Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils Is Here to Stay

Grandlife interviews

Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils Is Here to Stay

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The frontman and primary creative force behind the much-loved NYC band on the long-awaited new record, the power of community, and his relationship with city.

For many New Yorkers that called the city home as the curtain closed on the aughts, the wave of indie-rock that orbited sadly defunct Williamsburg venues like 285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Glasslands Gallery was the defining NYC rock movement of its time. Of the bands that scene birthed, Dustin Payseur’s project, Beach Fossils, emerged as a bright light of the movement—which also included groups like DIIV and coincided with the rise of Brooklyn-based label, Captured Tracks.

Beach Fossils’ early records were dreamy, lo-fi, minimalist guitar-pop affairs. Those first few albums (released by Captured Tracks, naturally) were considered a breath of fresh air and earned Beach Fossils a national following. However, New York City doesn’t simply encourage creatives to grow and evolve—it demands it. For Beach Fossils, the minimalist haze and vague poetry of those early records blossomed into grander compositions, bolder sounds, and more direct, but still poetic lyricism. 

The band’s 2017 LP Somersault was a layered, psychedelia-tinged leap forward that explored the full spectrum of feelings being young in NYC confronts one with—all laid over unexpected sounds like harpsichords, whining pedal steel guitars, and lush strings. Songs like “Down the Line” brilliantly captured the duality of life in this city, and the album was a moment of arrival that delivered on the promise of Payseur’s great potential as a songwriter, composer, and band leader, and also solidified Beach Fossils’ place as one of the most relevant New York City-bred bands of their generation. Somersault was also the first Beach Fossils album released on Bayonet, the label he and wife, record biz A&R lifer Katie Garcia, co-founded. 

After a marathon of tours supporting Somersault, plans for a follow-up record of new songs were repeatedly derailed by the pandemic. Payseur weathered what he describes as “a mass exodus” of friends to LA, released an album of sparse, jazzy piano arrangements of Beach Fossils favorites in ’21, and he and Garcia welcomed their first child—all while keeping their record label afloat. Suffice it to say life has provided Payseur with plenty to write about in the years between records and earlier in June, the band finally shared an LP of new songs called Bunny

Bunny beautifully marries the various sounds his band has explored through its discography, sunny indie-pop, ’70s California country jangle, and a bit of post-punk texture. Lyrically, it’s an album that finds Payseur in a more introspective, yet relatable place than ever as he navigates seeing the city that truly shaped his work and career with a new perspective—through the eyes of a new father. 

As Beach Fossils prepped to leave on a national tour opening for pop superstar Post Malone, GrandLife sat down with Payseur at his favorite neighborhood coffee haunt to chat about his band’s long-awaited new record, the way locality and community once shaped groups like his, and his identity and relationship with New York City as an artist that’s not just been shaped by this place, but is here to stay.

 

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I think it’s fair to say Beach Fossils has joined the ranks of NYC-made artists that truly helped shape the sound of this place for a generation. Have you gotten similar feedback in the years since Somersault came out?

Dustin Payseur: I’ve gotten compliments from friends that I’ve known for years about Beach Fossils becoming one of the important New York bands of the last decade and that kind of thing always surprises me. I take that as one of the greatest compliments I could possibly receive. It’s not something that I set out to achieve at all, but the fact that I’ve been able to come here and have even the smallest amount of cultural impact is beyond meaningful to me. It’s something that I’m extremely grateful for. 

The city has changed immeasurably since those early pre-Vice Williamsburg days. What are some of the positives you still draw on as an artist living in NYC despite that change?

DP: I will say it’s a good thing that the internet has allowed people to live wherever and still break through. I think that’s amazing, but it does kind of feel like there’s a disconnect. Maybe I’m romanticizing the fact that there was a physical scene and a community that I came from. The thing that I felt was so electric when I first came here was crossing paths with so many other people that had felt like they were hitting a dead end elsewhere and moved here because they were ambitious and hungry and wanted something more. It always kept you on your toes and there was a healthy pressure that wasn’t competitive—just inspiring. That said, anything you want is available here 24/7, you have immediate access to the culture of the world in one place, and while it’s tougher to make it happen here than ever before, it’s still a magnet for some of the most amazing and creative people in the world. My friends here are the most genuine people that I’ve ever known and I’m continuing to make new friends at the pace that I was when I was in my twenties. I feel like the city keeps you young in that way and I’m always meeting new artists who work in different mediums and genuine people who are making real art that they believe in, and we’re hanging out because we have a true connection as humans, rather than some weird networky thing that you would find in LA.

I read that you were reading the work of a few important New York poets while writing Bunny, people like Anne Waldman and Frank O’Hara. How did their work impact your writing on this album?

DP: It comes out subconsciously and naturally, and I try to never be too directly inspired by one thing because you don’t want to rip something off—even accidentally. For me, the biggest obstacle is writing lyrics that feel genuine and earnest, but not in a corny way and the best poets are able to do that in a way that seems effortless. Poets aren’t confined by the limitations of songs like rhythm and melody—they can say whatever they want and be as freeform and chaotic as they want and it can be the literary version of free jazz. The whole trick with writing lyrics is not to have it be too flowery because you want it to be something that can connect with anyone; I am a regular person and I have regular feelings, and I just want to say these things in a way that is as simple as possible and can connect with regular people. I think comedians are really brilliant at that as well.

You also can’t be too outwardly intellectual as a comedian and still have a joke hit, and they’re forced to work around rhythm and structure like musicians. I’m a big Mel Brooks fan and he was a drummer when he was young; if you listen to the way he speaks, it’s sort of like how a good jazz drummer plays—with a lot of swing and memorable phrasing.

DP: That’s really interesting! It’s funny because I do think about that. I could never be a comedian—that’s way too intimidating—but I think about the way that comedians are able to craft a joke when I’m writing lyrics because there has to be a punchline of sorts to your lyrics. You can say a lot of shit that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but the right line at the end can tie it all together like a punchline. Being able to do that in a way that is clear and expresses meaning is the real challenge. I guess living in New York City also teaches you to be concise because nobody has patience for you to fuck around and waste their time. You have to be direct here, so I’m direct in my lyrics.

 

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Have you interacted with any of your New York cultural heroes over the years? I know a lot of people have mixed experiences with that kind of thing.

DP: When I first moved here, I was so inspired by the scene that was already happening and we fell into that second wave of 2000s NYC indie-rock, so I quickly started to meet all of the bands that I looked up to. Honestly, they were so welcoming and would put us on shows and really plugged us into the scene. It wasn’t something that I asked for or expected, and I immediately felt like there was a sense of community rather than a sense of competition, which was really refreshing because I came from a smaller town where it was very competitive because there weren’t that many groups. I will say one of my proudest moments ever was when Lou Reed played two Beach Fossils songs on his radio show—I just couldn’t fucking believe it! The Velvet Underground was a massive reason I wanted to move to New York and you can still feel the energy of that band when you come here I think. 

“Run to the Moon” directly calls out the duality of life in New York. Are there any other tracks on Bunny that are key New York tracks for you?

DP: All of them in a way because I’m just writing about my personal experience. My life in New York and my relationship with New York comes through in all of that because it’s the kind of place that makes it impossible to ignore that you live here. There’s just nothing like this place and it’s going to impact the way that you live and if you’re an artist, it’s going to impact the way that you write—even if it’s subconscious.

You’ve seen a few scenes come and go since moving here. Are you optimistic about New York becoming more of a rock ’n’ roll town again?

DP: I am. I feel it coming back and New York is a place where there’s always going to be a new scene. It’s inevitable. There’s never going to be a time when young people don’t want to come to New York City and make new music. The band Been Stellar is a band I absolutely fucking love and they give me a lot of hope and excitement for the younger generation creating great rock music in New York City. They’re connected to a younger scene and they were throwing out names of all these New York bands that are their contemporaries that I’ve never heard of before. It was a moment for me where I felt like maybe I’m just old now. It did make me feel like ‘All right! It’s fucking out there and it’s happening right now!’ 

Now that I’m done with this record, I want to restart my social life. Between like covid lockdown, having a kid, and finishing this record, right now in my life, I can finally start going out again, going to shows again, and fully tapping into New York again. 

Website: beachfossils.com

Instagram: @beachfossilsnyc

WORDS David Von Bader

PHOTOGRAPHY Sinna Nasseri; Hana Mendel 

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