Beck: for American Music

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In it for the Sake of American Music:
Inside the Mind of the Musical Genius
Words by Martin Halo

El Paso, Texas — Beck has rarely been shy about pushing the boundaries of his own musical ambition, or even alienating audiences at the expense of artistic expression.  From a traditional upstart in the coffee houses of New York City, to a symphonic country balladeer on 2002’s Sea Change, Beck’s legacy is destined for a dominant whisper nestled in the blowing winds of American music.

Standing as a pioneer whose records are a statement of constant originality, his acclaimed compositions have sparked the legend of an ever-maturing musical genius.

It wasn’t all devil’s haircuts and turntables that catapulted Beck to the forefront of the popular musical landscape. It was a love of roots music and a commitment to keeping his art pure which earned him the respect and admiration of his peers.

While growing up in Los Angeles, California, during the latter part of the 1980s, his love for music was spawned at a time when the cultural climate of the United States was going through a dramatic shift.

“I remember not really getting into music or becoming a fan until I was in my late teens,” says Beck in a warm tone.

“Music was always around, but I can remember taking a liking to the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Dylan, the whole 60s folk revival and traditional music. . Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Skip James and a whole bunch of Delta Blues artists.”

The purist standard of the late 1960s had ballooned into a paradox of decadence, glam, and unstoppable excess in the 1980s. A nation was under the grip of a ‘New Wave’ spell, while naively struggling to fight a decade-long cocaine epidemic.

Making a name for himself as a young singer/songwriter didn’t exactly fit into the mold of bands originating from the Sunset Strip.

“It was a bit of a challenge starting off,” explains Beck. “If I was in a band it probably would have been easier,” as laughter follows.

“Los Angeles was pretty minimal. I don’t remember finding any like-minded people in that city. Everything seemed to be very middle of the road,” shares the now 36 year-old musician. “Nobody was listening to Woody Guthrie or Blind Lemon Jefferson in those clubs.”

“If I were ever to play the blues, people would just equate it with a Budweiser commercial or the music you hear when tumbleweeds are blowing by in the background,” Beck offers.

“I was more a purist and into traditional music at the time. I couldn’t seem to find anybody who was adhering to a style of rural blues.”

“So once I turned 18, I decided to move to New York,” he explains. “There still wasn’t a scene for me there but there were places for you to play and be appreciated. They ended up being coffee houses and a few bars.”

Despite the hurdles, Beck forged forward and landed a deal with Geffen Records in 1994. Beck began to mix an eclectic range of musical styles that included folk, blues, and the increasingly influential nature of hip-hop.

“There is very little music that I don’t like or don’t admire in someway,” explains Beck. His debut single “Loser” off the Mellow Gold LP launched his career.

By the time Odelay was released in 1996 Beck had solidified himself as a key player of the vanguard. Odelay earned him a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance and featured the tracks “Devil’s Haircut,” “New Pollution,” and “Where It’s At.”

Ten years later, Beck delivered his tenth full-length artistic achievement. Entitled The Information, the LP was released by Interscope Records on October 3, 2006.

“The recording sessions were done at my house and at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles,” explains Beck. “Ocean Way is one of the last classic rooms that are still intact from probably years ago. The actual room we recorded in was the same way it was back in the 1950s.”

The recording process for The Information took the greater part of seven days, which Beck can only describe as, “frenzied.”

“It was just kind of mad and intense. We worked very quickly laying down a bunch of different takes while changing the instrumentation and placement of certain things.”

“Once we got done we spent a great deal of time with producer Nigel Godrich sifting through the session tracks and forming it into a record,” explains Beck.

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“My records aren’t a complete statement unless you listen to the entire record. I don’t consciously write singles. There were two or three instances where a song detached itself from an album and went on to become a radio single. But the songs are meant to have a collective impact in the midst of a group of other songs.”

Having worked with Beck before, on the 2002 critically acclaimed Sea Change LP, the relationship between producer and artist has moved past the limitations and expectations of those masterful sessions.

“This record was completely different for us than Sea Change,” says Beck. “I think whatever formulas we made for ourselves on a previous project we just threw away and started from scratch. I think we both have a strong tendency for wanting not to repeat ourselves.”

“Nigel is very hands-on and I think that is his biggest asset,” praises Beck.

With a behind the scenes DVD included with the collection of songs and sporting customizable cover art, The Information is proving to be a piece of music that fans are buying off the shelves and not simply downloading to a digital device.

“My records aren’t a complete statement unless you listen to the entire record. I don’t consciously write singles. There were two or three instances where a song detached itself from an album and went on to become a radio single. But the songs are meant to have a collective impact in the midst of a group of other songs,” explains Beck.

“There should be a feeling of emotion being built over the course of an entire album.”

“If artists were to think in terms of just downloading tracks, then we would be back to the days of 78’s and we would all be putting out two-track recordings.”

“The record extras were an afterthought. A record is something that you should be able to hold and be a part of, so we were just exploring how we could engage the fan with the packaging,” explains Beck.

Things have changed dramatically for Beck since he was playing to coffee houses on the streets Greenwich Village. A couple world tours, a couple gold records, and a schedule crazy enough to crack lesser men have failed to distract Beck from his musical roots and beliefs.

“I don’t know if it was the period I grew up in or how I was raised but the idea of artistic integrity, to me, is a part of any artist’s survival.”

“It is about being very careful about how people want to use songs. There are a lot of grey areas obviously, because everybody has their own set of beliefs. But as far as marketing, and people giving their music to commercials and stuff like that, it is just not a practice I want to participate in,” says Beck.

“For me I make music for the sake of making music. People who are in music to just get famous or to make money should find another occupation.”

“If you are going to be a musician you have to do it out of a love for music. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of crap that I have turned down from advertisers,” says Beck.

“In a way I feel like I am cutting myself off as far as where my music can reach. Maybe my world is a little smaller because of it. But at the same time it makes the music solely for the sake of making art, and that is absolutely necessary. For me integrity is essential.”

Modern influential artists are always a hot topic of conversation and with Beck it’s no different.

“There is no doubt that Jack White has had an impact, and a pretty large one at that,” says Beck. “Radiohead over the past five years has undoubtedly moved to the forefront and has been challenging everybody.”

While the last North American tour leg wraps up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on October 23 the road ahead for Beck seems to be one of escape and relaxation.

“I am going on four years straight of constant work. Between touring, recording, and writing, I am anxious to get started on the next record because I have a few things in mind. But to be honest, we are probably going to take some time off,” reveals Beck.

“But I assure you, I have some things up my sleeve.” | Golden Age