From anti-folk Loser to Grammy golden boy, Beck comes full cir­cle

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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