Beach Fossils’ New Ambitions

Frontman Dustin Payseur prepares to release his boldest album yet – and he just started his own label, too.

Beach Fossils (Photo by Kohei Kawashima)

Dustin Payseur owes some of his good taste to his older sister.

His very goth older sister, that is. Raised in North Carolina by parents who kept Björk and Pavement on heavy rotation, Payseur, the frontman of New York indie-rock band Beach Fossils, discovered British death-rock and industrial music thanks to his sister. She was not particularly eager to share her expansive collection with him.

“She hated me at the time because she thought she was super-cool and I was the annoying younger brother,” Payseur says from his Brooklyn apartment, having just rolled out of bed. “She never wanted me around. I would have to sneak into her room and steal her tapes and CDs for myself.”

But his sister’s collection was hardly the extent of Payseur’s teenage musical education. He confesses that Korn, Nine Inch Nails, and nu metal were among his first loves. According to Payseur, you can hear it in his first (and unreleased) recordings, which a family friend once compared to Skinny Puppy. He describes them as mostly “distorted drum machines and me screaming,” all recorded in the privacy of his bedroom on a basic, four-track tape recorder.

These days, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine Payseur as a semi-reclusive metal kid who preferred to record alone rather than join his friends’ garage bands. Beach Fossils certainly doesn’t sound like the result of that upbringing, having risen to prominence around 2010 during the heyday of Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks and alongside acts (and labelmates) such as Mac DeMarco and DIIV. (In fact, DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith drummed for Beach Fossils before leaving to devote his energies toward his own band.)

Payseur’s first two albums as Beach Fossils — 2010’s self-titled debut and 2013’s Clash the Truth, both released on Captured Tracks — were reasonably straightforward indie-rock records indebted to shoegaze, Slowdive, and Real Estate. Warbly surf riffs reigned supreme, and the production was just lo-fi enough so as to not alienate DIY purists.

It was hype until it wasn’t. After their sophomore album, Beach Fossils seemed to fade into the background of the movement they had helped put on the map (or at least onto the front page of Pitchfork). Meanwhile, the group’s New York City colleagues continued to release music and dominate the press. DIIV’s 2012 debut Oshin became a landmark record while Zachary Cole Smith’s fraught battle with drug addiction made him a recurring figure across music websites. DeMarco, buoyed by a lovable goofball persona and a fairly steady stream of releases, ascended to indie royalty and the upper rows of festival lineups.

Then, four years after dropping Clash the Truth, Payseur announced that Beach Fossils would indeed return with the release of a third album, Somersault.

“I feel like this record is the record I’ve always wanted to make but didn’t really know how [to] until now,” he says. “I think that’s part of why it took me so long. I spent a lot of my time experimenting, figuring out different textures.”

Freed from the oversight (and required deadlines) of an external label, he created a to-do list that included using a harpsichord and a string section. He enlisted his bandmates — bassist Jack Doyle Young and drummer Tommy Davidson — as songwriting collaborators and charged them with keeping him committed to finishing everything on said checklist. He broke his habit of writing songs by sitting alone with his guitar and forced himself to start writing on drums while Davidson jammed on the keyboard. He hired a string section, found someone to play pedal steel, convinced Cities Aviv’s Gavin Mays to create a spoken-word piece over a track originally intended to be instrumental, produced the record himself, and ended up creating the most varied and interesting Beach Fossils album to date. So far, critics have responded enthusiastically.

It’s not hard to see why. Somersault is an undeniable leap forward even as it returns the band to prominence in and outside of New York, where Payseur has lived for the past nine years. He’s releasing the album on Bayonet Records, the new Brooklyn-based label he co-founded with his wife and former Captured Tracks label manager Katie Garcia. And he’s not stopping there, as he happily reports that the duo is in the process of signing several new artists to their roster. Thus far, they’ve snatched up Frankie Cosmos, the Greta Kline-led outfit known for its heart-twistingly intimate bedroom rock, and Warehouse, a scrappy Atlanta post-punk quintet.

“We’ve got a lot of new artists that we’re in the process of signing right now that I’m pretty excited about,” he says. “That’s everything in the end: You just want to put out things that you love and that you believe in.”

And it seems like Somersault is definitely one of those things.

Beach Fossils
play at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 8, at The Fillmore. $22.50, thefillmoresf.com

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