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Beauty Pill‘s first LP in 11 years, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, has come at us in waves. In the summer of 2011, the band recorded its tracks on public view for a residency at Artisphere. In January 2012, it presented the album as a surround-sound installation in the Arlington arts center, paired with an interactive photo array viewers could control with a monome device. Both projects poked holes in the scrim that typically separates artist from audience, creation from consumption; they were dubbed “Immersive Ideal” and “Immersive Ideal No. 2,” respectively.
On April 30 through May 2, the band will complete its album’s life cycle with “Immersive Ideal #3,” another Artisphere residency that will culminate in a series of live performances. Inspired by a show Beauty Pill played at Cornell, where P.A. issues led band members to play scattered about the venue, the band will play its album-release concerts in a circle around the audience.
“Most bands play toward each other in practice, and so from my standpoint, it’s not so unusual to do a show where we’re all looking at each other,” frontman Chad Clark says. “It seemed like a very modest, simple idea, consistent with the ideas of Immersive Ideal… the ideas of inclusion and immersion.”
Clark was also inspired by Beatles records; mixed in stereo, with drums and bass in one channel and vocals and guitars in the other, the tracks are ripe for reverse-engineering, even if most listeners don’t worry themselves with the task. Audience members at Beauty Pill’s Artisphere shows can walk around the room, live-mixing the songs as they please—-hanging out by the drums for a while, maybe, or oscillating between the bass and vocals. Beauty Pill’s music is built from a multitude of rich textures and complex layers, and seeing how that sound is made, whether through a live recording session or a performance in the round, makes for something of a factory tour.
“I hope the songs feel like songs and they draw you in, but there’s [also] a way to figure out how the music is put together,” Clark says. “I’m sure there will be technical challenges. Any time you do something new, you realize there’s a reason why no one’s done this before. I think we’ll probably realize, ‘Oh, it’s hard to do this!'” To head off any unforeseen glitches, the band’s label, Butterscotch Records, is sending one of its audio engineers to oversee the project.
Clark insists that the impulses behind the Immersive Ideal series weren’t lofty or conceptual—-he just thought his audiences would appreciate the firsthand insight into music recording and performance. He also hopes that the band’s riskier moves, which invite the audience into an intimate space, will disprove rumors he’s heard about himself—that he’s a reclusive, aloof perfectionist—that simmered during Beauty Pill’s long gap between records. “Those reputations really bum me out because they’re not accurate,” Clark says. “Initially, selfishly, the idea behind doing Immersive was to kind of dispel that idea, because I was like, a perfectionist would not do this… show you all the aspects of their process and the mistakes they made along the way. A recluse would never make themselves that vulnerable and available.”
Artisphere, whose galleries and performance spaces have hosted all manner of experimental, multidisciplinary artists, has been a natural home for Beauty Pill’s audio-visual creations and deconstructions. But this will likely be the band’s last go-round in the space—-Arlington County plans to shut it down for good in July, making one less spot for Beauty Pill’s brand of synthesis of music and conceptual art, which might feel out of place at a typical club or concert hall. “I feel really sorry for what’s happening. I personally think it’s a mistake,” Clark says of Artisphere’s imminent closure. “Anyone who’s engaged in D.C. creativity or documenting D.C. creativity should be bummed.”
While the band plays its three Artisphere shows during the first weekend of May, another Beauty Pill project will premiere over the river and across town: the score for Taffety Punk’s Hamlet, Q1, a version of Hamlet that’s half as long and much swifter than the one usually staged. (Theories of Hamlet, Q1‘s purpose and origin abound—-some say it was one of Shakespeare‘s early drafts or a modified script for touring companies; others claim it was a cheap knockoff of the original.) The band members wrote the music for another Taffety production, suicide.chat.room, in 2010—-“I don’t know what that says about Beauty Pill that they always come to us when the play involves suicide,” Clark muses—-and felt that scoring a play meshed well with how they wrote their own music, with an emphasis on texture and emotion.
“Songs for me begin with feelings or a thought, then a melody comes out of that, and words come out of that. So in this case, the words or thoughts are not mine—-they’re Shakespeare’s, and they’re pretty damn good. I’m just trying to respond,” Clark says.
In an early planning session, Hamlet, Q1 director Joel David Santner said he’d envisioned the score with lots of metallic edges. Luckily, Clark had already recorded a whole library of sounds he’d sampled from a metal dog bowl, in tribute to a pet that had passed away, for Beauty Pill’s forthcoming album. (Clark mourns his dog on the first single of the album, which drops April 21, too.)
I told Clark I was impressed with his roll-out of two ambitious projects in the same week, a real treat for Beauty Pill fans who’ve waited years for new material. “Maybe don’t be impressed yet,” he laughed, “and maybe be scared.” If there wasn’t a little risk and uncertainty at the heart of it, it wouldn’t feel like Beauty Pill.
See “Immersive Ideal #3” at Artisphere April 30-May 2 at 8 p.m. Hamlet, Q1 runs April 30-May 23 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Photo of Chad Clark by Darrow Montgomery