(This interview first appeared in Thrasher Magazine, Sept. 2005.) I updated the intro. And Beauty Pill’s self timer took the photo.
Beauty Pill was formed by Chad Clark, formerly of the wildly ahead of its time Smart Went Crazy. You might recognize Chad’s name from his production credits, which include The Dismemberment Plan’s ‘Emergency and I,’ Aloha’s ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ and the continued re-mastering of previously released titles from Dischord Records.
Beauty Pill began sometime in or around 1999, with a lineup that included Ryan Nelson (formerly of The Most Secret Method), Abram Goodrich (also formerly of Smart Went Crazy) and a mutual friend of the band, Johanne Gholl. They wrote and recorded one EP that was released as a split release between Washington D.C.’s Dischord and Desoto Records. The EP, entitled ‘The Cigarette Girl From The Future,’ would remain as the band’s only recorded output for quite some time. The band would also drastically change lineups within that purported downtime between writing new songs and recording.
Two years later, Beauty Pill’s new lineup featured Rachel Burke (vocals, wurlitzer), Basla Andolsun (bass), and Drew Doucette (guitar). Goodrich and Gholl had departed, while Clark and Nelson remained the driving force behind the band. With a new lineup and new intra-band chemistry in tact, the band released another EP for Dischord, entitled ‘You Are Right To Be Afraid.’ At around the same time that the EP was released, the band immersed themselves within the recording of their first full-length, appropriately titled ‘The Unsustainable Lifestyle,’ which was then released in April of 2004.
Things started changing quickly for Beauty Pill. What began as a side project for the members quickly turned into full-time touring and promoting their new full length. And then, the band went on hiatus again for most of last summer, followed by the departure of Burke. After Burke’s departure, Clark asked friend and recording cohort Jean Cook (also of Ida and Anti-Social Music) to join. Jean had no real band experience either playing keyboards or handling vocals, but seemed willing and eager to anchor down the drifting lineup of Beauty Pill. Tapes were exchanged, lines were learned and Beauty Pill was on course yet again.
That was two years ago now. In the time since, Beauty Pill basically disappeared. The Web site dried up and the band members seemed to be moving in varying directions. It looked like Beauty Pill was falling apart, and that feeling seemed even more real when Nelson left the band to puruse his own venture dubbed Soccer Team.
But he was eventually replaced by Medications guitarist/vocalist Devin O’Campo (whom played with Clark in Smart Went Crazy). And then the Beauty Pill Web site went back online, and then the band took over their fan run MySpace Web page, posting a new song alongside it. And then they even played a few shows here and there.
So not all was lost.
Describing the sounds of Beauty Pill is arduous. Tracking the history, ups and downs of them is a task. But falling in love with them, that comes easy.
First question, and I assume this should go to Chad. Could you explain the history of Beauty Pill. I think it’s been through quite a few chapters already?
CHAD: It’s not a very interesting story. The band has always been a group of people orbiting a central set of ideas. To pursue these ideas, I have always sought a certain degree of innocence in my collaborators. I don’t hold “expertise” as an important value. I believe in the word “amateur” and I don’t think it’s a shameful word. “Amateur” means one who does it for love of the process. Abram had never played drums before “Cigarette Girl.” He was a bassist and we put him on drums! None of the three women (Joanne, Rachel, and now Jean) who have sung in the band ever sung in a band before. Jean was best-known as one of the world’s best violinists before Beauty Pill, and we have yet to use any violin in our music! We asked her to sing! And it worked out: Jean’s singing gets stronger and more authoritative with each passing day. When he joined the band, Ryan played a drum kit with no toms, largely because he didn’t think he was any good at drum rolls. In the process of working around this limitation, he came upon a style that is all his own and is very difficult for conventional drummers to emulate. As for me, I can’t play normal chords on the guitar, and my voice has a permanent and inescapable sandpaper effect built in. I found a style within those limitations. In varying degrees and in varying respects, the people in the band are just intuitively musical people who have approached the art from the standpoint of innocent discovery.
I think you can learn a lot from getting lost.
Second question, and this is for both of you or either. The Beauty Pill website states that “There is no ‘The’ in the name.” Yet I’ve seen Beauty Pill at North Six in Brooklyn three times, and each time, it’s listed as ‘The Beauty Pill’ on the show schedule. What gives? And is there any secret behind the band name, or is it just part of the equation to get out there and play music at this point?
CHAD: There is a significant difference in feel and intent. Try it out on any band you want. Change Tortoise to The Tortoise. Change Minor Threat to The Minor Threat. Change Public Enemy to The Public Enemy. Or try it the other way around, subtractively. It’s a small detail but it affects the meaning and the impact.
In my mind the name was supposed to evoke corporate culture. Like the name for a pharmaceutical brand. It was gently satirical, a little bit sinister. It was sort of political commentary. This origin gets obscured with the addition of the word “the.” The name “The Beauty Pill” evokes some kind of silly Alice-In-Wonderland kind of idea. It sounds kind of storybook; it’s almost cute, almost neutered.
Interestingly enough, this happened often to the band Talking Heads. People kept calling them The Talking Heads. It irked them to the point that they titled their first live album “The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads.” I have often considered a similar title…
JEAN: There are a lot of details to work out between clubs and the bands around a show. How to spell the name of the band probably doesn’t come up that often. To tell you the truth I’m not sure if the name of the club is NorthSix or North Six or Northsix. So I’m just as bad as they are I suppose. But yeah, thanks. Next time we play there I’ll put a call into the club and ask that they leave the “the” off. Maybe that will help.
Third question, and this one goes to Jean, but feel free to join in Chad. Jean, you’ve only recently come to play in Beauty Pill. How did that come about? Was it difficult to step into a defined position and redefine it? Have the dynamics changed within the band because of the switch?
JEAN: Late last summer I was driving home from Rhode Island where I had just recorded some ideas for a duo project with Chad. He called and asked if I’d like to sing for Beauty Pill cause Rachel was moving to Seattle. We talked it through and it sounded like it might be fun. I met with Basla, Drew and Ryan and we all seemed to get along. We played some shows. It was pretty great.
Was it difficult to redefine the lead female singer position? I don’t know. I learned to play keyboards and sing and play frypan, which is what Rachel did. Some of the things that are different are practical. My vocal range is higher than Rachels so I had to rework how I sang some of the songs. Some of the songs Rachel used to sing that were easier for Chad to sing, he picked up. I picked up a few that Chad sang.
DREW: I think we’re a lot more organized with Jean. It seems like there is more organization and order because Jean is a super computer freak.
JEAN: Well we definitely have to pay more attention to things like scheduling rehearsals since I live in a different city. And apparently before I joined the band, Chad was the only one with his own computer. So now twice as many people in the band – nearly 40% of Beauty Pill – care if we can find a wireless network on tour. Since I joined we started doing more band business via text messaging – CC is the only one that doesn’t text. Oh, and I believe I tipped the Buffy quotient. We are now officially a Buffy-watching band.
CHAD: There is no other human being on earth like Jean Cook.
Fourth question, and I think this might go to Chad. I believe you said during one Beauty Pill show that you perceived the band as asexual. I’m not sure if you actually used that particular word, but your point was that you felt that each Beauty Pill song should be able to lend itself to either male or female fronted vocals without altering the state of the song. Why do you feel this way, and do you additionally think it’s important to be a part of a band that is comprised of both males and females? Jean, feel free to add to this as well.
CHAD: I think the word “asexual” sounds kind of sexless, like denying sexuality. I guess I’d prefer “pansexual,” encompassing both genders. ‘Cause I think Beauty Pill is sexy… that’s certainly one of our agendas. This gets into a tricky area — ascribing traits to genders — but I do feel that one of the things Beauty Pill stands for is championing female energy in punk music. We believe in strategy and seduction and detail and grace as tools for subversion, in lieu of brute force. That being said, feminine energy does not only come from women. And masculine energy does not only exist in men. That’s about as far as I can go into this topic without opening up a sociological debate that is beyond the scope of a rock band interview.
JEAN: The experience of hearing both me and Chad sing two versions of the same song doesn’t just have to be about gender. (Says the small asian woman who sings the song about going to prison instead of the big black guy on the other side of the stage.) We also sing about smuggling drugs and killing celebrities. There is an element of fantasy and detachment that has to do with heavy yuppie concerns like urban alienation and existential crises – and these elements weave their way through our songs in a very non gender specific way. Rush hour traffic, a bad night at a club, and a nervous breakdown don’t strike me as particularly male or female experiences. Whether Chad or I sing a particular song – sometimes it’s a choice. But a lot more I think it’s about what’s going to sound good on a particular night.
Now that I think of it, it’s not just Beauty Pill, but I can’t actually think of any songs out there that can’t be sung by both a woman and a man. Can you?
CHAD: That’s a good point.
DREW: I’ve really enjoyed playing in bands with males and females with Beauty Pill in the last three years. It’s important to have boys and girls in the band. Basically because music isn’t gender based and it’s nice having females in the group having two different sexes in the band because it’s showing people that.
Beauty Pill seems to be a big part of each band member’s lives, but I’ve noticed that each band member’s involvement with Beauty Pill is just a small part of a larger musical lifestyle. What other musical endeavors are each member of Beauty Pill involved in? And why do you feel it’s important to explore musical avenues outside of Beauty Pill?
DREW: Right now Beauty Pill is my main thing. But it’s important to pursue other musical outlets because they will at least for me funnel into what I’m doing with the group.
JEAN: My life before Beauty Pill (aka before September last year) was playing violin with a lot of very different groups, which I continue to do as the BP schedule allows. Everything I listen to and everything I play informs where I end up musically. And I value the relationships I have with some of the amazing musicians I play with. I’ve learned a lot from them. So I continue to learn from these experiences and people. And Beauty Pill benefits.
CHAD: I envy, for example, Jean’s ability to shift around and adapt to different situations. But I spend a lot of time shoveling coal into Beauty Pill’s furnace and don’t have a lot of time for other pursuits.
Number six, and this a lyrical question. Chad, I’ve noticed that you sometimes have a knack for writing about people as defined by their occupation, and the unusual situations that arise because of it (Lifeguard in Wintertime, Mule on the Plane, I think it even arose in Smart Went Crazy a few times). Is this an acknowledged pattern or something that’s sorta just happened?
CHAD: That’s a really interesting observation. I think that’s one of the smartest questions anyone’s asked me in an interview and I really don’t have an answer. You get a gold star.
Number seven, inter-audience dialogue between songs. I had only seen the band twice with Rachel, but from what I can gather, it seems that the dialogue between the band and the crowd has increased tremendously since Jean joined. Why do you feel it’s important to interact with the crowd during shows? Is it an icebreaker, a chance to briefly relax between songs or a concerted effort to break the boundary between the band and the crowd?
CHAD: Jean and I are such obviously different personalities that the contrast is good fodder for comedy. I think that every conversation between Jean and me could be a script for a four-panel comic strip. Seriously. So I think sharing this with the audience is a good way to pass the time while tuning the guitar. It’s nothing more thought-out than that.
JEAN: Except for the parts where I do research on demographic and political breakdowns of the counties we play.
DREW: Oh yeah. And the question and answer sessions.
JEAN: Sometimes I’m curious about BP audiences. Why do they come to shows? What do they want to know about us? The answer is always different at every city. It’s more interesting than coming up with a story or a bad joke to tell onstage. I’m horrible with bad jokes.
OK, we’re almost done. Sorry to drag this out. Future plans for the band. What’s gonna happen, what’s already happening? What would you like to see happen?
CHAD: I want the next record to be saturated with color. Hot, fresh, and electric. Phillip Glass with dilated pupils. That’s what I want out of music these days.
JEAN: I think we may have to get a new van. I’d think I’d like to look into one of those luxury jobs with cruise control and power locks.
DREW: Can we get tinted glass too?
CHAD: True psychedelia.