Space, Clarity, and Things As They Are: How Beauty Pill Made an Album as Unpredictable as Life Itself
Behind the heart surgery, art gallery installations, and dog bowls that led to Beauty Pill’s brilliant new album, 'Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are.'
Beauty Pill / Photo by Brian Libby, courtesy of Beauty Pill
Chad Clark’s first words on the Washington, DC band Beauty Pill’s new album are “I want more life, fucker.” On first blush, this seems like a defiant acknowledgment of the grim reality that’s hung over the album’s lengthy gestation: In 2007, Clark was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, and the next year he underwent open-heart surgery. But this series of events isn’t truly addressed until the album is nearly over, when “Near Miss Stories” finds him in the doctor’s office, being told, “One of these beats of your heart is gonna be the last / The surgeon once practiced on a blood orange in an art class.”
In the hour that passes between those two moments, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, out April 21 on Butterscotch Records, covers a variety of subjects with a clear-eyed eloquence worthy of the album’s ambitious title. The opening song addressed to the aforementioned fucker, “Drapetomania!,” is named after a pseudoscientific 19th century term for the supposed mental illness that would cause a slave to flee their master (“The neighbor’s wi-fi is called ‘magic negro’ now / I would like to burn his house down,” goes one lyric). “Steven & Tiwonge” uses a real 2010 news story of a Malawian gay couple jailed for their sexual orientation as the basis not for a political song about equal rights but for an elliptical rumination on how two people don’t magically share one unified mind when they become a couple. Clark deals with the mortality of his late dog Lucy as sensitively as his own on the lead single, “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed.”Listen to an exclusive first stream of Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are below:
Clark’s words, as strange and funny and haunting as they are, frequently get upstaged by the music on Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are. The tracks, often initially pieced together by Clark with samplers and sequencers and guitars, were brought to life by the other four multi-instrumentalists in Beauty Pill (as well as former member Abram Goodrich, who returned to help finish songs the band started working on with him) during 2011 sessions in the Arlington, Virginia, museum Artisphere. MPC beats do battle with Devin Ocampo’s knotty live drums; guitar and bass are flanked by horns, electric harp, and a variety of squirrely filtered textures that are impossible to pin to any identifiable instrument. The heavily treated sound of Lucy’s metal water bowl, whirring and clanging, opens the song “Afrikaner Barista” and makes appearances elsewhere on the album. In Clark’s own words, it’s a sprawling mosaic, an album on which “each song is its own genre.”
When I sat down with Clark recently in a Washington café, he happily brandished the newly arrived vinyl pressing of the album. He seemed pleased by both the public reception to it and the absence of a particular talking point. “So far, nobody has stepped to me with ‘DC rock’ kind of ghettoizing,” he says with audible relief.
For two decades, starting with the 1995 debut by his previous band Smart Went Crazy, Clark has been closely associated with storied DC punk label Dischord Records. Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are is his first album as a bandleader not to be released on Dischord: The band has instead jumped to another small, passion-driven, but more avant-garde-focused label, Butterscotch Records. There’s no bad blood with Dischord, which remains a vital part of Beauty Pill’s music and story, but such an ambitious album seemed to demand a new way of doing things. The gatefold double LP package Clark proudly carries into the café with him may as well symbolize the changing of the guard—the more practical and no-frills Dischord philosophy demanded that Clark cut a few songs from his first masterpiece, Smart Went Crazy’s 1997 album Con Art, for the vinyl release to fit on one LP.
Chad Clark / Photo by John Pack, courtesy of Beauty Pill
Clark, the New York-born son of two Civil Rights activists, moved to Washington, DC, at 13. He fell into the inner circle of the city’s DIY heroes somewhat by accident, meeting Ian Mackaye of Fugazi though weekly softball games. Never attempting to bring his music to Mackaye’s attention, Clark instead submitted a demo to Dischord co-founder Jeff Nelson’s other label, Adult Swim. Adult Swim was too strapped for cash to put out Smart Went Crazy, but Dischord was not, and the rest is history. Clark, who produced, mixed and/or mastered countless Dischord releases besides his own records, wound up a key player in the label’s latter day diversification from its harDCore roots.
“I had to deal with so much pushback back in the day, particularly from the so-called free-thinking punk rock community,” Clark says. Smart Went Crazy, which faced initial resistance for its cello and wide range of sounds, became posthumously revered when the band split shortly after the release of Con Art. Beauty Pill enjoyed acclaim for 2001’s The Cigarette Girl From The Future EP, but the group’s arch, sampledelic aesthetic and co-ed vocals cost it whatever traditional Dischord acceptance Smart Went Crazy had grudgingly been given. By the time the band released its full-length debut, 2004’s The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and began playing live shows, Beauty Pill’s subdued sonics and erudite lyrics were a hard sell even by the modest commercial expectations of indie rock. “We couldn’t find a booking agent because we didn’t sound enough like Fugazi,” Clark reflects.
Ironically, it was a member of Fugazi, Guy Piccioto, who set Clark on his current creative direction. Piccioto “started to encourage me to stop looking at the electronic stuff I was doing as demos,” Clark told me during a band interview in 2011 (“It had to be [Piccioto] that said it, by the way,” Ocampo shot back at the time. “The whole band said it, tons of friends had said it, but when Guy said it, it stuck.”). The guidance encouraged Clark to upload a darkly hypnotic track called “Ann The Word” to Beauty Pill’s MySpace page.
Clark and Jean Cook / Photo by Morgan Klein, courtesy of Beauty Pill
“It’s seven minutes long; it’s slow and Japanese and doesn’t sound like indie rock at all,” Clark shrugs now. And yet the reception to “Ann The Word” as an Internet freebie was overwhelmingly positive, doing more for Beauty Pill than a full-length album had done a couple years earlier. “MySpace changed my life,” Clark declares without a hint of embarrassment.
“Ann The Word” also marked the Beauty Pill on-record debut of Jean Cook, who plays violin and keyboards in the band and serves as a crucial female vocal foil to Clark’s low, gravelly voice—a dynamic he says was inspired by Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird. An eerie melody is plucked out on a shamisen as Cook sings “In the dream, the car fills up with water / And you and I are kissing just the same.”
It appears on Beauty Pill’s new album, more than eight years after its initial appearance on MySpace. When I point out that the other song wholly sung by Cook, “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed,” also described a dream, I ask Clark if this is deliberate, if her voice has some kind of symbolic role in Beauty Pill as a voice of his subconscious. This doesn’t seem to have had occurred to him, but he pauses and simply says, “That’s a good point.”
Unfortunately, the next significant thing Clark uploaded to Beauty Pill’s MySpace, a year later, was a blog post, to break the news that he was going under the knife the next day to attempt to remedy a rare heart condition. He had no idea if he had a day to live or a year. He was saying goodbye just in case.
There was a period after the surgery that Clark had to curb heavy lifting and strenuous physical activity, and as recently as 2012 he was back in the hospital for a minor procedure. But he’s lived long enough to see through what “Ann The Word” set in motion, and perhaps more crucially, he’s outlived MySpace: Clark became even more transparent and accessible to fans through Beauty Pill’s Twitter account, one of the rare musicians who actually seemed kinder and more eloquent after beginning to use social media. Clark’s long stretches of touring inactivity—five years during the transition from Smart Went Crazy to Beauty Pill, several more years after he got sick—had given him an unwelcome reputation as a reclusive studio perfectionist. Twitter helped him dismantle that image somewhat, and an ambitious new project would do so further.
In the summer of 2011, the members of Beauty Pill convened in a theater space in the Arlington, Virginia, art complex Artisphere, staging the recording of their next album as a live art installation called Immersive Ideal. Artisphere visitors could watch the band record through windows outside the theater and listen to exterior speakers.
Sometimes, Immersive Ideal provided an honest depiction of the monotony of recording: On the day I visited, I heard guitar and bass overdubs for “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed.” But some days did provide a more romantically spontaneous glimpse of the creative process. One day, the band jammed on a strange new variation on “Drapetomania!” that dramatically warped the sound of the song from Clark’s original demo. The band was sharply divided on whether this was a worthwhile direction to pursue, with Ocampo strongly against it. That version ended up on the album, and even its biggest detractor at the time has come around. “Devin is, like, really into it now,” Clark says.
Beauty Pill at Artisphere / Photo by Nestor Diaz, courtesy of Beauty Pill
Immersive Ideal has now had three phases. Immersive Ideal II, six months after the initial recording exhibit, was a public audio installation of Dolby mixes of the songs, every vivid detail captured in surround sound. Clark continued recording and mixing, adding a cover of Arto Lindsay’s “The Prize” to the album, before finalizing the stereo mix for public release. Arlington County recently decided to close Artisphere this summer, but the band will return to the space one more time, for three nights in April and May, to bring the project full circle with Immersive Ideal III, Beauty Pill’s first live performances in seven years.
Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are is one of the most unique and engrossing albums of 2015 so far, the rare independent label release that sounds like a word-class, state-of-the-art piece of studio experimentation. Clark mixed many of the songs in surround sound for the 2012 Artisphere installation, and his subsequent stereo mixes for the final album seem to retain the Dolby mixes’ incredible sense of space and clarity, every instrument given its own place in the vivid, kaleidoscopic soundscape. Beauty Pill has never been as druggy or glamorous as its name has suggested, but on this album, they sound sultry and psychedelic in a way that nobody ever has before.
For every provocative insight the album has about race, death, or relationships, there’s also an arresting string of words that will rattle around your brain with no clear interpretation or a killer one liner like “the devil is just two kids in a coat.” Many of the songs employ an old songwriting trick that’s rarely practiced by anyone other than Nashville pros anymore—a repeating lyric that takes on a new meaning or variation every time it comes around. “Steven & Tiwonge” shifts from Steven’s perspective to Tiwonge’s, “For Pretend” addresses a child who ages five years in each verse. “Near Miss Stories” ends with Clark singing “I’m so lucky” over and over. But then he suddenly turns the phrase around, and the guy who’s spent years not knowing when his heart would stop beating, who knows he’s lucky to be alive, let alone to have made this beguiling odyssey of an album, wants to make sure the listener knows they are too: “You’re so lucky, he sings. “You’re so lucky, you’re so lucky, you’re so lucky.”
Al Shipley is still big on MySpace and also in Baltimore, where he is a writer. Follow him on Twitter.