Since his last studio album, in 2008, Beck has entertained himself by confounding all expectations – from oddball one-off studio collaborations (with Jack White, Dwight Yoakam and the Lonely Island, among others) to quirky soundtrack work (True Blood, Twilight: Eclipse, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But for his latest venture, he went back to basics – way back, as in, to the 19th century. Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, a collaboration with nerd-chic publishing house McSweeney’s, is a hardcover book containing 20 pamphlets of sheet music, each of them brand-new songs written by Beck himself. “It was just lyrics and melody, so it became a lot more painstaking,” says the singer, 42, checking in from his L.A. home. “I thought we’d be done in three weeks.” He laughs. “Nope. Seven months.”
Before we start, I’ve got to be honest – I don’t hear a single.
Ha! You’re probably right.
Is the idea that people will play the songs and post their versions to YouTube?
Hopefully. I’m curious to see what people do. But, you know, the book is more of a concept than anything. I’m not expecting hordes of people to run out and learn these songs.
When I think of a songbook, I think of standards. Are there any songs now that will be around in 100 years?
The songs that get played at a wedding or at a campfire – when you get a group of people together, they are inevitably going to start singing “Hey Jude.” Or “Free Fallin’,” by Tom Petty. Songs that go into a kind of folk-music consciousness.
There’s a kind of sincerity to those songs.
I was having a conversation with somebody a while back about mustaches. Do you realize we’re now at the first point in history where a mustache isn’t completely sincere? In other eras, a man’s mustache used to be without question. Now there’s all sorts of subtext. Levels. Implications. Baggage. I think maybe, in a way, that applies across the board.
Did you see The Master?
I haven’t. But Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorites. He screened Punch Drunk Love for me at his house. I still don’t think I’ve approached anything like that in my medium.
Next year will be 20 years since “Loser” came out. Do you still relate to those old songs?
I don’t even know if I even related to them at the time! But I already passed the 20-year mark – I recorded that song in ’91. By the time it was released, in ’93, it was old news. Radiohead had just released “Creep,” and I thought the conceit was already shopworn.
You just got back from touring Australia. I’m guessing there’s not a lot of late-night partying on a Beck tour these days.
I mean, there were a few parties. That was a good week. Radiohead was down there, and Elton John. I got to see them back-to-back. Both amazing shows. The thing that gets me is the amount of incredible songs that they don’t even get around to playing.
Have you been working on any new songs besides the ones in the book?
I have a bunch of songs I recorded about four years ago that I’m hopefully going to try to finish. I’m not sure if it’s relevant anymore.
A lot of John McCain references?
Exactly. A lot of pre-Gaga stuff.
The Philip Glass remix you did this year was pretty awesome. Any cool stories about that guy?
It’s usually long conversations that leapfrog from art to film to music. But I don’t think that’s what you were looking for.
Not really. But that’s OK.
Well, there was the time the boat capsized and we had to row to shore and there were Somalian pirates. But I’ll save that one.
This story is from the December 20th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.