Beck lives through the hype that would have killed most losers.
Orange County Register
October 9, 1996
It's hard to figure out exactly how he did it. Two years ago with the success of
"Loser" _ a living-room tape never intended to be heard _ he was faced with spiraling hype, impossible expectations and a seemingly
He not only lived through the voice-of-a-generation hype that came with
"Loser," he all but made his fans forget that song. He shook off the
"spokesman" and "slacker" labels, defeating the career-threatening
hype by just ignoring it.
He instead gained the respect of his peers _ including Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and a thousand newer bands that want to sound like him.
And, in the midst of it all, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter kept his
concentration and made exactly the record he wanted with the finely textured, hip-hop/rock masterpiece,
With a hit track in "Where It's At," critics' raves, stunning high-energy
live shows and a shoo-in for plenty of album-of-the-year nods, Beck has gone from the
certain doom of being labeled as a cute little alterna-waif to being supremely in control.
Then again, maybe it was never going to turn out any other way. In a confident,
breezy conversation from his L.A. home this week, Beck said that despite some confusion and roadblocks, he never had any doubts about where he was
"I knew I'd be getting into the studio to make this record," he said.
"It took a year and a half, but we got in and did it.
"Not to take anything away from it, but (the debut album) 'Mellow Gold'
is really a bunch of demos," he said. "This is the album I wanted to
make. I wanted more _ more focus, more time spent, just more ... more
Like the enigmas that are Bob Dylan or Michael Stipe, it's hard for a fan to get a sense of the 26-year-old Beck Hansen's personality by
listening strictly to the music. The elliptical lyrics, the soaring images and
clever wordplay that are sprinkled through his rap-rock songs can leave the
impression that he's some kind of flake, a too-hip wise guy who hides behind words
In reality, Beck is exceedingly straight, down-to-earth and chatty, answering
questions and going on at length with little prodding.
"People have this image of me as a pot-smoking, channel-surfing
teen," he said. "I didn't even own a TV for most of my adult
He knows his lyrics are pretty far afield from most pop songs and that leads to some of his image problems.
On the other hand, "I do like that I can say 'Here-suits with your parachute
fruits' on Top 40 radio,'' he said, quoting a nonsensical line from
"Where It's At."
His pal Tom Petty cites Beck's sense of humor as one of his great coping mechanisms. It helps, Beck acknowledges, but it's also been a drawback.
Much of "Mellow Gold," including the "Loser" tagline
"I'm a loser baby/so why don't you kill me?" came out of Beck's wry, dry humor. His
friends got the joke. It skidded right by everyone else.
"My friend and my girlfriend knew it was just me and my sense of
humor," he said. "But everyone else took it out of
He flees from the "spokesman for a generation" tag that critics tried
to put on him with "Loser," yet at the same time isn't afraid to speak
his mind on exactly what he sees his generation of musicians doing.
And humor is fine, but he's dead-serious about his work. The lingering
"Loser" image doesn't annoy him so much as other things that have been
taken out of context. The "slacker" image grates; he works harder than
anyone he knows. His prolific nature and the rough, unfinished feel of some of his work belie the sweat that goes into it. L.A. fans also know
him to be a great live performer. But one bad performance at a national music seminar stuck him with a tag as a live stiff.
"I put my heart and soul into it. You can ask my girlfriend or my
friends," he said. "I don't see my home for weeks at a time. I don't get weekends
But like many musicians, his respite comes through his work. For him it has always come through music _ that of others if not his own. One of society's
biggest problems, he said, is that there's no time to reflect. People are
so caught up in the moment that they can't see that it's just a small, somewhat insignificant moment out of time that we inhabit.
"There's nowhere to go today to reflect or have any kind of solitude.
Music is one thing that provides that," he said, likening it to walking
out to a field to be at peace with your mind.
"I'm really into history," he continued, "and this is just a dot in
the whole chasm of time."
What he likes musically is to take history _ folk, delta blues, classic rock _ and
combine it with new technology, new sounds and new beats. His finished work
ranges from spare folk music to layered, dense hip-hop symphonies. Many of the songs are folk-based riffs written on his acoustic guitar that
he and collaborators the Dust Brothers take into the studio and begin to
work to figure out how far to take them.
"It's a tightrope I walk," he said.
He's not caught up in the faux rules of what is alternative and what's not.
"Odelay!" is a straighter, cleaner, clearer and more accessible
album than what he has done before. He doesn't see any point in communicating
through music yet having people not get it.
"I wanted to make music that people would love," he said.
He sees his experimentation as being somewhat simple and somewhat obvious:
taking some traditional folk forms and often working hip-hop style tape loops around them.
And it can be that simple. Songwriter E took his traditional pop songs, looped some samples and came up with the alternative-rock sound of the
But with Beck there's much more to it, with pieces of everything from
"Tomorrow Never Knows" Beatles to "John Wesley
Harding" Dylan thrown in. His deeper roots extend to Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker.
And while his work shows those influences proudly, it all coalesces into
a powerful new sound unlike anything else out there, leaving critics and
fellow musicians grasping for superlatives.
It's that sense of history that is such a fine line to walk. He can see around him how much his generation is influenced by the musicians who came
before them, with the current emphasis on the guitar-rock sounds of the '70s playing a huge role in music of the '90s.
"Do you see it that way too?" Beck asked. "Everyone either ripping
it off or making fun of it, doing a parody of it."
That, he says, is the easy path. What's more difficult is putting a new twist on it and taking it to the next level _ building on it the way the
Beatles and others built on the music that influenced them. But too many,
he said, are just ``regurgitating what came before.'' Or regurgitating what is coming now. While too polite to name names, Beck acknowledges that
he's well aware of the bands who are copying the elements of his style to try to latch onto a modern sound.
When ``Loser'' took off in early 1994, Beck had no plans for a bigger-than-life
image or career. Yet at the same time, he saw the chance to put the sounds
in his head onto tape. He was constantly recording, coming up with dozens
of songs to finally eke out the 13-song ``Odelay!''
"I was going through a really difficult time" he said.
"There was a cycle of everyone dying around me. That, combined with the hype that came
out of nowhere _ seemed to come out of nowhere _ really affected
As a follow-up to "Mellow Gold" he put together an entire album of
somber, orchestrated folk-based tunes, a piece that could have been a commercial
blockbuster along with similarly themed work by Smashing Pumpkins, Nine
Inch Nails and Nirvana.
But he plucked one song from it _ the album-closing "Ramshackle" _ and
threw away the rest. It wasn't the album he knew he had to make. He wanted
the album to be upbeat, forward-looking and full of life.
"And I had to make that (unreleased) album to make this one," he said.
He had other work along the way. Two albums, the folky "One Foot in the
Grave" and the noisy "Stereopathic Soul Manure" were released on small
labels while Geffen Records patiently awaited the real follow-up.
Beck's attitude toward record companies, including his own, is that they're
just agents who lease an artist's work for a while _ not a boss, not a bank, not a god to try to please. His early success allowed him to do
basically anything he wants. He gives Geffen records to release, but he issues
others on his own on indie labels whenever the mood hits him.
"I have maybe three or four people I deal with just to get things
done," he said.
Otherwise, there's no interference, no second-guessing, no asking for permission.
As for the unreleased music, he has no plans to get it out anytime soon, though fans can expect a few songs popping up as bonus tracks on CD
singles and maybe some more indie releases.
"I always say that it's going to be on the floppy-disc box
set," he mused. "There's so much I record that's just for myself. I'm probably
the worst judge of what to put out."
In fact, music's brightest hope is to stay out of the control of record companies. And that's exactly what's happening. With the cost of recording
equipment dropping and new distribution systems opening, no one needs a record company anymore. Beck is living proof. Though he's on Geffen Records,
"Loser" was originally a 500-pressing single for tiny Bongload Records.
It was a recording that shot him to fame, one done in a friend's living room.
And it's those artists out there with full freedom and minimal interference
_ songwriters with an acoustic guitar or rappers with just two turntables
and a microphone _ who are pushing the boundaries of music.
"You can turn on hip-hop radio and still hear something there that's
weird, out of place, that you haven't heard before," Beck said.
"People don't realize how really cheap it is," he continued.
"With two grand you can put together a studio to make CD-quality recordings.
Who knows where we'll go with that?
"What the Beatles did with the technology back then was so sophisticated.
Imagine if they'd had what there is today."