Talking to Beck is basically exactly how you would imagine it to be. He speaks in a slow, lingering Californian drawl; enunciating everything carefully, leaving long, ponderous gaps as he assembles his thoughts into coherence. It’s akin to the thoughtful process he took with his latest album Colors – a blast of sunny, bouncy pop three years in the making.
“It took a little extra time,” he told Pedestrian. “When I started the record, the goal was to do something that was sonically very ambitious – one of those very polished, fully realised records in the tradition of great classic pop from the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
Beck occupies an unusual space in the culture. Emerging into the mainstream in the early 90s as the weird poet of Gen X, his music oscillates between genres and movements at whim; absorbing influences from folk, punk rock, electronica and hip hop as if there was never any space between them to begin with. Despite the postmodern attitude, his thoughts on pop songwriting are rooted in older wisdom.
“I’d say we’re not necessarily in an era of craftsmanship,” he says. “It’s more about hooks and catchiness and – you know – coming out quickly. I don’t know what the word is for it.”
That might come across as flippant in regards to some of the truly excellent pop music being produced today, but he holds himself to the same standard. “I’d put out a lot of records that were rough around the edges and had a lot of energy and personality, but I’d never really done a record that was refined in the sense of the great pop records.”
Working on something like Colors which was so intensive on the production side was a “learning experience” for Beck. “On other records I kinda let the energy and personality take the forefront,” he says. “But working in this kinda way is so exacting and time-consuming. I’m so glad I did it. It took me longer because it was school for me.”
“It’s a totally different way of working.”
Oddly, a discussion of audio production led us down a meandering path to a more unusual topic: podcasts. One of Beck’s more whimsical products at the end of the noughties was ‘Irrelevant Topics’ – a series of lengthy transcribed discussions, posted on his website, featuring luminaries such as Tom Waits and Will Ferrell. As the title suggests, the discussions were about nothing in particular.
“You know it’s interesting,” he says. “I started that right before podcasts took off. Interviews have become conversations now.”
“The reason I started Irrelevant Topics was because I’d had so many interviews where it was all similar questions, and you never really got to go that deep. You never got to go off-topic, really. Let’s just have a conversation! Something where we’re not selling anything, we’re not promoting anything.”
He might have just missed the boat on that whole movement. “It’s become a bit of a cornerstone of the culture in the last ten years. Podcasts are very popular. You can have these long-form conversations now.”
Beck’s back in Australia for the first time in five years – playing the inaugural Sydney City Limits festival and select dates around the country – and he says he’s keen to be back. “I’m very excited,” he says. “It’s been a long time. It’s one of my favourite places – every time I get down here I don’t wanna leave.”
He says being in Sydney reminds him of his native California. “It’s like California thirty years ago. Before it was stressed out and unaffordable.” Sydneysiders may feel compelled to dispute him on both of those points.
For those who are seeing Beck for the first time – or the first time in a while – he’s keen to show you all what his new, updated live show is like. “It’s a lot of energy and fun. These songs were conceived and constructed to be songs that are played live at a festival in the summertime.”
“Everybody’s gonna be dancing.”
Here’s where/when Beck is playing in Australia over the next few days.