Just a few days before Baltimore duo Beach House released Teen Dream in January, singer-keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally were on the set of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, performing on TV for the very first time. Their performance followed the highly rated final episode of Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show. If Beach House's first four years had taken place in a frying pan, this was the fire.
"It's a little nerve-racking and bizarre to play like that — one song on national TV," recalls Legrand. "But the crew and Jimmy himself were lovely and all chilled out. We brought our own lighting and our fur [stage] structures, and they were cool about it. The whole thing had a surreal element to it, to be sure, but it was fun."
Admittedly, "Beach House on Fallon" isn't exactly on par with "Beatles on Sullivan," but for a band that had built its cult status in the shadows over the course of two hypnotic, ethereal albums (2006's Beach House and 2008's Devotion), the TV gig was both a coming-out party and a defining statement to the group's devotees. With the iconic Sub Pop behind Teen Dream, things were about to change.
"It was a practical decision," says Legrand of the group's move from the small Carpark record company. "Alex and I weren't interested in bigger labels. We didn't feel like waiting around for some stupid record deal that would take forever and then having to tour the record for two years. We've been DIY for over four years — never used to having people do things for us. But moving to Sub Pop was about widening our artistic channel, getting a bigger house so our ideas — our mental furniture — could have more room to grow. It wasn't a glamorous decision about blowing up."
In fact, as Legrand sees it, Sub Pop may have had more to gain from the arrangement than she and Scally did. "We definitely cultivated our fan base ourselves," she says. "No label did that for us. If anything, labels need bands today. A band doesn't need a label if they're touring their asses off and cultivating their universe. Bands basically make labels look better. It's a great change from the way it used to be."
Either way, it's resulted in Beach House's best record. Teen Dream twists and bends the band's dream-pop template to create a more cohesive and energized — but no less distinctive — collection of songs, including highlights "Zebra," "Norway," and "10 Mile Stereo."
"I think it's been a natural evolution for us," says Legrand. "Teen Dream wouldn't exist without the previous two albums. But a lot of it is also the result of lots of touring and the bottling of life and live energy that goes into that."
If one song on Teen Dream epitomizes Beach House's growth, it's — appropriately enough — "Used to Be." Legrand and Scally released an earlier version of the song as a single back in 2008. It included all the usual Beach House elements in abundance: a grade-A pop melody, a Philip Glass-style organ riff, droning atmospherics, and the otherworldly vocal aeronautics of the classically trained Legrand. When they started playing the song live, "Used to Be" began its slow metamorphosis.
"We felt that there was an emotional depth in the original that could be cultivated more," says Legrand. "So we worked on it and changed its shape and bone structure and flesh. We worked with different sounds, we removed certain sounds, etc. In the end, it was about transition in the arrangement. We're probably more intense now than ever before when we hear things we write. But fortunately our ability to work obsessively on something together has remained the same."
Five years into their passionate but notably platonic musical partnership, Legrand and Scally have also maintained a simple philosophy when it comes to playing music, no matter how big the audience gets. "It's not a job," says Legrand. "And we don't ever want it to feel like it is."
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Beach House, WITH Moss of Aura
9 p.m. Thursday, June 17
15711 Waterloo Rd.
Tickets: $14 advance, $16 day of show