Henry Oliver talks to Beck about guitars, Bruno Mars, and his new album Colors.
Last weekend, I left the early-afternoon heat of Auckland City Limits to meet Beck, a seemingly ageless musician who’s been musically mutating for over 25 years now. In person, Beck is small, slight and smiley. He talks in a deep, mid-paced Californian drawl that is more considered than stoned but retains the slightest hint of the affected slacker weirdo that became famous after his year-old single ‘Loser’ turned into a hit in 1994. He is warm, kind, and generous with his time, surprisingly as open to talking about the ’90s as his latest album, Colors, though he’s not nostalgic for the old days.
For Beck, there’s no time like the present. He feels at home in 2018, and says, despite all the accolades, and honours, and tours, and platinum and gold records, that he only now feels like he’s no longer an anomaly, like he’s understood without having to explain himself.
“I’m enjoying doing what I’ve always done and having it translate,” he said. “It’s like I’m not actually really even trying to do anything, I’m just doing what I always did, but it, it just finally translates now. Back then I was lucky to have songs like ‘Where It’s At’ or ‘Loser’ that kind of stood out from all the other stuff I was doing. Now there’s a lot more acceptance. It’s sort of like when you get out of school and you find your people, you know?”
The Spinoff: I’ve been enjoying your new album and I think what I enjoy the most about it is that it sounds like you enjoyed making it and that you’re enjoying yourself…
Beck: Yes! That’s the idea! We were playing these shows that had a lot of energy, that had a lot of exuberant letting-your-hair-down things, but we were touring Morning Phase [laughs]. So it was this bifurcated show where we’d play all the sad Morning Phase stuff and then we’d have a big party. So I wanted the record that spoke to that other part of the show. I really hadn’t done a record like that in a long time. Even the last two before Morning Phase were a little bit, um, internal and discursive and musically going into darker places than just having a lot of fun.
Do the different vibes of all these records come from different musical interests or what’s going on in your life? Or are those things the same?
There are different musical ideas and they have different gestation times and they don’t always work consecutively. So Morning Phase and Colors are both records that I’ve gone into the studio trying to do something in that vein for many, many years and they didn’t work. So there’s no real rhyme or reason beyond that. It’s just like you’re making wine: it matures and then it’s ready. So, because I’m a solo artist and some of the ideas are so divergent from each other, they need their own space.
I think Colors was originally set to come out 2015, early-2016. But the Grammy thing happened and it felt people were just discovering Morning Phase and it just… I had all these songs recorded and it just felt too sudden like more time needed to pass before we were ready to go in a totally different direction. And in retrospect, I probably should have made a record in between that would be a better bridge, because they are very different records. So what ended up happening is I waited almost four years. It’s a different world.
I’m not necessarily making records for the moment that we’re in. Like, Midnite Vultures was not made for what was happening in 1999. But some of my favourite records were not for their time, whether it’s the Velvet Underground’s first record or David Bowie’s Low or the Pixies’ first album. There are those albums all over the last 50 years that didn’t necessarily belong to the time they were in, but I am interested in what’s happening the current time as well. I’m not stepping out of the context of what’s happening now.
Do you mean like a musical context or like social?
Well both, I guess, ’cause it goes into the music. But you are, ultimately, as a performer, going to have to perform these songs for decades. So you want to play something that’s not going to be embarrassing in 10 years.
Yeah, like you’ve made rock music but at the ‘rebirth of rock’ in the early-2000s, you made an acoustic record…
I know, my time is very off. Sea Change is something I’d been wanting to make for ten years at that point. It didn’t feel like the right time. It just wasn’t ready. But the minute it felt like there would be some acceptance for it, I felt like, OK, this maybe this is the time. And ultimately I think it was maybe a little ahead of the re-birth of singer-songwriters. Mutations was me putting a toe in the water, and, like, I was friends with Elliot Smith and you had other indie artists who were making acoustic music in a new way, not the standard 70 singer-songwriter mould, something a little different.
So you try things and fail for a long time and eventually they work. Does that mean you’ve got your future records in testing at the moment?
I have a lot of things that I’m working on. I mean the follow-up to the Midnite Vultures was supposed to be an electronic record and I definitely had a lot of songs in that vein but I still haven’t quite felt like it’s the right time for that.
Are you collecting songs or are you just experimenting with sounds and ideas?
Yeah, sometimes I’ll go back to older songs, like the last song on Colors was from 2007. One of the songs on the Morning Phase was recorded seven years before, so these things happen. The song ‘Guero’ was probably ten years old before it came out.
Guitars are less popular than they have been for a long time. And while all your records have guitar, you’ve used it differently over the years. So what’s your relationship with the guitar?
I like guitar, I like heavy bands with a guitar. I started on keyboards but I was drawn to acoustic music personally, but my generation really embraced a heavy electric guitar style. So it felt like much the way, like trap music and certain conventions that are really common now, when I was starting out it was very much just a big thud, a distortion pedal and a Fender guitar. And so I avoided that and thought, what if you could write the same kind of music, but without all the big grunge guitars. And maybe in that way the music I was making the ‘90s was a little bit outside of what was happening at the time, it was a little bit sort of stepping out into the margins. But yeah, it’s interesting now being at a time where almost a guitar is almost a drawback.
I know very successful guitar players who are at a little bit of a loss right now, what to do if the guitar is irrelevant. It’s like a planet that’s gone out of orbit and, who knows, at some point, it might come back. But it is interesting that we are at a time in the culture where technology is allowing you to do things that you used to have to have a mastery over. Like if you wanted to use a computer, you used to have to know computer coding. I knew people when I was a kid who could go on the internet, but you really had to know a lot about computers. Now anybody can just do it.
There’s a version of that with music, there’s a version of that with photography – you used to have to have incredible skill. So, the guitar is something you still have to have a lot of skill and put a lot of time into. And there are other things that are seductive, so maybe guitar is not as rewarding or something. So for somebody who’s just starting out in music, it’s like, well I got all these programs and not only that, I have brass, I have every synthesizer ever made, all these effects. It’s like the computer is the instrument. But there is something primal about a guitar. I mean, if you go back to antiquity, there’s some version of a guitar all the way back.
There’s something about the mid-range too, which has hollowed out in much contemporary music.
Yeah. It’s just bass, treble and voice.
There’s guitar all over the new record…
We didn’t have a lot of guitar originally. The guitars were very small and then towards the end of the record, we added a bunch of guitars. Like, ‘Up All Night’ didn’t have any guitars and was originally just very much like a dance track and then we added these fuzzy glam guitars.
What was it missing?
I just think it added a little dirtiness. We’re in an era where things are very clean and groomed. And guitars are just a little messy.
So is part of your creative impulse to zig when everyone else is zagging?
It’s that weird alchemy when you add the one thing you’re not supposed to have in what we’ve decided as the current convention. I like anachronisms. I like things that are not supposed to be there. Like you listen to the slide guitar on ‘Loser’, I mean it’s an acoustic guitar, it’s not an electric guitar so it’s not necessarily like a Led Zeppelin thing. So what is it? It’s sort of a delta blues thing. At the time, kids that I knew didn’t know what delta blues was, but they knew they liked it and you know, it was nice over the years to have fans who said, ‘I remember loving ‘Loser’ and then you said in an interview something about Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. Now those are my favourite records’.
You look at the classical composers and often the motifs or phrases will be something, from a folk song, just something that everybody knew at the time. And that folk song would’ve been from a different part of life than the concert hall. But it’s also a part of life that’s gone. Like, we don’t know those folk songs anymore, but they exist in this way. So I think as musicians, we all do this. I know musicians that I work with, we’re sort of constantly aware that we’re in a tradition and there are things that we love from certain artists and it’s not necessarily that you’re stealing something, it’s like you want to preserve something. I’m making a new song and I’m putting in the time capsule and maybe it continues. Like Bowie. When you really break down Bowie, there’s a lot of ’50s music like the chords and the melody. Even a song like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, which sounds so modern from that early-’80s period has nothing to do with the ’50s, but the chords are all straight from the ’50s, like the kind of music that you hear coming out of a car at the drive in 1959. You hear that even back to his glam days. So, all these musicians are doing the same thing.
Do you feel your music is contributing to that?
Yeah, If you throw a glam guitar in here or like sort of a country western saloon piano, it recontextualizes it and hopefully it keeps alive. I think, certain music gets marginalized and that’s part of what we do. Either you rediscover it by accident, you’re 20 years old and you know, like, ‘Hey, I found this riff’ and somebody comes along saying, ‘Yeah, it sounds just like that band’. They didn’t know. Or you’re conscious of that and like, I want to perversely like stick a little of this and there people aren’t going to realise they like it, but they do.
Like I was the Bruno Mars show last night and he had this [Yamaha] DX7 keyboard, which was that sort ’80s, early-’90s nineties ballad keyboard sound and when I was starting out like the ethos of, you know, Sonic Youth or Nirvana was the antithesis of that sound and so a certain number of bands and artists made that sound no longer cool, but Bruno Mars probably grew up with that sound and a lot of great songs from that era and hey, it’s not such a bad sound. And he brings it back in a new context and it sounded great. I was that gig and was like the ‘DX7!’ Who’d have thought like 25 years ago this would have a new life? So there’s hope for the guitar.
You’ve mentioned the ’90s a few times. And it’s interesting that most of the artists that were big from that generation, first of all, were mostly bands and it’s hard for bands to last…
It’s impossible, it’s like a five-way marriage.
You are one of the few people from that era who is not just making records but is still making new records, you’re not just making records for people who like your first two. How have you maintained such a creative longevity?
What I was doing when I started out didn’t fit in with anything that was happening at the time. There were some things that sort of carved out a space, and there were some connections between some artists around that time, but it was kind of a departure or an aberration from the main culture. Look, I was on all those tours. I remember doing the Somersault tour and it was Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, the Breeders, Bikini Kill, Pavement, you know what I mean? And I was friends with all those people, but musically I wasn’t quite in that club.
So I was thinking about it on this new record, this is the probably the first time in my career where what I just do naturally and there’s an actual hospitable environment. It’s like I was trying to grow these plants in a desert with nothing, no support system. And now it’s like I don’t have to worry, I can just do what I’m doing and people are going to get it. Like when Odelay was out, I felt exhausted, through interviews and performance, trying to explain what I was doing cause I was constantly being told it wasn’t real music cause it wasn’t bass, guitar, drums. Y’know, standard rock band. It wasn’t the conventional way of making music at all. And I remember a lot of the reviews at the time were like, ‘This isn’t real’. Journalists constantly telling me these aren’t real songs, this is just a bunch of like technology you’re playing with bits and bobs thrown together. And I’m like, ‘No, no, this is a new way of doing the same thing’.
And so now it’s sort of taken for granted I can do this stuff and we’re accustomed to the verse sounding nothing like the pre-chorus and that there can be a keyboard that’s from a totally different genre of music in there and it’s totally fine. So, to me, it’s been a joy. Like, it’s like, ‘Oh, now I can be me, I get to just do what I do. I can just be myself’. I’m not saying I wasn’t myself before, but you’re immediately kind of marginalising yourself or having to be comfortable with the fact that people are going to be a little like, ‘I think I’d like this part of what you’re doing, but I don’t get all the other stuff’, it’s much more of like ‘I’m going to embrace this completely’.
I’m sure there’s a version of music I could come out with now that would really kinda throw people. But I’m enjoying doing what I’ve always done and having it translate. It’s like I’m not actually really even trying to do anything, I’m just doing what I always did, but it, it just finally translates now. Back then I was lucky to have songs like ‘We’re It’s At’ or ‘Loser’ that kind of stood out from all the other stuff I was doing. Now there’s a lot more acceptance. It’s sort of like when you get out of school and you find your people, you know?
You’re nearly 50 and you found your people.
Totally. That’s really why this record is so celebratory because it feels like, ‘Ah, at last’. We can just do our thing and not worry about it. There were years where we, you know, we’d have a good show but a lot of shows I remember, especially in the Midnite Vultures tour where you’d just see the audience really confused, like, ‘What is happening here? What is this?’ We’d finish a song and they wouldn’t even be clapping. And so it’s great. The last five years has been incredible. You put all these years and care and thought and heart into something and then some of the people want to come and celebrate it. I’m sure, you know, a lot of artists have that. Some are really lucky. Some come out and they strike a chord and immediately they have a thing. And, uh, this has been like a more long relationship.
But a good one?
Yeah. I’m enjoying it.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark, a major sponsor of Auckland City Limits. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.