The Devil Inside
Q
July 1997
pp. 92-99
David Cavanagh

Hip hop, country, blues, folk, rock ...There's a smidgen of everything in Beck Hansen's music, and, all of a sudden, the deep-voiced little Queen fan is everywhere. Luckily, he's on a mission of sorts. "In this day and age," he warns David Cavanagh, "people are cheap and over-entertained."

Shortly before an unseasonal bout of afternoon rainfall, an ambulance pulls in to the forecourt of the upmarket West London hotel where Beck is staying. Someone has fallen down the stairs backwards. In the mezzanine bar area, a photographer is having a discussion with Lauryn Hill from The Fugees. "I know this will be used on posters so I'm going to compose vertical," he tells her. "Although I'm also going to compose horizontal."

Upstairs in his room, Beck Hansen - who has just flown in from Dublin -has been attempting to sleep off the cumulative effects of being top of the pops, supernova, nuclear, gilt-edged, shit-hot and in-demand, all in the same skinnyslight five-foot-six-inch body. Slumber has proved elusive: the man in the next room has been having loud arguments with himself in a variety of voices, has wrecked all his furniture and has valiantly resisted all efforts to remove him forcibly (after a querulous telephone call from Beck to the front desk) by four large gentlemen from hotel security.

"Besides the four or five months it took to make Odelay," Beck drawls in his throat-scrapingly deep voice, "I've been on the road for three years now. I haven't been near a studio in a year and a half. And there's a guy speaking in tongues in the room next to me."

Anyone can see the poor little fellow is knackered. But there'll be no holiday for the foreseeable future. After a deceptively slow build-up, Odelay-his 1996 album of funk, blues, hip hop, folk, country, '60s pop, Sonic Youth and Schubert - has caught the imagination (pace Waddington's board games) of everyone from eight to ... well, let's say 50. He is in Britain to consolidate his hot-ticket stature with four indoor shows (he'll return in August for outdoor festivals in Leeds and Chelmsford) and to perform three songs on what his tour manager calls Later With Jules Verne.

Among the many projects that have had to be put on ice while momentum accumulates for this 26-year-old "zombie-fawn guided by a translucent face with sci-fi eyes" (as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore described him) are the follow-up to Odelay; the overseeing of more offmenu releases allowed him by his contract with Geffen Records; and a collaboration with Snoop Doggy Dogg, a man who would no doubt give much to have a mere tiredness problem.

"He's really in a dangerous spot right now," Beck acknowledges soberly of the West Coast rapper's lengthening odds of making it safely to the Millennium.

As to Beck himself, he settles into a leather chair on the mezzanine, pouring himself a cup of tea and looking like Jon Voight in a physiognomical re-design with a yet-to-shave teenager. "The world is a holiday," he once wrote, "smoking in an old ashtray/They just blow it out their nose and say OK." Words like these - allied to a love of Woody Guthrie and a somewhat astral deportment - have had him compared to Bob Dylan. To others, he's the new Captain Beefheart, with his penchant for surrealism, interest in the Mississippi blues and comical song-titles (Aphid Manure Heist, Cyanide Breath Mint). For many, he's the white Prince: he's prolific, he plays loads of instruments and he is funky. Or is he the late '90s Sly Stone? Or a futuristic meeting of De La Soul, Tom Waits and lounge pioneer Esquivel?

Or is it simply a case, as he once suggested, of "trying to get to a place where you can stand outside the perimeters of what's possible"?

A lot of people are pinning their hopes on you. There's already talk of you as the preeminent pop artist of the next century.

Well, yeah, exactly. Odelay's not that great a record. I enjoyed making it, but it was a means to get somewhere else. I wish I'd had time to make the next one, because we were just getting tuned up. We were getting in the flow. Odelay's kind of stiff. I'm into music that's really fluid. I want to do something that's completely baroque and fluid at the same time.

Odelay wasn't the album you originally intended to make, was it?

I started recording it when Mellow Gold (his first album for Geffen in 1994) came out. I did thirty or forty folk and straight-rock songs. They didn't have beats or samples. Ramshackle was one of those - it's probably the oldest song on it.

Between you and the producers, The Dust Brothers, who did what on Odelay?

I played the instruments. Mike Simpson did a lot of the turntable scratching stuff. Mike, John King and I picked out the samples together from whatever was lying around in the studio. I would write and record a song and one of us would grab a record and find a little something that fitted. There are relatively little samples. Most of it is me playing. The horns on Novocaine? That's just some random disco record.

You sampled Schubert's Unfinished Symphony on High 5 (Rock The Catskills).

Yeah. We'd started talking about classical music. Grabbed that off the shelf. Nobody was sure if they liked it, but it ended up staying on there. A lot of things we'd just throw into the soup. A lot of times we'd get rid of it later. I must have had twelve keyboard parts for Where It's At, but only two of them are in the song. Each song was like that.

Are you striving for a music that is of your time, but also timeless? Something that will sound modern 100 years from now?

That's one of the big things I struggle with. Wanting to be a part of your time, but not wanting to be a casualty of it. Timelessness is so hard to define, let alone achieve. I try not to fall into the trap of being retro. More and more music of the past twenty years is more and more disposable. Who are we listening to from a hundred years ago? Not really anybody.

Did you always intend to mix up musical styles in a soup, or did you start out trying to excel in a particular field?

I started out as a folk musician. I went between country-blues, Delta blues and more traditional, rural folk music. I just wanted to learn how to play guitar and I enjoyed playing that stuff I saw Mississippi John Hurt's picture before I heard him. He had a kindness to his face, a serenity. And his music lived up to this impression. He just turned me on. Such an antique sound, really archaic. There was something ghostly about it.

Was it like walking around a museum?

Not really, because it felt way more alive than other music I heard. I pretty much shut off music until about 1994. I didn't listen to anything. I wasn't aware of what was going on at all. Loser was done in a vacuum, it wasn't a reaction to any kind of youth culture or grunge culture."

So when you made Loser, you couldn't have named, say, all the members of R.E.M.?

Oh no! I was really uninterested. There were certain bands I liked when I was younger. Sonic Youth. An LA band called X.

So you were never a typical Kiss and Aerosmith fan?

I'm so ignorant of that music. I could only name a couple of songs because I've heard them as an adult. It wasn't a matter of avoiding it. I just didn't pay attention to it. I didn't care. I'm still pretty ignorant of 1970s music culture outside of a few specific things - y'know, Queen's cool.

If you had built a career on one of your styles, such as country or noisy guitar rock, would you have got bored quickly?

I'm never bored, no matter what. I might even have had a little more time to develop my songwriting. That's my biggest concern, touring for 18 months at a time: there's not a lot of time to develop the craft. I get into the studio and have to make up for lost time. That's why there are songs on Ode lay that are four songs in one. There isn't time to do them individually.

You seem to have listened to a lot of antique music - country, blues, Appalachian folk - before you were 20. How come?

Curiosity. Exploring. The sound of the blues spun some wheels in my head. It was so lonely and satisfying. I always dug things that came from opposite sides. That music was pain music, but at the same time it was balm, it was pacifying.

Did the language appeal to you? The levees and the crossroads and the penitentiaries?

Nawww. I was never drawn to Robert Johnson much-a lot of that stuff had a hyped-up, cliched aspect. He was very young and he was living out his own fantasy. To guys like Son House, he was "the kid". I was attracted more to Skip James. When he sings about the devil, you get a feeling of true evil. Sure, Robert Johnson seems a little haunted, but he represents the more rock'n'roll roots of blues. Like the Stones, yeah. He's more of a youth thing.

Beck was born on 8 July 1970. He grew up mainly in Los Angeles, spending part of the year (until his early teens) with his paternal grandparents in Kansas. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, had hung out as a 14-year-old atThe Factory in New York with Andy Warhol. At 17,she moved to California, meeting Beck's father, David Campbell, a musician and arranger for country-rock artists. Beck was born when Bibbe was 18. (Had Bibbe stayed around at The Factory a little longer, and events taken a different course, Beck's father might have been somebody like Lou Reed.) His parents split up when Beck was 10.

Whereabouts in Los Angeles did you grow up?

When I was younger we lived in Hollywood. The neighbourhood had been in decline since the early '50s, I'd say, and by the time we left there, they were ripping out miles of houses en masse and building low-rent, giant apartment blocks. We moved downtown to Hoover & Ninth Street, a neighbourhood which had a lot of Koreans and Salvadorian refugees.

Was your family poor?

You could say that. I don't want to talk about it. Where I come from financially doesn't inform my music.

There is no hint of anger or bitterness in your songs, or lyrics about social injustice. Have you deliberately avoided these subjects?

Well, you're not going to able to communicate with people if you're speechifying, if it's all a bunch of rhetoric. Yeah, some bands do it but it's not musical. In a time like the '60s you could do that and be effective, because lines had been drawn. But now people are on so many different sides at the same time. If my music has anything, it's the recognition and acceptance of ambivalence, and feeling strongly about opposite sides simultaneously.

You took a Greyhound bus to New York as an 18-year-old. What was the plan?

No plan. Just checking it out. LA at that point was such a cultural void. It's amazing to me that this whole hipster culture has emerged since the early '90s. It wasn't there when I was a teenager. I remember hanging out at the Onyx Cafe with musicians and artists, but they were all older. There were no kids doing anything interesting, except me, my brother and a couple of others. So when I hit New York, there was a lot of really stimulating stuff happening and I got right into it. After a while it was like I'd always been there.

You were already a performer by then ...

I'd done a little bit here and there.

You had been in a band called Youthless.

Yeah, we did some stuff at coffee houses in LA. Sort of freeform events with lots of things going on at once. Not films, no, resources were very limited. We had Radio Shack mics and this homemade speaker and we'd draft people in the audience to recite comic books or do a beatbox thing, or we'd tie the whole audience up in masking tape. We were inspired by a lot of Dadaist stuff: We'd try to create these spontaneous orgies of activity, but people are very passive in Los Angeles. Not much dialogue or interaction.

Did you simply turn up in New York and start playing the folk clubs immediately?

I'd been there a couple of weeks and it was brutally hot. Somebody saw me walking with a guitar and shouted, Hey, there's an open-mic thing here tonight. Well, I just play folk songs, I replied, that's cool. So I played Woody Guthrie songs. I didn't know anybody who was into that stuff except old record collectors. But I met all these people like John S. Hall of King Missile, who were sort of the stars of this anti-folk scene. A lot of us were playing folk music because we couldn't afford all the instruments and, Jesus, it's New York, where are you going to rehearse with a band? All we had was an acoustic guitar and energy. It was cool, it was abstract, it was stand-up comedy and free-form lyrics. It was the time. It was a current of creative electricity.

You've said that Bob Dylan has no influence on you whatsoever.

There was a real anti-Bob Dylan feeling in that scene. There was this need to move on, and not linger in his shadow. Which is a hard thing. I mean, anybody who picks up an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, immediately you're doing a Dylan. But we wanted to breakthrough that. And that's where I started writing songs.

Did anybody influence the way you throw unlikely-sounding words together in songs?

Growing up in a Latino community had a big influence, particularly hearing English spoken as a second language. I'm very interested in the syntax of someone who doesn't speak English fluently. There are some beautiful mistakes. But a lot of it's also to do with non-influence - step out, jump off the cliff and see what comes out.

Why did you go back to Los Angeles?

I was in New York for about a year, but I didn't have a place to stay and it was that whole period of '80s fallout where there weren't too many jobs. The little money I managed to get, I got ripped off by this crackhead lady who was going to let me her room. It was a very inhospitable town in general and I ran out of options.

You had some pretty demeaning jobs: alphabetising pornographic movies in a video shop.

Oh yeah, that was mind-sapping.

Christ, the As alone must have been grim.

Mmm, yeah. I was on the lowest rung of video store employees. We weren't allowed to sit down and we were only allowed to listen to this oldies radio station that was piped in. They would play Doo Wah Diddy at six o'clock every night. It was a little demoralising.

The first contemporary music that made a direct connection with the young Beck was hip hop, which he first heard on Grandmaster Flash records around 1981 or 1982. Growing up in a predominantly Latin district, he found himself the only white child at his school. He quickly learned to breakdance.

"Hip hop definitely hit me on the head and said, What the fuck is up?" he grins. "It immediately clicked right in there. I was already wearing the pants. I didn't even have to put them on."

Not that he immediately saw a way to juxtapose it with blues, country or folk. He was, after all, 11. As he entered his teens, each new year brought a more compelling hip hop sound: Ice-T, N.W.A. ("that music was the exact incarnation of the South Central atmosphere I grew up around") and Cypress Hill.

"When I first started writing songs, I would just write raps. I'd be listening to Public Enemy and I'd use Chuck D's rhythms, but I'd be playing it on an acoustic guitar. Before I had a drum machine, I had my foot. I would just stomp the thing, or do it a cappella."

In 1991, a year after his return to Los Angeles, he was introduced to "home studio nut" Karl Stephenson, who owned an eight-track reel-to-reel recorder on which he liked to cook up hip hop rhythms. Beck played some of his folk songs to Stephenson, who reciprocated by playing him some beats. There was one of these beats that Beck particularly liked.

"I started playing some slide guitar and singing," he elaborates. "The chorus was something I planned to re-do. At that point it was two in the morning. We'd started this thing at seven. And I had to go and get some sleep and go to work. I wanted to put something down so that I wouldn't forget the part."

The chorus in question went: "Soy un perdidor/I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" Accidentally, a futuristic - and for one man life-changing - collision had occurred between hip hop and blues. Neither Beck nor Stephenson gave it another thought.

Beck then didn't hear Loser for the best part of two years. He lost contact with Stephenson, who, according to Beck, was in the habit of periodically throwing all his equipment away and vanishing to Idaho to grow cactuses. Beck busied himself writing folk songs for a repertoire that would soon be in the low hundreds. Simultaneously, he was hassling Calvin Johnson's K Records in Olympia, Washington State, to let him record a cheapo-but-riveting collection of his country songs, folk songs and negro spirituals - which would eventually be released as One Foot In The Grave in 1994.

In 1992 Karl Stephenson moved back to Beck's neighbourhood and they resumed contact. A few demos were recorded, including Steal My Body Home and Pay No Mind (Snoozer), which would windup two years later on Mellow Gold. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles punk label, Bong Load, got to hear Loser and talked of putting out 500 copies. First they had to dissuade Beck from re-writing his original chorus.

"I said it was jokey," he grimaces. "They said, No, people think that's the best part."

Not being an courant with grunge, Beck didn't know that Loser was a legend on T-shirts manufactured by the Sub Pop label, nor that it was a generic term denoting "slackers", plaidwearers and all-round indolent opiate abusers. To him, loser was a term used to greet a friend (another was asshole, which became a song-title on One Foot in The Grave). Cocredited to Beck and Stephenson, Loser saw Beck getting picked up by Geffen and made him a star on MTV, on the radio and in the charts. To his distaste, it also saddled him with an unwanted slacker reputation, from which he only extracted himself with Odelay.

As well as One Foot In The Grave, Beck's contract with Geffen allowed him to put out Stereopathetic Soul Manure, a compilation of multifarious experiments in guitar noise, lachrymose country (Rowboat was later covered by Johnny Cash), comedy, folk and street theatre, recorded between 1988 and 1994. Mulling over Stereopathetic Soul Manure's archive titbits, Beck admits: "I'm a little more selective of what I put out now. Fragments are vulnerable. I find them interesting, personally. But at the same time they're easy targets."


In your mind, is Odelay the only record to be taken seriously, or are all four albums to be approached as equally important?

You can take them as a whole. You can use one as the body and the other ones as prosthetic arms. You can do whatever you want, Most people pick one and ignore the rest, which is fine with me. But Odelay was made as an album. That was like. OK, these songs go together.

Which one do you like most?

Well, I made One Foot In The Grave for me. That's the one, when I'm sitting by myself, that I really get into. But people find the two sides of me hard to reconcile. I don't know if I should even bother. On the one hand, you've got Odelay that's like a solid machine, but then I could put out a bunch of experiments and everyone would say, See, it was a fluke.

You mean they would approach it as the long-awaited follow-up to Odelay and be disappointed?

Exactly. People are waiting for me to fuck up.

If you fuck up on Later With Jools Holland, you're given another chance. David Byrne & Morcheeba, playing a frankly awful mixture of Gaelic diddly-dee, Indian and hip hop, can't seem to finish their first song without incident. Beck, who has already played his opening number, Devil's Haircut, is taking a breather on another stage, flanked by the five-piece hand that has been storming Britain with synchronized gangster choreography, robot head-jerks, body-popping and amazing musicianship. In Japan, they even wore donkey heads.

"In general." reckons Beck, "in this day and age. people are cheap and over-entertained. So now if you're playing music or making a movie or writing a book, you have to out-create, without losing your dignity or making yourself a total clown."

In the summer of 1994, with his previous hand, Beck was struggling. At one-day festivals in California, on a bill with Pavement, he surrounded himself with a self-conscious artnoise combo. The drummer set fire to his cymbals; the lead guitarist "played" his char with the strings faced towards his body; Beck himself changed the words to Loser so that nobody could sing along. Backstage, many of his fellow musicians thought he had lost his way.

"I've played with four different hands, because I started this whole thing on my own and a band was an afterthought," he explains. "I finally hipped myself to what I needed from a band, and hooked up with a great ensemble. And these cats are all riding the same wave. Before, it was like one person was on the beach, another was getting pulled out by a riptide, one was bodysurfing and another one was being eaten by eels"

And which was Beck'?

"I was the lifeguard trying to rescue myself at that point."

Beck's current combo is as eccentric as anything in pop these days. The keyboard player. Theo Mondle, is a shades-wearing Bangladeshi in his early forties. The guitarist, known only as Smokey, looks like Sergeant Sowici from The Phil Silvers Show. Joey Waronker, the side-parted, white-shirted drummer, could be the teenage David Helfgott on his way to a piano recital in Shine. Bassist Justin Mendal-Johnsen is a cross between Tim Buckley and the actor Rufus Sewell. And on Technics decks, DJ Swamp is Ralph Fiennes playing your friendly young Mormon door-to-door canvasser in a white poloneck sweater and an immaculate grey suit.

In Britain these men would probably never have met, let alone got together to play music. To draw any sort of visual comparison, one would have to pull out the cover of Love's first album. or find footage of Captain Beetheart's 1972 Magic Band playing I'm Gonna Booglarize You, Baby on Beat Club. Whether saluting one another formally with outstretched arms at the conclusion of each song, or darting excited looks as Jools Holland cues up an old film of Black Flag in concert in the '80s, Beck's band seem to belong to a secret world and an indefinite time.

"It's a good balance," Beck decides." Wave got a Bangladeshi. We've got a blues guitar player. We've got a hip hop DJ. We've got a jazz drummer. And we've got a new wave bass player. So all the ground is covered. But our whole thing is hip hop. Whatever we do in the show, we dress it as hip hop. That's the attitude."

You've said you consider most rock gigs to be sexless.

A lot of alternative music is.

Is yours more of a red-blooded, hard-on show?

Well, you can define sexiness or sensuality in a lot of ways, Woody Guthrie was sexy. Pete Seeger was not sexy. You know what I mean? Iím fascinated by the very direct sexuality of the R&B world (it, R Kelly), nor Wilko Johnson. Some of it may he inadvertently comical. but I suppose it's all connected really. Sensuality. Physicality. Music is physical.

Beck, what's your favourite Alfred Hitchcock movie?

Psycho.