Beauty Pill gives studio art new meaning
By David Malitz
Jan. 6, 2012
For most bands, an album-release show follows a simple protocol: Book a show at a local rock club. Play the new songs. Stand at a table in the back after the show and hope people buy your CD. Pretty standard stuff.
But Beauty Pill is not your standard band, and on Saturday it will be hosting a very different album-release show. The event won't be at a nightclub but at Arlington's progressive art hub, Artisphere. The band will be there but won't be performing. And you won't be able to buy the album, just listen to it as part of an interactive multimedia display.
The event is the culmination of Beauty Pill's "Immersive Ideal" project, in which the D.C. rock quintet transformed Artisphere's Black Box Theatre into a recording studio over 21
2 weeks last summer.
It was an interesting choice for a recording location, but what made the undertaking so different was that the whole thing was open to the public. Most bands cut themselves off from the world entirely when it's time to make an album, but Beauty Pill literally put itself on display, with onlookers peering into the studio from a perch above. Depending on when you arrived, you might have seen guitar overdubs, drum takes or the band simply sitting around and mixing. Visitors could hear everything happening inside the enclosed space through speakers. It wasn't always enthralling, but that was part of the point.
"Can we cast a spell if everyone watches us make a spell, and argue about the spell and see all the mechanics behind the spell?" band frontman Chad Clark said about one of the motives behind the idea.
It wasn't one of Clark's longtime dreams to make an album in public. Clark, an acclaimed producer and veteran of the D.C. punk scene, and Artisphere curator Ryan Holladay, who is one-half of envelope-pushing local duo Bluebrain, landed on the idea as a venture between the arts center and the band. Artisphere's Black Box Theatre reminded Clark of the view into Abbey Road's famous Studio Two, and he could see himself making music there. Fellow musicians seemed enthused if not exactly envious.
"I was treated like, 'That's very admirable but foolish. . . . I wouldn't do that!' " Clark says.
Clark welcomed being on display, but it wasn't as if there were hundreds of people pressed against the window. Usually there were no more than a handful, and sometimes it became more of an interactive than observational exercise. If Clark noticed people standing there for a long time, he would invite them in. Sometimes the band would figure out a certain part of a song, and the onlookers would break into applause.
At the album-release party Saturday (and through Jan. 22) visitors to Artisphere will be able to hear Beauty Pill's new album in the Black Box Theatre while browsing pictures taken by five photographers who were on hand for much of the recording, all part of an interactive slideshow that users can control.
"What I think is sort of provocative at a philosophical level," Clark says, "is the whole messing with time and space aspect of it, because you're hearing the finished results while looking at photos of the process, which was available in real time over the summer, and maybe you came and saw that. And you're also in the same room as the music was made. So I felt like maybe I'll be totally wrong about this, but I thought there would be some dizzying meta resonance by doing it that way."
Of course, the experiment's primary goal was simple - to record an album. And Clark is pleased with the results, uncategorizable as they may be. There is no simple microgenre label that can be applied to Beauty Pill's music. If forced to invent one, you'd need a lot of dashes, something like art-tech-perfect-calm-core. The hallmarks of the band's sound remain its lush arrangements, penetrating lyrics and a crystal-clear sonic sheen.
"I think the music is really rich and unusual," Clark says. "I want everything to be there by necessity and for every gesture to have a reason behind it. The results have a lot of life."
That choice of words is not insignificant for Clark. In 2008, a virus infected his heart, nearly killing him.
"I'm very lucky to be alive," he says matter of factly. "Most people who had what I had don't survive."
The life-altering illness has affected Clark's art, but more in the process than in the final product - only one song on the new album addresses his sickness directly. But the experience has inspired him to explore creative avenues ouside the rock realm. He composed the score to a play at Flashpoint and helped curate a series that brought authors and local musicians together on the same stage. The Artisphere project was yet another way to shake up the status quo. In a city known for its punk rock roots, this is the new punk.
"If there's a rep for D.C., I don't want it to be 'Oh, their guitars sound like this or certain chord changes,' " Clark says.
"I love D.C., and if there's anything I'd like D.C. to be known for it's 'Oh, that's the place where they're full of fresh ideas. And they're not always about making money.' To me it's D.C. at its core. Don't respect boundaries. Don't wait for permission. Don't subscribe to rules. Be free."