Beauty Pill’s Art-Project Resurrection
It was nearly 1 p.m. on the eighth day of Beauty Pill’s public experiment in creativity and captivity when Morgan Klein, a photographer and friend of the band, looked up from his laptop and announced the sad news: Amy Winehouse was dead.
“That’s terrible,” the group’s leader, Chad Clark, said genuinely. She was an original, Clark said, who made lots money for a music industry that ultimately opted to invest in less risky analogues. Later that afternoon, he fired off a tweet: “Our whole band feels sad to learn about Amy Winehouse. Just want to say that.” For one of the only times during the band’s two-week residency there, the studio felt heavy.
A day later, Clark was feeling like the tribute was pretty trite. “Just learned about Norway,” he tweeted, referencing the previous day’s mass murder in Scandinavia. “Madness.”
Like any musician who’s reached a certain level of professionalism, Clark makes a compact with seclusion when he enters the studio. Artists in process aren’t supposed to read the news; we expect them to disconnect from the real world. But for two weeks last summer, Clark’s band set out to upend those expectations: The group converted the Black Box Theatre in Rosslyn’s Artisphere into a recording studio and invited the public to watch them make their first album in eight years.
Now, with the ensuing record ready to be heard, Beauty Pill is embarking on a second phase of their experiment in transparency: While most people listen to a new recording in private, the band starting this Saturday will unveil its work before an audience in the same Rosslyn theater. The recordings—which will make up the first of two still-unnamed albums—should be available for purchase later in the year.
Beauty Pill and Artisphere conceived the whole project—the public recording, then the public playback—as a sort of art installation, which they’ve dubbed “Immersive Ideal.” In reality, this second installment is more like a listening party gone slightly art-world, complete with surround sound and a morphing display of photographs captured during the session. Overall, the project is a real-time test of how musicians keep control over a recording’s message.
As of this week, the album’s finally done. From what I heard sitting in on the sessions, I’m pretty sure fans will recognize many of the group’s signatures in the new recordings—Clark’s melodic stamp, a balance of male and female vocals, and evocative lyrics that frequently dovetail between everyday life and the politics of race and class. In other ways, Beauty Pill sounds like a different band—hardly surprising, since the outfit hasn’t released a commercial recording since 2004.
The first part of “Immersive Ideal” demystified—or at least complicated—the old rock fallacy that a new recording can represent a rapid artistic evolution. “The reality is that every creative leap is 1,000 small decisions,” Beauty Pill member Jean Cook, a multi-instrumentalist and singer, said in July.
But following several months of mixing, this part of “Immersive Ideal” just might remystify things. “The blend of sampled and electronic and treated, and live and untreated and natural is pretty elegant, I think,” says Clark. “I think it’ll be pretty difficult for people to discern how things were done, even though they were able to watch it.”
Like a lot of envelope-pushing artists preparing a comeback album, Clark thinks the time might finally be right for Beauty Pill to be understood. If so, it’s been a long time coming.
Following the breakup of their well-regarded art-punk band Smart Went Crazy, Clark and Abram Goodrich formed the group in 2001 with their friend Joanne Gholl. Beauty Pill started as a sort of effete rebuttal of the District’s tradition of aggressive post-hardcore. “Our interest in femininity, grace, and detail developed as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to what we perceived as a stale hipster orthodoxy at the time,” is how Clark once described it. Critics and indie audiences warmly received Beauty Pill’s first EP, The Cigarette Girl From the Future.
In 2003, following the departures of Goodrich and Gholl, Beauty Pill released a relatively lo-fi follow-up, You Are Right to Be Afraid. A genre-hopping but flawed full-length, The Unsustainable Lifestyle, landed in 2004. That album moved even further from D.C.’s austere rock idiom—it was prettier, more sarcastic, more eclectic, and much more contemplative. Pitchfork panned it. When the band went looking for a booking agent, “we were pretty explicitly told we didn’t fit in,” Clark says.
Clark got some encouragement in 2006 when he posted a demo to Beauty Pill’s MySpace page. Centered on distant, delicate vocals from Cook, “Ann the Word” was a sharp left turn, a distraught and skeletal song with an Eastern feel and a synthetic, almost trip-hop cast. It’s clocked more than 50,000 streams; positive feedback from fans convinced Clark he was heading in the right direction.
In early 2008, surgeons opened up Clark’s chest; an infection had caused his heart to swell, nearly killing him. For the next year, his musical activity was limited to laptop and piano. He couldn’t lift a guitar. When new music surfaced in January 2010, it was rich in eerie, chopped-up orchestral samples and tinny, paranoid drum hits. And it was explicitly concerned with mortality: Clark’s first recording in four years was the soundtrack to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s play suicide.chat.room.
The whole while, Clark had been amassing a large body of material, with band members occasionally joining him in his home studio. He started working in public spaces with a laptop and a Monome, a kind of minimalistic sampler controller. He returned to good health. He and his wife had a son. When I interviewed him a few weeks before suicide.chat.room opened, he said he hoped to release two albums—a “nocturnal” album and a “DayGlo” album”—in 2010. But the albums never arrived.
These days, Clark admits he didn’t really have a plan to finish the records. “I recognize that music is communication, Clark says. “I can easily forget that and I can seriously experiment on my own and be really happy, and it would never occur to me that no one’s heard it. And that’s the point of making it. That’s something I will admit that I lost sight of.”
But he still had his devotees. Ryan Holladay, of the band Bluebrain, asked Clark to visit Artisphere, which had just hired Holladay as its new media curator. A germ of an idea came out of the visit: presenting Beauty Pill’s music like an art exhibit. But they didn’t want to assemble a typical sound installation; it would center on songs, instead. Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre had an observation window, à la Abbey Road’s. Holladay suggested they record before an audience.
“I come bearing caffeine. Caffeine! Caffeina!” Clark announced with a flourish on day one of the sessions.
The band started with the song “Steven and Tiwonge,” a fictional riff inspired by a Malawian couple jailed in 2010 for being gay. Clark conceived it as a slowed-down disco song, he says, but in the studio, they decided to speed things up. “Is this Hedwig?” asked an Artisphere tech. The group—playing the part of the Angry Inch, in this metaphor—didn’t appear to hear the question.
The personnel on hand during the sessions were Clark, Goodrich, their Smart Went Crazy bandmate Devin Ocampo, Cook, Basla Andulson, and Drew Doucette. They’re all multi-instrumentalists; half of them, including Clark, are professional recording engineers. Yet another engineer, Nick Anderson, helped behind the boards. Five photographers documented it all.
As an exhibit, “Immersive Ideal” wasn’t exactly Warhol at the National Gallery of Art. Visitors tromped past the observation window in small clusters. Various friends and local music luminaries stopped in.
What visitors saw was a recording process that typically began with Clark playing a demo, and his collaborators reworking it—though usually not by trying to blow the whole thing up. Over the two-week session, the band worked on about half the tracks Clark presented. “I think a lot of this process is reaffirmation for [Clark] because he’s been creating this stuff in a vacuum,” Ocampo said. “He’s been super-surprised when we’ve just accepted what’s on the demo—stuff that he’s been considering just placeholders.”
The sessions were mostly additive, although there were plenty of tiny epiphanies. The band invented parts to play over Clark’s sample-heavy sketches. For his first shot at “Near Miss Stories,” Clark had sampled the bassline from The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”; since “Immersive Ideal” wasn’t conceived to include any appropriation art, the band wrote a new part.
If you stopped by Artisphere and you caught the band between takes, you probably caught some of the Beauty Pill Show. On day four, as the band advanced the song “When Cornered” from Beatles territory circa 1967 to Beatles territory circa 1968, four members slipped on sunglasses. “It can be our thing,” Clark said. “We need a thing.”
“You have to make an effort to see if the public’s there,” Cook told me one morning. “The only time we remember to turn around and look up is when someone says something they probably shouldn’t have.” Usually that meant an in-joke bordering on innuendo. “Chad is really uncomfortable with how we’ve all started calling the pocket piano the ‘pocket rocket.’”
Abbey Road parallels notwithstanding, there were no rancorous Let It Be moments. Only one song, the carnivalesque “Drapeotomania,” caused any sort of creative sparring. (Ocampo respectfully dissented when the band decided to rework the chorus.) In individual interviews, most of the members described Clark as playing a directorial role to which they were comfortable deferring. “Beauty Pill is Chad’s thing,” said Goodrich. “I think he’s had to figure out what he needs a band for. He’s the guy who can do it all. But he still has an attachment to what can happen in a band. And what can happen is the unexpected, when someone kind of pushes you off your center of gravity for a moment and opens some doors for you.”
When we met up in mid-December, Clark said he’d completely finished about half the songs. He was rapidly nearing his deadlines; the surround mixing would have to happen on-the-fly.
Everything should have been farther along: The record should have been mixed; Beauty Pill should have already found a label to release it. But not long after the Artisphere sessions wrapped, a sudden, serious illness in Clark’s family began to consume much of his time. He tweeted elliptically about the situation from time to time. Transparency gets tougher when you step outside the studio.
The band ended the Artisphere sessions thinking they’d produced a single album; this fall, they decided to split it into two discs, to be released separately. This month’s exhibition will feature nine tracks from the first album. “This seems like a smart way to both cope with the [family] situation, and it’ll probably be good for the art,” Clark says.
Clark says he feels good about the material—it feels like a sequel to Cigarette Girl, he says. “I feel really strongly that in a couple of ways, the world has gone our way,” he says. “What’s happened with the popularity of TV on the Radio, of later-period Radiohead—the stuff on Cigarette Girl now sounds current…I don’t think we’re going to be that alien.”
"Immersive Ideal" runs Wednesday to Sunday from Jan. 7 to 22 in the Black Box Theatre at Artisphere. An opening reception takes place this Saturday at 7 p.m. For more on "Immersive Ideal," see my blog posts from throughout the summer residency. Photos by Darrow Montgomery