Beck to the Future
February 2000
pp. 24-27
Erik Himmelsbach

With his stunning and salacious new album, young Mr. Hansen builds a better sex machine.

Beck wakes up at 8 a.m., alone on the rock-star bus, wondering what the hell happened last night, and his band were in Santa Barbara to shake off the rust and warm up for the upcoming Coachella Music and Arts Festival, which Beck will headline. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the experience at the University of Santa Barbara's Hub turned into a nightmare. The ceilings were painfully low in a head-banging sort of way, the power went out for an extended period, and worst of all, the Hub turned out to be a glorified food court. Beck and his posse found themselves soundchecking as students ate dinner. Later, during the show, they performed onstage calisthenics to amuse the crowd when the plug was momentarily pulled.

The caravan moved east, crossing the state of California in the dead of night before landing near the scene of today's sonic experiment: Fresno State. The bus has been anchored at the Radisson Hotel parking lot for three hours, but our hero hasn't stirred until now. Here he is, getting his bearings as he drags his tired ass across the parking lot toward the hotel in search of a comfortable place for a little more shut-eye. Located in the center of California's sweltering Central Valley, Fresno is the heart of the raisin industry. It's also a reasonable facsimile of Anytown, U.S.A., a midsized city that's home to Fresno State.

Tonight the coeds are about to get the funk, courtesy of that wheat-haired white boy from the big city. Lord have mercy. Beck Hansen has indeed returned, not only to Fresno, but to his anointed role as the messiah of popular music, with the release of the funkified Midnite Vultures. It's not a moment too soon for those who cannot live on "Nookie" alone. Remember: Way back in '96, Odelay was a revolutionary collage of sound that sampled a veritable Rough Guide of musical history-classical, garage rock, samba, R&B-over phat hip-hop beats. In the process, Beck and his producers, the Dust Brothers, took a shovel and poured dirt on the grave of grunge, kicked at the sorry state of hip-hop, and added a little mischief to the decidedly unfun genre then known as alternative.

"I started doing songs using garage-rock elements and '60s pop elements because they were such the antithesis of what people were sampling at the time, and music that you [wouldn't] hear in the context of a hip-hop beat," Beck explains, shortly after emerging from his slumber. "I thought it had a more melodic and feminine quality. Most of the things I heard before '95 were more aggressive, and I wanted to step away from the rockist tendency in anything that was hip-hop related."

At 28, Beck still is oddly cherubic, looking for all the world like a gangly kid as he gets sucked into the overstuffed chairs in the swingin' Radisson lounge ("This furniture is for very large people," he says, sinking.) But the hotel staff obviously is on rock-star alert. Perhaps it's the duds that give him away: the Red Vine colored cords; brown, boatlike loafers with seriously wagging tongues; and the kind of racing-striped T-shirt Mom might have bought you in fifth grade. Or maybe it's that giant bus parked outside.

Unsure how he wants to face this early part of the day, Beck plays with his wraparound shades, putting them on, taking them off, putting them on. Finally, he sets them down. But that's about as quirky as he gets. When he opens his mouth, it's clear the savant who once used his music as a pop-culture garbage disposal is far, far in the distance of Beck's rearview mirror. Today's Beck is a pro, a veteran of the industry machine for more than half a decade, with six wildly eclectic records under his belt. He's practically a geezer compared to the one-hitters he's about to face off against in the war for airplay on radio and MTV.

But Beck's own perspective on his music is charmingly skewed. While fans and critics still can barely wipe the drool from their faces in canonizing Odelay for its subversive innovation, Beck is sheepish when I ask him to explain himself.

"Now it's okay to be somewhat lightweight," he says. "'New Pollution' was very fluffy to me at the time. I was almost embarrassed. At the time everything coming out was very aggressive and very testosterone-driven, except for Stereolab and a handful of other bands. I remember when we did 'Jackass,' I just thought, this is going to be way too wimpy for the people who listen to KROQ. We were doing that stuff at the height of Pearl Jam and Nirvana."

Three years later, bands like Air have made it safe to be wistful, subtle, and kitschy. But for whom, beyond a small cadre of critics and audiophiles? Judging from the dominance of Korn and all they spawned, it's a precious few. As Beck spent two years on the road with Odelay, the lunkheads wrapped their tattooed arms around America, smothering it with their aggro-cretin style of beer-can-smashed-to-the-head metal rap.

"The pendulum swung back pretty quick," Beck says. "It just went wham. I have a friend who said alternative music is in the Warrant stage." Sigh. You know what that means. Once again, Beck is asked to save the world.

The Universal Records subsidiary formerly known as Geffen can hardly wait. So hungry was the company for a massive unit-moving disc (when are those Elastica and Guns N' Roses records coming out, anyway?), it jumped the gun by swiping last year's Mutations away from Bong Load, the label for which it was intended-per Beck's deal with Geffen to release "uncommercial" records with whatever label he pleases.

Having finally completed his Odelay odyssey, Beck booked L.A.'s Ocean Way Studios for a few weeks with his touring band and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to cut a series of tracks sans bells and whistles. It was a low-key affair, a more polished cousin of the lopsided folk contained on 1994's One Foot In the Grave, which was released on the indie K Records. Geffen heard Mutations, wanted it, and put it out. Soon thereafter, the label was gobbled up in a corporate merger. Problem was, Beck had financed the recording himself and, subsequently, wasn't paid by Geffen. That triggered a series of lawsuits, now settled. Beck claims they were mere formalities. "There weren't any ruffled feathers," he says.

With the legal issues behind them, all parties concerned are understandably ecstatic about Midnite Vultures. But it's hardly the sequel to Odelay. Instead, it's a party-all-the-time bootay shaker, full of funked-up grooves, nasty R&B, and salaciousness served with a smile for your sexual-healing pleasure. The album's release date says 1999, but Beck admits he's been carrying an R&B jones around with him for a while.

"I've been listening to this music heavily over the last five years," he says. "I found myself slipping through the cracks musically in a lot of ways, but usually just thrown in with the alternative bands. Yet the more I listened to contemporary R&B stations and hip hop, I felt more interested in that kind of music. It's just taken until '99 for me to do a proper album that reflects this.

"This album is extremely overdue," he adds. "It represents where we were in '97. We're playing catch-up."

The basic objective of Midnite Vultures, Beck says, was to capture the vibe of his band's high-voltage live performances. "If anything, it just represents an element in the live shows that has thus far been missing in the records," he says. "We've developed a sound as a band, and so I felt like I wanted to have some songs that represented that, vehicles for us to create our live eruption." Beck the Funk Soul Brother may surprise some, but not those who saw the Odelay tour. The silly, seductive slow jam "Debra" has been a show-stopper since '96. Written with the Dust Brothers, it was originally recorded during the Odelay sessions, but it didn't fit the feel of that record. It was re-recorded live in the studio with his band, and fits comfortably as Vultures'album-closing chill out.

Feeling certain that Vultures is Beck goofing on Prince and George Clinton, I hand him a copy of a rare slice of oversexed soul known only to denizens of the cut-out bins. The Best of Marvin Sease features all the "hits" of a pimped-out Southern R&B crooner, including "Candy Licker" and "I Ate You For My Breakfast." Beck smiles as he stares at the cover, a photo of a jewelry-adorned Sease reclining in a peacock-colored jacket and fedora. "Oh, man, there's a million guys like this," he says. "'I wanna lick you up and down,' 'I like the crotch on you.' If you go to one of those shows, the women are crazy. They take it dead serious. There's humor there, but it's dead serious." This is exactly what Beck was attempting with his own lyrics on Vultures.

"I wanted to make a sexy record," he explains later in the day, gobbling a burrito while sitting on the grass outside the student union before the Fresno gig. As he chows and chats, hordes of students hover nearby, not actually communicating with their hero. They stand close enough to bask in his aura, yet far enough enough away to work an aloof cool, like they're supposed to be there. One guy actually breaks through the imaginary wall. He looks nervous. "I hope I'm not really interrupting," he says, interrupting. "I know it's completely benign, but can I shake your hand?"

"Sure man, all right," Beck responds politely. As the student walks away, Beck wrings out his freshly shaken hand. "Ow, a hard shake. That hurt. A little too firm." He picks right back up where he left off. "It's not sexy in the way Madonna makes a sexy record. All you need to do is read the lyrics and hear how I'm singing it and get the sense that it's playful. It's sexy, but it's got other elements to it. It's a little more tweaked."

OK, now the big question: Why? Once again, Beck was partly inspired by a vacuum in the alternative-rock world. "Aside from the very masculine and aggro frustration with sexuality, there's not a lot of playfulness," he says. "There's romance, but there's no vocabulary and language in that kind of music. It's been sort of taboo in the '90s, except in the hip-hop and R&B world, where you can be as explicit as you want."

This sense of adult playfulness makes Vultures an ideal soundtrack for partying away the 20th century. But it wasn't originally going to be that way. Originally, Beck had a more trippy electronic vibe in mind, evident in the robotic love coos of "Get Real Paid." Beck's hyper-fey falsetto sounds like a send-up of Prince. But he had a different model in mind for this vocal: "I was trying to make it sound like the Teletubbies, if they went electro," he says. I also thought the tune might have been a dig at Geffen ("We like to ride on executive planes/We like to sit around and get real paid"), but Beck claims it's actually a goof on the Puff Daddies of the world. "The pervasive R&B entrepreneurial superstar star-maker man-male '90s machine," he explains in vintage Beckspeak.

Actually, Vultures shares more with the straightforward Mutations than Odelay, both melodically and in the more linear lyrics. Gone are the sample-heavy grooves, the eclectic stops and starts, the stream-of-consciousness prose, and the overt mimicry of hip hop. He explains that the old sound was hard to reproduce in concert, and he's naturally grown more interested in a cohesive, stage-ready ensemble approach. "I always felt that Odelay and Mellow Gold, too-were pretty rag-tag and choppy. But I think that was the aesthetic I was going for at the time," he says. "It was difficult to make them have an impact live. This time I wanted to build the songs like tanks, because we were going to be riding around on these songs for a year."

Even though Beck still has a good foot in hip hop, even though he collaborated with Kool Keith (alas, nothing made the Vultures cut), and even though he's allegedly worked with Snoop Dog, Beck doesn't feel entirely comfortable in that scene. "I don't think people in that world take where I'm coming from," he says. "I never pretended to be an MC, I always had my own style. I threw many of the hip-hop rules out the window immediately. I didn't even try to be real. There's very stringent rules of how hip hop is made. It's very protective, almost like the way the Germans make their beer. You can't fuck with the formula at all." But messing with the mix is what Beck is all about, ever since he wedded folk, Delta blues, and hip hop in "Loser" back in 1993.

Casual fans may not realize what a break that monster single was for Beck. After all, he used to be an acoustic solo artist in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. "I have this One Foot in the Grave/Mutations folky side, which is where I come from musically. And then I have this other thing that just developed out of 'Loser.' And this side project thing that took over is what people mostly identify me with," he says, sounding like a person whose career has been dictated by forces beyond his control. The schism initially was so great that when "Loser" was about to be released, the folks at Bong Load asked if their young artist wanted to use a pseudonym.

"It's just two different animals, two sides of what I do," he says. "People who listen to my music just have to reconcile the fact that once in a while they're gonna get one of these acoustic guitar records.

"I kind of gave up on the idea that anybody would be interested in folk music, and then I started experimenting and having fun in the studio and letting go of my ideas about what I thought my music was about and just decided to not try to keep it pure and focused or anything. I just threw everything out the window and started over," he says with a laugh. "The strange thing that happened is that, within a year or two after that, folk, bluegrass, and country became very hip. So it was kind of frustrating. I had a lot of years playing that music when nobody gave a shit at all."

Beck has seen the future, and it rocks. He says he'd like to veer in a direction that sounds a lot like the wicked, whip-smart riffing of Vultures' "Pressure Zone." "Rock is really difficult for me," he says. "I think the next album's gonna have a lot more rock." Somehow, I think he'll manage. Beck's career is already looking as cockeyed and unpredictable as Neil Young's. Or Bob Dylan's. And the way Beck's going, he may yet share the longevity enjoyed by the old guard. Just to keep things interesting, Beck confides that his ultimate challenge could be years, even decades away. "I want to do records that just don't sound like anything-no references, no nothing," he says. "Just pure music. I think it's going to take a while to get to that point, but I really want to go deeper and deeper."

First things first. There's still a gig that needs playing here in Fresno, the raisin capital of the world. But unlike the Spinal Tap absurdity of the previous night in Santa Barbara, Beck and his boys connect. The student union is packed. He tears the mother down, spinning, twirling, popping, and locking. Beck is making good use of time-tested rock star gestures geared for the cheap seats. His strut reminds me of another oversexed skinny white kid copping R&B in another era: Mick Jagger. It would seem that the hot rocks-the family jewels, as it were-have been passed.