Turns out Beck can make heartbreaking music, even when he actually is doing fine. Dressed in all black except for the tiny white polka dots on his scarf, Beck sits in Silver Lake’s popular Cafe Stella during a quiet Friday morning, holding his wide-brimmed fedora in his lap. He’s wearing a lean, buttery motorcycle jacket, and his hair is close-cropped except for an asymmetrical shock of strawberry blond whose precise hue could be called – get it? – “mellow gold.” The 43-year-old’s sleek look is a far cry from the floppy knit cap, saggy jeans and overgrown page boy he sported when the world got its first look at him 20 years ago, bleating “soy un perdedor” to a mangled blues guitar sample. He still looks positively Beck-y – that is, whatever his style, he always is the coolest weirdo in the room.
More than a decade has passed since Beck released his most indispensable and career-defining collection of music in the wake of a devastating breakup. Now married to actress Marissa Ribisi and the father of son Cosimo, 9, and daughter Tuesday, 6, he chuckles warmly as he talks about making the decision to revisit the sound of his confessional 2002 album, “Sea Change,” for his new one, “Morning Phase.” He has been writing contemplative, acoustic songs like that for his entire career but was unsure about devoting another album to them. “I was reticent about doing something in that vein again,” he says. “Does it kind of paint you into a certain corner? Because there’s a lot of other stuff I want to do. I love going out performing and having songs where everybody’s moving, letting loose. And this record, like ‘Sea Change,’ is a totally different, more intimate kind of thing.”
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“Morning Phase” started with a shared revelation of sorts, onstage, in May 2012. Beck and “Sea Change”‘s four-man backing band – bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, guitarist Smokey Hormel, keyboard player Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker – had reunited to play a last-minute gig at the relatively intimate El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a warm-up for a few bigger shows to follow, and it was a hot ticket: Beck hadn’t played his hometown since shortly after his 2008 album, “Modern Guilt.” And, though that stellar supporting band had been with him for a few albums in a row when they made “Sea Change,” they hadn’t all played together since. “In the interim, a lot of life has happened,” says Beck. “It had a huge impact on all of us, to revisit those songs. I think we were all feeling them in a different, maybe deeper way.”
Meldal-Johnsen later says: “It was pretty intense. I knew it would be like that. Something about the music we created together being the only thing that’s permanent during that duration of time is a heavy concept, but it was also joyous and rambunctious at the same time.”
“Morning Phase,” Beck’s 12th studio album, evolved naturally from there, picking up where “Sea Change” left off: the aftermath of the aftermath, the morning phase. Although he’d already started piecing together another new album with a series of high-profile collaborators, including Pharrell Williams – possibly due out later this year, “time willing” – Beck set those tracks aside to focus on “Morning Phase,” recorded at studios in Nashville, London, Los Angeles and New York over the course of several months in 2013. “I had some old songs, and I found the ones that fit together the best, and then I worked on building it, stripping it back, rewriting it and just kept going until I felt like it was getting better and better.”
Meldal-Johnsen says Beck and the band never explicitly discussed what type of sound they were going for, but it was inevitable: “It’s the same room with the same guys, with the same microphones and a lot of the same equipment and the same engineer. We don’t even talk when we start these songs; we just listen and respond. These are the tones and sounds and approaches that come forth from that recipe and these five guys. I think Beck responds to music in that trusting way, where he lets things unfold without judgment.” As Beck puts it: “Something just happens when you’re making a record, where certain things start to come out. It’s just something in the air. I might have been shooting for Royal Trux, and it came out Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it’s working, so…” He trails off.
“It’s like I’m driving the car, but I’m not really controlling where we’re going. I’m just making sure it doesn’t crash.”
I suggest that he obviously has confidence in his own instincts, but Beck quickly demurs, “My instinct has definitely gone awry; I could give you many examples.” He laughs and tells me about how, several years ago, he turned down repeated requests to write the theme song for a new cable TV series. “It’s about ad executives in the ’60s? They’re going to make a show about that? Really? Um, I don’t think so,” he remembers saying. “Yeah, just like the best show ever made!”
“I wish I had more confidence,” he adds. “I think that’s probably my Achilles’ heel. If I had more, I probably would have felt emboldened to make more interesting music earlier on, or really go for it in an artistic or songwriting sense. I’ve seen that kind of confidence serve other people really well. I really admire it. Like, I hope my kids have some of that kind of confidence that enables you to take risks.”
It’s strange to think that Beck, whose unabashed weirdness places him in such formidable company as Tom Waits, David Bowie, Bjork and Nick Cave, isn’t sure he’s unabashed enough. He seemed so confident out of the gate. But Beck says it wasn’t until his 1998 album, “Mutations,” recorded with producer Nigel Godrich over two intense weeks, that he felt he could let down some of his guard and make the kind of direct, emotionally vulnerable songs he’d been writing since he was a teenager. “That’s what I started out doing,” he says. “But the climate of the time was different. When I started out playing small clubs, you could feel the room recoil from certain kinds of songs. Anything that was too personal, that had a sentiment to it, or was laying out your feelings, was immediately booed. People would start throwing things. And anything that was really provocative or humorous or radical was embraced or cheered. So that fostered in me a sort of mode of survival.”
At a certain point, he says, he realized it was pointless to predict how listeners would respond. “I mean, I guess my first album did well,” he says, modestly. “I think it went platinum, but everybody else in that same period was selling 12 million to 17 million records. I’m talking Green Day, Offspring, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails. All the bands that were playing on the stations I was getting played on. What does that even mean to sell 16 million records, you know?” Beck has sold about 8 million over two decades (nearly all for Geffen/Interscope), but he says he’s never one to keep track. “Maybe a song will get on the radio, and I go, ‘OK.’ And we play a show, and people are excited to hear it, and I go, ‘OK, so that worked,'” he says. “But it’s really hard to qualify. It’s almost impossible. Unless there’s like a real kind of commercial success or the critics really liked it. Most of the time, I’ve sort of floated somewhere in between. I think I’ve had periods of time where I was like, ‘Does anybody like this?'”
Although Beck hasn’t had a platinum album since “Odelay,” all but the last two exceeded gold. For an artist like Beck, his value can’t be measured by sales alone. “Beck has an incredible history of making records that redefined what was going to work in that given moment – albums where, while the rest of the world turned right, he turned left, and it worked out and people went with him,” says Capitol Records executive vp Greg Thompson, who helped sign Beck to the label in the fall.
After Beck’s deal with Interscope ended in 2008, Beck says he considered starting his own label but that the prospect seemed daunting. “I have enough to do trying to make records and tour,” he says. “When I went around to meet with people at labels this last time, I met with some people who really were enthusiastic and keen to work on something. I hadn’t felt that in years. And at Capitol, there were some familiar faces.”
Beck’s most commercially successful albums have been the more beat-oriented, club-friendly ones, but “Blue Moon,” the first single off “Morning Phase,” is starting to find an audience on Triple A radio. And with Triple A leading sales stories for such acoustic-driven artists as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers in recent years, perhaps “Morning Phase” arrives at the perfect moment. (He’ll perform on “Saturday Night Live” on March 1.)
Regardless, the other Beck album in the works is rumored to be more like “Odelay,” beloved for its integration of hip-hop sampling and rock songwriting, and that could be the bigger payoff for Capitol. “I’m really excited to hear it,” says Thompson. “The prospect we’ll get a great record with this signature, and then he’s gonna make another one with a different signature, you have a lot to look forward to.” The international market also is a big part of the equation, he adds: “He does very well in the U.K. and Australia and Canada and across Europe. Our plan is to definitely work it on a global basis and get him overseas and tour.”
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Beck’s talent as a creative scavenger was forged early on. He was born in Los Angeles in 1970 to Canadian composer and conductor David Campbell and artist Bibbe Hansen, who’d circled the Andy Warhol scene in New York before settling on the West Coast. Campbell and Hansen separated when Beck was 10; in the years thereafter, he spent intervals of time living with grandparents in Kansas and his maternal grandfather, avant-garde collage artist Al Hansen, in Europe. Mostly, though, he lived with his mother and stepfather near downtown Los Angeles, where the Filipino, Korean, African-American, Mexican and Salvadorian communities were a source of inspiration for a kid who explored the city all on his own. “I think there is a danger in overprotecting your kids, but I do laugh when I think about myself as a child,” he says. “At age 6, I would walk to the movies by myself, then go down to the drugstore and buy some gum, and then walk around the neighborhood, throw some rocks. This was near downtown L.A., which is transformed now. Back then, it looked like the city after the bomb had gone off.”
In his early teens, he would ride the city bus, playing Mississippi John Hurt tunes on his acoustic guitar. Later, he had friends like Meldal-Johnsen help him record four-track experiments in his attic bedroom, using the bathroom as an echo chamber for weird electric guitar sounds. The pair met thanks to Beck’s father, Campbell, who arranged and conducted string parts for “Morning Phase” and “Sea Change.” Meldal-Johnsen quit his job as a janitor at a recording studio to work as Campbell’s part-time assistant and was over at Campbell’s house one day when Beck stopped by. They were both 17.
“I had major people in the music business calling up to tell me: ‘Don’t release this record. It’s gonna be career suicide.'” — Beck on Odelay
“When I first saw him, he reminded me of like a fantastical Thurston Moore or something,” says the bassist and producer, who in more recent years has worked with Nine Inch Nails, Air and M83. “He told me he’d just started a literary magazine for young people called Youthless and earnestly asked would I like to submit something. I remember feeling overwhelmed because I wasn’t a writer. But Beck thought it would be fun if I did something, and I remember feeling, ‘How come I can’t be that free with creating anything?’ I realized early on that this was a guy who felt like success with art was a subjective thing and making art didn’t have to involve overintellectualizing or training or preparation. I didn’t know about that. I always thought I needed to practice and figure out how the masters did it. And, even with his music, he was just like, ‘This is my thing. This is it.'”
Beck says he faltered in confidence between his first couple of albums because he listened too closely to outside opinions – from his label, from older artists, from critics. “There was a general mistrust of the incoming group of musicians in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It felt like just getting kicked and spit on the whole way, like hazing. Which was too bad because it would have been nice to enjoy that moment and just be 22. Like, I wrote a f-in’ song that’s on the radio – who cares? It’s music.” He chuckles. “There was a lot of attack for it, which I could not fathom at the time. I don’t think I had the experience to be able to just laugh it off. It seemed so serious.”
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Although his 1996 album, “Odelay,” now is hailed as a breakthrough, his label was unsupportive. “Through the whole making of that record, I thought, ‘I’m never going to have the money to do something like this again, so I’m just going to go out in a fiery blaze,'” he says. “And that’s really how it was received when I turned it in to the record company. I had major people in the music business calling up to tell me: ‘Don’t release this record. It’s gonna be career suicide.’ This is the record that I spent $200,000 making – like, more money than anybody in my family had ever dealt with in the history of my entire family, probably back to the beginning of time, you know? That was a lot of pressure. But I grew up flipping through the cutout bins, and you’d see 10 copies in a row of a record that obviously didn’t sell, and they’re all, like, 20 cents a copy. When I was making ‘Odelay,’ I thought, at least I’ll try to do something interesting so that when someone finds it in the bin 20 years later, they’ll be like, ‘This is kind of weird. Hello.'”
By the time that same album was nominated for album of the year at the 1997 Grammys, he had learned not to seek that kind of approval. “I remember when I first went to the Grammys, I don’t think there was anyone under 40 nominated for album of the year. And now you don’t see anybody over 30 nominated,” he says. “New bands who back then would be sort of tortured and ridiculed as ‘one-hit wonders’ are being completely embraced and beloved. And David Bowie is going to come out and give you a big hug, you know what I mean? But I think it’s good for music. There is a vast audience coming up that wants to hear what’s now. You have kids listening to Animal Collective and Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and MGMT. It’s not as separated as it was before.”
As he neared the end of his contract with Geffen a few years ago, Beck wondered if he should stop making album after album and doing tour after tour. He went to Nashville and recorded a couple of songs at Jack White’s Third Man studios and released a single via the label of the same name. He put out a couple more singles on his own tiny FONOGRAF label, a couple of which were recorded during sessions in 2009 for an album Beck finished but never released. “Once you’ve got a record deal, you get in the typical cycle as an artist, putting out albums and touring,” he says. “I got to a point where I felt like there’s a certain amount of this that’s just completely arbitrary – how musicians are expected to channel their creative impulse. It’s formalized in this way that really isn’t natural.”
For years, he’d been inviting musicians over to record live cover versions of their favorite albums, and he started making those sessions more of a public affair, launching his “Record Club” in 2010. Feist, St. Vincent, Thurston Moore, Devendra Banhart, members of Wilco and MGMT, among many others, joined Beck in the studio to perform albums such as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence’s Oar, INXS’ Kick and Yanni’s Yanni Live at the Acropolis. The performances would be filmed and viewable on Beck’s website. “I was doing the record club thing for years before I put it out – just for our own amusement,” he explains. “And we would all just say, ‘This is the best time I’ve had making music in years.’ There’s something very humanizing about the whole experience, and I just needed some humanizing.”
What he lacks in confidence, Beck makes up for in work ethic. “I realized nobody was going to call me to make up these situations. So you kind of have to do it yourself,” he says. “Friends of mine who are really always doing stuff, they just have incredible follow-through. Someone like Jack White – when he has a good idea, he’ll just go in there and work at it and work at it. The idea is always romantic, but the actual doing is not so romantic. It’s not so comfortable. All creative efforts are a compromise in the end. It’s not quite what you wanted. That’s why you do another one. For me, it’s like I’ll be making albums forever and still feel like it’s not quite what I wanted it to be – like, I wanted it to be ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Hunky Dory.’ There’s always this unreachable that you’re trying to get to. And you get pissed you can’t get there, but that’s the beauty of it. I put all my time into this, and I still feel like I’m still figuring it out. There’s still more to do. When I’m playing live is when I really feel it – like there are songs missing. Like, ‘This is such an incomplete picture.'”