It’s closer to the truth to say Beck is more like a shark who can’t stop swimming. His new album Hyperspace is his 14th overall, including a handful of pre-major label recordings. In between, there’s been a dizzying array of collaborations, side-projects and productions: with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lady Gaga and Flume, as well as close peers Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
There’s also God knows how much unreleased material – at least some of which was destroyed by a fire that swept through a Universal Studios lot in 2008, a story broken by The New York Times earlier this year. “They still won’t tell me what was lost,” he says. “It’s frustrating because I’ve probably released 10 per cent of what I’ve made … I have a feeling that my management is not telling me because they can’t bear to break the news.”
FOR Hyperspace, Beck teamed up with singer and hip-hop impresario Pharrell Williams. The album’s electronic textures are a continuation from its 2017 predecessor Colors, which was about as close as he has ever come to a straight-up pop record. But whereas Colors was as bright as its title suggested, Hyperspace is more subtle and existential: take away the synthetic textures, and it’s easy to imagine the songs played on an acoustic guitar.
That, he says, would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. At heart, Beck is a folkie, as early albums like One Foot In The Grave and later triumphs like Sea Change attest. But he was disinclined to repeat himself. “Doing something like Hyperspace is much more of a challenge, and I’m more on my toes and out of my element in having to think my way out of the box,” he says. “I feel a little guilty if something’s too easy.”
After Loser and the accompanying major-label debut album Mellow Gold, Odelay, released in 1996, proved Beck was no flash in the pan. Sturdy folk-blues songs were cut up, rearranged and overlaid with a magpie-eyed montage of samples, as the singer spilled out surrealist poetry like a post-modern Bob Dylan. Where It’s At, with its refrain “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone”, was a hit and won him his first Grammy.
I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time.
It remains an album full of joy, wonder and invention, yet impossible to pin down. “I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was maybe 11 or 12, after getting an album and being disappointed, because all the songs sounded exactly the same. I remember saying, somebody should make a record where all the songs are completely different, and he said, ‘No one would buy that record’.”
It was a breath of fresh air in a dour indie-rock scene that still regarded him with suspicion. “I remember that the music scene was not very supportive. There was a lot of harshness among bands, among critics. There was a lot of judgment, it was very cynical, and I think my music had a sense of fun, which didn’t really fit in with the angst of the time. So I did feel a little bit like an outsider, in a lot of ways.”
Odelay’s 1998 follow-up Mutations, with its bossa nova, Tropicalia and country inflections, was recorded live in the studio as Beck continued to fend off suggestions he was a novelty act. “It was to show, these are real musicians, real songwriting, it’s not tricks, it’s not smoke and mirrors”. At the time, he says, “even my label, the reaction from a lot of people around me was, this is experimenting, these aren’t real songs.”
Other, older musicians thought otherwise. Mutations included three tracks originally solicited by Johnny Cash four years earlier, when Beck was just 24. Intimidated, Beck got cold feet and kept the songs (Sing It Again, Dead Melodies and Cancelled Check) to himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they’re terrible and they would have been better if he’d sung them,” he says. Cash ended up covering one of Beck’s earlier songs, Rowboat, anyway.
Now, Beck recognises he was onto something. “Even though I knew nothing and was just an inexperienced kid, the instincts of youth were strong and what [I was doing] was maybe an ethos of a time to come … It was this giddy, beautiful moment of discovery and I would go back maybe and just give that kid permission to just keep going with that and see where that goes.”
That might suggest Beck self-consciously limited himself. But after Mutations came Midnite Vultures, a garish, playful album of sexed-up R&B, then Sea Change, usually regarded as his best work next to Odelay. Written quickly, it was a luscious, lugubrious piece of introspection following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He’s been flitting somewhere between these two extremes ever since.
Slowly, the rest of the pop world caught up. “A lot of it can sound quite conventional compared to a lot of music now, it’s not outlandish,” he says. “But at the time it was completely outlandish. My thing was, OK, we can have a Jew’s harp, a fuzz guitar and a samba beat all together. And that’s the era we live in now – there are no rules, there’s nobody minding the store. The more far-fetched the idea, the better.”
BECK was born into art. His father, David Campbell, is a celebrated Canadian composer and arranger; his mother, Bibbe Hansen (Beck later took her surname), was one of Andy Warhol’s Factory “superstars” in the 1960s. They separated when Beck was 10. Bibbe is Jewish, Campbell a Scientologist, as is Beck’s ex-wife, actor Marissa Ribisi, with whom he has two children, son Cosimo (aged 15) and daughter Tuesday (12).
This has led to persistent speculation and curiosity about Beck’s own beliefs. “I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist. I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for Beck: he filed for divorce from Ribisi in February and it’s tempting to think that might account for Hyperspace‘s more downbeat mood. (The album was named after the arcade game Asteroids, which was based on a scene from Star Wars: if your spaceship faced an unavoidable collision you could escape by hitting the hyperspace button and end up anywhere on screen.)
But it’s no Sea Change, and it would be a mistake to attribute the source of these songs to his current state of mind. The first song recorded with Pharrell Williams, The Everlasting Nothing, was written seven years ago; they’d been meaning to get back to it ever since but were consumed by other projects. “It kind of had this elegiac, hymn-like quality but with ’80s beats, and it just didn’t seem to fit with what was happening at the time.”
I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.
Another song, he says, was written about a friend who overdosed in a motel room two blocks away, over 20 years ago. “For some reason, it came out now. And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”
He says he views the songs on Hyperspace as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through…” – he pauses and chuckles – “this thing called life, as Prince said.”
Now he’s back in LA, part of him may want to sleep for a week, but “I can actually go into the studio, and that’s very seductive to me. There’s such a finite amount of time, so I’m always 10 steps behind where I’m trying to get to. And we’re in a time, with streaming, where people want more content, so the artists that are really in the eye of the culture are constantly putting out music.”
On the cusp of 50, he feels like he’s just getting started. “You hear a song on the radio, even something like [David Bowie and Queen’s song] Under Pressure – it’s such an elaborate and realised piece of work. As a songwriter you go, how did they fit all these things together so seamlessly and it’s so memorable and meaningful? There’s thousands of songs that good … I’m still extremely humbled by how much I have left to learn.”
And yet on songs as simultaneously dense and hook-filled as Where It’s At, that’s exactly what Beck has consistently done. These days, it’s an encore song, part of the cultural fabric, and when he performs it “musically, it’s like you’re in everybody’s living room at that point. Everyone’s relaxed because they’re like, this is home.”
Beck’s Hyperspace is released by EMI. Andrew Stafford travelled to LA as a guest of EMI.