Beauty Pill, under the leadership of local songwriter/recording engineer Chad Clark, has run through the minds of DC music fans for ten years now like a hidden vein of magnetic ore. Outcroppings of new music are rare and sporadic, but the field of influence is always felt. It’s a measure of the group’s innovation and craftsmanship that one six-minute single, released only on MySpace in 2006, served to maintain their reputation in the interim since 2004’s full-length The Unsustainable Lifestyle. That single, “Ann the Word,” became a viral hit and was seen as a departure from the group’s post-punk, Dischord roots.
“Viral” is a loaded term for Clark these days. “A couple of years ago,” he says, speaking quite literally, “a random virus entered my heart and tried to kill me. It did not succeed… Recovery seemed like an opportunity for reinvention.” The experience helps explain both changes in the band’s sound and a number of recent experiments.
Always looking for fresh venues of expression, Clark toured the new Artisphere multi-media facility in Arlington. “When we saw their Black Box Theater, I was struck by its physical similarity to Abbey Road Studio 2 where the Beatles recorded,” he recalls.”In particular, there’s a window that looks down into the space at almost an identical angle to the one in Abbey Road.That’s when the idea hit me.What if we made music and allowed people to watch us? Not as a performance, but if we really allowed them to see the creative process of making an album?” So the band moved into the Black Box and spent two weeks mixing and recording the tracks for their much-anticipated next release, with Artisphere visitors invited to observe every detail, exciting or otherwise, through the big glass window. They called the project the Immersive Ideal.
In academic theory, the “immersive ideal” means a perfect, undetectable simulation of reality. Think the Matrix, or the emperor who dreamed he was a butterfly. Beauty Pill’s experiment actually achieved the opposite: an imperfect, unprogrammed, but very real and direct experience, showing the true bones of creation instead of striving for a false seamlessness. Tellingly, Clark often allowed visitors to enter the studio, breaking the boundary between those who watch and those on display. “That was not part of the idea of the project,” he says, “It’s essentially like inviting someone in a natural history museum to pet the mastodons in the exhibit. But I’m social and I can’t help it. So I did.”
The six talented musicians in Beauty Pill fought and supported each other and compromised and tried crazy things and put together 20 new tracks, all under the public gaze. “A lot of musicians, some pretty well-known, stopped by and hung out with us,” says Clark. “This was nice and very cozy and reassuring. Felt like a normal studio where your friends come by to hang out and hear what you’re up to.”
Starting January 7, the Immersive Ideal presents the results in the very space where the music was made. A surround-sound mix accompanies images from the recording sessions. Visitors can explore the mysterious effects of an interactive Monome: a box of unlabeled, glowing buttons often used by electronic musicians.
The Immersive Ideal runs through January 22 as part of the “Notasphere” exhibit of nontraditional art. After that, Beauty Pill hopes to find a sympatico label to provide a home for their new work: another fresh start for a band that’s never content to replicate the past. Indeed, for fans who want to know how the new album compares to the previous work, Clark has no simple answer.” In the end, all I care about is the spell. Did we cast a spell or not? I don’t really care how we arrived at that result.”