By Jennie Orton
VANCOUVER – Like the first few haunting notes of “Wow,” the molly-hug of a new single off his upcoming release, Colors, Beck himself is as distinct as he is catching. He will greet you with direct eye contact and a genuinely interested gaze, like he is trying to figure out which sample best suits your first impression. For the better part of three decades, he has been the impossibly confident concentrated dose of versatility and rhythm; the deliverer of sick beats and bizarrely impressive “bad white boy” dancing, way before Thom Yorke made it…cool? Question mark? Swaggering through 30 years of strange thunder as the music business evolved and rose and fell through years of great and not-so-great poetic tendencies, Beck stayed remarkably true to himself. A renegade with two turntables and a microphone. A monkey in a time of chimpanzees sporting a black tambourine and a Devil’s Haircut. He’s been the weirdo we all kinda like; something we can all agree on. The one person where if Kanye grabs the mic we are ALL like “hey hey hey, not now, man!”
The journey to developing this inexplicable bizarro language that we all understand started early on when he realized the sound he was following wasn’t falling on willing ears.
“I have such a strange career. I sort of started out with an acoustic guitar and was a folk singer, but nobody cared about that when I was starting out. So I started getting beat boxes, and got the drummer from the other band to drum while I rapped. I was just trying whatever, there were no rules and I quickly learned that there was no interest in whatever thread I was on coming out of a folk tradition.”
Experimentation led to the fully-formed and self-made one-man time bomb that is Beck. In an era where Kurt Cobain was actively writhing against his own success, Beck was picking up cues from bands who were doing the opposite.
“I remember when I met The Strokes really early on – before their first album came out – we toured together. So none of the success had happened yet but as it happened, as I watched it happen, I just saw how much they reveled and embraced it and weren’t ashamed of it, he recalls. “They were able to just be themselves and embrace it and it was a joyous thing.”
A joyous thing is an apt descriptor for not only the new material on Colors, lovingly crafted with his frequent collaborator and friend Greg Kurstin, but for his live show. When present at his Vancouver performance, one can feel the joy in the incredibly eclectic audience present; drunk bros, goth kids on dates, moms and dads, hippie girls in sundresses, glory day ravers now off early from their lawyer job, hipsters in mom jeans and garibaldi beards, all standing from the first note and singing along in the most effortless success at audience call-backs seen in this stoic city for a long time. It is that energy gleaned from the Strokes; that unabashed enjoyment of the process that trickles off the stage and soaks into the velour seats of the Orpheum theatre for all of us to simmer in when the four-song set of tracks from Morning Phase give us a moment to bask on our bottoms.
His career has waded through being prolific and overly deliberate depending on the situation; be it a life-changing breakup, a sidelining spinal injury, or the loving cultivation of a family. Embracing the ride has taken many forms.
“I had a really intense period of time in my 20s with working and travelling and it was just like a marathon. So rigorous and constant. And it’s that feeling like you’re just barely keeping up with it,” he admits. “Cause when you are starting out you are thinking ‘ok so this is going to go on for five years and then it’ll be over and whatever, I’ll go do something else’. So when you have that luxury of being able to go back and do it all again and kind of stand back and take it in. And you have bands that are sort of starting out and watching them and they’re just connecting with an audience and taking off – it’s like you get to appreciate all these things that you didn’t get to appreciate the first time around.”
Coming at his career as a veteran has culminated with having kids and seeing the click track of life take on a new tempo.
“Life is happening in real time and its happening fast. It’s like water; it’s not something you can hold on to. Maybe one of the beauties of art or music or film is they are sort of modest ways of trying to capture these statements and these moments and feelings and try to bottle them up so they remain.”
So while on your feet at the live show, moved to move by the catchy refrain of the big strobing monster that is “Black Tambourine” or the swinging dick between the legs of “Go It Alone”, you can almost forget that these songs are part of a person’s journey of life that you are hanging off the side of for dear life. When the 6-part vocal harmonies during “Wave”, courtesy of his well-populated touring band, bounce around the vaulted ceilings of the old opera house you are standing in, it may come creeping back that there are some very self-aware life lessons lying in wait within the groovy exterior of Beck’s discography, which plays like an autobiography of his most poignant moments when crafted into a setlist. Songs like a tidal wave, take you on a getaway. Cause in this place, it is about equal parts embracing it and letting it go; that’s how you win at your own game. And when he says…
“Turn turn away
From the weight of your own past
It’s magic for the devil”
…the elephant in the room goes boom.
So as he grows up, and his kids forsake the pianos and guitars in his home for baseball and “Slime. A lot of slime. I am just rolling in slime”, Beck welcomes what is coming and lets the music, much like his kids, be what it is going to be.
“There are a lot of songs that are just abandoned cars on the roadside; they just don’t make it there. And there are some that make it with like three flat tires and you just barely get there, like a puff of smoke comes out. And then there are songs that are just a smooth ride.”
“You realize that this is really a – no matter what level you are working on – that this is really a lucky thing. Just take it all in.”
Bottles and cans, my friends. Bottles and cans.Beck, Colors, Colors tour, Orpheum