BECK INTERVIEW

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12/7/12

THE IDEASICLE PODCAST

BECK HANSEN

IDEASICLE PODCAST
I’m Will Burns, CEO of Ideasicle and Forbes Contributor. Today I am very excited to bring you a rock star with an amazing idea. Beck, aka Beck Hansen, is famous for his underground, anti-folk, yet alternative, yet dreamy, yet hook-driven, music. His first biggie was the song “Loser,” way back in 1994. But his ability to understand and reach his audience just went cosmic, in my opinion. I’m in the idea business and Beck’s idea floored me to the point where I wrote about it on Forbes.com, and it quickly got over 150,000 hits. Beck has released a new album, but it’s not a record, it’s not a CD, it’s not a series of MP3 files, it’s something way better. And he calls it “Song Reader.” We recorded our interview. But I was inspired by the idea behind Song Reader, so, like Beck, am issuing this Ideasicle “Podcast” in written form only. You will quickly understand why. Let’s get into the interview, which took place at 4:00 EST on October 18, 2012.
Beck Hansen

Ideasicle Podcast: The Beck Interview
Beck, welcome to the Ideasicle Podcast. Beck: Thank you.

Well it’s great to have you. I have seen the sampler of your new album, “Song Reader.” But can you tell our listeners what Song Reader is in broad strokes?

Beck: It’s essentially a songbook. It’s a collection of songs in notated form and sheet music form. And the idea came about 15 years ago. I was sent a sheet music version of one of my first records and I was looking it over. The record that I had recorded, I think it was Odelay, or maybe my first one, had not been conceived with sheet music in mind at all. You know, there was a lot of experimentation, noises, screeches, feedback, you know, sound collage. So the idea of notating it just seemed kind of backwards. So I remember looking it over and thinking, you know, it’s a shame that we’re trying to fit these songs into this notated form. It would probably make more sense to do it the other way around. You know, where you write the songs for the book. And so I had that idea sitting around for years. I actually forgot about it for a long time, and then about ten years ago I was reading a book about jazz singers and jazz crooners, and they had mentioned that a certain song in the 1930’s that Bing Crosby had popularized sold over 50 million copies of sheet music, in a time where there was about 130 million people in the entire country. And that number was just staggering to me. You know, the biggest phenomenon, musical phenomenon, I had known in my life, was maybe Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and I think at the height it had sold maybe 15-20 million copies. So the complete, seemingly seismic, magnitude of the song “Sweet Leilani” was a kind of a Hawaiian ballad that Bing Crosby

“The idea came about 15 years ago.

Beck (cont’d): popularized, storming the nation in that way, I just couldn’t really think of any cultural happening that was that wide and far reaching, in modern terms. Yeah, it’s a very cool, sort of retro but new thing at the same time. Now, from a creative perspective, did you approach the songwriting differently knowing that it would not be a recording from you, but instead releasing them to the world to record? Beck: Yeah, well initially I thought that I just wanted this to be a record, like any of my records, except in written form, where one has to play it to hear it. And the idea I think got a little more...it evolved after I had read that thing about the sheet music, and I had no idea how prevalent sheet music was and home played music was, there was a time where that was the way most people heard music. You heard your neighbor, or your aunt, or whoever had some musical talent, playing the songs of the day, and that interaction, that kind of relationship to music and songs is so fundamentally different from our relationship now, where songs are these MP3’s that pop up on a blog, or posted somewhere and you hear it once, and then the next day there’s another 200 songs. You know, to answer your question, I did think about what these songs could be or should be, and I had a lot of different thoughts over the years about how I could approach it, ultimately. Something that could sit in the style of an American songbook, of American popular song, but could also have some element to it that is modern as well. And the songs are kind of half and half. You know, they do pay tribute to that time, but I was very conscious of it not just being an experiment and pastiche. You know, and I’ve seen many times over the years with albums and different recordings I have done, where I’ll be really struck by something of the past and try to incorporate it in a new way, that it can sometimes marginalize what you’re doing

” There was a time where that was the way most people heard music.”

Beck (cont’d): as revivalist or retro, you know? And that is a real pitfall, but it was pretty hard to avoid this legacy of the sheet music. In putting the book together - especially visually - to not engage in that world, because it is such a visual world. When you get these old pieces of sheet music, you know you can find them in old thrift stores. It’s a complete world. It’s a lost world. You know, I wonder, you said you had this idea a while ago. A lot of times ideas need to be around at a certain time, when the moment is right. What I wrote on Forbes.com in my article, was that the genius of this innovation is in your sensitivity to the modern digital age, and finding a novel way to light a viral fire. Was that your intention behind this? Beck: Yeah, I mean the idea for this came about before I had ever been on the Internet, or really knew anything about it. So it does happen that it’s coming together in 2012, you know? We were talking about myself and people at McSweeney’s who are publishing the book about the fact that there are so many people on YouTube posting clips of themselves playing songs. So there is a kind of homeplayed music burgeoning at the moment, and in an unexpected way. I’m sure whoever was putting together YouTube didn’t have any idea that 12 year olds would be doing Elton John covers or Britney Spears covers. So, yeah it does lend a form to it, but for me my main concern, you know, when I started working on the book in 2004, was after I had written a few of the songs, I was like how am I going to ask people to play these songs? You know? If you’re going to ask somebody to learn a song, it has got to be good. (laughter) It’s a lot to ask of somebody, to sit down and commit themselves to a song, so back to the visual to the book, I think we knew early on that a lot of people aren’t going to be able to play these songs or care to, so the book becomes an idea as well as a visual experience that maybe engages ideas about what songs are or could be, and you know the

“If you’re going to ask somebody to learn a song, it has got to be good.”

Beck (cont’d): humor. And when you look at this old sheet music they’re crammed, every square inch is crammed with ads and proclamations of new song wonders. It’s a whole language of visual style that is so American and not necessarily subtle, you know? It’s from a time that precedes the Rock era. It’s completely different, but it’s very, I don’t know, something American about it, very eccentric, very rich.

So, I’m a marketing guy and I noticed in those old-school sheet-music books, there’s cross-selling going on. On every other page, they have snippets of music that you can go back to the store and buy. And I think that you guys were inspired by that as well, with some really funny little cutaways that are very emblematic of that.

Beck: Yeah, so when you bought a piece of sheet music, a song, there are maybe anywhere from three to ten little snippets of other songs you can buy. Almost like a clip when you’re online listening to a clip of a song of an album you might download. Sometimes those little fragments of songs were like these found poems, or Haikus, or unintentional Haikus. That was the kind of thing that the main songs were just an excuse to get to play with that whole rope. That was actually the most interesting part for me, all the extra bits.

To me the genius of this whole thing is not that you’ve made something tangible in an otherwise intangible, digital world. The genius, to me, is that it’s an invitation to everybody to record these songs. What do you hope to achieve?

Beck: Well, you know, I hope to be surprised. Ultimately, as the person who wrote the songs, I know that there are people out there who can take the songs and make them better then I would. I know what I would do with them, but,

“I hope to be surprised.”

Beck (cont’d): you know, that goes only so far. I spent many, many months on the arrangements of the songs. Much more time maybe then any other aspect of the project. How to present these songs in a way that was engaging, but still left them open for people to completely pull them apart. So in the intro I encourage people to change the chords, change the structure, change the phrasing of the melody or add notes. All the things that people have done to songs over the years. Like the song “I Only Have Eyes For You,” had many versions, and the definitive version came maybe, 30 years after the original version. The same thing happened with many Elvis Presley songs. Hank Williams would take novelty songs from the 1920’s and redo them in the 1950’s as honky tonk music, and create these iconic performances, of songs that were, before that, languishing for decades. Songs had a different lifespan; they had a different trajectory in previous eras. So there was something about that that I have always thought about. I’ve always thought about what I can do, or what I can sing, I know my limitations pretty well. But it must have been very liberating for songwriters to be able to write things that were just open for anybody to take them as far as they wanted.

Totally, and I can just imagine you going on your computer and saying, “So who recorded my song today? And let’s see what they did with it.”

Beck: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure there’ll be all kinds of takes and versions. Certain ones will...somebody will do something that nobody thought of and will ultimately...I think that’s why this group of songs is really half done. It’s how

“I encourage people to change the chords, change the structure, change the phrasing of the melody or notes.”

Beck (cont’d): people interpret them that is what’s going to make them defined and that’s the way it was for a long time. Before recorded music. It’s so remote to us, it’s hard for us to even imagine ourselves in that environment. But there was a time when in order to hear a song you had to know somebody who could play it, or you had to go to a music hall, or you know you were never going to hear the same version twice. You can leave it at that.

Wouldn’t you say that’s true about all classical music, too?

Beck: Yeah, it invited a whole tradition of stretching, and bending, and personalizing a song. Maybe it did make the songs more personal in a way. I don’t know, it’s a big idea to me and it’s something that I don’t even know if I’ve fully followed through to the end. It was really something that I thought about for years, the difference and how we interact with music and songs.

Yeah, well, two days after I wrote the Forbes article a guys named Max Miller dug up the promo visuals, when you had that little website, and blew up the sheet music. There was just one tiny little visual of the music, but he blew it up enough so we could read it. And it was “Do We, We Do,” and he recorded it.

Beck: Yeah, and it didn’t have the chorus yet. He just had the verse. It was great.

“It invited a whole tradition of stretching, and bending, and personalizing a song.”

And that was just one guy from a Forbes article. Now imagine when you launch this thing. Now, shifting gears a bit, is this product in any way a statement against the digitization and piracy of the music industry, or am I reading too much into it?

Beck: Well, you know I’m not slanting it that way at all. You know, because, like I said before, this could have come out fifteen years ago. I have had this idea for ages and the people I have worked with have known about it for years. It’s something that every couple years, “Oh what about the songbook?”, you know? It just kept getting put off to the side. So the whole concept has evolved around the evolution of all that. In putting it together, I have thought a lot in recent years about the way music is consumed and how it can just appear on a computer, you can listen to it once and then it’s gone. You know, and I think that you could argue sonically, that the digital file is not an engaging experience, sonically. It’s an approximation, and it’s a complete reduction of the actual recording. It’s not human quality. And people hear audio files and Neil Young is doing something interesting with his own audio format - he’s doing a highresolution audio format - which I’ve heard and it’s unbelievable. I mean it makes CD’s sound like AM radio.

Really? AM Radio?

Beck: Yeah, really, it’s that striking. Even though they tell you that you cannot hear a difference, I dare anybody not to hear a difference. So yeah, there is, you do wonder when you’re working on a song, as anybody would - like a filmmaker or a painter - how this is going to be seen and in what context. There is certain powerlessness in how it is experienced and you just kind of hope for the best.

“The digital file is not an engaging experience, it’s an approximation, and it’s a complete reduction of the actual recording.”

Well that’s what makes it so bold, in my opinion. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But it’s an experiment and you’re going to try it and see what happens. I applaud you for that. I think it’s a very bold move. Was this a difficult thing to sell to the record label or did you go a different route?

Beck: You know, I’m not even on a record label. I haven’t been in a record label in almost five years.

Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Beck: Yeah, no, I’ve been working on this with McSweeney’s who are a publisher out of San Francisco. Dave Eggers runs it and he’s an incredible writer. He’s actually been a guest on one of my records and what they do with printing and with books visually is legendary, so they were really instrumental in putting this all together, and making it what it is, as far as bringing all the designs elements. And they completely understood what it was trying to be, and, yeah, I really applaud them for all their work on this.

Do you plan to ever record these songs yourself in the future? After, you know, you let the sheet music run its natural course?

Beck: I don’t know. Possibly. Some of these songs have been sitting around for ten years. Some, more. I have recorded some of them, you know, and I probably will, yeah. Or maybe I’ll play them live. I’m kind of waiting to see what happens with them. It may come out and nobody cares, you know. So whatever the outcome. I hope that other artists take some of the songs and do something with them.

“I hope that other artists take some of the songs and do something with them.”

It is definitely going to be fun for us marketing wonks to watch, and even for musicians to watch, just to see what happens. Are you happy with the end product?

Beck: I actually just saw the book for the first time yesterday. It’s pretty substantial. It’s about coffee table book sized. There’s a lot in there. I forgot how much is in there. I was worried that it wasn’t going to be substantial enough. But it is a little world. It’s like what someone said at McSweeney’s, “It’s like ten gatefold LP’s, visually.” Beck: Well, I mean, there are only certain things that I can take credit for, the art was all done by other artists, about ten or fifteen artists that worked on those. And, so, there are a lot of different visual ideas and covers. It’s a pretty massive collaboration. And I was going to say just that it sort of felt like a pile of sheet music at an old antique store or something, and you know they could be from different eras, and it’s something about the variety of the way they look and the size and shapes, and the styles of songs. That’s something that I wanted to recreate.

Well that’s the other thing. LP’s used to be a wonderful, tactical experience with the music that no longer exists in the digital world. So I was sort of interested in Song Reader as well because it’s really a way to experience “Beckness,” if you will. You know, from page to page to page, because you have so artistically crafted every page.

Yeah, well, I’m almost giddy to see what people do with this out in the social spheres. I think it’s going to light it up. And I’m going to report on it next year to see how it’s doing. Well, Beck, thanks so much for taking time with us at Forbes.com and the Ideasicle Podcast. Good luck with Song Reader.

Beck: Yeah, it was great talking to you. I hope that people will find these songs and that something happens with them. That’s the unknown quality, which is very interesting for me. Thanks again, though.

Click here to buy Beck’s “Song Reader” at Amazon.com.
The Ideasicle Podcast (audio) can be found here on iTunes. Will Burns is a Contributor to Forbes.com. You can read all of Will’s articles about creativity in modern branding here. Ideasicle is a marketing ideas company that uses technology to unite some of the world’s greatest creative Experts in a virtual environment, where the Experts work together in teams of four to come up with ideas for our clients. Learn more here. Special thanks to Alyson Sinclair, Publicity Director at McSweeny’s and Jesse Silbermann from SAM/Silva Artist Management, for helping coordinate the interview with Beck. Credits: Beck cover image: Gina Ribisi “We All Wear Cloaks” image: Kyle Pellet “Don't Act” image: Josh Cochran “Do We? We Do” image: Sergio Membrillas Design inspiration: Alyssa Toro