In the time of chimpanzees, he was a monkey. He wore a devil’s haircut, but only in his mind. His dream was to one day defy the logic of all sex laws. When he finally cried some lonesome tears, he realized he didn’t know what they were for.
We know these things because they’re straight from the horse’s mouth of Beck Hansen, the world’s finest blues-quoting, punk-leaning, R&B-biting, funk-loving, pop-locking country balladeer, ever. These are just a few phrases from a whole dictionary of Beckisms, compiled from his ten-year stint as a major label troubadour. To call his lyrics non-sequiturs would be unfair; his imagery is too powerful, his wordplay too deft. But Beck has brought a surrealism to mainstream music not seen since the ‘60s, when Bob Dylan caused “the gray flannel dwarf to scream.”
When we last heard from Beck, he was hawking an album of straight shooting, depressing-as-hell break up songs. Appropriately titled Sea Change, it featured a more personal writing style and irony-free lyrics. Now he’s re-teamed with the Dust Brothers, the happy-go-lucky beat masters behind Beck’s most popular album, Odelay, with hopes of getting some bodies moving again. It’s called Guero (translation: “White Boy”), and it does bring the party. But don’t call it Odelay II.
Instead, it’s a soufflé of styles that nicely blends Beck’s past with his more mature present—the tropicalia he visited on Mutations, the subdued vocals he employed on Sea Change and the signature slide guitar and wheezing harmonica of Mellow Gold—a true Beck mash-up. “It’s a makeshift heart and soul record…with big beats,” explains Beck, 34, calling from his manager’s office in Los Angeles. On the phone, he’s cheerful and polite, if not overly verbose. His accent is California mellow. I ask him about the album’s title, and he kindly corrects my pronunciation, until I get it right (it’s a soft “g,” not a hard one). “Say ‘where-o’,” he suggests, helpfully.
As a songwriter and longtime Beck freak, I’d been looking forward to this moment for quite a while. Let me explain. In college, my best friend Nick and I would sit around with Beck’s albums, amazed that this stuff existed and that you could buy it at K-Mart. What we loved about Beck was that his junkyard aesthetic and cheaply made recordings made it easy to invent romantic personas for him. He was our hero who’d “quit his job blowing leaves” to focus on his art. He was a Woody Guthrie-type mythical figure who lived by his own rules. His early, experimental records, One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathic Soul Manure, sounded like they were recorded on walkie-talkies in a shack somewhere, where empty beer bottles were plentiful and dishes piled in the sink, with a couple of musical friends around who shared the same ethic of sublime spontaneity and goofiness. On Soul Manure, listening to Beck play foot-stomping death blues on harmonica at a party, or marching around his living room playing banjo, was endearing.
Nick and I would later travel to New York City’s Randall’s Island to catch Lollapalooza ’95—yes, we were treated to sets by Pavement, Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth, plus we got to see up Courtney Love’s dress during Hole’s performance. But we’d really only come for one reason: to see Beck do a semi-ironic split in the air in mid-afternoon and alter the lyrics to “Loser” (“I’m a goldfish baby/so why don’t you feed me?”). We weren’t disappointed.
So, it’s an understatement to say that I was excited to interview Beck. In my mind, we’d go to an art opening together, get some fish tacos somewhere and sit down for a long and meaningful conversation about music. But when my editors wouldn’t let me use American Songwriter’s private jet to fly to L.A., I had to settle for a 45-minute phoner.
The first thing Beck wants to do is dispel some rumors. When I mention a few recent articles I’ve read, describing Guero as a return to the sonic playground of Odelay, he asks, bemused, “Who’s saying that? It’s probably people who haven’t heard it. I think they just see that I’m working with the Dust Brothers and assume that. But you can never really re-create the past. It’s probably a bit of old and new, but there’s plenty of new stuff.”
Beck found that his creative synapses with the Dust Brothers were still firing, despite a few years apart. “There’s this intangible thing that happens when we work together,” he says of Mike Simpson and John King, the mad sample scientists who first turned heads with their production work on the Beastie Boys classic Paul’s Boutique. “We speak the same tongue,” Beck contends. The Brothers encouraged Beck to strap on his guitar and rock out, something other producers were loath to do. They also saved him from endless self-editing. “Most of the time, I know what I want to do, or when I’m going in the right direction. But it’s nice to bounce something off of somebody and see whether it’s a stupid idea or not. There’re certain things I would do and I’d say, ‘Oh this is stupid. It’s simple. It’s too cute. It’s trite.’ And they’d say, ‘No, it’s great.’ And so I’d leave it there. It takes two to have a conversation sometimes. Also, they’re just great with beats.”
“E-Pro,” the first single and the first song on the album, makes good use of said beats. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what an E-Pro is. Beck doesn’t either. “I think it meant something at some point, but no one remembers! When we’re working on songs, usually we’re just working on stabs of ideas first, and [the songs] get called things for clerical purposes. Occasionally there’s a fake name that stays.” The song features Beck rapping in a low voice and a carefree “nah nah nah” chorus. But with lyrics like “There’s too much left to taste that’s bitter,” it’s not exactly two turntables and a microphone.
“E-Pro” is followed by the title track, an autobiographical account of growing up in the melting pot of Los Angeles, with a hefty chunk of Spanglish in the lyrics. “It’s a sort of a watercolor, pen and ink drawing, with a little bit of oil stick portrait of where I grew up. I was raised around Spanish-speaking people, billboards and radio stations, so it relates to that. If you go to that neighborhood, you’ll see the song…the popsicle guys, the vendoras, the ladies with the shopping carts, the peeled mangos.” His friend Paulo supplies the voices, whistles and catcalls that can be heard throughout, including a great crack about checking out “the new Yanni cassette.”
In true Beck fashion, the songs on Guero morph constantly, but each musical idea has its origin. Take the song “Rental Car,” which he started fiddling with around the time of 1999’s Midnite Vutures. “The original idea was to take what was happening then—the Korn, Limp Bizkit kind of thing—and try to merge that with Austrian yodeling. Sort of Julie Andrews goes to Fred Durst’s house,” he says. “And then the song eventually morphed into this hand clappin’, summertime-on-the-road song. But there is that little bit when it just goes full metal, and then ends up lederhosen.”
Clearly, a lot of thought and studio time went into the arrangements on Guero. I ask him if he thinks arranging is a part of the songwriting process. “Yeah. They’re all blank canvasses, so you’re looking at a blank page and you have to fill it in with something that’s meaningful to you.” To that end, Beck got back into the habit of playing most of the instruments himself, for the first time since Odelay. “That may explain the haphazard bass playing,” he jokes. “It’s somewhat reminiscent of the bass playing of yore.” He also busied himself with the guitars, keyboards, percussion and “a lot of hand clapping.” “I was into this idea of including more human sounds.” For example? “In the song ‘Scarecrow,’ there’s a haunting, high-pitched sound that goes through the whole thing—that’s me singing through the echo effect. All the percussive type stuff on there is just me yelling through the delay pedal.” He demonstrates, making some weird squawking noises into the phone without a hint of self-consciousness.
“Timbaland [hip-hop producer] does a lot of that too,” he continues. “A lot of his sounds, people are asking where he got them. What synth-module was he using? But he just did it with his mouth. Sometimes you’ll hear something, and it’s easier to do it than to try to find it.”
While there’re good times to be had all over Guero, there’s also a gravity that seems to have carried over from the last record. “Nazarene” examines mortality and fate, and “Farewell Ride” employs the “white horses” of death from blues mythology. In “Missing,” Beck sings a frosty, dislocated melody over dark, acoustic guitars and heavy strings. I ask him about the line “I can’t believe these tears are mine/I’ll give them to you to put away in a box.” Is this a reference to Sea Change, a way to distance himself from its somber lyrics? “I don’t know,” he says quickly. “I think it’s a reference to different things.” How about the image of the scarecrow, which pops up a few times? “It’s just kind of a lone figure that’s in a desolate or empty place.” Ah-hah. “It’s all figurative,” he adds.
Beck isn’t one to discuss personal stuff, which was why he hesitated before releasing Sea Change, inspired by his breakup with longtime girlfriend Leigh Limon. “It was a kind of record that I didn’t feel totally confident about putting out, because I didn’t think that anyone would care about those kinds of things. I didn’t want there to be anything selfish about it.” But keeping it bottled up wasn’t going to work. “The songs were kind of eating away in the background. Sometimes you have to put it down to get to the next thing. You have to get it out of your pocket, off your desk. Let it get outside, and breathe.”
At first, fans found it hard to adjust to his deeper voice and more conventional writing style. Eventually, they came to see its merits, and critics went so far as to compare Sea Change to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. When I ask Beck about this, his answer is typically modest. “Well, there’s only one Blood on the Tracks, you know? I can’t have my own. There’re a lot of dimensions to a record like that. It’s got all these stories and mystery and intrigue. I get a different feeling from Sea Change. I see the songs as being more simplistic, like Hank Williams—how he can wring so much pathos and intense feeling out of really simple songs.”
One of the great things about Beck’s songs is that there are so many of them. “Definitely in the hundreds, multiple hundreds,” he says. A glance at his discography on his official website shows a body of work comparable to Dylan’s or Springsteen’s (You can also have fun with the site’s random lyric generator, which spits out Beckisms like “Dry up above the newfangled wasteland/Laugh at all her skinny fingers in the affliction/Steppin’ under an impotent dream that’s not in”).He writes when he has a spare moment, often a half hour before he goes to sleep. His trademark kaleidoscope imagery comes from not wanting to sound like everybody else in history. “I think with anybody, there’re certain things you’re trying to express, and you try to think of the best way to express them,” he says. “I’m usually looking for a way to do it where it’s not something that’s already been to done to death. There’s certain shopworn imagery that’s really easy to use and gets the job done. But I look for ways to say…probably the same things, but in different ways. I’ll sort of file through my head and see what pops out.” He sometimes writes the lyrics before the music, but swings both ways. “I do both. When I already have a melody in mind, it becomes a more finite situation, where you pick the words that work with the melody. It’s like you’re sticking a backpack on the song, you know? You’ve got to get it so it’s not too heavy and it fits right.
He doesn’t worry about people understanding everything he writes. “Maybe when I started, I thought everyone was gonna figure it out, and it was obvious. I started to realize some people thought I was being obtuse, or I wasn’t saying anything. That’s happened on a few occasions. But I do like that approach where you can take someone to a space, rather than just give them a laundry list of events. Make a bunch of colors and images and pictures and try to transmit an experience that couldn’t really be explained in a situation where it’s a direct, basic line. To convey loneliness, or contentment, you can’t always use traditional storytelling methods. You want words that cut through the basic experience and take you right to where that place is, mentally. That’s what words are for—they’re there to be used. There aren’t any rules.”
Beck’s disregard for convention is in his genes. He grew up poor in a creative household, where thinking for yourself was highly encouraged. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, had been a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in the mid-‘60s, along with Beck’s grandfather, underground artist Al Hansen. Al was an integral part of the Fluxus movement, which seeks to subvert the traditional notions of how art was defined. Beck’s father, David Campbell, is a musician, and has done string arrangements for everyone from Cat Stevens to Stone Temple Pilots.
Beck penned his first song at age 11. “I wrote it on a calculator, a little Casio that had that sort of an electronic doorbell sound.” Asked if he remembers what it was about, he sings a little snatch of it for me, a sort of “Frere Jacques” type number. “Bells are ringing, bells are ringing….bells are ringing. I don’t remember what else!”
When he was a kid, he and his younger brother Channing created their own poetry zine, which they’d xerox and sell in stores. “We were always doing projects,” Beck says. “We discovered the Velvet Underground, Warhol and the Factory, so we were heavily influenced by that for a while. We’d get together to make art, and record music…we had our own little Factory thing going on.” Along with the lyrics of Lou Reed and Sonic Youth, Beck devoured the literary works of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. “A lot of that stuff belonged to another time, but I definitely liked the aesthetic—the beauty of the raw imagery. There was something un-precious about it. It was pretty romantic, but it had this rough-hewn, down-in-the-grave kind of feeling. Born out of experience.”
At 14, Beck dropped out of high school. He worked odd jobs and taught himself to play blues guitar. In 1988, he boarded a Greyhound bus for New York City, where he discovered what he calls “the Lower East Side freak-out folk noise Delta-blues Pussy Galore scene.” In a club called the Chameleon, a bunch of like-minded songwriters, sick of the stuffy, antiquated folk clubs of the West Village, banded under the banner of “Antifolk.” “I was there for a year,” Beck told the L.A. Times. “It was like a crash course that solidified what I was doing, but I had lots of ups and downs.”
“He was mostly doing cover songs then, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and stuff like that,” says Lach, songwriter and founder of the Antifolk movement. “My impression was that he was a sweet kid who was far from home, and that he needed to write songs. I remember telling him, ‘You gotta write,’ and he said something like, ‘Well, what do you write songs about?’ I said ‘whatever you feel, whatever’s going on in front of you. If a weird looking dog walks by, and you’re hungry for pizza, write a song about that. Just make it you.’”
Beck moved back to L.A. a year later, his head buzzing with ideas and new songs. He started playing on any stage that would have him, donning a Storm Trooper mask and setting his guitar on fire. Stereopathic Soul Manure compiles some of that early material, from 1988 to 1994. You haven’t really heard Beck until you’ve heard songs like “Satan Gave Me a Taco.”
“Obviously, I see a lot of humor in those songs,” he says now. “Mainly who I was writing for were friends of mine. They already knew my troubles, so I didn’t feel the need to put thosein songs. I mostly just wrote things that we all thought were funny.”
He tells the story of a rooming house he lived in, where his neighbor, a curmudgeonly old loner, once burst into his room threatening him with a Taser gun. “I’d write a song about that.”
“I probably wouldn’t do things quite the same way now,” he says. “I usually try to scope a little farther and see what’s behind the joke. Some of those songs were kind of half-baked, but that was the intention at the time. The idea was to just spew out things, and see what happens. And I still try to hold to that, to some degree.”
By 1994, Beck had written “Loser,” the song that would land him a contract with Geffen Records and introduce his mug to MTV viewers the world over. “Loser” had the feel of a novelty hit, and most assumed Beck would go the way of all one-hit-wonders. But Mellow Gold reversed that notion, and by the time he dropped Odelay two years later, doubts about his staying power had vanished.
Along the way, Beck has had the chance to meet many of his musical heroes, including Joni Mitchell and Thurston Moore. Johnny Cash even covered his song “Rowboat,” from One Foot in the Grave. Have there been any writing secrets gleaned from these meetings? “No, I wish,” he says. “It’s usually an environment where there’re a lot of people around, and it’s nothing more than a quick conversation, so it’s not really the time or place to talk about songwriting. But I wish it was like that. I wish you could be the apprentice.” He praises Neil Young, who’s become somewhat of a godfather figure for younger musicians. “I met Dylan briefly, too, and I found that they [Young and Dylan] weren’t concerned with being interesting. They were more interested in what you were doing, what was going on with you. It’s a little strange.”
At the time of this interview, Guero has yet to hit stores, but Beck already has his eye on his next album. He wants to record it on his own, and create something “that’s just my own folly.” He pictures it being “chaotic, messy and undisciplined.” He’s optimistic that people will enjoy Guero, but if not, he’ll try again with the next one. “Maybe someone can get some ideas from it and take it someplace better,” he says of Guero, and by his tone you can tell he’s serious. “That’s a big part of music. It’s a big relay race, a big hand-off, sometimes. You take some old ideas and make some new ones.”