It’s hard to believe that it’s been 24 years since Beck’s bizarre self-deprecating party anthem broke through the mainstream and became an unlikely worldwide hit.
And while “Loser” still plays on rock radio as a retro 90s indie staple, the song now sounds as ironic as it does iconic. Far from the amateur anti-folkster of yesteryear, Beck has earned his stripes as a veteran musician who has successfully taken on every genre imaginable over his quarter century of recording.
Whether it’s stripped-down, lo-fi, acoustic, field recordings, sound collages, songs in Spanish, slow jams, distorted thrash, Tropicalia, folk, funk, falsettos, polished beats or ramshackle ballads, Beck has always kept us guessing. No two of his albums sound alike, and each work contains a handful of timeless gems that add to his legacy. While his first single may have initially seemed like that of a one-hit wonder, today the tune seems like a bit of an anomaly. Early on it was his knack for kitschy oddball oration and twisted tales that captivated us. Tales of devil’s haircuts and “winos throwing Frisbees at the sun,” eventually led to a songwriting maturity of softly sung, heavy-hearted existential road songs like the “Golden Age”.
With his recent release, Colors, Beck is back with a poppy, yet lyrically poignant follow-up to the soft and sombre Morning Phase. While early singles and teasers for the record were released more than two years ago, his new album may have taken a little longer than we had hoped, but the result is grand and a great example of Beck’s range and sonic diversity. Look out for Beck’s tour of Australia in early 2018.
How is post-record release treating you?
Good. I’m just recovering from the whole trip. We launched the record on three continents in about 20 days. It was one of those things where you’re trying to be everywhere at once. We had a great show in Tokyo. We did a couple of small shows in London that were really special and very intimate. It’s been great.
You put out your first single for this record back in 2015, and then followed it up with another in 2016. Then the record was backlogged for another year. What happened? Was there a conscious effort to follow up Morning Phase with a more upbeat and poppy release?
Actually, some of these songs pre-date Morning Phase. “Dear Life,” “Dreams,” “Colors,” and “Up All Night” were all songs we did before Morning Phase came out. The idea was for this to be the first record and then Morning Phase would come out after, but it turned that it was going to be quicker and make more sense to put Morning Phase out first. This record was going to take a little longer. Then Morning Phase just took on a life of its own, and for three years we ended up touring and playing tribute concerts and award shows. It just took off. That ultimately is what prolonged the making and the finishing of the Colors album.
Is there something that ties all of these songs together? A time? A feeling? A sound?
Yeah, there are a lot of things that tie these songs together. As far as the sound, I did most of these songs with Greg Kurstin (Adele, Tegan and Sara, Foo Fighters), so it has the sound of that collaboration. I had the idea that I didn’t want to do another record where it was just a bunch of experiments, album tracks and two or three singles. I wanted to make a record where each song was equally as important. I feel like we made three albums and this is the greatest hits of the three albums. It’s the three best songs from each record. We could have put out an album in 2015, one in 2016 and one in 2017, but I felt like we wanted to push ourselves to do something where every single thing mattered and was well-thought out and realised.
I read somewhere that this record almost didn’t happen and that you were questioning whether or not to make any more records at all. Is that true? What prompted that feeling?
Well, I stopped putting out records for about six years. That was a period where I was questioning or considering whether to stop or continue for a variety of reasons—the first of which was, “Is what we are doing still relevant or needed?” Maybe it was time to get out of the way and make time for newer artists. I think it’s something that a lot of musicians go through. It’s that feeling of wondering if I am overstaying the party. Should I go home at some point? But I also felt like maybe I should start helping other people make their music. That’s another way that a lot of musicians go, behind the scenes.
I was still making tons of music; I just wasn’t sure if I should release it, or if people cared, or what my place in the world was. Music changes all the time and sometimes you just have to reassess. I found that after I started touring again I was reconnecting with fans and it felt like I had this whole multi-decade-long relationship with an audience. It’s about a life lived and the time and music that we’ve shared. You go on tour and people keep coming back. We’re growing up together, you know?
I got to go to the last Tom Petty concert. We were standing next to wives of the band members and longtime fans, and you could see that there were people there that have been going to his shows since the 1970’s. It was such a beautiful celebration of that music in the continuum of all of these people’s lives. It’s not something you think about when you’re starting out, but in time you realise there’s a value in that consciousness and there’s a deeper current running through this bizarre job that we have of, putting out records and going out on the road to play shows. There’s something that has more to do with people than a music career. It’s a realisation that this music is a meeting point for certain groups of people to come together around the umbrella of music—and even though it’s under my name, it includes so many people, from band members to producers, engineers, to the guys who carry our guitars and the bus drivers. It’s a whole extended family. Then you look at the thousands of bands that are out there and you realise that you are just a drop in the ocean of this whole music thing. So it’s not a big deal, let’s just make some music. We’re here and we’ll do it while we can.
Has recording other musicians changed the way that you look at recording your own music?
Yes. I think every record you make finds its way into the equation. There’s not a record that I work on that I don’t learn something from. And certainly working with other artists, I think it helps you get out of your head a bit and it can be inspiring to see how free some people are with their process—and also how talented so many of these people are. So many of the musicians I’ve worked with have special, unique talents. And I’m not talking about going on a singing contest and they’re going to win it. I’m talking about things that only that person can do—a certain quality, a certain emotional resonance—some particular reflection of their personality that’s in the music. I think it’s really healthy to be around that as a musician. We can get very isolated and get into our own little world and I think it’s important to cross-fertilise and cross-contaminate with other people. [laughs] That’s why it goes back to all these bands. That’s why the Stones are hanging out with Bluesmen and contemporaries. Everyone is rubbing off on one another. It’s really an element of what I do that I enjoy.
Do you view each of your records as different chapters in your recording career, or is it part of the same continuum? Is there something that dictates whether a record is going to be folky or funky? Does it even matter? Is it just time and place?
I think it’s a bit of both. There’s certainly a larger story. When you put it together for the greatest hits you can see it and say, “Whoa, this is how it all adds up.” But if you’re taking each record and you’re trying to address where you were at that period of time and trying to articulate it in a batch of songs… for me, it’s a little bit difficult. I may put out a record, but I wouldn’t say that that record is completely representative of everything I’m doing at the time it comes out. I was just digging through some stuff recently from 10 years ago and it was very minimal—hip-hop beats and keyboards—and it didn’t sound that far from previous work, but it wouldn’t be representative at all of the album we put out 10 years ago.
When you play a live show, do you make an effort to pull from each of your records? Do you still whip out the deep cuts? Are there songs you won’t ever play again because they’re too old, too obscure, or don’t work for you anymore?
For me, they all work. Some of them don’t work for the audience maybe. It depends on where you’re playing. Last night I played a little benefit with Judd Apatow in a little intimate room and it was just sort of a free-for-all. We did some cover songs. We just played whatever we wanted. That works in that setting. But if you’re playing a big festival and you’re opening for U2 or the Strokes, that’s a whole other thing. Maybe two-thirds of the people don’t even know your music. At that point, I try to throw in a few things that they know and a few things that I think will engage people. You know, there are all kinds of music, but some songs are like chamber pieces that you sort of sit there and take in. They’re not the type of music for a rock show or the kind of music that makes you want to put your hands up in the air. [Laughs] I think a lot of live performances are about context.
Looking back and seeing how your songwriting has changed over time, did you feel the lo-fi early roots were something you had to remove yourself from? Did that happen naturally or was it all about age and access?
No, for me it was just working within the means I had. There was also a kind of beauty to this ruffian approach and it was something that I was drawn to, but it was also all that I had available to me. By the time I got two or three albums in, I had all this access to different equipment and different studios and as time goes on you get better at making records. I just embraced the craft. I don’t ever think the sound should dictate what you’re doing. Some people do enjoy a raw, unproduced sound that’s recorded with bad microphones and there is a charm to that as well.
Do you remember your last time in Australia?
Oh yes! It was about four or five years ago, we played a festival with Sigur Ros, Mike Patton, Ben Folds, I think Grizzly Bear was on that tour as well. It was fun and it was a great run. I remember the week we were there, there were just so many bands that were playing in town that we kept going to shows on our off-nights… everyone from Radiohead to Elton John.