by Sylvie Simmons
It’s raining hard when the white rental car pulls into the parking lot – a Toyota, utterly impersonal, nothing inside but a driver, who slips out like a bird from an egg and gazes curiously at the black LA afternoon with. “I like the rain”, Beck declares, then apologises for his lateness. His clothes match the sky and the car: lots of black (jeans, trainers, raincoat, black leather strips where a watch might usefully have been) and a white shirt. His face too is white, apart from two dots on pink on his cheeks and the sprinkle of stubble that his wife, actress Marissa Ribisi (Giovanni Ribisi’s twin sister ), might have painted on to tell him and their eight month son Cosimo apart. Baby-faced, toussle-haired and stick-thin, Beck looks like a line-drawing of the Little Prince that no-one got round to colouring in.
So little has he aged, in fact, since he graced MOJO’s cover in 1997 with Odelay, that we’re obliged to ask if he, like the rest of this town where he grew up and still lives (though no longer in Silverlake) has been botoxed. He shakes his head, makes a derogatory comment about how “body conscious” the place has become, and blames his pallor on months he spent in a ” tiny room with a tiny window” – The Dust Brothers’ new studio (still in Silverlake, two blocks away from the old one) – making his decidedly unmonochromatic new album Guero. One might say his Odelay-esque new album Guero, if only to bring a moment of joy to the black soul of the record industry; it’s all very well having artists going off being artistic, but alt. country, pimp-pastiche soul and gloomy, lovelorn ballad albums do not shift triple platinum like a mash-up of hallucinogenic hip hop, pop Tropicalia and dazzling barrio beats. And Guero, another masterpiece of controlled, bright, shiny chaos has all these and more (including a motion-graphics DVD and Jack White.)
Its creator right now is digging around in a large brown paper bag, surfacing with enough containers of food for a small country. Politely offering MOJO its pick, he takes steak and mash, and proceeds to cut the American-sized meat into the tiniest pieces. As if feeding a toddler, he distractedly forks the morsels into his mouth inbetween questions. And MOJO has some tough ones. Like how he went, in one fell swoop, from the dark, lovelorn wretch of Sea Change to the happy husband and dad of Guero.Why coolest white boy in LA gets labelled a party pooper by (admittedly envious) peers. How the hipster from the wrong side of town negotiates life in Hollywood moviestar circles. Whether irony is all it is. In a nutshell, who Beck is these days, and would it surprise us if we found out?
He ponders that last question long and hard, same as he ponders the rest. But he answers them all, and if his replies are often dotted with pauses and ellipses, it seems more a rustiness at having to try to explain himself than any kind of obstinance or inscrutability. Plus along with the studio tan, he says, he’s forgotten how to talk; “After several months everyone knows what everyone will say, so no-one speaks in full sentences anymore”, so instead of words we get big disarmingly goofy, marionette gestures – arms, lower legs, upper torso – that stop as quickly as they start while he sits waiting patiently for the next question.
We’re talking about Silverlake and how it’s changed since Beck grew up there, a few blocks from the Tropical Bakery where they sell cream cheese and guava pies that make you weep. Beck’s saying how he remembers coming home one day, after “being on tour for a couple of years somwhere in the mid ’90s”, and suddenly seeing “all these cool people with amazing clothes and weird haircuts” on the street. “Because in the ’80s there was nothing. Nothing. It was more a post-punk LA meets Kerouac beatnik-folky kind of thing.”
Which of course was the spot that Beck occupied in his mid teens, to no great acclaim other than getting a spot in a French TV documentary about L.A’s art and spoken-word scene. Beck and a couple of friends had a ‘zine called Youthless, “not about music, just artwork, collages and things. That was way more my references at that age than the music scene when all you could see was hair metal.”
And there he was, in Silverlake, with his mum, Bibbe Hansen, performance artist and former Warhol acolyte, plus ageing punks like The Germs’ Darby Crash, crashed out on the sofa. Hardly surprisingly that the youngsterturned to acoustic blues and country.
“I found it on my own, I’m not sure how… being curious. Going through records. Going to the library. Reading books and trying to find out what happened before, because it felt like music had gotten very state-of-the-art and slick in the ’80s, when I was coming of age, and I was curious about what it was before. I had strong feelings about it at the time, I remember…. It had soul to it. It came from a time when things weren’t so homogenized and watered down. And the songs -Hank Williams was a master at writing songs that were simple and direct. I loved those songs when I was 16.”
Loved them so much he took himself to Nashville to visit the Country Music museum. “They had all those great costumes they used to wear in the ’50s and their old cars and all the Western swing performers and Hank Williams and I tried to do something that was a tribute to that, but it would get perceived as kitsch, like ’70s disco music or something. Misinterpreted completely. So I became a little dis….”
Disheartened? Disillusioned? “Disheartened I guess. I’d been immersed in that for so many years and I had so much rejection. I’d spent so much time interested in this antiquated music, and there was a frustration with performing this in LA, and having people my age thinking it was like the Beverly Hillbillies, these kind of corny TV shows we grew up with, and weren’t getting the darkness and the remoteness and the poetry and the ….what do you call it? Existential qualities. They just thought that I was just making a joke out of it.”
So the Beck=Irony equation started early? The word almost makes him wince.
” The whole thing was… it was really this idea of trying to have fun with it, trying to bring some levity to the whole pomposity of how this rock ‘n’ roill business can be…. My humour is kind of more deadpan, not that elbowing-you-in-the side American humour which is kind of more ….ostentatious. But it wasn’t coming from a place of irony.”
He wrote and recorded Loser when he had finally “given up on the idea that anybody would be interested in hearing me singing these personal songs with an acoustic guitar, so I threw it to one side and started experimenting” and kept the acoustic blues and country, the personal stuff, “for my own personal, um… pleasure. Something I kept to myself. I felt like … people didn’t really need to hear me sing that kind of music and maybe I should so something that makes sense for the time that I’m living in.”
Loser – recorded on an eight track and sung on “this cheap little flat microphone from Radio Shack, because I wanted it to sound ugly; everything else on the radio at that time was so overcooked, so rockist ” – was released on an indie label, caused a bidding war among major labels, and acclaimed as a slacker classic. Beck smartly negotiated a deal that allowed him to release, concurrently, his more experimental lo-fi records. Which is why debut album Mellow Gold, on Geffen, was flanked by indie records One Foot In The Grave and Stereopathetic Soul Manure.
“Mellow Gold I thought of as my funny songs, the wacky stuff, One Foot In The Grave was my more folky, home-recorded stuff and the third one was more the experimental noise stuff I was doing at the time…. I think Mellow Gold is the only record where you get the full picture of what was happening at the time, because you have those other two records that I was doing during that exact same year.”
Which is exactly how he planned to continue – and then came Odelay. With the succcess of his second album, Beck was snatched out of the left field into overground iconic status – with all its accompanying delights of focus on him as a personality, and the fetters imposed by fans, record industry and market of what kind of music he should make. Something he’s so far fought heroically, though it’s taken its toll on fewer releases and declining sales.
But asked if Odelay has been an albatross”, he says, “No, I think it was the opposite. It’s something we did that worked.” Even if it’s something fans and critics have been demanding a return to for the past eight years?
“I don’t find that. Most of the people I run into would say Mutations was their favourite, they would rarely mention Odelay, and then Sea Change has kind of taken the place of that… It’s interesting that Odelay was bigger in certain places than in others. Midnite Vultures was huge in France. …Everybody’s going to have something that they measure you against. You just keep working. I remember when I was doing Midnite Vultures, there were people around me saying, ‘People are sick of that sound, people are doing that to death’, and me and my friends were listening to a lot of Television and New York Dolls and Johnny Thunder and a lot of dub records and stuff – this was kind of in the late ’90s – and that seemed to be what would be the cool sound and, I don’t know, I would just go into the studio and try to experiment, and try to do something different. A lot of the things I did on Odelay, I really never let myself do again, really until this record, – as far as playing the instruments myself. On the one hand I had a band – a touring band – and you want them to feel part of it, so I’d record a record and they would play the parts. And also, you know, maybe at the time it just felt… I don’t know. I wonder how some of these bands feel now who have people mimicking what they do, if it makes them feel self-conscious about their sound? I think that happens too.”
Did it make him feel self-conscious?
“Yeah, I think so.”
And was that why he released those very different indie records because he wanted to make it hard to mimic him or have him pegged? He has a long think.
“No, it was just, really, a complete picture of what I was working on. And that’s what I’m trying to do now, to go back to how I used to do things and not get caught up in that album every two years cycle, you know, which is not really structured for being creative and fluid and getting momentum. “
Ryan Adams, with whom Beck shares a manager, has often complained about being allowed to release just a small percentage of the material he’s been writing and recording – what the record company says the market can bear. Because of that, it’s hard to show the stepping stones between one album and the next.
“I absolutely agree. I still feel like I’m kind of back-tracking, trying to figure out certain things, so I can get to what … to what I really want to say. To…. put it all together. I believe you have to do a certain amount of work to get to that point – you don’t get there instantly, it’s a ride, you have to put in the time, you have to make the records. You look at all the artists who’ve reached that point of being completely creatively awake and they were making new works every five months, three albums a year, that kind of thing. I think if people actually heard all the music that I’d recorded and not just the proper releases, it might all make a little more sense, because there’s dozens of things that are recorded inbetween.”
Are they just sitting in the vaults or will they come out?
“A lot of them I’ve lost, or I had some other obligations and I never get to go finish it and it ends up sitting around. I would love to magically create two or three years to go back and find all those things and put it together.”
Wasn’t that the point of having the BongLoad deal?
Then where did it go wrong?
“It was just being so incredibly… busy. And trying to appease and not saying no. Because this — there’s this whole other side to making music. Because a band goes out and you’re in a band, working, working, borrowing money from the record company, they’re essentially paying to be able to perform, and then they knock themselves out for a few years and then suddenly there’s a demand. It’s what you see over and over. You get …. burned out. I’ve definitely reached that point a few times…You know, touring endlessly, pushing your body beyond what it’s meant to do, that kind of thing. I like working hard but…”
Burn-out is why drugs are such an intrinsic part of the rock scene.
“Yeah. But I never, never took little happy pills or anything, though there were definitely times when I didn’t know where I was going to be able to get the energy to do what I had to do.”
Did he have some kind of genetic resistance to drugs?
“Definitely. My grandmother was hooked on pills and stuff and she died when she was in her thirties, so I sort of grew up with that as a personal example of, you know, the reality of that, what happens, you know. My mother was.. you know. So that made sense to me.”
Does he have a deliberate policy, like Frank Zappa did, of having a strict anti-drug policy for the musicians around him?
“You do what you have to do but yeah… I mean I sure saw my share of it when I was growing up. I grew up in an area where the effects of drugs, especially crack, were tragic and brutal, so any kind of romance associated with that was annihilated for me at a very early age. Seeing 13 year old kids on crack, trying to knock down a street sign with a lead pipe, you know, at two in the afternoon, people passed out … I don’t get that. And I lost a few close friends. Watching somebody fade away, you know, in slow motion. And when I’ve met younger bands that were doing coke and things, I’ve felt like, no no, I know how this story ends, and I just see whatever talent or life that’s there slowly getting burned away. When I was first becoming aware of music was right when punk was happening, I was a little child then, eight or nine, and we had people, punk rockers, just lying around our house, and it seemed like the drugs…..”
How, then, did Beck deal with the madness of celebrity?
“I don’t know… I think I used to have problems with it when I started out, really fought against it… People would want to make you out to be something you weren’t.”
For example?” I don’t know. I have no idea what people expect or what they project. I mean, am I to have a reality show?”
Hey, we’d watch it.
“Well some weeks it would be interesting, but mostly it would just be me with my head in work.”
Would we see him working in his home studio, or has the baby put paid to any of that?
“I haven’t found that. It’s just a little less sleep. I have to stay up all night to do my work. You know I keep wondering if it’s going to change the process at all – because for me it’s all or nothing, it’s 20 hours a day, seven days a week. You have to submerge yourself (when you make a record), dig a trench and get in there and it’s dirty and uncomfortable and all those things but, I don’t know, I think making a family and all that, it’s all part of the same thing, it’s all creation. I think they go hand in hand.”
As for its effect on Guero he shrugs, “Well having a child is a huge event in someone’s life but I don’t know if any of these songs are specifically about that. There’s a delay sometimes, I’ll be writing about things from three or five years ago. It’s interesting”, he muses, as if he just thought of it. “Sometimes things get put directly into the music but sometimes to make sense of something, to articulate it or put it into perspective, you need time. It can gestate for up to ten years – like Guero was a song I wanted to write for ten years, a direct portrait of that experience” of growing up as the skinny white outsider in an Hispanic neighbourhood. “And Sea Change is something I tried to make in ’94 – it just wasn’t the right time. So certain things start out as a germ and when the time is right they come out. “
But wasn’t Sea Change Beck’s heartfelt, heart-wrenching response to the break-up of his long relationship with Leigh Limon? “I just meant it was something that was quiet and direct and didn’t rely on any clever bits or punchlines, or any song and dance.”
When – if – he plays those songs now, does it feel strange?
“Well, they are conduits in a way to some other place, you know? Tthe songs are specific but when you’re singing them, maybe you’re connecting with the sadness in the universe and not something specific that you have gone through. Sometimes it’s just this way lonesome song and everybody can relate to it, it’s univeral, because everyone has those moments, you know, where a button is pushed and suddenly you’re back to zero.”
One of his grandfathers (the one that wasn’t a leading light in New York’s avant garde Fluxus movement) was a Presbyterian minister in Kansas. Is there any kind of religious faith that holds Beck up during those back-to-zero moments?
“My mother’s Jewish, so we celebrated Jewish holidays from a very young age. They also did Scientology, so that was around. And when we stayed at my grandfather’s…. it was just what he did. He was so loved and respected by his congregation, so I was proud of him.”
A mix, just like his albums?
“Yeah, different things. I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions. Going to Japan and the east struck a chord with me from the first time, and I have a real connection there.”
Scientology of course gets the most attention, in particular from the conspiracy theorists.
“Oh God, what isn’t there conspiracy theories about? You type yourself into the internet and you’ll be…. Anyway. There’s a lot of junk out there. A lot of untruth and Chinese whispers.”
So tell us something positive about Scientology.
“Positive things? Just I’ve never – I’ve rarely – seen a group of people who were so dedicated to helping people in their community, there’s whole aspects that, you know you probably don’t see. There’s centres where they help kids learn how to read and they have the success rate of getting hardcore addicts off drugs, 90-something-per cent maybe, just different programmes and things like that, that are just impressive. Let’s see, what else? I guess that’s it.”
What does it do for him personally?
“You wouldn’t believe the dedication. This is something my father has been doing for coming on 40 years, maybe. So it’s a very, you know, he’s… I think it’s really something that’s helped him a lot, and there’s aspects of it that have helped me. If it’s something that, um, helps you in your life it’s a positive thing, so… All I have to say is for people — you can’t really make a judgement on something unless you know something about it first-hand. That’s always kind of being my policy in life, to learn about something before…. That’s that tricky area, where you start lapsing into tolerance. And we’ve all really seen what that’s done in the world. So many problems in the world stem from that kind of intolerance.”
Beck’s wife Marissa is open on her website about how much Scientology helped her in her acting career. Which brings us to the business of Beck’s relations with this new, more glamorous Hollywood circle.
“I feel like an outsider to that for the most. I don’t really feel …. I’m not…. I don’t really know…. That world is a little elusive to me. I think I just sort of have my head in my work and other things and never really noticed it.”
The work includes “photography, art things”, the Guero DVD – “a full-length visual piece of work that would represent the album artwork but that moves with the music”, and – keeping to his promise to himself of returning to an Odelay and earlier ouput – an album of acoustic songs he’s recording with Mutations producer Nigel Godrich ” that has no musicians, where it focuses on the voice”, and an EP he’s done, inspired by the kids who’ve been going round buying ’80s videogame equipment, hacking into and reprogramming them to turn them into sequences – as Beck enthuses,”getting music out of disused technology instead of getting a thousand dollar guitar .”
The Net claims he’s working with half of America’s musicians – mostly just people who “come by”, he says, like Jack White did when he was recording Guero. “He was in town doing the Grammys and they asked me to write a speech”, he laughs, “and the next day he said he wanted to play drums. We had a bunch of instruments set up all over the place and we’d just pick up things, play a while and switch around.” They’ve been talking about making a record together since they jammed on Agent 99’s theme song from Get Smart, and still might.
“I like to do things on my own, but I like to work with other people as well. It kind of feels like how they did it in the ’60s….”
Beck’s mobile trings, a message from home. We’re running over time and there’s still the photo shoot to do, in a favourite local haunts, a taco stand in a strip mall with one of the weirdest-looking supermarket facades, huge paintings of terrifyingly cheap, ludicrously Technicolor chickens and tripe. He’s brought a selection of his clothes from home – retro-student-meets-colourblind-pimp stuff – and smiles, “It’s sort of like dress-up, a childish aspect of what I do. I admire people like Bjork who kind of take it and run somewhere interesting with it. I try to have fun with – though the best part of it is writing songs.”
And with that he gets back into the Toyota – which as it turns out is a hybrid model, half battery, half petrol, the acoustic-electric, hip hop-folk of automobiles – and heads off in the rain.