Fifteen years on, this interview still brings me out in a cold sweat when I think about it. It was really early in my career and (then, as now) Beck was A Big Deal. Shy and modest, he is also not an easy subject. Reading it back, it's much better than I remember. It was written for The Big Issue in Scotland (when that was a separate publication) and I've actually got him to say he'd like to move to Scotland, which is pretty cool.
With new album Guero, Beck has returned to bright and funky form. Laura Kelly spoke to the slacker king on loss, love, and fatherhood — and finds he’s not as stupid as some internet cranks may think…
“I was just trying to write some good songs, that’s pretty much it.” Thus spake Beck, 34-year-old genre-hopping funkster, ‘Loser’, slacker king and one of the hardest-working musicians in the trade — of the aims behind his latest record, Guero.
Mr Hansen is, of course, being unnecessarily modest — Guero is no teenager’s attempt to craft a melody. It is a multi-layered, multi-coloured return to the hip hop funk of earlier releases such as slacker-chic Odelay, while maintaining the emotional depth, though not necessarily the pain, of 2003’s raw Sea Change. “Some good songs” is a serious underselling.
“It might be a little too early to tell,” Beck finally admits, “but I think the new one might be a keeper.”
While this ‘keeper’ is definitely his most cheerful release since 1999’s playful and Prince-esque Midnite Vultures, it’s also Beck at his most morbid. One love story, ‘Girl’, seems to tell the tale of an obsessive murderer.
“Yeah, that was deliberate,” says Beck of its deathly inclination, “I love the Pixies, Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground — pop music that has a dark undercurrent.”
Beck’s experimental leaning — the magpie aesthetic that has led him to work with everyone from “sitar playing chiropractors, to homeless guys, to Johnny Marr” — has come through this time, but he is not always so chuffed with the fruits of his labour.
“There are ones that are patchy to me,” he quite readily says of his back catalogue, “but I learned a lot from them. Sometimes you’ve got to stick your neck out and try a bunch of things to grow. If you just stay in the same safe area, and you never put anything on the line, then you’ll never get anything new.”
The only other time he acknowledges he “kind of got it right” is on Sea Change, the heartrending release that followed his split from Leigh Limon, his girlfriend throughout his twenties. The relationship, which started before ‘Loser’ shot Beck into the hearts of the MTV generation, ended three weeks before his 30th birthday. He attended his birthday party a single and, if Sea Change is to be believed, somewhat broken man.
The record itself was an unusually direct account of the process of loss, from ‘Lonesome Tears’ to ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine,’ and it shocked fans of Beck’s usual eccentric vocal noodlings. There were no beefcake pantyhose, no pixelated doctors moaning, no devil’s haircut in his mind this time, just a downbeat and terribly honest tale of woe.
At the time Beck was coy about the songs’ relation to his own fife but with distance, it seems, has come some acceptance. “That record was very simple, just really direct and it just said exactly what it said, there weren’t a lot of ambiguities and layers to it,” he confesses.
Paradoxically, though admitting Sea Change’s distraught songs are honest, Beck maintains, “I’ve been cheerful for a long time. I just put out an album with sad songs on it, it didn’t mean I was sad, it’s just songs.”
The current cheerfulness chez Hansen must be at least partially pinned upon Marissa Ribisi, twin sister of the actor Giovanni, who has firmly supplanted Limon in Beck’s affections. His brief but high-profile fling with Winona Ryder, too, is ancient history, as over the past couple of years he has settled into suburban comfort with his new wife and bouncing babe in arms.
As well as bringing the fun back to his music, Beck’s wedding reignited the perennial rumours that he is a practising Scientologist. Many an internet crazy has gained succour from the fact that his new wife is within the church, just as his parents are.
As an official follower of L Ron Hubbard’s cult-church, he joins the likes of John Travolta and Tom Cruise in believing, among other things, that disembodied spirits implanted with false memories and sent to Earth 75 million years ago by Xenu, an evil galactic warlord, cling to humans and create unhappiness and strife — a very surreal Beck-ish concept, perhaps. But the internet tittle-tattle would have you believe that any pause on the phone is the conversation being tapped — any unwillingness to answer is the Scientologist dogma preventing honesty. One site even goes so far as to remind us that Beck only has an eighth grade education, the suggestion being that you could probably outwit him in vocal combat.
That is unfair. Beck is not stupid, though he admits he missed out by leaving school so early. His pauses are less likely to stem from conspiracy than from his own meekness, which is more endearing than sinister.
Anyhow, as with any new parent, his interest is now more attuned to his baby boy than any religious debate. Cosimo Henri is almost a year old now and brings real warmth to his father’s voice on mention. So how is fatherhood treating him? “It’s great, I love it,” he says, with pleasure, “It’s a whole other kind of responsibility.”
He pauses, and in a tone reminiscent of Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure slowly says, “You’re entrusted with a human life, you know.” Like, wow dude.
Beck’s slacker-boy charm is on full power now, dispelling all cult suspicion, and he suddenly seems too young, too vulnerable to be someone’s dad. He is certainly in awe of his kid... but it seems Cosimo is a fan of daddy too. “He definitely is, he heard my stuff the whole time he was in the belly. He seems like he recognises the songs. He likes music, he likes to dance.”
The whole family will decamp from Los Angeles next week to bring those danceable beats to the UK, calling in to Glasgow at the end of this month. “We’ve got a good show right now, it’s a lot of fun,” he assures me, uncharacteristically offering a bit more elaboration. “It’s a totally new band, we’ve got some weird outfits, I’m DJing. It’s pretty entertaining, I think.”
Beck’s last visit to Scottish shores was without any band at all, putting him firmly centre-stage and challenging his shyness. “I kind of liked that actually, because it forced me to talk to the audience and to have to engage with them. If you play by yourself there’s no real wall to protect you, no real wall of sound.”
While the family all enjoy travelling with the band, leaving LA is not a permanent option for them. “I can’t leave here,” Beck insists, “I’ve thought about it, I’ve tried, but the weather’s too nice.”
He has also recently begun to appreciate the multi-cultural element of the city, which is audible in the Latino flavour of Guero, especially on the mariachi-influenced ‘Que onda Guero’ (or ‘What’s up, White Boy’). The discovery of somewhere so interesting right outside his front door was actually a bit of a shock, he says.
“When you’re growing up you wanna go somewhere strange and different, but then you realise how strange where you actually came from is.”
For the moment, then, Beck is happy with his life – looking after Cosimo, touring, constantly recording. But what does he do when he’s not thinking about music? Does he ever get the chance to kick back and pick up a book? “I don’t have a lot of time actually,” he says, unsurprisingly, “I wish I had time to read. I guess I’m like that guy in the Twilight Zone when the world blows up and then he has all the time in the world to read, but then his glasses break.”
He did manage to take time out for Matt Groening, though, to appear in cult cartoon series Futurama as his future self — a disembodied head, “That was fun!” he exclaims, “When I did it, I just tried to be real natural but it’s a cartoon, so they schooled me that you have to be extremely exaggerated in your inflection and tone. I just had to act like a jackass and then it worked out,” he adds, more simply.
Groening didn’t shy from mocking his guest star, getting a ‘stupid’ dig in by giving Beck the petulant line, “Odelay is a word, just look it up in the Becktionary”. Perhaps because of the balmy weather in his home town, he is as laid back about the ribbing as he is about everything else.
And yet, out of the blue, he claims he is only really at his best when he is in Scotland, where his father’s family hail from. “When I’m there I feel like I’m breathing the right air or something,” he explains, “Like my body’s in the right environment. It turns on, it works in different ways, like the computer turns on or something. When I’m in LA I’m little more sleepy.”
So, given the new lease of life granted by the Celtic breeze, should he perhaps leave his beloved LA and set up home over here?
“Maybe I should,” he mumbles thoughtfully, “maybe I should.”