On the surface, all seems fine with Beck Hansen. No wires protrude from his dirty-blond moptop. No glazed expressions, no shifty answers, no sense of humour bypass. Alarming rumours that the thinking rock fan’s favourite party smarty has been kidnapped by religious cultists have clearly been exaggerated.
A tiny figure who looks barely half his 34 years, Beck is dwarfed by the vastness of the hotel suite hired by his London record company for promotional interviews. His blue saucer eyes blink back at you like ET, fresh from the wreckage of his spaceship. But Beck is no alien freak, he’s just from Los Angeles, and they do things differently there.
The last time we met, in 1999, he was wearing the mask of an uptown R&B playboy on his Midnite Vulture album. He was in his 20s, in a long-term relationship, and a generational poster boy for musical mavericks everywhere. Fast forward five years and Beck is married to a different woman and father to a nine-month-old son, Cosimo. His high critical standing has also been dented by reports that he has embraced the controversial Church of Scientology.
But whatever psycho-spiritual shifts have occurred beneath his slacker surface, Beck remains warm, funny and intelligent company. There are no PR minders hovering to deflect sensitive questions, as happened during some interviews for his last album, Sea Change, in 2002. Behind his deadpan manner, he seems enthused by the acclaim flooding in for his new album, Guero (see review …).
Even fatherhood, he says, has been creatively inspiring. “You’re handed this huge responsibility, but I think it does make you look at the relative importance of things,” he says. “It makes things a little less serious. You’re sort of going back to your own childhood – you start rediscovering certain aspects of yourself.”
A simmering stew of latino folk-hop, junk-shop funk and electro-sludge blues, Guero marks a reunion with the Dust Brothers, the hip-hop production team behind Beck’s 1996 breakthrough album, Odelay. Not a calculated attempt to recreate past glory, he says, just a convenient converging of schedules.
“We had some unfinished songs from years ago so the original plan was to at least just go in and finish those. We’ve been talking about doing something for years – it was just finding the right time when we all had a good five or six months to do something proper. And once we got in there we instantly had about 15 songs that just flowed out.”
A past master at fusing rap with rock, Beck attempted a fruitless collaboration with rap mogul P Diddy some years back. “He was Puff Daddy then, so I think I was left behind with the old name,” he says. One early suggestion for Guero was to work with Doctor Dre, the studio svengali behind Eminem and 50 Cent – but the plan soon unravelled.
“He sent me some tracks, then I kind of got involved with the Dust Brothers,” Beck says. “But maybe, down the line. The tracks he sent over didn’t have any vocal, obviously, but they sounded like 50 Cent smashes. But I think if I was going to do something with him I would start it from scratch.”
By now, almost 15 years into his musical career, Beck is used to being caricatured as the weird kid at the back of the class. But behind his shape-shifting and genre-hopping, he calls himself a ‘purist’ who is ‘hyper protective’ about how his music is marketed.
Indeed, his anxieties about the perils of “selling out” are almost quaintly traditional – which makes it all the more surprising that he allowed several Guero tracks to be used on the soundtrack to the shallow US teen soap, The OC.
“Honestly, I don’t really know that show,” he says. “I get asked stuff for TV shows and I usually don’t know the show. I ask people and sometimes they’ll say, ‘That’s a cheesy show but I love it, you gotta do it.’
“I think the reason we did that show is the guy who does music for it is a pretty deep music fanatic. It seems like he’s taken on the cause of all these underground bands who are never going to get played on MTV.”
Among the guests on Guero is Beck’s biological father David Campbell, a veteran arranger and session musician who has worked with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Aerosmith. Campbell is a Scientologist, as is Beck’s mother, former Andy Warhol camp follower and punk singer Bibbe Beck, and his stepfather, Sean Carrillo.
Much has been made of Beck’s own recent ‘conversion’ to the sect, which he initially denied. He says he “grew up around” Scientology from birth and has recently taken some of the church’s self-improvement courses. Last year, he married actress Marissa Ribisi – the sister of film star Giovanni. Both are Scientologists.
Asked about the role Scientology plays in his life, Beck says: “It’s reinforced certain things that were really constructive and good. You come to our house and the kitchen is a photography studio, my brother-in-law and I are working on an animated short piece. So it helps me look at these things and strengthens things that are the most important aspects of my life.”
– The Selling of a Church: The Courting of Celebrities
But surely Beck would possess these same creative gifts without Scientology? “Absolutely, but it definitely reinforces that,” he says. “I mean, there’s a lot of different ways to go in the music business, and I’ve seen all kinds of ways.
“There’s people who feed into the fame aspect of it, people who get heavily involved with drugs and partying, people who burn out and get bitter. There’s a lot of arbitraries in the music-making world and not all of them are really relevant to me. So I can really look at what I do it for, and what gives me energy.”
Last year, he played a benefit show for a Scientology-run substance abuse centre in Los Angeles. He highlights the success rate of the church’s ‘Narconon’ programme – between 70% to 80%, according to official figures – which is considered exemplary among objective drugs counsellors.
“They are highly involved and recognised in that,” Beck says. “Education, helping people with illiteracy, second language students, all that stuff. The drug rehabilitation programmes have the highest success rate of any in the world. If you actually look at what’s been done and the things that have come out of it, it kind of blows away this kind of criticism.”
Beck takes the party line that the medical and pharmaceutical establishment feels threatened by Scientology, especially its behaviourist techniques and hostility to orthodox psychoanalysis. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?
According to his internet critics, the artist formerly known as Beck Hansen has simply been reprogrammed as a propaganda weapon for the cult. “But who said it and where did they get it from?” he says. “The point is it’s important to make your own judgments on your own experience, and not on third or fourth hand information. But opinion is made in strange ways.
“I remember when I came out I read I was the worst thing that ever happened to music. Anything that’s an alternative to the conventional means is going to cause controversy.”
Guero is available now on Polydor records
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