Beck: U2 are generous, personable and masters of songwriting
Beck on his constant reinvention, his new poppy direction, and touring with U2
“Every record has a goal. On some records, I want to make music with my friends, sometimes I want to be experimental and discover new ideas, and other times I just want to make people move.” So says Beck, the mononymed master of groove and oddity. “Colors is about craft. It’s about making songs to play at festivals where the whole sky opens up. I’m not saying that these songs do that at all – I’m just saying it’s in that category of songs.”
This is a level-headedness I wasn’t quite expecting given the fact that, well, he’s Beck, a man who once fumed out an LA venue he was playing by bringing a petrol leaf-blower onstage.
The craft and festival-friendly energy is certainly there in his 13th album, but given the preceding years, it’s easy to create a narrative that runs thusly: after the melancholic folk of 2014’s Morning Phase and its subsequent Grammy win for the hotly-contested Album of the Year award, he swung the pendulum towards radio-friendly art-pop that capitalises on his certified mainstream status.
“Maybe externally it will be perceived that way, but I’m working on things all the time so I’d written half of these songs before Morning Phase came out,” he says. “By the time I won the Grammy, it was almost complete. In fact, the main rework afterwards was we added more guitars – before, it was more dancier and a bit cleaner, so we went back and made things a little bit less clean.”
The energised atmosphere is mostly to do with a revived outlook following his recuperation from a serious spinal injury, which he got during the making of the video for E-Pro in 2005. It severely limited his output until he fully recovered ahead of Morning Phase.
“After not touring or putting out records for a long time, we started to do a few little shows here and there, and playing festivals with other bands. And I came together with a bunch of musicians I’d spent a lot of the early part of my career with.”
Most notable among these is producer Greg Kurstin. “It was one of those moments in life where I got to re-appreciate the things I’m doing, and the relationship with people who come to see me play. It was very inspiring to me; it was like a reaffirmation.”
The rapture is brushed all over the album, prime examples being Wow (“it’s like right now”) and I’m So Free, but scrape off the outer layers and the craft of which he speaks becomes evident. For this, he studied the classics: The Beatles, Michael Jackson, the late, great Tom Petty, Talking Heads, The Clash. At an intimate show in London the day after we meet, he and his band pay tribute to some of their favourites onstage, but you’ll struggle to specifically hear any act’s signature sounds on Colors.
“It was more about understanding their technique and approach,” he says. “I listened and heard that on this song, they used a real drumkit going through a spring reverb, but they also used a drum machine that you would have heard on a Grandmaster Flash album with a handclap on it. I thought about construction, and how combining these elements made them sound unique.
U2 are the masters of what they do. As a songwriter you get to look very closely at how brilliantly the songs are constructed
“Actually, there was a part in the album that sounded like The Clash, but we took that out because it can’t be a pastiche. If you’re thinking about a sound, you have to learn it and forget it, then hope the spirit of it gets in there.”
Such discourse is a far cry from his beginnings, when Loser’s heavy rotation on the MTV almost had him down as a one-hit wonder. Since then, albums such as 1999’s funk-infused Midnite Vultures, 2008’s retro-sounding Modern Guilt and the cool-as-folk The Information, from 2006, have seen him serve up constant reinvention alongside accidental mass appreciation.
Colors slots in nicely with other chart-botherers on daytime radio. So would he consider this his pop album?
“It’s such a broad term,” he mulls. “I was thinking of ‘pop’ in the sense of something that’s crafted where they’re at a creative peak and they’ve tried to push themselves farther. Like [The Beatles’] Sgt Pepper’s or [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds. They’re records that are well-crafted, but they’re also sonically very adventurous, they’re trying to innovate. That’s what makes a great pop record, and that was the ethos for this. At the same time, there’s that transcendent levitation that happens with truly great songs.”
Back in rude health, he’ll soon take Colors on the road, a move which was foreshadowed this summer by supporting U2 on the North American leg of their Joshua Tree anniversary tour.
“The band are very engaging and welcoming, generous, thoughtful, personable,” he says of the experience. “It was the most welcoming headliner of any tour I’ve been on. Here’s an example: usually when you open for someone, they don’t let the support act play louder than them. The headliner sets the limit. But with them, there was no limit. That tells you what kind of people they are: they were happy for me to be my best, and whatever they could do to help, they would.”
Even through his favourite prism of songcraft, he’s a big fan, he adds. “They’re the masters of what they do. As a songwriter you get to look very closely at how brilliantly the songs are constructed. For musicians, it’s a rarefied place that they inhabit.”
With tensions running high in the US, U2’s show in St Louis, Missouri was cancelled as protests in the city diverted their security. “I think we’ll soon hear more music that reflects where we’re at,” says Beck. “It always takes a while for music to come out; I’m sure in the next couple of years we’ll be flooded with music about these times.”
Would he be adding his voice? “I don’t know, there are so many moving parts. It would be easy to write about if there was one thing, but it’s systematic. Ultimately it’s one of these times of conflict, and it’s coming from all angles, everywhere. And it’s not just political – in America, it’s pervading a lot of areas.
“But society is a gigantic organism: it goes through periods of transition and periods of stasis. Not to make light of the difficulties, because it’s painful, but hopefully some of that leads to a better place than where we were. That’s my optimistic side, anyway.”
Greg Kurstin’s pop alchemy
When it comes to capturing contemporary sounds, there are few safer hands than those of LA’s Greg Kurstin, who returns to work with Beck on his new album. While their musical relationship began before Beck became a pop powerhouse, Kurstin has since produced plenty of other chart favourites.
It was Beck who introduced Kurstin to the belter-voiced Sia; and so began a productive relationship that led to her best-known single Chandelier. The gloss on the song earned them the Record of the Year Awards in the 2014 Grammys.
No presh or anything, but it was Kurstin’s co-songwriting abilities that were charged with reintroducing the world to Adele, aged 25. It did the job: the song gave Adele her second number one, and in its first week, broke Spotify’s record for most-streamed song.
Niall Horan: This Town
Given the stakes were high for our Niall post-One Direction, it was a good call to employ Kurstin as a guiding light. He helped define Horan’s solo work as a step away from One Direction, while keeping his (very large) existing fanbase on board. Smart work.