Hollywood sells fantasy, and with good reason: it’s still technically a part of Los Angeles. As anyone who has been downtown can tell you, the city center is not a pretty place. Though not quite yet a monument to urban decay on the level of Detroit, the metro area proper suffers from a kind of benevolent neglect. The streets remain eerily empty. Sidewalks lie swollen and cracked. And at least based on my futile attempts to navigate, signs would appear to be in short supply.
Fortunately, after some delay, I manage to make it to my destination, an imposing if somewhat dilapidated structure tucked beneath the 7th Street Bridge. One half of the Beautiful & Damned — guitarist Jordan Wiggins and bassist Robert Peirret — are waiting at the door and, after brief introductions, lead me down a seemingly endless series of corridors, shafts, and stairwells. They inform me that this is one of the largest band practice spaces in Los Angeles. I don’t doubt them for a second. Finally, I notice a slightly ajar door toward the end of the hall. This is our stop.
Inside is the rest of the band: drummer Tim Galvin and vocalist & keyboardist Benjamin Baillon. Baillon still seems to be recovering from last night’s gig — somewhat disheveled, friendly but not exactly at ease. The room, despite its spaciousness, seems cozier than the typical practice space. There are plenty of instruments, microphones, and electronic gadgets strewn about, but the two couches and coffee table in the corner give the impression that this room doubles as a second home, a place to crash when sessions run late. The half empty magnum bottle of Shiraz and pack of American Spirits on the table suggest that the last such session was fairly recent.
The relaxed interior space is in striking contrast to what I observe out the window — the buildings and yellowish smog framed by crisscrossing power lines, the trickle of LA river below. Baillon swipes the pack off the table and invites me to take a seat. He coaxes out one cigarette and lights it before settling down on a stool at the far end of the room. The rest of the band finds comfortable spots on the couches.
The Beatiful & Damned have been together for only a year now, but if last night’s show was any indication, they have the confidence of a band already working on their third full-length. At Vertigos, a dance club that tolerates the occasional rock act, the Beautiful & Damned put forth a valiant effort, churning out one euphoric, synth-driven chorus after the next. True, most of the patrons were probably wondering where the band stashed the DJ, but Baillon could have cared less. New wave anthems in waiting like “Coronation” and “You Make Me Feel Pretty” have endowed him with a self-belief that borders on possession, the songs’ surges perfectly in sync with his suggestive gyrations. Unlike many artists at this stage, he is not timid nor, for that matter, in need of validation.
“Before we met each other, I made a demo at my house,” says Baillon, running the cigarette along the rim of the ashtray. “I was in the bathroom at my girlfriend’s house — for the acoustics of course — and ‘[You Make Me Feel] Pretty’ just came to me. Once I finished that, I knew I had to find a band.” He approached Wiggins first, a local guitarist with whom he shared several acquaintances. Wiggins, in turn, asked his friend, Peirret, until then a guitarist, to take on bass duties. Finally, with the addition of Michigan transplant Galvin on drums, the Beautiful & Damned was born.
The time since has been spent building a catalog, logging long hours in their practice space in search of the songs that will ultimately comprise their debut record. Baillon describes the band’s approach to songwriting as “minimalist” at least three separate times over the course of our interview, but that is probably the last word I would use. Each Beautiful & Damned song is writ large, finding grand drama even in the most personal stories. “Hot Hot” is just one such example, turning a rather invidious tale of adolescent temptation into existential crisis. Baillon mirrors the protagonist’s paralyzing indecision by counterbalancing his lyrical specificity with a massive chorus. In this way, the Beautiful & Damned manage to connect broadly, but their process is the reverse of most bands attempting to scale such heights. Whereas groups like U2 and Coldplay succeed by making sweeping statements sound more intimate, the Beautiful & Damned instead prefer to make their personal sagas sound more broadly palatable. “Vivian” is yet another such marvel — a somewhat dour vignette, its regrets masked by Baillon’s sparkling keyboard line.
Although the band took its name from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, it turns out that Baillon draws much of his inspiration from the works of French novelist and playwright Jean Genet. “He wrote about a world of hoodlums, but he saw a lot of beauty in the depravity,” he explains. While Genet wrote his most enduring works in France during the 1940s, Baillon feels his particular worldview is just as applicable to modern-day Los Angeles. “What most people think about [Los Angeles] isn’t really right,” he says. “True, you might go to the Hotel Bel Aire, but in some very real way you feel closest to the trannies and the homeless. We’ve tried to capture that in our songs, but without dragging them down.”
Genet’s central theme, of finding splendor in ugliness, strikes me as applicable not only to the songs, but everything about the Beautiful & Damned, from their shows right down to their choice of practice space. Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence. I’m still mulling this over as we say our goodbyes, which is probably why I forget to ask for directions out of the complex. And before I’ve had a chance to swallow my pride, I’m already lost among the infinite interconnected hallways. Normally, this sort of situation would upset me. But now, not so much.
(The Beautiful & Damned will release a digital EP this summer on Intravenous Records.)