Beauty Pill’s Immersive Ideal: “Steven and Tiwonge”
"I come bearing caffeine. Caffeine! Caffeina!" announces Chad Clark near the top of his band's first day in Artisphere's Black Box Theatre, where his band Beauty Pill is holed up for most of the rest of the month to complete its next album, and where runs to the Starbucks down the street are both required (the band is pulling 10-hour days) and probably unavoidable (this being Rosslyn, there are only so many places to go for coffee). The project is called "Immersive Ideal," and should it succeed it'll result in the band's first record in seven years, not to mention an accompanying art exhibit.
When I enter, the band is making sound and lighting tweaks. A massive white frame is suspended from the ceiling, separating the ad-hoc engineering booth from a string of ad-hoc music-making stations. The first hour or so is about figuring out how it'll all work. That mostly means the technical stuff.
There's also a certain amount of built-in discomfort, which the band doesn't seem to be sweating. There are photographers (two at a time, four total) whose collected work will help form the art-exhibit component of "Immersive Ideal." There are journalists (at the moment it's just me) observing from inside the studio. Later, Fugazi's Brendan Canty, who co-owns the video-production company Trixie, will stop by. And perhaps most jarring: There's the literally hovering presence of onlookers, who occasionally stop by the observation window a floor above, where they can peer in and listen to the sessions.
Part of getting comfortable means easing in, and Clark has chosen what he describes as a fairly simple song to start the project—it's called "Steven and Tiwonge," after the Malawian couple that was jailed for being gay last year. Each day or so, Clark plans to present a "sketch" of a song to the band, which will then decide what to do with it. In this case, Clark conceived "Steven and Tiwonge" as a slowed-down disco song, but the consensus is it's too slow, so while the band practices playing it, Clark plugs headphones into his laptop and begins trying to speed it up. Devin Ocampo and Abram Goodrich are each manning a drum kit. Drew Doucette and Basla Andolsun are on guitar and bass. Jean Cook joins in on vocals and Wurlitzer. "Is this Hedwig?" asks the Artisphere tech assigned to help set the room's lighting.
There are more sonic adjustments to be made. Clark is still messing around on his computer, so Ocampo volunteers to test his guitar. "Now Devin's going to do a cruel impression," says Clark, to laughter. I leave around 3 p.m.
The next day, Sunday, the band is just getting ready to track "Steven and Tiwonge." Clark is both a maximalist and someone who believes, as he puts it, in the merits of "subtraction"; he describes how last night Goodrich helped simplify the song's bass line for the better. After the band debates the right BPM, Ocampo records his drum part.
They play back the beat, while Ocampo and then Doucette strum an acoustic and Clark and Cook share vocals. The band can feel it, and sitting off to the side, so can I: This is a Beauty Pill song. The acoustic guitar stirs something in the band. It's earthy, they agree, and it sounds right.
Maybe "Steven and Tiwonge" will change later. At 5 p.m., I have to get going.