Dylan Metrano converses with Geneviève Beaudoin and Luke Kalloch about the past, present, and future of their bands Dead Gowns, Bell Systems, and the Loblolly Boy.
Portlanders Geneviève Beaudoin and Luke Kalloch are Dead Gowns. Dead Gowns is a once-in-a-generation act. Subtle yet powerful, achingly beautiful songs played earnestly. Rooted in musical traditions, yet unique and forward moving, they have been making waves in Maine's music scene for the past two years. Beaudoin and Kalloch also play in the dance-pop band Bell Systems and the country-tinged Loblolly Boy. All three bands have new music in the works. We spoke recently about the roots of all their bands and where they're headed.
Part One: New Spine
Tell me about the origin of Dead Gowns. How did you come to be playing together?
Geneviève Beaudoin: We both moved back to Portland, Maine, around the same time, and connected as friends. We shared a show at Blue, and then we started dating. We're like, "We're not going to do a band AND date. That just sounds like a bad idea." I had a different project that I had started at the same time. Not Dead Gowns.
It was called New Spine. You'll see the connection to the EP. The band couldn't join me on a long weekend tour — they had to dip out after Boston. I asked Luke if he'd want to do the rest of it with me, and he did, and it turned out to be the best. Great travel, great playing. We could be driving for a long time, and it would be perfectly okay.
Luke Kalloch Yeah, it was fun.
So you just fired the rest of the band?
GB No, no, no. I mean…
LK I ended up sitting in for the guitar player with the full band at the end of that tour on a couple of shows. I played with the New Spine group a couple of times.
GB I wanted to go into a more rock vein. We just got the feeling people were going in different directions. Also, New Spine was not working out as a moniker. People were like, "What? New Spine?" I had "Dead Gowns" in my pocket for a while, and thought it was too cool of a moniker. Geneviève Beaudoin is too long and too hard to pronounce. As we saw the New Spine phase go away, it was like, "What if WE did something together? What if we called it Dead Gowns?" So it was just a clear change. But I was attached to the new spine idea and transitioning back to Portland as growth in character.
Where were you coming from?
LK I was in Austin, Texas. I was there for almost ten years.
GB I was in New York City and Brooklyn, off and on for five.
So you said, let's call it Dead Gowns, and let's just have it be the two of you?
GB Yeah, I knew I wanted a rhythm section. Luke recorded, and we found some local players who were willing to come in on this EP, and we recorded it in our friend's fiber shop in East Bayside.
LK The basic tracks we did in our friend Katherine's house, which is this beautiful house out in Falmouth with an amazing wooden room. We just set up and got all the drums and bass and essential tracks off of it. Then we recorded the rest. We were renting out the back room of our friend Casey's business, Port Fiber. When she was closed on Sundays, we'd go into the actual shop — it was essentially a dead room — all of the fiber in there just absorbed everything.
GB I had three roommates in the Parkside neighborhood. You lived underneath a family. There was no way we could get house recordings otherwise. We made do with the space we had.
What's your collaborative process like within the band? How do you write songs?
GB I'm the songwriter in the group, and I bring works with very basic arrangements to the table. I take them to Luke, and he'll sit with it for a few listens, and then we'll start scheming how we could build it up as a fuller band arrangement.
LK Essentially a collaborative arrangement afterward.
So the songs that you bring to Luke already have chords, words, melodies, and Luke's gotta try to find his way in?
GB Yeah, but sometimes Luke saves the song because one part isn't working and he'll just tap into it and be like "That phrase, how do you feel about that?" and we'll kind of go in a new direction.
Do you, at that point, imagine hearing other instruments that you don't play in there?
GB Totally. Early on, there needs to be a lot of ear training on my end to start being able to hear what kind of drum patterns I wanted, and Luke had a background more in that. So I would say for the EP, we definitely brought basic ideas and saw what a drummer and a bass player did, and then, with this album we have been working on, we got a drum machine. Luke plays bass, and I play keys, so we're able to build it up. Our drummer for this record will tell you — he changed things for sure, but I think we were able to realize it to a fuller degree before bringing in players this time.
LK: When we first collaborated, putting drum parts into songs, you were initially just like, "I just don't like cymbals. I don't want any cymbals on any songs."
That's what I say, too.
LK I was like, "Sometimes they're necessary. They can be good. I get not having them, but let's try it this way."
That's what Lou Reed said, too. He said, "Cymbals eat guitars."
GB I feel validated!
Is your band's lineup intentionally fluid? Do you like to bring in different players, or are you in search of a fixed lineup?
GB I think it's really easy to call this the fixed lineup, recognizing that not everybody wants to be on tour with a couple. And also it's a lot easier with the DIY touring we've done so far, to just be two people.
As a matter of practicality?
GB Yeah, it's easier to pay your gas, try to break even at the end…
So when you play a show with a drummer, you aren't just like, "I wish we always had a drummer!"?
GB Sometimes I love having a drummer, and I think certain songs, you never quite get there without it, but some songs it's actually quite freeing just to have two different guitar parts and two vocals. And if I want to slow it down, if I want to make this bridge super dramatic, I'm not tied to anything, because Luke's willing to just see how it goes. But that said, especially in Portland, it's been easier and more accessible to have a full band, and the travel is not as hard so that we can pay everyone fairly, and it's been great. And people have come in and out of the band, just lifestyle choices.
LK And there's something about having a different player on certain parts that make the song new in certain ways. It can get a little bit flat at some point. If a new drummer comes in, he or she will throw something in, and you'll be like, "Oh, I didn't hear that before. That's cool!"
I always felt like that with my band Tiger Saw. Bringing in new people often gives new life to the songs and makes me appreciate them in new ways. They never seem to stay the same. New people bring new things to it. That's what I credit with the longevity of my band.
GB Tiger Saw just goes in so many directions; you went from soul to country with this new record.
Right, but that keeps it interesting. I think if I was still playing the same songs with the same people, twenty years in, I can't imagine that it would be that interesting to me. But always having some fresh perspective, fresh instrumentation, and maybe searching for a new sound keeps it fresh. And it's not even the same band — we just call it Tiger Saw, but I could have changed the name any number of times, and it would have felt like a new band.
LK Playing with so many different people makes you a really good listener. You just listen to everything all the time, and when something changes, you can change with it. I like it.
Part Two: True West
I first heard Dead Gowns performing before, and accompanying Sam Shepard's play "True West" at SPACE Gallery in January of 2019. How did you end up collaborating with the theater, and how was the experience?
LK How did we get that gig?
GB Oh, gosh… I played Spencer Albee's "Beatles Night" — a very fruitful experience; a lot of collaborations came out of that one cover night.
What did you sing?
GB I sang "Day Tripper" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko." Sean Mewshaw, who directed "True West," was in the audience with his kid at the family show. We knew each other from the neighborhood, which led him to listen to the Dead Gowns record. I was over, helping his wife Desi out with a project, and he was like, "You have this Americana voice. I'm doing this play. I want live music, what do you say?" It was two weeks before we'd have to show up for rehearsals. I was like, "Wow, we have to compose."
Did you know the play?
GB I knew Sam Shepard's work. I was really interested in theater, and started off going to performing arts college, and was doing a lot of it in New York. I left New York because I didn't want to be a producer and a dramaturg. I wanted to write music. So it was nice to get called back into that world and have a regular gig. It was very dreamy to have a residency where we didn't have to worry about anything other than cues. And Luke excelled. That desert life in Austin, Texas — I think you just understood a lot of the cues.
Did you relate to those brothers in the play?
GB Luke's like the opposite of that masculinity.
LK I've always been interested in film scoring and sound-to-picture kind of stuff. So, whenever it comes to either doing overdubs in film, or film scoring in general, I've always liked doing that and finding the right vibe, and this one just hit on all of my sensibilities for sure. Sean was like, "I want Lucinda Williams meets Tom Waits in the desert." I'm like, "I know exactly what you're talking about."
GB Or even Sam Shepard writes in moments like "Hank Williams would be playing this right now." Or "This is how this song would end." And being partners with this guy, I'm like, "I know a lot about Hank Williams now."
Did you improvise along with the rehearsals?
GB It was kind of like a push-and-pull during the rehearsals to get what we needed.
LK We sat in on two of their rehearsals. They did act one and act two on two different nights, and we sat in. We sat and slightly tempo-mapped each scene. It was like, "Okay, this is what we feel the pulse of this scene is, so we can get a vibe and then talk about what they were feeling in the scene, and how we could incorporate that into the scene changes and make it smooth."
GB And you know, we weren't that innovative. There was a Hank Williams reference, what was that song (sings) "I can settle down and be doing just fine, 'til I hear that train going down the line..."
LK "Ramblin' Man"
GB Yeah. And since Sam Shepard was like, "This song is the play," we were like, "What if we took that and flipped it, and we made that song Lucinda and Tom in the desert? And we made that a polka, and we made variations on a theme…" So the more I remember, the more we weren't that crafty.
LK Finding areas in which to pull back a theme is part of the musical theater genre. But in act two, getting messy with it was super fun.
Did the experience of playing music for the play affect your songwriting at all?
GB I'm not sure it affected the songwriting, but it definitely moved some songs along that wouldn't have come together had we not been playing five nights three weeks straight. It was like, "Guys, I'm going to do this song solo," and then Ivan (Drangus) would say, "I think I can play a beat to that."
Part Three: New Gowns
Tell me about the recording of your new album.
GB It was in Stonington, Maine, on Deer Isle. I've been going up to Stonington with my family since I was two, and just really loved going there. We've done some demo work up there at my folks' house. And there's this church. They typically only do chamber classical summer concerts in it, and I was like, "Couldn't we just go in for a few days in the winter and record?" And they did.
LK We also played there a couple of times. Every time we played there, we were like, "Oh, this is great!" The vocals sound really cool. It just had the right resonance for what we were doing, so we figured the vibe would be right to go up there if they let us. And they did, since it was the end of January, and no one's in there. "The heat may or may not work, but go have at it!"
What was it like playing with bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Peter McLaughlin?
GB It was really fun. We'd known them and been friends in the community for a year or two. But seeing them play with Little Wings, and seeing the two of them interact, and their chemistry as a rhythm section. We had a buddy in the audience that night who was across the room, and he was texting, "They should be the Dead Gowns rhythm section for your new record." And I was like, "They would never say yes." And they did. They said yes.
LK As we were leaving that night, Nat was like, "Hey, if you ever need anyone to play bass for you, let us know."
GB Those two things made it feel like we could ask. I work with Peter at SPACE, so Peter was the last one to be asked, and he said yes.
So you brought Peter drum machine rhythms?
LK Yeah, pretty much.
GB Yeah, so we played those demos for him, and there were a few songs where I actually like the drum machine, and the drum machine is going to stay for half of the song.
LK We had three or four rehearsals with them before we went up to Stonington to record. We just worked it all out on the songs, which was, at moments, frustrating, but for the most part, they got it. They were just like, "Oh, yeah."
GB They're incredible players.
They're good dudes. Do you expect to play with them again?
GB Do we expect to play with anybody?!
Do you expect to play again?
Provided you do play shows.
GB Oh my God… I think we were all like really digging the vibe. Again, I think we're looking at it like we're fixed, we are Dead Gowns, and whoever can play can play, and if they can't, the moment gets to be. It was a little crushing that there was going to be a few festivals — "Oh, Nat's going to play solo; Peter's going to play with this band. We got asked. Why not get to play all together? But that all came crashing like a wave.
Do you feel like a different band since you recorded "New Spine"?
GB and LK Yeah.
LK Between the two of us, we've had a lot of maturing moments in how we communicate with the music, especially when it comes to recording. We've had some moments where we're just pulling our hair out. "I just don't know what the other person wants!" And then we eventually get through, and it works out really well, because I've got an audio engineer's brain, so sometimes it can be very straightforward. "This is what it is, and this is what I hear," and Geneviève will come out with something totally outside of what I would be thinking, and it's like, "Oh, that's cool!" And it will be an awesome sound or a great idea that would've never come to me. I think it's embracing, breaking down both of our strengths and weaknesses, and what we can do in the songs. She's bringing in the songs and maturing with all of those, because every new song she brings in is like, "Yes, this one! Yes, this one!" I hear so much going on.
GB You're biased. You live with me. I guess the EP feels like it was on the heels of other projects. There was that duo that I was a part of called Mizuna, then the New Spine era. There was a lot of figuring out what it was. And with this record, there has been even more time now. In COVID, "Oh, I didn't even realize that this was the theme of the record, but I just wrote this new song which HAS to go on it because it relates to these songs like this, and now it's a full picture."
So you're going to keep working it?
GB Yeah, there are a few more songs. There's a lot of work to be done still. It would probably be good to not only have that ready but maybe have the next thing ready.
Part Four: Bell Systems
How did Bell Systems come to be?
GB It was somewhat born from that Beatles night. Spencer and I knew each other, but after getting to play Beatles Night and getting to bond, Spencer then asked if I’d want to come in and try some songwriting, and one song leads to another, and then we were like “What if we started a dance-pop band?”
How many songs do you have?
GB The record’s done. Not every song that we recorded made the cut of what we would like the record to be, but there are roughly ten to twelve songs. Alex Millan, who’s the newest player to Bell Systems, came on a week before our last show. So there are a few songs off the record that we haven’t tried to play together yet. We weren’t sure if it would be a bedroom project — just recording it and putting it out. Then we got offered New Year’s Eve at the State Theatre, and we were like, “We’ve got to put a band together!” We’re not going to say no. Spencer brought Andrew from his band. I brought Luke. We all had great chemistry. Then we realized we needed some more vocal harmonies- the album is full of them. So Alex Millan, who played bass on the “New Spine” EP with us, and is a good friend, came on. And that’s how Bell Systems formed.
Bell Systems has played Dead Gowns songs, and Dead Gowns has played Bells Systems songs.
LK Yeah, playing the Bell Systems song as a duo, it definitely can convert very easily to a Dead Gowns style.
It’s a cover. You’re covering a song that you wrote.
GB But those songs are also so personal. “Saint Endo” is so deeply personal. Is it a cover?
It’s your song, and you can play it with whoever.
GB Yeah. It’s fun to see it in new ways, like with “Splits” — to have a drummer like Andrew Hodgkins play on it. It’s just totally different energy than the last set up of Dead Gowns that played “Splits.” Or Spencer is such a great keys player — what can he imagine on top of it?
GB I feel pretty lucky.
Part Five: The Loblolly Boy
What’s the status of Luke’s lovely long-awaited last Loblolly Boy LP?
LK It’s almost done. I just need to get her backing vocals on it.
GB We’re doing that this weekend.
LK Then I have to mix it, and I’ll be done with it.
So you intend to release a final Loblolly Boy record, and then put it in the grave?
LK Pretty much.
Are you not going to play these new songs anymore, or are you just going to change your name?
LK I’ll probably still play the songs, but I intend not to play any shows until I have a new batch of songs, because I’ve felt that this Loblolly Boy project has possibly stunted my songwriting. For some reason, emotionally, I can’t write, so I told all the old band members in Texas that I’m gonna put it out, and that’s gonna be it.
Are any of those guys on this record?
LK Yep. We went to a friend’s wedding two and a half years ago. I took a week off work, went to the wedding, and recorded a record. We knocked it out because they’re awesome.
So you’ve been sitting on it for a while.
GB Oh yes, he has.
LK I’ve been procrastinating real bad. After the basic tracks were done, I sat for a year, not doing anything. Then I recorded all of my guitar parts, then sat for another year on it, and then COVID happened. Then I got to start filling it out.
We were going to play the release show together.
LK Exactly. Once that got canceled, I got really lazy. I was like, “I’m not going to record the vocals!”
GB That would’ve been an epic country night, can you picture it?
I hope that it will still happen.
GB He’ll delay it further so that it can’t happen.
What’s that record called?
LK I’m flip-flopping between a bunch of names: “Songs to Not Care About”; “It All Turns to Ash,” and there was something about “Dad” in one of them.
GB Dad’s the album cover.
LK Dad is the album cover.
A picture of your dad?
GB No, Dad the dog.
Part Six: Portland
Do you feel like you are a part of a Portland music scene? Where do you feel like you fit in?
GB I think we do feel like a part of a community, but COVID, at least for me, points out all the ways I didn’t invest. There were so many shows I kept saying I would go to, and I kept pushing it off, and I’m just not sure when I’ll see those artists again, and I think I took it for granted. I took all the venues in our small city for granted. Just the flexibility to go from show to show and catch people. I regret that, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to do that.
LK Where to show up, and can show up. That’s the new mantra. You can definitely feel like you are part of something because you know all the people that are making music.
GB I still can’t shake the feeling that there were so many good shows at Sun Tiki that I admired from afar, and even at SPACE — I work at SPACE — so many great bills, and now people are moving away, because of this pandemic. Everyone is realigning.
LK In Portland in this day and age, there’s isn’t as much of the house show and basement show scene that there used to be, and I feel like the Apohadion, and Sun Tiki has kind of filled that gap, which is really great.
What other bands do you find inspirational?
GB The last show we should have played as Dead Gowns, before this, was joining JanaeSound’s residency at Candy’s. I’m a big fan of Janae’s music. I was bummed to miss that opportunity. Just Milk is Tara Rook’s synth project. I’m a big fan of Kafari. Max Garcia Conover. Emma Ivy. Just Plain Jones is incredible. Mehetable is Jerusha (Neely)’s solo project. Caroline Cotter is a good friend. All of these artists work really hard. Angelica Fahray is also a talent that is blowing me away in the local scene. And I’ve got a big soft spot for Wildflower. Luke used to play in that band. They’re great soft rock guys.
LK Yeah, Southern California soft rock. From Peaks Island, Maine.
Outside of music, what moves you? And do you create in other media?
LK I enjoy video editing and stuff like that. Anything that is mechanical and has to do with my hands, like bikes. I like working on bikes. Building wheels. Anything that I can see the movement of it, and trace it through. Make adjustments. I like that kind of stuff. That makes me happy when I can just focus on something and really dig into it.
GB And I cathartically dabble in some other things. I really like to write. A lot of songs actually start out without a melody line. Or I grab lines from poems when I can’t finish a song. Those are nice symbiotic practices.
How have you been coping during the pandemic? Have you been creative or productive during the lockdown?
GB: We’re lucky to not have been in bad health and have not lost anyone close to us, but I did not feel creative for a long time. I was very lucky to be employed, but I actually was, between all my little gigs, over-employed, and coping with a pandemic while working close to 60 hours a week was really difficult for my mental health. But that slowed down, and with that calm, I may have created some of the best songs I’ve written.
LK I haven’t felt particularly creative, per se.
GB But you’ve been very productive.
LK I’ve been very productive. With both of us working on projects that have been on the back-burner and getting all the stuff around the house down. I was going some landscaping for the landlord. That was creative, I built a little garden.
GB But Rad Plaid doesn’t want to hear about that! You’ve got your basic tracks, you’ve got your guitars! But all the work you’ve put into your record. I’ll brag about it. You were so diligent. Showing up at your studio… keys part after keys part, baritone guitar after baritone guitar part, vocals…
LK Yeah, it was nice to get into a groove. There are some days you just wish you could do it every single day. Just sit down and make it work.
What’s next? I assume the pandemic has delayed the new album’s release. Do you intend to stay busy as Dead Gowns, or are you focusing on other things for a bit?
GB I keep trying to plan out different scenarios. What’s next? There was a lot to be excited for, and a shift was happening no matter what, I guess I was just sensing a more positive shift before the outbreak, so this is just putting it into perspective. I really don’t know what’s going to happen next. These new songs relate to the old songs, so this album is taking longer, and that’s okay. More songs are going to be created. And there’s time. More Bell Systems songs are going to be created. The Loblolly Boy record’s going to take us by storm.
Would we hear any of your Loblolly Boy songs in Dead Gowns?
LK No. That’s one of the main lines we drew when we first started playing together. Your songs are going to be your songs, my songs are going to be my songs. You’re the front and center of this band, and I don’t want to change that. There’s no reason for me to get in the way.
But you could play shows, and Geneviève might back you up, Luke?
GB Oh yeah. I play in the Loblolly Boy. But you know, there’s one song in particular that I would love for us to cover as Dead Gowns. I actually got in a car accident because I was singing that song.
LK Which song?
GB I was singing “Relief,” and I blew a stop sign. He’s got this burner of a ballad, and I was just humming it, envisioning a cover of it, and then I got in a car accident.
So Dead Gowns could cover the song, but that means Geneviève would sing it?
GB If Luke was open to it.
Listen to Dead Gowns at Bandcamp.
Listen to Bell Systems on Spotify.
Listen to the Loblolly Boy at Bandcamp.