BECK looks toasted. Under round vintage sunglasses and a broad-brimmed black hat, the cheeks of one of the most inventive, elusive artists of the last quarter-century are sunburnt. Los Angeles is on fire. The resulting chaos has resulted in him running an hour late to the Capitol Records tower, the circular icon that sits off Hollywood Boulevard like a 13-storey stack of records, rammed through a spindle that protrudes a further 27 metres above.
In the early 1970s, the artist born Bek David Campbell spent his first years only a few blocks from here. Downstairs, in the foyer, there’s a coffee-table history of the building, for which he wrote the foreword. “As a kid, whenever we were returning from some far-flung part of the city in the back of a gas guzzler on a hot smoggy day, I can remember the Capitol Records building always signified that we were almost home,” he writes. Now he’s back.
He’s still boyish at 49, sun-kissed blond hair curling out from under his hat, but looks slightly frail after four months straight of travel. His backside doesn’t quite fill out his black ankle-cut trousers. His handshake is gentle. He says it’s a miracle he woke up at all today, because “today was that day where I was like, OK, I could just sleep for a week,” after flying in from New Orleans. By his own estimation, he hasn’t had a break since 2012.
When Beck’s first single, Loser, appeared in 1993 on a start-up independent label called Bong Load (initially in a custom pressing of just 500 copies, before it took off), he found himself typecast as the epitome of slacker rock: a loose appellation for self-deprecating Generation X indolence celebrated in films like Clerks and Reality Bites. “Slacker my ass,” he snarled to Rolling Stone a year later. “I never had any slack.”
It’s closer to the truth to say Beck is more like a shark who can’t stop swimming. His new album Hyperspace is his 14th overall, including a handful of pre-major label recordings. In between, there’s been a dizzying array of collaborations, side-projects and productions: with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lady Gaga and Flume, as well as close peers Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
There’s also God knows how much unreleased material – at least some of which was destroyed by a fire that swept through a Universal Studios lot in 2008, a story broken by the New York Times earlier this year. “They still won’t tell me what was lost,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve probably released 10 percent of what I’ve made … I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”
FOR Hyperspace, Beck teamed up with singer and hip-hop impresario Pharrell Williams. The album’s electronic textures are a continuation from its 2017 predecessor Colors, which was about as close as he has ever come to a straight-up pop record. But whereas Colors was as bright as its title suggested, Hyperspace is more subtle and existential: take away the synthetic textures, and it’s easy to imagine the songs played on an acoustic guitar.
That, he says, would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. At heart, Beck is a folkie, as early albums like One Foot In The Grave and later triumphs like Sea Change attest. But he was disinclined to repeat himself. “Doing something like Hyperspace is much more of a challenge, and I’m more on my toes and out of my element in having to think my way out of the box,” he says. “I feel a little guilty if something’s too easy.”
After Loser and the accompanying major-label debut album Mellow Gold, Odelay, released in 1996, proved Beck was no flash in the pan. Sturdy folk-blues songs were cut up, rearranged and overlaid with a magpie-eyed montage of samples, as the singer spilled out surrealist poetry like a postmodern Bob Dylan. Where It’s At, with its refrain “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone”, was a hit and won him his first Grammy.
It remains an album full of joy, wonder and invention, yet impossible to pin down. “I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was maybe 11 or 12, after getting an album and being disappointed, because all the songs sounded exactly the same. I remember saying, somebody should make an record where all the songs are completely different, and he said, no one would buy that record.”
It was a breath of fresh air in a dour indie-rock scene that still regarded him with suspicion. “I remember that the music scene was not very supportive. There was a lot of harshness among bands, among critics. There was a lot of judgement, it was a very cynical, and I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time. So I did feel a little bit like an outsider, in a lot of ways.”
Odelay’s 1998 follow-up Mutations, with its bossa nova, Tropicalia and country inflections, was recorded live in the studio as Beck continued to fend off suggestions he was a novelty act. “It was to show, these are real musicians, real songwriting, it’s not tricks, it’s not smoke and mirrors”. At the time, he says, “even my label, the reaction from a lot of people around me was, this is experimenting, these aren’t real songs.”
Other, older musicians thought otherwise. Mutations included three tracks originally solicited by Johnny Cash four years earlier, when Beck was just 24. Intimidated, he got cold feet and kept the songs (Sing It Again, Dead Melodies and Canceled Check) to himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they’re terrible, and they would have been better if he’d sung them,” he says. Cash ended up covering one of Beck’s earlier songs, Rowboat, anyway.
Now, Beck recognises he was onto something. “Even though I knew nothing and was just an inexperienced kid, the instincts of youth were strong, and what [I was doing] was maybe an ethos of a time to come … It was this giddy, beautiful moment of discovery, and I would go back maybe and just give that kid permission to just keep going with that, and see where that goes.”
That might suggest Beck self-consciously limited himself. But after Mutations came Midnite Vultures, a garish, playful album of sexed-up R&B, then Sea Change, usually regarded as his best work next to Odelay. Written quickly, it was a luscious, lugubrious piece of introspection following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He’s been flitting somewhere between these two extremes ever since.
Slowly, the rest of the pop world caught up. “A lot of it can sound quite conventional compared to a lot of music now, it’s not outlandish,” he says. “But at the time it was completely outlandish. My thing was, OK, we can have a Jew’s harp, a fuzz guitar and a samba beat all together. And that’s the era we live in now – there’s no rules, there’s nobody minding the store. The more far-fetched the idea, the better.”
BECK was born into art. His father David Campbell is a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger; mother Bibbe Hansen (Beck later took her surname), was one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” in the 1960s. They separated when Beck was 10. Bibbe is Jewish, Campbell a Scientologist, as is Beck’s ex-wife, actor Marissa Ribisi, with whom he has two children, son Cosimo (aged 15) and daughter Tuesday (12).
This has led to persistent speculation and curiosity about Beck’s own beliefs. “I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist. I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for Beck: he filed for divorce from Ribisi in February, and it’s tempting to think that might account for Hyperspace’s more downbeat mood. (The album was named after the arcade game Asteroids, which itself was based on a scene from Star Wars: if your spaceship faced an unavoidable collision, you could escape by hitting the hyperspace button, and end up anywhere on screen.)
But it’s no Sea Change, and it would be a mistake to attribute the source of these songs to his current state of mind. The first song recorded with Pharrell Williams, The Everlasting Nothing, was written seven years ago; they’d been meaning to get back to it ever since, but were consumed by other projects. “It kind of had this elegiac, hymn-like quality but with 808 beats, and it just didn’t seem to fit with what was happening at the time.”
Another song, he says, was written about a friend who overdosed in a motel room two blocks away, over 20 years ago. “For some reason, it came out now. And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”
He says he views the songs on Hyperspace as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences, we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through…” – he pauses and chuckles – “this thing called life, as Prince said.”
Now he’s back in LA, part of him may want to sleep for a week, but “I can actually go into the studio, and that’s very seductive to me. There’s such a finite amount of time, so I’m always 10 steps behind where I’m trying to get to. And we’re in a time, with streaming, where people want more content, so the artists that are really in the eye of the culture are constantly putting out music.
On the cusp of 50, he feels like he’s just getting started. “You hear a song on the radio, even something like [David Bowie and Queen’s song] Under Pressure – it’s such an elaborate and realised piece of work. As a songwriter you go, how did they fit all these things together so seamlessly and it’s so memorable and meaningful? There’s thousands of songs that good … I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.”
And yet, on songs as simultaneously dense and hook-filled as Where It’s At, that’s exactly what Beck has consistently done. These days, it’s an encore song, part of the cultural fabric, and when he performs it, “musically, it’s like you’re in everybody’s living room at that point. Everyone’s relaxed because they’re like, this is home.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 22 November 2019
Things Beck lost in the fire
Beck has given details of his work that he fears may have been lost in a fire which ripped through a Universal Studios lot in 2008.
It is thought that the fire may have destroyed more than 120,000 master tapes recorded by some of the most famous artists of the past century, a story broken by the New York Times magazine earlier this year.
In an interview with this masthead, Beck said his management “still won’t tell me what was lost” after the fire. “I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”
The prolific artist, who says he has released about 10 percent of the music he has recorded, says “there’s a lot there” that could easily have been destroyed.
“Like an album like Sea Change, there are completely different versions of songs and then there’s probably another 10 to 20 songs that aren’t on the record that [were] in progress; things that I thought I would finish later. It wasn’t that they were bad songs, they just didn’t fit the mood of the album,” he said.
“In 2001, I went into Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles] and I recorded 25 Hank Williams songs for a double album, just solo. I wanted to celebrate that influence in my music and explore it, and I don’t have a copy of that; it’s on a master tape, so that’s probably gone.
“I went to Nashville on tour for two days and cut a country album that never got released. I have rock albums I did in the 1990s, before I did Odelay, I went and tried to make an indie-rock album, so there’s an album that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing.
“There’s a [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion album I did in ’95 where I cut about 10 songs with them in New York City that’s never been released. But I don’t know [whether it’s gone], nobody’s telling us anything. We didn’t hear about it until the last year.”
Beck also said that the fire exposed a broader systemic issue: the poor preservation of artists’ recordings generally.
“I have friends who work in archives and they see the tapes for legendary artists from the ’50s just lying there in a cardboard box, not being climate controlled and preserved correctly in an acid-free box,” he said.
“There’s a lot of neglect of masters. It’s a big problem. And guess what, I’ve been in a room where they’ve put on an original Frank Sinatra three-track from the ’50s and it sounds fucking phenomenal, whereas the vinyl version you have sounds tinny, old.
“It doesn’t have a fraction of the information that’s on those tapes. All this stuff should be remixed and remastered and re-released … There’s troves of great music in these archives, treasures that are not being tended to.
“You have artists like the Beatles who get that treatment, where they go and they restore the recordings and remix them, but it’s rare, and it should be happening more … It would be a rebirth for some of these artists who are maybe getting left behind.”
On November 28, Beck responded to this story with a post on Twitter: “I wanted to clarify some out of context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found that my losses in the fire were minimal.
“Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2019; updated 3 December 2019