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 François 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 falsetto 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 ménage à 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 dinnermiso 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 undiluted 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?
But do you think that relying on humor and cynicism can be corrosive?
Oh, definitely. It shouldn't be the oxygen; it should be lubrication, a way of easing things. I think it can become a crutch. I have no problem being direct without depending on humor to mask some sort of fear of emotion. Everything has its balance. It just seems like more music could take itself less seriously. I think that in the hip-hop and R&B world, that's not necessarily the case. Mixture is allowed. Ambiguity is allowed.
Midnite Vultures embraces a masculine energy that doesn't run on the same grade of testosterone that fuels, say, Limp Bizkit. It's boasting and sexual, but eager to please.
Oh, yeah. That was a major part of the album. I enjoy toying with masculinity. It's one of these strange nether zones in our purposes. Strange in that you're compelled and repelled at the same time. It's a real push and pull.
Place yourself on a span of masculine archetypes.
I don't know. Somewhere between Noam Chomsky and Rick James [laughs]. I mean, that's anybody. You've got your machismo testosterone on one side and on the other side, an equally self-involved discovering-the-inner-man-child — the twelfth insight of the seventh gate of the fifteenth threshold to the third golden key to the inner father-child. Those are the extremes. But I guess when you don't really identify with either of those, you start trying to find out areas where you feel comfortable. In terms of masculine role models, I appreciate a lot of the scoundrels— the guys who didn't necessarily carry themselves in a politically correct manner. Maybe I admire them not so much for their character but for their whole attitude. It's rare when you can embrace someone completely. There are certain womanizing aspects of Leonard Cohen or Serge Gainsbourg that I wouldn't really relate to, but there's another quality that I can admire. So maybe you admire the attitude but not really the intention of the attitude. I don't know. I'm not really here to judge them.
The record is done, but now you have to go on tour for the next year or two. Do you resent it?
No. I'm ready. It's just a different mode: You know, bivouacking at sunset, finding some kindling, heating up some canned beans. That's the mentality of being on tour— it's very survivalist.
You've got a funky-white-boy side that does splits onstage and hooks up with Puffy in the studio, and this quieter side that writes the country-blues songs of Mutations and does duets with Emmylou Harris. Are there two Becks?
Yeah. Sometimes I have to go solo from myself. I'm sure it confuses some people. A few of them probably enjoy the confusion. I'm sure some people love one half and hate the other.
You say L.A. constantly reminds you of its impermanence. Have the places you grew up in been razed?
Yeah, a couple of them. It's a little painful. Most people have a house to go back to, to say, "Yeah, I lived there when I was five." It's a drag.
Do you wish you'd documented those places?
No. I'm not that precious about memories. I enjoy the here and now. I'm interested in the past, but I love being in 1999. I don't want to be in 1968 or 1978. I definitely don't want to be in 1988. That thing can't recede far enough away for me. It was just a nadir.
OK, if you really love being here, I've got a 1999 quiz. Question One: Name one of the four teams left in the baseball playoffs.
I couldn't name one. I know it's not the Dodgers.
Question Two: Do you know who Melissa Joan Hart is?
No. Who's that?
She's Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Question Three: Name one album in the Top Five that isn't by the Backstreet Boys.
I was gonna say Backstreet Boys. You know what? I can't.
I would have accepted Santana.
Santana? Wow. Good for him.
You said earlier that you hated L.A. when you were growing up. Why?
It's such a car city. If you can't drive, you can't go anywhere, you're just stuck on an island.
What was your first car?
A '63 Ford Falcon. It was red, a station wagon. In the Eighties, those were the cheapest cars: Darts, Valiants, Ramblers. They were all two or three hundred bucks. It would take you two months to save up, you'd drive it until it broke down, sell it for scrap and get another one. I went through tons of them.
OK, why the Town Car?
I decided I needed something reliable, and I couldn't see myself in one of those compact economy things, and I really couldn't get over the some-kind-of-status-symbol car. I couldn't do the Lexus or what have you. Also, I like the senior-citizen aspect of it. Besides, they were on sale. The planets aligned, the numbers added up, and I wound up with that ride.
In "Mixed Bizness," on the new album, there's that lyric about making "all the lesbians scream." It's not ironic, and it's not literal, so maybe you're in that ambiguous zone. But do you ever worry that people just won't get it?
What? You're not supposed to sing about lesbians? I don't know. I really don't want to be careful. I'm confident in what I believe in and that I know the music comes from a good place. It's not exploitative, it's not coming from any hatred or intolerance. It's a nonissue for me. I'm just not a literal person, you know?
By now, Beck is sitting up straight and his voice is rising, confused as he is by the idea, even the hypothetical one, that some people would take offense at his crazy-ass songs. "What happened to the provocateur?" he asks forcefully. "That's a huge part of an artist's job. It's become a little bit of a dead end in a way — certain artists that are just trying to rub people the wrong way. It's not too much about that, it's more about . . . uh . . . it's definitely about . . ." There's a long pause during which Beck tries hard to be understood in his defense of being misunderstood. ". . . Letting loose."
Among the rare criticisms of Beck is the complaint that for such a gifted, articulate performer, he writes lyrics that don't always make sense. People get huffy about his verbal high jinks, as if he's got some deeper message that he won't translate for them. "I've heard some criticism," he says nonchalantly. "Even from my own girlfriend. She gives me shit: 'Why don't you just say what you feel?' and I say, 'That's as close as I could get. Take 'em for what you want.' They can be nonsense if you want. They can be decoration, or they can be the skeleton of someone's soul. They can be whatever you want."
Beck's rule on lyrics is as follows: "If it doesn't bug me in the song, then it's all right. Does it stick out and make me cringe, or is it going to go by and feel good? But I work on 'em," he says, his voice rising again. "They're not necessarily throwaways, but they're not intended as the almighty word. Besides, I don't think this is the time or the place for the poet to descend from the hilltop and give the people the word. Thirty years ago, that was OK. But at this point, there's no place for that to even take a foothold."
Even thirty years ago, being a generational spokesman could be a real drag, a burden Beck tasted when "Loser" blew up in '94. "Yeah," he says. "You're either living up to it or living it down. I'm glad I don't have to deal with it. Ultimately, I think someone like Dylan just wanted to turn it up and blast through. You know?" he asks, and he's really asking. "I can get into the words and have fun with that, but also," he says, his face now showing the beginnings of a hopeful grin, "I like turning up the drum machine and putting down a fat bass line."