This isnít a scenefrom This Is Spinal Tap, but it could have been a contender. The food court inside the student union at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is ringed on one side with fast-food concessions: Panda Express, Wendy's, Chilitos. Directly opposite, under an overhang, an 11-piece agglomeration is tearing into a lithe funk number called "Sexx Laws." The band looks like, well, some college students who figured that it might be a real cool prank to dress up like '70s Euro-prog ensemble Gong, then befuddle a crowd of their fellow hacky-sack enthusiasts with a serious Parliament/Funkadelic-style sonic assault.
As the music kicks in, the three-piece horn section bites into a riff that could've been commissioned for a 1969 Ford Mustang commercial by an ad exec whose idea of "groovy" youth culture came from late-period Elvis movies. Then a rangy, sandy-haired man sporting a black leotard top steps up to the microphone. "Can't you hear those cavalry drums hijacking your equilibrium?' he deadpans. "Midnight hags in the mausoleum where the pixilated doctors moan/ Carnivores in the Kowloon night breathing freon by the candlelight/ Coquettes bitch-slap you so polite 'til you thank them for the tea and sympathy..."
Huh? What's this? Did Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker overdose on William Gibson novels, then plot a mushroom-fueled comeback using a band of hired L.A. guns?
The funk mob slams into the song's chorus. "I want to defy the logic of all sex laws," the singer continues. "Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists/ I let you be my chaperone at the halfway home/I'm a full-grown man/But I'm not afraid to cry."
The lyrics' kinky subtext is lost on a few garrulous fratboy yobbos, who wouldn't care if it was Limp Bizkit or Frankie Yankovic up there, as long as it provided a suitable racket for some yabba dabba doo crowd surfing. But the less beer-sodden members of the audience know they're witnessing the latest incarnation of Beck-the changeling artist who, on his latest DGC/Interscope album Midnite Vultures, has decided to unleash a brainy buttshaker of a party record on the world-and they're visibly delighted.
The next number touches more familiar ground. It's "Novacane," from Beck's breakthrough 1996 album, Odelay. Midway through the jam, the power goes out. The horn section continues to bleat, with drummer Joey Waronker providing a muscular backbeat. Beck starts leading the rest of the band in calisthenics: jumping jacks, squat thrusts. When it's clear the power isn't coming on anytime soon, the band files off stage; after a one-note false start 15 minutes or so later, it exits again.
Finally, power is restored. "Sorry we took so long," Beck tells the restless crowd. "We had to go pay the electric bill."
Beck Hansen may be making some of the most densely constructed and challenging, yeteminently playable, pop records of this decade-indeed, his creative spark recalls the '70s heyday of another pop-music changeling, David Bowie. But he isn't some studio rat who's uncomfortable playing before a crowd, whose live act is essentially the Mousketeer karaoke that too many performers get away with these days. And it's apparent he can think on his feet, too. Yep, he's the real deal.
The afternoon before the show, Beck and band hop on a bus at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio near the Burbank airport. As the bus wends through Joe Friday and Bill Gannon's old stamping grounds on its way to U.S. 101, band members mull over '70s stoner vehicle aesthetics (someone recalls a primer-gray Nova with an upside-down crucifix and "666" spray-painted on the hood by a demented Black Sabbath fan), primitive Blue Oyster Cult videos and mutant Japanese pop culture. Then it hits the highway headed west, and Beck-sporting a black Western-cut shirt, wire-framed specs and a straw cowboy hat-saunters to the back of the bus, where a diner-style booth awaits.
He's in that peculiar twilight zone on this day in early October: His new record's in the can, but it won't be in the stores for another six weeks. He can't tour behind it just yet, and besides, the band only has five of the album's I1 songs ready for road testing. So he's got to settle for a few warm-up gigs-a Thursday night in Fresno, the Coachella festival near Indio, and this Wednesday night at, ahem, Wendy's Hamburgers.
The jury's still out, so to speak, but Beck exudes a quiet confidence about the new record. "This thing is a take;" he says. "Whether the songs are good or not, I don't know. I know that it's a take-you can put it out there, you can send a team of lumberjacks to hack at it with axes. You can do anything you want to it. It's still pretty solid."
And liquid, like slippery funk should be. But, luckily, not gaseous. At least half of Midnite Vultures is Beck's version of a contemporary r&b record; on it, he defines the parameters of his groove thang from a variety of angles. The aforementioned "Sexx Laws," which sounds like vintage The Artist Currently Known as Unpronounceable Squiggle backed by The Dating Game horn section and some c&w moonlighters (Herb Pedersen on banjo; Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel) downshifts into the languid crawl of "Nicotine & Gravy," which smolders like a low-speed booty call that South Park Elementary's Chef might come up with. Instrumentally, it sounds like that great lost Os Mutantes in Muscle Shoals single. Then comes the energetic wahwah driven "Mixed Bizness," which could've come right off Talking Heads' Remain in Light, followed by "Get Real Paid," which is closer to some Teutonic confection Kraftwerk might've come up with on The Man Machine, followed by the unstoppable Bootzilla groove of the Dust Brothers-produced "Holywood Freaks."
That's not quite half the album. There's also a falsetto number ("Peaches and Cream"), a slippery Santana-meetsRoxy Music number with ex-Smiths member Johnny Marr on guitar ("Out of Kontrol"), a stuttering Liquid Liquid-like raveup ("Milk & Honey"), a stoned and vaguely Eastern-sounding tune with Beth Orton on harmony vocals ("Beautiful Way"), a compact polyrhythmic rock tune ("Pressure Zone"), and another Dust Brothers track left over from Odelay, a falsetto-limned paean to hooking up two sisters for a three-way ("Debra").
Lest you think this is a derivative mess, it's actually the most strikingly original pop record of the year. Beck plays around with his sonic palette the way David Bowie played with his persona in the early '70s. Underlying the relentlessly shape-shifting music, though, is a dense core of musical information.
"I think the tracks are dense," Beck agrees, then counters: "but they also have space. I mean, there are parts where there's a lot of things going on at once. But I think, if anything, they're detail-oriented; there's a lot of detail. I like things that have detail. I like architecture that has so many elements to it that create this one composition. Or I like artwork that has millions of things going on in it-you can pick it apart and get deep into it.''
It's this designer approach that Beck applies to his record making. He has his own home studio, where he cuts sides directly onto his hard drive. Four of his six albums were done this way, including the new one. It's deceptive: You think you're hearing a really clean update of a retro funk sound, but there's something quite different going on.
"There's a lot of playing on this record, Beck explains, "but a lot of it is on programming as well. It's very musical, very intense programming-breaking down, to microscopic proportions, how a musician thinks and operates and intuitively creates music. When you're breaking it down to the fibers, and you're able to manipulate it and turn it inside out a little bit, you hear things that sound familiar-but not quite.
"It's like you're looking at a glass of water, and there's something strange about it-and if you broke it down chemically, it would have all the particles that make up what is usually contained in water. But that's kind of' a rough metaphor."
And the main ingredients, Beck adds, aren't what you might think. "The computer and these programs are a new instrument," he explains. "It's not really about the guitar, or the keyboard, or the drums, or a sampler; it's about using this machine to create a web of sounds, a full composite of sounds. A lot of times we hear a melody or a melodic phrase, an instrumental phrase, in one of these songs. What you're hearing is five different things making one sound. You can't tell what's playing what: What's a piano? What's a guitar? So the instrument becomes the computer, I think. That's the way I look at it. Because if you look at the credits, you see on some songs I'm only singing and playing keyboards, but I've manipulated all these sounds, and done all this programming. That's certainly a musical part of what I did in the song.
"There's really an attempt here to have almost all live performance," he adds. "And then you have manipulated sounds and samples that are just chopped and are playing around musicians, not getting in the way of [them]. Most of the time, you hear a band playing along; what we did was, we left stuff in real time so it isn't always on the grid. We just placed each note exactly to the minutest rhythmic place, so that the sampled sounds are hitting exactly on top of what the live musicians are playing. And also because most samplers, most of the machinery now, is locked to a steady, metronomic beat. That stuff moves, it breathes. Those funky beats, they breathe. And that quality is what makes it work.
"And if you listen real close," he explains, "a lot of the beats are just sick. We spent weeks on it. What you're hearing is five different beats-two going backwards, and three slicing up. It creates this whole oceanic, surging sound. And you get the overall effect, but what's underneath is pretty technological and freaked out. But what you hear on top is just straight boogaloo. Late-'60s boogaloo."
So, this time out, the sonic designer aimed his technological prowess at cutting a monster funk disc? "I think the quality that makes funk have an impact with me, and the quality that good rock does, and any genre of music has that same quality, is that there's something physically satisfying about hearing it," he says. "And music that lacks that quality, you can appreciate it intellectually; there's plenty of other kinds of music that'll do that. But music that makes that basic physical connection is what I was going for. It's that track that comes on the radio, and you've heard it a million times, but you haven't heard it in a long time, and you just realize all over again why it feels so good."
A few years ago, who would have figured that, at the end of this century, Beck would be making groundbreaking records -having outlived his record label? Signed to the then altrock powerhouse DGC/ Geffen (since folded into sisterlabel Interscope by parent Seagram) in the wake of Nirvana's wild success, after an overheated bidding war, he could just as easily have ended up as a question in the "college radio" edition of Trivial Pursuit: "Who's the L.A. cut'n'paste songwriter who had a big hit called `Loser' in 1992?"
"That was a strange time," he recalls. "The A&R guys were crawling up the drainpipe, trying to get into the back window. It was just an anomaly because `Loser' was #l, and it just came out of nowhere. It was like a free jackpot for anybody who was willing to grab at it. And that's why I spent like nine months--Mellow Gold was supposed to come out in the summer of '93. It came out a year later, because I just sat on it; I was waiting for these people to go away--and waiting for the song to go away."
If that cloud had a silver lining, it was this: Post-Nevermind, the music biz went completely bonkers-labels bidding against one another to sign even the most marginal of indie-rock artists. A lot of people figured Beck might be one of those guys who wasn't in it for the long haul. "Yeah, I think, karmically, that's been an element in my life-to be underestimated," he says. "And it's proven to be advantageous, I think. People had pretty much written me off, and then Odelay came out, and it pleasantly surprised some people ... and alienated the rest [laughs]. But that's the way it goes, y'know?"
By 1996, when DGC released Odelay, Beck had become a veteran recording artist. In addition to Mellow Gold, he'd released two albums-Stereopathetic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave-on Flipside and K, respectively; his deal with Geffen allowed him to funnel "uncommercial" projects to indie labels. Then came Odelay, produced by rock texturalists the Dust Brothers, which launched Beck into the mainstream with a terrific lead-off single, "Where It's At." By the time the song's epigrammatic chorus, "Two turntables and a microphone," became a pop-culture catchphrase, Beck had made the transition from a one-hit wonder to a force to watch.
And Beck understands why that album was a hit. "One of the charms, the things that attracted people to Odelay, is that it has a lot of sounds and textures that people grew up with," he says. "There's a certain comfort there. There's a lot of noise and nonsense on it, too, but there's a simple raw quality-a Booker T. feel or an old hip-hop jam feel, or like an old country thing."
What Beck did next was cut an analog singer-songwriter album, to be released on indie label Bong Load (which also released "Loser"). But Geffen had other plans, and Mutations came out on DGC. He credits his desire to constantly shake up the creative process for that album's genesis. "I get the raw material, and that just erupts; it happens in a short amount of time. And then there's a whole process of weeks and months, putting it together and making it work. And it's not the only way to work; that's why I did Mutations. I wanted to do something that was just pure and direct and simple, because I had been identified as a cutand-paste, chop-it-up-and-put it-in-a-blender guy. And that, to me, is an approach, but it doesn't sum up who I am as a musician. It's not the point. It's not the kind of pants you're wearing; it's the way you walk. It's the energy you put into that walk."
Judging from Mutations, and a duet with Emmylou Harris on "Sin City" for a recent Gram Parsons tribute album, you might think Beck is aiming for conventional singersongwriter status. You'd be wrong. Beck's got a different jones these days.
"There's a tendency for white people, white musicians, to grab onto r&b or hip-hop music from 10, 15 or 20 years ago," he says of himself and his melanindeficient brethren. "In the last four years, I've been listening to a lot of contemporary stuff, good or bad, just trying to get into the mind of it. And I really wanted that to inform [Midnite Vultures] and consciously make it contemporary, but not in a trashy way. Take all the things that I like about the contemporary r&b, but without all the gunk and slickness and tasteless elements of it.
Which acts? "I'm not even really talking about Puff Daddy," he says. "I'm just talking about this whole modern era of r&b and hip-hop-R. Kelly, Master P, Bone Thugsn-Harmony. So many bands that come and go, you never even find out what their names are. But you hear the song over and over for six weeks, and then they're gone.
"I love the stuff that tries to sound slick, like a Kenny G record," he adds, "but it's just so undeniably ghetto. It's trying to sound all slick like Whitney Houston, but there's something awkward and haphazard and out of tune about it. Those are the tracks that I love. In 20 years or so, people will realize how amazing this music is." He's got other passions. Like: "Why the hell wasn't anybody listening to Serge Gainsbourg all these years?" Beck asks, out of the blue. "He's definitely the level of Leonard Cohen, or he's definitely within shooting range of Dylan:'
And: "When I first heard ['60s Brazilian pop combo] Os Mutantes, it was like, wait this is what I've been doing for the last six or seven years [laughs]. It sounds very eerie. To think you're experimenting and you're coming up with all these new combinations of sounds, and then to hear someone displace you from 35 years ago, you know-I love that; I love finding that sort of thing."
Accuse Beck of being an artist, sure. But you can't deny that he has his finger on the pulse of popular culture. "You can get into a bubble where you think, oh, everybody's into this. But if you go out there, I think the culture at large is very specific what they're listening to, what they want to hear. Yeah, on the sides there's some fragmentation, but that's only among musicians and critics. People either want to rock or they want to cry. Or they want to get it on.
"I tried to make this record-and Odelay-work that way, just on the basic level of: Does it have a good beat? Can you feel it from two rooms away? Pop music has to be able to do that; that's where it is functional. I tried to find a balance where, if you just want to hear the basic element of a song, you can. And if you want to put the headphones on and dissect it, there's a whole 'nother universe in there."