Beck Hansen remains a figure of few pretensions. Somewhat closer to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield than a caricature of music’s greatest eclectic, and with a career closing in on three decades, his two most recent albums, Morning Phase and Colors, have seen him ride another career high.
It’s a new trajectory. To many, it suggests the Los Angeles native has been recast from a rebel to a figure embracing the pop archetypes he’s long satirised, but this would be misleading.
Beck’s own words suggest he’s neither opposing nor embracing prevailing norms, as much as feeding off of them. Whether he’s making an obvious move or not is an aside; combined with a persistent drive to better his craft, Beck is simply following instinct.
In 2018, his capacity for surprise remains intact and undiminished. Ahead of his Sydney City Limits appearance and a long-awaited Australian return, Beck freely confesses to an inclination for staying the course.
For the moment at least, there’s more of a magnetism to delving deeper into worlds of melodic pop than leaping headlong towards reinvention. Perhaps that’s the surprise within itself.
Music Feeds: Straight off of the bat I think it’s imperative we talk about this surprise Sydney gig you decided to throw. What’s it all about?
Beck: Oh yeah… Well, I request those gigs and I’ve done quite a few over the years. There’s the more practical aspect that we haven’t played more than one show in the last three months or so. It’s what they call a ‘warm-up’. But I also like doing these more intimate gigs just to kind of…
You know the festival gig is, it’s sort of on a larger scale so there’s not as much detail. These intimate shows, they open up a little conversation and maybe they plant a seed for something down the road. We’ve done them in London and LA and New York, all these different places. There’s always a lot of fun. It’s more of a get-together than a show.
MF: It sounds like you’re still sketching out some of this new album live. What’s the setlist looking like at the moment?
B: Well we’ll play some of the things people know and a couple of the new ones. The record’s only been out a few months, so I don’t know how familiar people will be with the new songs.
I think that the energy will carry it through. It’ll be a mix. I’m not one of those artists who just only wants to play my new record. I like playing some of the older songs, especially since we haven’t been here in quite a while… yeah. And I think at the warm-up show we’ll kinda improvise and go off course a little bit.
MF: Whim, craft, or a need to be challenged? What would you say was the biggest thing pushing you creatively during the period, this long period, which gave birth to Colors?
B: Well I was touring the whole time with my band so the shows, the musicians I was playing with, and working with Greg [Kurstin] who was someone who toured with me — we have a long relationship which goes back, quite a while — all those things.
Maybe also just where the world was at when we doing these songs. Which was interesting because we’re in quite a different mood now than last year. I just wanted to put out something bright and… effervescent and… something that had a lot of simple joy in it.
MF: You’ve recorded alongside Calvin Johnson, Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich, Danger Mouse, the Dust Brothers and most recently Greg Kurstin. These are figures which span the entire landscape of modern music. Is there a common thread between them all that’s driven you to work with them?
B: It’s a bit of happenstance. You know, needing someone and reaching out and they’re available. In the case of Danger Mouse he had reached out to me to work on this project with him and Karen O and there was some mix-up. He didn’t get my demos and he ended up getting Jack White and Norah Jones to do the record. But it got a conversation going and I think I reached out to him in about 2004 or 2005, around the time of the Grey Album.
The Dust Brothers were — you know, it was funny. They were living in my neighbourhood. Obviously, I’d known them from their hits in the late ’80s. But it was about 1994 they were just kind of living a few blocks from me and I just got together with them.
Nigel, we were just looking for someone to engineer some demos. Contractually I had this album that I had to do for this other label which ended up being Mutations. We just hit it off and did that record in two weeks. All these relationships just kind of happened very naturally. Either it’s a phone or call or you meet someone and become friends with them. Sometimes they just reach out, like working with Flume. He just called me up a few years ago and we hung out and made the song.
So for me, I love that freedom. It’s not a traditional band structure, there’s no group vote so I can move fairly autonomously and experiment and try a lot of different things with people. I work on my own quite a bit, so I like collaborating with someone else just to see if it goes somewhere that I wasn’t expecting or maybe to give myself
permission to do something else.
I’ve experimented with a lot of electronic music for decades, but I haven’t put much of it out. Under the auspices of Flume or The Chemical Brothers, it feels like it can be… Maybe it feels more of a natural connection than if I put it out on my own, which would sort of feel like it came out of left field.
MF: You’re an artist which the media have always pegged as having a terminal aversion to making the obvious moves. But now with Colors you’ve got the whole world seemingly at your fingertips once again. Can you drop our readers a hint at where you feel like you might be heading next?
B: What I was trying to do on this record was sort of a redesign. There’s certain things that I’ve done over the years. I really wanted to look at those and pull them apart and then see what else I could do and push myself to work a little harder on certain things and dig deeper into the songwriting. The melodic hooks and all that. So hopefully it’s just a deepening of this.
But I have a lot of music in the works. It’s really difficult when you have a lot of things that you’re working on to pick the thing that is the one you’ll get behind for the next few years. It’s really something. But I’m still working! I’m working on material all the time. I don’t feel like I’m in the mood to do anything that’s a radical shift to something else.
I would love to on an artistic level just to sort of — let me put it this way. I have a band and I’m touring. Over a number of years, you start to build a momentum. There’s a sort of direction. I think that with Modern Guilt — no that was later. I’m thinking Mellow Gold and Odelay and Night Vultures. There was this whole progression which maybe goes up to Guero. That was a nice kind of period of 12 or 13 years where something just keeps building. I guess I’m in the mood of that if that makes sense.
MF: I don’t mean to say this as an indictment but you’re approaching almost three decades of being at the centre of popular music. When it comes to your view on your own work, are there things that have changed and others which have remained the same?
B: Yeah, I think some things just stay the same. It’s just always trying to get better at doing what you do. For me, I can see things I want to get better at. My biggest thing is the songwriting. All I need to do is turn on the radio and hear five or 10 songs and it’ll make me want to write a great song. There’s so much good music. I’ll just always be a student.
It’s always humbling. Then if a friend comes out with a great record that’s always an inspiration. And then there’s just… I don’t know, I don’t know how to put it.
MF: How do you see your songwriting? Some people view it as a craft. Do you see it that way or is it something else?
B: Oh, it’s strange because, you know, you’re trying to just make things materialise out of nothing. It’s really a manifestation of this kind of feeling or energy you have. I feel inspired – whatever that means. And I’m going to write a song and words are coming and I’m thinking of melodies.
If it all pans out, the right music comes out and the right words go with that music. And then the mix comes out okay and them somebody hears it and it somehow fits in with what’s happening in music.
I would call all of that songwriting. But… I don’t know. As a touring artist and somebody who performs I’ve gone all around the world for many, many years and played to a lot of people. But as a songwriter, I still feel like a baby in some ways.
MF: Beck I think that’s just about as much time as we have to chat, but we’re looking forward to these Australian shows!
B: Yeah me too! I’ve been surprised that it’s been so long. We wanted to come a few years ago, but it kept getting put off until the record came out. The promoters, everybody, wanted the new record first. And that took an extra two years to come out and that’s taken us here to 2018! It’s been too long, but yeah hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.
‘Colors’ is out now.