Beck, one of rock’s best-preserved 40-somethings, looks a little run-down today.
The weather isn’t helping. “There was a heat wave for three months straight, and then today the temperature dropped and clouds came in,” he says, staring solemnly at the downtown Los Angeles skyline from a 12th floor studio in the Capitol Records Tower. “The sun isn’t shining quite as bright. I think it’s L.A.’s tribute to Tom Petty or something.”
It’s the day after Petty, one of Beck’s idols, died following a heart attack -- and two days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. “It has been a rough few days,” says Beck. “I didn’t sleep a lot. Yesterday was just so... intense. It stabs you in the heart.”
Dressed in all black, 47-year-old Beck Hansen speaks slowly, with many long pauses. It’s difficult to tell whether he’s searching for the right words or if, exhausted, he’s just trailing off mid-thought. The latter would be understandable: The previous night’s sleeplessness aside, he says the last four years had him working the hardest he ever has. That’s how long it took him to finish his 13th album, Colors, released Oct. 13 on Capitol and co-produced with Greg Kurstin, a member of Beck’s early 2000s touring band who went on to make hits for Adele, Sia and others.
Kurstin, who won the 2017 Grammy for producer of the year, non-classical, was so swamped with his growing client list that there were months-long gaps between the early sessions for Colors. During one of them, Beck -- who’s also raising two kids with his wife, actress Marissa Ribisi -- switched focus to complete another long-gestating collection of songs that would become Morning Phase.
Released in 2014, it was his first studio album in six years. It went on to snag two Grammys, including album of the year, beating Beyoncé’s self-titled 2014 opus. The surprise win, in turn, prompted Kanye West to briefly hop onstage during Beck's acceptance speech to register his protest, and later explain that Beck needed to “respect artistry.”
“I wanted to put out Colors sooner, but Morning Phase was doing so well,” says Beck. “Audiences were responding in a way I hadn’t seen in years. It was like two-and-a-half good, solid years of touring. When a wave comes, you ride it.”
If you thought Beck would try to replicate the sound, and therefore success, of Morning Phase, you haven’t been paying attention. In a career that has hopscotched from snarky proto-rap-rock (1994’s Mellow Gold) to Prince and R. Kelly-influenced funk (1999’s Midnite Vultures) to confessional balladry (2002’s Sea Change), Colors is Beck’s latest leap: Where Morning Phase is downtempo, melancholy folk-rock, Colors is polished, highly danceable pop-rock with big drum fills and power chords.
Two decades after breaking through with sardonic weirdo anthems like “Loser,” it’s Beck’s happiest, most accessible album. Single “Dreams” topped Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart and soundtracked ads for Volkswagen and ESPN; “Wow,” which features Beck's first recorded rap in years, is in a spot for Acura. People (or at least advertisers) love happy Beck.
“When I look back at my old music, it’s like if you saw a hundred photos of yourself and you’re not smiling in any of them,” he says. “For this album, I thought, ‘Let’s take a photo where I’m smiling.’"
When your 1996 album, Odelay, was nominated for album of the year, the Grammys were seen as very forward-thinking. But in 2015, Morning Phase, one of your most traditional-sounding records, ended up winning over Beyoncé’s album. Did you see that as ironic?
It’s so weird, who wins. I remember in 2001, being up for album of the year [against] Radiohead’s Kid A, and Steely Dan ended up winning [for Two Against Nature]. Which was well deserved because they’re legends.
In a way, you were the legend being belatedly recognized in 2015.
I don’t think I reached the heights that Steely Dan did in their day, or Tom Petty. I’m still a work in progress. I don’t think I ever had a plateau like those artists, where you just have an undeniable run for 10 years. But after the Grammys, how many young fans who didn’t know my music came to it for the first time? It’s not like I’m on classic rock radio 24 hours day. In a way, I felt like a new artist. I was as surprised as anyone. When I was sitting there and they were announcing everybody, the people I was sitting with, I told them, “Obviously, Beyoncé is going to win -- come on.”
Did you get to talk to her afterward?
I didn’t then, but I did recently. I was really thankful for that conversation. I wrote her a long note after the Grammys, too. Because I saw a bit of that on the internet, where they pit two musicians against each other. The idea of being on one side versus another in music is just preposterous to me.
Did you and Kanye ever get to talk?
I never did. But I got messages from him [through] other people that know him.
He said he spoke to your wife.
Yeah, there were some conversations. He never called me, but he was very thoughtful and effusive. I didn’t take much offense [at him interrupting the acceptance speech] because I don’t know if he knew my music. I kind of got the point of what he was saying.
What was your reaction when you heard about Tom Petty’s death?
It was just gut-wrenching. I was at his last show [at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 25]. We did shows with him years ago, but I didn’t get to work with him or spend a lot of time with him. He covered a few of my songs when I was starting out, which meant a lot to me. He’s probably the first musician of that stature who reached out like that. The [Heartbreakers] really were an L.A. band, just as much as The Beach Boys. Their music was an idealization of even the banal parts of L.A. This sort of beautiful summer day in the Valley, that kind of feeling. If you grew up here, it’s like losing family.
From celebrity deaths to terrorism and political strife, the news during the past few months has been nonstop horror for a lot of people. Is it strange releasing a party album in this climate?
I’m conflicted. I wanted to come out with Colors [first], rather than Morning Phase, but it just didn’t work out that way. I had to get a record out for touring. It had been six years at that point. There’s a point where the promoters were like, “We need a record.” Colors was written mostly in 2013 and 2014; it was a very different time. When these songs were being recorded, [Pharrell Williams’] “Happy” was about to come out and be the biggest song in the world. Now we’re in a different world.
“Dreams” sounds jubilant on first listen, but there are hints of darkness in a few lines: “There’s trouble on the way/Get a dog and pony for judgment day.”
I had a lot of lyrics like that initially, but we kept changing them. I asked Greg to help me steer away from darker lyrics, and instead try to write things that are more uplifting. That’s not necessarily my default as a writer. [Laughs.] I look at so much of my favorite music, from Stevie Wonder to The Beatles to Motown to Tom Petty -- it’s got this humanity. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do. Sometimes it can be derided by more sophisticated music lovers and critics, but there’s something to be said for it. We just did this tour with U2. They’re masters of bringing the listener up. We toured with The Police when they reunited. Their songs are just powerful -- the transmit right to the heart.
I’ve been messing with that kind of thing for 20 years. There’s stuff like that that I’ve never even put out. Initially I thought it was a little too reminiscent. We talked about it. We went back and forth. We made an attempt to redo some things but it just worked [as is].
Most of your music has a knowing wink. This record doesn’t, and neither did Morning Phase. Is that snarky side still there, or are you a different person now?
I was just attempting to make something from the heart and to not have anything that took away from that. It’s an album about connecting. I wanted to engage.
Is it fair to call this your poppiest record?
I don’t see much of a difference between indie rock and the top 40 today. What I hear are superficial production touches. One where they didn’t spend as much time on the vocals and it’s mixed more obscurely, and one where they really polished and worked really hard on the sound.
Whether something is pop is sort of a superficial idea. I wanted this record to feel very finished, like we carried all the ideas to their end. I feel like a lot of my records have songs that are purposely a bit more rough around the edges. They’re sort of embracing the naturalism of a demo. But I enjoy the discipline of a well-made record. Records like Pet Sounds or Thriller or Rumours. I wanted to do a record like that.
You used to rerecord vocals to purposefully make them out of tune.
That’s true. But you have to understand, when I was growing up, all the singers had these unusual voices with a lot of personality: Neil Young, Tom Petty, David Byrne, The Cure, Devo, Morrissey, Depeche Mode, it just goes on and on.
“Wow” reminded me of some of your earlier experiments with hip-hop, like “Loser,” but updated for the trap era.
I didn't go in the studio to make that. I just freestyled it, and then I put it away for a year. Then my kids overheard it one day and they were like, “You have to put this on the record!” They were emphatic.
Your kids must be pretty cool. My biggest embarrassment would be my dad rapping in public.
[Laughs.] I don’t think I’d released anything with a rap on it in over 10 years. I remember when we were making Odelay, one of our running jokes was that the next record was going to be all rap.
[Producers The Dust Brothers] had this 808 drum machine up on the top, top shelf in their studio. We joked that the album would only be an 808 drum machine and rapping, maybe a synth. That was a running joke until, like, ’95. At the time it wouldn’t have been enough to carry a record. But now pretty much all of rap and pop music is made with an 808. So the idea of something like “Wow” is not completely out of the blue.
You’ve had a lot of success borrowing from different genres -- rap, blues, samba, soul. Do you worry about being accused of cultural appropriation?
I don’t know. [Long pause.] Everything that’s in my music is stuff that I had some sort of experience with or some profound connection with. [Before] learning slide guitar as a kid, I would always hear that sound on a record and be like, “What is that?” It was this incredibly evocative, otherworldly sound to me. And it was an antiquated form of music. This was the ’80s, the golden age of pop and synthesizers, and I spent a lot of that decade immersed in these records. So having that slide guitar part that I’m playing in “Loser” and having it become a hit and the slide guitar get injected back into pop culture, that was just really cool.
I guess that doesn’t really answer anything about cultural appropriation. It’s just my love for that sound. I think of so much music as being a cross section -- it’s always a meeting point, especially in American music. There has always been aspects of different cultures all mixed together, and that’s the beauty of American music. When you get into the roots of all this stuff, it gets really strange. Like zydeco. Where does that accordion come from? Did it come from Germany? But then they’re doing stuff they didn’t do in Germany with it. And you have all the permutations of folk music and bluegrass and Appalachian ballads and Delta blues and country blues, field songs, western swing, country western, R&B, rockabilly, rock’n’roll. It just goes on and on. It’s this continuous transmutation of different bits and pieces.
What new hip-hop do you listen to?
I hear a little bit of everything because it’s just everywhere -- it’s the biggest music in the world right now. Everything from Kendrick [Lamar] to Lil Yachty to Young Thug and Future. Rae Sremmurd was pretty big in our house.
If you were listening to Rae Sremmurd and Yachty, I can see how you made such a happy record. You have to go back to the early ’90s to find rap that joyful.
I remember growing up that hip-hop was very playful. What we loved about it was that it was so unpretentious and fun. I’m a little too young for punk; the punk when I was coming of age was hip-hop.
[Rock today is] almost hip-hop. You hear more piano than guitar. I think it’s interesting because my whole life, if it didn’t have a guitar, there was this attitude that it wasn’t as authentic. Now it’s like, if it has a guitar, it’s not as compelling. [Laughs.] Rap is at the forefront, pushing things sonically. A lot of rock-based music doesn’t sound as modern as what’s happening with rap. There’s room there, if there’s a way of evolving the sound of rock records. I know that’s a little abstract, but it’s something I think about. In some ways, rock has to find a way to find a new sonic dimension to work in. Rap is all about the low end; guitars by nature are mid-range.
Yeah, I know them. I have a bunch of tracks that I did like eight, nine years ago that are more in the vein of that stuff. I never put it out, but it doesn’t feel far from some of that. That distorted weirdness. In a way, that’s exciting for me. It’s like opening up what’s acceptable sonically, at least for this time. Ten years ago things were very clean, very digital. Things are getting dirtier now.
I read you tried to get Chance the Rapper on “Wow.” Did you reach out to other MCs?
Yeah. OG Maco. Kendrick, of course. We have a version recorded with Yachty.
You were in the studio with Pharrell a few years ago. Will that music ever come out?
We were going to make an album together. I was going to work on this [Kurstin] record, and then do this Pharrell thing, but then “Get Lucky” came out and Pharrell just had a run for a couple of years. I think at some point there will be an opening to try and finish some of that stuff. We were just getting started.
What did you learn working with Pharrell?
His optimism and his positivity, which was what I was looking for in the record I wanted to make. Just being around that was very refreshing. I’m used to being in a room where things are being taken apart, [being] a bit more critical.
So, did you and Pharrell exchange anti-aging tips or what?
[Laughs.] I remember he was very drawn to my hat. I was wearing my hat a lot at the time.
The wide-brimmed hat on the Morning Phase cover?
Yeah. He’s like, “Where did you get that?”
Maybe you inspired him to get his own massive hat.
I don’t know. I mean, his is way bigger.
Beck's 16 Grammy Noms and 5 Wins
“Loser,” best male rock vocal performance
Odelay, album of the year
Odelay, best alternative music performance*
“Where It’s At,” best male rock vocal performance*
Mutations, best alternative music performance*
Midnite Vultures, album of the year
Midnite Vultures, best alternative music album
Sea Change, best alternative music album
Guero, best alternative music album
“Nausea,” best solo rock vocal performance
“Timebomb,” best solo rock vocal performance
Modern Guilt, best alternative music album
“Blue Moon,” best rock performance
“Blue Moon,” best rock song
Morning Phase, album of the year*
Morning Phase, best rock album*
* denotes win