IN what was meant to be a “year off” for Beck Hansen, he began to mess around with some songs he had started with Pharrell Williams.
During downtime after an intense period of touring, Beck began to play around with ideas and sounds the two had come up with years earlier.
Before he knew it, seven of Hyperspace’s 11 tracks with Pharrell were finished and Beck had made his 14th album — and one of his most collaborative.
“I thought maybe I’d come up with a single and release it next year,” Beck tells me.
“Then things accelerated. Within two months we pretty much had the whole thing together. And here I am.”
“Here” being a central London hotel, where Beck is staying for a few days after flying in the night before. Yawning, he admits he is suffering slightly.
“You’d think I would have figured jetlag out by now,” he says.
He wears a black wide-brimmed hat, a black bomber jacket and looks several years younger than a man who turns 50 next summer. Beck says his previous album, the vibrant Colors, was “really like going back to school; it was an education”.
Hyperspace is a minimalist album named after a video game Beck played as a youngster. He says: “It deals with anxiety and fears as well as the beauty and opportunities this age of technology brings us.
“I hadn’t really been making records for myself for years. So making this with Pharrell was something I needed to do. We’ve known each other for a long time. Then we ran into each other in elevators in hallways, at an awards show, and started hanging out.
“He always asks me if I am working, by which he means, ‘Am I in the studio?’ And when I said ‘yes’, he said: ‘I’d love to work with you, some time’. Then, the first time I walked into the studio in Miami with him, he said, ‘Sit down, I’ve just finished a song’.
“I sat down and he played the song Happy. I knew it was a worldwide smash-hit. It was really interesting being in that engine room of music culture while propagating these pieces of music so embedded in the culture.”
Beck says it took “courage” to work with Williams, so in awe was he of the superstar songwriter and producer. didn’t know if I was good enough to work with Pharrell,” Beck says.
“He’s been involved with incredible tracks with people like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake and Kelis. For a lot of years, I didn’t know if I could pull it off.”
Music is changing. Songs are getting shorter. Our ears are changing and our thoughts are changing.
It was 2018 when the pair finally reconvened. The first track they made together was the spacey Everlasting Nothing, which closes out Hyperspace. Beck says: “I was just curious to see where working with him could go.
“I told him I was curious what his instincts would be when he thought of my music. And he said, ‘Well, we are going to make some Sgt. Pepper’s. Which, of course, stirred my imagination!”
Hyperspace sounds futuristic, however, with further guest spots from Coldplay’s Chris Martin on Stratosphere and the US singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira on Die Waiting.
Beck says: “It’s interesting how one of the ideas we worked on six years ago turned out. I didn’t know if they were going to fly at the time. But in a way, what Pharrell was doing with beats and sounds back then was ahead of its time, so they worked. I wanted to touch on this technological world we live in.
“There are certain parts of it that are terrifying, like how children are not learning empathy as they used to because of social media and the lack of face-to-face time. There is this acceleration happening — the shortening of attention span — and we are going to a different place.
“Music is changing. Songs are getting shorter. Our ears are changing and our thoughts are changing. So a song like (album opener) Hyperlife talks about how technology has this way of making you want more and more.
“You hunger more. I was very late coming to social media and at first I was in awe of all these incredible photos on Instagram. Then you get immune to it and need to see something more incredible and more unusual. Ultimately, that hunger never gets filled because it becomes a hunger for interaction or for human contact.”
The melancholic Stratosphere, which boasts Chris Martin singing backing vocals, is about a friend Beck lost to heroin 20 years ago.
He says: “It’s about needing to escape and the lyrics are talking about heroin and that mind state of somebody wanting to numb out and go somewhere else. It’s a theme throughout the record and I was thinking about hyperspace and space travel. We live in a time when it feels like the walls are closing in and there is anxiety and uncertainty.
“People are struggling with how to process and deal with it. There are different modes people engage in. Some are anxious while others are incredibly angry and lashing out. Others are in mourning, catatonic or in disbelief, ignoring the world while it is burning. When there is trauma in society we have our own trauma, so we are channelling that through technology and getting lost in that and distractions or political activism, religion or drugs. I even left songs off, so I’m going to put out another EP.”
With space and celestial imagery throughout, is this a concept album? Beck says: “I was thinking of the whole picture. I wanted to build layers to it, so it felt like it is part of a whole idea. So I’ve created a world.”
It has been a prolific few years for Beck, who won three Grammys for his 2014 album Morning Phase before the critically acclaimed Colors, released in 2017. He also found time to work with Jenny Lewis and Cage The Elephant and has recovered well from a serious spinal injury he suffered on a video shoot in 2005 which made even holding a guitar very painful.
It took him six years to put out Morning Phase and there was a time when he wondered if he would ever perform live again. He says: “It was a giant interruption and, personally, heart-breaking for a long time. I have great empathy for people who are struggling in that way or in pain. In other ways, for about six to eight years I got to be at home with my children every day for the most part.”
Beck is father to son Cosimo, 15, and daughter Tuesday, 12, with actress wife Marissa Ribisi who he split with earlier this year, after 14 years of marriage.
He says: “My kids keep me up to date with music. There is a new vocabulary, a new vernacular of music and songwriting that is speaking to them. It’s almost like another language. I am about social media even though I don’t really want to be a part of it. I find my way around it although I am not all-in.
“I came up at a time when it was incredibly uncool to take a picture of your friends or yourself. I can’t tell you the amount of tours I was on and have no photos to show from it. I was hanging out with Pavement, the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill and Dave Grohl and have no photos from those times, just endless memories. I remember being with The Strokes riding deckchairs down a hillside backstage. There are no photos.”
Beck’s innate positivity helped during his injury rehab and is equally handy in troubled times. He says: “I have faith that we are going to find our way. There are things we weren’t paying attention to 20 or 30 years ago and now we are in trouble.
“We’ve suddenly realised we need to figure out our way. It’s that sense of the walls closing in. We need an escape button, a hyperspace. But as history shows, we’ve managed to do that somehow. It is troubling, a lot of it. But I do believe we will be OK.”
Beck has recorded a collection of Prince’s hits at the late star’s studios in Minnesota. His Paisley Park Sessions EP is the first music recorded at Prince’s famous Studio A since his death in 2016. Meeting the icon is one of those memories Beck cherishes the most.
He says: “I was opening up for Prince. A bodyguard took me back to meet him after the first show. I thought I was being kicked off the tour but his whole band is there on the couch waiting and Prince is in the make-up chair.
“He spins around with a remote control and hits the power on a TV that is on the wall and plays back their show. He does a play-by-play of the whole show with everybody, telling them what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong. Watching back his shows was part of how he became such a masterful performer.
“Although I don’t go ‘full Prince’ I always think about the audience when I am making records. I have to make some sort of connection with them. Prince taught me that. Sometimes I have to remind myself to not be self-aware but look back at what I am doing, to have some self-reflection.”
It is amazing he has time. But he seems energised by the pace of the world around him. Beck says: “As much as I would love to take a break, there is this sort of momentum. Interesting things are happening.”
- Hyperspace is out November 22
2. Uneventful Days
3. Saw Lightning
4. Die Waiting
6. See Through
9. Dark Places
11. Everlasting Nothing
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