Beauty Pill’s Immersive Ideal

[The boys and I have fixed up a session of dance music for you. And we hope you like it.]

[1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Chad Clark:
Constraints are good. I mean, constraints are healthy. I’m not the only person to make this observation.

[1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Roman Mars:
Take five notes. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Roman Mars:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Chad Clark:
My name is Chad Clark and I’m in the band “Beauty Pill.”

Roman Mars:
Beauty Pill is a band I really like from Washington, DC. Their last album, “The Unsustainable Lifestyle,” was released in 2004. Since then, Chad Clark had a serious illness that nearly killed him.

Chad Clark:
I had a near-death experience in 2008.

Roman Mars:
A virus infected his heart.

Chad Clark:
So usually it swells and you die. And I didn’t die.

Roman Mars:
And I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to boil this down to cause and effect here, but at the same time, his practice as a musician changed dramatically as well.

Chad Clark:
And I just kind of became this dismayed about putting stuff out. I don’t think I was even aware that that was happening to me. If you talked to me like two years ago I wouldn’t know all this stuff that I know now. That clearly I was resisting, actively resisting, putting out a record.

Roman Mars:
And because he was sick. And making music but not putting out music, people began to wonder about Chad Clark.

Chad Clark:
Being perfectionistic or reclusive. Those are the two words that have been repeated to me a few times.

[There were rumors.]

Chad Clark:
The Brian Wilson fantasy that like, “Oh, he’s going crazy! He’s in a sandbox somewhere!”

Roman Mars:
So that was the problem.

Chad Clark:
And the whole point of what I want to do with music is communication. So I will admit it was a misguided path.

[M. David Chapman shakes and hovers in the shadows of the Dakota. Hearing voices, one of which will never sing again when this is over.]

Roman Mars:
And this looked like the way things were going to be. But then Beauty Pill got an intriguing invitation from Artisphere, a new multi-media art space in the D.C. area.

Chad Clark:
They had just asked me to come down to see the space and talk about doing something creative with music.

Roman Mars:
Very open-ended. Very-

Chad Clark:
“We just want you to be creative” kind of idea.

Roman Mars:
The best kind of invitation to receive.

Chad Clark:
I came down and we walked around the space and we talked about different things that we could do.

Roman Mars:
And the obvious idea sprang up. He could create ambient, looping music to fill the space or some kind of audio installation. But as they were walking around, they came to a room in the space with a very distinctive fenestration-

Chad Clark:
And we looked into the Black Box Theater and there’s a window that looks down into the theater.

Roman Mars:
Distinctive to Chad Clark, that is. I have no idea.

Chad Clark:
And first of all, the Black Box Theater looked really cool to me but mostly the window was an interesting idea. Because the window looks down into the space and I’m a huge “Beatles” fan, and if you just google “Abbey Road Studio 2,” then you will see this design. The famous Beatles studio has a window that looks down, a second-floor window that looks down, into the space. It’s angled almost exactly like the window at Artisphere. And that excited me.

Roman Mars:
Beauty Pill would record a new album. An album that no one thought was going to happen. In the Black Box Theater. In front of everyone-

Chad Clark:
Letting people watch us work.

Roman Mars:
All inspired by a window. And there you have it. The closest one could ever hope to get to dancing about architecture. They called the project the “Immersive Ideal.”

Chad Clark:
“Immersive Ideal” would be accessible and visible to everyone and we would hopefully lose ourselves in the process.

Roman Mars:
Which is where the title comes from.

Chad Clark:
The ideal way to make music, which is to just sort of drop yourself into it and do nothing but that for a period of time.

Roman Mars:
They had two weeks.

Chad Clark:
There was a deadline now.

Roman Mars:
Now I think there’s a way you could view the constraints of this project as a form of confinement. But to Chad, the “Immersive Ideal” was not about putting himself in a fishbowl and being forced to perform a task with everyone watching. It was about opening up the walls and inviting people into the process.

Chad Clark:
In the studio, you can lose yourself entirely. And that can be a really narcotic and wonderful thing. But it can be easy to forget that the main purpose of what you’re doing is to make a piece of music that is heard by someone else and that communicates and transmits an idea or a sensation or an emotion to someone else. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re in the antiseptic, closed-wall environment of a studio. Working in the open air, you never lose sight of that as an objective — of moving someone else as an objective.

Roman Mars:
Case in point, the theater/recording studio was set up so people could only observe through the Abbey Road window.

Chad Clark:
Now the reality is we’re nice people. And if we saw someone standing at the window for two or three hours watching us work, I don’t know, it just seemed right to invite them down. So what I would do is I would wave them down. I would wave to them at the window and I would say, “Come on down.” And we did this quite often.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes the people invited into the recording area would erupt into applause, which is not something you generally want in a studio recording.

Chad Clark:
This was one of the manifestations where you could tell people were on our side or invested or wanting it to work.

Roman Mars:
But the other effect was that the crowd began to guide some of the creative process. On the song “Steven and Tiwonge,” Chad Clark came into the room with a vision for the song.

Chad Clark:
My original demo was kind of slow disco. Kind of somewhat erotic, somewhat dark, but kind of slow. Too slow to dance to. And I thought this was provocative, that you could feel that there was a dance beat but it was slowed down to the point where you really couldn’t dance to it. And the rest of the band was feeling that it should have a brisker pace. And I was pretty adamant on trying to pursue this vision of slow disco.

Roman Mars:
Who hasn’t pursued slow disco? But when they were recording this song, there was something like twelve guests, also in the room.

Chad Clark:
And I could feel, as the band was trying to honor my vision, I could feel that it wasn’t working. I could see that the band wasn’t on my side and that I was outnumbered by the band, but I could also feel from behind me… I was like I’m the only one in this damned room — there’s like eighteen people in this room and I’m the only one — that thinks this song should be slow. I think I’m probably wrong, you know? It was like this… “I think I’m wrong.” And I probably let go of my concept that it should be slow sooner, I think, than I would have had I not felt the presence of other people in the room, who the spell wasn’t working on. And if we’d been working in a studio, I think I probably would have eventually acquiesced. I do trust the band, but I certainly feel like the social presence of other people helped me realize that my approach wasn’t working. At all.

Roman Mars:
But that’s not to say that inviting the crowd in the room, even the metaphorical crowd, is the right way to create something.

Chad Clark:
It’s a paradox because if “Radiohead,” when they were making “Kid A,” had allowed a crowd in while they were working, that crowd might have been completely dismayed about everything that they were doing. “Why are you doing this? You’re a guitar rock band! I liked your last record, it was great. Why don’t you just do another one of those?” The crowd doesn’t always have the vision. So there are times when you have to knowingly push beyond what is socially desired at that point to arrive at a fresh and worthwhile result. So it’s complicated. It’s not just one way or just the other.

Roman Mars:
You could never design the perfect situation for creating great art. It just doesn’t work that way. But sometimes you have to make some rules. And sometimes you have to decide that five notes are all it takes.

[..4,5]

Roman Mars:
And sometimes the circumstances dictate that disco is supposed to be fast. It’s probably all the time, actually, now that I think about it. Yeah. Sorry, Chad.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Roman Mars, with Sam Greenspan, and made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. The program is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org.

To find out more about this program and Beauty Pill – you really want to find out more about Beauty Pill – go to our website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org.

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