Beck: ‘Working with Pharrell was a leap of faith and curiosity’

The polymath of alt-pop has created a confessional record that goes to dark places but comes out sounding like space-age R&B. Mark Beaumont asks: is this his divorce album?

Monday 18 November 2019 15:58 GMT
Beck: ‘My original thought when I first met with Pharrell was I just wanted to make something that had a kind of joy to it, a happiness’
Beck: ‘My original thought when I first met with Pharrell was I just wanted to make something that had a kind of joy to it, a happiness’ (Mikai Karl)

Songwriting is strange,” Beck Hansen says, considering the death of a close friend from a drug overdose but arguably talking about any of the break-ups, breakdowns and dark phases that pepper his latest album. “You don’t really know when something is going to surface in a song.”

Some records read like a cry for help. Records that speak of depression and addiction, peopled by the lonely and hopeless. You might think that Beck’s 14th album, Hyperspace, is one such album. It’s full of confessional lines like “some days I go dark places in my soul”, “uneventful nights, living in that dark, waiting for the light” and “let your mind disintegrate”. Its protagonists lose themselves in drink and hard drugs, numbing the pain of loves that were “just a fantasy”. It starts with “Uneventful Days” and ends in an “Everlasting Nothing”. Consider that Beck is in the process of splitting from his wife of 15 years – actor Marissa Ribisi – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hyperspace is his ultimate divorce album.

Beck – effortlessly inventive Peter Pan polymath of alt-pop on record; hesitant and contemplative in conversation – takes his time to consider that idea, as he does most ideas, and refutes it. “I don’t think so,” he says. “My thought with the record was, I started to fall into this structure that each song was a different person, a portrait of a person in a mood of life. Not a narrative of a life story at all, just a snapshot, a freeze frame of a milieu of a day in a life, that each person in the songs was trying to find some way in their life to grapple with the world, their lives and their past, their limitations, fear, trauma all those things that we share, and the various ways in which we try to navigate all these things.

“It’s a mixture, like life. There’s something beautiful and transcendent in small moments, and there’s just complete boredom and hopelessness at the same time. It’s all mixed together. There are songs on this record which maybe catch a little of both of those moods, like ‘Uneventful Days’, ‘Chemical’ or ‘Dark Places’.”

Fans expecting a final part of a downtempo trilogy starting with 2002’s much-loved but desolate Sea Change – written in reaction to the break-up of a nine-year relationship with Leigh Limon – and followed-up with 2014’s acoustic-heavy Morning Phase, are in for a whomp-laden surprise. Hyperspace is co-written with Pharrell Williams, the culmination of a long musical courtship between the two, and has emerged sounding like a space-age R&B record.

“In passing, we’ve discussed working together for 15, 16, 17 years, a long time,” Beck explains. “It just took a while because there’s so many other moving parts. I’m a big admirer of his, always wanted to work with him. It’s a leap of faith and curiosity, to see what would come out of us working together... My original thought when I first met with him was I just wanted to make something that had a kind of joy to it, a happiness. I remember saying the day we went to work together, ‘I want to make something that feels happy,’ and so I went into the studio with him and he said, ‘Before we get started, I just want to play you something I just recorded and I want to get your thoughts,’ and he played me the song ‘Happy’. It sort of proves the point. There’s a positivity that he exudes and embodies. It’s very unusual.”

Going into Beck’s most collaborative album to date, neither artist knew what to expect. “I’m a fan of ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ and ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here’ and things he’s done with Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. I think he likes to spend time with the artist and go in a direction he feels reflects that person. The first thing we ended up doing was a song called ‘Everlasting Nothing’, which couldn’t be further from ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’.”

Indeed, the marriage of Beck’s innovative psychedelic folk, country and hip pop with Pharrell’s knack for knowing what the R&B kids of 2036 are into produces the most intriguing results when Pharrell is faced with some of Beck’s bleaker themes. It’s here that the buoyant beats give way to a kind of narcotic futurism, like an AI coming across a den of dealers on the dark web. Recent single “Uneventful Days”, a portrait of the classic post-breakup torpor of alcohol and recrimination, is an autotune style lament akin to Frank Ocean, while “Dark Places” details depressive episodes with a clipped and disjointed tranquillity that feels like being on some kind of synthesised medication.

“I think everybody has one of those days,” Beck says, deflecting further probing into his personal state of mind. “It might be once a month, once a week, it could be once a day. It doesn’t mean you go into the abyss, it just means disappointment. I tend to be a bit optimistic in general, but we all go through things, life presents challenges. The struggle is perspective and keeping trying to see the bigger picture of things. I see that as a key in my own experience with friends and loved ones. Seeing the struggles that we have in the bigger picture.”

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Then there’s the blankly blissful “Stratosphere”, featuring Chris Martin’s backing vocals and “dealing with the world through drugs – exorcising yourself, chemicals occupying yourself”. It’s a heroin song, inspired by the loss of a close friend from Beck’s childhood, “someone I really looked up to”, who OD’d many years ago. “I think at the time, I don’t know if I would have been able to articulate how I was feeling or how would I even approach it in a song,” he muses. “In this case, it just came out of nowhere and even I was wondering and questioning what the song was about. You’re trying to imagine where that person is and how they got to that place.”

There’s a lot of talk of coming down, love as a chemical and turning to drink elsewhere on the record too – have you struggled with addiction yourself? “I never had that problem,” Beck says. “Maybe as time goes on you pick up things through life where you can start to see things through someone else’s lens. At the time it happened I couldn’t imagine what he was going through and why he would jeopardise his life.”

Hyperspace certainly befits a 30-year career of inspired unpredictability. Beck has been wrong-footing listeners with swerves into funk, psych folk, pop art, slacker rap, Nintendocore and most things in between ever since this folk, blues and hip-hop-loving son of Canadian conductor David Campbell and Warhol superstar Bibbe Hansen arrived in New York from LA in 1989 with a guitar on his back and $8 in his pocket. His act then was one of situationist blues – he’d improvise nonsense songs about strychnine and Axl Rose on city buses or play tunes called things like “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” in a Stormtrooper helmet – and his life was one of abject poverty.

“It was tough,” he recalls. “Being evicted from houses, not having food, not having electricity. Just the basics. There were times in New York when I didn’t have a place to live. There were times when I was physically attacked and seriously hurt. Working on jobs and getting injured and not having any recourse to get medical attention.”

Beck: ‘There’s something beautiful and transcendent in small moments’

Did such a background ingrain the idea that you deserved failure? When “Loser” made you an indie rock superstar, you certainly seemed to try to screw things up for yourself, playing extreme 20-minute jazz-punk or reggae versions of your only hit, or with an art-noise band who’d set fire to their cymbals or play their guitars back to front. “That was more of the ethos of the time. There was a mistrust of the mainstream and success. That was shared with myself and many other artists of the time, people who were friends of mine and people I admired. A lot of ambivalence about success or commercial acceptance. I think that fear and mistrust was maybe a self-protection mode.

“I didn’t really think that I was going to have a career in music and it was sort of a fluke. The background that I came from, this weird outsider art and music, it was like somebody gave me screen time and I just wanted to do something unusual with it instead of just this generic singer up there with a microphone going through the motions. I had a desire – which was kind of a young and naive desire at the time but I also appreciate it – to disrupt and maybe amuse. Amuse myself, the audience, my friends. Humour is a natural thing in my life. Some people edit that out of their music, they make their music dead serious, but for whatever reason I didn’t. I learned to calibrate it and tone it down later, let the music speak for itself, but I really did enjoy it… I didn’t want people to think that it was coming from a place of jaded irony or disrespect. It was just coming from a sense of fun. I grew up with Monty Python and The Beatles, Dada and absurdists.”

He also grew up around Scientology – he’s claimed his father was a member since Beck was a child, although recent rumours suggest that Beck himself may have put the church behind him. Interviewers are warned this is a no-go subject, but nonetheless I give him the opportunity to cough twice if he needs help. He laughs. “I don’t need help, but I’m living my life and making music and that’s where my focus is.”

He’s almost as reticent on the subject of Donald Trump. Beck shelved his previous album Colors for a year because he didn’t feel that such an upbeat pop album sat easily with the mood of the nation following Trump’s election. So does this new record, dancing and drifting through very dark times, reflect the feeling around his impeachment? “It’s strange times. I feel like a lot of people I know are concerned [about the state of America] and there’s a lot of uncertainty. I’m feeling that in other places as well. I remember getting to London the morning that the Brexit vote happened, being in the hotel and hearing helicopters circling everywhere. I remember thinking, ‘What is that? Something must be happening.’”

The issues really concerning Beck are rather more in his face. The title track of Hyperspace tackles what he calls “the acceleration of the current moment... the hyper-connectivity of daily life. The amount of people you’re talking with, texting, at the same time as you’re getting sent emails, links, videos and work things, and things are happening in the culture or on social media. It’s this constant inundation, right? I’m not saying it’s negative at all, I think there’s positive aspects to it. But the more you consume it, the more hungry you are, and the hunger that I find at the end of it, if you pull the string, it’s a hunger for contact, for human contact. This constant inundation we have, although it’s feeding us with something, it’s making us more hungry… That’s what’s underlying a lot of these songs, that longing, but the context is our current moment, technology, the acceleration of life. But it’s not different from the longing of Hank Williams or Maria Callas or John Lennon.”

Cough twice if you need help... ‘I’m living my life and making music and that’s where my focus is.’ (Peter Hapak)

Yet, by merging humanity and technology at what sounds like a quantum level, Beck and Pharrell have created a glacial R&B record for the dawn of the AI age, synthetically moulded but still glitching and full of bugs. Perhaps Beck can’t shake his fondness for the rough edges of guitar music. “I think things are changing. Maybe the guitar is not the central instrument, or it’s abdicating some of its place to synthesised sounds. To me it represents the analogue – it’s dirty, it can be out of tune. The ethos seems to gravitate more towards autotune – everything’s in its place too perfectly. When I was young I was attracted to things that were a little broken and out of tune, that had character and mystery and danger even, from Woody Guthrie to The Rolling Stones, and things that were perfect were a bit boring.”

So rather than his jump into Hyperspace landing Beck in a new era of pristine future R&B, it’s another leap of faith and curiosity like so many others that, almost uniquely, have kept him relevant across a vast array of genres and able to collaborate with anyone from Danger Mouse and the Dust Brothers to Jack White, Childish Gambino, M83, Sia and Feist. How has he managed it? He puts it down to 21st-century music coming round to his limitless way of thinking.

“Musically, I’m just doing what I want,” he explains. “Tom Waits said something about songwriting, you’re just playing with air. The idea of sound waves coming out of a speaker, different frequencies of air. It’s not always a tangible thing you’re playing with. I feel like the last half decade or so felt like the most hospitable time to the kind of music I make that I’ve seen. People don’t remember the earlier albums were met with a lot of suspicion and sometimes dismissal: ‘What is this? This isn’t guitar, bass and drums! It doesn’t fit in the archetype and canon of what is considered good music.’ I took some of that to heart. I did records like Mutations as a reaction, everything played live on tape just like it’s the 1970s. Those exercises, I think, are healthy, but as far as playing with the form and the medium of recording, what I’m doing now is no different from what I was doing at the beginning. The approach is the same.”

Hyperspace is out on 22 November

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