In April 2005, I talked to Beck by phone for a piece in Wired magazine on the multimedia promotion of his album Guero. (See "Beck's Buzz Machine," Wired 13.06.) Space was limited, however, so hardly any of this material ended up being used. Since Beck and his management were generous enough to arrange this interview, I've decided to make the text available here. -- S.S.
Steve Silberman: When did you start making art?
Beck: Just like anybody, in school, when you're a little kid. As a teenager I got inspired by a lot of contemporary artists like Warhol.
SS: Was your granddad Al Hansen a friend of Warhol's?
Beck: He was involved with that scene, definitely.
SS: I read somewhere that you made mixed tapes and wrote poetry when you were very young.
Beck: Yeah, I befriended a professor at the city college a couple miles up from my house in L.A. I dropped out of high school, so I used to go up there and hang out at the library. I was too young to be in the class, but I sat in, and made friends with one of the professors there who was married to Wanda Coleman, a renowned poet. They had a house behind the school. I used to go over there are hang out and listen to them talk about poetry, and show them some of mine. I was just interested in visual stuff -- words, music -- I was finding my way around all those things.
SS: I've spoken with Adam Levite and a bunch of people you worked with on the art for Guero, and one of the things that they said was that often, if they would suggest someone's work to you, you had already heard of it. Adam mentioned that you already owned art by Marcel Dzama, who did the cover of the album.
Beck: Definitely. He was somebody who I contacted three or four years ago when I was doing Sea Change to do a little video or animated thing for me. We didn't get around to hooking up till last year, but yeah, he was somebody I was aware of.
SS: I also spoke to Mumbleboy, who did the videos for the Gameboy Remixes of Guero, and he said that you gave him a wide berth, so that his piece could be coming from his own creativity rather than you telling him what to do.
Beck: Sure. You try to hook up with artists who you admire, and you let them do their thing. If I'm gonna do something myself, I'll just do it myself [laughing].
SS: Do you make art at home?
Beck: I do drawings, collages, found-art things, photography, graphic design.
SS: Could you tell me about what you love about each of the Guero art-projects?
Beck: Oh yeah. We have the DVD, which was D-Fuse. I've been thinking a lot in the last few years about what form the music was going to be released in, in this time of downloading, the Internet, people burning CDs, music sharing, and all that. I've always operated from the idea of the album being this piece of work -- an entity that was complete and unmolested. You'd release a piece of vinyl or a cassette. That's what I grew up with, and that's what I know. With that comes album artwork. I started thinking about where the art was going to go, and how it was going to work. One of the things I wanted to do with Sea Change was have a version of the album with graphic images that went along with the music. That idea never really came together. We ended up doing a partial DVD with videos. But I had this idea of just pure imagery -- even abstract -- that gave some kind of graphic life to the music, almost like moving album-cover art embedded in the music. So that's where this DVD came from.
I started discovering this whole scene of graphic artists who are working with video and computers. I was in Japan four years ago and found a couple of DVDs of artists who were doing this motion graphics work, and ended up hooking up with Jeremy Blake on Sea Change, who was one of the forerunners of that kind of art. So it grew from there, and it seemed like other people were coming to the same idea. The first people we contacted were D-Fuse. It was a really interesting experiment. I finally got to put in the whole thing the other day and play with it, and I liked it. It can be passive or active. You can sit and watch it and let it color the music for you, or it can be something that's just kind of there in the environment. It's a real early step in a direction where there are a lot of possibilities.
There's a whole scene of people doing this, mostly in the fine arts world. It hasn't really translated into the music world that much yet, but it seems like such an easy fit. It's an interesting time in the music business where -- from what I've observed -- people are looking at things like video games becoming even more culturally dominant than albums. I was talking to a friend yesterday who has friends who line up when the new video game comes out. It's this coveted object, much the same that way a Stones or a Beatles record was back in the '60s. We're in a transition period. This is probably pretty presumptuous, but the idea that there could be some kind of form between a video and a DVD, using the engine of a videogame player or some kind of computer, could evolve into something interesting.
SS: How did the Mumbleboy project happen?
Beck: Before I started this album, I became interested in the lo-fi electronic music scene -- people taking old electronics and hacking into them or retooling them to make music. It was really interesting to me, and definitely aligned with my aesthetic. For years, I've been using toys and cheap instruments to make music. When I was starting out, that's what I had available. I didn't have a drum kit; I had a cardboard box and a wastebasket. It had a certain sound. I was considering trying to do a record like that. Then I got pretty involved with the Dust Brothers and Guero, and along the way I made some contacts with some of these lo-fi musicians. We decided to do some remixes, and that led to videomakers like Mumbleboy who were doing really homemade Flash animations. It's been cool.
People get remixes done and put out club 12-inches, but it can be pretty impersonal. Doing these Gameboy remixes and the Flash animations was more of an art project for the sake of doing something interesting and collaborative and creative. It's such an interesting community.
SS: For the Shynola project, would you suggest themes for images for them to use?
Beck: Originally, I wanted to do a Mexican day-of-the-dead thing. From there, we kind of changed it more to a Little Nemo fantastical, underworld thing -- waking up in the underworld. These were all their ideas. There are four guys in Shynola, they're a collective. Their aesthetic and their ideas are so realized, this was a case where it was really just handing it to them and letting them go.
With the ASCII video for Black Tambourine, I had a concept and had already done a test film of it.
SS: What did you use to make it?
Beck: I used a digital point-and-shoot camera that does little 15-second movies, then I took that and had a program that transferred each frame into ASCII. Then my friend stuck the frames into iMovie and it worked really well. When we did the actual video, we found a program that coverted footage, so it wouldn't take three months to do. It was kind of a complicated process, because you had to shoot it in a certain way so it would read really well in ASCII.
SS: Things like the Mumbleboy and Shynola projects are clearly art, but there are like ringtones based on Guero tracks in Japan. Are you involved in that stuff at all, or do they just ask you if it's OK if they do it?
Beck: D-Fuse was making these "three-dimensional" ringtones, meaning that there's a little film that comes up on your screen with the ring. So they just took some of the ones from the DVD and made ringtones. I haven't seen them yet. That technology has yet to come to America. But it's an interesting concept -- the way it's going over in Japan is that people are downloading songs onto their phones now.
SS: Yeah, some German group released an album that was only available as ringtones.
Beck: Right. So, we're probably looking at the MP3 player and the home stereo all merging into the phone. Something like the concept of the motion graphic DVD will find a place in that -- in the phone, or whatever we have. It's a really interesting time, it's definitely in transition. There are a lot of different ways it could go. We're at one of those moments when you could push it one way or the other.
SS: How did you hear about the version of the album that was leaked on the Net?
Beck: Somebody I work with called me and said "Hey, it's leaked."
SS: Were you actually upset?
Beck: I was disappointed because we hadn't finished or mixed the album yet. It didn't have the final lyrics. It was missing parts of songs. It was a rough version, and I did spend quite a bit of time getting the sound how I wanted it to sound. The amount of care and work that went into that seems pretty extensive. So when you have this half-assed version coming out, and people are reviewing it... Part of me goes with it, because these things happen, and what can you do? Rarely do things go in life as you plan them.
SS: In a way, it was a demonstration of how eager people were to hear it.
Beck: Or how easy it was to get it [laughing]. I don't think it was like Radiohead where they actually got the tapes stolen out of the studio. I still don't know how my record got leaked. But yeah, it's great when people want to hear a record -- that's definitely not a bad thing.