Beck - Biography
As the preeminent icon of junk culture, Beck Hanson fluctuates kinetically between absurdist clown and melancholic troubadour in a self-realized musical world. Always one to keep his audience on their toes, Beck is notoriously difficult to pin down. As the creative whirling dervish of the 1990’s, he has proven to be the ultimate mad scientist of kaleidoscopic genre fusion. Whether he is crafting albums of 70’s funk and soul, psychedelic white boy hip-hop, or genteel folk ballads, Beck has maintained his relevance in the public eye by keeping his audience in a continual state of revelation. His idiosyncratic mixture of samples, loops, and genre hopping ushered in the post-alternative indie rock movement of the new millennium. Yet unlike his peers, Beck has remained as creatively eclectic today as he was in his heyday of the mid-90’s.
Born Beck David Campbell on July 8, 1970 in Los Angeles, California, Beck came from an intrinsically artistic family. His grandfather was a visual artist of the Fluxus School, while his father was also a well respected musician. At a young age, Beck proved to be a restlessly creative spirit with a penchant for the avant-garde noise rock aesthetics founded by underground rockers like Sonic Youth. The aspiring musician dropped out of high school, opting for a self-taught education brought on by extensive travel throughout the United States and Europe. Often busking for food money, this period was one of intense self-discovery that introduced him to various musical styles throughout the world. By the late 80’s, Beck had relocated to New York City where he became an active part of the anti-folk movement. During this time he also recorded his first album of original material, Bootleg Banjo (1988) as a self-released cassette.
By the dawn of the 1990’s, Beck had returned to Los Angeles where he began to earnestly focus on a music career by playing any stage he could secure even if it was a street corner. Beck was soon discovered and signed to producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock’s fledgling label, Bong Load Records. Shortly after, Beck collaborated with hip-hop producer Carl Stephenson on an indie-folk hip-hop track called “Loser”. The song became an instant hit in the Los Angeles area after local KCRW disc jockey Chris Douridas played it on his highly influential morning program, Morning Becomes Eclectic. Bong Load soon sold out of their original pressing and struggled to keep up with the public demand. The sudden influx of attention soon begat a bidding war over Beck, and although he was offered egregious sums of money from various major labels, he eventually signed with Geffen records for less money but more creative control, with the option of releasing indie albums for Bong Load and other independent labels.
After years of stockpiling songs ranging from noise experiments to lo-fi folk to sample heavy rock Beck quickly recorded his debut album for Geffen with Schrapf and Rothrock producing. Mellow Gold (1994 Geffen) was a huge commercial success with “Loser” quickly becoming the anthem of the summer and the theme song for the so called “slacker generation.” Critics praised the album but were still lukewarm on Beck’s staying power with most branding him a one hit wonder as only “Loser” became a mainstream hit from the album. Beck, however, was never one to sell out to and always seemed more comfortable making a legitimate name for himself in the alternative movement of the times. That same year he released two more experimental independent albums for K Records and Flipside. Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994 Flipside Records) was a collection of lo-fi noise rock tracks recorded from 1988-1993, while One Foot In The Grave (1994 K Records) showcased Beck’s mellower folk side with back up vocals provided by Beat Happening leader singer Calvin Johnson. Beck would abandon the avant-noise sound completely on future releases, however, he would continue to mine the folk side of his persona with stellar results.
Beck toured his three albums throughout the remainder of 1994 before joining the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, which proved to be bittersweet as most Lollapalooza attendants only knew him as the “Loser” guy. Seeking to expand his sound and bury his “one hit wonder status” Beck set out to record his most ambitious and adventurous set of songs to that date. Electing to work with the Dust Brothers, the ingenious producers who introduced sampling and loops to the Beastie Boys for their landmark Paul’s Boutique (1989 Capitol) album, Beck began recording songs largely consisting of exotic sound effects layered with infectious samples and loops that were more consistent with hip-hop albums rather than Beck’s peculiar brand of alternative rock. The result was an album of staggering originality that flawlessly coalesced alternative rock guitars, hip-hop beats, obtuse spoken word poetry, and countless off the wall sound effects with Beck tackling the role of unapologetic pop culture ringleader. Odelay (1996 Geffen) was a landmark album considered by most critics to be an instant classic that stands the test of time. Beck not only broke his one hit wonder status, he cemented himself as one of quintessential American songwriters of 90’s. The album spawned countless Top 10 songs including “Devils Haircut”, “Where It’s At”, “Jackass” and “The New Pollution” eventually going double platinum and earning two Grammy Awards.
Beck’s fifth official full length would become more notorious for the messy legal battle it inspired than the amazing slice of Brazilian inspired folk pop it served up. Produced by Radiohead wunderkind Nigel Gondrich and recorded in just two weeks, Mutations (1998 Geffen) was a return to the folk inspired songs of One Foot In The Grave albeit heavily influenced by bossa nova and country/blues while utilizing more subtle samples and sound effects than on previous albums. Originally meant to be released on Bong Load Records as an independent album rather than an official follow up to Odelay, the album was intercepted by Geffen and released by the major label against the artist’s wishes. Beck took action against Geffen and Bong Load by initiating a void of contract from both labels. In turn the labels filed a breach of contract suit against Beck and years of litigation ensued. Eventually, both sides would resolve the matter amicably but only after the lawsuit was covered in rock press to both sides chagrin. Despite the lawsuits, Mutations was well received commercially and critically spawning the radio hits “Tropicalia” and “Cold Brains.” Beck would go on to win another Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1999.
Beck reunited with the Dust Brothers for his “official” follow up to Odelay. Instead of returning to the genre hopping that defined his previous albums, Beck reinvented himself as a funked up Casanova. Utilizing a brass band and ridiculously overt sexual content, Midnight Vultures (1999 Geffen) wasn’t as successful as Odelay or Mellow Gold and was greeted as a curious anomaly by critics and fans alike. Once again Beck had produced an album from left field but his audience wasn’t quite sure if Midnight Vultures was a joke or a serious foray into funk and soul music. Beck’s subsequent worldwide tour however was a huge hit due to the theatricality of numerous costume changes, a full brass band, and even a red velvet bed that descended from the ceiling for the sexed up cult classic, “Debra.”
After a few relatively quiet years Beck opted for a ballad heavy, lush, melancholy sound for his seventh full length. Allegedly written in one week, the impetus for the album stemmed from the end of his long term relationship with designer Leigh Limon. Once again Beck reunited with producer Nigel Godrich for what would be a relatively short recording session. Although the introspective tone couldn’t have been more different from his party records, Sea Change (2002 Geffen/Interscope) became Beck’s most critically and commercially lauded album since Odelay, despite the fact that the album was released with no commercial singles. After a short promotional tour he hit the road with the Flaming Lips, who not only opened every show but served as Beck’s back up band as well. Due to personality differences between the two artists the tour proved a bit bumpy but ultimately it became another massive success for both artists.
In an attempt to revert back to his party album days, Beck again reunited with the Dust Brothers to record another upbeat kaleidoscopic album. Guero (2005 Interscope) featured a heavier guitar sounds and various IDM glitch effects than on previous releases but wasn’t as diverse as Odelay or even Midnight Vultures. First single, “E-Pro” was a modest rock radio hit but the album received lukewarm reviews and an almost indifferent fan response with many citing the album as Beck by numbers. Subsequently, Beck released two more EP’s that same year of remixed Guero material. Guerolito (2005 Interscope) featured extended remixes from the likes of Air, Ad-Rock, and Boards of Canada amongst others, while the promotional only Gameboy Variations EP (2005 Interscope) featured old video game 8 bit soundcard remixes akin to the music heard on first generation Nintendo game consuls.
After another worldwide tour Beck went right back into the studio with producer Nigel Godrich to begin recording a follow up, which he allegedly had been piecing together for the past three years. Rather than aimlessly genre hopping the tracks for The Information (2006 Interscope) were almost entirely hip-hop based beats and computerized dance music, flawlessly mingled with Beck’s manic guitar hooks and obtuse lyrical content. Much more cohesive and unified than his previous release, The Information was a welcome return to form, pleasing both critics and fans alike. First single, “Nausea” was another worldwide radio hit and this time Beck hit the road with a puppet show comprised of puppet versions of Beck and his band that were projected onto a screen behind the band. The album also came with a multitude of stickers so fans could create their own album artwork.
In August of 2007, Beck released the digital download only single, “Timebomb”, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Solo Vocal Performance. Later that year, he produced the White Stripes single “Conquest” lending his vocals to the song, “It’s My Fault for Being Famous” and playing slide guitar on “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap”. In early 2008 it was announced that Odelay would be re-released and remastered with a bonus disc of b-sides and rarities. Currently, Beck is back in the studio with the Dust Brothers working on his ninth full length. Allegedly, he is also working in tandem with electronic soul crooner Jamie Lidell on an unidentified project.