At a recent benefit show in L.A., Beck proved yet again why he’s so difficult to categorize. Midway through his set, he played “Lost Cause,” a mournful ballad about divorce and emotional isolation. Mere moments after the song began, Will Ferrell wandered onto the stage in a red spandex unitard. He did an interpretive dance and dry-humped Beck’s pump organ. Beck complained at first, reminding Ferrell, “I gotta play that thing, man.” But before long, he went back to singing with the same thinly concealed grief in his voice.
You couldn’t ask for a better (or more confusing) summation of Beck’s musical sensibilities. At one moment, he can be almost unsettlingly vulnerable, exposing the raw nerves of his psyche for the world to see. And then, just as quickly, he becomes a clown again, delighting in ironic detachment and goofy antics. The transition happens so seamlessly that it’s often hard to tell where the honesty ends and the comedy begins, or even if there’s a difference (at least in Beck’s eyes) between the two.
Over the course of eight albums, Beck has provided ample evidence of an artist suffering from multiple personalities. He’s gone from the white-trash rock of Mellow Gold to the earnest folk of Mutations to the silly sex-funk of Midnight Vultures to the down-tempo introspection of Sea Change. His latest, Guero (Spanish slang for “white boy”), marks a return of the “funny” Beck, with its comic rapping and mariachi-style party anthems.
How does he do it? How does an artist go from “Satan Gave Me a Taco” to “Nobody’s Fault but My Own” and back again? How does he write lyrics like “Gettin’ crazy with the Cheez Whiz” and then, just a few albums later, “You gotta drive all night just to feel like you’re OK,” and somehow manage to keep a straight face? Unless the funny songs are really meant to be taken seriously. Or the serious songs are somehow funnier than we realize.
This interview took place by phone, as Beck was preparing to hit the road for yet another world tour. He spoke in a soft murmur, almost a whisper, and he took his sweet time answering my questions. On occasion, the silence dragged on for so long that I was convinced he’d hung up on me.
I. “I DON’T SEE NOTHIN’ WRONG WITH A LITTLE BUMP AND GRIND!”
THE BELIEVER: Your first few albums, like Mellow Gold and Stereopathetic Soul Manure, were made up almost entirely of jokey songs. Were you deliberately trying to become the court jester of indie rock, or was the role kind of thrust on you?
BECK: It was a combination of things. Humor was just one small part of what I was doing, but for some reason I didn’t always feel comfortable sharing the rest of it. The more personal songwriting I kept to myself. When I started out, I was playing solo gigs at places like Raji’s or Al’s Bar, kind of loud rock bars. I was contending with a crowd that was drinking and talking and smoking and really didn’t care about listening to some kid with an acoustic guitar. You had to work a little harder to get them to not ignore you, and playing funny songs was a way to do that. I was also trying to amuse my friends. They were coming to see me after work, and I wanted to let them know I knew they were there. So I’d make up a song about some inside joke we had, just something to make them laugh. But, y’know, a lot of it was about making fun of myself or the music business. Even when I got a record deal, I never really took it seriously. I assumed it’d all just go away after awhile. My thinking was, “This can’t possibly last. I might as well have a laugh before it disappears.”
BLVR: Did it bother you when you got labeled as the poster child for irony?
B: I hated it. First of all, it dismissed the other aspects of the songs. And I’m still not sure what was so ironic about what I was doing. Isn’t irony when you don’t mean what you say? I really did mean what I was saying in those songs. It wasn’t just a joke. They meant something to me, even when they were funny. Even the song “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs” from my first record. I really did live in an apartment above these gay, shit-kicking, speed-taking, truck-driving neighbors, who were actually quite violent and would have these horrendous fights. At one point, one of them took an axe and went and smashed all the windshields of the cars up and down the street. It was a really heavy scene and such a nightmare to live in the middle of, but the song that came out of it is kind of droll and humorous. I guess it was a way to try to make light of a difficult situation, which is sometimes the only escape hatch when you don’t have any options.
BLVR: You got pigeonholed right from the beginning because of “Loser.” If you were able to start your career from scratch, would you come out of the gate with a less blatantly funny song?
B: That’s a good question. [Long pause.] Probably not. But, y’know, I try not to worry too much about how people are gonna react. It is what it is. Everyone approaches a song with their own baggage and their own ideas. It’s weird, at the time I was writing “Loser,” I was really into Dada. I was reading a lot about Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara and Duchamp. And I was big on Artaud and the Theater of the Absurd. So, in my mind, “Loser” also had those influences. But not a lot of people picked up on that because it wasn’t wearing it on its sleeve. It was being filtered into some kind of haphazard rap song. Even the video for “Loser” was partly a take on Bunuel’s Simon Of The Desert. But if someone’s radar only goes as far as The Brady Bunch, that’s what’s going to get reflected back at you. That’s one of the limitations, that misunderstanding or misreading of what you’re doing. But it’s also where things get interesting and bizarre. You know, frat boys on Bourbon Street doing karaoke to my song, singing lyrics like, “Plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables, dog food skulls with the beefcake pantyhose.”
BLVR: Were the Dada influences a conscious thing at the time, or is it something that you look back now and notice?
B: It was very conscious. My grandfather [Fluxus artist Al Hansen] was involved in performance art, with John Cage and Al Hendricks and Yoko Ono. When I was growing up, he did a number of shows that, well, I guess you could call them “undetermined events.” Directions would be given, but what ended up happening would be left entirely to chance. There’d be a ballerina hanging from the ceiling and somebody marching around dressed as a soldier and somebody tied to a chair. They were ephemeral art moments. My brother and I really took these performances in. But when I tried to do something similar in music, it got misinterpreted as irony. Probably because I didn’t put it in the right context.
BLVR: The video for “Loser” could have passed for a very bizarre performance art piece.
B: Yeah, I like to think so. It must have seemed pretty random at the time. None of it was supposed to make sense, in a literal way. There was a moment when I’m running up to a car with a squeegee that’s on fire. That was taken from these homeless guys, like the kind you see hanging out next to the interstate off-ramps in LA. We had one of them in the video. In one shot, he’s playing my guitar by the freeway off-ramp and he turns and just spits. Probably one of the weirdest and darkest moments in MTV history.
BLVR: Were those actual homeless guys?
B: Yeah. I was friends with a lot of them. One of them sang on one of my records. I’ve always been interested in hobos and outsiders.
BLVR: Another song that’s pointed to as proof of your ironic intentions is “Debra” from Midnight Vultures. Were you poking fun at songs about seduction, or was there a sincerity to it?
B: Well, first of all, we did that song for fun, never intending to release it. The song had been around for years, and I’d pull it out live now and again. It always got a good reaction. I think “Debra” had more to do with contemporary R&B than people’s perception of the Al Green kind of R&B, which it would look like it was lampooning. It was more inspired by R. Kelly or Jodeci. When I would be driving to the studio, I’d hear R. Kelly on the radio all the time. His songs were just such sexually predatory, blatant declarations of what he was going to do to the girl, coupled with absolute sincerity and passion. (Sings) “I don’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump and grind!” There’s this combination of romance and unapologetic sexuality that doesn’t exist in rock music at all.
BLVR: Kelly probably didn’t intend for any of that to be taken as comedy.
B: Not at all. And that’s what’s so brilliant about it. R&B artists are so much more explicit about their sexuality. It’s like that R. Kelly song, “I Like The Crotch On You.” Y’know, he just comes right out and says it. It’s a seduction, but it’s also very matter-of-fact. It’s all about, “I’m gonna be doing this to you, girl. I’m just giving you some advance warning.” So “Debra” was my version of that. I was also kinda interested in what an artist is allowed to do and isn’t allowed to do. What’s permissible?
II. “IF YOU COULDN’T BRING THE PYROTECHNICS, YOU WEREN’T REALLY A VALID MUSICIAN.”
BLVR: I saw KISS Meets Phantom of the Park again recently. Do you remember that film?
B: Yeah, I saw it when I was a kid. I remember it vaguely.
BLVR: Apparently the members of KISS have super powers. I had no idea.
B: Well, sure. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?
BLVR: I forgot how gloriously stupid it was. And none of the humor was calculated. They genuinely thought that making a science fiction movie was a good idea. That seems to be something that’s missing in rock music today. Musicians aren’t quite so willing to embrace their inner moron.
B: Yeah, I kinda miss that. Most of that silliness in music is gone. At least here in America, the music industry doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about itself. The problem is that most musicians are afraid of being perceived as a joke or a novelty act. It can be threatening to the sincerity of the work. You come in danger of being perceived as ironic.
BLVR: I suppose that’s true. There’s that whole Dr. Demento stigma that gets attached to anyone who tries to be funny in their music.
B: It’s completely different overseas. There’s a Japanese band called The Boredoms who are amazing. I think they’re from Osaka. There’s absurdity in their performance, but there’s also a raw mixture of physicality and intelligence. They are pretty art damaged.
BLVR: Art damaged? What does that mean?
B: Well, it’s funny, but it’s also kinda artistic and strange.
BLVR: So their humor is meant to be tongue-in-cheek?
B: No, I don’t think so. It’s more… super-human. They’re just super-human in performance. During their shows, there are literally guys running up the walls and doing backflips.
BLVR: Wow. And that, of course, brings us right back to KISS.
B: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. That’s what’s missing in rock. There are just not enough super powers or bionic limbs.
BLVR: Speaking of wacky stage antics, I heard that during some of your performances in the early 90s, you used to burst out of a coffin during your guitar solos.
B: That was when I was in a punk-metal band called Loser. I’d been playing solo for years before that, but Steve Hanft asked me to be the lead guitarist in his band. The coffin thing was just a take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It was our low-budget, Home Depot version. I’d play most of the set in the closed coffin, and I wouldn’t come out till near the end when I would do the big solo. The door would kick open and I’d come out, wailing on the guitar. We also considered making an aerobics video.
BLVR: A heavy metal aerobics video?
B: Yeah. In a graveyard. Cause, you know, if you’re gonna be a head-banger, you have to maintain neck musculature. And you can’t rock out with flabby thighs.
BLVR: Did you listen to a lot of heavy metal as a kid?
B: No, I hated it. I grew up in LA during the whole hair-metal era. I was into Woody Guthrie and the 60s folk revival stuff. I was obsessed with all of those great Library of Congress recordings of folk artists. Hair metal was the antithesis of that, and I loathed everything about it. I hated the leopard-skin stretch pants and the poofy hair and the stupid posturing. It was so dominant during the time that it was almost oppressive. If you were into the Velvet Underground, you were screwed. There was such a narrow view of what was acceptable. It was really centered on how fast and virtuosic you could play, sort of an alpha male peacock thing. And if you couldn’t bring the pyrotechnics, you weren’t really a valid musician.
BLVR: When it comes to comedy and music, do you prefer the humor to be ironic or unintentional?
B: I guess it depends on what it is. I think the best humor is done with a strait face, so you don’t know if it’s ironic or unintentional. It’s just uncomfortable or out of place, and that discomfort makes you laugh. The Frogs are a nice combination of the two. Their songs are melodic and have a kind of sensitive singer/songwriter sound, but at the same time, they’ve got a lead guitarist that wears giant wings on stage. So the humor is half-intentional, and half is just a reflection of their personalities. It seems like they’re opening their minds and letting all the random shit come out, without putting too much thought into what it means. Maybe that’s why they’re funny, because they tell the truth.
BLVR: And then there are musicians who are funny without meaning to be, like Wesley Willis.
B: Or Gary Wilson.
BLVR: Is he the guy who made an album in his parent’s basement?
B: Yeah. You Think You Really Know Me is just a remarkable record. It came out in the late 70s, but I first heard about him maybe ten or twelve years ago. I actually name-check him in “Where It’s At”. His stuff is like an odd precursor to early 80s Prince, but with a piano bar, Holiday Inn-band tinge to it. It’s very original, with a dark undercurrent. There’s a song on You Think You Really Know Me that was very inspirational to me for a while. It was called “6.4 = Make Out”. And I absolutely love “I Wanna Lose Control”. It had some of my favorite party lyrics of all time. “I wanna lose control for about 15 minutes and then I’m gonna be real cool for the rest of the night.”
BLVR: He sounds a lot like Daniel Johnston.
B: Yeah, in that self made and completely original way. I first heard and learned Daniel Johnston songs from someone on the street in New York, which is a testament to a great songwriter. I thought they were old songs. Y’know, old standards that had been passed down from generation to generation. I found out later that they were written by this guy from Texas, and the whole backstory about him.
BLVR: You recorded a cover of Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In the End.” Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
B: I did get to meet him a year ago, at a music festival at the Queen Mary. He was standing in a field and I just walked up and shook his hand. He had no idea who I was. We didn’t even talk. I didn’t want to bother him.
BLVR: He’s somebody who could never be accused of being ironic.
B: Everything he does is from the heart. It’s that spirit you have when you’re a kid that dissipates and gets worked out of you in adulthood.
III. “PEOPLE FORGET THAT BEFORE THE MICROPHONE, YOU HAD TO BE A BELTER.”
BLVR: You seem like somebody who has an amazing record collection.
B: I have a random collection of things I’ve stumbled across or things that interest me.
BLVR: Where do you go to find your music? Is there some insanely cool used record store in LA that you can recommend?
B: Hmmm. No, not really. I used to be a regular at the Swap Meet in Pasadena. That was usually where you could find the best records. You had to get there early because all the DJ kids would show up by five or six in the morning. They’d be standing there when the boxes were still being unloaded out of the vendor’s van. I’d get there at six-twenty and everything was already picked over.
BLVR: So where do you get your music these days?
B: Well, there’s an Amoeba Records in LA that’s really good. And when I’m in New York, I always try and check out Other Music. You can pretty much find everything you need online. Most of the best stuff I’ve found when I’ve been traveling, especially in Japan. They put out all kinds of weird recordings. They don’t seem as concerned with dealing only with artists who are going to sell millions of records. They don’t have a problem putting out, say, three hundred copies of something. The last time I was over there, I got these weird French 70’s TV show soundtracks. I wouldn’t even know how to describe them.
BLVR: Are you more interested in vinyl records or CDs?
B: CDs, mostly. The vinyl thing has gotten to a point where it’s so collectible and so exclusive. You can’t always find what you’re looking for, because some of the best stuff isn’t being made on vinyl anymore. I just want to hear the music, so I’ll usually stick with CDs.
BLVR: If you’ve never heard of an artist and know absolutely nothing about them, what would make you pick up a CD?
B: When I was a kid, it was the artwork. When I was looking through the stacks at a record store, I used to pick albums by the year. If it was a soul or funk record between 66 and 74, then it was probably worth owning. These days, well, I’m not sure. Sometimes the reason I pick up something is completely random. I take a lot of chances with things. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Bing Crosby.
BLVR: Never, in a million years, would I have predicted that.
B: [Laughs.] I like a lot of his early stuff. I just read a book by Gary Giddins called A Pocketful of Dreams. It’s about Bing and the pre-rock era. He was a part of that transition from minstrel shows and vaudeville to the coming of the microphone and the intimacy that it brought. There were certain things he was doing back then that we take for granted today. People forget that before the microphone, you had to be a belter. If you wanted an audience to hear you, you had to have a tremendously powerful voice. But the microphone allowed for certain subtleties in a singer’s voice. And Bing was one of the first to realize what was possible. I just find it fascinating.
BLVR: Can you still enjoy music as a fan, or is it impossible for you to listen to a song without dissecting it?
B: I’m absolutely a fan, first and foremost. I’ll always consider myself a music fan, whether it’s a new band or something I’ve been listening to for years. I still remember what it’s like to discover an album or a band for the first time, or to be in an audience and caught up in the excitement of a show. I think it’s important to hold on to that. And I know how much work it takes, so when someone comes up with something miraculous, I can only appreciate it.
BLVR: Are you always on the lookout for an interesting melody or snippet of sound to use in one of your songs?
B: Not really. I come up with most of my stuff on an acoustic guitar or a piano. When I was younger, I’d find records and pull out a drumbeat to use. But that’s just because we couldn’t afford to hire a drummer, and I was too lazy to learn how to play the drums myself. It’s what they do a lot in hiphop, mostly out of necessity. Loop up a beat. But mostly, I listen to music for pleasure. It’s not like I pick up albums because I’m looking for some idea. Song making is a really personal thing and has to come from somewhere in you that you can’t even define. I remember when Odelay came out, there were certain things on that record that I thought were original in terms of production. And then somebody played me a record by this group from the mid-60s called Os Mutantes. They were using a lot of the same musical tricks from Odelay we thought were new.
BLVR: Did that frustrate you? Did you just want to throw up your fists and curse them for beating you to the punch?
B: Not at all. It just proved to me that nobody is an island. As much as people want to be original and unique, I think that we’re all part of a dialogue. In three hundred years, we’ll begin to see how all the current music is related, and the superficial divisions will start to recede. Time is going to be the great leveler. The casual listener probably doesn’t differentiate between Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven all that much. What makes us think it’s not going to be the same with our current music in a few hundred years? As time goes on, you start to see how music is actually part of the same story. Nobody is really doing a separate thing.
BLVR: You’ve covered a massive array of musical genres. You’ve done country, folk, R&B, dance music, gospel, and blues, to name just a few. Is this part of a continual search to find the right genre to express what you want to say at that moment, or do you just get easily bored?
B: Honestly, I really don’t think about it. I don’t differentiate between genres. I think of them as buttons or levers on the same machine. They’re all part of the same language. With Sea Change, there were certain parameters or rules that I gave myself. I wanted it to have a specific sound. But on Midnight Vultures, it was more of a free-for-all. Bad ideas, good ideas, putting ten drumbeats on the same song. We tried everything and anything. It’s not like I sat down and said, “This is gonna be an R&B album.” We ended up putting some R&B-ish songs on the album, but when we were recording it, we also did a lot of softer, quieter songs. For whatever reason, they didn’t end up making the cut. One day I’d like to release a more complete version of that record.
BLVR: You get compared a lot to Bob Dylan.
B: Really? I’ve heard myself compared to a lot of things, and not particularly of a musical nature. That’s on the order of getting compared to the Himalayas or the Rock of Gibralter. He’s the yardstick for so many. A music metric system or something.
BLVR: Sea Change has been called your version of Blood on the Tracks. And Mutations is supposedly your John Wesley Harding. What about the rest of the Beck canon? I guess One Foot In the Grave would have to be your Basement Tapes. Midnight Vultures was your Highway 61 Revisited, because it’s when you went electric… again.
B: Um, I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t really think of it that way.
BLVR: Oh come on, it’s fun. What about Mellow Gold? Was that your Another Side of Bob Dylan, or was it your Blonde On Blonde?
B: It’s probably my Yanni Live at the Acropolis.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June/July 2005 issue of The Believer Magazine.)