The last time Beck was at South By Southwest was back in 1994, a year where Johnny Cash gave a keynote address and then later played a showcase at Austin’s notorious punk club Emo’s. The headliner on that showcase? Beck himself.
Fast forward 28 years and Beck has become something of an elder statesman, armed with eight Grammys and making the cut on this year’s ballot for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Such an honorarium provides an ideal moment for a spot of reflection, and Beck’s keynote Q&A with New Yorker staff writer Amanda Petrusich did indeed touch upon many different areas of his career, clarifying certain myths and misperceptions while still maintaining his playful mystique.
The SXSW keynote is the first step in Beck getting back to action after a pandemic-assisted hiatus following the late 2019 release of Hyperspace, a moody, stylish record he made in collaboration with Pharrell Williams. On Saturday, he’ll leave synths behind and give an acoustic show at the Moody Theater, the first of a handful of gigs that find him reconnecting to his roots as a folk singer. This particular date underscores his connection to the American indie-rock underground by featuring Throwing Muses singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh on the same bill.
At the start of his 1 o’clock session, Beck claimed, “I’m not even awake, this is like nine in the morning for me,” but he proved to be a funny, insightful interview. Here’s what we learned.
He once gave a fan a concussion.
Beck does indeed remember that 1994 SXSW quite well, and not just because of The Man in Black. “Johnny Cash did open up for me, which I thought was absurd,” he recalled. “I remember Johnny playing and then afterwards we met and hung out a little bit. I was incredibly nervous. It was my first tour with a band and I think we didn’t really know what we were doing at all. Of course, we were thrown in front of the whole music business at South By Southwest. I remember the show being a bit chaotic; I was probably overcompensating. I think a mic stand fell and hit a fan in the head and stopped the show. Somebody said somebody got hurt, so I came out and they had a huge welt on their head. And I felt terrible! I remember giving them a hug — they were crying — then I went backstage and Gibby from the Butthole Surfers walked in and screamed that was the best show he’d ever seen. It was a total disaster really. I remember one point looking up and the entire audience had left except for maybe four or five people, one of whom had gotten a concussion.”
The Pharrell hit that never was.
Hyperspace wasn’t the first time Beck attempted to collaborate with Pharrell Williams. “I’d been wanting to do a record with him for like 20 years,” he said. “I’d run into Pharrell in elevators and we’d always say we wanted to work together. So I finally called him in about 2012 or 13. And the first day I walked in to work with him, he said, ‘Sit down, I just wrote a song.'”
At the time, Beck was growing tired of writing “heavy and weird” music and wanted to record something uplifting and, as he says, “happy.” “I had young kids at the time and was playing pop music, I just wanted something that had a lot of light to it. Pharrell said, ‘Perfect.’ So he sits me down and plays this song ‘Happy’ and I thought, ‘I guess you already did that,'” he recalled. “I showed up about three days too late. In another life that could’ve been my song.”
How he’s channeling his inner Taylor Swift.
Recently, Beck has been re-recording such early hits as “Loser” and “Where It’s At” for an unspecified project. The process of re-recording fascinates Beck: “I think it’s a bit arbitrary that you make a record and that’s the only version that exists.” Relatedly, those old recordings serve as modern inspiration. “You look back at your work and you see things you want to fix. That’s what drives the next album,” he said. “You constantly try to not evolve but crystallize.”
That time Beck phoned it in.
When “Loser” began to catch fire in Los Angeles in 1993, Beck was caught off-guard. “I thought it was a fluke thing that was gonna go away, so I just decided to have fun with it,” he said. “I’d be playing a bowling alley in East Los Angeles, there’d be all these limos with executives from record labels… There was a band that was playing after me, so I asked if I could use all their equipment. I figured some way to tape all the keyboard notes down so they would just play. They had pedals, so I’d hit the guitar and it would feedback. So I had all this stuff playing by itself. And then I left. And I went home and I called the bar. The bartender answered…. I got him to reach the cord to the microphone and have him hold it up to the mic and I said I was home. I still got signed, which was amazing.”
He worried his brand of humor didn’t connect.
Such pranks and slacker jokes were a defining element of early Beck records, but he says he initially found humor challenging. His idols at the time were of the more serious, sincere sort: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake. “And then I got on stage … and was playing these old folk songs and people were going, ‘Yee-haw!’ They’d call me ‘farmboy.’ It was so reductive, and I realized it just wasn’t gonna fly. I think I was trying to amuse my friends and the people in the audience so I made up really random things. A lot of humor came into the music because that was the environment I was in. But when it came out into the mainstream, people took the humor and thought he was not sincere, or [I] was kind of a joke.”
Beck received a Beat poet blessing.
Another misconception surrounding Beck in his early days was the idea that his lyrics were incidental to the music. “The lyrics were completely dismissed. I remember people saying his lyrics were like word salad,” Beck said.
On the contrary, his wordplay was entirely intentional, informed by the poetry of French Symbolists and the Beats, and the burgeoning rap scene. “I thought it was so exciting what rap was doing lyrically was like modern poetry… It was opening a whole new space in popular music. And then of course there was the Bob Dylans or Syd Barrett or T. Rex, people doing really wild, poetic things with lyrics. It was a revelation that a song could be art on the level of painting or great filmmaking. I thought maybe people wouldn’t understand what I was trying to do but maybe if I snuck it in, maybe two or three people [would say] I kind of get what he’s trying to do here.” As it happens, one of the people who recognized what Beck was attempting was Allen Ginsberg, the king of the Beat Poets. Ginsberg came to a show during the “Loser” era and got it. “I was so relieved he understood what the song was doing,” Beck said.