Beck talks about his upcoming tour of Japan, a stockpile of songs that grows faster than he is able to record them and a trans-Pacific collaboration that will just have to wait
‘We’ve re-created the entire stage in miniature and we have puppets of all the band members,” says Beck, explaining what fans can expect from his upcoming Japan tour. And he’s not joking.
By always daring to be different, Beck has become one of the most enduring icons of American alternative music. Born Bek Campbell (but later taking his mother’s surname, Hansen) in Los Angeles in 1970, and a lifelong Scientologist, as are his parents, he found indie fame with the breakaway success of hillbilly lo-fi, rap classic “Loser” in 1993. He’s barely sat still since.
Weaving between hayseed hip-hop, ragged guitar anthems, unabashed Prince-worship, lush acoustic guitar and Chicano wordplay, his nine albums (if you include the early indie releases “Stereopathetic Soulmanure” and “One Foot in the Grave”) have been unpredictable in style but consistent in quality; and as if that weren’t enough, they’ve each been accompanied by cool artwork, acclaimed videos and barmy live shows. Which brings us back to where we started.
“The puppets idea came from myself and my guitar player,” he says, speaking to The Japan Times from L.A. amid tour preparations. “We were having dinner in the studio one night about a year ago and talking about what we were gonna do for the tour and who we were gonna get to open, and we started talking about puppet shows. Originally we were just gonna open with the puppet show, something like that, and the idea just evolved.
“I need that stimulation myself, otherwise albums and tours would blur together. So you have these things that you do that set a tone for that particular period of time performing. I do enjoy going in and just playing stripped back, where it’s all about the music, but for myself I need that extra touch.”
The results are often bizarre. For example, during his last appearance in Japan, at 2005’s Fuji Rock Festival, his band sat around a dinner table mid-set and broke out into some amazing percussion played with crockery and cutlery.
But as delicious as all this is, it’s only the icing on Beck’s musical cake. He is a burstingly creative artist, flinging out ideas that always seem to break new ground, whether commercial or not. His last two albums, “Guero” (2005) and “The Information” (2006), were recorded concurrently in 2003/2004, each with a different producer at the helm and each with a different sound.
“Guero” harked back to the sound of his acclaimed second album, “Odelay” — thanks in no small part to early Beastie Boys producers the Dust Brothers, who produced both releases. His highest-charting CD to date, having debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts, “Guero” was a solid, focused set of sample-heavy tracks that was heralded as a return to form for Beck, whose previous release had been a collection of tender acoustic songs, “Sea Change” (2002). But “return to form” suggests that Beck’s music has suffered an artistic low-point, which isn’t really the case. It’s simply that “Guero” carried the same charged atmosphere as his most celebrated albums, and stood in sharp contrast to the air of graceful melancholy on “Sea Change.”
“The Information” is a different proposition again. Produced by Radiohead cohort Nigel Godrich, the album feels more electronic yet also organic, loose, human.
“When we made ‘Guero,’ we decided to leave out the kind of things on ‘Odelay’ where the songs would just break in the middle into some strange interlude,” says Beck. “We experimented and tried to be very disciplined, just keep the songs more simple. But that stuff probably came out a bit more on ‘The Information.’ There’s a lot of very experimental stuff that didn’t even make it on the record.
“The way we recorded the two records was completely different,” he continues. ” ‘The Information’ was recorded mostly live, and ‘Guero’ was recorded more in the style of taking drum samples and loops, and then I would record all the parts on top of it. But with ‘The Information,’ the songs breathe and move, you know. There’s a lot of human error, which we purposely left in.”
For Beck, finding new ways of working is all part of the artistic process, but also a necessity of evolution.
“I started using drum loops out of necessity cos I recorded my first four or five albums in a house,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a studio, we didn’t have enough microphones to record drums, and we didn’t have the equipment. So it was convenient. For the guitar, we just plugged that straight in. They were recorded very much how you would make a four-track home recording.
“I think there’s a certain sound that happens when it’s just me playing the instruments that I really negated for years. (My first major release) ‘Mellow Gold,’ ‘Odelay’ and ‘Guero’ have a sound that’s similar cos, you know, I’m not a bass player, but I’ll play it in a certain way, and the inconsistencies have a (unique) sound. That took me many years to realize cos, as soon as I could, I had better musicians playing on things. Now, I’m enjoying live recording and trying to get away from studio technology.”
While Beck may have shunned technology during recording of “The Information,” technology was quick to embrace the album when it was finished. It was leaked around a month before release, spreading across Internet download sites and onto MP3 players the world over. Beck claims at first not to have an opinion on the subject, but after a brief hesitation he races through a compelling analysis.
“I don’t really think about it one way or the other because I know it’s there,” he says, when asked about the electronic pilfering of his and other artists’ work. “I personally buy music; I don’t go (online) and find it cos I can afford to buy music. But when I was younger, there was so much music I wanted to hear and I had no money. So what do you do?
“That’s one of the reasons I got into the blues; there was a library and the only records they would have were old blues recordings and classical records. I listened to the classical records a little bit, but the blues ones were the most interesting to me.
“I think that it’s gonna evolve into something, and I do like the idea that there’s a possibility that a musician will be able to put out more music, and then people can figure out for themselves what they like. I mean, if I have 40 songs and I put 12 songs on a record, I’m guessing (which ones to include). Usually fans say the ones that we put on a B-side or as a bonus track somewhere are their favorite songs and they think it should have been on the record.
“People who collect music wanna find the obscure things cos usually those are the most interesting ones, the ones that nobody thought were fit to be on the record. When I was a kid I always liked the B-side, it was always where the musician was trying something different. But yeah, people ask me about a song that was on a B-side, and I know for a fact that we only made about 2,000 singles, so they must be getting it some way, ha-ha.”
As a songwriter, Beck feels good to know that these songs into which he has put so much effort are finding ears. But he is also wary of the downside to online distribution, be it legal or not.
“The big Tower Records in L.A. closed down recently,” he laments. “It had been there since I was a little kid, you know. And another record store closed, too, the one where I used to buy all my records when I was 14. So there are repercuss- ions, certainly. Then again, I’m sure that there have been periods of time where the price of records was a little bit inflat- ed, so everybody’s complicit in it. There’s a place in the middle, I think, where everybody can live and make music and exist. It’s gonna be interesting to see.”
The period of recording “Guero” and “The Information” was a particularly busy time for Beck. Aside from the obvious issues of recording two different albums with two different producers pretty much simultaneously, Beck was also preparing for his debut as a father. The fact that Beck and his wife, fellow Scientologist Marissa Ribisi, were expecting baby Cosimo was surely a driver for Beck to stockpile record- ings to keep him going, but he was also glad for the opportunity to work quickly and to put out albums close together. In this age where a major artist can leave five years between albums, he feels that we are missing out on something important: icons.
To me, the great eras of music were when bands were putting out two albums a year. I feel like my output is pretty minimal compared with the musicians I really admire. (If bands had left five years between albums) in the ’60s, The Beatles would’ve put out ‘Meet The Beatles,’ ‘Rubber Soul,’ maybe ‘The White Album,’ and that’d be it,” he laughs. “That’s why we don’t have a Beatles now. That’s why we don’t have a Rolling Stones, people of that stature.”
With all his schizophrenic creativity, Beck has found it hard to keep up when it comes to recording. With every genre in which he dabbles, his well of unreleased or unfinished songs gets deeper and deeper, and the game of catchup becomes ever more unwinnable.
“I feel like I’m about six years behind myself,” he admits. “I haven’t done an album with new work in about three years. I’m used to it now. It takes a certain amount of patience, I think. You have a limited span of time and of ideas that you can get in with each record. Maybe I’ll get there. I feel like most of us are between 10 and 15 years behind Bjork and Aphex Twin, as far as getting out on the limb of the tree of where music can go.”
Beck says that he has written songs that he felt the world wasn’t ready to hear, that were too experimental or whacked to release, especially in the ’90s. He is keen, though, to release another acoustic album.
“I think there’ll be one sooner than later,” he reveals. “I have piles of songs. It’s been five years since ‘Sea Change,’ which is the last time I unloaded a group of songs like that, and I think it had been four or five years since (1998’s) ‘Mutations,’ the time before that. So between those nine years I have a lot of songs. After a while you’re not sure which ones are good anymore. But I’ve been for years wanting to do something that’s just acoustic guitar, really simple, almost nothing else, really disciplined.”
Like the first couple of Elliott Smith records?
“Yeah, exactly. I have a lot of music like that, never released, and not for any reason, not for any good reason.”
Also languishing on the to-do list is a collaboration with Tokyo electro-boffin Cornelius, who told The Japan Times last year that the pair had worked on a handful of tracks a few years ago. It sounds like a match made in heaven — after all, the two artists have a similar aesthetic in their sound and visual appeal, and they share a similar fan base.
“Yeah, we started working on someth- ing about five years ago,” confirms Beck. “I would love to continue that project. I think we had two or three songs under way. It sounded very Cornelius, I think. I recorded some songs and then I sent them to him, and then he played on them and changed some things, and then the idea was that I was gonna do some more and then send it back to him. I think we’ll finish it eventually.”
Working with Cornelius also reflects Beck’s perennial popularity in Japan, a nation that holds him dear. And the feeling’s mutual.
“I love going to Japan,” he enthuses. “It’s my favorite place to tour, and I have a lot of appreciation for the Japanese, for the culture. There’s always a cool thing flying there, records and stores, you know. I’ve been really lucky over there.”
Beck falters when asked what it is about his music that appeals so readily to Japanese ears. He bumbles through an answer before retracting it with a simple “I actually don’t know.” But with his fifth Budokan show on the horizon, he’s already excited at the prospect of coming back.
“Budokan’s good. It’s got a certain amount of history. The last time we played there, it was cherry blossom season, so it was surrounded by gardens, and it was pretty extraordinary. If we get lucky we’ll see that (again this year). That’s something to see.”
Indeed, sakura season is something to see — much like Beck’s live performances. He may not be as beautiful as the cherry blossom (no offense, Mr. Hansen), but he’s no less iconic, and his stage show is no less thrilling. And you can’t argue with puppets, surely?
Beck performs April 8, 6:30 p.m., at Zepp Tokyo; April 9, 7 p.m., at Zepp Osaka; April 12, 7 p.m., at Zepp Nagoya; April 14, 7 p.m., at Zepp Sendai; and April 16, 7 p.m., at Budokan, Tokyo; tickets: 7,500 yen, tel.  3444-6751.