BECK: ‘DON’T CALL ME QUIRKY’

August 6, 2009 – 4:26 am

Ever wary of hype, Ben Harrison was initially not taken in by Beck’s Loser when BigO editors enthusiastically played the single to him, hot off the presses. Ben then groaned unappreciatively when he was namechecked and compared to Beck in a BigO review of the latter’s debut album, Mellow Gold. But then, when he actually got to hear more, he recognised a kindred spirit and quickly fell in love with the music, so that by the time 1996 came around, Ben was virtually itching with anticipation for Beck’s new album, tentatively titled Robot Jazz. When Ben’s most eagerly-awaited release of the year - 1996 - arrived (now called Odelay) it didn’t disappoint. With this in mind BigO figured Ben Harrison had the mindset best suited for shooting the breeze with Beck Hansen. This article was published in BigO #128 (August 1996).

On the vast mountain of music there’s a backwater where the gold diggers have set up shop to get rich on whatever nuggets of sound that come along. Mostly, they prospect down by the old mainstream, but every now and then, there’s a flash in the panhandlers’ pot that is something more than the wall-to-wall mediocrity marketed as pop.

When a young Californian troubadour called Beck seemingly came out of nowhere back in ‘94, you could have been forgiven for thinking that he was destined to be a one-hit wonder with his song, Loser, but for those paying attention, it soon became evident that Beck was no mere gimmicky wagman.

Mellow Gold, Beck’s consistently brilliant debut album, and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, a scatologically-compiled independent release of recordings dating back to ‘88, showed his musical breadth, wit and versatility, while One Foot In The Grave, his low-key “folk” record on the K label, demonstrated his ability to be as engaging as ever even without the myriad of sounds his other releases presented.

On his new album, Odelay, the sonic palette is Beck’s richest yet - but it’s best heard rather than talked about, especially since right now, you’d be hard pressed to find more inventive and exciting pop music this side of the cosmos. Even if it were to only sell one copy, Odelay is still a hit record as it can hit you on every level being simultaneously groovy, intelligent, witty, poignant, bad-ass, plaintive, simple, complex, plain fun pop music.

In 1995, Mellow Gold was a glaring omission from Big0’s Top 100 albums since ‘75, but now it’s not inconceivable to see Odelay sitting in an equivalent list come 2020AD. Not that you get the impression Beck is obsessively out to make fiercely fantastic records. They just happen to come out that way.

Chilling out at home on a summer evening, Beck was relaxed; so relaxed in fact that a more accurate transcript of our phone interview would have exhausted my keyboard’s fullstop button if I marked every pregnant gap between words when I didn’t know if he’d finished speaking, or if we were still in the middle of one of his long, cool-in-talk sentences (which were peppered with plenty of “you know”).

Beck also proved amiable rather than the nonsense-spewing maestro I was prepared for. I’d previously been delighted in reading his elliptical replies to other journalists, a defence mechanism against people sniffing round his patch. Statements like “I think I’m the Bon Jovi of the ’60s… or Kip Winger with a protein shake” seemed to be more than surrealistic fooling around (wasted on bemused journalists trying to tag him as spokesmodel for a slacker generation). It was instead a way of throwing skeptics off his trail.

Although a native of Los Angeles, his voice still carries the mid-Western drawl he probably picked up while growing up outside Kansas City with his grandfather (a preacher). When we spoke, he’d just returned from a productive trip out of Los Angeles, up the east coast to record in Olympia, Washington, and to play at the Tibetan Freedom Concert (organised by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch) in San Francisco.

“It was great,” Beck enthused about the event that took place just two days before. “It went on over two days and 60,000 people showed up each day. The audience was really receptive. I played by myself, solo. Did a lot of stuff off the ‘K’ record and I did a couple of new unreleased songs. Had a drum machine that I turned on for a while.

“There’re two kinds of show I do. One where I just play by myself, play acoustic and it’s a pretty loose affair. It’s definitely more low-key and kind of open-ended and experimental, and I don’t play with a set-list. I let the audience call out the songs. Those are real fun shows… it’s like you’re just playing for a roomful of friends.

“And then, there’re the shows with the bands and they’re more electric, playing with a louder volume and it’s, of course, more rhythmic, energy-oriented.”

The Tibetan Freedom gig was a more positive experience than being on last year’s Lollapalooza bill, which he describes as being “more bummer than summer.”

“Oh, it was totally different, completely. This just had such a great feeling to it. Everybody was very relaxed and having a good time and everybody played great shows. It was non-stop music all day… just a blast.”

BEN HARRISON: It had quite a diverse line-up of acts, some of whom you’ve played quite a lot with recently. Do you see them as friends or musical peers?

BECK: Probably both you know, whatever peers are. We’re all playing music and we tend to play shows together. I tend to play shows with Sonic Youth, Pavement and those bands. A lot of the bands playing were the ones that get lumped into the alternative category, but there was a lot of hip-hop: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Biz Markie. And Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker were there. It was pretty diverse. Yoko Ono was incredible. She was like a mountain.

I don’t really compare musicians. It’s not a competitive thing for me at all. We’re all contributing, all tapping into the same musical force. We’re really just transmitters to other people because everybody has that need to hear music and hear rhythm.”

Is there any musician, specifically, whom you feel close to? Do you feel you have musical contemporaries?

Er… I don’t put myself above or below anyone really. I look up to someone like Willie Nelson. I’m not into flash-in-the-pan kind of bands, faddish kind of things.

So do you see yourself as part of any particular lineage?

Yeah, it’s been a little bastardised along the way. When I was playing more straight folk music, I was trying to work in-between Woody Guthrie and the blues, but also having it informed by punk and that kind of energy.

Woody would have been a punk. More than his son is…

Oh yeah, he was a punk definitely. He was always following his own instinct. He never played the game and that’s why he never achieved success in his own time. He didn’t become the Will Rogers of the day. He’d get a big radio gig and he’d bring all his communist friends on, or he’d start talking about labour unions. He’d get some money to buy that fancy new car and then he’d give it away to somebody - a labour organiser or something.

So you’re not into Arlo Guthrie, his son?

I always look to Woody because I relate to him more, coming from a pretty working class, and a very… somewhat limited, background. I didn’t have money when I was growing up and I was thinking of Arlo as more kinda goofy ’60s child with this idyllic life. He had it good, was always taking drugs and being this loopy character, and I couldn’t really relate to that. I’ve always been scraping to get by…

Woody Guthrie cuts a very romantic figure, taking to the road at an early age, a hobo from the dustbowl. Did you ever do the equivalent ‘hobo-ing’ thing?

Well, I don’t think it’s possible to hobo anymore. You’re just basically a homeless person now. The quality of life of a hobo has plummeted and now you’re just plain old homeless. But I’ve done that sort of travelling when I was younger - just ridin’ on buses. It wasn’t any kind of romantic thing. I was just trying to find a place to live where I could get a job. It wasn’t like “Mom’s footin’ the bill and I’m just riding the bus.” When I was 17, I was out on my own having to make my own way.

[Beck’s life is more settled now, living in his own place. I wondered if that was the case when Mellow Gold came out. “No, I was just livin’ on the road,” he says. “I wasn’t too focused at the time. I’m all for getting to a point where I can get a little more relaxed with things ‘cos it gets a little hectic y’know. At first, it was very disconcerting and throwin’ me off…”

I don’t ask Beck what he makes of being described somewhere as part-Woody Allen, part-Woody Guthrie, though Guthrie has been the most consistently referred-to singer when it comes to Beck, something he doesn’t seem to mind as Guthrie continues to be a major influence.

“I learnt to play guitar from listening to Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt. I’ve really embraced a lot of different things since I started playing music but I try to maintain some of the spirit and that looseness that so much of their music stands for. But y’know, I don’t want to be playing songs that are antiques. I wanna keep the intent - the musical intent - that’s in Woody’s music and all the other folk musicians, and keep it alive even if it has to transform into something else that uses drum machines or whatever.

Perplexed that anyone would think the new album title has anything to do with rock guitarist Jeff Beck’s Beck-Ola album, or that a line about “the rotten oasis” in the opening track, Devil’s Haircut, refers to THAT Manchester band, Beck has to laugh off the more ridiculous comparisons - except he says he gets them “all the time.”

He says: “Like someone was saying Loser is from a Lynyrd Skynyrd song or something and, like, I never even heard Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m totally ignorant of ’70s southern rock. People say ‘oh, this song sounds like that’ and I’ve never heard that song. There’re only so many songs and so many ideas out there but a lot of what I do comes out of improvisation. And I don’t sit around and listen to something to copy. It’s got to come from a place where it’s unconscious…”]

And whenever it comes to improvised stuff like yours, people are always quick to tag it as being “quirky ” or “ironic. ” Does that piss you off at all?

I really think those words are somewhat vulgar because they cheapen any sense of trying to do something like expand the scope of the way we look at something.

With something that is offbeat, where you’re trying to use surrealism, or expand the way things are perceived; where you disengage yourself from traditional logic, and try and create a more unconscious side, and try to get closer to something that’s truer and closer to how we really think and our whole internal life… what they tend to do in the media is go ‘Isn’t that quirky?’ or ‘Isn’t that wacky?’

And that’s something I’ve battled since day one. It’s a hard line to go, between trying to do something different without that degenerating into something pretentious and over-wrought. Keep it live and natural and flowing and try to get to the root of it.

So you care how you’re perceived?

Um… no, I can’t care. At first maybe I did a little bit, but after a while I decided to let it go ‘cos everyone’s gonna have their own idea. It’s almost impossible to be represented correctly. The essence of what’s going on is communicated through the music so I think at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what the perception is. When you’re gone, the music will still be there and time will be the equaliser.

So, in the words of your own song, you “pay no mind?”

Yeah, I wrote that when I was about 19. It was about growing up in the ’80s and having this whole materialistic Top Gun-Tom Cruise, Michael J Fox, you’re white, you’re male, you’re winning, you’re collegiate, you’re good at sports… all this.

That whole winning mentality really left a lot of people on the outside and I think that’s a lot of what the whole “grunge” thing was about, why that hit a nerve, because a lot of people were left out of the picture in the ’80s. Here was all this stuff being thrown at you and to just actually get through that and just get to the kernel, the root, of what’s important and what’s real.

[The perception of Beck as a “quirky” artist actually belittles his music. Sure, taken superficially there’s a lot of humour and apparently absurdist elements to some of his work, but alongside this there’s a whole canon of beautifully plaintive songs, added to ones where the sense of furthering that country/folk tradition is obvious.

“I’m interested in taking old folk songs and writing new lyrics about more contemporary situations,” he says, citing Mexico as one such example, a tale about Beck losing his job at McDonald’s, holding up a 7-11, getting revenge on his old boss and fleeing south of the border. Purists might disagree, but this is as much an extension of the Guthrie ethos as much as Bob Dylan (once seen as Guthrie’s successor) ever was.]

Have you ever been accused of being irreverent with that tradition?

I’m way past that. In the ’60s, they incorporated folk music into everything. Country Joe McDonald and every psychedelic jug-band from ‘Frisco to Cleveland pretty much bastardised all the (laughs) “original” folk songs. At this point, they’re all so obscure that people hearing them now just think they’re new. These melodies have been in the air for who knows how many hundreds of years.

[That Beck can casually tell me (in all modesty, and only when I asked) that his songs have been recorded by the likes of Tom Petty (Loser) and the legendary Johnny Cash (the gorgeous Rowboat) is testament to his talent.

But Beck seems equally impressed by, and more eager to talk about, a cover of Asshole he heard in Paris a few months back. “These little 16-year-old girls did a version that was pretty incredible,” he says, “They’d changed the chords and melody all around and it had a much spookier feeling - more foreboding. It was really great to hear that.

“I think I mourn the loss of that spirit where a song is just a song and anyone can sing it. People own songs now. The song you sing is the song you own. That’s why I was attracted to folk music - these songs belong to everybody. Anybody could use them, reinterpret, add something and change them, adding to that tradition or that craft, that’s a goldmine.”

These older songs like Asshole and Rowboat are perfect examples of Beck’s more obviously plaintive tunes - fairly plain recordings, compared to the dizzying brilliance of Odelay, with soul-baring lyrics. The Spirit Moves Me and Modesto also have this spirit and were recorded at the same time.]

This was ’bout four years ago up in North Hollywood. I was going into the studio and I’d played in this country and western bar and there was this pedal steel player there, Leo LeBlanc, and I asked him if he’d come down and record something for me ‘cos I was doing this record. And then I realised I didn’t have any songs for him to play pedal steel on so I just wrote them real quick… just before I went to the studio.

But they seem such personal songs. Maybe you were caught off guard, and you didn’t have time to “filter” the lyrics like some of your other songs…

I think so. They’re not overwrought at all. It’s just straight, coming out.

Is Modesto named after the place?

Yeah, it’s a place, it’s a state of mind. It’s just a bleak California farm town…

[As much as I loved the song, I was unaware it was a real place till I saw it featured in Lowlife, a movie by George Hickenlooper (famed for his documentary on Apocalypse Now). Though Lowlife’s down-and-out-in-LA scenario might sound like another Generation-X fest, it was mercifully free of such cliches.]

Yeah, it’s really time to transcend that whole Generation-X thing. It’s really like marketing a whole generation as a soda-pop can or something. It really reduces it.

Which is a tag you get associated with, and people still harp on it as if that’s the only thing you’re about. Does having to talk to the media (like this) feel like work?

Well, sometimes it’s work. But this is pleasant, I’m enjoying this… The way you ask; are you a musician too? Most of the time though it’s a drag. You’re talking to someone who’s coming from a totally different side of things and you don’t connect at all. It’s work when you’re trying to connect with the person you’re trying to talk to. And I get asked a lot of stupid stuff all the time, always like “this is the Loser.” It totally misses the point of that song.

[After the hoopla of Mellow Gold, it might be expected that his follow-up album would contain songs reflecting the unwanted media glare, a subject common to artists writing in the wake of “success.” However, Odelay is free of such blatant swipes. Yet Beck can be genuinely scathing in songs peopled by the likes of the Whimsical Actress, the Truckdrivin Neighbours Downstairs or Nightmare Hippy Girl. Were they about anyone in particular?]

Yeah, Nightmare Hippy Girl was definitely one person and the Truckdrivers were actual neighbours I had downstairs. These songs were actual reflections of these people, or this whole reaction to their existence. I think I’m moving away from songs that are portraits of a specific thing and moving towards songs that are portraits of a mood or a lifestyle or an atmosphere that includes everybody.

Like Sissyneck on the new album with it’s “good ol’ boys”?

Yeah, Sissyneck is more of a way of life. And Jackass was just the general mood of that week in the midst of summer, where the only goal is movement. It was one of those taking-stock things.

The sample of Them’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue is beautiful…

Yeah, that’s a nice little sample.

…and the lyrics seem to have echoes of that song with the “Loose ends tying the noose in the back of my mind,” and the lines “I remember the way that you smiled/When the gravity shackles were wild/And something is vacant when I think it’s all beginning.” Do you consider yourself romantic?

Somewhat… yeah… but I would say begrudgingly. There’s not much room for it these days. I’m not one to romanticise the past or anything. I try to be aware of reality and yesterday can be just as cool and mundane as today.

What about Derelict? It feels like immigrants having a hard time…

Yeah. Coming into town on a ghost ship and the stowaways are finding themselves naked in the back of a police car, smelling of herring and birdshit.

There’s an ethnic feel to the music. It sounds like a gamelan which you also had on Beercan.

It’s actually this thumb piano thing. A giant thumb piano.

[The scope of sound on Odelay is Beck’s most ambitious yet, and flows perfectly with him sharing production duties with the Dust Brothers.]

How did you hook up with the Dust Brothers?

We had mutual friends and they were in the neighbourhood. We got together and got along really well and it just worked out. At first I was a little concerned because, of course, they’re known for their thing. They’re really well-known remixers and I was really concerned with… I still am too… with working with someone that’s going to change what I do. But it worked out really good actually. They really got what I was going for… (huge pause)… there.

Hip-hop beats have featured in your work from your first release. Were you into it when you were younger?

That was inescapable, pretty much everywhere, in the neighbourhood I grew up in. All the bad-ass kids would be breakdancing in these congregations down on the comer, and you’d go up to Hollywood Boulevard on weekend nights and they’d have breakdance competitions going.

[The young Beck was also a fan of James Bond movies and was curious when he heard of Pussy Galore, a band named after a Bond girl. Pussy Galore featured Jon Spencer, who has since been in Beck’s touring band and has had his work remixed by Beck. Beck recalls discovering the New York scene of the time.]

I remember when I was a kid, I’d go to Sonic Youth shows in ‘85 and it wasn’t punk. We didn’t know what it was. It had a danger to it. It was a little bit ominous I remember. In retrospect it’s been incorporated to popular music so much, these guitar sounds and all…

Your mom, Bibbe Hansen, owned the Troy Cafe (an LA venue) and I heard she’d let the late Darby Crash from the Germs crash at your place when you were younger. It must be interesting hanging out with your friend Pat Smear (then also of the Germs) all those years on.

I grew up in LA as a little kid when the punk thing was happening. I was aware of all this but I was definitely in my kid- . world. When I was 12 years old, I wasn’t playing in a band like Redd Kross, who started really young. But getting back to that Sonic Youth thing, it was an interesting time. There wasn’t really a name for that music. They didn’t come up with “alternative;” it wasn’t really college rock (that was something else). I enjoyed that. It’s kind of sad when something gets usurped, labelled and filed.

When you left LA and went to New York did you experience that scene?

I went there in the mid-’80s and there was definitely something happening. All the musicians, everybody I met, it was a different attitude. If we were playing music, it wasn’t what our parents were into. It wasn’t a James Taylor thing. It was more of that Woody Guthrie thing, or more kind of raw, primitive, crude… We were trying to put more life into the music because it seemed like everything that was popular… everything that was on the radio at the time was sort of a wax-mannequin- version of real music. It was a cardboard cutout.

And that’s when you started writing songs. You’ve put out a lot of good material in the last few years. Do you consider yourself prolific or are other people just slow?

I can be but… I’ll just sit down and stuff will come out. I used to work every day. Get up, have breakfast and then work on songs for all afternoon and then work on songs again at night… just everyday, just working on things, recording. That was the period I was working on Mellow Gold. I got laid off my job and I had about a year there. This was about ‘92 where I was just writing all the time and it’s really a luxury. I wish I could do that more. Now I’ve got to squeeze stuff in here and there.

So is there another “K” record in the works?

There is. It’s pretty much recorded. I went up there about two summers ago and recorded almost a whole new record, and then I went up again last week and did another record. So between the stuff from two years ago, and the stuff from last week, there’ll be something out of it. I think it’s interesting - that span of time and having all that exist on one record. That’s kind of what all the records I do, do. It’s about that fracturing of time when something’s recorded.

Is Going Nowhere Fast on it?

No, I haven’t released that ever. That’s a very old song, one of the first ones I ever wrote.

I read your mom loves it. She said it’s one of your best…

Yeah? I don’t know about that, I’ll have to ask her. My mom gets very involved with kids calling her up all the time. She’s very open and we have the same initials so people are always calling her up.

And she has her own band, Black Fag, fronted by a six-foot-eight transvestite called Vaginal Cream Davis. They sound like just the kind of band that should come and play in $ingapore!

Yeah, I think so. They’ll be right in there! I can’t imagine it there. Is it weird? Maybe kind of like a JG Ballard apocalyptic city? Of course, I’ve heard the superficial things that you can’t chew gum and all that but (laughs)… but I’m interested to go there. I spent some time in Hong Kong on our last Asian tour (with Jon Spencer).

I really wanted to get over to $ingapore but the show got cancelled for some reason. I’m totally into that end of the world and I really want to explore it. We’re supposed to come out to Japan and Asia in October so maybe we’ll hook up.

Note: In July 2008, Beck released his eighth studio album, Modern Guilt.

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