Beck has always thrived on his slower songs—the poised ones, rowing out composed. Beck's 12th album, Morning Phase, pulls from the same decelerated, meditative current he touched on for Mutations' "Nobody's Fault but My Own" and Sea Change. Sounds on Morning Phase's acoustic, folk-based songs are sedated, saturated, and lined with orchestrations arranged by his father, David Campbell. "Wave" is a procession of vocals and strings only, moving like a funeral ship across completely still water. In the six years since Modern Guilt, Beck has kept working. He recorded rock and country albums, but didn't release either of them. He produced albums for Stephen Malkmus and Charlotte Gainsbourg. He put out a series of cover albums called Record Club. And he released a collection of sheet music for others to perform called Song Reader. He also injured his back and endured a painful, lengthy recovery. Beck spoke from Los Angeles; it was morning.
You were bitten by a black widow spider during the recording of Morning Phase?
Unfortunately, yes. During a session. Had to take a trip to the hospital. The arm was all swollen. It was one of those things, but I was able to rebound.
You realize you're Spider-Man now.
For a while I was hoping [laughs]. But no web-spinning ever came about—I thought there might be a hint of some web-spinning, but got nothing. I don't want to jinx it, though, maybe there's still time. My body could just be waiting for the right moment.
Please talk about the slower pacing of Morning Phase. You hit that weightless stasis so well.
Thanks. At one point, we realized there was nothing faster than 60 bpm. Half as fast as your typical hit song. I slowed the songs down, and they seemed to show different faces that way, which I liked. Elongating the tempo of a song gives it a different perspective.
A song like "Wave."
I had worked on that one about five years ago, and started putting songs together that felt like they could go with that song. It's sort of the center of the album. No drums on that song, so time is more absent. In the orchestration, we pared down certain elements and took away certain notes, which made it darker. There's still emotion in it. As we recorded it, it began to become its own thing. I didn't want to get in the way of what was happening. When you're working with an orchestra, things can end up sounding different than you'd imagined. Orchestras are hired in a three-hour block. When time is up, time is up. So what's on the album isn't exactly what I'd envisioned or intended, but it's what we ended up with.
Where'd you record?
Multiple places—Nashville and at Capitol in Los Angeles. They have studios down in the basement of the Capitol building where Sinatra and the Beach Boys recorded and a bunch of great records have been made.
Is your "Blue Moon" a shout-out to Elvis's "Blue Moon"?
I read a book about Elvis written by Peter Guralnick. It's such a great book, everyone should read it—it's good for musicians who are just beginning. For me, his "Blue Moon" shows him in his purity at the beginning—when he was hungry and forming and accessible. Like how he lived with his parents, and after they'd eat dinner, Elvis would go outside to visit with his fans, who were allowed to wait for him there. Guralnick's book gives you a picture of the big transformation he went through in his life of music and show business. Near the end in Las Vegas, he was the opposite of accessible—he was secluded way up in this hotel suite, removed from people and shut off to normal life. Kind of sad in a way.
A little Simon and Garfunkel for you on "Turn Away"?
Yeah. I love Art Garfunkel's voice. Singing softly in that higher register and making it sound unforced is really hard to do. I did a few layers of vocals for that one.
You had some unreleased recordings stolen at some point, I believe. What happened? What songs were they?
Songs that I'd put together for a couple years after Sea Change were taken, yeah. Or turned up missing. An unfortunate thing. I was on a tour, and the tapes were in a suitcase that got left behind at a place we had played. When we realized they were missing, of course we went back to get them, but they had vanished. It was a bummer. I thought the songs were heading somewhere from where Sea Change left off. I was excited about them. And I hadn't memorized the material, so they were just gone. For a couple years, it made it hard for me to play on an acoustic because I would just think about those songs.
Well, you definitely found the acoustic again for Morning Phase. A beautiful, saturated acoustic, I might add. This is your serious, somber side. As opposed to your "Two Turntables and a Microphone" weirdo, lo-fi side. Do you have more patience now?
I was talking about this not too long ago. With this album, I think I was more single-minded in what I was trying to do on each song. I would write some material that maybe was too emotional, or too sentimental, or too average, or whatever, so I'd throw it away. But I kept working until I had something. Some songs you just have to give up on. For this album, it was more about giving the songs the patience they needed. I love things that are done quick and rough, don't get me wrong. I've done lots of things in one take that were a little off, or out of tune deliberately. That gives things a human edge. Nigel [Godrich] and I spent two weeks making Mutations. After that, he went and worked on Kid A with Radiohead for two years. You hear an album like Kid A, and it's so amazing. You can hear the patience and time it took to formulate sounds, and you can listen to it over and over. At least I can. There are all kinds of ways to make all kinds of songs. Some come right out. Some want time to emerge. None are right or wrong. Depends on where you are.
Are you a sexter? Speaking of doing things quick and rough.
My sexting days are behind me.
Gimme one sext, off the top.
I wish I'd prepared [laughs]. Something about breakfast? A picture of a soundboard. Or the Malibu caves. Sorry, that's all I got for you.