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Beck's career has been defined—or maybe undefined—by his sonic hopscotch. He first reached the mass consciousness via 1994's "Loser," but only those paying closer attention realized that he released three albums that year: Mellow Gold got the major-label deal and the hip-hop/slacker-folk hits, while Stereopathetic Soulmanure went for lo-fi noise and One Foot In The Grave channeled warm, stripped folk and blues.
In recent years, Beck seemed comfortable alternating albums from the two sides of his personality: 1998's mostly spare, personal Mutations couldn't have been more different from 1999's space-funk-filled Midnite Vultures, and the monumentally beautiful Sea Change and 2005's Guero were similarly juxtaposed.
But something happened on the way to Guero, and it's even more evident in Beck's new The Information: His two sides have finally met in the studio. Hip-hop-influenced tracks mingle with folky rock songs, and lyrics about a "paranoid Jumbotron" sit next to serious-minded folkers. Though produced by Nigel Godrich, the man partially responsible for the somber sounds of Mutations and Sea Change as well as Radiohead's recent dark moments, the new album crackles with life. And, as usual, Beck is presenting more than music: The Information features do-it-yourself packaging—fans create the cover with a sticker sheet—and a DVD featuring homemade videos for each track. And when Beck and his band hit the road this year, they'll be accompanied by a group of look-alike puppets. Beck recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his new album, how he got here, and—very briefly—Scientology.
The A.V. Club: Preparing for this interview made me think of seeing you on 120 Minutes with Thurston Moore about 12 years ago; you goofed around and refused to answer questions.
Beck: I saw that recently. It's pretty amazing that that was on MTV. I remember it was at eight in the morning, just this ungodly hour to be on MTV. It was kind of scary and weird. It was very daunting; I just associated MTV with… I guess at that moment, it was sort of changing, but before that, it had been this bastion of hair-metal and teen-pop. It was right after Nirvana and Sonic Youth were getting on MTV; Thurston was up for some antics. There's some stuff we did that I think they took out: We bought some baseball bats and we had this idea that we were gonna get a phone call and we were gonna smash the phone with these baseball bats. I guess we did it too violently or something, so they took it out. I guess they were getting some heat from Beavis And Butt-head at the time; they didn't want kids to start taking baseball bats to phones. But it was good. We did that jam, Mike D [of Beastie Boys] and Thurston. It was definitely straight out of some Lower East Side coffeehouse activity.
AVC: Was disengaging at that point a defense mechanism after becoming famous so quickly?
B: I thought the whole thing was kind of a farce, so I just went with it. It was probably thinking that my music was not really any good. The other part was just growing up bored with TV, with five channels where nothing cool or weird ever happened. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you still struggle with thinking your music isn't good, or have you grown out of that?
B: You never know if it's good. You can try. I think I've worked hard; there's some stuff that I think worked, with a lot of hard, hard work. I was 22 at the time, and I was kind of coming out of, not really a punk-rock scene, but a scene where bands would come out on stage in suits of armor and eviscerate 300 teddy bears or something. If somebody hands you the microphone, you've gotta do something.
AVC: It seems like The Information came out of nowhere; there were rumors a few months ago that you had a new album coming out, and those rumors had it pegged as a hip-hop album.
B: I don't know how it was billed, but I don't think it's a hip-hop record. There's four or five songs where I'm rapping, if you want to call it that. I think that impression came out because, before we did the record, Nigel said, "I wanna do a hip-hop record," which was the shock of all shocks. I've known Nigel for years, and we've made two records together. It emerged that his favorite works of mine were the hip-hop songs—which was completely baffling—and he was encouraging me to do something in that vein again. It had been a lot of years at that point.
AVC: So how different was it for you to go in and record this kind of music with Nigel after you'd recorded those more lush, personal songs with him?
B: This was a relief, because we'd done Mutations and Sea Change, and it was definitely time to do something completely different. We didn't even want to try to visit that territory again. We'd always messed around in the studio with stuff that was noisier and a little more reckless, but didn't fit in with those records. We'd always known that we wanted to do something where we weren't really constrained by the songs, and could just experiment more. I didn't really attempt to make the record have a sound. These songs are the work that's boiled down from about three or four times more music, so it's kind of the best of what we did in the last three years.
AVC: Why did this record take you three years to finish? And when you were writing Guero, how did you know which songs would be for which record?
B: They were conceived differently, completely and separately. I recorded all the music right at the beginning, the first week, and we spent a couple years turning them into songs. He went off to do Paul McCartney [Godrich produced McCartney's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. —ed.] for a year, so I took that year to finish Guero, and then right around when he was finishing with McCartney, I toured Guero for 10 months. So when I finally finished touring and he was done with his other work, we got together and took stock of everything and put it all together. It was kind of a weird way to go about it, just sort of episodically working on the songs, but we got to have long periods of time away from it and get perspective, so ultimately I think it made the record better.
AVC: Are you bucking the system by putting out another record so quickly? You once said that you felt constrained by big labels' insistence on long lapses between albums.
B: I've tried ever since my first album to put out a record every year. This is probably the first time in a long time where I've succeeded. Guero was supposed to come out in '04, and then this record was gonna come out this spring. When I turned in Guero, they wanted to wait 'til the next year, so it sat around for a good 10 months, so that's kind of what made it seem like it's together. But originally, it was intended to be more spaced-out.
AVC: These records are the first two in a row that feel somewhat of a piece, not jarringly different. People are used to the pattern, "Oh, he made a quiet record, now he's gonna make a funky record."
B: I think this time, instead of going off and doing an acoustic record, I tried to bring some of the introspection and quietness of those records into songs with beats and synthesizers and all that. It was something I think I've been craving for a lot of years, and it was just an obvious evolution. It was really obvious on the Sea Change tour; that's why this was the first thing I started working on after that, this gaping void, this gap between the two aspects of what I'm doing. I think probably the intelligent thing would be to call one thing a band, and then the other thing another band, so there could be some sort of division. But I didn't end up doing that, so it makes it a little confusing. This record is an attempt to bring those two things together.
AVC: Do you sit down and say, "Okay, now I'm going to write a song that's more traditional," or "I'm gonna think of some weird non sequitur rhymes for a different type of song"?
B: It's just what comes out. I wish I had more choice. There's some times where I think, "I wish I could do music more like this." But you're kind of stuck with what you've got, or what comes out of you.
AVC: So they tend to come in batches, writing one type and then the other?
B: I can switch around pretty quick. Sometimes I would go and do a completely different kind of song while we were working on something else, just so I could get away from it and come back to the other thing with a fresh perspective. When I first got into the studio and somebody was allowing me to record music, I think I just wanted to try all the things that I always wanted to try, like, "This is the one chance I'm going to get to do this." I don't think at the time I had any idea that in the next five to 10 years, you'd be able to just get ProTools, and anybody could make their own record in their house.
AVC: Are you able to do that if you have an idea in the middle of the night?
B: No. I wish I could; I think maybe it's good that I don't. I go for long periods without playing any music or singing or doing any of that. I'll go five or six months without picking up a guitar.
AVC: The non-musical elements of your work—the artwork, the videos—always seem to be part of what you do. Was it your idea to do the build-your-own cover with stickers?
B: It was myself and Big Active, the design company. I started telling them about how my son had discovered stickers and was sticking them all over the house, and the idea evolved in about five minutes. The idea of doing stickers for a CD was pretty complicated. And it's interesting: In England and Europe, they said if you put a sticker in the record, it disqualifies it, because it's like you're bribing the listener. You can't be on any charts or anything.
AVC: How about the videos? Those seem a little more off-the-cuff.
B: We did it in two nights in the studio. Someone brought a green piece of paper in, we figured out how to do green-screen with the video camera, then we plugged it into the laptop, put photos in there, invited a bunch of friends and family down, and just filmed for two nights. So it was loose, not necessarily totally directed; everybody was manning something different. A friend would drop by, and then 10 minutes later, she'd be rigging the lights or shaking a big piece of aluminum foil behind somebody's head for effect.
AVC: So who plays on the record, your touring band?
B: I actually recorded this stuff before I had this band. We had a wide range of people; I had Bill Withers' rhythm section for a lot of it, people that I've worked with before. It was literally just calling somebody at 11 at night, "Do you know any cello players? Cool." And somebody would just show up. It was very loosely orchestrated. We did a lot of tracking live, so we recorded everything and immediately put it down to two tracks, so the way all the music sounds is basically from the first week we recorded.
AVC: What's your dynamic with your producers? They seem very involved with how things turn out.
B: When I started out, I was very particular. I didn't ask anything; I just kind of knew what I wanted. But I think you develop trust and a language. Nigel's very particular, but I like that, because it makes me do things that I wouldn't normally think anybody would be interested in. The song that I would just want to throw away, that would be his favorite.
AVC: You trust him enough?
B: You go with what you like, but then you also get a different point of view. I came in on these songs and I'd be rapping a bit more aggressive, kind of like how I rap live, and he would encourage me to almost whisper, almost like I was talking in someone's ear. It's something I would be unsure of, but in the end he was right.
AVC: As someone associated with Scientology, how do you feel about all of the attention it's been getting?
B: It isn't something I really pay attention to. I don't encounter it that much, mostly just journalists. If you have any specific questions on it…
AVC: Do you understand why your fans are interested?
B: If you want to know something about it, I wouldn't go on the Internet. I was raised Jewish, my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister; I've been exposed to a lot of different ideas. I have a lot of good friends in Japan who are Shinto, and I've been to a lot of temples. The idea of tolerance is important. I think that's important, to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's like anything that's kind of new or people don't know about: They'll fill in the void. I think people would be surprised. There's aspects of it that go into areas that are very concrete, community-based grassroots kind of stuff—helping with education, and there's a lot of programs in prisons and stuff, drug rehabilitation, humanitarian kind of stuff that you don't hear about.
AVC: You feel it's done you some good personally?
B: Yeah, definitely. It's a thing that takes longer to discuss.