An Audience With… Beck
As Beck brings Morning Phase to Coachella in California in a couple of weeks (April 13/20), then begins his first headlining shows in support of the acclaimed album, here’s the mellow Midnite Vulture answering your questions on sex laws, The Stone Roses, Scientology and satanic coiffeurs… From our November 2006 issue (Take 114). Interview: Tim Jonze
Plenty of people might want to kick Wayne Coyne up the butt, but not many are invited to do so by the man himself. Then again, Beck Hansen has concocted so many surreal situations for himself in the 12 years since “Loser” made him a household name, it seems only fitting that his supposed enemies should ask him to dish out the corporal punishment.
Of course, Beck is too artful an operator to do quite what anyone expects of him. Uncut joins him on his tour bus at the V Festival in Chelmsford, where he will share the stage with a band of puppets, and play material from his new album, The Information. Beck’s determination to avoid being stereotyped is a recurring theme of his excellent and varied albums, and many of his interviews have been evasive affairs, characterised by a horror of being pinned down. Today, however, faced with a wadge of questions from Uncut readers and celebrity fans (“The Beastie Boys have a question for me? Are you kidding?” he asks incredulously), he is uncharacteristically forthcoming. As the tape whirrs into action, members of Beck’s entourage gather around, curious to know what he has to say: it seems trekking across the globe with him for the past few years hasn’t sated their appetite for his idiosyncratic take on things. Especially when their unassuming boss seems so willing to talk about telepathy, that Flaming Lips ruckus, and robbing McDonald’s with a machine gun...
How does it feel in the exclusive club of people instantly recognised by only their Christian names – you, Elvis, Madonna, Dido and Prince?
Steve Rodham, Cheshire
It’s an exclusive lounge. But a lot of people I meet think I’m the lead singer in some group! I always get, “Hey! You’re that guy out of Beck!” So I might be disqualified on those grounds.
Which bands best define New York for you?
Mary Butler, Eastbourne
The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Blondie, the Ramones and Frank Sinatra, though he’s from New Jersey. I’m interested in Sinatra. I grew up with him so he’s one of those artists I took for granted. When you think about The Rat Pack’s impact, it’s pretty amazing. It was total hysteria, like with The Beatles or something but from a pre-rock’n’roll era.
Hey, Beck – did you really get your hair cut by the devil?
I went down to this
strip mall called “the Crossroads” where they have a Fedex, an ice-cream parlour and a barbershop. At the barbershop they had illustrations of various haircuts with names like the Dirty Pompeii, the Black Bear, the Lonely Mannequin, the Brass Eskimo. An old man came out with some rusty scissors and blades. He put me in the chair and swung me around. I said how much. He said we’d work that out later and asked what I’d like, so I said the first one. He said, nobody asks for that one any more. I was worried he’d be out of practice. But he knew what he was doing. He cut my hair so fast I could hardly see his hands. When he was done, he stood back. It looked like some kind of bowl cut with long bangs. I said it wasn’t really my style. He said I’d grow to like it, just give it time, it could do a lot of things for me. When it came to the matter of paying he said, I’ll take a portion of your soul which you won’t have to pay 'til the 12 August moon, by the city gates with a boar’s tooth and a sword of Damocles. I said I had no idea what he was talking about, I had a line of credit at First National but knew nothing of boar’s teeth or swords. I left him a bank note and walked out the door. As I got into my Lincoln someone yelled “Hey Devo!” from a passing car. I never went back there. I don’t know who that old man was or what he was talking about. Now I try to avoid strip malls.
Beck, a lot of your fans are aware of your little fiasco with Wayne Coyne during the 2002 Beck/Flaming Lips tour. How’s your relationship now?
Cathy, Cleveland, Ohio
There was no fall-out, he just got a little randy in the press! The story is this: I was really sick on that whole tour, I had this illness that lasted a couple of months and we almost cancelled the tour. I was pretty out of it. And I think he took issue with the fact I wasn’t setting up my own equipment and that I was taking a nap before the show and stuff. You know, someone would bring my dinner to the dressing room rather than me going to the cafeteria. Everyone has their own definitions of what you should and shouldn’t do, though. They’re trying to keep the punk-rock thing alive, setting up their own kit every night, but for me it would feel a bit pretentious to go out and do that. I actually saw Wayne a while back and I said: “Hey, what were you doing? What was that about?” He just didn’t take it real serious. If you know Wayne Coyne, then you’ll know that he’ll take friends and loved ones to task if he doesn’t like their haircut or whatever. He’ll have words. But I think everyone around him takes it with a grain of salt. He said I could go onstage and kick him up the butt sometime if I wanted to. I declined.
Be honest: what makes you so damn cool?
Matt Bellamy, Muse
Now fellas, what’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold. I am your neighbour.
Do you believe in telepathy?
Cynthia Warner, Richmond, Kentucky
I’ve definitely had people get the same idea as me at the same time, so it is possible. I’ll write a song and someone will come out with the exact lyric, chorus or chord progression around the same time. I can’t tell you how often that happens. Or a band will come out with the same name as one of my albums. I had a song I was working on after Midnite Vultures  with this harmonica loop. I did it with Dan The Automator, and I was very excited about it. Then, three months later, they were playing a song at my record company with the exact same loop. It was a Bubba Sparxxx song. It was our song, everything about it, apart from it had different lyrics. So ideas are in the air.
Is it true that you appeared in a Stone Roses video? Someone told me it was for “Love Spreads”, but I couldn’t see you.
Ben Ramsbottom, Bristol
It’s true! A friend of mine was directing it and I came down to visit. They had a shot where they needed someone sitting in the river with a big beard trying to pan for gold so I did that. I had to wear a three-foot long beard.
Who’s your tailor?
I don’t actually have one, although there’s this Russian woman who did come to my house once or twice to do some tailoring. I tend to buy all my clothes in Japan, though, because they fit me there. They’re so narrow! So if I’m lucky I don’t have to get it tailored. Everything’s a bit baggy in the States. It’s made for big, muscular, football-playing males. Which, as you can see, is not exactly me!
Whatever happened to the supposed garage rock album you were working on?
David Stern, Cresskill, New Jersey
I’m experimenting a lot. And around that time I ended up doing Sea Change  instead because it seemed the stronger thing. It won’t ever see the light of day because I’ve lost the tapes. It’s annoying… I’ve also got a whole album’s worth of stuff I did on the Mellow Gold  tour where the tapes got lost in transit.
Do you have a favourite slow jam?
Oh man, there’s so many good ones! [Pauses] I guess for me, R Kelly is the king of the slow jam and I would have to give it to “Bump N’Grind”. I don’t know if he’ll be the last great soul singer but he’s definitely one of the peaks on the mountain. I’ve been into him for about 12 years now.
What draws you to Scientology?
Max Devere, London
Well, I kind of grew up around it. My dad’s been doing it since the mid-’60s or something. So it’s kind of always been around and it’s been helpful. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. And my mother was very devout, into Judaism. I had Japanese friends who were Buddhists. I grew up in an area where Central Americans, Catholics and Vietnamese people all mixed. So it’s just tolerance that is the key.
Are you still defying all sex laws? Can you please give examples?
Mason Lawrence, Shepherd’s Bush
Absolutely. Although I don’t technically know what the laws are, so I’m really a complete sham. That was a phrase from an Ol’ Dirty Bastard song. He just screams “I wanna defy the logic of all sex laws!” I had no idea what he was talking about but I knew what he meant. I was like: “Goddamn! I know how that feels!”
Your grandfather, Fluxus artist Al Hansen, made paintings out of cigarette butts and Hershey-bar wrappings. You also mix genres to create new meanings. How big an influence was he on you?
Peter Michael Willer
I don’t take bits of everything, I think that’s a common misconception about me. There are moments where I incorporate different elements but I’m really just putting together different chords and putting melodies on top. Songwriting is the same for me on acoustic guitar as if it’s just me and a drum machine. So I see myself more as a traditional songwriter.
Is there a story behind the puppet show that forms part of your live show?
Michael Davis, Newington Green
We were trying to think of what to do with the show this year. Last year we had a video DJ who was using DVD players instead of turntables. So we had all these experimental films we’d made and 12 movie screens and nine projectors and this whole amazing video installation onstage. But he retired to work on his dad’s farm in Japan so we were forced to think of something different.
You’ve said in the past that you’d be interested in directing your own film. Would you still like to do that?
Somegirl, via email
I would, yeah. I think I was playing with the idea about 10 years ago. I did a video for “New Pollution” , and that whole thing was kind of my baby. It was a good experience. Francis Ford Coppola called me up about five or six years ago! He was giving filmmakers small budgets to make films and he offered me something. I just thought it was probably too much pressure. I’d just be so lost at sea and I don’t like the thought of people hating what I did. Because the film I would want to make would probably not translate to the Multiplex! I love a lot of European filmmakers, movies with no music and lots of people talking. Either that, or just a ton of explosions.
How do you feel about Iraq and the way the US is viewed by the world at the moment?
Claire Ni Lochlainn, by email
It’s unfortunate and, erm, a little bit surreal. I think I’ve put things in my music that reference it but nothing overt. I don’t know if I could articulate it in a song. It’s a tricky area, you have to really know what you’re talking about. To write something on that subject matter that isn’t immediately dated is extremely difficult.
Is there a song you wish you’d written?
Helen Jane, Sale
Oh yeah, many! It’s probably something by the Pussycat Dolls! [Sings] “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me!”
Your song “Mexico” talks about you robbing McDonald’s. Did that happen?
Cindy, Houston TX
[Laughs] People sometimes think that everything you write about is true. But lots of my stuff is just made up. And last time I checked, robbing McDonald’s with a submachine gun was a federal offence.
Devendra Banhart is in the video for “Strange Apparition”. How so?
My friend Autumn knows him. I was getting friends down for the video and he said he’d only do it if he could wear a dress! He looks good, too. It was a silky gypsy dress that had these straps which kept slipping down! I’m really into all that new folk music. I hear it and wish I knew those people 15 years ago.
If you were a folk singer back in the day, would you have dressed up in a bear suit and rapped about Vietnam?
Jeddi1, via email
I guess that… [long pause]… did you just say something about a bear suit? That’s kind of confusing! But I like to think I would. I like to think that if I’d been back in the Greenwich Village scene I’d be making acid-house-jungle-cool-out-dub-lounge-chip-hop-glitch-punk-rock shit! That’s the funny thing – a lot of what I do could have been done back then. Hip-hop is basically just using beats from that era…
How will you avoid the inner-cheese that seems to strike at the soul of all musicians as they grow older?
Michael Greene, Austin, TX
It’s a battle! But I try to keep my eyes open. It took me years to do something like Sea Change. That was the challenge with that record – doing something direct and emotional without it disintegrating into pathos.
Does MTV still make you want to smoke crack?
MTV? It makes me want to wax my back and get a spray-on tan.