KEXP Exclusive Interview: Beck

photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

After a several year gestation period, Beck finally released his long-awaited album Colors. Written and produced with Greg Kurstin, Colors (out now via Capitol Records) is the most upbeat, relentlessly danceable album he's made in more than a decade. The shapeshifting artist recently talked to KEXP about why music is vital to life and some of his favorite records.

Interview: Morgan ChosnykAudio engineer/editing: Jackson Justice LongAudio editing/production: Owen MurphyAudio editing: Matthew Schmidt

I don't think people often realize how much goes into creating a cohesive album. So, I'd love to start with the title. What does the title of Colors mean to you, or what would you like listeners to get from it? 

I think colors, you know, they're the things in life... that are the life. Whether it's relationship and friends, whether it's the city where you live, those things that make you feel alive. For me, music is one of those. And so the album, I feel, is coming from a place of thinking about this idea of music as one of these presences in our lives that add the color that reminds us that we are human and we are alive. That's that's one of the powers of music. It brings you into the moment and reminds you that there is light. It is an expression of humanity and connection and all these things that are really powerful. So over time, that's really been something that becomes more and more apparent. And I wanted this record to celebrate that and be a reminder of that.

Your songs are often so kaleidoscopic in sound and ideas. For you, what are the elements that make a song great? 

Well, the songwriting for me is the thing that I look for. There's only so much you can do with the chords and the notes that we have, and it's endless variation. And every year, it just continually amazes me that people come up with new ways to recombine it and to articulate something and express something within whatever the confines are of the Western scale. This is this construct that we've made, this is the music and you're going to express something that I immediately recognize and understand, something beyond language.

Your sound changes on each record. How do you decide on a particular style when you land on for each record, and for Colors in particular? 

I've had records where we just go in, and there's usually an ethos. There's maybe some sort of approach we're going to take. Like "OK, we're going to record this album with this group of musicians live in the studio and we have three weeks, and we're going to do it on tape." And then I have other albums, like this record that I was going to do it with Greg and it would just be the two of us, and we were going to write the songs together. I wanted to have this feeling of the kind of shows that we play. I don't know if people have seen us play live. There's a lot of energy; it's very visceral, the crowd is very engaged. It's sort of a celebration. And so we play a lot of these festivals where there's a lot of that happening too and it's sort of a carnival of music.

And so I wanted to bring that energy into this record. As opposed to, say, the last record I put out, which was a quieter, more thoughtful record. A bit more of a melancholy, reflective sound. And so this was very much a different kind of thing. We were thinking a lot about the great records that we loved growing up. You know, the records that sort of stand outside of their era and their genre, even. They're just popular, undeniably great records, but there's sort of an artistry to them, too. What's a more obvious record than Thriller? And when you actually look at it and listen to it, it's an art piece. We were thinking about those kinds of records, how they were made. There's a lot of musicality; there's a lot of depth in the record making side of it. And then there's an immediacy and a fun to the songwriting in the performing.

What are a couple of your all-time favorite records? I'd love to know. 

Oh, I have many. I mean for us, for all different reasons, the type of record that I was I'm talking about, it could be like an artist sort of at the height of their powers and really trying to push the form, and  I know there are people who prefer the White Album over Sgt. Pepper, but many agree that Sgt. Pepper is a groundbreaking record. The songs are great. The productions were groundbreaking, and there's a handful of records like that in the '60s and '70s.

Every decade there's a Purple Rain or Let's Dance or Peter Gabriel's So. Just something that sort of crystallized... it was something that was well known, but artistic as well. It's a rarefied kind of record, but you know I personally love everything from Talking Heads and the Clash to Dylan and Neil Young through MGMT or Tame Impala or LCD Soundsystem. There are great records everywhere. We're lucky, we're just in an era of streaming where it's right there. It's sort of overwhelming. So to make music in that time and just try to be a sort of drop in that river, that's really what I aspire to.

Speaking of being in the time that the music industry is in right now, it's changed a lot over the years. What advice would you give your younger self if you could? And what advice would you give to new artists today? 

Well, I don't know where to start. The big question. It's sort of funny because I don't know if you have kids. I have kids and it's part... so much of it is that they're really on their own journey and they got to figure it out on their own. And one size doesn't fit all.

And I feel like that, but there are certain things that I could say, like sort of practical things. So if I see you around, you know, let's talk again. You know it's funny when I started out, I was waiting for that legend to stroll up and give me some good advice. I was actually receptive to it. Never happened, really. But, I think maybe just focus on the songs and just concentrate on the music, making good music.

There are so many ancillary different ways you can get lost. And so the music becomes the afterthought. And I see that over and over again. It's something that I fight too. There's a relatively small amount of my time that actually goes into making music. It's all these other things. I can't imagine what it is like on the level... some of the artists that are really, you know, successful, huge artists. But yeah, just songs. That's really what it comes down to the end. I mean, there are people who are iconic, and they're going to be remembered. Maybe their image will be remembered more than their music, but I think for the majority of us, it's like we managed to get, you know, one or two or three good songs, the songs will live on and people won't even really know who did them. The songs are going to outlive all of us.

So just one more question for you. Our tagline here at KEXP is where the music matters, so we like to ask artists, why does music matter? You touched on a little bit earlier, but if you have anything to say about that, that would be awesome. 

I feel like that's the whole conversation we've had. I was saying it's this expression of sort of humanity. Yeah, it's not going to clothe and shelter you, but in other ways, it's one of these things we've created in our society that reminds us something about ourselves you know. So whether you're listening to Tom Petty or Selena Gomez or Jimmy Rodgers the yodeling brakeman, for everybody there's there's some music that keeps something in them awake.

Related News & Reviews

Interviews Songbook

KEXP Songbook: Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World with Billy Bragg

In early October, KEXP was thrilled to host an evening with leftist icon and buck-the-man songwriter Billy Bragg, as part of Songbook: KEXP’s Music & Literature Series. Over the summer, Bragg released his second nonfiction book Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, said t…

Read More
Interviews Video Roundup Local Music KEXP Presents Audioasis

KEXP Presents: Videoasis at Northwest Film Forum 10/25

For generations of music fans, the invention of the music video was a landmark moment. Being able to associate your favorite songs with equally exciting visuals was such an obvious combination, it's a wonder it didn't break through earlier. Whether it's gluing your eyes to old-school MTV or getting…

Read More