Sorry You’re Here: Beauty Pill’s Lost Record Sees the Light At Last

PHOTO: STEPHAN GIOVANNINI | “I didn’t want to put this record out,” Chad Clark tells me at the beginning of our conversation about Sorry You’re Here, the most recent release by DC-based band Beauty Pill. “It’s a pretty interesting journey.”

You’ll find the album filed under new releases in your record store or on your preferred streaming platform, but Sorry You’re Here was first conceived in 2010 as the soundtrack to a devised dance play by the Taffety Punk theatre company. The premise of suicide.chat.room tends to give listeners pause, because the text is taken entirely from real chatrooms of the late 1990s and early 2000s devoted to the subject of suicide—not how to prevent or avoid it, but how to actually do it, and why so many people felt the urge to take their own lives in the first place.

“I love the play,” Clark says. “I stand by it as a work of art.” It’s certainly not for everyone; because the text of the piece is gathered from real life—and death—online, it can be a disconcerting experience for audience members. “It’s sensitive, but it’s not a timid work,” Clark explains. “It doesn’t surprise me that it’s disturbing for some people. But artistically, at that level, I support it.” Given the difficulty of the material, his initial hesitation to release the music to a wider audience might seem obvious. “It’s not an area that I take lightly,” he says. “[But] my unease about releasing the music had a lot more to do with the fact that the style of the music deviated very strongly from what people expected from me or wanted from me at that time.”

Eventually, he decided to part ways with Dischord, not because the label imposed what he refers to as a “kind of an aesthetic straitjacket,” but because fans of other Dischord artists expected something different from what Beauty Pill had to offer. “This music is far out and away from what people thought I should be doing,” he explains. “I was nervous, I was insecure, that’s just the reality. And now I hear it, and what’s happened in the time since is people have really come around.”

A lot has happened since Sorry You’re Here (the traditional greeting to new members of the titular suicide chatroom) was first composed. The 2015 record Beauty Pills Describes Things As They Are was acclaimed by everyone from NPR to Rolling Stone. According to Clark, the response was “insane.” Moreover, it proved that there was an appetite for what Clark was working on—and not just from Taffety Punk artistic director Marcus Kyd. “He’s the kind of free-thinking punk rocker dude that I like,” Clark says. “You don’t ask for permission, you don’t wait for expertise… you just create something somewhere you are and you just follow your heart. You follow your heart. And time has supported his idea.”

Following your heart might sound like a cliché, but for Chad Clark the resonance is very real. After a near-fatal encounter with cardiomyopathy—a viral infection of the heart—he was lucky to be alive. “I nearly died and had to have open-heart surgery… and it gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life if I survive. Surviving was not a guarantee. But thankfully I survived, and I sort of changed at that moment,” he says. “And Marc came to me with this idea of the play. He really liked the Beauty Pill song ‘Ann the Word.’” It’s a key song for this project, and “by far the most far out into electronic textures and experimentalism that Beauty Pill had ever gone.”

That wasn’t the only factor influencing Clark’s impulse to explore more electronic textures as the soundtrack for suicide.chat.room. “I was still recovering. I could barely lift a guitar,” he says. “Nobody tells you this, but there’s no way to do heart surgery without cracking the ribcage open. They break you open like a crab. So I thought, how am I gonna make music? I’m excited about working with Marc, I’m excited about being alive, I’m excited to do this, but I don’t know if I can do this, at a physical level.”

Though his recovery forced him to “lean on technology,” his process is decidedly organic, a kind of musical deconstruction where different chords and phrases and effects are chopped up and reorganized—not unlike the collage techniques used by David Bowie and Thom Yorke. When Clark started recording himself playing the piano on cassette, that’s when things got interesting. “When you kind of slow down analog tape, it gives this sort of unstable quality… which I felt like was evocative of the unstable world of the play,” he says of what eventually became “At A Loss,” the third track on Sorry You’re Here. “I came to Marc with that—I think that was the first thing I played for him—and he was so excited and embraced it immediately. And I felt so encouraged.”

The marriage of analog and electronic recording effects creates an uncanny sonic landscape which makes a perfect soundtrack for the darkest corners of Y2K cyberspace. “This play is about mortality, and human frailty,” Clark says. “If I’m gonna be using technology… I wanted it to feel human. People often use technology to perfect things, and I’m not interested in that.” Onstage, the actors’ choreography ranges from ethereally graceful to startlingly violent—sometimes aesthetically matched to the music, and sometimes deliberately at odds with it. Weirdly, it works, thanks in no small part to Clark’s electronic/analog approach. “The marriage of digital and analog is the key thing that went into the music on Describes Things,” he says. “At the time it was totally new, but now it’s become kind of a reliable technique for me… it comes as almost second-nature.”

He’s quick to point out, however, that he has no particular loyalty to this or any other technique. “I’m really happy the record is on vinyl,” he says, but, “I don’t have any contempt for digital and I don’t have any particular adoration for analog. I appreciate both and what you can do with them… It’s the punk thing. Grab the tools that are available to you and make something… Use what is accessible to you. Use what you can afford. Use your environment as best you can.”

The environment of suicide.chat.room isn’t an easy or obvious one, of course. In the process of constructing the soundscape, Clark admits he didn’t feel ready to write lyrics for a song about suicide. “I thought, I don’t know that I can write a song on purpose that suits this topic. But I looked in my record collection and I was thinking, what songs do I know that address the idea of human despair?” He settled on two: Paul Simon’s “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy,” and a mostly forgotten single from David Bowie’s Black Tie/White Noise called “Jump They Say.” The former, according to Clark, “Just really feels genuine and human and authentic. He doesn’t ever say it explicitly, but he makes it very clear that he’s at the end of his rope… And I thought can we vivify it in the Beauty Pill style? And I’m proud of it. I think it works.” To the average Paul Simon fan, Clark’s reworking might be nigh unrecognizable. But the sentiment remains, woven between baroque strings and a cyberpunk undercurrent which drives the actors’ movement in the live performance.

One of the greatest strengths of suicide.chat.room is its refusal to pass judgment on the troubled people who supply its text, and the same compassion extends to Sorry You’re Here, and particularly Clark’s interpretation of “Jump They Say,” a song purportedly penned by Bowie after the suicide of his half-brother. “When I think about it I feel like crying,” Clark says, “because it’s essentially Bowie saying to his brother, I forgive you for your choice to kill yourself.” It’s not an easy pill for everyone to swallow, but it’s essential to the suicide.chat.room project, which works to destigmatize despair and humanize something which is so often reduced to clinical terminology. “It’s exactly how Marc put the play together,” Clark explains. “It’s grabbing real bits of people.”

Sorry You’re Here does the same, reaching into the darkest parts of the human psyche and setting what it finds there to music. The record resists concise description, every song as eclectic as it is evocative, beauty brushing against brutality, the classical and the cutting-edge intertwined in infinite variations. Anyone who has the opportunity  to see suicide.chat.room should jump at the chance, but the soundtrack makes for a powerfully immersive listening experience even if you can’t catch the show—and it’s finally available to a broader audience. “People who care about what I do are definitely frustrated about the time [it took],” Clark says, with a laugh. “If I was a fan I’d be frustrated, too.” But ten years later, it seems the time is finally right. Sorry You’re Here is out in the world, and you won’t be sorry to hear it.

Beauty Pill’s Sorry You’re Here is available now—on coke-bottle clear vinyl.

PERFORMANCE PHOTOS: C. STANLEY PHOTOGRAPHY

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