Beck ended this year on a twin high: releasing the best album of his career, the exquisite, confessional Sea Change, then hitting the road with a great new backing band, psychedelicized Oklahomans the Flaming Lips. “I especially like what they’re doing with my older songs,” Beck says of the Lips. “It was like getting a Christmas present every day in rehearsal: ‘Here’s your song back. We renovated it for you.'”
The album title, Sea Change, implies a big shift in direction. Where are you going?
That was a difficult album to title. I didn’t have any candidates. It was just a lyric in one of the songs. There was imagery of oceans and tumult. Superficially, it just sounded like a cool Patti Smith record, sort of poetic but not overdoing it.
That’s a philosophical question I’ve gone back and forth on: What is sincere? I get cast as an ironist, but I’m not really like that. I think it’s important to have a sense of humor. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones – all the great bands had that quality. But to me, irony is not meaning what you say. And I really mean pretty much everything I say.
Is it strange to play these highly personal new songs with a band as flamboyant as the Lips?
It’s nice. I’ve done similar things in the past. I did a week of recording once with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – this was before Odelay. I don’t think there’s enough of that. That kind of interaction only leads to good things. But there is a built-in segregation between musicians: scheduling, workload. With so much structure, there’s not much possibility for something to come out sideways. When structure runs the game, the game is not creative. It’s not alive.
You’ve toured twice this year. Is playing live your best bet for getting your music to people, past the indifference MTV and rock radio?
That’s always worked for me. After almost every record, people come up and say they didn’t get it, or didn’t like it, until they saw me play it live. That’s the best weapon a musician has to cut through all the clutter: the commercials, posters and videos. Put yourself out there – start a dialogue.
On your summer acoustic tour, you played an eclectic range of covers by the Zombies, the Rolling Stones and Big Star, among others.
That’s another strange thing about the current structure of music: this unwritten law that people have to write their own songs. Most people don’t put any significance on where a song came from. They just want to hear a good song, sung by somebody who is really in the song. When I came to sound check the other day, the Lips were playing “Don’t Let Me Down,” by the Beatles, and it sounded amazing.
What records, other than your own, moved you this year?
I like the Strokes and the White Stripes. They’re writing good new songs. It’s funny – about a year and a half ago, I started a rock record, because there was no rock out. Usually I’ll make a record where it’s something I want to hear, and I’m not hearing it anywhere else.
Do you listen to a lot of rap? When “Loser” became a hit in 1994, you were branded a hip-hop folkie.
I like the Cee-Lo record. I love the latest OutKast album. I love their rhythm and flow. They are serious about hip-hop. But they also have a playfulness that I like. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do in that regard. “Devils Haircut” and “Where It’s At” are seven years old. It’s time for me to write some new ones.
What are your plans for the next album, now that you’ve done your sensitive folk record?
I have a lot more of these songs. I’ll make another album like this in the not too distant future. I would love to put out two records a year. I could really get a momentum going – there are songs ready to go.
I would so love to do a great club song. That’s what I tried to do on Midnite Vultures. Certain artists have that: You put their record on, and everyone’s dancing. And there is a sense of humor in the R&B world. You can’t deny R. Kelly: “I like the crotch on you.” Does he mean it? Does it matter?
If America invades Iraq, do you have an anti-war song ready to go? You started as a troubadour in the Bob Dylan tradition.
I tend to gravitate to the actual mechanics of living, what people go through in their lives. Never mind war: They’re trying to make the rent, fall in love, raise kids, get the car fixed – the daily battles. I’m trying to give songs to them. But I am concerned about war. And if I have something to say, I’ll say it.
This story is from the December 12th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.