against this project. Like, “This is not a good way to go about making art.” I mean there are a lot of different theories about it. The whole idea of a record is that it’s an intimate personal process. Making it into a performance, or 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 thing, a streaming thing. I understood the desire for that. My feeling is that YouTube invites a kind of nasty part of human nature that I think 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 or some shit. I was just like I wanted to limit the scope of the project in certain ways to make it survivable I guess. People could come to the window and hear us and hear us arguing. They could witness the amazing moments of performance and 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’re doing all sorts of interesting things. You did the Immersive Deals. That started with the Cherry Blossom Walk and then subsequently there were others?
I gotta give some credit here. My friend Ryan Holladay, he’s an artist and curator. He’s younger than I am, but I look up to him in a funny kind of way. I almost see him as if he’s my elder or something. He was here in the DC music scene, and he and his brother Hays had a band which was called Bluebrain. They were only here for a short while, but they were doing very interesting kind of art happenings. They were really wanting 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. So your experience is scored by Bluebrain. I think it’s called Locative Music. It’s sort of groundbreaking. I found them very inspiring. Even as I’m describing it, I really think it’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened. That’s not Beauty Pill. That’s another band entirely. But I was inspired by them and wanted to continue to do interesting things. In the world of music, in the age of Spotify, I don’t want to get into a screed about Spotify, but in the age of streaming when people are kind of encouraged to receive music passively and not think about engaging with it and not think about paying for it or not think about its value, and not remunerating the creators, I think one creative response to it is to just try new ideas, and 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 really great literature kind of institution. We did this performance series where we blended poets or novelists coming to read 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 maybe aren’t as aware of what’s happening in the world of poetry and literature, and we wanted to blend them. I like to do things like that. I wanted to mess around. I want to be clear, I don’t see Describes Things as a masterpiece. I really 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. I’m a human being. It’s nice when people say nice things. I really appreciate that. I know I move slower than people would like, but I don’t want to pollute. If I put something out, I really want it to be worth peoples’ time. I feel like what you were implying, you’re being very nice about it, but what you were implying earlier about the glut of music that’s out there in this weird age of, this weird vertigo of free music or whatever, I feel like part of what has contributed to that sort of numbness or indifference that people feel is a kind of pollution. Just because you can put up anything on Bandcamp or SoundCloud, I think it’s still worth considering that it takes somewhat, if you’re going to take three minutes of someone’s time, that’s three minutes of life. That’s a very precious thing. So make sure that what you’re releasing you feel like is worth that person’s engagement and time. I feel like if more people did that there would probably be less music, and better music.
In some ways, I love that creative people are able to put out music without the blessing of gatekeepers or tastemakers.
I agree, too. I’m a DC punk. I love that “not asking for permission.” I love all that stuff.
On the other hand, in an age of immediacy, of “good enough,” I feel like it’s been lost a little bit in song craft but it’s certainly been lost on some in terms of quality of recording and with the ability to just use drum samples instead of learning how to actually record a drum kit. 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. When you have something beautiful and concentrated, and then it starts getting diluted by the mass amount of content coming out that’s mediocre, it makes it harder to get to the really great stuff.
I agree with you. It’s a really interesting paradox. For example, I’m not a photographer. I really respect photographers. We brought in five professional photographers, guys who are really into photography and really passionate about it and care a lot about lenses and lighting and shade and tone – all these things that I don’t know anything about as someone who has an iPhone and can take a pretty good picture. Any of us could, if we’re lucky, get pretty close to a photo that rivals a professional photographer, so it’s easy to dismiss expertise, particularly in technical things like recording and photography, but I think it’s dangerous and bad for culture.
And it’s bad for peoples’ livelihoods. We see this on a daily basis currently. When an expert is dismissed, that becomes troublesome.
You spent the last 25 years perfecting the craft, and then it’s a negative mark to actually ask to be compensated for your work. It’s just insanity.
It is! It’s pretty crazy. Beauty Pill did a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) yesterday. 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 we love the sound of Beauty Pill records, and wondering what goes into that. I come from a DC punk culture, and I am really into the idea of DIY. That is a very important energy behind everything that I do. I do a lot of stuff where I mess around with technology. I’m not part of any kind of 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 actually don’t know that band at all. I did a Tape Op interview many years ago, but I still feel like 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 in 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!” And we also work with recording studios quite often. I get it. It’s 2020, but it’s troubling to me that the first thing on, like let’s say a 19-year-old kid’s mind, is not, “How can I work with a recording studio?” They just have no concept that there are like actual recording studios where they can go and work. And a lot of recording studios are pretty accessible and are accessible in a way that I think people don’t even realize. There’s Larry Crane’s [Jackpot!] and there’s John’s [Panoramic House] out there who are eager to work within peoples’ budgets. Those are very skilled people, and your record can be great. John Vanderslice has Tiny Telephone out in Oakland now. You can access actual professionals.
Part of me is a little bit like, “It’s too bad that more people can’t have that experience as studios are disappearing and more and more people are working at home.
You know, it’s funny. I work with a band called The Caribbean. They’re not a well-known band. It’s fairly obscure stuff. But it’s really important to me. They record themselves in their basement studios, largely Michael Kentoff who is the lead singer and chief songwriter. He has a very nice home studio, and they make use of the home studio environment in a way that I really 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 sort of “home studio recorded” [pieces], the kind of stuff that you probably wouldn’t do in a recording studio, or not as easily. I feel like there is something to be said for home recording. I’m not anti-home recording. I do home recording all the time.
Before Please Advise you released a record called I’m Sorry You’re Here on vinyl, and this is the score to Taffety Punk’s dance play called suicide.chat.room.
Yeah, that was the record you had initially contacted me about, which I really appreciated.
Can you explain the play and the thoughts behind the score?
The play is called suicide.chat.room. There’s a guy here in DC who I love profoundly. His name is Marcus Kyd. He runs a theatre group called the Taffety Punk Theatre Group. They do kind of underground theatre here. He was a fan of a Beauty Pill song called “Ann the Word.” It was a pretty electronic-sounding piece of music which was not what people expected from me I guess. He said, “You know, 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 really interesting. He went back and found these transcripts of real suicide chat rooms from the early internet, like the pre-Google internet. When the internet was really just bulletin boards and chat rooms and that kind of thing. He found these amazing transcripts of people talking about suicide, and in these chat rooms, they’re like support groups, but they’re not the kind of suicide support groups like you would hope exist, where someone comes in and says, “I’m thinking about killing myself”, and someone else says “No, you shouldn’t do that, here’s help. There’s hope, you should keep living.” These were chat rooms where people said, “Oh, I can help you kill yourself. I can tell you the different ways you can do it painlessly or whatever.” So the discussions are really grim and just hard to read. They’re painful to read. It actually gets almost disgusting at some points. Marc’s idea was to take these transcripts and basically put them together as a script for a play. He basically put them together in a sort of collage-like way. It’s a very moving and very upsetting work. I went to go see it recently with a friend of mine, and we were both moved to tears. It’s a heavy thing, because it’s real. All of these words are real people. By nature of the project, these are people who did not live, so you’re hearing the last thoughts of real people as they choose to end their lives. It’s very heavy. Working on the music, I took it very seriously. I’m working in a medium that’s not my native medium. I make records. I don’t know much about making theatre. But I also took it seriously because of the nature of the play. I feel like you can hear in the sound of the record that I’m not fucking around. I was really 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, and I recorded it onto 1/4-inch tape on my Fostex home recording 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. So it’s this very kind of janky, 12-bit analog recording of a piano, definitely not full-fidelity. I manipulated the tape and did all sorts of weird stuff in order 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 feel like it stands up as a thing that people can listen to whether or not they have seen they play or ever will see the play.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on Please Advise. How about “Pardon Our Dust”? This one is really interesting to me, because parts of it feels unsettled at times, the placement of the vocal and the lilt of where loopy elements fall, and then it really settles down. It’s not disjointed, and it’s not out of time, but it just has this sort of slight feeling of discomfort. I don’t mean this in a negative way. The verses have a very sort of interesting groove. I don’t know if that was intentional.
Thank you for that. 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 a year and a half or so ago and we had developed this very full band arrangement of the song. My intent was to go and record it. 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 just render basically the live performance. I had not intended to mess with it. 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 kind of overwhelming in a negative way, so I had to figure out a path into this song. So I did all these reductive mixes that are kind of similar to like stem mixing. I printed those mixes into 1/4-inch tape. There are different versions. There’s a version with just the MPC and the horns, and there’s a version with just Devin’s raw drum kit and the guitar. There were definitely different paths. I printed them all, and then I edited from those by actually cutting 1/4-inch tape. I don’t know why. I think it was because I was trying to get some tape saturation on the finished print. I suppose it would have been easier to edit it on the computer with Pro Tools or whatever, but I edited it by hand by cutting tape together, which is a skill that I learned at Inner Ear Studios 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 just trying to rescue the song. Everyone was unhappy with the previous versions. I just 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. So I wanted to do something that would turn my bandmates on and maybe unlock the song. One night I feel like I figured it out. That’s what you hear, this edit from different mixes, which is why the song shifts color every few bars. I don’t want to exaggerate my experience, but it was a pretty harrowing journey.
How about “Prison Song.”
Sure. 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. The record is called The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and it was hated when it came out! But there are people who really love it. Still to this day if I mention it, I get a bunch of Beauty Pill fans telling me it’s their favorite record. There’s a song on there which is 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 kind of 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. I feel like it’s a song with a lot of emotional content, so we wanted to make a new version of it, because I think that songs are elastic. I feel like 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 new version of this doesn’t sound at all like the original version, which was very lonely and raw and minimal. This version has lots of treated electronic sounds and my bandmates playing. I think the bass is on the left and the guitar is on the right or something like that. It’s just a new version. 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, but I think it’s pretty cool.
Finally, “The Damndest Thing”, which is my favorite track on your new release, I just love it. One of the things I thought was really interesting, which I’d like to discuss here is the artist and musician William Eggleston. There’s a video you guys made that accompanies this song. Can you describe it and your interest in 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 kind of write a song about insomnia, about the torture of insomnia. So 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 really corpuscular, very melancholic and interesting shaded photographs of American life. I would say he’s probably an influence on David Lynch and Gus Van Sant. I think William Eggleston’s photography looks like it inspired those guys. In the interview, it becomes obvious that he’s really, really, really a severe alcoholic, and it’s really heartbreaking. He seems to be sort of at peace with it. It’s really an unusual interview in that he seems sort of calm and like it’s not a big deal to him that he’s an alcoholic. He’s such an alcoholic that his doctor has prescribed him alcohol in order to keep him alive. That’s a really profoundly desperate relationship to alcohol or any substance, but William Eggleston seems like it’s not that big a deal, at least to him. The interviewer asks him how drinking affects what he does, and Eggleston basically suggests there’s no relationship whatsoever between his drinking and his art, and he seems almost irritated or wants to dismiss the idea as a very sort of cliché, maudlin, tortured artist kind of take, and I gotta be honest, I thought that was just bullshit. I’m not sure that Eggleston necessarily knows the answer, but there has to be some kind of relationship. It’s definitely the same person. My heart went out to him, and I have so much respect for his art. And 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 honestly. But it just seemed like it was way too inspiring not to write a song about it. It was just very interesting to me to think about his point of view and what his experience must be like. I feel like there has to be a lot of torment behind what he’s done, and I wanted to write a song from that perspective of torment. The song was built off of a marimba figure that was sort of cobbled and edited together. I took this figure that I kind of found by accident, and 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 an essentially two chord song interesting. I think “The Damndest Thing” is a pretty weird piece of music, and it would be understandable if people just dismissed it as a weird piece of music. But people seem to really 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. I keep citing The Beatles, but to me, that’s what I like in music, is casting a spell. That’s what I hope to do.