Beck: Bleeding for Art

Coming to a town near you: Beck in his Midnight Vultures tour. Expect an extravaganza of retro-soul, jaw-dropping funk, dazzling dance steps. And maybe an ambulance.

People come to see blood at our shows, and you gotta give it to them, says Beck by phone from tour stop in Utah. You can almost hear the no-big-deal in his voice, the shrug of his slender shoulders. But he's not speaking metaphorically.

In March, on a tour stop at London's Wembly Stadium, the sound-and-art collagist collided with bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen's instrument with such force during a go-for-broke encore of Devil's Haircut that he was rushed to the hospital, with medics fearing ruptured internal organs or broken ribs. But, says the 29-year-old, who turned out to be black-and-blue but not broken, it's all in a day's work. I envy the bands who get to go on stage and render their songs without people going berserk. But with us, it's what they're looking for. So we kind of have to massage the crowd.

Beck comes by that naturally. Like his late grandfather, Fluxus artist Al Hansen, Beck loves a good prank, and his live performances have often contained healthy doses of Gonzo performance art. At one of the art shows he's shared with his grandfather (both excel in collage), Beck's exhibit-opening display included dropping a piano off the top of a building. On his current tour, concerts often end in chaos, with band members dismantling the stage and rolling around in building materials. Beck himself capped the show in San Francisco by riding a tricycle on stage while wearing an orange highway cone like a hat. And while Beck was in Germany recently, there was another joint Beck-and-Al-Hansen art exhibit (Playing with Matches), which he was able to attend during a tour break. How was the Beck and Al show in Germany?

Beck: It was a little hectic. It was in this castle in the middle of nowhere, in a museum. You had to go across a moat to get to it. And it was a media circus, which was pretty cool actually because Al lived in Germany for years before his death, and they loved him there. I understand he was named in the American Art Book -- a compilation of 500 top U.S. artists.

Beck: Yeah, that was a big deal for the family. So much in the world has to do with presentation. If you're not a good presenter, you won't get the attention, and Al wasn't very good at that. Someone who doesn't talk the talk will be ignored. So people just needed to see his work. This trip to Germany was better than your last, then. I hear you caused quite a scandal last time you were there.

Beck: (Sighs) Yeah, this was quite a while ago. But I just had one of those days where anywhere I went people were gruff and rude. I was trying to buy some batteries in an electronics store [called Saturn] and this woman sent me packing. So that night I dedicated my song Asshole to her. And the next day it was on the cover of the paper -- the president of the company demanding an apology. Saturn banned my records for a while; it really hurt us. But I learned something that every country has its own sensibilities. And you just try to match where they're coming from. What European countries did you like the best?

Beck: In Spain and Italy they're a lot more energetic and high spirited. The audiences are insane; they sing all the lyrics and dance. It's almost ridiculous. I love Japan because they accept what I do, they get the whole thing -- the width of cultures and influences. Where in the States, they still make me out to be the slacker beat boy, watching TV and mixing sounds up in a blender. So you don't think people in this country understand your music?

Beck: No, they really don't. Like the new record -- they slapped labels on it that were so simplistic. Retro-bellbottoms-funky-white-boy stuff. But I was intending it to be deeper, more layered. I was going for the darkness of Baudelaire's Decadents -- trashy but not cheap, flashy but cool. But I'm not complaining. Sometimes it takes people a while to get it. It's just that it?s not me imitating Prince. It has more to do with the sensibilities of Leonard Cohen and Rick James. Does it make you feel discouraged, when you don't feel understood artistically?

Beck: Not really. Sometimes when you do something ambitious, it's kind of like having a wound that takes a few years to heal. It almost hasn't formed in the real universe yet, what this album's about. I guess that means it's on the cutting edge. (Laughs) What's funny is that I thought I was making my most commercial record yet! I just wanted to make a bunch of pop songs. But it hasn't turned out that way. Someone told me the other day, Maybe if you'd put this out in six months, it might have been the bomb! They asked me if I always had a need to be ahead of my time, and I said no, but that's the space in which I get excited. Maybe if you weren?t so cutting-edge, you'd make more money.

Beck: Yeah. I hear they were interviewing Kid Rock, and he said, I don't want to be one of those cutting-edge guys because they don't make any money! I'm not in it for the money because if I were, I'd have done things very differently. How has Midnight Vultures sold?

Beck: Oh, I have no idea. I think we've sold maybe two million worldwide. But I run into people every day who download it. I think as many people have downloaded it as bought it. Just the fact that we can go to Portugal and play for 8,000 people and yet we?ve only sold 4,000 records there tells you something. It's surprising that MTV doesn't air the Sexx Laws video more often. You used to be an MTV darling.

Beck: Yeah, it costs a fortune to make a video now and MTV isn't even playing it. MTV isn't interested in us right now. They've gone Top 10. They're getting higher ratings than ever and it's all Backstreet Boys. You sound a bit tired of it all.

Beck: Yeah, I need a break. I'm going to finish up the tour in September and then go off for a little while. I've been going now since 94, with no stretch of time off at all. I have a bunch of ideas for new albums, but now that I'm almost 30, my urgency to put them out has dissipated a bit. I felt for years that I was exploding with ideas, but I?m okay now to let them wait a little while. Settle down a bit. Does that mean you might marry (longtime girlfriend) Leigh?

Beck: She can have whatever she wants! She puts up with so much, she's been great. But she knows what it's like on tour -- it's not like you're out getting drunk and having fun. The room I'm in right now is like the holding tank for a correctional facility. But she's definitely ready for me to take a break. I understand you moved away from the Silverlake (near Los Angeles) neighborhood for a while, only to move back.

Beck: I realized I can't live anywhere else because it's one of those rare areas where it's all mixed. I can't live in an all-white neighborhood. I need to be around other cultures -- Salvadoran, Korean, whatever. My whole life Silverlake's always been a third class place which was great because they leave us alone. Do you ever get to do anything fun while you're touring?

Beck: I would love to do a tour where I also sneak in some acoustic shows. Right now there?s no time. Although last night I got to go to the movies for the first time in a while. We went to see that submarine movie. That would be U-571?

Beck: Yeah, and it was the wrong movie to see. I couldn't sleep afterwards -- the movie was too intense and stressful. I was yelling at the screen, throwing things. I can't experience something like that passively. 

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