Minneapolis transplant Thavius Beck has been making music here in LA for the past 15 years or so, first as Adlib, rapping and producing for hip-hop collective Global Phlowtations and releasing several solo albums as Adlib before releasing his first album as Thavius Beck, Decomposition, in 2004, while working at Amoeba Hollywood. His glitched-out hip-hop sound led him to production work for the likes of Saul Williams and Busdriver and a remix for Nas. He’s worked alongside Trent Reznor and Zack De La Rocha and released several more albums over the years, the most recent of which is the instrumental electronic record The Most Beautiful Ugly. Thavius Beck returns to Amoeba Hollywood this Friday Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. to perform. I spoke to Beck a bit before his performance.
PST: It’s impressive that you produced a full album and then had a mixtape of outtakes that was also both strong and coherent as its own set. About how much music do you typically produce before whittling it down for an album?
Beck: I have so many unused beats that it is kind of sickening really. A lot of the stuff on the Symphony of the Spheres mixtape and the Heavens Bleed Sunshine EP is really old ... there is a beat called “Rationalizing Emotion” that I probably made about eight years ago, if not more. The big difference for me was that my album The Most Beautiful Ugly was mostly brand new material specifically for the album, and not just older beats that I tried to clean up and put in an album order. The only song on this record that wasn't specifically made for it was “Labward Bound,” which I made for a Low End Theory (LA club night) beat invitational about two or three years ago.
PST: I’ve read that you’re an Ableton Live certified trainer and that you’ve taught other artists how to use it. Is that something you do for fun or as a side job? Could you teach me?
Beck: Yes, you’ve read correctly ... I've been a certified trainer of Ableton Live for several years now and also teach for a school based in NY called Dubspot. I’ve always been the guy to teach others how to use a piece of gear or figuring out how to use a program I've never seen, so me being a certified trainer and instructor is really just an extension of that. I enjoy it very much, but it's not like I just do it for fun... it's my main source of income.
And yes, I could teach you... I offer private lessons outside of the classes I teach, so I can teach anyone if they are serious about learning.
PST: Can you talk a bit about your recording method? Do you have artists play music live that you then sample, is it all based on prerecorded loops and samples or is it some combination? I’m thinking of things like the acoustic guitar that pops up in “Atmos” or the vocal samples in “Feel Me/Fear Me.”
Beck: The acoustic guitar in "Atmos" is one thing I hadn't been able to talk about in an interview, so I am glad you asked about it. But let me answer the first part of that first ... I rarely ever work with musicians. Not because I don't want to (I desperately want to find people I can work with) but because I am very particular about what I want and the type of people I want to work with. I'll reach out to people and see what is possible and then usually just end up doing the stuff myself. So a lot fo what you hear are samples either from old songs, samples from my own songs or sessions I've done in the past, mixed with synths and chopped up drums and percussion. That is the basic formula, but obviously that changes from song to song.
Now back to "Atmos" and that guitar ... that was one of my proudest geek moments because I played that riff on Garageband on the iPad using the acoustic guitar, and I was absolutely shocked by how convincing it sounded when I mixed it in with everything else (on its own it sounds a bit more like an acoustic guitar being emulated by an iPad). I wanted a buddy of mine to play it and just use the iPad guitar as a guide, but after a while I realized there was no need to take it out.
There are a handful of vocal samples on "Feel Me/Fear Me," so I'm not sure exactly which ones you are referring to, but the opening sample is obviously Lil' Wayne, then there are some reversed and looped samples from outtakes of my sessions years ago with Gingger Shankar (just using pieces of her voice as a texture in the song), and then there is yet another set of vocal samples that are pitched down an octave and reversed. I don't want to say what it is because I pitched it down and reversed it for a reason ... haha!
PST: I was curious as to your decision to make The Most Beautiful Ugly an instrumental album without rapping, either by yourself or guests. Did you want the focus to be on the music? Was it just the sort of music you felt didn’t lend itself to vocal performance?
Beck: I think rap music, or the idea of rap, turns a lot of people off. That may sound crazy to all the beat heads out there and younger folks, but I'm 33 now and I just don't see myself as a rapper. I haven't for many years. And honestly, at this point it's not even like I am a fan of any active rappers right now ... I don't really know who I'd reach out to to collaborate with that would be inspiring to me as far as rappers go ... I'll happily do remixes for rappers because then I get a chance to try and improve what is already there, but I am an electronic musician and producer first and foremost, so that is why my record is instrumental. That is who I am as an artist, and my record reflects that. Doesn't mean I won't rap again in the future at some point, but that is not at all my current focus.
PST: You continue to release physical albums but also released a mixtape for free. Where do you see the landscape moving as far as releasing music physically and digitally?
Beck: I think that ultimately musicians will do whatever it takes to get people to buy a ticket to their shows because that is really the only way we're making money now ... that and licensing (and any other outside hustles you can come up with). So if you have to give away your album to make people pay to come to your show and maybe buy a shirt directly from you, then for the artist it is totally worth it. Obviously for a label, that isn't as attractive. But I'm not sure how you can make money (or at least beak even) by relying on selling physical product as a business model, especially if that physical product is nothing more than a bulky item holding data that you could have downloaded and put on a tiny USB thumb drive along with 10,000 other of your favorite tunes for significantly cheaper.
As for me, I will continue to make and release music no matter what, because it's who I am. It's just a matter of being aware of the available options when I'm ready for the next thing and being smart about moving forward.
Beck: Well of course ... Skrillex won three Grammys. Britney Spears did a single with a dubstep break. Dubstep sells, it's in a ton of commercials, so now anyone willing to sit in front of their TV for 30 minutes is bound to hear it and be programmed to think it's the future of music, so now all the big pop stars want electronic producers to remix their tunes so they can crossover to the dubstep and house clubs, etc.
I think it also has a lot to do with people not learning how to play instruments, so they don't value musicianship as much as a glitchy effect or some noisy wobbly bass sound. If you have $700, and you could either buy a guitar or a used laptop that already has Ableton Live on it and a bunch of drum sounds and samples, that person is more than likely going to jump at that computer, and they will learn to appreciate the sound of Skrillex a lot more than they would learn to appreciate the sound of someone like Vernon Reid ... which is kinda sad. But that is where we are at.
PST: Do you prefer producing and remixing for other people, or making your own music?
Beck: It depends. I like the idea of producing for other people, but I don't necessarily like the other shit that comes with it ... If you put your energy and time into a project with someone else just to see them fuck it off, that is a really deflating feeling, and one I recently experienced and am still kinda bummed about. But, if two like-minded people come together at the right time with a clear vision of what they want to do moving forward, it can be a really cool thing. Remixing is fun because it is a collaboration without any strings attached. I always enjoy doing remixes. But ultimately I like making music for myself because that is where I feel the most comfortable and free to do whatever I want.
PST: You’ve worked with an impressive and diverse cast of musicians in the past. Who are you working with currently or are planning to work with? Who would you like to?
Beck: I have been really fortunate in my musical adventure ... I am currently working with an artist named Skylar Grey and doing her Ableton stuff for certain gigs as her "DJ." She is really cool and down to earth and open to my input and ideas, so that has been very good so far. I think there may be a chance that N'Dea Davenport and I will collaborate sometime in the future, which would be really cool to me. When I signed with Plug Research, I thought the coolest thing would be to collaborate with Bilal, but I am not sure how likely that is.
Who would I like to collaborate with? I'd like to work with Trent Reznor again on some solo stuff (just me and him, and Atticus [Ross]), Mike Patton, Project Pat, Juicy J, Ishmael Butler (of Shabazz Palaces), Bjork, Beth Gibbons, Vernon Reid, Jon Theodore, etc. And for some odd reason, I think it would be fun to do a side project with MF DOOM with a very different sound ... but I'm pretty much open to work with whoever if it makes sense and they're not on some diva shit. I just want to add something that an artist has never had before, no matter how big or small that artist may be. I just want to make music better.