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The Boston Phoenix Slow Jamming

Beck reveals his inner soul man

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Remember when "Loser" first bombarded the airwaves in 1994, with its hillbilly hip-hop groove, Humpty Dumpty cadences, and thrift-store Dylanisms? Sure seemed like a likely candidate for one-hit wonder of the year, didn't it? And why not? Here was this weird little white kid rapping the nonsense blues with second-hand beats and silly-ass rhymes, fronting for the beaten generation as he backed himself into pomo corner and dared everyone to take a shot. It seemed a classic novelty tune, a "Convoy" for the Internet Café, with its irresistibly skewed hook and a slacker tone as topical in '94 as CB radios were in '74. Was there any reason to believe that its singer, a guy named Beck, would turn out to be one of the most consistently challenging and prolific pop artists of the decade -- or even to predict the extent to which the song's incorporation of hip-hop would foreshadow the major movement in pop music in the second half of the decade? Not really. Hell, even after the release of Mellow Gold (Geffen) proved that "Loser" wasn't a fluke, Eric Weisbard was still wondering whether perhaps Beck wasn't a "one-album wonder" in the Spin Alternative Record Guide.

But with the release of Odelay (Geffen) in 1996, and the touring that followed, it became abundantly clear that Beck was a strange but wonderful force to contend with. He had taken from hip-hop not just beats but the notion that music could be both pop and avant-garde at once. And his back-to-the-future collaging of '80s hip-hop, '70s disco, '60s funk, and deep blues was as vivid a reflection of the everything-and-the-kit(s)chen-sink aesthetic of the '90s as one might ever hope to find on commercial radio. There was another, more organic side to Beck's art, the one that fueled the lo-fi folk punk of 1994's One Foot in the Grave (K) before mutating into the Beatlesque '60s pop of the Mutations (Geffen) CD release last year. But that wasn't meant or taken as the rightful successor to the masterful Odelay. It was just a pleasant little distraction -- albeit the kind of pleasant little distraction that a lot of artists would sell their soul to the devil for -- en route to the new Midnite Vultures (Geffen), the next installment of the ever-evolving avant-hop-pop tale without a narrative that began with "Loser."

Midnite Vultures is perhaps the first Beck album for which expectations are really high. He went into it knowing that he was no longer an underdog but one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the decade. On the surface at least, it's as playful as anything he's ever recorded. But you also get a sense -- especially from the sometimes truly inspired vocal performances, the most genuinely soulful singing Beck's committed to tape -- that he's come to expect more from himself, that he's become more capable of taking himself seriously instead of hiding behind a veil of irony. With that in mind, I got Beck on the phone to talk about Midnite Vultures, soul music, underwear, and the relationship between avant-garde and pop. Here's some of what he had to say.

Q: Right off the bat, I'll just say that I really like the new album. But I also have to say that I was expecting it to be good. I mean, at this point you have a reputation for making great albums.

A: I was expecting a lot too. Some things I achieved and some things it's going to take the next record to do. Like, I had all kinds of electronic stuff I was doing that I'm still working on. But you can't do it all on one album. I mean, I would want to get as much as I could on one record. But at a certain point you have to let it go. It's not going to be perfect. It's not going to be the greatest thing you ever do. If you make your greatest record, then you can stop -- you don't need to do anything else. You have to be a little bit unsatisfied. So when I make a record, I always aim to make it, if not great, then at least interesting. You know, if you're going to blow it, then you should blow it in an interesting way.

Q: Until now, you've had the luxury of being able to make a lot of albums -- six or seven -- without having to repeat yourself too much. But this album seems similar in approach to Odelay.

A: Yeah, to me Odelay evolved out of Mellow Gold and some of the rough awkward experiments on that record. And this record would be a continuation of that approach. Mutations was done in a very traditional, straight recording approach. So this is the first time since Odelay that I've gotten to go back and continue to develop the kind of music I've been working on for most of the last eight or nine years.

Q: You seem to have a bit of pattern in that you release a very Beck-like album, or an album that is in the vein of Odelay. And then you put out an album that's more traditional and organic, like Mutations and One Foot in the Grave.

A: Yeah. I think that's all part of what I need to do in order to get to the next place creatively. You need to be able to experiment and make some mistakes and have some fun. I have this whole folk side of what I do, and I continue to work on that and do that for my own amusement. And I don't really see that going away.

Q: Do you consciously distinguish between the two?

A: Yeah, they're definitely different. One I just do by myself, removed from any kind of environment where there's people or equipment or any kind of stimulation beyond me and a guitar or me and piano. And the other way is I'm doing everything ass-backwards and trying anything and everything. They both feed each other but they're different.

Q: One area where I hear a lot of what I guess I'd call growth on this album is in the singing. As a singer you seem to have come a long way, or maybe you're just doing things you've never felt comfortable doing on record. There are a couple songs where you sound like a bona fide soul singer.

A: I don't think I ever tried on the other records. I just really tended to toss off the vocals. I made no attempt to make the vocals a real performance. And that's one of the things that always really bothered me about my records. The vocals were usually tracked at three in the morning as everybody was going home, you know. So this time I made sure that I had people around when I tracked the vocals so that there would be an audience to perform for. I'd have members of my band hanging around endlessly for weeks just to have some other energy around when I was recording the vocals.

Q: Did you take any vocal lessons or have any voice coaching before you recorded this album?

A: No, never. I think I've always been able to sing like that. I just never bothered to do that on the records. I don't know why. I think I did feel a little more comfortable in the studio this time. You know, on my first record I was a bit more shy. I let loose here and there, but I was probably a little intimidated early on by the fact that you're putting down a vocal and it's for all-time. I didn't want to do anything I was going to be embarrassed by. Now I don't really care all that much. I don't mind making a fool of myself.

Q: When "Loser" came out, you were this weird white kid doing this hip-hop kind of thing, and that was unique in a lot of ways. But since then it seems every white kid in the country wants to be hip-hop. Heavy metal, the great white-teen suburban music of America, is sounding more and more like an offshoot of hip-hop. Do you feel any responsibility for that?

A: I don't know. I would assume that people in that world would think that I suck, just because I don't bother to try to be hard or wear the kind of clothes that you're supposed to wear. I just don't carry myself like that or speak in the code. I was definitely doing things with hip-hop 10 years ago. But I always knew it would be a mistake to try to make it legit, you know. I just did it in my own style. So I don't know if people would actually consider it hip-hop or not. I think in about '94 or '95 I was really into the idea of doing heavy music and rapping over it. I did a few songs like "Novocaine" and "High Five," and there were a bunch of other ones that never made it onto Odelay that were fusing that metal/hip-hop thing. But I didn't really pursue that because it seemed dorky to me.

Q: I hope I'm not bringing up a sore point here, but in the New Yorker earlier this year Hilton Als questioned the motives of your appropriation of black music. He essentially asserted that you were crossing some line and doing something that amounted to blackface, where you were making fun of African-American hip-hop culture.

A: That just seems like such a sad argument. Anything that evolves evolves out of different worlds colliding. I come from such a stew of cultures. But to me it's not a self-conscious thing and it's not appropriation, it's just natural to me. I think I'm just incredibly naive. I'm just doing what I feel inside. I mean, if what he's saying is right, then I'm just incredibly naive because I have no ill intentions. I'm just trying to express something.

Someone like Wanda Coleman was a mentor to me when I was younger. She took me in when I was about 13 or 14. She took me under her wing and I spent a lot of time over at her house. So my use of hip-hop doesn't feel contrived to me. And if it were contrived, I think I would have been shut down a long time ago. I don't even really feel like I need to defend myself because it's just kind of ridiculous. I mean, if you just saw me perform, you would get it. It's not about appropriation, it's about soul.

Q: On the other hand, there's certainly a tension that comes into play when a white person does a music that's associated with African-American culture. That's dangerous ground, and I think that's part of what makes what you do so compelling . . .

A: I can tell you, a very close friend of our family is an African-American gentleman who is an opera singer who performs with the LA company [Los Angeles Opera]. He's a close friend of my stepfather's, and he's been coming over for dinner for years. Should he not be allowed to sing opera? Should he not be allowed to sing Verdi?

One of the reasons I'm a musician is because music isn't divisive. It's a medium where you don't have to abide by divisions. The whole idea is anarchy and the best music just doesn't give a fuck. And too much music is just so conservative these days. So I really don't want to be careful about anything. And there's so much music that's trying to be offensive these days, trying to be aggressive and abrasive. But it's just cheap and manipulative. So if I can offend someone in a good way and challenge their belief system, then I think that's positive. I mean, I wonder what their problem with it is? I don't have a problem. Wanda Coleman doesn't have a problem with me singing like that.

Q: You mentioned soul music, and that's certainly a major influence on Midnite Vultures. But one of the things the classic soul singer does is lay his soul bare in a song through what he is singing about. Whereas your lyrics, even if they are in your mind confessional, definitely don't come across that way. Do you ever have the urge to write a straightforward love song?

A: I have hundreds of them. Straightforward in what sense? I mean, if you're hiding behind a bunch of clichés and psychobabble, then that's more evasive than a song like "Beautiful Way." To me that's a love song and those are heartfelt words.

One thing that I thought was really liberating for me was discovering all of these contemporary R&B slow jams. When I started playing music, my big influences were Delta blues and traditional gospel music. My stuff that I'm rooted in is like Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. I lived and breathed that stuff growing up. That's where I was coming from, and I just hated all the contemporary R&B stuff. So I really had to challenge myself and ask myself why I was reacting so strongly against this stuff. Why do I hate Boys II Men? So I started buying the records and listening to them. I grew to have an appreciation for it. I started getting into R. Kelly and Silk and Jodeci and all these bands. And something that struck me was that the soul thing was there, the gospel element is there, the emotional intensity is there. And also there's humor and sleaze and lecherousness and so many elements to it beyond the one-dimensional image of the soul man breaking it all down. If you listen to these R. Kelly songs, they're fucking hilarious. At the same time, he's deeply sincere, and there's real deep emotion and poignancy there. And then the chorus of the song is "I like the crotch on you." Now is he being funny? Or am I laughing because I don't get it? That's the fine line that I love.

I'm just so tired of the alternative-music world, because everything is just so simplified. It is what it is on the surface. In the R&B world you're set adrift. You're allowed to have this sexual bravado, but at the same time you're a family man who loves his mama. You're allowed to be masculine and you're also allowed to make fun of yourself. I just find that so much more interesting and genuine. And R. Kelly is completely adored. He can come out and sing something like "I'm fucking you tonight" straight up, that's what it is. And it's love and devotion, too. I find that to be much more subversive and punk-rock than any band who are playing loud guitars and wearing fake contact lenses and trying to be scary and offensive.

Q: It's good to hear someone taking R. Kelly seriously.

A: Yeah. A lot of people have mentioned that there's a Prince influence on the new record, but I think R. Kelly was much more of an influence on me.

Q: Have you seen him perform?

A: No, but I know all about his shows. I know that he'll be in the middle of a song and he'll just pull his pants off and stand there singing with just his bikini briefs on.

Q: Could you ever do something like that?

A: Me? Yeah, I've done that before.

Q: I would guess you're more of a boxers guy than a bikini-briefs guy.

A: No, I'm more a briefs guy.

Q: Well, it's good to have that on the record. Moving on from underwear -- you're in a unusual position in that Beck is pretty close to being a household name in this country and yet you don't sell millions and millions and millions of records. You sell a million or two. Do you think that's because there's just something a little too challenging about what you do?

A: Yeah, it's difficult listening, I would agree. I work very hard for my music to work on several levels. I think it's pleasing music to listen to. It's pop music and there's just melodies all over the place. I mean, it's ridiculous how many melodies there are in there. I think melodically, that's just the way I think. So, I don't know, I guess people are used to eating the same meal everyday, they're used to the fast food. So if something tastes a little different, even if it tastes good, then it's not as comfortable. It's definitely true, though, because people I tend to be placed alongside of sell four or five times as many records as I do. And we work very hard to get anything. I mean, we'll tour two or three time longer on a record than we're supposed to, just because we have to go out there and convince people. We go into battle.

Q: One of the things that makes your music challenging is that you've brought back the idea that avant-garde and pop music can be one and the same.

A: That's definitely part of how I look at music. Coming from folk music and traditional music, the song is ingrained, the idea of the American song with melody and structure. That's just part of me. But my musical taste reflects all these different sounds and ideas that I want to fit into that structure. I guess I've always liked the periods where music was getting experimental but it still was melodic, it still had a structure and was enjoyable.

Q: What periods?

A: Mid '60s and then the early '80s, where punk was turning into new wave and it also had elements of funk and dance music in it, and the New York bands were getting into hip-hop.

Q: Would you like to sell more records or are you comfortable at the level you've reached?

A: I'm perfect right now. I don't really want to move up.

More is more

Beck's Odelay was a release from the post-Kurt hangover (never mind "Jeremy") the way the Beatles were a release from the JFK assassination. Worried about being a faker? Man, this guy was cool -- he could do anything, get by on less than nothing or, at most, two turntables and a microphone. Forget sampling -- all of American pop was his laboratory. When the former king of slackerdom emerged in his Odelay tour as a high-steppin' soul man, the transformation didn't seem absurd -- it seemed inevitable.

Now, after a detour into indie folk rock on Mutations, Beck the soulman is back on Midnite Vultures (Geffen), married to pure pop. The gospel soul falsetto is in high gear throughout the album. Rather than being sample-happy, it revels in live sounds: live strings, backing choruses, horn sections, clavinet, guitars. He's still jamming disparate sounds -- the "Sexx Laws" single starts with a '70s TV-detective-show horn chart and ends with a mix of banjo and soaring steel guitar. Sometimes it still sounds as if he were trying to suck the whole world through a single song -- the break of warped na-na-nas and strings and the Far East pile-up coda of the otherwise simply funky "Nicotine and Gravy." All of which would get labored after a while except that Beck keeps it all coming so fast, one surprising little detour after another -- fuzz bass and fuzz guitars, Fender Rhodes-keyboard funky noodling and baby-grand declamation. Guitars do the Curtis Mayfield wah-wah funk ("Mixed Business"), the big-guitar-and-cowbell hook ("Peaches & Cream"), the Captain Beefheart atonal break ("Broken Train"), even some genuine Johnny Marr ("Milk & Honey"). Vocals get rapped, pinched, and double-tracked. The Prince comparisons aren't out of place, even when it's chipmunk Prince, like the end of "Hollywood Freaks" ("Do you want to feel this").

The spontaneous details (that banjo! that funky clavinet!) are married to a song sense as sure as any in pop -- the master craftsman at the hit factory meeting the idiosyncratic indie-rocker. Sit down with your Beck lyric sheet and listen to the way he mixes and matches verse and chorus, writes a nifty little two-part bridge, or throws in that little shout-out chorus near the end of "Hollywood Freaks."

Odelay was about getting by on nothing but two turntables and a microphone -- or as he put it in "Sissyneck": "I don't need no wheels/I don't need no gasoline." If Midnite Vultures is about anything, it's about prosperity to excess. Just look at the titles: "Peaches & Cream," "Milk & Honey," "Nicotine & Gravy." "Hollywood Freaks" cruises along like a playa's pimpmobile on Beck's wordplay: "Hot milk mmm tweak my nipple/Champagne and ripple shamans go cripple/My sales go triple."

The album's masterwork is "Debra," a slow-jam loverman ballad that plays with sincerity like a cat with a lava lamp. Crooning in his most heartfelt falsetto (when he's not dropping into a near-spoken Prince spiel) over horns and keyboards and flicking guitars, Beck pursues a girl he met at J.C. Penny ("I think your name tag said Jenny"), col'-steps her with a pack of gum, promises he wouldn't do her cheap, invites her to step inside his Hyundai for a ride up to Glendale, and with his most ecstatic "Oh girl!" goes into the big pitch: "I wanna get with you/And your sister, I think her name's Debra." That's soul-man sincerity for you, Beck-style. If Midnite Vultures is about anything, it's about second helpings.

-- Jon Garelick

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