Spin: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
When you do a song like “Debra,” and people think you were being funny and kind of ironic, and then you do a song like “Lost Cause” and they think you’re being very sincere and personal, they champion that. Why do you think people still need sincerity over inauthenticity?
Good question. I mean, I think meaning exists within the listener. Somebody can be moved tremendously by a Neil Diamond song, or a John Tesh song, so it depends on who’s listening. But I’ve always been a fan of ambiguity, and I like art that elicits a mixed response. But I think the songs you’re talking about are pretty obvious: one is pretty tongue-in-cheek, and the other one is pretty heartfelt. But, as far as your question; I think it’s more of an American thing, a question of authenticity. I usually call it, I guess as you said, sincerity. I think for me and my favorite artists, it was always a mixture. Dylan, or the Stones, and, you know, most of those acts eventually got fairly goofy at points. My favorite artists are around that respect.
One band I was thinking about is the White Stripes. Are you a fan of them at all?
Yeah, oh yeah. I think they’re great.
They seem to kind of mix that kind of ambiguity, but I guess I’m just curious because during the Odelay period and during the Midnite Vultures period too, people would be like “Beck is the odd artist that MTV gets to play.”And now it seems like the White Stripes are filling that role. I’m just curious if it’s an odd role to play, and why you like that band?
Well, first of all they write good songs. I like what they do because there’s an aesthetic to it as well, and I always think that’s exciting in a band or a performer. And they seem to have created a world around themselves, which I think is strong. The extracurricular particulars that amplify the music are always exciting. And I love the blues too–I’ve been playing slide guitar since I picked up one. I’m glad to hear a band keeping that part of the language. As far as the MTV role, do you mean sort of more of an art?
Yeah, like when you were pastiching things together. Just generally someone who is playing with masks and dealing with these kind of things. Like you said with the American thing, we sort of allow some people to do things like that, and we sort of hold them to hold you to it, and offer up to a different standard in terms of how far you can go with it, or when it becomes kitsch, or when it becomes sincere insincerity. Have you found yourself dealing with these different perspectives over the years?
Well, I’m sure that even with a band like Sonic Youth, like their music worked on so many different levels for me. I remember going to shows in the late 80s and there’d be jocks there that just wanted to rock. And whether or not you were there to listen to the music or getting into some other ideas and their aesthetic, or just there to rock, you know? So, you’re gonna get that. Music has a basic impact that’s gonna appeal to different people and the artiness will translate to some, and will go over other people’s heads, and some wont even be aware of it, it depends on the interest of the listener. I think it’s important to put it there. Music should work on a basic level, and that level should have a good beat or have some interesting lyrics on it, but it’s nice when it’s got something else that you want to dig more into it, or if it’s got… if you unravel the cookie, and there’s a little junk in there. There’s something clever in it.
Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about how the record industry has been more concerned with the bottom line, and people getting dropped–people who’ve had long careers, getting dropped, like Wilco–have you noticed that, or have you been threatened by that? Was there a part where you thought “Boy, I may lose my record contract,” or has it pretty much been smooth sailing?
Um, I’ve sealed myself in, even from the beginning. When record companies first wanted to sign me I was extremely wary. That was right around the time Nirvana came out, and the record industry was still hair metal and ’80s dance pop, so it wasn’t a real risk to think that you could play anything outside those two areas. The atmosphere has definitely changed. The atmosphere when I put out my first couple of records was much different, there was much more of an expectation for the artist to push things. It was at least accepted. That atmosphere, whatever liberties were in that, have evaporated.
You were pretty successful, so did you get a sense that they might evaporate for someone like you?
Yeah, well I never tried to really play the game. I never tried to be a real commercial artist, so I never put myself in that place. I just do something different. But, yeah I know what you’re saying, I think that exists, but it only exists if you go along in agreement with it. Like I talk to some of these younger bands, you know, who are doing exactly what they want to do. And some of them are really smart, and they’ve gone into the thing much smarter than I was, or bands I knew ten years ago.
Like, do you think that they know they have to be smarter or they know they’re fucked?
Yeah, well, they’re just evolving. Musicians are just evolving. Young bands know that if people want them, they get the rights to their songs, and then you realize you don’t actually own your music anymore. I mean, I don’t want to complain; I don’t want to come off as one of those guys. I’m grateful. I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love what I do, and I’m lucky to make records, but I think younger bands… you know, you see the cookie cutter bands, but in the last year you see bands who are doing and saying whatever they want, and they’re bringing something new. It doesn’t sound like it was prescribed by an executive.
Right. Which young bands do you like that have come around in the last year?
Last year? Um, I like this whole little wave, the New York bands… I’m trying to think of who else I am into.
What do you think these new bands do? It seemed like for a few years there was an indie rock world that could almost touch the mainstream. And that kind of went away for a while, and now it seems like it’s coming back. And as someone who has sort of weathered this bullshit, which of these bands do you see as, sort of… I guess, what do you think these bands are doing well, and why do you think people are interested?
Well, again, they’re writing good songs. Some of them are writing good songs. They’re saying something in an interesting way, you know. That’s all it is, and the rest of it is the fanfare, and the style of the moment, and the cut of the pants. Which is all fun, but, yeah, it all starts with the songs. The Strokes have some good songs, and the White Stripes have some good songs, At the end of the day, that’s the main thing that’s gonna affect people.
People will often write things like “whether he knows it or not, Beck has written a perfect window to the post-9/11 world.” How tedious does that get, and what’s that like when you’re sitting down to write a song and be like, “people are going to think I’m singing about Enron”?
Well, I think it’s funny what people describe what your intentions are. I mean, again, it’s subjective. The meaning is with the listener. The intent is with the listener. And that’s the duty of the songwriter. For me it’s not as much of a… I mean, the song belongs to whomever is listening to it. The song’s mine to a degree; it’s what I’m putting out there, and I always like to say that I’d rather people think if themselves, their lives, their own perspectives. If a song’s good, it’ll perform for somebody else. It’ll set whatever it needs to set. There are songs that express a different viewpoint that expand on. I don’t read a lot of stuff. I remember when 9/11 happened, I had written most of this record, and I was getting ready to go do the record, and I don’t know, maybe this isn’t the right mood right now. My instinct is usually to go against the mood.
Oh, that’s interesting. Because if you would have made a fun record, people would have been like “Oh, he’s being frivolous in this time of dire sincerity.” And I guess that would have been nice to have a record like that. Would that have troubled you if you that would have been the response to another Midnite Vultures record?
I always think that’s funny. I think frivolity is necessary. I love it when an artist embarks on something frivolous with the intent of making something artistic, that isn’t just product. Like, that’s one of my favorite thing about Prince, or artists of the band drew genre. I understand the current rock hierarchy where in the pyramid of great music certain kinds of music is blasphemy. You know, I’m really pressed to put Busta Rhymes up there, you know? Put him up there with artists of great importance. But, I don’t think I really answered your question… I would have liked to put out a record like that, I had these songs, and you kinda have to turn one page to get to another, and if I didn’t do them, it wouldn’t have been as easy to get through next week. But I was also in a mood to do something different, because Midnite Vultures was so extreme in what it was. It’s so… giddy. But, you know, I’m a fan of those Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk-style records.
I know you’re going to be playing some shows with the Flaming Lips, and one thing I’ve always liked about them is they do a rock spectacle like you do, but it has this sort of sincerity, and Wayne Coyne has always been good at humanizing these grand spectacles and art-rock gestures, and making them seem personal and private. How did you guys meet, and what is it about that band that drew you to them?
Well they were the first band that came to mind. And your interview here is great, because you’re already feeling exactly coming from where I’m coming from. But, I guess it’s because the fact that there’s a sincerity to their work; a human quality. The humanizing quality of Wayne and merging spectacle with art. And they do have that heartfelt quality, but they do sort of come from an artistic [background]–they don’t take themselves too seriously–they have that balance, which I love. Like people either take themselves way too seriously or they sort of do themselves a disservice by demeaning their talent in some way. But, yeah, they have that balance.
Is it difficult to keep that balance? Like sometimes it’s easy to go too far to one side.
Oh, I go way too far usually. And I realize it later and I’m horrified, but I’ve resigned myself to that. You do sort of make an ass out of yourself, but it’s inherent in rock unless you’re one of those bands that just stands there and stares at their amps–which is fine–but I feel that if people came to see something, then if I have to turn myself inside-out, I usually do it, because I feel like that’s what they want. I come from the school where a rock show should be an event–something eventful needs to happen. I’m trying not to say something too corny.
Well, my questions are pretty corny.
Oh no, I am pretty corny.
Well, it’s an important aspect of being a sincere, honest performer.
But corniness does not read well on the page.
Yeah right, I’ll try to doctor your quotes to alleviate anything in that direction. I think I’m sort of out of questions…
Those were good questions. What was the first one again?
(definition of first question) And actually, I was going to ask you a snarky question. Which song is more sincere, “Debra” or “Lost Cause”?
Oh okay, actually it’s all in the way you sing them. The emotion level of the current record is pretty real. I mean, I listen to it and, I’m like “Yeah, I’m upset.” And it wasn’t just like “Let’s sing some sad songs.” Otherwise I wouldn’t usually do this sort of thing, it’s kind of uneven to do it. For me, comedy is much more difficult, you know? Writing a song that makes people laugh is much harder than writing something that is sort of leaning onto the gravity of the situation. Hopefully both aspects of that reside in all of us, and I think that makes us human. You fluctuate throughout the day. That’s just living. I don’t understand how a performer could compartmentalize himself, you know, when a human being wouldn’t.
You’re a big Dylan fan, I imagine?
Yeah, of course.
Which do you like, the Blood on the Tracks Dylan more or the Blonde on Blonde? Are you more drawn to the guy who’s playing games with identity, or the guy who’s sort of saying things sincerely?
No, to me, I don’t compartmentalize. I like the whole thing. I like that he does the whole gospel thing, I always loved Desire, that was always one of my favorites. I even like Self Portrait a lot.
And that’s funny, because that’s an oft-maligned Dylan album, but now it’s kind of funny, because it’s him taking all these things together and saying this was him, kind of like what you and other people were doing in the ’90s.
I think there’s got to be room for both. That record, it’s got that weird first song, but if you get through it, there’s songs on there that sound like anything from Desire or Blood on the Tracks.
Well, that’s what’s funny, like the first song, it’s all just a chorus, and it’s hard to imagine a rock star in 1970 not being on the first song on his album.
I know, which was kind of badass. Like, when I heard that, I was like “This is kind of genius. This is way ahead of its time.” It was probably the most extreme thing he could do. Everyone else was out of their minds on acid, with 15 amps cranking, doing 45-minute guitar solos. It was dentist artist music. It’s kind of more Butthole Surfers than anything else.
You mention an album like Desire, which has a song like “Hurricane,” which is this long, topical thing. Ever try to write to song like that?
Yeah, I did. I wrote a bunch of those when I was younger. What I did earlier was a lot of what I was doing on Sea Change, like folk, love-ballads, and more topical songs. Some of them I was trying to tackle some things. Like, late ’80s, I was influenced by things like Public Enemy, but rap music seem like a better vehicle for that type of expression. I tried to do those sorts of things, but it sounded like I was trying too hard. I did write some. Like, there was this newspaper story of these two kids in the Napa Valley who were in a pickup truck and were doing Nitrous hits and they wanted to get higher so the rolled up the windows and filled the cab with Nitrous and they died. And it was in the newspaper. And so I wrote a song about it called “Fume:” “There’s a fume / In this truck / And I don’t know if I’m dead / Or what / The fuck.” I wrote a song about a friend, who–there’s this Silverlake street fair that they have every year–and he ended up drinking too much and eating too much and there was this girl he liked, and he ended up throwing up on her. I wrote a song about that. Stories in the neighborhood, stories about my friends, things like that.Actually there was a song on the first record, there’s a song, “Truckdriver,” that I illegally recorded.
(break in interview–conversation picks up during a discussion about the White Stripes)
Spin: And these bands–the White Stripes–by creating this little mythology, it says to kids “Hey, you can make a new world for yourself,” and I think that’s pretty inspiring.
I think you’re right. It’s creative. It’s great to see a show. I remember when Odelay came out–actually before that–I was trying to do this New Wave/Delta Blues revival or something, or whatever you wanted to call it. But I had the band doing moves, they were choreographed somewhat, we started bringing out cheap props, whether or not it was a cane or a slide, and I remember at the time, it was like “Woah! What are you guys doing?”
It seems like after Kurt Cobain people were so scared to act like they were having a good time. And that’s why bands like the White Stripes or the Hives seem like they have come out of nowhere.
Yeah they kind of remind me of…
It probably reminds you of things you were trying to do when people said you couldn’t do it.
It’s a little more open now. You can only do one thing for so long. I think it’s gotta evolve, it’s alive. So thank God bands are coming in with new ideas, it keeps it alive for everything.