One of Joanne Gholl’s acquaintances saw the cover of her band’s debut CD, The Cigarette Girl From the Future, and quickly divined the meaning of its diagram of a disco ball hitting the floor and shattering. “I showed it to someone I work with,” says the Beauty Pill singer and bassist, “and he’s like, ‘Oh, the death of disco.’”
Wrong, Gholl and her bandmates say. Although inspired by “a bad night I had at a disco,” the intent of the CD’s title song “is not ‘Hang the DJ,’” explains singer and guitarist Chad Clark, who guardedly expresses his admiration for the raw power of house music. “It’s not that simple. There’s a lot of ambivalence in the music. That song is a deliberate hybrid. We like a lot of aspects of electronic music. But it’s also really important to us to always have a handmade aspect to the way we make music.”
That’s why Beauty Pill’s eclectic and electronic, sometimes noisy but not very rock ‘n’ roll music qualifies as punk, albeit not of the Lookout, Epitaph, or Fat Wreck Chords persuasion. Although acknowledging “a lot of primitivism and stumbling in the dark,” Clark calls the trio’s multilayered sound “unapologetic hi-fi” and “a fuck-you to the yawning anhedonia that gets called indie rock.”
The Cigarette Girl From the Future is a five-song EP culled from about 20 tunes recorded by the trio of Gholl, Clark, and multi-instrumentalist Abram Goodrich. The latter two had been in Smart Went Crazy, and “basically this project started at the end of that band,” Clark says. “The people in Smart Went Crazy were all amazing musicians, but it was a really unhappy band. The end of it was pretty miserable. So we wanted to do something that would renew our interest in music, something that would indulge what we liked about music and avoid the things that we didn’t like.
“A lot of time, people are attracted to music for reasons that have nothing to do with music,” he elaborates. “Actually, the more I do it, the more I respect the different reasons. But I really like music. I didn’t want to be coolI didn’t want to hang out.”
Most Secret Method drummer Ryan Nelson joined Beauty Pill last August, in time to be listed on the EP’s cover, but not to be heard on the CD. That’s a little ironic, because the disc features plenty of part-timers, including trumpeter Jerry Busher, cellist Amy Domingues (a Washington City Paper contributor), drummer Josh Belknap, bassist Johanna Claasen, vibraphonist Lary Hoffman, and guitarists Jason Caddell, J. Robbins, and Erik Denno.
“So many guest musicians played on it, it’s like a community record. The only one that’s missing is me,” Nelson laughs.
Now the one missing is Goodrich, who had been expected to play guitar when Beauty Pill finally took to the stage. “We had an amicable philosophical difference about how to turn what we’re doing into a live band,” says Clark. “My attitudeand generally our attitudeis: Perfection is out the window. I’m interested in craft and detail in the studio, but when it comes to playing live, it’s not something I really want to bother with. I really like the idea that we were going to be this rock band that covers the band that makes the records.” Goodrich will probably continue to play on Beauty Pill’s recordings, but for live performances, the band is seeking a new member.
“Everybody switches instruments in the studio, so it’s hard to figure out exactly what to play [onstage],” Clark notes. “But I’m going to sing and play guitar primarily, Ryan’s going to play drums, and Joanne’s going to play bass and sing, so we need to find a guitarist. But we need to find someone who we have an aesthetic meeting with”
“Who likes Saturday Night Live,” interrupts Gholl.
“Yeah, we all love Saturday Night Live,” Clark says. “That’s a prerequisite.”
Actually, the bandmates seem to have more in common than their taste in skit comedy. In a 90-minute discussion over dinner at Kramerbooks & Afterwords, only a few ideological schisms emerge. Nelson disapproves of singing drummers; Clark and Gholl applaud them. And Clark loves his jobhe’s an engineer at Inner Ear, Dischord’s favorite recording studiowhereas Gholl and Nelson are less enthusiastic about theirs.
“I temp at Kaiser Permanente,” Gholl notes. “And I don’t have health insurance.”
Nelson initially admits only to working “at a place in Georgetown.”
“Ryan’s office looks exactly like an office in a Michael Douglas movie,” Clark says.
The place in Georgetown turns out to be a Web-design firm that Nelson has contemplated leaving. In fact, he’s drafted a letter of resignation, which he’s happy to excerpt for everyone’s amusement. “I think I used the word ‘fuck’ way too much,” he concedes.
Before joining Inner Ear, Clark had co-produced the Dismemberment Plan but had not worked in a studio without another engineer’s assistance. Making Beauty Pill’s debut “was a very experimental process,” he says. “I had worked on records before, but generally there was an engineer around. We were doing a lot of things for the first time. Abram was the bass player in Smart Went Crazy, but he taught himself the drums. He just decided that he wanted to do something totally different.”
Part of the difference was a songwriting process that Clark calls “totally open-ended. The whole idea of our band is creativity, so everybody is allowed to contribute. Some of the stuff that we did was based on the three of us playing our instrumentsand playing our instruments pretty badly. Because Abe was new to drums, Joanne is a novice musician, and I’m nobody’s idea of a guitarist.”
Clark writes all the lyrics, which use such nonpunk terms as “hagiographer” and “sotto voce,” but Gholl sings many of them. “A lot of it is range,” she notes. “Sometimes my range sounded better.”
“I had this idea that we would play showsI don’t know if we’ll actually do thiswhere who would sing would be random,” Clark says. “I would like to get to the point where I can sing a Joanne song and she can sing one of mine. I would like for it to be that ambiguous.
“The models for me are the Beatles, Fugazi, Tricky,” he continues. “I’m a big Tricky fan. I remember reading an interview where Tricky said Martina Topley-Bird was like his feminine side. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do like the idea as a writer of being able to write for two different voices.”
No one would mistake The Cigarette Girl From the Future for the work of a band made in D.C. punk’s opening-act, all-ages-show, get-in-the-van crucible, and the musicians didn’t expect a strong response to the EP from the leading local post-hardcore labels. “We weren’t sure at the time that it really belonged on Dischord,” Gholl recalls. Yet both Dischord (for which Smart Went Crazy also recorded) and DeSoto liked the finished product; the labels decided to co-release it.
“I think what happened was, especially with [Clark] at Inner Ear, and because there were so many guest musicians on the record, there was a buzz about the record long before it came out,” Nelson suggests. “Everybody at DeSoto and Dischord was buzzing about it.”
Dischord’s Ian MacKaye and DeSoto’s Kim Coletta, Clark says, “are totally different types. Dischord really doesn’t like the idea of being a record label. It’s like an arts patron, you know. That’s oversimplifying it, but Kim is interested in reaching out and engaging people. So it seemed like a good marriage, to work with both of them. That’s how we ended up on both Dischord and DeSoto. It wasn’t a tug-of-war or anything.
“I think both labels were nervous about the fact that we were this kind of imaginary band,” he adds. “But for different reasons I think they were kind of interested in that, too.”
Clark clearly considers the recording studio his natural habitat. “The thing I like about recordsand this is the thing I get obsessed with as a producer and engineeris that you’re creating a world between two speakers. I really like that idea. Beauty Pill initially was like a retreat away from touring and all that other stuff. The thing I love about music is writing songs and feeling [them] come to life.”
Still, he says that the band was never intended purely as a studio project. “The idea was just that we would make a record first. Kind of do everything backwards. Abe played the drums on the record, but then we thought if we’re going to turn into a live band, in order to really get our ideas across we should have four people. And if we’re going to have four people, it didn’t really make sense for him to play drums in the live band, because that’s really not his area of expertise. So we asked Ryan”
“I was going to be one of the guest musicians,” Nelson interjects, “but then Chad says, ‘Do you want to just be in the band and not play on the record?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to play on the record. I guess I’ll be in the band.’”
Being in the band may not be especially demanding at the moment, but Clark hopes Beauty Pill will expand to a quartet and play its first gig before the summer is over. After all his talk about the pleasures of the studio, he confesses that “the thing I’m looking forward to now is more than anything playing a show. So screw writing songs now. It’s so basic at this point. Our ambitions are so modest. It’s like, ‘Let’s play a show!’” Mark Jenkins