You’ll have to excuse me, my brain’s a little rusty right now,” Beck says on the phone from Los Angeles. “We’ve been in the studio day and night.” His new album, Mutations, hadn’t even been released, but Beck was already hard at work on the next one. Of course, Beck is adept at staying ahead of the curve. Few artists in recent years have seemed as effortlessly of-the-moment. Mutations, however, sounds like it could have come out in 1966. With Nigel Godrich, who handled the board on Radiohead‘s OK Computer, as co-producer, Beck and his band hammered out fourteen songs in fourteen days last spring (twelve made it onto the album). Mutation‘s out-of-time quality – as if Beck and Robyn Hitchcock had decided to remake Pink Floyd‘s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – lends it a strange, otherworldly feel, the very familiarity of its sounds ultimately becoming oddly, though not altogether unpleasantly, unsettling.
Mutations is a much more straightforward record than you’ve made before. How did it come about?
I got back from the Odelay tour and I probably should have just taken some time off. But aside from the “Deadweight” song [on last year’s A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack], it had been a few years since I’d been in the studio, so I was insanely anxious to do something creative with the band – go in and just do some stuff real quick. So I scared up a bunch of songs I had sitting around.
Songs you’d written on the road?
Before that. These songs go back four years. I had a lot of songs that were a little more contemplative, quiet and folky. Some of them I tried to record for Odelay, and they just didn’t pan out. I was also trying to think of a producer, and Nigel’s name came up. He was heading back to England, but we talked him into staying a few extra days. It was very spontaneous. I didn’t even know him.
What songs did you do?
“Cold Brains” and a couple of things that didn’t make it onto the album. We recorded and mixed the songs in a day. It was great. Unfortunately, Nigel was supposed to go on vacation, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and then he suddenly called and said, “I’ll blow it off. I have fourteen days. We’ll just go in and do it.” We decided we’d do a song a day, record and mix. No looking back. No doctoring anything. And it turned out to be the album as you hear it.
It sounds like you set out to make a period record, using instruments like the sitar, for example.
I just think they’re great sounds. You can look at it from the viewpoint that a sitar is retro, that it conjures up psychedelic albums from the Sixties. But it’s also an ancient instrument. It’s a beautiful sound in any time, any place. When I was younger, one of my favorite sounds was the Delta-blues slide guitar, which also has that richness and groaning quality that is, to me, the most primal musical sound. We made an effort to use it with some sort of taste [on “Cancelled Check”]. We laid it back in the mix so it wouldn’t be . . .
Exactly. It was just part of the texture.
What about the title Mutations?
It’s a word that represents the music on the record. In some ways the approach to the album was a throwback. Like you said, not a lot of things are in quotation marks. It’s not a pastiche. But at the same time, it’s not pure. Certain elements are country rock or folk rock; but even though you don’t hear it, these songs were written in a time when hip-hop, drum-and-bass, all manner of musical hybrids exist. Whatever imprint that’s left on me, it’s part of the music. So I think of Mutations as a positive word, not something that represents abnormality or an aberration.
A theme of exhaustion seems to run through the album.
That’s true, unfortunately [laughs]. It probably has a lot to do with touring – although I really don’t want to write songs about being on the road. But it also draws on elements of exhaustion in the culture. I’m definitely refraining from any sort of millennial statement, but whether we like it or not, there’s a conscious end-of-the-line thing happening right now.
Do you feel like you’re working on two tracks, with the traditional aspects of your work crashing up against the experimental?
There’s two elements in my music that started out from opposite sides, but they’re slowly blurring together. What eventually became Mellow Gold was a side project from the more folk stuff, like One Foot in the Grave. When Geffen was putting out Mellow Gold, they asked me, “Do you want to do this record as Beck or use another name?” They realized it was different from what I was doing on my own. So Mutations could be construed as, I guess, like, a solo record or something – going solo from myself [laughs]. But I try to embrace the ambiguities, these two opposite sides living within one musical sphere.
What’s the album you’re working on now like?
It’s completely different. [Hesitates] You know, I could be eating my words in a year.
Well, we’ll be sure to come back and throw them in your face.
Yeah, exactly. Well, so far, it’s completely different from Mutations. The whole point of Mutations was to capture a performance. I wanted it to feel like a group of people sitting in a room, the vocals live, that synergy of people playing together. That my music has characteristically been cut up and sewn together wasn’t entirely willful. I was working within the means I had, working with computers and technology. When we were doing “Fuckin’ With My Head” or “Loser,” that terrain was a lot less explored. The drums, the break beats, the folk element – it was really novel, and we were excited. Now everybody and their mother is there [laughs]. Trespassers! Hijackers! People moving in! It was a beautiful playground, but it’s a little crowded now. So with Mutations, there was no Nineties angle. I really let the songs just exist outside of town – I mean, time [laughs]. And outside of town. Not in the suburbs, but . . .
An attractive, semi-rural area?
Yeah, but with a local convenience strip mall and an interstate. Anyway, I wanted to do something more traditional, because I knew the next record wasn’t going to be like that. It was just going to be me locked away with the computer trying to make music I hadn’t heard before.
When do you hope to be done?
Next summerish. I’m letting it take its course. I want to let the different elements in what I’m doing duke it out. Or come to a truce. It’s more of a party record, I’d say.
What kind of party?
That remains to be seen. Or, much more importantly [laughs], whether it’s the kind of party anybody would want to come to.
This story is from the November 26th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.