Q&A: Beck

He's got a new family, a new block-rockin' CD, Guero, and a New Age secret influence: Yanni

Beck performs at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Grounds in California on May 1st, 2004. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Beck has bounced back from the breakup that inspired Sea Change, his mellow masterpiece of 2002. He's happily married, with a nine-month-old son, Cosimo, and has been playing high-energy surprise gigs at L.A. clubs to gear up for a summer tour behind his new album, Guero. The disc was co-produced by the Dust Brothers (who also worked on Odelay!) and is packed with tracks on which Beck lets his freak flag fly: On "Qué Onda Guero," he gives shout-outs to Tang's Donut shop, Michael Bolton and Yanni. Speaking from L.A., Beck pauses when a photo arrives from a recent tsunami benefit featuring himself with friends Eddie Vedder, Will Ferrell and Jack Black. "What a man moment," says Beck. "I remember I was playing 'Lost Cause' – it was a very intimate moment – and Will came out wearing a red leotard, doing interpretive dancing. I tried to be serious, but when he started humping my pump organ, I totally lost it."

What music did your parents play when you were a kid?
For some reason I have a memory of Camelot. I remember that playing, and crawling on the floor across the room to stare at the cover, which had the actors from the movie. My mother likes show tunes, musicals, that kind of thing. Also, I had a 45 of Snow White, where she sings, "I'm wishing . . . I'm wishing," y'know, when she's singing into the well. I was probably about three.

Why did you have that?
I had one of those toy record players – it was greenish-yellow and white, early-Seventies style, and Snow White was probably one of the records it came with. There were other records, one about a bear and probably something about a train. Another record that was on constantly in my house was The Harder They Come. Those hot L.A. afternoons, all the doors and windows open . . . that played for years.

Did you play music for Cosimo when he was in the womb?
Yeah. I was in the studio the whole time, my wife would come visit, and he heard all the songs. And he hears whatever's on in the house. Like, when he was first born, we played a lot of quiet classical music. It helps him sleep. And a friend got him a baby Beatles CD, like, quieter versions of Beatles songs.

What was the first song you wrote?
I used to have a tape recorder, with one of those cheap RadioShack plastic microphones. I used a calculator that had little melodies – like the bastard cousin of "Frère Jacques" – when you hit the buttons. My brother was the drummer, he played pencils on a cassette-tape box, and I wrote a song called "Bells Are Ringing." We'd seen this Kraftwerk video with all these little instruments, so that's what we were aspiring to do.

Why is your stage name Beck, instead of Beck Hansen?
I didn't really think about it too much. I just started showing up at these open-mike nights at clubs, bars and coffee shops, wherever, and somebody would always ask me, "What's your name?" before I went on. I'd just say, "Beck." People had other nicknames for me.

Like what?
There were these kind of Fifties greaser guys that a friend of mine hung out with who called me Dutch Boy.

Around then, you were writing a lot of, say, jokey songs. What was the most absurd one?
They were all pretty goofy. There was a street fair, and a friend of mine named Steve had been drinking and eating too much street-fair food. He met a pretty girl, went on the carousel and threw up all over her. It was called "Steve Threw Up."

Did you incorporate funnel cakes?
That's the whole song! I just made up things he probably ate. Like falafels and pizza. It didn't work out once he added motion.

In '89 you rode a Greyhound bus from L.A. to New York, what did you listen to on the trip?
I think I had some old Blind Willie McTell and Son House and Yazoo cassettes on my Walkman. I remember I was in Texas and at one point all the civilians got off the bus, and all the convicts got on. It was a little hairy. Somebody had a big boombox playing Kenny G. I'm not kidding. This pretty rough character came up to me while I was listening to my Walkman and he was telling me to watch out, because when I fell asleep he was going to cut me [laughs].

You name-drop Yanni on "Qué Onda Guero." What have you picked up from him, musically?
Really just more superficial things, like the mustache [laughs]. And the idea of music as an event, played at historic locations. Didn't he play the Taj Mahal?

Nice. What music was playing at your wedding reception?
It was a Russian band, I didn't catch the name of it. I don't know if they had a name, they were just working Russian musicians. We found them through my wife's seamstress. It seemed like a good idea.

What's your favorite TV theme song?
That's a good question.... Oh! The Wild, Wild World of Animals, one of those nature shows in the Seventies. It was pounding drums and a synthesizer over crazy footage of ferocious animals and teeming giraffes and elephants.

What music do you recommend for lovemaking?
Brazilian is always good. Any João Gilberto. Or some Mancini for the grandparents.

So you stick to Brazilian?
At that point, I'm not thinking about music.

This story is from the April 7th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.