Beat Connection counters pop perfection with incisive intellect.
I heard the best new music of 2015 inside a rundown former roadside motel not far from the Space Needle.
The members of Beat Connection had invited me to preview their second album as a one-time, in-person deal—listen all the way through and then wait until it’s officially released this summer. They bring me to their rehearsal space, a spacious and surprisingly well-appointed room in a graffitied complex abutting Highway 99 near Seattle Center. I sit in an office chair while Reed Juenger, Beat Connection’s primary creative force, cues up his Macbook, which is hooked into a pair of powerful studio monitors, and hits play.
Forty-some minutes of euphoria: swirling and breezy, casually upbeat, meticulously balanced between dense arrangement and loose composition, strong vocals shifting from somber soul to keening cry. Au courant but original, dance-floor propulsive but friendly. As ambitious as any indie-electro on KEXP, as accessible as any Top 40 on KISS 106.1, and apropos of both. There’s no Seattle touchstone for this stuff. Instead Mark Ronson—voracious student of music, skilled stylistic dilettante and bona-fide hitmaker—comes to mind.
“This is really smart, fun pop music,” I say.
“That’s what we were going for,” Juenger replies. “Glad we pulled it off.”
He speaks with a solemn face and the inflection of a newsreader. This is his de-facto expression, that of a serious young professional, recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in digital art and experimental media, aware of his own intelligence, unafraid to expose it, committed to a rigorous approach to a playful pastime. Perfecting pop music is a quixotic mission. Juenger is well-suited for it.
“I don’t have any interest in being involved in anything mediocre,” he says before the listening session, as Juenger, drummer Jarred Katz, bassist Mark Hunter and singer Tom Eddy sit around a tiny table at Caffe Vita in Queen Anne. “That’s maybe a ridiculous thing to say, but I’m not gonna fuck with it if it’s not gonna be the best it can be. So that’s why it’s taken us so long and why it was so life-or-death and why we had to be so committed to it.”
Beat Connection has endured a slew of lineup changes since it began five years ago with Juenger and a friend no longer in the band. It weathered the chillwave trend, come and gone over the course of 2009, and its association with beachy vibes and dreamy nostalgia. The band members have slogged away at day jobs to ensure themselves time to write, rehearse, record and tour. Modest sacrifices, yes, but also hard work in service to a project with genuine mainstream potential.
Eddy’s expanded role, from guest vocalist to full-time member, was the tipping point. With him on board the band moved on from introspective electronica toward extroverted dance-pop. They continue to walk that line, which is part of their appeal.
“I get a little self-conscious when I get in the moment and, like, try to be the rock guy, which I think is an important attribute to have in a live group because it resonates with people when you’re that dude,” Eddy says. “But we’re aware that our music comes from a place which does not require that sort of hero figure. It’s more of a collective-type situation.”
For his part, Eddy is a compelling frontman whose fashion-model cheekbones and square jaw belie real-deal pipes and witty, observant lyricism—an all-American Chris Martin, maybe, without the pretension. Where Ronson and other producer-auteurs cast their rock star lead singers on a song-by-song basis, Beat Connection’s is in-house.
Katz came on board around the same time as Eddy, after the three of them had been living together in a house in the University District. Hunter, a friend of Katz’s from the UW jazz studies program who officially joined last year, was the final puzzle piece. Since then, Beat Connection has released three impeccable singles, starting with the sinuous, funky “Hesitation” last May, which was easily one of the best songs of the year. All three are on the upcoming album, Product 3. The business-savvy Juenger refuses to divulge the LA-based indie label it’s coming out on, or a specific date (“July. Maybe August.”) until the ink on the contracts is dry.
“I remember feeling a stigma against ambition when we started out,” Juenger says. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, we just started a band and that’s what’s happening’,” he says in a blasé affect. “But now we couldn’t be further away from unambitious.”
Juenger’s purposefulness extends to the album artwork and promo materials that he designs with sleek, urban-sophisticate imagery and photography. And it extends to the stark philosophy lurking behind the music’s gleaming pop exterior.
“We call it Industrial Condo Sadness,” he says. “It has to do with those nice, well-lit condos that are probably pretty fucking tight. But there’s a price you pay to be in them that involves working at Amazon or, I don’t know, denying other people access to basic human rights so that you can have a nice condo.”
It’s a devastating duality reflective of Seattle in its current moment of transition. Eddy’s lyrics on the new album, love songs hung up on the technology-induced gap between perception and reality, take on the same depth. But will a mainstream pop audience get it?
“I don’t think you’re supposed to,” Juenger says. “You’re supposed to casually be in the nice apartment and be like, ‘Look at this Ikea furniture! We have a really nice fluffy dog! This is tight!’”
“Pop music is the blinder in front of your eyes in a lot of ways,” he continues. “But we think about those things. And honestly, that’s not something you should be satirical about. It’s like, how do we deal with these realizations as people who make pop music, and find joy in it, and find that it’s something people want to hear? How can we bring a little bit of awareness to that? Pop music, that’s a good start. And we need to set ourselves up to do more.”