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Bringing Beck Alive

By: Chuck KlostermanThere was a time when Beck could’ve been accused of acting weirdfor the sake of acting weird. However, now that he’s 31, he’sacting more mature and a little more human, which somehow makes himeven weirder. His excellent new album, Sea Change, is anearnest exploration of loss and primitive yearning, a departurefrom 1999’s kitschy Midnite Vultures. Has the troubadour of’90s irony finally gone all-the-way sincere?

Spin: Do you ever feel as though the media has turned on you?
Beck: That the who has?

Well, after Mellow Gold, everybody said you were cool. Then you made Odelay, and everyone said you were a genius. And then MidniteVultures came out, and all the people who had called you a cool genius were suddenly writing about you as if they no longer took you soseriously.
First, I have to say that I don’t really read much about myself, so I don’t have much perspective on this issue. I do notice that thingschange, and I’ve seen how you’re in everyone’s favor, and then you fall out of favor. My only personal experience was this guy who wrote adiatribe against “slackerism.” It was something about the co-opting of ’80s indie-alternative culture, and I got pretty beat up. This was,like, eight years ago. But then the same writer who delivered that “He’s a loser, and I want to kill him” diatribe came to one of my showsin Los Angeles two years later and wrote this incredibly generous concert review. And I was like, “Is this even the same person?”

In fifty years, I suspect somebody will make a TV documentary about the end of the 20th century, and when they touch on the mid-1990s,they’ll probably play a song like “Loser.” Would you find that interesting, flattering, or absurd?Probably all of the above. Probably a nice cocktail of all of those. But we’re not there yet. Maybe they’ll use “Whoomp! (There It Is)”instead.

Are you surprised that Midnite Vultures didn’t perform better commercially?Well, it did sell two million copies. That’s not an easy feat for anyone. I put a lot of work into that record, but it was a weird album.It was a chance to do something totally ridiculous. And I think it’s interesting that Midnite Vultures was by far my most successful recordin different parts of the world. In France and Spain, they couldn’t really give a shit about everything else I’ve ever done, but MidniteVultures was huge. Certain things translate culturally more than others, so we ended up spending a lot of time touring in Europe.

You used the word ridiculous. Did you really think that of Midnite Vultures when it was released? I thought you were just trying toexpress your love of Prince.There was always a sense of humor and ridiculousness to it. Lyrics like “Touch my ass if you’re qualified” are sort of ridiculous. I mean,I’m talking out of my neck, which is usually what I do in most interviews. The ramifications are usually lost on me until it’s far too late.It’s like this: There were certain bands I loved when I was twelve, but once they’d hit big, they’d go into this safety zone and stay awayfrom the edges. That always made me sad. And I remember thinking that I would never do that.

What did you want to do?I’m willing to do things that aren’t cool. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by songs I’ve written, because they’re so silly. Even I think they’restupid. But you have to get them out of your system. You almost have to write three bad songs before you write one great one. Music can getdry and stilted when artists are trying to write only great music. If you’re trying to do something meaningful and your attitude is “I’mgoing to do something meaningful,” it doesn’t work. Sometimes there is more resonance in a 99-cent store than there is in an existentialvoid.

Would you classify your new album as folk music?I don’t know. That’s such a blanket term. The album was written on acoustic guitar, and it has acoustic guitars on it, so I suppose itqualifies. It’s the same producer and the same musicians who made [1998’s] Mutations, but that was a difficult experience because Mutationshappened so fast. We made that record in two weeks. This was a reunion of those people, but it’s a different group of songs. They’re simplesongs, but still interesting. [Producer] Nigel Godrich had a huge role in shaping them, and he was adamant about not letting it sound likeMutations. We weren’t allowed to use any Moog or analog synthesizers, because we did that on the last record. I didn’t care, really; we couldhave made a record exactly like Mutations, and I wouldn’t have minded. There are connections, but this is a totally different time and atotally different place. Well, I suppose it’s the same place, actually….So what is your last name, by the way?

[For the next few minutes, Beck interviews me about my career in writing and my interest in music. He concludes thusly:]

What I find with interviews is that they all contain the same aspects, and they all have the same character. There are always reporterlyquestions, and there are always interviewee-type answers. There is always rote behavior. When I do interviews, people ask me questions thatnobody in my real life ever asks. And I have to pause, because they’re usually things I’ve never thought about before. It’s almost likereporters are guys who see a pretty girl and want to talk to her, but they don’t know what to say. So they say all the things they thinkthey’re supposed to say in order to make it work.

I agree. People always ask me what it’s like to talk to rock stars, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever “talked” with any of them; I’ve only”interviewed them,” which is different. I always feel obligated to ask certain questions. For example, I feel obligated to ask you why thereare so many rumors about you being a Scientologist.I feel like that is old news. People know about that. My dad’s been a Scientologist for thirty-five years, and he was very public about that.My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and my mother raised us Jewish, so I’ve had lots of influences. But whatever.

You once predicted that in the future pop stars will wear suits covered in cigarette butts. Do you still believe this reality isimpending?Yes, although they will also wear bubble wrap. I would like to see Enrique Iglesias in such an outfit.