In case you missed it, the album as we once knew it is dead. Or at least, that's what Beck — ever true to his iconoclastic roots — is fervently trying to bring about. “There are so many ways to take the idea of a static album and animate it from the linear structure that we're all used to,” he says from his backyard, where his two-year-old son Cosimo (with actress Marissa Ribisi) can be heard frolicking with happy abandon. “Whether that's creating something where there's a lot of versions of the same song, and you'd never hear the same version twice, or whether a record remixes itself, I don't know. Maybe that's not attractive to some people, but if it's in the right hands and done with some kind of taste and originality, it could be pretty heavy.”
While just about all of Beck's musical output since he first burst on the scene with Mellow Gold (DGC, 1994) has somehow challenged the status quo, it could be argued that last year's Dust Brothers co-production Guero (Interscope, 2005) was his opening salvo at redefining what an album can represent. Besides the traditional full-length CD, the music on Guero was completely remixed as Guerolito (with contributions from Boards of Canada, Air, El-P, Diplo, 8Bit and more) and strategically leaked in various incarnations on the Web. Meanwhile, a separate DVD featuring “textural movies” and “vision-scapes” by the London-based imagineers D-Fuse (not to be confused with the DJ from Texas) was also released, making Guero a real multiplatform, multimedia experience (and prompting Wired magazine to seek out Beck for its “Rebirth of Music” issue in September).
The Information (Interscope, 2006), as its title suggests, is yet another Becktionary foray into hyper-interactivity, complete with do-it-yourself cover art and accompanying DVD chock-full of low-budget videos for each of the CD's 15 songs — all well and good, but as with any Beck album, the most radical element is still the music. Joined by some gifted and eclectic session players — including guitarist Justin Stanley (Nikka Costa, The Vines), bassist Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, Air, Travis), percussionist Alejandro “Alex” Acuña (Weather Report), DJ Z-Trip and drummers James Gadson and Joey Waronker — Beck engages once again in a full-on studio binge with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, whose psychedelic, analog touch complemented the melancholic dreaminess of Beck's songs on Mutations (DGC, 1998) and Sea Change (Geffen, 2002). From the distortion-hugging flanged beats of the opening “Elevator Music” to the intergalactic three-part coda “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton,” The Information, it turns out, is a constantly morphing headphone riot that swells with sonic quirks galore.
“All of my records tend to have crazy sounds going on to some degree,” Beck says, “and I think Nigel and I definitely share that. He brings a little bit of alchemy into it that's sometimes mysterious and sometimes very simple, but whatever it is, it's always just right for what needs to happen. I don't know if I'm allowed to give away his secrets, but what he uses to get his sound is not all that different from what other people are using — it's just the way he's using it, or what he's using it on.”
In fact, Godrich is very secretive about his process, which is why he declined to talk about his techniques with Remix, and he even forbid his engineering team to speak up on the topic. But to get a feel for how the new album constitutes yet another leap forward for Beck's ever-protean muse, it helps to go back to the beginning — late 2003 to be exact. “About a year after Sea Change came out,” Beck recalls, “Nigel and I got together again and just decided to throw out whatever system or conventions we had in working with each other and to just start over and do something totally new. We wanted to do what we'd always talked about, which was to not be constrained by time or prewritten songs and to really experiment and see what happens.”
Just as every experiment needs a jumping-off point, there were a few lines of convergence that helped light the way toward a new musical direction. One of them ran straight through the song “Diamond Bollocks” — the hidden track on Mutations that recalled the lysergic forays of Revolver-era Beatles — while another connected to Beck's then-newfound obsession with Game Boy programming and its signature raw, unpolished sound.
“I was even considering doing the whole record at 8-bit,” he says, “but I also wanted to do something that was very percussive, and that was when Nigel said that he'd always thought about doing a hip-hop record, which was a big shock to me. Based on his other work and the work we'd done together, I'd thought he was more into the sort of singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell/Nick Drake school, but it turns out he loves breakbeats — so then we had this idea of making a breakbeat, mixtape type of record.”
Eventually, the two decided to bring a full band into Hollywood's legendary Ocean Way Recording for a marathon seven-day session. “Basically, we went in to record what we called our homemade breakbeat library,” Beck explains. “I guess this is the thing people do nowadays — the problem is you rarely get something that sounds like old vinyl 45s, which is what we were after. But Nigel definitely has the production skills to get that down. There are some great drum sounds on Sea Change and Mutations, so I knew that he could do something in that vein.”
LIVING IN STEREO
When it came time to tell the band what to play, it was clear to Beck that only one approach could possibly conjure up the freeform, gritty sound he was reaching for. “We started out trying to do these long, early '70s Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock — style jams,” he says, “and we created dozens of tracks. A lot of them were 20, maybe 25 minutes long, and for a while we were into the idea of them being in that state, but they definitely weren't in a normal song structure. They were more like a rhythm section that just kept going on and evolving.”
Interestingly, Beck and Godrich had both agreed on two fundamental aspects of recording those initial sessions that would set the basic tone and technique for assembling the entirety of what became The Information. First, everything would be recorded to Digidesign Pro Tools and not to tape — a purposeful deviation from Beck's two previous albums with Godrich — and second, literally everything that was tracked in that first week of recording was mixed down live to a stereo pair. As with every studio move that Beck makes, there was a method to the madness.
“In a way, it was forcing our hand into having to commit to something,” he notes. “So if it's like, ‘I don't think that bass or that keyboard part's working,'' then it's like, ‘Well, too bad. It's in there.'' We were committed from the beginning to how it sounded — we might even track a whole other song on top of a song, down to another stereo pair. The idea was just to do it all right on the spot.”
But it's the next step that really boggles the mind, if only for its elegant simplicity. “After all that intense recording,” Beck says, “we reconvened a month later, and we took out our favorite things and had them pressed up on 100 copies of vinyl. Then we had Z-Trip scratch the records back into the mix (see the sidebar “All Tripped Out”), and basically, we just destroyed our beautifully recorded Nigel tracks. [Laughs.] We put them through cheap samplers and ran them backwards and put dirty effects on them and tried to not be precious about it — really the idea was just to be, like I said, reckless with them. From there, it was just the process of what I do with all the other records — I get a rhythm track going, and then I write a song over it. That's essentially how the album came together.”
For some of the finer points of arranging the pieces into complete songs, a large chunk of the work was done at Beck's Garage — a humble, soundproofed home setup outfitted with a well-traveled and gritty '80s Trident console. Most of The Information is rife with environmental atmospherics that were recorded here — snippets of conversations, dogs panting, children squealing — with Godrich dutifully documenting everything with an array of Neumann microphones that includes a vintage U 47, circa 1948.
Beck still seems amused by the openness of the recording situation. “We just put the microphones outside,” he laughs, “and had the front door open and the dog running around and friends coming by. I mean, there are tracks where you can hear sprinklers and air-conditioning units — there's all kinds of atmosphere like that for a lot of it.”
While the ambient elements act together as a common thread between many of the finished tracks, the real connective tissue comes from Beck's own performances and Godrich's rich and multilayered effects treatments. “Elevator Music,” which features Beck's haunting melodica melody in the chorus, flows through several distinct movements of dublike flanging and phasing, with the melodica itself steeped in a cheesy spring reverb that was apparently salvaged from a '50s Chevy. “Dark Star” is a downtempo rhyme vehicle with a Moog-ish bass line that recalls the feel of Stevie Wonder's “Have a Talk With God,” while the driving title track “The Information” surges with digital distortion, buzzing cellos and a feedback-laden, ring-modulated monosynth that lends a dizzying queasiness to the overall mix.
“We did a similar thing there to what we did to get all the atmospheric sounds on the album,” Beck says. “We just had all the microphones open and got a bunch of people in there making sounds. We'd go down to the pawnshop and grab a flute, and someone else would grab a cello, and somebody else would be screaming [laughs] — whatever we needed.”
The UK single “Cellphone's Dead” offers an almost-perfect emulation (if it isn't the real thing) of the ARP Odyssey bass sound that was tweaked into existence by Herbie Hancock on his classic “Chameleon” — another instance of devout breakbeat worship. And that reverence for the vinyl old-school grows dark and trippy, De La Soul — style, on “We Dance Alone,” with the percussion playing a particularly key role in the loping, lazy feel of the groove.
“I think percussion is the secret weapon on the whole record, in fact,” Beck says, referring in this case to the presence of Alejandro “Alex” Acuña, who was recommended to Beck by his friends in the Mars Volta. “Even though the rhythm was fairly straight, [Alex] would just do something that would kind of take it somewhere else. He's played on a lot of jazz stuff, so he's a legend in that world and definitely knows how to bring things out that other people might not notice at first.”
The Information is certainly a throwback record of sorts: The process of how the music was made offers a glimpse into an analog world that's based largely on live performances by real human beings. What continues to set Beck apart from the rest, though — especially within that broad swathe of music called “indie rock” — is his open embrace of electronics, sound synthesis, sound manipulation and generally left-field and experimental modes of signal processing (such as circuit bending and Game Boy programming, among others).
“I think I'm probably more immersed in that world than people would guess,” Beck says. “It's a major part of what I listen to, although it doesn't necessarily manifest in my music. In fact, I've recorded a lot of electronic music that I've never released because it can be difficult to figure out where it fits into what I'm doing. And you know, before I was making Midnite Vultures [DGC, 1999], I was heavily bugging Richard James [aka Aphex Twin] to do a record with me. That was my original idea as a follow-up to Mutations, and sometimes I kind of feel like that's what I wish I'd done. He's obviously somebody I hold in high regard in that world, and he's just unquestionably a genius. But it didn't happen.”
As for what the future may bring, Beck remains upbeat about the role electronics can play in a straight rock context. “I was surprised actually at the whole rock-revival thing that's happened in the past five years,” he admits. “I really thought that we were gonna get bands with a couple of [Korg] MS-20s and some free software, and they were gonna make something that would just shatter whatever was going on. It still could happen. I think there's been a need to get back to something homemade or handmade, but the thing that's really interesting is watching that electronic influence and that mixed-media influence meld itself onto the indie-rock world, which for me growing up was much more of an arty or shoegazing thing. For music now, there are a lot of possibilities, and I think something really cool could happen — not in a corny or a crass sense, but something really revolutionary.”
ALL TRIPPED OUT
Beck has always been one of those rare artists who embraces spontaneity and an experimental spirit — and not just when he's in the process of making an album, but in virtually anything he does that involves a collaboration with other musicians. For DJ Z-Trip, who figures prominently in many of the loops, beats and scratches on The Information, it was this shared penchant for impromptu freestyling that sparked a connection at Coachella a few years ago.
“I was about to do my set,” he recalls, “and Beck was there with his bass player, just looking to try some stuff out. I ended up saying to him, ‘Hey man, we should just do something together,'' so on the fly, we put together a makeshift version of ‘Where It's At'' [from Odelay] with the whole ‘two turntables and a microphone'' thing. We walked out onstage and just did it, and honestly it went so well it was like we'd actually rehearsed it. So that was it. Once we connected there, I guess I've been on his radar, and vice versa, ever since.”
Z-Trip was invited out to Beck's Garage for an all-day session on his usual setup — two Technics SL-1200s, a Rane TTM 56 mixer, a Pioneer EFX-500 effects unit and a CDJ-1000. Working from vinyl copies of the full band's sessions at Ocean Way, he started throwing everything he could at Beck and Nigel Godrich, who diligently tracked the results into Pro Tools.
“They both knew exactly where they wanted to go and how they wanted to do it,” Z-Trip clarifies, “so when I got in, they just handed me what they'd pressed up and said, ‘Here, see if you can start noodling around with this.'' It was really like I was just going in to machine-gun the place, just throwing scratches left and right. I think at one point Beck even recorded a vocal, burned a disc of it and I ended up scratching that in really fast. We were just going for broke, which was cool because I think that comes out in what you hear on the album.”
Being given free reign to try anything — including, especially, the option to mix some of the band's key breaks back-and-forth using two vinyl copies of the same session — left Z-Trip with an even deeper appreciation for Beck's creative approach. “If you look at a lot of rappers or hip-hop groups,” he explains, “it wasn't just an MC rapping over a DJ's looped beat for three minutes. You had the ability to make drops and work with the MC to hand carve a one-of-a-kind thing. It's those little idiosyncrasies in the audio of a DJ noodling around that, to me, is one of the reasons why Beck is still sonically winning. We were going after the craziest, obscure, weird sounds and creating things on the fly and scratching them in, and I think just being open to that is part of why his music sounds a bit different and stands out.”