Beach Fossils may take their time between records, but they always seem to arrive at just the right time. Out this Friday, Bunny is their first studio album since 2017’s lush, revitalizing Somersault, though in 2021 the Brooklyn band released The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads, which saw frontman Dustin Payseur reimagining tracks from across their catalog as jazz piano ballads. We’re a few weeks away from the official first day of summer, but in many places the markers of the season are already making themselves clear and abundant; Bunny has that feeling of both endlessly reaching toward and basking in the warmth of a familiar sun, evoking a hazy nostalgia while distancing itself from the naivety of youth: “I’ll be your contender/ If we can live forever/ Caught in this landslide/ Are we gonna be running till the end of our lives?” Payseur sings on ‘Dare Me’. The singer and guitarist, who recorded and produced the album himself, tackles perennial themes like longing, friendship, and depression, but his perspective feels fresh as he surveys the changes in his life; the music, retaining elements from every Beach Fossils record since 2011’s What a Pleasure EP, is at once sunny and wistful, but also more hook-focused and subtly psychedelic. It might be the exact soundtrack you’re looking for.
We caught up with Dustin Payseur to talk about some of the inspirations behind Bunny, including Chet Baker, Los Angeles, parenthood, the combination of coffee and Ativan, and more.
I know your love of Chet Baker was part of what inspired your last LP, The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads. How did he inform your approach to this album?
Chet Baker is kind of a constant for me when I’m listening to music. It’s something that I put on almost every day, at dinner or when I’m just winding down at the end of the night. It’s always perfect, and it’s something that I never get tired of. One thing that I really love about his singing is that, so many crooners from that era really try to belt it out and showcase the voice almost like it’s like an Olympic experience, and I think Chet Baker was always someone who sang in a way that was very understated. He wasn’t trying to blow you away with technical ability, although he did have it. But he held back, and he rarely used vibrato with his voice. I think I do a very similar approach with my music. Technically, I’m capable of more than what goes on the Beach Fossils records, but I like to keep it very simple and minimal and scale it back. The word “understated” is something that I always keep in mind when I’m working on music, and I find Chet Baker to be a constant source of inspiration.
Is there a balance that you’re conscious of between achieving that understated quality and making sure the music is expressive?
I find that it’s actually harder to make something that is scaled down and more understated, because I think the approach to an instrument is to showcase your technical ability. You see that with a lot of musicians, they just are so eager to to show off what they can do, even when they’re not in front of an audience. I’ve been in the practice space with certain people who just can’t stop playing, and we can’t talk because someone’s always trying out something. I’m like, “I get it. Can we pull this back a little bit?” I think less is more, and the more you can scale it back, the more human it is, the more approachable it is. Things don’t have to be so complicated. I don’t listen to music for technical ability at all. That kind of music that’s very noodly and shredding turns me off almost immediately. I would much rather listen to Daniel Johnston or something.
Gregg Araki’s 1993 film Totally F***ed Up
I love Greg Araki, and I think my initial introduction was The Doom Generation, which I saw many years ago and I’ve watched so many times. I think he does incredible work with a very bizarre, kind of nihilistic coming-of-age movie. It’s like a wandering sense of youth in America, what that means and where your place is as a person who’s trying to find their way, and also as a queer person, in a world where you feel like an outsider. He showcases a lot of violence in his movies as well – sometimes in comedic ways, and sometimes in ways that are very serious and real and human. He’s been able to do something with his films that transcends film, in a way, and also transcends eras and generations. The way that he uses music in his films is also so great. The soundtrack for Totally F***ed Up is amazing, because it’s half beautiful, melancholy shoegaze, and the other half is just really harsh industrial music, and those are the only two types of music in the movie. That kind of raw energy of extremes – extreme calm and extreme ferociousness – I love that so much. It’s a movie I’ve watched many times and have been inspired by when we were working on the first couple music videos [for Bunny]. He’s somebody who I would love to work with potentially at some point, if any opportunity ever came up.
My first introduction to LA was being on tour. Starting in New York, by the time we got to LA, I was always in a very existential, kind of nihilistic state of mind, where we were halfway through the tour and I was usually pretty burnt out and exhausted. We would come to LA, play the show, leave the next day, and I never really got much time there. A few years ago, there was a mass exodus from New York to LA, where most of my friends left New York and went to LA. I was like, “Why the fuck are people going out there?” When we worked on Somersault, we went out to LA for about a month to work with Jonathan Rado at his home studio, and while we were spending time out there, it all clicked. I was like, I get why everyone came out here, it’s amazing. You can go hiking within the city limits, the weather is perfect all the time, you can go to the beach. There’s so much about it that that I immediately found stunning that I’d never seen before, and I kind of fell in love with LA.
For years, I was thinking seriously if I should move out there, because I felt worn down and exhausted by New York and needed a change of scenery. I think I was feeling the same things that all my friends were feeling when they went out there. But luckily, it’s a place that I’ve gone a lot, working on music and music videos and playing shows. We find ourselves out there a lot as a band, and I feel like it’s my second home. I’ve already been out there like six times this year, spending a good amount of time because our drummer Anton [Hochheim] lives out there. Whenever I get in the car from the airport and start going through the city, I immediately feel relaxed. Even if it’s a work trip, it ends up feeling like a vacation. Now that I have so many friends out there, it’s beautiful because I just get to see all these people that I love. It’s a place that has been very inspiring for us as a band and as individuals, and I think a lot of that has come through in the music. We spend a lot of time jamming or coming up with ideas out there, and I mixed the album out there. I feel like when I’m in LA, I can’t help but to be inspired in a major way, and in a way that previously New York had only inspired me. I was visualizing a lot of LA while I was working on the music and the lyrics for this album.
Coffee and Ativan
This ties into ‘Anything is Anything’, which begins with the line, “Coffee and ativan/ My thrills are getting cheap.”
A while back, I got a prescription for Adderall because I have ADHD, and it’s very hard for me to focus, which is potentially part of the reason it takes me six years to put out a new record. I get distracted very easily, and I find it hard to commit to work or commit to actually finishing anything. I took it a few times and completely finished songs, and I was like, “That’s insane. This must be how people normally feel when they can sit down and work.” But I was like, “This is not something that I want to do regularly, because it seems like it could be dangerous or unhealthy.” So I would only use it sparingly. And I found that whenever I was taking it, I was getting the worst headaches that couldn’t go away soon after taking it. So I was like, “I love the way this makes me focus, but I can’t deal with these headaches.”
I’ve never drank coffee before, because it always gave me anxiety. But when I was writing the lyrics – I spent like four weeks writing the lyrics for this record after all the music was done – I was on this crazy schedule where I would pick my daughter up from daycare, put her to bed, and then around 9:00pm, I would start chugging cold brew and writing lyrics, and I would do that until about 8:30am. And then I would go to bed and the cycle would repeat itself. I found that coffee was actually one of the best substances for creativity. I was like, “I can’t believe I never tapped into this before.” It’s something that everyone takes for granted. Everyone drinks it every day, and I’d just done it for the first time.
At the same time I got the Adderall prescription, I also got a prescription for Ativan, which is for anxiety. I was having frequent panic attacks and horrible disassociation, out-of-body experiences because of anxiety and it made me really uncomfortable, so I was given Ativan to help calm those panics. And even having it on me when I would go around would prevent a panic attack, because I felt like I had an eject button at any time where I was safe. The next thing I probably don’t recommend to people – it’s probably not healthy – but I found that the combination of drinking coffee and taking Ativan together was incredible for working on lyrics. I would get focused, but it would take the edge off of any anxiety so I could stay focused and I could feel very natural while I was writing. It kind of became routine for me while I was working on the lyrics for this record. So that’s why the lyrics start off the way they do, because that’s what I was doing when I wrote it.
Did that lead to you taking a different angle with the lyrics, too?
I found that it would help me break through certain walls where maybe I would be guarded. I do believe that at the core every single living human being is an artist if they can just tap into it, and being able to tap into it is something that’s not easy to do. I believe everyone could get there if they really wanted to, but it takes a lot to be honest and to say something that you’re embarrassed of, or to be extremely vulnerable and talk about your fears and your flaws and your mistakes openly in front of an infinite amount of people. That’s something that’s kind of always come natural to me, but I did find that while I was working on the lyrics for this record, it helped pull down those boundaries even more.
You’ve mentioned how the birth of your daughter inspired ‘Run to the Moon’, but it’s not entirely direct or explicit in the lyrics. How did becoming a parent affect that ability to tap into yourself?
I found that becoming a parent impacted me so much more than I expected. When I thought about having a kid, people I know that have kids were like, “It changes you, it changes your perspective, it makes you value certain things more, and it makes you cut out a lot of the excess fat in your life that you don’t need.” And I was like, “Well, I already kind of live that way. I don’t think it’s really going to change me that much.” And I think the first few months or even year of my daughter being born, I didn’t feel like it changed me that much. And then, when I sat and reflected on it and thought about it, I think it really did actually have a major impact on who I am as a person and as an artist.
It’s made me be so much more intentional with my life and the way I go through life, taking better care of myself. It’s also made me empathetic in a new way that I didn’t imagine it could. And it helped me tap into my creativity in a way that was so much quicker than before. Sometimes I would sit down with a guitar or bass, or sit down to write lyrics, and it would take a while for something to come to me. It’s like my energy had shifted somehow, where now these things are coming to me easier and quicker, and I’m not worrying about them. I’m feeling less guarded and more open. I think it’s it’s overall made me a better person, truly.
Did you feel hesitant or protective about bringing that into your songwriting?
Before my daughter was born, when we were expecting her, I was like, I’m not going to write about being a parent at all, because that’s not something that interests me. I’ve never heard someone’s music where they’ve talked about being a parent and felt moved by it or cared at all. It just seems cheap and cliche and frankly boring. And it’s like, my music is autobiographical, it’s essentially a journal, and this is a thing that has changed me so much as a person. It’s changed my perspective and it’s changed my daily life that I found it impossible to not write about. I just had to, so ‘Run to the Moon’ came very naturally. I probably wrote those lyrics quicker than any song on the album.
The Verve and Spiritualized
Why did you gravitate to these two bands in particular around the making of this album?
The Verve album A Storm in Heaven and Spiritualized’s Lazer Guided Melodies, those were maybe the two biggest inspirations on this new record. It was on constant rotation for me. Those are albums that I can never get tired of. I find myself obsessing with certain albums at a time, and really the entire duration of writing this new album, those have been like at the forefront, and when I talked to my bandmates was citing those references. They may come out directly or indirectly in parts of the album, but I find that those are two of the greatest albums of all time, and also criminally underrated. The Verve, obviously their more mainstream radio music has overshadowed that album, and Spiritualized never really broke through to a mainstream audience in the way that I think they should. But those albums are perfect through and through for me. I think anybody who listens to those albums will see that there’s definitely some inspiration on Bunny.
I recorded the first Beach Fossils album and What a Pleasure and at home. And then I started seeing my friends, like DIIV and Wild Nothing and other people like that, going into studios to make albums, and I was like, “Maybe I should go into a studio.” Clash of Truth I recorded at home, but then I re-recorded it in the studio, which is the one that got released, and then we later released the demos because I liked the sound of recording it at home. Then with Somersault, I recorded it entirely at home, and then we went to California and re-recorded it, and then I came back and kind of merged my favorite parts of the sessions. I think it took me a long time to reconnect with this confidence that I had that I can do it myself and I don’t need anybody else to work on this with me. I’m very controlling with my vision, I know exactly what I want and I know exactly how to get there, and adding someone else to the mix is only going to complicate things and make it harder to work.
I wanted to upgrade my studio and get better equipment so I had what I needed to make this record sound the way that it deserve to sound, but without going overboard and getting too much gear, because I’m really not a gearhead. There’s a huge world for that, and it’s not really something I want to be a part of. I just wanted to be able to get beat that I needed and trust it once and just be able to use it forever. When I was building my new rack for my studio, I was talking to Mac DeMarco a lot, and he kind of suggested all of the gear that I ended up getting. He suggested the mic that I got, he suggested the the preamp and the compressor and other things like that, and even certain types of recording techniques. He was a very valuable friend to have during that time, and it instilled this confidence in me that I could do it myself.
Once I started recording with this new gear, I was re-recording old songs that were in the works because it just sounded so much better. I have the space that I can work in where I can feel comfortable, and I don’t feel rushed. I can be completely alone – because when you go into a studio, there are people I don’t know around, so that’s hard for me to work. There’s time constraints, and for the most part, I’m just sitting there thinking about how expensive this is. It’s like, you could pay to go to a studio and make an album with someone every time you make an album, or you can just pay that amount once and have the gear yourself. I’m so happy working in this way, and I think there’s no way that this album could be what it is without that.
My bandmates are my best friends in the world. I love them so much. I have a relationship with them that I value as much as the relationship I have with my wife. It’s so close and personal and important to me. We work really well together, we all have the same sense of humor, which is important – keeping the morale up while you’re working and while you’re touring is invaluable. They bring out the best version of myself. They’re indirectly inspiring me and motivating me all the time. I’m constantly just throwing out ideas when I think of them very spontaneously, I just say everything out loud. And because I’m ADHD, I usually forget those ideas after I’ve said them, and they’re good at remembering them. They’re good at bringing it back up in a crucial time when we’re working on something, and it pushes me to work harder and to not be lazy. They’re constantly putting a fire under my ass to be the hardest-working version of myself I can be.
It’s funny because Jack [Doyle Smith] plays bass in the live band, but on the recordings, I write and play all the bass lines and he actually does a lot of the guitar work. He’s one of the best guitarists I know, he comes up with such beautiful, amazing ideas, and the way that he plays is so different than the way that I play. And Tommy [Davidson] is such a fucking freak. I mean, he’s such a weirdo and such an amazing person. He’s the kind of person that when we’re in the studio, he’s throwing out ideas non-stop as well, but his ideas are so much weirder and more avant-garde than anything I would ever think of. For every 100 ideas he throws out, 99 of them I usually say no, and that never makes him feel like he needs to stop throwing it ideas. Because when he throws out the one idea that works and is genius, it’s such a major breakthrough, and it completely changes the way that we’re working. And Anton is such a skilled drummer. I usually program the drums in MIDI first, and then he comes in and I show him the parts, and he’s able to nail it so quickly and put his own flair to it.
When he came to New York to record the drums, I think he recorded like 10 songs the first day, and I had booked four days. So the next day, we knocked out the final songs, and we’re like, “What do we do with the rest of our time?” So we had some creative ideas there, where, on ‘Waterfall’, Jack was playing piano to it in the next room, and I was like, “Let’s track that.” And then we called a string trio, we put them on like three or four songs, very low in the mix. But it’s these kind of ideas that my bandmates really help shape that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I owe a lot of it to them.
It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s also a movie that I can watch over and over and not get sick of it, which you probably see is a theme with certain things on my list that I can indulge in kind of endlessly. It’s a movie, to me, about the flaws of human beings and losing your attachment to your ego and genuinely becoming a better person. In the movie, he goes through all these different changes, where he’s an asshole, and he starts using the repetition of the day to be just completely self-indulgent and nihilistic and self-destructive. At a certain point, he breaks through and starts using it to better himself, and at first some of the ways he’s bettering himself is only because he wants to be seen as impressive or amazing by other people. And then, at a certain point, he becomes so great at so many different things that he ends up just doing it to genuinely help other people and genuinely become a good person and completely selfless.
I love those ideas because there’s always ego attached to what you’re doing, no matter what. It’s like an innate survival instinct. But if you can break through that and just become a good person just for yourself, that’s the most important thing. I’ve always been inspired by the concept of anarchy, and I’m not sure if it’s possible because I think human beings are potentially too greedy. I hate the idea of being governed. I hate the idea of power telling you what to do. I’ve always had struggles with authority figures and the idea of authority, and I feel like the most empowering thing is to be the authority over yourself. If people could find it in themselves to want to be a genuinely good person, just for the sake of being a better person and not for any egotistical reasons, then I think the world would be a much better place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.