"I always thought it was silly, all the hoopla over Mellow Gold. To me, it wasn't even a record. It was just a bunch of sketches. You know, there's some good songs in there, but they're really skeletons. They're not fully realized pictures."
With that, Beck Hansen casually dismisses the album that made him a star. It's about what you would expect from this subversive anti-hero. "Loser" be damned -- he has crossed that bridge already. To Beck, Mellow Gold was just "a batch of demos thrown together." Who are we to argue? Especially when faced with the imposing colossus of Odelay.
With his new disc earning even gushier reviews than Mellow Gold (don't be surprised if Odelay dominates year-end critics' polls like To Bring You My Love dominated 1995), Beck is a mighty tough man to reach. Every writer in America -- and elsewhere -- seems to have the guy squared in his sights. First, an interview before a Santa Ana concert didn't pan out. Several messages from Geffen, two calls from Beck's manager in Rome and three aborted phone interviews later, the beleaguered prophet of Hip finally checks in from London. It's late at night there, and he's tired and perhaps a bit tipsy. It's not much of a time for personal soul-searching, but he's surprisingly articulate about his eclectic life on record.
Of course, Beck's life flows all through Odelay, whether it's in the vagabond yearnings of "Readymade," the malaise of "Jack-Ass," the club scene in "Where's It At" or the despair of "Lord Only Knows." Even the album title, a corruption of the Spanish greeting "oralé," has personal resonances.
"It's a slang word," he explains for the less bilingual among us. "If somebody's toasting or raising his beer, everyone goes 'Oralé!' If you see a friend at a party, you say 'Oralé!' All my Guatemalan and Mexican friends say that. I grew up around the MacArthur Park/East L.A. area, so I knew a lot of Mexican words. That was one of the good all-purpose words I grew up with. And when I said 'Oralé,' the engineer wrote it down phonetically: 'Odelay.' We just kept it that way."
Despite the surreal brilliance of Odelay's lyrics, a chunk of the album's success belongs to its producers: John King and Michael Simpson, better known as the Dust Brothers. Most famous for their production of the Beastie Boys' landmark Paul's Boutique, the two plant a bold hip-hop influence in Odelay, even sharing songwriting credits for all but three tracks. (Some fans have jokingly nicknamed the album "Beck's Boutique.")
Beck expected Beasties comparisons, but he forged ahead anyway. "Yeah, I knew that would happen. I thought, 'It's probably not a good idea to do this, because people are gonna think I'm trying to get in on a Dust Brothers thing.' It was something I was concerned with. But then I just realized, you know, I like these guys and they're great and we can work together really well. It was all very convenient, and kinda meant to be. I definitely have my own way of doing things, and I couldn't be the Beastie Boys even if I wanted to be. They're so rooted in their hip-hop and hardcore culture. I just come from a different place, musically."
Given the lo-fi trappings of Beck's other releases, he meshed with the Dust Brothers' more polished strategies surprisingly well. "It's different with everybody," he shrugs. "I still work in the same way. I can't work any different way, so I didn't really have to adapt to their way of doing things."
"I'm probably more apt to doing it really fast," he goes on. "I like to finish stuff all in one shot, just do it as fast as possible and leave all the mistakes. They like to take their time a little bit more and reflect on stuff, and maybe come back the next day and work on it. But for the most part, we just had a good time. This is really the first chance I got to have any duration of time in the studio to experiment and try different things out -- make all the mistakes I wanted to make, you know? And they were really patient with that. That was a big key. The people who are technically trained engineers have a real method, a real way of doing things. They're not too open to the non-technical way of doing things. So it worked out good, because the Dust Brothers were open to all that. And they're real sweet guys as well."
Within such a strongly collaborative environment, Beck couldn't help but share his songwriting credits. "Yeah, it's a fine line. I play all the instruments on the album and do all the melodies, but I write in the studio, so it's an engineering thing. Plus, they'll throw in a sample here and there, so that's kinda like songwriting. It's like instruments being played, the song structure and all that. But it was the same thing with Karl [Stephenson, co-producer of Mellow Gold]. It's that weird thing between the rock world and the R&B/hip-hop world. I don't mind. I write my songs in the studio, and whoever's around at the time, I guess they're part of the writing process whether they like it or not."
However, the Brothers' contributions did cause some problems. Despite the obscurity of most of the sampled artists (Monk Higgins, Mike Millius, Rasputin's Stash...), a few samples didn't clear. Several snippets had to be removed at the last minute, much to Beck's dismay.
"Oh, there was some real crucial stuff," he moans. "Real background stuff, stuff that was sort of texture. Once you took it away, it took away part of the atmosphere. When I listen to the final album, it's not the real album for me. The early advance CD is the real album. It still has all those samples. There was this Barbie phone sample which was really the punchline of 'Sissyneck,' and it's gone. But it's still a good joke, even though it doesn't have the punchline."
Wow, what did Barbie say? "I can't remember exactly, but something like, 'I know...you can have pizza after school on Friday with my sister.' Something like that. Something real non sequitur." Indeed.
"I don't rely on samples that much," he quickly adds. "Most of the music's played, and for the most part, the samples are just thrown in there for the hell of it. We usually use pretty obscure things, and we manipulate them. You know, one of the Dust Brothers will throw on a record, and they'll take like a second-and-a-half of something, slowed down and processed through something else. So when it comes out, it's not really recognizable. To me, that's a true sample, to manipulate the sound and create something new. That's why those guys are real sampling artists. The Dust Brothers didn't actually play any of the instruments, but the way they work with samples is so musical."
While the Dust Brothers' funky turns give the album its surface charm, Beck's songwriting continues to be the soul of his work. Once again, his songs cross plenty of boundaries: blues ("Lord Only Knows"), punk ("Minus"), folk ("Ramshackle"), '60s garage ("Devil's Haircut"), R&B ("Where It's At"). "Jack-Ass" is even honest-to-God pretty, basing its flowing melody around the memorable piano licks from Them's version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."
Still, his lyrics are even more striking. Hear them on disc, they sound like modern rap spiels. Yet see them on the printed page (sorry, no lyric sheet is officially available) and they're pure folk, even down to substituting -in' for -ing (as in "cookin'.") Beneath the oddball metaphors and scattershot images, the themes are quite traditional: alienation from society, the urge to escape, lives out of balance. Nothing that the folksingers of the '50s didn't cover -- only the delivery has changed. It has been said that rap is the new folk music, with its lower-class sensibilities, rambling stories and anyone-can-do-it simplicity. If so, Beck is the first to truly synthesize the two, bringing folk full-circle. It's a blend that should prove highly influential in years to come.
"Yeah, there's a lot of folk references in the lyrics, especially in the hip-hop songs," Beck agrees. "There's a lot of those colloquialisms from the traditional folk songs. Like there's all those songs about Old Dan Tucker, the fine old man who washed his face with a frying pan, and then there's another song about how 'it takes a worried man to sing a worried song.' I just kinda blended them in 'Hot Wax.' So it's, 'It takes a backwashed man to sing a backwashed song, like a fryin' pan when the fire's gone.' So little bits creep in there. It's just because I spent so many years playing those songs. They're in the blood."
"I came out of folk music," he continues, "and I saw things that corresponded with folk in hip-hop. Just the rawness of the approach, and the immediacy of the music had that folk-like spirit. But obviously, they're rooted in different kinds of traditions. I think I saw a lot of blues music in hip-hop. I was always into Delta blues and playing slide guitar, and I had always heard that Delta-blues rhythm in hip-hop. I remember early on playing slide guitar, and thinking that slide guitar on a hip-hop beat would always sound real good. I had that in mind for years, long before I did 'Loser.'
"They're parallel musics. They fit together easily. And I think folk music has been a difficult thing to mature. It's matured, but it's been a difficult thing to move forward into where music's going, into more technological areas. A lot of what folk music has become doesn't really connect to the spirit of the times. I think with hip-hop, there's the key. There's similar things happening aesthetically. You can use approaches and sounds from hip-hop, and blend them with folk music. It's a real complementary union."
Still, somewhere within Beck, there seems to lurk a pure folk masterpiece, that one album which would finally earn him credibility with old-school Dylan fans and the like. Maybe it wouldn't thrill the teenagers like Beck's hip-hop releases, but it would put him on the historical map for good. Oddly enough, he says nothing would make Geffen happier.
"Yeah, they're hungry for a record like that. They really wanted to put out One Foot in the Grave [his 1994 acoustic album on K Records], but I had recorded it before I even signed to Geffen so it was too late. But they're always asking me, 'Hey, when are you gonna do a folk record?' They're dying to put out something like that, which surprises me. They're pretty open. I got some people on my side over there."
Beck's independent albums on K and Flipside were much discussed, since both were released after his Geffen debut was already a hit. Might we expect more left-field indie releases?
"Oh yeah," he answers, predictable in his unpredictability. "I recorded another record for K like two years ago. I just haven't had a chance to mix it and do the artwork. I got lots of stuff in the can. It's just a matter of getting the time to organize it. But I spend most of my time on the road touring, so I've definitely slowed down on that front, on the recording and the songwriting. If I was home, man, there'd be albums coming out all the time. But it's probably good. You don't want to overdo it. You want to leave some space between the songs. I think the thing about great records is, there's all these great songs, and then you can sort of imagine all the songs in-between that you don't get to hear. If you get to hear all the songs in-between, then it kinda takes away from the really great songs. But I'm still recording, and staying connected to the creative part."
But will Odelay stand as his definitive album? Is this his masterpiece?
"No, definitely not," he says with intensity. "I'm ready to make another record now. After I finished that record, I was really sort of warmed up. I'd been out of the studio for a good year-and-a-half, and by the time I was done making this record, I was like, 'OK, now I'm warmed up. I'm ready to really get fluid with it.' The more you're in tune with the music and the creative process, the more it just flows and happens naturally. When you first get in there, it's a little stiff. But I've got a lot of records to make. I've got a lot to learn. I still feel like I'm always starting from scratch. I go into the studio and I'm learning all over again. Everything I thought I learned before just evaporates. It will always be like that, probably. It's just part of the creative process."
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