"There Doesn't Seem To Be An In-Between" Spirit Of The Beehive Interviewed
Spirit Of The Beehive are putting you to the test. At least, that’s how it feels. See, even before you’re introduced to a note of melody on ‘ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH’ - the fourth album by the Philadelphia-based rock outfit - you first experience a fifty-second squall of noise.
You can bail here, if you want.
But what you’d miss is an album that takes you down a bizarre, confounding, utterly riveting rabbit hole, beginning with the track ‘ENTERTAINMENT’ in which supposedly we experience the narrator’s death in a highway wreck. Whether every track we hear thereafter is a hallucination in his dying moments is unclear, but it sure would make sense. It feels like a hallucination. Either way, making records that’ll make you say ‘Huh?’ as you reach for the repeat button is just how Spirit Of The Beehive operate.
“People either really hate it or really like it. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between.”
That’s Zack Schwartz talking, the band’s creative engine and de-facto frontman, as he sits sandwiched on a couch in his Philadelphia apartment between his bandmates, bassist/vocalist Rivka Ravede and multi-instrumentalist Corey Wichlin.
Originally, Schwartz is from Miami, where he formed the emo band Glocca Morra while still in high school; eventually, the whole band decamped to Philadelphia in search of a more thriving music community. Meanwhile, Ravede, who had been introduced to punk growing up in suburban central Florida, ended up in Philly too. She met Schwartz while job-hunting on her first day in the city; through laughter, she recounts, “I was filling out an application at an Urban Outfitters that Zack was working at and he was really rude to me.” Shortly after, they began dating.
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Though Glocca Morra became a cornerstone of the flourishing early-2010s Philadelphia emo scene, with their 2012 LP ‘Just Married’ often cited as a classic, their collective enthusiasm started waning after a while. “We were such a lazy band, we just never toured and we declined every offer we got for basically anything. We just didn’t feel like doing any of that shit,” says Schwartz. He was losing interest in their musical direction, too, and feeling an itch to begin a project more akin to what he listened to day-to-day; weirder, noisier stuff.
One day, when band practice got cancelled again for the nth time in a row, Schwartz suggested to Ravede that they practice some music of their own. Eventually, they named themselves The Spirit of the Beehive (they’d drop the ‘the’ later), after the 1973 Spanish movie about a young girl who becomes obsessed with Frankenstein’s monster. “We just wanted to be really loud,” said Schwartz. “[Then] we started to hate it, ‘cause it hurts your ears, and we all have tinnitus and shit.”
The new band made their debut with a 2014 self-titled record, but they really established themselves with 2017’s ‘Pleasure Suck’ - a murky, grimy lo-fi effort - and 2018’s ‘Hypnic Jerks’ - a dreamlike, psychedelic experience. After ‘Hypnic Jerks’, artists such as Mitski and Frank Ocean were repping Spirit of the Beehive, and a dedicated word-of-mouth network sprung up around the band, but it didn’t translate to feverish press coverage or indie darling status. ““The expectations were so low at every show that we ever played,” laughs Ravede. “So it was like, if we ever played headlining shows, and there were people there to see us, I would be like, ‘This is crazy, there’s people here!’” The term may be somewhat cliche, but here really was a cult band; if you were in the know, you were in the know.
Before work started on ‘ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH’, Wichlin joined the band, while drummer Pat Conaboy and guitarist Kyle Laganella left, leaving the previously five-piece stripped down to three. “It’s been a little easier with less cooks in the kitchen,” Schwartz acknowledges. “It’s easy to have someone be like, ‘This is a bad idea’, or ‘This is a good idea’, without going too far down a fucking rabbit hole, and then you end up with a huge project and you have to just keep stripping away parts. Which is kind of how every Spirit song is anyway. But it’s a lot easier now to decide what works and doesn’t.”
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The other big change in how they worked was a universal and catastrophic one, since this was early 2020, and they found themselves for the first time embarking on making a record remotely. Schwartz and Ravede, who live together, recorded from their apartment and emailed files back and forth with Wichlin, who worked from the basement of his house. You wouldn’t know from hearing it that it was made from a distance, though you wouldn’t necessarily assume they were in the same room either; the physical element of making this record feels a good few steps away from what we end up hearing, since parts are so often torn apart and modified and sewn back together different like a glorious Frankenstein’s monster anyway.
It was the first time they had self-engineered, produced and mixed too, which, paired with the lack of time constraints, left the already-experimental band with the most room to experiment they had ever had. They hadn’t planned to make their most extreme and intense album yet, but it was what they ended up with. “I never know what’s gonna happen. I have no idea what these fucking records are gonna sound like,” says Schwartz. “Once this one was done, I was just like, ‘Oh, shit.’ It was just kinda bizarre; I was kind of incredulous, I guess. I was like, ‘I don’t know how this happened, but it’s definitely a record.’”
Their experimentation extended beyond the writing and recording process; the record was constantly evolving in every phase of creation, with songs changing entirely between production and mixing. “This is the first band that I’ve been in where the mixing process is not just making sure that everything fits well, it’s still part of the production of the song,” says Wichlin. “The song is not the song until mixing’s done, even structurally.” “It’s not even done until mastering is done,” Schwartz interjects.
“These songs probably had so many more elements than what ended up being on the record, ‘cause you can just try a million things and figure out what works,” Schwartz adds. “And I’m sure they could have been even weirder, but we pared it down towards the end.” “That’s true,” says Ravede. “Sometimes you’ll go so intense with layering different things - like, when we were doing the mix notes, they were both doing very technical stuff about the sound, and I said, ‘This sounds like - it makes me sick’.” She laughs. “It’s like in Silicon Valley, when they make that incredible platform, and they’re like, ‘Did you show this to any normal people, or…?’”
“In the end, it all comes down to if Rivka thinks it’s cool or not,” says Schwartz, to a laugh from Ravede.
“I think that we work well together because none of us are super precious about things,” says Wichlin. “It’s not like someone writes a part or wants to add something, and then if everyone else says no they’re gonna get offended; we’re all aware of serving the greater good of the song or the album.” Ravede adds, “And I think we all respect each other’s tastes, and trust everyone’s instincts. I feel like as this iteration of the band, it’s all pretty symbiotic.”
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From the beginning of the process, Schwartz had the title and thematic arc of ‘ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH’ in mind, based on a thought process that had been spurred by the onset of the pandemic and the departure of two band members. “I was thinking about how it seems like unless you’re constantly putting out content, you’re basically fucked,” he explains. “You gotta keep putting out shit. You gotta maintain some sort of ridiculous work ethic and relevance. And how difficult that is if you wanna try to remain genuine.” The two words and the album itself function as a bleak, cynical distillation and satire of the ultimate role of an artist under capitalism; you live to entertain, and then you die.
Yet musically, the album rejects that ethos by presenting a more challenging experience than simple entertainment. These songs aren’t here to give a listener what they want, let alone expect. Like ‘ENTERTAINMENT’, the opening track, after the opening noise barrage gives way into the song proper; what your ears want to hear is something pleasant, with its gently sung melody and synthesised string accents, but the electronic murmurs beneath breathe a darkness into it. That song leads straight into ‘THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO’, which is recognisable as a sort of dance track, but with an inexplicable and exponentially building unease to it. It sounds like being on the dance floor in Hell. Tracks like ‘GIVE UP YOUR LIFE’ and ‘IT MIGHT TAKE SOME TIME’, meanwhile, play with pitch to create a sensation of “drowning”, as Ravede puts it. To disorient and unnerve seems to be the MO that threads every song together.
The band regard the penultimate track ‘I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK’ as the album’s magnum opus. It’s a close to seven-minute long odyssey that cycles between snarled, frenetic rave-punk, laid-back psychedelic pop, ambient noise and a grand piano rock ending. They envisioned it as their answer to the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’. Schwartz explains, “It’s kinda like the theme of the record - constant performance, required content. And then the idea was that in the middle of the song, this person hears - kinda meta - a song on the radio, and it’s the part that Rivka sings. And then at the end, this person just straight up dies.”
“That one took so long to compose. And my Ableton was crashing every fucking thirty seconds. To pare it down into one project file was almost impossible.”
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Appropriately for a band named after an arthouse film, there’s a cinematic influence across the record. Schwartz cites Taxi Driver as a source of inspiration for the feel of the album; “Grimy, but super pretty.” Synecdoche, New York, meanwhile, is a long-standing reference point for the band; Ravede claims they’ve referenced it on almost every album they’ve made. “They put me onto that movie; I had never seen it,” says Wichlin. “During the process of making this record, that definitely hit me pretty heavily.” Musically, they find it harder to say; Schwartz consciously avoided listening to music during the creative process. But an ‘Inspo’ playlist the band recently posted on Spotify ranges from Charli XCX to Daughters, Oneohtrix Point Never to The Beatles, Sonic Youth to Slayer.
The notion that these tracks were in some sense created with a pop ear seems odd on first listen, but with each play those pop ideas unfurl themselves, becoming clearer the more you get past the bewilderment and form a roadmap of Spirit of the Beehive’s world. This is an album that you have to engage with on its own terms, because your preconceived ideas of how pop music works and why it’s fulfilling aren’t any use here. The uncanny valley of it all, like it’s a dream’s reconstruction of pop music, just makes the record all the more compelling once you make sense of it.
“It’s interesting to see how far you can push something that has a hook or a pop structure in the other direction, and combine it with elements that would not typically fit within a pop song,” Wichlin says. Schwartz explains, “We very rarely repeat parts in a song. I like the idea of dangling something catchy for the listener, and then immediately just being like, ‘Nah, fuck it. That part’s over.’”
“I don’t think we want to make the listener have to do, like, homework,” he continues. “[But] I would hope that the music is something that requires a certain level of attention. I know the general listener might have a shorter attention span these days, but I would hope it’s a rewarding experience, if you listen to it once, twice, or three times.”
Wichlin expands, “It is like world building to me. It’s creating a world and then letting a listener explore it as they will, and putting enough stuff in there that they can come back to that world and find different things each time.”
“Nothing is intentionally weird or experimental,” Schwartz claims. “Or at least, I don’t think we go into any project thinking like, ‘We’ve gotta push some boundaries’.” Ravede says, “We’ve never been trying to be weird or confusing, confounding, whatever. It’s just the direction that Zack goes in when he’s writing songs.” As an explanation for why exactly that is, Schwartz offers, “It’s fun to just be like, ‘How did we do that?'”
In the album’s press release, Ravede paraphrases a quote from the Bee Gees documentary, How You Can Mend A Broken Heart, that resonated with her. “We may not have always connected, but we always stuck around.” Is connection what they’re looking for, I ask? “I think everybody does. That’s what everybody wants,” Ravede answers matter-of-factly. It’s funny, then, that their music is easily interpreted as hostile, like they’re daring you to walk away, like they don’t give a fuck if you can even understand what you’re hearing, let alone like it. But that’s precisely what’s inviting to those who are in the Beehive cult; you have to work to form that connection, and once you do, it’s infinitely rewarding. To their small yet growing band of die-hards, this is a connection born not of simple enjoyment, but total immersion.
“Maybe the music we make is challenging, but I don’t think we could really do it any other way,” says Schwartz. “It would be great if it catches on, I guess. But it’s never gonna be different. It’s always gonna be an experience.”
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'Entertainment, Death' is out now.
Words: Mia Hughes
Photo Credit: Peggy Fioretti
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