Listening to Beck: The Artist on His New Album, Which Isn’t Really an Album At All

Photo: Pej Behdarvand/New York Magazine

In 1991, a waifish high-school dropout named Beck Hansen was tooling around penni­less in Los Angeles, bouncing between a video store in a strip mall, a garment factory in South Central, a movie theater, and a restaurant dish room. He also wrote and played music in coffee shops and small clubs. One of his songs, recorded on an 8-track with a $30 Radio­Shack microphone and a $60 guitar, began with a simple tinny slide riff and his speak-singing — “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey / Butane in my veins and I’m out to cut the junkie with the plastic eyeballs / Spray paint the vegetables” — into what would become — Yo, cut it — one of the more famous choruses in the history of popular music:

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby,
so why don’t you kill me?

“I just thought it’s really interesting that you could actually come up with a song in a few hours” — a “lame,” “goofy,” “corny” song “you’d leave on a friend’s answering machine” — “and then it’s everywhere,” Beck recalls, 42 years old and still boyish, sitting in the living room of the relatively modest house he and his wife, the actress Marissa Ribisi, rent in the hills above Malibu. One of two young children, who resemble Nordic snow angels, is tugging at his arm to whisper a secret about their rescue dog, who’s apparently just been shaved and reduced in size by half.

“You wouldn’t in a million years go, ‘This is my statement to the world, this is going to be my obituary,’ ” he says of “Loser” and the “kind of disturbing” reaction that thrust him into fame. “But in a way, sometimes when you’re making music, you’re a conduit for what’s in the air. So that’s what came out, and that’s what people responded to. It’s a weird song. It wasn’t explicitly commercial. That’s the strongest thing about it. It’s like, ‘Whoa, this song is popular, and pretty much anyone could write this.’ ”

This particular morality — an almost total lack of regard for commercial success — seems to have propelled nearly every ­musical decision he’s made since, beginning with the unusual deal he signed at 23 with Geffen Records that offered substantially less money but allowed him to retain absolute creative control. He has since been known for his avant-pop fusion of genres and styles — rock, folk, country, hip-hop, electronic, funk — mixed with his own brand of sound sampling and ­experimentation. He’s made ten albums, two of them included on Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time. But for the last four years, his focus has been on smaller, more quixotic projects. Philip Glass, for instance, reached out for his help reworking some of Glass’s pieces; the album, released this fall and timed to coincide with the composer’s 75th birthday, includes a twenty-minute Beck remix. And this month marks the publication of Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, his newest “album,” comprising twenty songs available solely in transcribed sheet-music form and not recorded by Beck himself. Even by his standards, the project is, to say the least, idiosyncratic.

“There are far better musicians out there,” Beck says. “Better singers, better songwriters.” Insecurity has followed him his entire career, though career may even be too purposeful a word. He does not see a trajectory in his collected work and does not aspire to do anything with it in particular. As far as he is concerned, his two decades in popular music have unfolded by chance, just like his foray into it. At the time he wrote “Loser,” the minimum wage was $4.25 an hour and his single goal in life was for his friend who ran a house-painting business to take him on so that he could make $5.

Today, he is aware of the risk, the potential criticisms of releasing Song Reader — the rarefaction, the inaccessibility, the preciousness (the imprimatur, even, of McSweeney’s, which is publishing it). One commenter on Rolling Stone’s website wrote of the upcoming release: “this is infuriating, actually. neat, yeah, and clever, but … once you get past the initial novelty, what you’re left with is a collection that in its current form won’t actually be experienced as a new beck album, but as other people playing songs that were written by beck but don’t sound anything like beck songs because they’re not being played by beck. pretty disappointing.” Beck is unmoved.

His ankles are wrapped in plastic. He was at the doctor’s earlier today ahead of his leaving for Australia — he’ll play a festival with Grizzly Bear and Ben Folds, and he is nervous about being “rusty” — to get shots of cortisone because he cut his ankles walking in brush; he thinks the dog’s licking might have made it worse but seems reluctant to share this information with the family. His daughter has come back to whisper the news that his wife is in the kitchen cooking pasta with pesto for dinner. Ribisi is warm and attractive and bears virtually no resemblance to the best known of her roles, Cynthia, the redheaded, nerdy girl from 1993’s Dazed & Confused. The front door is wide open. It is a rental house, and he is afraid, he says, that the landlord, looking to sell the place, might soon kick them out. He has conflicted feelings about Los Angeles, where his wife’s entire family lives and from which he says he’s been trying to move for decades. He mentions New York, San Francisco, Austin, Lisbon, Paris, Tokyo. In the background, in the kitchen, some little kids are singing the words to C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” He would like to live somewhere with “a street culture.” He celebrates when it’s overcast. “Wow,” he says. “A cloud.”

Beck calls what happened with “Loser,” after it was passed around by some L.A. D.J.’s and then, over the course of two years, to their counterparts around the country, a “slow explosion.” In 1994, he released Mellow Gold, with “Loser” as its first track, and it sold over 1 million copies. There was a wildly popular music video and a world tour. He reacted by believing the attention could not last. “Just the idea of that one-hit wonder.”

At a concert in New York, he instructed his bandmates to walk onstage and begin the set by destroying their instruments, since “everybody’s breaking their stuff at the end; who’s breaking it at the beginning?” Standing amid the wreckage, only then did it dawn on him that there would be an audience of people waiting. At other concerts, crowds were treated to twenty minutes of reggae or Miles Davis or jazz-punk iterations of “Loser.” He recalls looking up at the end of one show to see fewer than five people remaining. In a show in Los Angeles, he used a leaf blower to send leaves billowing into the crowd; he’d been preoccupied by Los Angeles’s obsession with manicuring lawns. This was after the riots, it was meant to say something important — “I can’t remember what exactly,” he says now. “Some civic speech” about “the streets running with blood.” It became a self-fulfilling narrative: the “Loser” acting out.

To him it was something else entirely, more having to do with his unusual childhood growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, among refugees from El Salvador’s brutal war, his parents divorced and “not so hands-on,” his father a mainstay in the music business playing and arranging for Carole King and the like, his mother pursuing her performance-art career in the L.A. punk scene. His maternal grandfather, Al Hansen — a collage and performance artist and member of Fluxus, the “inter­media” art movement — frequented Andy Warhol’s Factory. So did his mother, Bibbe; after her father sprang her from a juvenile prison in the South Bronx following a string of arrests for speed-fueled truancy and shoplifting, she found herself sitting before Warhol for a screen test, at 13, ultimately starring opposite Edie Sedgwick in his film Prison. Beck learned about this artistic lineage one day as a teenager, when he discovered the Velvet Underground, “the music you’ve been waiting your whole life to hear.” While effusing about it to his mother, she revealed casually that she used to “dance for them.” “I wouldn’t say it was so much an influence as I discovered the things,” he says. “Made some associations.”

Beck stopped going to school. He applied to the new performing-arts high school downtown and was rejected. He had no money and rode the bus, exploring the forgotten world downtown, which was much as it was in the old film noirs he’d watched. His brother took him to post-Beat jazz places in Silver Lake and Echo Park. He frequented the L.A. Community College and its library, perusing records and books and old sheet music. He secured a fake I.D. in order to sit in on classes. He befriended a literature instructor and his poet wife. The students were largely foreign. By the time he was 15, he felt “mentally” like an adult.

This was what he tried to bring to his early work. “In my mind, it was as a teenager reading about Fluxus and action artists and Warhol and Yoko Ono and performance artists. But to everyone else, it was just wacky.”

Photo: Pej Behdarvand/New York Magazine

Beck has since tried to weed out certain bad habits and ticks. “Just sort of flippancy that sometimes, I guess, people would say is kooky or whatever.” But he remains distrustful of the industry’s groupthink. They’d rejected “Loser” initially and questioned his image: “I said, ‘This is how I woke up.’ ” He was told by “someone major in the business that putting out Odelay” — his follow-up to Mellow Gold, and a sore thumb in an era dominated by grunge and sugar pop — “would be a huge mistake,” and he believed this, thinking for many months “that I’d blown it forever.” (The 1996 album sold 2 million copies and won two Grammys.)

So he has gone out of his way to remain true to his instincts. After Odelay, he started fusing more and more sounds. In 2002, after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, the designer Leigh Limon, he released Sea Change, a stripped-down collection of simple songs about breakup and heartache that many saw as a departure from his more upbeat music. (Though this is an interpretation he disputes; he was writing songs in 1989, he says, that sound like Sea Change.) Label executives have pressured him to license his songs for commercials, but he has refused. What’s most important to him is his family, the experience of which, he says — of being in an emergency room at midnight with a child with a broken collarbone — is far more intense than anything he’s experienced professionally. Professionally, he does only the things that interest him personally.

He works five or six days a week at the small studio on the property or at another one in town. He has spent much of his time in recent years producing and manipulating sound, the one aspect of music in which he sees himself as talented. Last summer he worked with the Anglo-French actress-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg; he has collaborated, as well, with Thurston Moore. He founded Record Club, a project whereby an entire classic album — from the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, INXS, Yanni—is covered by another singer in the span of a single day. He recorded a languorous, almost dystopian cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” One of three songs he wrote for the PlayStation 3 game Sound Shapes won Best Song in 2012’s Video Game Awards. Reviewing his contribution to the Philip Glass album, Pitchfork wrote: “After several strange and listless years, Beck has finally managed to poke some breathing holes in the sealed box of his own Beck-ness, which has rendered him glumly immobilized for the latter part of the last decade.” He has an album of his own material that is mostly done but has been languishing for several months as engineers have come and gone. He does not feel any rush to release his own new material.

He is, it is difficult to believe, middle-aged. He thinks about this. When he started out, he “was always the youngest,” younger than anyone else he was touring or making records with. When he looks out into an audience now, he sees faces mostly younger than his. “Especially in music, you wonder, Okay, should I still be doing this? Like, are you overstaying your welcome at the party? But I don’t know. I feel like I’ve spent the majority of my time touring and traveling, so if I reduced the actual time making music, it’s probably four and a half years at the most. There’s more things that I’d like to do. You know, each song is a little bit of a puzzle. I see most of them as just failed attempts.”

He looks at the older popular musicians working today and doesn’t see many role models. He attributes this to an industry in which “people maybe get sometimes overly self-conscious or sensitive,” and “there’s a point when they’ve been so picked apart and criticized and called this and labeled that and written off and celebrated it creates a kind of neurosis that’s sometimes hard for people to separate from. So they’re constantly reacting to how they perceive their music is being taken.” Others see younger performers who’ve co-opted and eclipsed their own success, so that they “try to catch on to that bandwagon.”

Age appears to have had the opposite effect on Beck: He seems exceedingly grounded. He is even comfortable talking about his relationship to Scientology — “always the last question journalists ask,” and a topic he used to avoid completely. He says he does not have any opinion about why so many people seem so interested in it. He says his father was involved in Scientology since before he was born and “has had lots of benefits from it,” that “it’s just something that I’ve been around.” “Some people,” he says, “do yoga, some people get into meditation, a whole half of my family are all Presbyterian and they’re very churchgoing, and my grandfather on my mother’s side was smoking hash and drinking beer every night.

“Everybody,” he continues, “is trying to figure out a way to deal with their issues and things that are unresolved. I mean, some things just don’t resolve. But whatever’s going to get you through. That’s my feeling about it.”

So Scientology is a part of his life?

“Yeah,” he says, “people in my family do it. I’ve read books, and I’ve learned about it. I mean, what I’m doing — I have a job, raising kids, I have friends, I have my interests, so I think my life is pretty full. I’m not off doing some weirdo stuff.

“When there is a consensus about [anything],” he says, “I kind of have to take my own council. Whether you characterize a group of people as probable terrorists, however a media can represent a nationality or religion, there’s always more to it. Within that culture there’s warlike people, there’s beatific, peace-loving people, there’s people just trying to make a buck, there’s people selfless, greedy …”

Sheet music for some of the twenty songs packaged in Beck Hansen’s Song Reader.

Song Reader was fifteen years in the making. The idea first came after he released an early album — he thinks Odelay — and was sent a book of transcribed sheet music for his sign-off. He decided to play through it. “And there would be, like, a section of me screaming through a distortion pedal, and guitar feedback, or I would chop up some sound and put it through a sampler, and it would just be like a garbage truck going backward, and they’d try to note it for piano. It was kind of absurd.” It led him to begin researching the world before recorded sound, when if you wanted to hear a song, you had to play it yourself or find someone who could play it for you, “and your aunt from downstairs came up, and your neighbors or someone could play the violin, and someone had a ukulele, and each family or circle of friends had some kind of musical nucleus within it.” He learned that the sheet music to a song by Bing Crosby had sold more than 50 million copies at a time when there were around 130 million Americans. Music was, he says, “a different experience.”

In 2004, through friends of friends, including Spike Jonze, who’d worked with Dave Eggers on the movie Where the Wild Things Are, he began the collaboration with ­McSweeney’s, for its “talent in taking ideas and packaging them really well.” For many years, the project simmered and sputtered, as the process of writing music that could translate to and from a page proved cumbersome. He became preoccupied with creating only pieces that could fit within the American Songbook. “You can’t add water and some magic classic song will appear,” he says.

He aimed to keep the arrangements as open as possible, to re-create the simplicity of the standards, some of which are “almost on the edge of being banal.” The process was like “reverse engineering,” with him first recording versions of each piece, then sending them out to be transcribed for the piano. Beck then tinkered with the notations endlessly, stripping out jazz clichés and other stylizing. “I’m attempting to make a distillation of something that could be a blueprint for someone to take any way they want it,” he says.

There is another way of looking at Song Reader, too, as yet another demonstration of Beck’s ability to connect to generational moments in his music: the apathy of the privileged nineties that “Loser” reflected and mocked; the ascendancy of digital technology, which he used to manipulate sound in new ways; and, more recently, an Americana backlash, a nostalgia for things simpler and crafted — DIY homesteading, preserving jams, music released on sheets of paper.

He knows the vast majority of his fans won’t be able to play the music themselves. “But,” he says, “what I find interesting is how they’re going to actually end up hearing the song. Most of them will find something on YouTube. But if they know someone who can play the song and can kind of tap out the melody and their imagination takes the words in their own head and creates their own version — that’s what I find interesting.

“There’s all these underlying relationships or dynamics that feed into the songs,” Beck says. “So you hear that melody your mother used to sing to you, and there’s a whole other resonance of emotional depth.”

And so, this is how I come to hear Song Reader for the first time, on a recent evening back in my hometown of Philadelphia, sitting at a Steinway grand at the Curtis Institute of Music beside Amy J. Yang, the pianist with whom I often study.

Inside its artfully decorated dark-blue thick-bound portfolio — with white, swirling, old-fashioned lettering — are, physically, the most beautiful, cleverest pieces of sheet music either of us has ever seen. We take turns playing. Our singing is like warbling. Eventually, she takes over the accompaniment, plowing through it, so that I can pluck the vocals an octave or two up.

Its title drawn across the sky by a tiny airplane, the song “Saint Dude,” to be played “abiding,” is written in A major but dwells plaintively in the key’s minor chords: “Ascension Day / There’s a plane sky writing out your name / The people stood and watched it blow away / Cos nothing’s good until it’s gone away.”

Much of Song Reader, clearly, is literal. There is “Rough on Rats,” slow swing, a skipping low, programmatic bass line, as if in a sewer, redolent of E. B. White’s Templeton; “Sorry,” which, to us, sounds like the Beatles; swing, too, in “Old Shanghai,” with additional trumpet, saxophone, bass trombone, and tuba accompaniment; “America, Here’s My Boy,” whose lyrics seem straight out of the Bush era — “He came into this world / Helpless and unformed”; and “Why Did You Make Me Care?” whose cover features a sobbing moon above a man collapsed dramatically onto a desk while a woman’s skirt billows through a door behind him (and whose back page features advertisements for a “Burns Bread Knife” and a first-generation Hibachi-looking “Electric Toaster”), a song one could imagine late-era Rosemary Clooney or the indie band Beirut interpreting equally as interestingly. There is, too, the solo piano piece “Mutation Rag,” to be played “Bizarramente,” with running instructions, so that: “All is well; the song begins like any other,” then “Mind your own business,” “I was [here, notation to play an octave higher] loco,” “the Right Hand grows angry,” quarter notes descending chromatically into eighth notes, “fisticuffs erupt” in full-on tone clusters, until, finally, “The adversary is vanquished! … the Left Hand falls in defeat,” descending, as Yang pulls her hand down the keyboard, in an embellished glissando, the two of us laughing.

It is, we agree, technically unchallenging. It is not a classical score. There is a nice chord progression here. It is interesting to imagine it in others’ hands, the possibilities. It is, next to Sea Change, some of his most beautiful music. Yang says it is “sweet even.” We are warbling and laughing and playing. It is a unique feeling anyone who’s ever done this before knows, two people sitting in a room at an instrument, reading little black notes off a page, making music.

*This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Listening to Beck