10 Mar 2018

Beck interview: 'Sort of like Michael Jackson meets Sgt. Peppers'

From RNZ Music, 1:20 pm on 10 March 2018

The genre-agnostic Grammy-winning musical chameleon that is Beck sits down for a frank exploration of his humble beginnings and his musical legacy.

Beck Hansen and Alex Behan

Beck Hansen and Alex Behan Photo: Justin Warren

Throughout his musical career, Beck has taken us on journeys.

Genre-bending sonic collages like Odelay, funk-infused party records like Midnite Vultures, finely tuned masterpieces like Sea Change, Mutations and Morning Phase. His records vacillate between ecstasy and grief, and go everywhere in-between.

The journey Bek David Campbell has been on in real life in some ways mirrors those highs and lows.

He grew up in a poor, predominantly Latino neighbourhood in L.A., just off a rapidly changing Hollywood Boulevard. His father – an orchestral arranger and his mother a former Warhol superstar separated when he was ten.

Beck Hansen

Beck Hansen Photo: Supplied

At 16 Beck dropped out of school, bought his first guitar and became interested in blues and folk, particularly Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie Johnson. He used a fake ID to sneak into the Los Angeles City College and use the library, where he would read sheet music and discover records.

In 1989 he packed up and moved to New York and became involved with the anti-folk scene. This handful of experimental artists sought to subvert the earnestness of the politically-charged folk music of the sixties. They liked to observe the perceived music rules within a genre and then deliberately break them, a technique Beck would use throughout his career.

He had various jobs including unloading trucks, working at a video store and – one of his favourite jobs: blowing leaves to keep city streets clean.

His early performances were mostly folk styled tunes, sometimes with deliberately obtuse or trivial lyrics packed dense with cultural references. He would sometimes perform folk songs in a Stormtrooper mask, or beatbox between performers at open mic nights. His whole idea at the time was to destroy old clichés and make up new ones.

And he did.

Over 13 albums Beck has amassed a body of work that has consistently pushed musical boundaries, and he's constantly reinventing himself. He's a musician’s musician. Over 20-plus years he's carved his own path, and earned himself a seat at the table with the great modern songwriters.

He sat down with Alex Behan to discuss his life and career.

Alex Behan: I knew you had a musical father, but I didn't quite realize how musical he was. He's still a working musician and works on some of your albums. And your mother was a visual artist, is that right? Were you always destined to be the artist you are in some ways?

I don't know. It's interesting. I think when I was younger maybe I wanted to be a writer or do something a bit more quiet. But music kind of drew me in ... You know, it's such a different time now because I think ... I was 20 years old now, there'd be a lot more options.

I loved film. I loved art. But I didn't have money for a camera and I didn't have money for art school. But I had $60 for a guitar ... from a thrift store. And I could certainly spend a few hours trying to figure out how to write a song and so that's what I did. It was the thing that was accessible at the time.

And I think now ... if you have a sort of creative direction it's pretty much … all the channels are open.

There is sacrifice involved though. There are parts of your Wikipedia page that read like a Hollywood movie or a Jack Kerouac book. It's like, "At that stage Beck bought his first guitar and moved to New York with nothing but $8 dollars." 

You obviously knew that you could easily dedicate yourself to something. Becoming a musician. Becoming the artist you wanted to be. You weren't afraid of doing those hard years and menial jobs and ...

Yeah, so we grew up ... I grew up, probably let's say below the poverty line, you know whatever that would've been at the time. So-

This is in Los Angeles right?

Yeah, and this is when I was a teenager. We sort of had a modest existence and then as a teenager we hit really hard times. So, there weren't really any options for me except for manual labour. So, you know, (laughs). Going and digging around for jobs. Playing music for free was, you know ... It wasn't like I had these shining opportunities that I was sacrificing (laughs).

I think I had a creative instinct and inner life in that sense and the work that I was doing was incredibly menial ... just kind of working class stuff. Which is great and I was proud that I was able to make a living and survive and all that. But it was hard you know.

Like for instance I remember working in this kind of job in a strip mall. In a shop where you couldn't sit down. There were no chairs. And they would just play this classical rock station every day and it would be the same songs at the same time every day. It was sort of a regimented playlist.

Talk about Groundhog Day, you know. It was just a very repetitive, sort of soul-numbing situation. And you know I'd find myself writing new lyrics to all the classic songs. You know, when they would come on. So it was just whatever that motor was, it was running the whole time.

It's so ironic, isn't it? That when you first sort of leapt to prominence, you were the king of the slackers or whatever it was. There's nothing slack about you. You've worked your ass off all your life and as an artist, as a musician, you've been so consistent and thoroughly inventive.

You talking about the classic rock station there ... I feel like you listen to radio a lot. And you've sort of absorbed a lot of contemporary culture in music and then put that into your art, but is that right? Do you listen to a lot of radio?

I just like music. I like all sorts of music and all different sounds. I have a very wide range of things that I like. When I was younger I used to think maybe that was a weakness, you know that I didn't just pick the things that I liked and sort of dismissed the rest. I have peers who only like Kraftwerk and Can and a few Bowie records and The Pixies and then everything else can just ... Is just (laughs) ... not relevant or is trash, you know?

And for me, I loved pop music. I like experimental music. I like orchestras. I like punk bands. There's great music in all genres in all forms. So, I'm sort of agnostic. I feel like being a solo artist – in the sense that I didn't come up as a band of four or five people together, that I had this incredible liberty to just go where I want. And in a way, you can get lost as well. It's not always a great thing, but it has allowed me to explore and stumble on some things that weren't expected, even to me.

I've heard about you getting lost and making whole albums and then letting go of them because it's not the direction you necessarily wanna go in next.

Sure, yeah.

You can almost talk about two Becks. The Beck that made Mutations and Sea Change and the Beck that made Odelay and Midnite Vultures and on and on like that. And as a consumer it seems like, "Wow, Beck's really happy. Oh, Beck may be going through some difficult times. Oh, Beck's partying again. Oh, Beck's broken up with someone and now I'm crying because of that." But in your mind, those projects are probably happening simultaneously, many of them. I know that Colors – your latest album, you're like, "I’ve been thinking about this for 15 years”. This has been an idea in your head for that long.

Yeah, things gestate for a while.

And so those things are happening concurrently though, aren't they?

Yeah, I think sometimes, you know like a record like Midnite Vultures will come out and people didn't like it at the time. And, so, there was sort of a pushback.

They didn't? Are you saying people didn’t like that record?

Yeah. They didn't like it at the time. So there was a sense of pushback. So, whatever momentum or direction was coming from that record, I think got sort of washed out and so then I went in a totally different direction. I actually had another record that I was working on and abandoned it. I was thinking about doing a record with Timberland at the time who I'd been in the studio with. And then I just went in a totally different direction with Sea Change and abandoned that thread, whatever that thread was.

And so a record like Colors to me is going back to the state of mind – that sort of musical direction that I was coming out of from Midnight Vultures, something like that.

So [sometimes] these records feel like they're just coming out of left field from the previous one. But in a sense, it's almost like picking up a thread that was from 17 years ago (laughs). And the sort of things I had in my head at the time were like, "Oh this is what I like to do." You know, something that sounds like The Police a little bit and then maybe this one's sort of like Michael Jackson meets Sgt. Peppers or, you know what I mean.

So, yeah. In a way when I got together with Greg, the producer of this record. those were the discussions I was having. I felt like at the time I was taking a lot of liberties with my music around the time of Midnight Vultures which came out in 1999.

Yeah. I can't believe people didn't like it.

At the time yeah, no, critics hated it. I remember having long conversations with critics who took umbrage and were upset because they really liked the previous records but they felt like we just ... that I lost the plot.

But, critics man …

But I have to say critics do have an effect ... once you've topped about 30 or 40 of them and they're all saying the same thing. This was a consensus, you know, like, "Well maybe I have lost the plot." Because the follow up to Midnight Vultures was gonna be a much more kind of electronic thing, which is interesting because that's where we really ended up.

Music's almost exclusively electronic. And that's really what I saw as the future at the time. To me it was like a cross between what Aphex Twin was doing, and sort of classic 80's electronic pop and modern Hip Hop. To me that's what it felt like the future was.

And you know a lot of guitar bands came after that and we had Britney Spears and all these other kinds of movements that happened. But I think it’s really interesting now, many years later. We have kind of arrived at that place.

100%. I listened to Odelay last night and I'm like, "This is as batshit crazy now as it was then."

(Laughs) Yeah. That record's still probably weird for people. I don't know if young people really gravitate to that record.

I think some of those Soundcloud rappers coming out now would really like the craziness of the production and the mix of strong guitars and heavy, crazy, hip hop bass drums.

Really? I don't. It was supposed to sound like a mixtape – a mash-up kinda thing, but the mash up thing didn't exist yet. People weren't doing that yet.

Becuse they needed ProTools and that so, Odelay I think is one of the first proper ProTools albums. You know, we recorded it digitally and so the sense of linear time that you had with tape based music was gone. And so we took full advantage of that freedom and made a record that you could only make in that form. Saying, you know, digital music is a new form. It's not better, necessarily than tape based music. It definitely doesn't sound better, but it does open up these other possibilities.

Beck performs at Auckland City Limits.

Beck performs at Auckland City Limits. Photo: Facebook / Beck

So interesting that you you talk about critics possibly having an effect on you.

I think [they] can affect everybody. I mean ask Bob Dylan. I did a Bob Dylan tribute concert, a couple of years ago and he gave this speech that I think is pretty well known. And he spoke a lot about what people had said about his music over the years. He always has followed his own inner compass.

But you do hear these things [that are] negative [to] differing extents. Everyone internalises a bit of it somewhat. I can hear it sometimes with an artist who comes out in this sort of ... innocently pure form. Like, "Here's my first record." And then you hear this sort of shift in the second or third record, which is them processing some of the ... feedback that they're getting.

Now I've seen that with my children. You go to junior high school and somehow the wispy hair has to get cut off (laughs). You know there's this sort of human need to be accepted. To not be a marginalized person, you wanna be somewhat part of what's happening.

In a way it's just a way of the world. Sometimes it's sad because sometimes an artist is coming out with something very personal or new. And maybe it doesn't fit with the previous model. (Laughs) So, you get a little pushback. I think it does affect everybody as you get older you just start to recognize that it's a thing. And hey you know what, sometimes they're right, but sometimes they're not.

(Laughs) And so, you really have to try to listen to yourself.

I just thought I'd ask you a personal question. What is it that keeps you grounded as a human being? What is it that you cherish the most?

Grounding is difficult. I think just living in a modern city is difficult to be grounded, to be living in this time. It's very tough. That's something I grapple with. I think like everybody else. So I had a, I had a great period of time where I was living out of the city for five or six years. And that helped. You know, that just ... grinds things to a halt, slows everything down.

When was that?

I moved out there about eight years ago. But yeah, [staying grounded] is difficult. It's a challenge for everybody. So, I am looking at ways to do that. I think it's trying to pace yourself somewhat. And just stop pressing. Stop, once in a while. One of the problems for me is that there's always five times more that I want or need to do, than there is time. 

Such a slacker.

Yeah (laughs). Well that's a whole other conversation I could talk about that.

It's funny that you take what critics say on board and I know that record executives have been kind of scared of your career too. They weren't sure Colors was a good idea, and yet your audience have stayed with you and trusted you and and those record executives have ended up being wrong hey? (Laughs)

Well you know, it's not gonna be the 20 million selling thing, you know. And that's a different game.

Might win a Grammy though.

Yeah, it might win a Grammy or get a good review or the sort of beauty that I like – carve out different spaces in music. Even if it's not a drastically different place in music. At least one of the things I've seen for myself over the years is finding something that sort of is happening in culture. And then trying to add a few other options.

Because we do tend to go on this circle kind of formulaic thing. And even if it's a really good thing ... when it's The Pixies, Nirvana thing, or if it's The Strokes ... or if it's, modern pop music or trap music and things sort of all fall into this sort of very similar, similar pattern.

If you can go into that space and disrupt a few little things. And say, "Hey look. Wait look. This is a genre and we can vary this up a little bit. We can add some other things. Some other things that we threw out, we can bring back in."

You know I remember in the, in the 90's it felt very provocative or transgressive to [use] a fuzz guitar. You know one of those thin little 60's fuzz guitars in a song. Because at the time guitars were big and loud. It was either punk music or grunge or heavy metal. So, you can add those little things and they're slightly different ways of doing the same thing.

Well, that's what 'WOW' is right? Your tribute to Trap.

Yeah. Which I avoided for years ... You know what's interesting – once something becomes part of the musical vernacular it is seductive to go and join that thing. But at the same time it feels like ... You don't want to just be jumping on some sort of band wagon either.

And the song 'WOW' was something that just came out years after that music was emerging. And it had something slightly off, you know, the fact that there was some element of like an 808 being the trap thing, was, not like the center of what the song is, you know. 

It just happened to add to that sort of unusualness of what was happening. And I think that's the push pull, you know? There is that beauty of engaging with the music of your time. But there's also the danger of it being very dated. And my favorite artists were the ones who were somehow able to be in and out of that at the same time, whether it was the Beatles.

I mean you can listen to a hundred bands from the exact same time as the Beatles, who were working in the same genre and somehow their music has dated and the Beatles' hasn't. Bowie doing disco, you know, he did disco, so did The Stones ... And somehow it's not dated, you know.

And there's certain bands in the 90's where it feels very of the time and then some of it just feels fresh and new. So that's sort of elusive, that place you try to get to musically ... We could talk about the music that I think represents that space ... and it's a short list.

I've been knocking on that door for a long time trying to get in.

You're on the list, trust me.

The thing is you do ten things and they don't work. Or you do 20 or, sometimes 50 and then one does. And it's just sort of like, ritualistic, keeping that sort of faith, trying to find that balance in the music. I will always be a music fan as well.

Like we're playing with Phoenix tonight and we played with them for years. Every tour that we could in France, we would play with them over the years and they'd do a song here, an album there, it's just like they cracked it you know.

But Beck, they speak about the fact that before they recorded their first album you were their main influence. You were their hero.


So, you're on that list, man.

It's so funny because when we were kids they were so cool. You would never have any idea that they even listen to my music. But you know that's one of the great things as you get older ... that we can all just kind of commiserate and support each other and stuff.

(Laughs) thank you so much for your time and your contribution to the world of music and your generosity and artistry.

Yeah man. Yeah, thanks, it was great to talk to you.