interview by Jim Beckmann
photos by Dan Muller
In 1997, Beck Hansen last played Seattle’s Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival. Back then, in the time before mainstage wristbands, thousands of fans flooded into the Memorial Stadium, packing it so tightly that many of us stragglers were unable to squeeze in. Fortunately, since then Beck has played several different venues in the Seattle area — sometimes with marionettes — and has released six more full-length albums, from the frenetic Midnight Vultures to the twangy Sea Change. This summer, he released his eighth studio album, Modern Guilt, produced by Danger Mouse, which he is currently supporting with a world-wide tour.
Beck has also been busy with his family. On the continuing leg of his US tour, he will perform at the Hollywood Bowl in a couple of weeks, reportedly playing his biggest hometown headline show ever. More importantly, though, he’ll be joined by his dad, David Campbell, who will conduct the accompanying orchestra. Additionally, for the 2008 Fall Collection by Whitley Kros, a label co-owned by his actress/designer wife, Marissa Ribisi, Beck played DJ and later created a mix now playing on the label’s website. Somehow, on top of everything he’s been doing, he managed to find the time to father two children of his own.
Needless to say, Beck has given his fans plenty to be satiated with. Still, his return to Bumbershoot after just over a decade definitely felt like a homecoming to those of us in Seattle, regardless of Beck’s long-time residence in Los Angeles. In fact, as I discovered in my conversation with him behind the Mainstage, where he would finally perform again, it truly was a return, at least to his extended family, several of whom arrived to meet him at the same time as our interview. A short while later, in the relative quiet of his tour bus, Beck affably apologized for the delay.
Jim: I was actually meaning to ask if you have a lot of family in Seattle or the Seattle area.
Beck: Yeah, pretty much my whole family is in Seattle. And in Vancouver.
Jim: A while back, I heard a story that your grandmother was here at Bumbershoot for your show eleven years ago.
Beck: It was on her birthday, her 80th birthday. She was on stage.
Jim: It seems like this year you’ve done a lot with your family. You’re about to perform with your father on stage. Have you performed with him before?
Beck: I haven’t, no. But he’s done arranging for me on my records, but onstage this will be the first time.
Jim: How did that come about?
Beck: We’re playing the Hollywood Bowl. Half of the times I’ve been there have been with an orchestra. I did a show with Air years ago when they played and I sang with them. There are enough orchestral things on my various records to warrant it.
Jim: Also, recently on the website for your wife’s fashion label Whitney Kros, there’s a great set of music that you mixed.
Beck: Oh yeah, and I performed one of her shows (as a DJ for the 2008 Fall Collection).
Jim: What about your children, do they listen to music? Do they go to your shows or are they old enough to be appreciating anything?
Beck: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s like any child, when they hear, they start moving.
Jim: Do they have any preferences when they listen to your music?
Beck: My daughter doesn’t really speak enough to know, but if she likes it, you’ll see her moving.
Jim: Does being a dad change the way you write music?
Beck: I don’t think so. It changes things about your life but not far as writing songs.
Jim: But does any of that filter into the new album?
Beck: No, I’m not writing about being a father. I maybe haven’t done it long enough to really be able to have a complete insight into it or have anything original to say in a song, but it does affect your view of things in certain ways.
Jim: Speaking of that, a lot of people have been saying that the new album seems like your darkest yet. I have read it like every time. How do you feel about that?
Beck: I think that it’s an angle. I think the album just doesn’t have those two other funky songs that the other records have. We just took those off. And if you leave them on, then they cast all the rest of the songs in this light of being slightly ironic or not completely sincere. I thought, “What if we just take these couple songs off?” If you go out to the other records, even Odelay, and read the lyrics, like in “Devil’s Haircut” and “Ramshackle,” they’re not always bright and happy. They’re kind of dark. But at the same time, I listen to Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, Nick Cave, Tom Waits — that’s dark. You know, what I’m doing is pretty lightweight in comparison to what I listen to. It’s like I was removing some of the colors, trying to get the simplicity and make it a little more monochromatic.
Jim: It seems like this album is much more focused. At 33 minutes, it’s a short album. I’m sure that someone as prolific as you had plenty more songs you could have easily put on it. What made you think to keep it very narrow?
Beck: I actually have more ideas than I can use and I tend to go into the studio and pursue a million different directions at once and sort of cobble it together as a final piece at the end. This time, I decided to really discipline myself and just try to control it. I purposefully not let myself do certain things and really tried to steer it to something. That said, I still think I keep a pretty open mind when I’m working. I do let a lot of different things happen, things I wasn’t planning on doing. I think some people go to make a record with a really specific mission in mind and would cut themselves off from any happy accidents or things they stumble on. I was still letting that happen, but I was definitely controlling it.
Jim: You worked with Danger Mouse this time. Did you choose him to help get that influence in there, to get a different sort of vision?
Beck: No, that was something I had already been planning for the last few years. I thought the next record would be 30 minutes, 10 songs, and that it would be very concise and the melodies to be memorable — the kind of record you’d want to listen to more than a few times.
Jim: Sometimes you forget when you’ve heard a really long album.
Beck: Yeah, and it sort of washes out. The last record was going to be a double record and we ended up cutting it down to 15 songs, which was still pretty sprawling. There are so many records I love that have that kind of economy.
Jim: Those old Leonard Cohen albums were usually about 30 minutes or so.
Beck: Like many of the great albums from the album-making era — the mid-60’s up through probably the late 70’s. In that era, people were thinking in terms of that kind of economy.
Jim: You’ve always had a lot of creative freedom, but I read that your term with Universal is coming up. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but with all these bands that are going off on their own, I wonder if you have thought about that at all.
Beck: I don’t know who’s really going off on their own because Radiohead ended up going with a label as well. I think people are using the internet but they are also bound to circumstances. Maybe the music business is still changing, but the record companies still own those channels. I guess it will evolve into something different, but at this point, I don’t think you can completely go out on your own. But I think I will be using the internet to do certain things. I have other records that I’ve made, things that are sitting around, things that have been sitting around for years, and I think that’s a good place to be able to give music that maybe my label wouldn’t want to put out or wouldn’t be worth their time, but it doesn’t negate that maybe some fans might be interested in it. I might fill out the picture of what I’m playing and how one gets from A to B to C. There are all of these things in between all these records. I’m constantly recording, so there might be some outlets for that. There is a whole body of acoustic songs that I haven’t released much of, so maybe that stuff could come out.
Jim: Didn’t I read that you were recently going through some old tapes of things you recorded over time?
Beck: Sure, yeah, I have a lot of old tapes. Boxes of them. There’s a record I did called One Foot in the Grave on K Records. We did a follow up record as well that was never finished and is sitting in a vault.
Jim: Do you think you’d maybe work with some other labels like that again?
Beck: Yeah, I started my own label. I was actually free from my old record deal two records ago, but the last one I just gave to my record company anyway, and I’m selling it in Europe with XL.
Jim: I do have one more question: how’s your progress on the Becktionary coming along? Any new additions?
Beck: No, I’ve let it slide. I’ve been trying to use standard English as it is spoken on the last record.
Beck – live on the Mainstage of Bumbershoot 8/30/08
photos by Jim Bennett