BECK TO THE FUTURE
From anti-folk Loser to Grammy golden boy, Beck comes full circle
Beck doesn’t mind repeating himself. Last year’s Morning
Phase, a beautifully produced, glacially slow album of bittersweet isolation is essentially a sequel to 2002’s Sea Change, featuring many of the same personnel and the same melodically downbeat mood.
For a long time, he says, he thought “repeating” was “cheating.” Now he looks at returning to old themes as “a deepening of the conversation.”
It took him a decade to get up the courage to put Sea Change itself out. “[The songs] were no different from things I was doing when I was 18,” he says.
“[But] this was so far from what I was known for, that I assumed that they wouldn’t want to hear something like Sea
Change. When I finally got the courage to do it, I said, ‘well, I’ve done four or five like the other things, I’ll just do one for myself’.
“The sound of Sea Change was something I worked on and developed for probably 15 years before it came out. It wasn’t hatched out of thin air.”
When he first toured it, people were walking out. Now people frequently tell him that it’s their favourite of his records.
Twentieth-century Beck went for width – eclectic references hastily sketched in a way that helped cement Generation X’s reputation for flitty, ironic detachment. In the 21st century, he’s gone for depth – slowing down, exploring formats.
“I always thought of those [early] records as sort of collages of disparate sounds of music, almost a greatest hits of an alternate world – not to say that they were hits – but I was thinking of records as a compilation of ideas as opposed to something like
Morning Phase, which is an elaboration of one idea.”
Where did the eclecticism come from? “I was lucky that even though I didn’t grow up in a time of internet, I found some pretty far out records at an early age,” he says.
“By the time I was 14 I had found the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and Woody Guthrie and Sonic Youth and Blind Willie McTell. I found a rich base of music, just out of curiosity and hanging around record stores and second-hand shops . . . Obviously it’s more accelerated now because you can go online and get what you want.”
Once the king of lo-fi recording he’s more recently become a connoisseur of hi-fi. Now that it’s easier than ever to make a record, he says, he wanted to explore the benefits of doing it the hard way.
He worries that we’re losing the “craft of recording”. “Now with a laptop,” he says, “you could download for free software that could make a record that would sound as good as anything else out there, at the same time it’s all in this prefab digital world.”
He advocates getting a good audio system and listening to the old masters – Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, “early Dylan”.
“There’s a sound you just can’t get on a laptop,” he says, “just something so deep and human in the sound. It reaches you in a different way. There was a craft earlier in recording, especially after tape came in the ’50s when the recording engineers and tape machines were at the highest level.”
Indeed, he spent a long time “learning how to get the best recording with different microphones and rare equipment. One of the things I’m most proud of is the Grammy we got for the engineering on the record, because I probably spent two or three years before recording it developing the sound.”
He’s reluctant to say that his attitude to actual songwriting has changed. “Go back to a show in 1994 and see me playing Loser and Pay No Mind, and interspersed will be songs that were John Martyn- and Dylan-inspired,” he says, “but the audience would be moshing and throwing their keys at the stage and shouting or throwing beers. I’m not doing anything different. I’m just throwing a lot of things out there. What people pick up on more reflects them than what I’m doing.”
He doesn’t compartmentalise his own music, he says. “A song where I’m playing guitar and shouting and a song that’s more finger-picking and has a pretty melody and another one that’s more an R’n‘B dance song, it’s all part of the same thing,” he says.
“That’s the way that I was wired. To me it’s all music. If you go and watch a rehearsal of a musician, what you would see is not what you would see at the show. The show is just the part of themselves that they’re showing to the world . . . it’s marketing that’s just taught us to create a version and then put it out.”
So why has he managed to break out of the confines of marketing more than other artists?
“I didn’t end up coming out of a band,” he says. “You have certain personalities in a band that pin it down to a thing – which is something I always wished I had, but the trade off is a certain freedom where I can just go wherever I want and do what I feel like.”
He pauses and adds: “And it really felt like in the 1990s that no one was paying attention. The culture was so focused on . . .” – he gropes around for the words – “. . . heritage acts.”
A more intimate engagement with music was what he was trying to get at with the Song Reader, a collection of 20 new songs (“some of them are okay”) he released in a beautiful sheet-music format in 2012.
He had the idea first in the mid-’90s (“I have dozens of ideas for projects and I’ll probably never get around to most of them”).
“In the past 70 years, 80 years, we’re playing recordings for the first time to the point that in the last 50 years we’ve stopped playing music,” he says.
“We used to all play music together and that was the dynamic of a family, with a father and a son and an uncle and a nephew and a daughter and a grandmother, and all these people singing together.
“Imagine living in a society where almost every single person experienced that on a weekly basis? I think [music is] part of the human glue. Part of what humanises us is to sing together. It’s very powerful and therapeutic in lots of ways and we’re sort of missing those things.”
If he can’t recreate a communal musical culture, he is, at least, happy to be back singing to people himself. For a long time he was prevented from touring as much as he’d wanted due to a painful back injury he sustained while making the video for E-Pro in 2005. He is “vastly better”, he says.
And what’s his own assessment of Morning Phase?
“A lot of records being made and a lot of the music that I have made, is really shouting from the rooftops,” he says. “It’s attention getting and it’s loud, and maybe sounds good when it comes on in the car, but I wanted to make the kind of record that you can live with, that isn’t shouting at you. It’s more like a conversation.”
Beck plays Live At The Marquee in Cork on June 16th, with support from O Emperor; and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, on June 17th, with support from Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) soloists
I always thought of those [early] records as . . . as a compilation of ideas as opposed to something like ‘Morning Phase’, which is an elaboration of one idea