Beck to go back to basics at Auckland City Limits

by James Belfield / 24 February, 2018
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Beck. Photo/Peter Hapak

Before headlining Auckland City Limits, Beck talks about celebrating his musical past on stage and on record. 

Beck Hansen has just caught himself being very un-Beck. The man who epitomised 90s slacker nihilism with the low-fi drawl-rap anthem Loser – then rebelled against that success by performing on stage with noise bands – has interspersed innovative Grammy-winning albums with weird side projects (a recorded-in-a-day, song-by-song cover of Greek New Ager Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis, anybody?). And he released his 2012 album, Song Reader, as sheet music only. But now, he has just heard himself tell me it’s time for him to create music that’s “comforting and comfortable”.

This may sound odd coming from a man who brought breakbeats to indie, who grooves on stage as wildly as Prince and whose artistic pedigree – his father, David, is an arranger and conductor who has worked on tracks as varied as Bill Withers’s Lean on Me and Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and his mum, Bibbe, was part of Warhol’s Factory scene – set him up for a life well away from the mainstream. But he says that on his new album, Colors, he revels in his inability to rip it up and start again.

“I know it’s a little bit counter-intuitive to what an artist is supposed to reveal, but let’s celebrate this,” he tells me down the phone from what he describes as the “dystopic” surroundings of LAX.

“It’s not a rehash by any means, but a living embrace … I mean, I know that every song at the moment is supposed to have a trap beat on it, but I’m going to put breakbeats in – and there’s a beauty in saying, ‘This is part of the story of where I came from.’”

At 47, Beck seems a little tired of having his music misunderstood – something he says happened when he released Midnight Vultures in 1999 and Sea Change in 2002, both of which earned him Grammy nominations.

“I’ve put out records where people have said at the time, ‘What is this?’, but then as time goes on they say, ‘I love that record,’” he says. “I wanted this record to not feel like a kind of harbinger of what’s to come in two or 10 years. You can make something very experimental or forward-thinking; I wanted it to be very much something that felt familiar.

“Absolutely, Colors is of the vernacular … but there’s also a certain deep connection and warmth to it, because aspects of the sounds of contemporary music are aspects of the music that, 20 years ago, I was experimenting with and pushing out there.

“At the time when Odelay came out in 1996, it was very exotic, and now it’s very much part of 100 other things that exist. No one would think twice now of hip-hop drumbeats on a rock album, but at the time of my first couple of records, it was something that was almost perverse to do.

Colors is almost a way of celebrating that. There’s nothing really groundbreaking about it; it’s just part of the history of where I’ve been.”

Saying something isn’t groundbreaking is not the usual way artists spruik their work. But Colors still has plenty to recommend it, most obviously in its live appeal.

He chose as its producer his long-time bandmate Greg Kurstin – “We’ve played a hundred concerts together, lived and eaten together and slept in the same bus, and he really knows what it takes to get an audience moving” – and has changed the band line-up from four to seven, including Prince’s onetime drummer Chris Coleman. At the same time, his focus has been on honing the stage show.

Beck is celebrating his stagecraft following a 10-year recovery from a debilitating spinal injury. The injury happened when he was trussed for 10 hours in a harness for the shooting of a video in 2005. It left him having to cancel tours and change the way he sang and played guitar.

Four years in the making, Colors is a dance-floor-friendly party album designed to be performed live with no backing tracks.

“I thought of a million heavy things to say in these songs,” Beck says. “But it’s like filling a balloon with water: it won’t float. It all depends on what sort of songs you want to write, and I wanted these songs to levitate, so I had to be careful what I put in them.

“For me the joy and release of the songs come from a long period of time when I didn’t have the ability to fully express myself physically or the freedom to move, and then after many, many years was able to be myself again and express myself completely again.

“The joy of that is along the lines of getting out of jail or having a new excitement and embrace of life again.”

So, yes, he’s still going to open his live set at Auckland City Limits, in what is only his third visit to New Zealand, with the crowd-pleasing Devil’s Haircut (“I’ve spent 20 years trying to come up with a better show-opener for my body of work”), and there are plenty of reworked former hits for the older fans, but Beck’s happy that his new, lighter songs can carry the weight of his live show.

“It’s not necessarily delving into the depths of the soul; it’s more like the light of the soul. And that’s how I wanted these songs to feel … that moment when we’re all children, not self-conscious, and just being alive.”

Beck plays at Auckland City Limits at Western Springs on March 3. Colors is out now.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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