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Beck: Notes on a Full-Grown Man

The cut-and-paste whiz kid of 'Odelay' grows up and gets in touch with his inner freak

December 9, 1999
Beck, Rolling Stone, Magazine, Beck Hansen, guitar, loser, 90s, rock
Beck performs at the MTV Studios during Spankin' New Music Week on November 3rd, 1999 in New York.
Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty

Is the food humping to the chorus?" Beck asks as he leans in toward the video monitors. He is talking to the editor sitting next to him, who is manipulating the strange visions onscreen. The chorus of "Sexx Laws," the first single from Beck's new album, Midnite Vultures, repeats over the speakers while the monitor shows an ordinary kitchen caught in the throes of a bizarre cataclysm. A flying hand blender circles the room as a corkscrew flaps its metal arms suggestively. The fridge is getting busy with the stove. God knows what the food is humping to.

This, Beck explains, is the hard part: twelve-hour stretches huddled in a stucco building in Venice, California, piecing together images that will later become the video for "Sexx Laws." "Directing a video for two weeks," he says, "you understand why Francois Truffaut died at a very young age. You burn out pretty young."

At twenty-nine, Beck seems far from burning out; in fact, today, at the video-editing lab in Venice, he's relaxed, focused and in full control of the details of his work. He has just completed his sixth album, a spirited, slinky, self-assured effort that he wrote, arranged and produced. Between the long editing sessions, he steps outside to examine the proofs of the album art, talking pixels, bleeds and color separation like an art director. He also directed the video, which will likely mark a television first: appliance porn.

Midnite Vultures is a first for Beck, as well: an overtly sexual record, with Stax-like grooves, electro effects, his steamy falset to making bold declarations in the dark. Beck calls out to everyone and everything that goes bump and grind in the night, and there are all varieties of fornication on Vultures: Seventies guitars dig into full, swinging horn sections, videogame effects hook up with stony acoustic jams that Beck and his band call "Topanga moments." ("You know, that burned-out-in-the-canyon vibe," he says, referring to L.A.'s druggie Seventies enclave Topanga Canyon.) There are "neon mamacitas," rides on "the good ship menage a trois," and lots of twosomes: Song titles include "Peaches and Cream," "Nicotine and Gravy" and "Milk and Honey." There are couples "jocking in Mercedes" and having "hot sex in back rows." The metal banging in the intro to "Get Real Paid" is supposed to replicate the sound of robots doing the nasty. But behind Beck's public sexual awakening is the artistic coming of age of a self-proclaimed "full-grown man." This time out, Beck had the confidence to really unleash the freak within.

"I tend to go on instinct with pretty much everything," he says. "It's all instinct." Beck's sitting just outside one of the squat buildings he's called home for the past few days. He's in a pair of faded no-name jeans and a gauzy peach shirt with peculiar pockets and an illustration of a guitar player on the back. He's got a big bowl of diced fruit on his lap and a threadbare straw hat on his head. Beck excuses himself to fetch something from a Lincoln Town Car and returns with big round sunglasses over his usual wire rims, ready to talk about art, testosterone and the sincerity of R. Kelly. "Is that your Town Car?" I ask. "Yeah," he replies. "I bought it last year. Just started my own shuttle service."

Before Beck began recording Midnite Vultures, he and his girlfriend, Leigh Limon, moved from L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood to a glassy, Fifties-modern dwelling in a secluded section of Pasadena, which Angelenos describe as a kind of Ice Storm West. "I don't know," he says undefensively about buying the place in Pasadena, which he's since sold to move back to Los Feliz. "I saw a place I liked. And I'm glad. It was the perfect place to do the record. I don't think I could have done it anywhere else."

In July '98, a core group began to assemble at the new crib: bass player Justin Meldel-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and producer-engineers Mickey Petralia and Tony Hoffer. Dozens of session players passed through, including Beck's father, David Campbell, who played viola and arranged some of the strings. There were also backup vocalists and special guests like Johnny Marr and Beth Orton. There were communal meals, mountain-bike rides on the dusty trails nearby and a big L-shaped couch to lounge on, but those were just diversions. The group was there to re-create the strange and soulful electrofunk, rock and R&B rhythms that Beck had tucked away in his head, to continue the sonic foraging he began on Odelay rather than to follow the twangy detour he took on 1998's Mutations. Beck's instructions: to make an uptempo album that would be fun to play on tour night after night.

Beck recalls the recording of Vultures as a time of "multiple activities": "I had so many things going on. I had a couple of rooms of computers hooked up, I was doing B sides for Japan, I was programming beats in one room and someone would be cooking dinner in the other room." Sometimes that person would be Beck. "He's an amazing cook," says Petralia. "He'd disappear for forty-five minutes and emerge with dinner – miso salmon with steamed vegetables, rice and various salads. He's the real deal."

Three years ago, Odelay established Beck as a cut-and-paste whiz kid and sold 2 million records; it was a collaborative album, with Beck and producers the Dust Brothers freestyling in the studio. "Every day we were starting from scratch," says Dust Brother Mike Simpson. "I think, on Midnite Vultures, Beck had written songs before he got to the studio. And," he adds, "this time he had a better grasp of the technology."

With sonic blueprint in hand, Beck set out to capture an undilured and uncompromised inner vision. He doesn't seem to care if people say it borrows too heavily from Prince or that one of the backup singers protests having to sing, "Touch my ass if you're qualified." "Where do you edit yourself?" Beck asks. "Where do you define boundaries about what you should and shouldn't do? Most of me tends to not want to care about doing the wrong thing." Watching beck move onstage – a quick split, a toss of the head in line with his outstretched arm, a dirty shuffle that slides into a kneeling pelvic thrust – reminds you that Beck is as much a student as a pioneer. He's a composite of Prince, David Bowie and James Brown, only without the I-know-you'd-love-to-do-me arrogance. It's the music and the showmanship that he's in love with, not himself. And for all the randy posturing of Midnite Vultures, he's not a rock star who is led by his crotch. He has been with Limon for eight years. They met at a punk show in Los Angeles, before any slacker anthems or record deals, before any Video Music Awards or Top Ten lists. She's pretty and slight and stylish in a modest and genuine way. When they're seen together – on line for a movie in Los Feliz or at a Pavement show they caught on a recent trip to New York – they're in ultraclose proximity, their arms entwined around each other's torsos.

Midnite Vultures imagines Beck as a tireless swinger, a star-crossed lover or a shifty perv whose appetites range from a taste for satin sheets and leather to a thing for automatons. "It's a composite," he says of Vultures' pervasive sex vibe. "It's strutting, it's marital, it's horny, it's going through the motions. I enjoy having different versions of that working at the same time."

Would you have done this record if you weren't in a relationship?
I probably would have. Sure. I think I would have found myself in this territory. It's just the times and the places; it's what I was listening to, what I was reading.

Like what? Hustler?
[Laughs] I've always been interested in decadent periods. I think everybody has a curiosity about debauchery and orgiastic exploits. And not necessarily sexual, either. You know – thoughts, going to that extreme. I think the Nineties, which was such an extreme time in many ways, still had this restrained, conservative thread. I enjoy reading about eras that were just full-blown, no-holds-barred digression and openness to any ideas and notions. Every century has a couple of them, somewhere, someplace. A group of people get together and get up to a bunch of extracurricular activities. At some point the whole train derails and causes a lot of damage, but there's usually something – some amazing idea or relic – that gets left behind and makes it all worthwhile.

"Debra," the slow jam that closes the album, has been in your live show for years, but you recorded it for Odelay. What took so long?
It's humorous, and I was afraid of that. I thought people would think it was making fun of a genre. But I was listening to R&B radio and one of these new songs came on. I can't remember the exact lyrics, but it was so funny, and you can't tell if it's intentional or not. That's the beautiful thing. There's that R. Kelly song that goes, "I like the crotch on you." I'm sure he means it, but it must be funny, too.

Can you imagine dropping that line over a candlelight dinner?
I know! [Laughs] But I think that's what I'm drawn to in that music, that there's room for an emotional intensity and commitment but also a playful, absurd quality. The declaration. I don't really hear that mixture in other genres of contemporary music.

Everybody I know my age, give or take ten years, relates to each other through humor. And it's strange that you don't see more of it in the music. People think that if you pick up a guitar and start singing, there's some artistic responsibility to be as heavy-handed as possible – as if that somehow equates artistic integrity. Does humor somehow negate it or cheapen it?

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