Beck: Return of the Mack
New Music Monthly
November 1999
pp. 38-43
James Rotondi

No, no, no" groans Beck Hansen, his fingertips braced against his forehead, "It's too much. I thought we got rid of that stuff already." In a mixdown room at North Hollywood's NRG Studios, Beck, his engineers and co-producers are listening to a playback of "This is My Crew," an '80s-style electro-funk slated for the Japanese version of Beck's long, awaited new album. The song's basic groove is tight and funky, but there are too many percussive effects cluttering up the mix, and Beck knows it.

"We need to get the bass up front, man" he tells engineer Michael Patterson with a hint of exasperation, as a table-lamp flickers on and off inexplicably. Above his head, the studio's vaulted, Moorish ceiling and silky Near-Eastern draping projects opiated langour. But nobody's chilling in this crib tonight.

Like the rest of his crew, Beck shows clear symptoms of the dreaded studio-head. Unshaven, hair messy, wearing gold Lennon specs, beach sandals, and a sweatshirt, he looks like he's been slaving over a term paper for nights on end. Only in this case, it's been six weeks of 18 hour days, and fourteen months of total work. And there are only three days left until a label deadline that's already been pushed back several times.

"If this album isn't done in time," says Beck, "spontaneous combustion will occur; people's flesh will start falling off." Co-producer Tony Hoffer, a reddish three-day stubble offsetting his deer-inheadlights eyes, says the studio atmosphere is becoming "an insane asylum," a hotbed of practical jokes' and overtired tomfoolery. As he cracks open a hand-labeled CD case to play the album's first single, "Sex Laws," the normally genial Hoffer shrugs, "I don't know whether to talk to people or gnaw their arms off." Beck and bassist Justin MeldalJohnson laugh, but only slightly.

The tension is understandable. The official follow-up to 1996's instant classic Odelay, Midnite Vultures shoulders the weight of both critical and commercial expectation, something Beck says he hasn't had to consider before. "I've had the luxury of being underestimated," he says tentatively. "In a way, I think this is the first time that people will be expecting more than I'll probably be able to give. Odelay surprised a lot of people who had written me off. And Mutations surprised some other people because they assumed it was all cut-andpaste, a very artificial smoke-and-mirrors type of sound. I don't know what this album will mean to people."

It's hard to believe, but it's been six years since "Loser" oneupped "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to become the quintessential slacker anthem, six years in which a new generation of kids have begun putting their own spin on the hip-hop/rock nexus, while the Gen X'ers who grooved to "Loser" got married and took out mortgages. So who exactly is Beck selling to in 1999, and who's buying? With all the awards and magazine covers it spawned, folks might be surprised to learn that Odelay sold under two million copies. At 29, Beck's got the public profile of a Garth Brooks or an Alanis Morrisette, but he's only sold a fraction of their mega-millions.

The timing is auspicious as well. But even with a release date just weeks before the century's end, Beck claims Midnite Vultures is not an attempt at a millenial statement: "That's kind of redundant at this point-the whole decade's been a millenial statement." Voice of a generation or not, Beck says his mission was a simple one: "All I could do was let loose and try to create as much havoc musically as possible." In other words, Beck set out to make the freakiest party record imaginable. And what the exhausted faces and frayed nerves at the studio don't tell you is he's succeeded.

Midnite Vultures is a stunning state-of-the-funk magnum opus. Fleshed out with arty strings, arena-rock guitar blasts, and old school jams, the album presents a bodacious blend of electro-shock beats, brazen booty calls, and sly melodic seductions. Dusted with boho flavors, banjos and Beatleisms, many of the new songs have roots in the electric funk of Prince, Cybotron, Afrika Bambaataa and Cameo, and they revel in the steamy sonics of the Slo-Jam. Bean counters might question the album's accessibility, but to quote "Juicy Fruit" by Mtume: this joint's "joo-say!"

"Get Real Paid" opens with what sounds like the Alan Parsons Project being dry-humped by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen; weird analog synth titters bullied by groaning industrial noise. And that's just the intro. When the groove kicks in, cheered on by crowd noises and driven by the stun-gun burp of an 808 bass drum, you're suddenly skateboarding down Electric Avenue, jerking your hips like the torsoless robots in Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video.

Not all the songs recall Soulsonic Force and Aleem. The first single and video, "Sex Laws," is probably the closest cousin to the Odelay sound. A hustling Curtis Mayfield-esque hip-hop track driven by clavinet and horn blasts, it suggests the Beatles' "Savoy Truffle" and T. Rex's "Zip Gun Boogie." There's also the Stonesy "Mixed Business," the quirky fuzz-tone-meets-marimba jam "We're Out of Control," and the Prince-esque "Nicotine and Gravy," all of which exploit Beck's talent for borrowing the past to point to the future.

A diabolical brew of badass disco-era funk and arena rock anthem, "Milk and Honey" sounds like Pat Travers kickin' it with Cameo-that's before it segues into a moody outro, a bittersweet symphony topped off by a gorgeous guitar solo from former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Beck calls "Pressure Zone" "a Cars-style blueprint of an alternative rock song," though it also hearkens back to Gary Numan, and MeldalJohnson's attempt to describe the still unmixed "Sweet and Low" produces the new musical category "spastic future funk."

Imagery combining food and sex is everywhere. The nasty "Peaches and Cream" uses Beck's Beefheart-y guitar intro as a springboard for a gutbucket cowbell groove reminiscent of the Jacksons' "One Bad Apple." Inviting you aboard the "goodship menage-a-trois," Beck coos and caws like El Debarge at a porn convention, exhorting the ladies to "keep your lamplight trimmed and burning." "Ooh, such a delicate thing," he shivers. "You make a garbageman scream."

Sure, bands from the Chili Peppers to Limp Bizkit have appropriated gestures and attitudes from funk and hip-hop, but rarely has a white artist channeled the oozing sexuality of modern R&B in such a disarming, fun and original way, without sounding artificially macho or just plain boorish. "It's long overdue," Beck says later, sitting Indian style in a metal chair outside by the studio parking lot. "It's not like hip-hop and black music hasn't had an impact on the alternative world, but the influence is very narrow and specific: the white b-boy and what it's evolved into."

Hip-hop, argues Beck, isn't just about being aggressive. "The one thing alternative bands never get into is the sexiness of it," he says. "The slo-jams have this mixture of sensuality and earnestness, this unmitigated, full-on lust, coupled with a devout pledging of love. You just don't hear that in rock music. You don't hear that kind of humor and ambivalence. That's the one overriding element of this record," He stresses, "the embracing of sexuality in all its different colors, from fuchsia to chromium. We're going for it."

Now, maybe it's because Beck's the king of kitsch, the most emblematic pop star of irony-loving Generation X, but it's hard to accept everything he does at face value. When you hear him sing the over-thetop slo-jam "Debra," a big part of you wants you to laugh, to play along with what you assume is the song's clever condescension to the slick R&B love ballad. And that can be a very uneasy feeling-are we mocking black culture here, paying it tribute, or simply trying it on for size? The point is, we've come to expect a hidden smart-alecky comment from Beck on the cultural cheese he recasts as pop art.

But while the alternative crowd was banging heads to Pearl Jam in 1994, Beck insists he was listening-quite earnestly-to R. Kelly and Brandy, and he resents what he sees as the double-standard that's applied to contemporary, commercial R&B and older "classic" black sounds. "I realize that "Debra" doesn't represent what we would like to think ideal soul music is all about," he explains. Of course, you could make the same claim about R. Kelly, who spins out lines like "You remind me of my car; I want to ride you."

"Oh yeah, says Beck, "a lot of those lyrics are funny, just ridiculous. No matter how slick an R&B track is, you can always rely on the lyrics to be unique. Even when they're generic, you get lines like 'I want to lick you up and down/ make you real hot.' And that's what turns me on. "Debra" embraces the absurdity and trashiness of that." Ask a music connoisseur what soul music they like, suggests Beck, and the predictable answer is "classic" Al Green, not "cheesy" R. Kelly. "That's accepted as good taste. I mean, I love Al Green, but it's very easy to recognize the value in that."

"The slo-jams really expresses a culture and a way of thinking," Beck says, "and by rejecting that, you're rejecting a whole culture. When people like Alan Lomax went out to gather field recordings of country blues in the '20s and '30s, most people, including the musicians they recorded, thought they were nuts. 'What do you want to record us for? Our music is trash.' People like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson were street musicians. That wasn't perceived as music-it was junk. And the same thing is at play now."

Turning "non-art" into art is one of the key impulses of postmodernism, exploited by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters-a favorite of Beck's-and pop-artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Beck, who's arguably the keenest student of that tradition in pop music, has said that his forays into kitsch are less social commentary than an attempt to understand the culture, "to enter the mind of the beast, to enter the madness." In a way, Beck dissolves the line between irony and earnestness, producing a kind of ineffable Zen comedy that John Cage would have applauded.

That sensibility owes at least something to Beck's late grandfather, Al Hansen, a leading light of the Fluxus art movement of the Sixties, whose cigarette-butt sculptures, clipping-collages, and non-sequiturladen "Intermedia" poems foreshadowed Beck's pop decoupage. The parallels were most clearly drawn at last year's exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Beck and Al Hansen: Playing With Matches. The show, featuring Beck's artwork alongside his grandfather's, was concluded by a riotous Yanni/Hearts of Space spoof by Beck's bandtitled "New Age Evisceration 1"-capped off by a man in a plastic dolphin suit fucking a computer.

Like Frank Zappa, Beck's satire is all-inclusive, equal opportunity. If Beck does have fun sending up the heart-on-sleeve dramatics of slo-jam soul, he has just as much guilty pleasure dressing in glam-drag like Motley Crue for the "New Pollution" video. Truth is, Beck's always courting cultural disaster to some degree, and part of his genius is that he's always on the verge of making a complete ass of himself. Second-guessing his motivations is not a luxury Beck allows himself. "The minute I start thinking that way," he says, "I might as well not make music. You can't edit yourself. If it comes out, it's something that's living inside of you. I sometimes think 'What the hell am I doing?' Sometimes I can be embarrassed by myself. But if you're going to be true, you've got to let it all come out."

The only caveat to that self-purging ethic is Beck's difficulty in drawing a straight line from his emotions to his lyrics. Even Mutations, the most confessional-sounding of Beck's records, keeps its emotional distance by abstracting the feelings it attempts to convey; the poetry is gorgeous, but what's being said? "My girlfriend's always giving me shit about that," Beck shrugs. ""Just say what you feel!' And I am, but I spend a lot of time conjuring the environment around the emotion. It's all an effort to translate an experience, but I definitely get sidetracked. I'm trying to simplify."

The road to Midnite Vultures was paved with good ideas, but it had its share of sidetracks, too. The process got under way in the early months of last year, after Beck and band came off a year-and-a-half tour in support of Odelay. Beck's first new song was lost in cyberspace, the victim of a hard drive crash. Disheartened, Beck looked at "the huge mountain I had to climb" in preparing Odelay's follow-up, and decided to wander in the foothills awhile, asking Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to oversee the sessions for Mutations, a release positioned by artist and label alike as an interim effort.

The album's organic and open-sounding production showcased Beck's songwriting-with hints of Harry Nilsson, Syd Barrett, Gram Parsons and Caetano Veloso-but it also demonstrated the deftness and versatility of his band, largely the same core group that appears on Midnite Vultures: bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson, keyboardist Roger Manning (Jellyfish, Imperial Drag), drummer Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Walt Mink) and guitarist Smokey Hormel (Tom Waits). After finishing Mutations, Beck also enlisted Midnite Vultures co-producers Mickey Petralia, a longtime LA DJ, engineer and club promoter, and Tony Hoffer, a sound designer and guitarist who's been performing live with Beck since last year.

Sessions for Midnite Vultures began in earnest in July of '98, with tracking at Beck's home studio in Pasadena, and at the Dust Brothers' digs in Silverlake. From the start, Beck had ambitious designs. "I knew how much work it took to make Odelay and Mellow Gold," he says, "and I knew that the level of production and programming I wanted on the new album would be immensely time-consuming. It turned out to be that and then some." By late August of this year, Beck had tracked close to forty new songs-enough for four records-including the tender, melancholy "Beautiful Way," a duet with Beth Orton, and space-age hiphop joints featuring Kool Keith and Money Mark.

Beck's dad, David Campbell, who so resembles Beck that friends call them "two peas in a pod," arranged and performed the album's rich string sections, notably on "Nicotine and Gravy," and tour stalwart DJ Swamp worked the wheels of steel. Though the Dust Brothers cut several tracks with Beck, only two of them-"Hollywood Freaks" and "Debra"ended up in the final sequence.

Scheduled for a June '99 release, the album was pushed back to November. "This record is a two year project that we crammed into one year," Beck sighs. "It easily could have taken another year if we'd done it in a civilized manner, if we hadn't completely surrendered our lives. It was an awful lot to bite off."

Another reason why the task was so gargantuan was the sheer technical scope of the recording process itself. Instead of simply grabbing pre-existing drum loops off a sample CD, for instance, Hoffer and Petralia micro-edited infinitesmal fractions of beats, moving around tiny ticks on a computer sequences s "tempo map" to create complex, multi-layered grooves. A lot of drum 'n' bass beats, those brittle, fractal snare hits and percussive smears, are programmed using the same fine-toothed technique, but rarely has extensive sound design met beat construction the way it has here. "Sometimes we'd spend 16 hours on four seconds of music," notes Beck. "I figured this was a chance to go that deep."

While cutting the live band tracks, Beck encouraged a spirit of abandon and performance, says Meldal-Johnson: "It was really exuberant, and we all got wild. Everything was rendered in a really passionate way, and often the tracks were built from the mistakes we made." Though he's wary of being so loath to repeat himself that he forgets "what's good about what I do," Beck clearly wanted to turn over new ground, and to broaden the now-pervasive musical idiom-call it cut-and-paste, folk-hop, collage-rock, or what you will-that he'd helped create. After all, as imaginative a lyricist as Beck is, he says his top creative priority is "shooting for a sound that has its own identity and aesthetic."

"When I first started playing acoustic guitar over drum loops, I knew it was something fresh," he recalls, "It had roots in folk and hip-hop, and I knew it could create a new genre, in the same way R&B and country fused into rock. Now you hear that in Pepsi commercials-you hear it everywhere, and it's a total formula by now." Making Midnite Vultures, he concludes, was a matter of taking the production approach of Mellow Gold and Odelay, and ripping it inside out, chopping beats into milliseconds, and night-flying through musical hyper-space.

In addition to the technical concerns, there were other sidetracks. Beck recorded the song "Halo of Gold" for the Skip Spence tribute album More Oar, sang the duet "Sin City" with Emmylou Harris for the Gram Parsons tribute record, Return of the Grievous Angel and threw down vocals for an upcoming Melvins album, The Crybaby. Meanwhile, Meldal-Johnson and Manning toured for two months with French pop electro-ambient band Air.

On the business end, Beck sold the Pasadena home where he lived with his girlfriend Leigh, and moved back to Silverlake. And though the band members say they were hardly aware of it, Beck and his label, Geffen, spent much of the last year in a logjam of legal maneuvering and contractual dispute. In March of 1998, Beck's lawyers began attempting to renegotiate his royalty rate, but when Geffen was submerged into Interscope, the discussions soured, and reportedly, both of Beck's labels, Geffen and Bong Load Custom, sued the singer for claiming he was no longer contractually bound to them. According to reports, Beck countersued, claiming Geffen released Mutations without his permission, and failed to pay him for it. A spokesman at Geffen declined to comment on the negotiations, but both sides say the matter has been all but resolved.

Still, considering how exploitative standard record contracts are, it's not surprising that things finally came to a head. "Any musician on a record label believes they're not getting what they deserve," says Beck. "In my case, it was brought to my attention that it was grossly unfair. It was below what any musician off the street would be getting as far as a deal goes." The new deal gives Beck more points on his records, sources say, but makes it more difficult for Beck to release material on independent labels, a key provision of his '93 agreement. Beck plays down the affair, even suggesting that "suing" is too strong a word: "It was all perfunctory legal maneuvering, and in the end it worked itself out."

Back in the mixing suite of Studio B, even the tweaks to "This is My Crew" are finally bearing fruit. Bass and kick drum tightened up and fattened, Beck's vocal now leaps out of the mix. "This is my crew," he taunts over seething electro-funk, "Take ten steps back." The mood has lightened considerably, the table lamp has stopped flickering, and Hoffer's infectious grin is starting to spread throughout the studio.

"Now you're in the danger zone," the voice warns, "yellow turns to black." Suddenly the exotically adorned room does feel like an Eastern bazaar, swirling with a palpable energy that speaks directly to the superfreak in us all. As the groove reaches a kind of synergistic overload, the entire crew, some with fists pumped in the air, scream along with Beck: "It's ON!"