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The Big Read – Beck: “Was the ’90s a golden time for rock music? It was more like tarnished brass”

Beck's new Pharrell-produced album 'Hyperspace' is a boundary-pushing, genre-bending epic – perhaps the best thing he's done for a decade. As the musical chameleon approaches 30 years in the business, he ponders whether he'd survive in the SoundCloud era, if the 1990s were as good as everyone thinks they were and how he very nearly had a Post Malone collab on the record.

It’s Friday afternoon and we’ve caught Beck with his pants down. NME has come to meet the US star at the mega-fancy Rosewood Hotel in central London for a chat about his new album, ‘Hyperspace’. When we take over the massive conference room (it’s about half a football pitch in length, and peppered with expensive-looking furniture) for our photoshoot, we’re snapping him in as many set-ups as we can – stood up, sat down, up close and far away.

Beck Hansen likes to change, too. For every shot NME’s Jenn Five manages to snap, the 49-year-old fidgets and assumes new poses, adjusting his hat and his jewellery or fiddling with his sunglasses. It’s the first shoot he’s done with the press in several years, so no wonder he’s a bit antsy. His outfits mutate as he combines bespoke designer jackets, jazzy shirts and a striking pinstriped Gucci suit. It’s during his change into the latter that we barge back into the room after a brief break, and find Mr Hansen pulling up his suit trousers. He is most definitely not ready for his close-up just yet.

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In fashion as well as his music, Beck is one to change often and without signalling. He’s a precursor to the No Genre wave of Gen Zers – Omar Apollo, Clairo, Beabadoobee – who hop between styles and sounds at whiplash-inducing frequency. He’s dabbled in pop, rock, funk, folk, country and more since his debut album in 1993, and largely kept the operation minimal and self-sufficient. He was a SoundCloud artist before his time, tinkering away on sample-heavy music in his bedroom and circulating it via cassettes, like he did with his debut, ‘Golden Feelings’ in 1993. If we’re to celebrate a new gen of creatives for fearless genre-switching and a DIY ethos, then Beck may well be the origin of that on a mainstream level.

“I hear the kind of music now from current musicians that I used to do experiments with years back, that just wouldn’t have made sense at the time,” he tells us during our hour-long chat, trousers now securely fastened. “I regret not following through and releasing some of those experiments because in a way it would be a very prescient direction to go in. Who would have thought back in 1995, that the 808 drum machine would be the new Les Paul guitar?” 

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Of this new era of musicians taking control he is effusive in his praise: “I would have thrived in a time like this,” he says. “I was creating so much music and my limitation was that I didn’t have the equipment to record myself. If I had a laptop and SoundCloud I would have loved it.”

But he thrived back then, too. After knocking about the anti-folk scene in New York and Los Angeles in the early 1990s, Beck became adept at channelling his diverse influences into a singular, recognisable sound. He’s one of the few artists you could confidently describe not as a jack of all trades, but a master of every single one. 

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For the newbies, there’s three distinct categories you can slot his work into. There’s Party Beck, the DIY white-boy rapper who released self-deprecating slacker anthem ‘Loser’ in 1993 and followed it up with the sample-heavy ‘Odelay’ album in 1996. Then there’s Weirdo Beck, in which he swims the outer-edges of funk and electro for Prince-inspired freakouts (1999’s ‘Midnite Vultures’) or glitchy pop-rock (2006’s ‘The Information’). Then, Sad Beck: the master of pensive orchestra-led break-up ballads, as heard on 2002’s stunning ‘Sea Change’ and 2014 album ‘Morning Phase’.

His 14th solo album, ‘Hyperspace’ – which is out now – lands somewhere in the middle of all three. Sonically, it is as lush and expansive as the title suggests, but that doesn’t mean he skimps on the fun. There are pounding beats and lashings of surrealist lyrics on the galloping ‘Saw Lightning’ and quirky lo-fi funk on ‘Star’, while ‘Stratosphere’ and ‘Everlasting Nothing’ could soundtrack a journey to the edge of the universe. There’s hip-hop beats too and a return to his rap flow on ‘Chemical’, while the hushed ‘See Through’ is the kind of mellow R&B that could sit nicely on a Drake album. It’s the most accessible but also most challenging record he’s made this decade.

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Beck credits Pharrell Williams – producer of seven of the album’s tracks – for this limitless thinking. “I’d always wanted to make a record with him. We talked about making some music back in 1998,” he says. “There was a remix years ago where someone mashed up two of our songs: ‘Debra’ and ‘Frontin’ [Pharrell’s 2003 solo debut single] together, so it wasn’t an actual collaboration, but it sounded good to me on paper. Back then The Neptunes [production duo comprised of Pharrell and Chad Hugo] were all over the radio, and those songs definitely served an influence for the ‘Midnite Vultures’ album.”

Though they were caught off guard by the fruitfulness of the sessions, the connection makes sense. Both Beck and Pharrell have been omnipresent pop cultural forces for the last two decades. Both could also perceivably be vampires, as despite creeping towards their fifties, neither look a day over 25. Not one of them could have guessed where their joint sound was to end up. “I was not expecting the songs to come out this way. I was going in thinking of songs like Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ [produced by Pharrell], y’know? He felt very strongly that spending a little time with me, that ‘you need to be doing singer-songwriter type of songs’,” he laughs.

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“I really tried to be less ambitious on the production on these songs and let them be simple,” he says. “Pharrell is a master minimalist. On production I’m a bit of a maximalist – I’m known to have 140 tracks of things trying to coexist and fight to be heard at the same time. I’ve really tried to reform myself to let it be more simple.”

In person, Beck is as much as a hoot as you’d expect. He can weave in and out of conversations and command a room like few others – he’s playful, kind and occasionally incredibly complex. A single question about the concept of ‘Hyperspace’ sends him off in several extremely spiritual tangents. It’s little surprise that today’s shoot and interview is already running several hours behind schedule.

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“I wanted to have a meditation and a portrait of life with each song, I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily connected,” he says of the weightlessness of the album’s title. One song, ‘Stratosphere’ is based upon the death of a close friend, who remains anonymous, from a drug overdose, while ‘Chemical’ features ruminations on the rollercoaster ride of love and relationships: “A tidal wave of energy, I’m on my knees/A sudden change in everything,” he sings.

Beck is quite happy to chat music, though his private and family life is usually something that he prefers not to comment on. For example, his relationship with controversial religion Scientology is the one topic we’ve been told is completely off-limits by his representatives, and has been for interviewers over a decade. In 2008, he said his father practised the religion and as a result he had been around it for his entire life, stopping short of committing himself as a devout follower. But he has also said that he self-identifies as Jewish. 

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Considering this, it seems unsurprising that ‘Hyperspace’ feels like an inherently spiritual record, diving deep into transcendence and asking life’s big questions. “We have things in our lives that comfort us when the walls are closing in or struggles we’re in, like passions, hobbies and these things that give us purpose,” he says, mulling on the escapism of the album. “Who knows what happens at the end, though? Everyone has their own idea or belief of what it is, but it could be nothing? Ultimately, we share that eventuality. No matter whatever you build, or whatever position you put yourself above others or however you navigate your life, there will be an equalisation at the end.”

There is existential pondering on the album, Beck says, but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. “I think it’s a pretty positive album, though. I’ve always tried to have a sense of play and humour in my work, performance and certainly in my life,” he adds. “I have faith in us and people. The macro of it has disturbing and really frightening elements, but the day-to-day people give me a lot of hope and I’m very fortunate to be running into a lot of good people.”

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There’s another subject looming over ‘Hyperspace’. Earlier this year, it was reported that Beck had filed for divorce from his wife of almost 15 years, Marissa Ribisi (twin sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi and fellow Scientologist). It’s brought new attention to him and his family, as gossip magazines dig for dirt on the squeaky-clean star – but this is something Beck barely pays any mind.

“That is just a losing game. That’s like a dam that’s got 500 cracks and you’ve only got so many fingers. I guess some of the stuff written is true and some of it isn’t,” he says. “I’m just trying to live a good life and be nice to people. There’s something to be said about someone who is in the public eye who is being a blank slate to project things onto – people will project negativity onto them. But in general in life, there will be people who just don’t like you. Like, you walk in the door and they don’t like you, so what can you do? There are days when many of us are not even sure if we like ourselves.“

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Crafting a public persona is of no interest to him – he saves his wit and dry humour for his music and close acquaintances. “I think I’m better on the personal with my friends and people I work with. I feel like I’m lucky to have my fans and I’d like to think I have a connection to them,” he explains.“It’s strange, what perception is and what is real. I just try to not put too much of a facade, which may mean I’m not perceived as wildly exciting. I don’t have much time or interest in constructing a personality.”

Long considered an outcast, things have changed for Beck, He’s no longer the anti-establishment slacker-hero who sang ‘MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack’ back in 1993. Having grown up shifting around dodgy areas in downtown Los Angeles, his continued presence and general likeability has placed him at the centre of the indie-rock scene and the heart of Hollywood. Now he’s papped front row at fashion shows hanging out with A$AP Rocky and Iggy Pop. In 2016 he was spotted club-hopping with a Beatle: Sir Paul McCartney – quite unsuccessfully, we should add: the pair were turned away from rapper Tyga’s Grammys’ afterparty with Macca asking the steadfast bouncer, “How VIP do we gotta get?”

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For this album he’s roped in more mates beyond Pharrell. Coldplay’s Chris Martin and cult pop star Sky Ferreira both feature on backing vocals: the former on ‘Stratosphere’ and the latter on ‘Die Waiting’. “Previously I’ve done albums where I’m playing all the instruments and it’s quite lonely,” says Beck. “I’m in there 12-hours a day just trudging through this production, so it’s a great joy to bring people I know into my music.” 

Linking up with fresh talent is important to him too. “I was originally talking about Post Malone and Lil Uzi Vert being on the album,” he says of potential guests. “Maybe those collaborations will come to fruition later, but most of them didn’t end up working out this time. It would have made for a different record, that’s for sure…”

At the beginning of your career could you have imagined that you’d be this well connected or able to work with such a diverse pool of artists?

Beck: “When I was starting out, it felt like a lot of the bands around were a bit standoffish or on their own island. There was a lot of self-protection mode happening and a lot of fear of the music business and how it was going to alter or ruin the art or music. Maybe there’s other factors, but now I’m finding more of the camaraderie and more of the community feeling.”

“I remember doing a lot of shows with Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters back then. It’s so funny, you turn around and realise that you’ve known someone for such a long time and by default you have a history together. I got to play with him for a tribute to David Bowie a couple years ago, ‘why did we wait so long to get together and play?’ That is the beauty of this time, ‘here we are and we’re still around, so let’s have fun’.”

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The 1990s are considered a golden era for guitar music. Did it feel that way at the time?

“I kept hearing that rock was over and about to end, so I was bracing for getting my keyboards out. I was making electronic music and I thought ‘now is going to be the time’, and then garage-rock bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes would come along and it became ‘guitars, guitars, guitars’. I’ve never quite gone all-in in one area. I’ve always been in the margin of what’s happening and on my own continuum. I don’t know if you could call it a ‘golden’ time, it was a mellow golden time. It was more like tarnished brass.”

“I remember that time being very good-naturedly cynical. There was a bit of cynicism and irony and it felt a bit postmodern – it was the time after the real ‘golden’ time which was ’60s/’70s, whatever. We were the ones that came after this monumental period and in the shadow of it. A lot of it was a bit anti and a reaction to our parents’ generation of music, but also celebrating it and worshipping it.”

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Despite this moment of reflection, Beck seldom looks back over his own career these days. When we put to him that several of his albums are celebrating big anniversaries; breakthrough third album ‘Mellow Gold’ just turned 25, ‘Midnite Vultures’ 20 and his latter-day masterpiece ‘Morning Phase’ turned five, he is decidedly nonplussed. “I’m too busy to look back on those kinds of anniversaries. If I had the success and I was sitting in the Chateau [Marmont] with a glass of wine, I might ponder over my old work, but there’s too much waiting in the wings for me,” he says.

Instead, his focus is on the present and fitting himself into a future that includes a Post Malone team-up, we hope. “I’ve been in 60 cities in the last two months with the Night Running Tour [a co-headline jaunt across the US with Cage The Elephant], and that’s a lot of logistics and a lot of human miles. As far as the creative life, there’s so much in the wings waiting for me to finish that I need time to get to, that’s what I’m thinking about,” he says. “When I’m in Los Angeles, I’m on a train track that’s going 150mph and hitting up one thing after the next.”

‘Hyperspace’ is that acceleration between the past and present. After years of trailblazing and eluding expectations, he’s delivered a mature masterpiece that’s as playful as the early days, but charming, expansive and quite easily his best album of the decade. Where he’s going next is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be one hell of a ride.