In Conversation: Beck

On 'Morning Phase' and returning to live action...

Beck needs no introduction. What does is his first studio album since 2008’s ‘Modern Guilt’. Titled ‘Morning Phase’, the LA-born musician’s 12th long-player proper is released in February via Capitol.

Clash has listened to the album and can report that it delivers on the promise of standing as a sequel, of sorts, to its maker’s much-celebrated, considerably downbeat 2002 collection, ‘Sea Change’. ‘Morning Phase’ looks inwards to express outwardly, comprising a set that handles understatement in a singularly striking fashion.

Naturally we’ll run rather more in-depth content on ‘Morning Phase’ nearer the time of its release. For now, we have an exclusive chat with Beck, touching on the new collection as well as his older, somewhat funkier incarnations. This is a man whose coat has worn many colours indeed, and he’s far from showing them all just yet…

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Beck, ‘Lost Cause’, from the album ‘Sea Change’ (2002)

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‘Morning Phase’ clearly shares tonal qualities with ‘Sea Change’, in the way it’s arranged – acoustic guitars, strings, a slightly country feel to some tracks. But I wonder how the emotions attached differ from what you were saying in 2002?

I mean, it’s from a slightly different perspective this time. If I think about this record, there are a few threads there; whereas ‘Sea Change’ was more specifically about one thing (the breakdown of a long-term relationship). You know, you have periods in life where you’re at different stages. You have periods where everything turns over, and afterwards you’re in a new space, at a new point in your life, be that through choice or circumstance.

It sounds, to me, like another record of separation – but this time around it’s touched by an optimism for what comes next. Does it feel like a ‘clean break’ album to you?

I do feel it’s a fresh start record. I think it sums up something, and for me I’ve gone through a long period of physical challenges, and that’s really been something I’ve put a lot of time and work into getting through. So, that went into the music. And it wasn’t an easy time.

I read that you were in no little pain for some time, and had suffered a spinal injury. There’s one track in particular on the album, which is dominated completely by these portentous strings…

That’s ‘Wave’, yeah…

…I wonder if that is specifically tied to that bleak period?

I think that does tap back into that period – it’s certainly one of the older songs on the album.

It struck me as quite the statement piece – not the sort of song that one typically expects of an artist like you.

I don’t know if I have any perspective on it other than: I sat down to write, and that came out. It’s one of those things where… Well, maybe when you sit down with an intention to write something, but it’s never exactly what comes out. And I don’t think I have a choice in that matter! You can only hear a song like that… I just have to accept that is what came out, and it represents something.

Elsewhere, certainly during the first few tracks of ‘Morning Phase’, there’s a real warmth and depth to the material – it feels full, without ever being cluttered, if you get what I mean. I suppose that standard of arranging can only come with time and experience…

Hopefully it does. This is something I do think about, about music so often. You hear a band on their first few records, and they’re great, but then they don’t go anywhere. Their quality diminishes over time. But you’d like to think that you can get better with time – or that you learn more, and become able to present that a little better.

I think, with this record, I was probably a little more… single-minded in what I was trying to get out of each song. For long periods, stuff just didn’t work – songs would sound too sentimental, or too middle of the road somehow. So I worked on them, relentlessly, and eventually something began to work about them. Some songs I gave up on, but it was really a matter of putting the time and patience into this record.

But I’d say, too, that there are earlier records in my career where [making an album like this] wasn’t necessarily the intention – I love things that are a bit rough, and a lot of my records were purposefully done in one take, out of tune, really rough around the edges. That was always intentional. It’s not that I couldn’t have spent time and worked on them, but… Over time, you come to appreciate songs that have that extra time taken on them.

I remember when Radiohead was doing ‘Kid A’, and Nigel Godrich went to do that after we’d done ‘Mutations’. Now, ‘Mutations’ we did in about 12 to 14 days. They spent two years on ‘Kid A’, and you can hear that. That sounds like a record that took two years to make. Also those are brilliant songs, but that is a piece of work that a lot of time was spent developing, so the band could go deeper, and explore its sound. With ‘Mutations’, I love the record, but it was more a case of throwing something down quick. It is what it is.

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Beck, ‘Loser’, from the album ‘Mellow Gold’ (1993/94)

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On the topic of albums rather than tracks, it’s pretty obvious that ‘Morning Phase’ is an album first, a collection of tracks second. It has that cohesion you expect of a quality long-player. So what’s your perspective on the consumption of music via a few tracks from an album, rather than listening to the whole thing?

I’ve always had that experience, because ‘Loser’ was probably the first thing people heard from me, and that was a single. More people bought that single than bought the album (‘Mellow Gold’). So I think I’ve come from a place where my first contact with an audience was based on a song, rather than a record.

I can’t say how people are going to listen to ‘Morning Phase’. I think that, even with this record… You know, I don’t have a lot of delusions: there will be a couple of songs that a lot of people really like, and those are the songs that will appear at the shows. But when I’m working on the album, it’s a matter of trying to come up with something that, whatever effect its creating, you don’t break the spell, you know. Whether you’re making a dance record, or an acoustic record.

I have other records where we wanted the songs to be jarring, to go to different places. On this album, I spent a lot of time making sure the songs were different from each other.

I certainly wouldn’t say they’re in the least bit samey – but they share a spirit, you know? I wonder if the intimate feel of the songs will transfer to smaller-than-usual shows to promote the album?

I would love to do shows with the band I recorded the album with – and we just did South America together – but it’s looking like the reality of getting a tour together with all of us is going to be difficult. Our drummer, Joey [Waronker], he’s in a band with Thom Yorke now (Atoms For Peace), and our bass player, Justin [Meldal-Johnsen], is becoming a successful producer.

My old keyboard player, Greg [Kurstin]… for years I’ve wanted to tour with him, but he’s become a successful producer as well. So everybody has bigger and better things happening elsewhere. So it’s really a question of when and if people have time – and they’re doing what they do for the love of doing it. They have other music to be doing, to support their families easier, and all that. So, we’ll see. Hopefully we’ll get to do a handful of shows maybe. I’m not sure.

Does life on the road still appeal to you these days, the whole cycle of recording, releasing and promoting?

Well, I like going out and playing shows. And I’ve been able to do that a lot more over the past two years. Those years I had without performing, those were really difficult.

Just how hard was that period, if you don’t mind me asking? Was it hard to take that break from music, to slow right down?

Well, I wasn’t even thinking about [music] – I was in so much pain, it was enough to just get through the day, honestly. I mean… in retrospect, I was just saving what energy I had left for my kids. But it was a hard period of time. And when I did look to music, when I did want to make music, it was very frustrating, because I was incapable of certain things. Watching my peers get to go out and do their things, and put out brilliant records… I really wanted to be a part of it.

But now you’re back in it.

Yeah, and that is a big part of this record: us all getting back together to play, and me being able to play my old guitar again. It just really felt like (laughs)… There was a powerful energy in the room, I can tell you that. It wasn’t forced for anybody.

As I understand it, you’ve accumulated enough songs between ‘Modern Guilt’ and now to release another album, after ‘Morning Phase’, in 2014…

Yeah, that is the plan. It’ll be quite different to this record. I actually have enough left over, too, for a record that I would say is more folk – but I don’t think I’ll put that out yet. Maybe I’ll wait another year, for that. But I do want to put out something that is a lot more up, and energetic, and melodic.

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Beck, ‘Sexx Laws’, from the album ‘Midnite Vultures’ (1999)

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I’ve got to say, and I’m possibly in a minority, that I did really like the ‘Midnite Vultures’ stage… I recall you wobbling around the Manchester Apollo stage, chairs stacked on your head, bits of what looked like vacuum cleaner tubes everywhere…

(Laughs) It makes me happy that someone remembers that.

But the fun-times, showman-cum-ringmaster Beck, he’s going to reappear at some point, do you think? Not to take anything away from this new album, of course…

I hope so, yeah. We just did this festival tour in South America, and it was just… The audiences were going along with us playing these songs. And I can’t deny that kind of a show, you know. I want to keep that alive, I want to continue that.

I think a lot of the shows we’ve done this year reflected that [feeling]. Unfortunately our tour in Europe got cancelled, so we need to come over and do some shows there. Hopefully in the New Year we’ll get to do that. I spent a month in London, in the summer, and I wanted to move there.

Slow down there – maybe look at Whitstable, somewhere coastal but close enough to London if you need to get there. Anyway, it’s been a pleasure…

Great talking to you. Come look us up when we’re over there. Take care.

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‘Morning Phase’ is released in February 2014. Find Beck online here.  

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