By Colin Stutz; photos by Peter Hapak on February 25, 2014
There have been more lost Beck albums than you could know; some of his best work never revealed.
There was the one that would have followed Odelay in 1996, fueled by a creative fluidity, the advanced development of a similar thought...but lost, stifled by three years of touring. Heralded as a boundary-pushing artist with the seamless blend of genres—from funk and soul to rock and rap—that played like a perfect stylistic amalgam for an era at the cusp of an epic shift, Beck Hansen got caught up in a system that kept him from seeing those ideas through.
By the time he did make it back in the studio, he says, there had been such a shift in music; there were so many people already imitating that sound: “That moment where those ideas would have been relevant was just gone.” That unheard album still haunts him. “It’s something I always think about,” Beck says. “And I think Guero in some ways was a record trying to fill in some of those missing holes, even though it was 10 years later.”
There were also the dozens of demo tapes misplaced on tour following the release of 2002’s delicate landmark Sea Change. While he felt his earlier songs had been very simple, these songs were different: “The songwriting, the chords and the ideas were much more evolved. [I was] going somewhere really exciting and kind of substantial.” But after a show, the bag holding those tapes was accidentally left behind, and with it, all the ideas therein—too complicated to commit fully to memory. Those songs, too, were gone for good.
And then there was that “very alien” album that he started just a week after the tour for 2008’s Modern Guilt ended, holing himself up in the studio for months. “The musical ideas were far, far out,” Beck says. Farther out than anything we’d heard from him before; straight-up weird, but in a way that felt right. “There’s a certain movement, momentum, there’s a place where music is, it’s just steamrolling ahead,” he explains, spreading his arms wider and wider. “And then if you just run way out there... on that specific record, I wanted to go, ‘I don’t know if this kind of music is ever gonna happen or if anybody’s gonna like it, I’m just gonna do it.’”
But the timing was off. He had just finished his contract term with Interscope and didn’t have any record deal ready to release an album. He got busy on other things, namely production work, teaming with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore, and Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks. “And then when I came back to it,” he says, “right then I think that Kanye West record [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy] came out, and some other things where I just felt like, ‘[my work] isn’t as vital now. It kinda feels like what’s happening already.’” And so, the work was shelved.
“When I think back over the time I've been making music, I feel like there’s a lot of it that got lost,” Beck says. “Some of the best music that I could have made didn’t get made.”
He’s sitting in a second-floor room of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, a 220-foot-tall Los Angeles monument shaped like a stack of records on a turntable and the musician’s new label home. Beck Hansen, too, in his own right is a monument to the city. The cherub-faced blonde-haired beatnik grew up not far from here, dropping out of school after junior high, working menial jobs and couch-surfing his way into the local music scene by playing off-beat folk tunes in clubs and coffeehouses. His breakout hit “Loser” exploded as a generational slacker anthem in 1994 as a fluke of sorts—a genre-mashing experiment, really—awkwardly throwing Beck into the middle of major-label bidding wars and hype. Over the past 20 years, he’s followed up on that initial culture blast in a deliberate, careful, wholly unique manner, pulling influences and styles liberally from this city and beyond. The legend of Beck, now 43, is like local mythology for aspiring artists—proof of possibility.
He leans back in a boxy lounge chair, wearing a brimmed black hat, a skinny black blazer, grey jeans and pointy black shoes. Darkness has just set over the city and the bright, flickering lights of Friday night in Hollywood are beginning to seep into the room, subdued by tinted windows and the artist’s calming air. In his speech, in his attitude, there is a sense of patience, of confidence; it’s a modest assurance that whether or not he gives thought to these lights or lost albums, they will not trouble him.
In the way he works, Beck is a transcendental exception to so many artists whose output is linearly focused just on what comes next. He will hang onto an idea for many years before it is formed or finished. He will pull songs that are more than a decade old for a new release. He shelves plans for years and years, never forgetting, but returning to them later. Song Reader, for instance—the 20-song book of sheet music he released in late 2012—had been one of those ideas. That project, in lieu of an audio album, he had first thought up early in his career but put off until the time was right. His creative nature is cyclical this way.
As it has been consistently in his career, much of Beck’s brilliance lies in the unspoken suggestion that this all comes easily to him, that his artistic range is more eccentric than intentional. Maybe it’s just easier on us, actually, to make this assumption, that he acts with independence from anyone or anything but himself. But even a chameleon does not choose his next color on a whim. Beck is much the opposite of what we like to think. He’s absolutely considerate of context; he’s aware of what he’s done, relating to it by way of aesthetic through-lines. In conversation, he uses the word “evolving” repeatedly. As he picks up the threads of thoughts over this time, the past two decades look now like groundwork for what will come.
“Sometimes if you get an idea, it’s hard to know what to do with it yet,” he says. “I can see the building but I don’t know where the door is. I have to figure out how to get in there.”
Beck calls his new album, Morning Phase, a record he was “putting off.” He’d wanted to make something like this maybe five years after Sea Change, he says, “but I felt like I needed to do some other records to sort of carve some new ground that I could build off in the future.” Morning Phase began as a country record made of sessions in Nashville from 2011, but the style shifted to a sound familiar in its gentle scope and arrangements, reuniting the players from Sea Change and recorded in bits and pieces over time. He kept some of those country tracks, while others harken back more than a decade to the early 2000s. The organic nature of the songs is in peaceful contrast to most new highly synthesized music today.
“I’ve always felt guilt about rehashing something I’ve already done,” Beck says. “But I think that’s a negative attitude, so I’ve tried to change that and to try to appreciate things I’ve done in the past—like a Sea Change, or something like Odelay—and just embrace that that’s a sound I worked hard on and it’s a personal thing. Why not make music that sounds like that, you know?
“After years and years of all this experimentation and writing for other people and producing other records, I just wanted to do something that’s very simple and personal. Just ignoring a lot of the current sounds and trends and going with something simple, and not worrying about how I’m saying it.”
The first single from Morning Phase is the slow and heavy ballad “Blue Moon.” The song opens with a line we’ve heard before: “I’m so tired of being alone,” he sings, straight from the heart. He says this song came to him while reading Peter Gualnick’s biography Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Beck was thinking of The King in his final days, at the end of his run, living in a Las Vegas hotel room littered with spiritual books, separated from his family, performing nightly shows. “He’s far removed from where he started, which was this sort of beautiful, pure place,” Beck says. “He was just this kid who wanted to play music.
“And that’s just the way life is. It’s like the Talking Heads song—‘How did I get here?’ What is it? And I think that’s what happens around that period in your life. You get to a certain point where you’re just, ‘How did I...?’ I was thinking about Elvis at that moment and that was sort of heartbreaking to me.”
Elvis was 42 when he was found dead on his Graceland bathroom floor. At roughly the same age now, Beck’s life is hardly a parallel. He’s married with two kids, motivated and inspired, writing songs in his kitchen, in his bed, in the studio, without any specific routine or structure to his life, and as he created this new album was being liberated from back injuries that had crippled him for years before. “I really started to get better and I was just filled with this immense amount of hope and relief and excitement,” Beck says, “and just wanting to be part of life again and able to engage and use my music.”
But still, even in contrast, the story of Elvis is relatable enough. In more than two decades, how did Beck get here?
“I’m reading this book, and I’m the same age” he says. “I could relate to that cycle of time. I’m like, ‘Wow, here I am where I am, and he’s at the end.’”
The way Beck thinks about the world and about his work is anything but linear. Writing the songs on Morning Phase, he says, was a new yet familiar experience. “I was feeling...like when you’re coming back to something that you love after a long absence. It was very warm...it’s hard to say without coming up with something cliché. Sort of beginning again—the cycle. It feels like the beginning of another thing. Like anything where you’re sort of stuck sitting on the sideline, you have a lot you want to do and try.”
Today, he’s focused on another album he hopes will be released later this year. He claims right now he doesn’t have interest in making songs that, when performed, the audience listens, claps and says, “That was nice.” he says it will be the opposite of Morning Phase, and he’s focused on how the songs will play live. Where Morning Phase is more of a “personal thing,” an “internalized experience,” this new future album is about “the audience and it’s not a passive thing.” so Beck is working on those songs. You know the ones. He has a handful in his oeuvre already. He points to The Rolling Stones as an example of a band with hundreds of them—those songs that create a “primal experience” for the listener, “whether it’s 9-year-old kids or a 70-year-old man.”
“I’m trying to create some sort of happening,” he says. “There’s a life that happens between the music and the audience, and then this new space happens. When you come into that venue and it’s empty, it’s just a dead room. But then there’s something that happens and suddenly we’re in a new place. I don’t know if it’s an endorphin thing but there’s some sense that you’re just out of it, you’re not thinking about anything more and there’s a sort of perception change.”
Not that this is easy. For starters, he says, when you’re in the studio it’s about the opposite of the heightened experience of being onstage where there’s “a sort of expectation and an energy and a sense of possibility.” So he’s been putting himself in a place to mentally try and mimic that feeling before a show, “a sense of performance energy and momentum that you need to make those kind of songs.”
It’s too soon to say how those songs will turn out, or the range of genres beck may tap to create them. But it’s on his mind, as are influences. “I think that musicians are leap-frogging off of each other all the time, and I think that’s positive,” he says. “Anybody who’s making music is just part of a great stream of music. You’re not the stream. I don’t care who you are. There’s just so many people doing it, that’s the idea. You just get in and it takes you along. It’s just being part of it.” Reflecting on his career, what he’s done and what he will do, Beck adds, “There’s no reason you can’t leapfrog off yourself.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 55