Beck on his orchestral tour, stardom in the '90s and the hit songs he never saw coming



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In the time of chimpanzees, Beck told us 30 years ago, he was a monkey: a baby-faced singer-songwriter crash-landing in the age of grunge with a hard-to-classify hit called “Loser.” The song from his 1994 major-label debut, “Mellow Gold,” put folky guitar strumming over a throbbing hip-hop beat and found the lifelong Angeleno stringing together lines of gonzo poetry that made him a reluctant spokesman for a generation that didn’t quite know what it wanted to say.

Beck spent the rest of the ’90s and the early 2000s evading a fixed perception — flitting among junk-shop psychedelia, crunchy garage rock, horny R&B and spacey acoustic balladry — and ended up becoming a kind of icon for the endless variety of his sprawling hometown. Now he’s due to play the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night with the L.A. Phil as part of a tour on which he’s performing orchestral renditions of tunes from throughout his catalog.

At the Bowl, Beck, 53, will employ arrangements by his father, David Campbell, a veteran arranger and conductor whom he first worked with on an alternate version of his 1996 song “Jack-Ass” and who provided the charts for Beck’s 2008 performance with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Strings. “But that was just five or six songs, not an entire concert,” said the singer, whose latest LP, the glossy “Hyperspace,” came out in 2019. (Other recent-ish work includes 2014’s “Morning Phase,” which won the Grammy for album of the year, and production gigs on records by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.)

Does the scope of this show mean he’s been rehearsing with the L.A. Phil? “Oh, there’s no rehearsals,” he said with a laugh. “I like to be prepared, but getting that many people together is too tall of an order.”

Beck, who has two children with his ex-wife, actress Marissa Ribisi, met for lunch last week at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz to discuss the concert, the impact of streaming on his career, his fraught introduction to pop stardom and his ambitions with 1999’s sexed-up “Midnite Vultures.”

Why an orchestral tour?
This started with the Royal Philharmonic calling me out of the blue last year when my tour with Phoenix was wrapping up: “Hey, we want you to come do a night with the orchestra in October.” I said, “October 2024 — great,” and my manager was like, “No, this is in, like, 10 days.” So we pulled something together and we did that show last October and everybody had a great time.

Do you care about orchestral music?
I used to spend a lot of time at the L.A. Phil. I’d go without even knowing if it was gonna be Brahms or Schubert or Philip Glass — I was just along for the ride. It was part of my weekly ritual.

I assume the setting invites some new additions to your set.
We’re doing songs we don’t usually perform live because they don’t work without the orchestra: “We Live Again.” “Waking Light.” We’re adding a song called “Missing” [from 2005’s “Guero”] — kind of a ’60s Brazilian arrangement.

It’s probably refreshing to get away from the kind of greatest-hits show you do at festivals.
That’s evolving too. There’s songs I’d do 10, 15, 20 years ago that would cause a predictable reaction from the audience. And now, because of streaming or the just evolution of taste, there’s other songs that have come out of the woodwork that people like more. I did a song called “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — it wasn’t in my repertoire at all, but because of the film, there’s a whole generation of people who know me for that song. Or “Go It Alone,” a song I did with Jack White for “Guero.” That was never a single, but now it’s one of my biggest songs. People found it and they like it, so now we play it.

Like Pavement with “Harness Your Hopes.”
My daughter played me that song: “Check out this band I found.” I’m like, “You know this guy was in your house recording his album when you were 3.” It’s funny, because we’ve had this whole history of record labels deciding, “We think this will be the hit song, so we’ll promote it and we’ll get radio to play it and people will hear it over and over again and they’ll like it.” But now, with the choice they have [with streaming], they can choose for themselves.

I came into a music business that was so — I don’t know what the word is — codified. There was an apparatus that you just tried to squeeze yourself into, and it was sort of ironclad. When I came out, I was in a very prolific period. I had three EPs and three albums come out within six or seven months. Then, immediately once I got on a major label, everybody was like, “Hold on — you gotta pull this way back.” I had to come to terms with this idea that I was only gonna put out 10 or 12 songs every three or four years, whereas that first year I put out 50 or 60. I really re-trained my creative brain.

Could you come up with 50 songs in a year now?
Easily. Coming up with 50 No. 1 singles — that’s different. But I think we’re sort of post that because nobody even really knows what makes something a hit anymore. I think it has more to do with personality, which I guess has always been part of it. But I think it was less so when I started out.

Did you feel like a personality in the ’90s? Were you trying to fulfill that part of the pop-star equation?
I think I retreated from it. When my first record came out, I saw a reflection in the media of what they understood I was doing, and I was somewhat horrified because it wasn’t what I thought in my mind. I took real offense at the slacker thing — I hated that characterization. Some people lean into whatever persona is constructed between themselves and the media. And maybe now I’d have given myself license to do that. But at the time I was like, “No, no, no — I want to be a serious artist. I love Leonard Cohen and Anton Webern and Luis Buñuel. I don’t want to be a dumbed-down caricature.” So I kind of fought it, or tried to subvert it at least.

How so?
I’d show up in a three-piece suit onstage. I cut all my hair off when people had big, long, shaggy hair. I was trying to dress like a French movie star from the ’60s instead of wearing the thrift-store T-shirts and the baggy pants that were the uniform at the time. I don’t know if it was actually provoking, but upsetting expectations was part of the ethos of the time. And it felt like a way to project some kind of artistic side of what you were trying to do. You have to understand: My first two records came out, and people considered it mainstream pop music. But you can listen to it now and you’re like, This is some weird s—.

I’m seven years younger than you, which back then was enough of a difference that “Mellow Gold” opened the door for me to all kinds of music I didn’t know about it.
That’s kind of what I wanted — to plant seeds for people to find cool stuff. Which we don’t have to do now because we have YouTube. But back then it was part of the job: sampling old records or [Kurt] Cobain doing Leadbelly covers. It was sneaking things in to say, “This should be part of the makeup of popular music.”

I’m pretty sure Nirvana’s “Unplugged” introduced me to Leadbelly.
And that was a song I’d probably performed 100 times in bars and coffee shops. People would come up to me and say, “Yeah, man, cool Zeppelin cover.”

In spite of your early suspicions about the record biz, you’ve gone on to participate in some old-school industry rituals — Clive Davis’ pre-Grammys gala, for instance.
There’s so much history there. I think we’ve been in this decade-long transition from a business that was almost the same for 50 or 60 years into this new thing. I mean, it’s like a lot of the world. I constantly find myself going, OK, take this in, because in six months, this whole block might be gone.

Certainly in L.A.
L.A., New York, everywhere, really. I love walking through old neighborhoods in New Orleans, and I remember right before COVID, I went and they’d just turned all the gas lamps into LEDs. Having a French Quarter street lit up at midnight like a CVS? It was one of those moments where you were glad you got to see it before because now it’s a whole different thing. You lose the poetry of the place. Anything with technology is a trade-off: You get five great new things and then you lose five old things.

What’s one way that’s played out in music?
I have a theory: There’s a certain point where we crossed this digital threshold, which means the thing that kids will remember the strongest — the way we remember radios and television with eight channels — is the iPhone. And the iPhone, it’s very sleek and minimalist. They see the world through that prism, so I think music has evolved to sound like something that should be coming out of that object. And rock music doesn’t sound great coming through those little speakers. But pop and electronic music sound great. It’s like how music in the ’60s sounded like what should be coming out of a transistor radio.

Do you worry about your children’s relationships with their phones?
It’s something you can’t really compete with — it’s just an engulfing force. I did have a thing when they were young where anytime they were home during waking hours, I never wanted them to see me on a phone or computer. I thought maybe that’ll just go in there subconsciously somewhere so they weren’t used to always seeing an adult buried in technology.

You grew up with artists for parents: a dad in music and a mom in performance art. Was it important to you that your kids have creative inclinations?
I wasn’t heavy-handed with that stuff. I think my approach was that it would be more meaningful for them to discover things on their own. I’ve watched friends sit their kids down and play them all the good music — really indoctrinate them. I think I tried a few times, but right out of the gate, they didn’t want to know about it. It was just Top 40 for them. In a way, they’d be like, “No, Dad, you listen to this.” So I tried to find the beauty in what they love. But maybe I should have pummeled them with the Velvet Underground and Caetano Veloso.

These days we divide the work of pop stars into eras. You were doing that decades ago, making records that each had their own look and attitude. Did you think of it like that? Were you in your “Midnite Vultures” era in 1999?
Totally. It just comes out of your life and what you’re into and who you’re hanging out with — the temperature of the time. That album specifically was kind of a hard left turn. I felt like I had this huge parade behind me, and I was like, “Everybody, this way!” I went full steam ahead, and then at some point I turned around and there was nobody behind me anymore.

Who did you think would follow you?
I don’t know. I was just thinking, like, It’s 2000 — let’s go. I thought Aphex Twin was gonna be at No. 1 and that the future was here. Then I remember being very frustrated. I’d watch Outkast and the Roots, and when they’d play, everybody’s dancing, it’s a celebration. We were trying to get people to join in: Let’s make this physical and visceral and fun. But our audience, they weren’t moving, they weren’t celebrating, there were no hands in the air. There were people in alternative music who loved rap, but for some people it wasn’t cool.

Hard to imagine now.
Almost impossible. Everything’s so integrated — there’s no division, really, between dance and indie and rap and electronic and folk.

Look at Post Malone: He started as a rapper, now he’s a country guy and it’s no big deal.
Whereas I went the other way: I started as a country guy and I became a rapper.



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