Arts Desk

Beauty Pill Will Finish an Album In Public, but What Exactly Is It Finishing?

Chad Clark

The news is out today that Beauty Pill, the longstanding D.C. indie rock band, will finish its new album next month—in public. As reported by Click Track this morning, from July 16 to August 2 the band is taking over the Black Box Theatre in Rosslyn's Artisphere, where each day from noon to 10 p.m. the band will make music while fans and passersby watch from an observation deck a floor above. Think of it as an indie-rock zoo: "Sometimes the monkeys are doing something interesting, and sometimes they're asleep," the band's leader, Chad Clark, says.

The project is called "Immersive Ideal," and immersion is exactly the point. “In my mind it’s the best way to make music," says Clark. "Just sink into it. Do nothing but that for whatever period of time."

If you've followed Beauty Pill in recent years, you know the band hasn't exactly been immersing itself in its music. The group has long been known for using mobile recording set-ups. And its last album, 2004's The Unsustainable Lifestlye, was assembled over a long stretch of time. Music has trickled out since: The band posted the song "Ann the Word," a gloomy and electronic left turn, to its MySpace in 2006. It soundtracked the play suicide.chat.room by the local Taffety Punk Theatre Company in early 2010, working in a similarly eerie and cinematic aesthetic. Clark and bandmate Jean Cook remade a Franz Nicolay song in November. Meanwhile, Clark faced serious illness in 2007 when an infection caused his heart to swell to the point of nearly killing him. While recovering, Clark was unable to pick up a guitar. His bandmates kept busy with day jobs and other musical projects.

I like to think of Beauty Pill as a band's band—if they've never been very widely known in indie-rock circles, they've certainly been adored by critics and other musicians. Which is why the prospect of the group's first album in seven years is welcome news.

For Clark, the project is both scary and thrilling. "We could fail—the circumstance could affect it negatively or positively. I don’t know," he says. “Everyone in the band—they’re really profoundly musical people, so I’m relying on the fact that it will feel alive, and therefore the result will feel alive. But there’s no way to know…"

So what, exactly, is the band finishing? And how will the project work? Some answers:

The music

While Beauty Pill hasn't released a full-length since 2004, a new album has been sitting on the horizon for much of the time since. In addition to his job as a producer and mixer, Clark has been working on songs he'd hoped would form his band's next record . He's done a lot of composing remotely, using a laptop and Monome and other tools, and had his bandmates record parts in his home studio. Last year, when I profiled Clark on the occasion of suicide.chat.room's opening, he told me he hoped to release two new albums in 2010, and he meant it. But it never happened.

"The way I’ve been working is inviting various members over to my house and having them play a guitar part or a bass part over time, in a very desultory, kind of aimless way," Clark says. "I wouldn’t have admitted to myself that it was aimless at the time, but it really became clear, 'I don’t have a plan to finish this.' I have a lot of this material and I love the process of exploring and I kind of could do it forever. If you talked to me a year ago, maybe two years ago I wouldn’t have known this about myself."

Not long after I wrote about Clark, he was approached by curators of the then-embryonic Artisphere, who wanted him to pitch an idea for a performance or installation project. One suggestion was creating some sort of ambient work, but Clark says he became interested in finding a way to present individual songs in an artistic way. Artisphere's new media curator, Ryan Holladay of the electronic pop duo Bluebrain, asked what Clark would need. "I said, 'The record’s in this kind of perpetually 80 percent complete stage.' I’d love a couple of weeks in the studio with my band to kind of render this stuff and put it into a fixed form," Clark says. Then the idea popped: Set up at Artisphere and invite the public to watch.

Some of the songs that Clark will bring with him to the studio date back to 2005 or 2006—like one dealing with themes of mortality called "Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed," which Clark describes as simple, strongly emotional, and dreamlike. Another song is called "Afrikaner Barista." The band recorded a second version of "Ann the Word" after posting the original rough mix to MySpace, and may end up working more on that song.

While Clark's past releases have been tonally eclectic, he says in recent years he's become interested in making an album of "useful music"—a recording that evokes a single mood, like Kind of Blue or Sea Change. Hence the two albums that he hoped to release last year. "Some of this music is bright and kind of electric, and some of it is nocturnal—that was my mental design for a long time and it still may happen."

How it'll work

Or maybe they'll just walk away with one record. The point is that the project is completely unpredictable. "If you present a piece to a room of pretty musical people, by nightfall can they make it sound like a record?" Clark asks. "That’s the challenge."

Each day, Clark says, "we’ll begin from a skeleton of a sketch that is an existing thing and we will undo it, supplant it, replace it, augment it, pull it apart, or not. Use it as a map, as a vague guide of how the thing can be, or leave it be." One possibility is that the band will re-record a song totally from scratch.

The band will have a few days to set up the studio before the observation period begins. On the technical end, Clarks says the hope is that band members will be able to pick up an instrument in the room and record right away. There'll be photographers in the room, snapping away for the final version of the project, a musical art exhibition culled from the sessions that the band will present at Artisphere in the fall or winter. Local studios Bastille and Airshow are sponsoring the project and providing some gear.

As for personnel: Some of the group's members from recent years—Clark, Cook, Devin Ocampo, Drew Doucette, and Basla Andolsun—are on board, along with Abram Goodrich, who played with the band in the early 2000s. They're all multi-instrumentalists; half of them are engineers, which is useful, Clark says, because there isn't room in the budget to bring in an outside one. And because of the unusual set-up, they'll have to figure out the rules and possibilities of their method as they work.

"Everyone’s nervous about it," Clarks says. "In a good way."

Artisphere is at 1101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington. "Immersive Ideal" takes place from July 16 to August 2, from noon to 10 p.m. each day (the band will take a three-day break during the sessions). Free.

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