My first Rolling Stone cover story, in 1997, was sort of a Part 2 of an earlier cover story I did on Beck for Option in 1994. For first one, I drove over to Beck’s house in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles just before he left for a tour following the success of “Loser.” We spent most of the interview at a nearby laundromat washing his vintage ’70s t-shirts (he hated that I pointed out in the story just how many of these shits he owned ) in preparation for his departure. For the following Q&A, I traveled to London the day after his Grammy win for Odelay. Oh my, how three years changes things — for both Beck and me. I’d become a big-time editor at Rolling Stone, and he had become a bonafide rock star (just don’t tell him that). For the earlier story, Beck had mythologized his past, very much like Bob Dylan had done during his prime years in the 1960s. In this installment of the legendary “Rolling Stone Interview” series — for which we did two very long interview sessions in a hotel room and on the set of a TV show — he still mythologized a bit, but for the most part, I wore him down enough with persistent followup questions that I was able to keep him fairly honest. And it’s a far more accurate account of who Beck really is.
Don’t call him a rock star
By Mark Kemp, Rolling Stone, April 17, 1997
YOU GOTTA DO THE CHICKEN THING again,” Beck’s manager says, interrupting the 26-year-old singer’s lunch on the set of the British pop-music TV show TFI Friday and shuttling him out a backstage door. It’s a typically drizzly London afternoon, and Beck is here to perform his latest single, “The New Pollution,” to a gallery of screaming English teens. But first, he has to go outdoors to retape a skit in which he’s been asked to scale the side of a massive soup vat and drop a whole raw chicken in it. There’s no rhyme or reason to the routine — just one of those wacky British-comedy things. But Beck rises to the challenge. And the performance is Oscar-worthy as he stands at the rim of the vat, a shit-eating grin on his face, and plops the soggy bird into the gooey yellow stew.
Later, after a few other similarly bizarre segments, the show’s bumbling host turns to the studio audience and announces, “Ah, heck, it’s Beck!” Whereupon the singer, dressed in his familiar snug-fitting blue polyester suit and black dress shoes, appears on the stage, moonwalking, high-jumping, hip-shimmying, tambourine-shaking and head-bobbing to the tune’s cool “Taxman” bass line and sax-drenched melody.
“I love British humor,” Beck tells me later as we begin the first of two 2-hour interview sessions in a room at the Royal Garden Hotel, high above London’s Kensington Palace. “It’s just so — surreal.” He gazes out the window with an intensity that belies his youthful features — rosy cheeks, pouty lips, fine, wind-swept blond hair and doe eyes, which today have faint circles under them. The past three days have been pretty surreal for Beck, beginning with the two Grammys he won back in New York — for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The following day, he took the Concorde to England for the TFI Friday gig, as well as a Top of the Pops appearance and a concert performance later in the week.
“I feel lucky,” Beck says of his Grammys coup. “It probably hasn’t sunk in yet; it’s only been a couple of days.” When he speaks, Beck does so in slow, measured tones punctuated by long, thoughtful pauses. “I never had any expectations of winning a Grammy,” he continues. “It wasn’t something I was set on, that I was hoping and praying and starving for.” He looks up with a gleam in his eye: “But it is incredible!”
BECK HANSON’S JOURNEY to the Grammys is one of the odder tales in ‘90s pop lore. He was born in Los Angeles, in 1970, the son of a bluegrass musician father, David Campbell, and a mom, Bibbe Hansen, who briefly hung out with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd of the 1960s; his late grandfather Al Hansen was a member of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Beck quit school in the ninth grade and at age 18 took a bus trip across the country. He spent about a year playing folk music on New York’s Lower East Side before returning to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. In 1992, after performing regularly at local punk dives like Raji’s and Al’s Bar, Beck tossed off a folk-based hip-hop tune called “Loser” in the living room of a friend’s home. A year later, Tom Rothrock, a local booster who had started an indie label called Bong Load Custom Records, released the song as a single.
What followed was nothing short of miraculous: Taste-making modern-rock radio stations from Los Angeles to Seattle began playing “Loser” in heavy rotation; the song became an instant smash, and major labels, in a bidding frenzy, began knocking at Beck’s door. By the time Beck released his first album for DGC, Mellow Gold, in 1994, “Loser” was already in the Top 40, and its video was in MTV’s Buzz Bin. The downside of all the hype was that Beck was being characterized as the Loser of his song. It didn’t help that his tender features worked right into the myth or that the artful playfulness of his songs suggested to some a vacantness associated with the so-called Generation X. Despite the intelligence and wit in his music, Beck was designated King of Slackers. “It didn’t seem like people understood what I was doing,” he says. “It was like, ‘Is this guy for real? Is he making music that’s worthy or valuable?’ I felt like I was constantly having to prove myself.”
Which is exactly what Beck did. The same year that Mellow Gold came out, he immediately followed it with the much stronger One Foot in the Grave, a mostly acoustic album of country blues, folk and warped pop released on the tiny independent label K. Then he put out the more experimental Stereopathetic Soul Manure on the punk label Flipside. Last year, Beck dropped the bomb with his second DGC release, Odelay, a giant leap of artistic prowess for the singer. Since its release, the album has remained in the Billboard Top 200, where it peaked at No. 16 and currently sits at No. 34; it has since sold platinum. Meanwhile, the videos for his singles “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut” and “The New Pollution” have become MTV staples.
Beck’s irreverent cross-pollination of styles — from hip-hop to country rock to funky ‘70s soul — has shown him to be one of the most innovative and forward-looking artists of the ‘90s. And though he is a member of a generation that looks skeptically upon honors associated with previous eras, it seems pretty clear today that winning two Grammys has made a genuine impression on him. When I mention that the Grammy voters seem to be making an attempt to compensate for past cluelessness, Beck’s stoic gaze turns to a smile.
“I do think they’re opening the umbrella a little bit to include stuff that isn’t standard Grammy fare,” he says. “On the other hand, I think in my case, I’m somewhat of a traditionalist to them; I’m working from a place that maybe someone who came up on folk rock or singer/songwriter stuff can relate to. Maybe that’s it.” He furrows his brow. “But maybe not. Because other things that I do are just pure deconstruction, just dismantling the whole notion of songwriting.”
With two Grammys and a microphone, Beck should be able to do a lot more dismantling as time passes. “It’s exciting for me,” he says. “It means more possibilities, and I have a lot of ideas.”
Mark Kemp: I was talking to a friend after you won your Grammys, and she was telling me that when she heard the news, it felt like one more notch on the belt for her generation. It was like validation — or vindication.
Beck: Yeah. Yeah. It’s hard for us to be recognized and get our foot in the door, you know — just the dominance of the older generation. So I think it’s amazing that I get to do that. If my generation was as dominant as the generation of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it wouldn’t be me against Sting and Bryan Adams — people who have been around for such a long time. How can we compete? They’re 20 years ahead of us. It’s hard to measure us against people who’ve got so much under their belts. And I think it’s strange. Not that I’m criticizing them or anything; I mean, it is the way it is. But it’s interesting, really, not being able to compete with my peers in the music world.
Do you feel like a rock star now?
To me, rock star conjures up something like a mystic: someone who sees himself as above other people, someone who has the key to the secret that people want to know. The cliché of what a rock star is — there’s something elitist about it. I never related to that. I’m an entertainer. I think of it as, you’re performing for people. It’s not a self-glorification thing.
I remember being really shocked after Mellow Gold came out and going on tour, and all these kids were there. It totally disturbed me. Who are all these young people? I’d been playing Mississippi John Hurt covers in coffee shops to a bunch of 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds. Then all of a sudden there were these teenagers. It was very surreal.
The word “cliché” is a sort of theme for you. It’s as though you can’t bear the thought of doing something that has been done in the past.
I think my whole generation’s mission is to kill the cliché. I don’t know whether it’s conscious all the time, but I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of my generation are always on the fence about things. They’re afraid to commit to anything for fear of seeming like a cliché. They’re afraid to commit to their lives because they see so much of the world as a cliché.
So I’m trying to embrace the world and all this stuff in a way that doesn’t seem clichéd. [Laughs] I guess I’m creating the new cliché. I mean, there are things that are continuous through the ages, but we have this tendency to laugh at our parents and make fun of them, and I think that’s healthy to a certain point. But I feel that it’s also important to take it somewhere. Otherwise you’re stuck.
One thing that really bugs you is when people don’t get the subtlety of the humor in your songs and performances.
They think I’m being a clown. I’ll come out in a fringe Nudie rhinestone suit, and I’m doing it as a tribute to the late-’50s George Jones or Webb Pierce. I’ve always loved the Nudie suit. I’ve always thought of it as one of the greatest clothing styles in any kind of music. But when I come out in one, people immediately say, “Oh, he’s doing an Elvis.” I mean, how simple-minded can you be? The reference is a little more interesting than just “doing an Elvis.” It’s like, you pick up a harmonica, and you’re “doing a Dylan.”
Your music is very uplifting. How can you be so optimistic in such a negative era?
There’s some dark stuff on Odelay — I don’t think it’s all bubblegum. But I wanted it to feel good, too, in the way that any life-affirming music does.
I think of Brazilian music, because that’s one of the main kinds of music that I listen to for my own pleasure. You’ve got a country there that’s so riddled with poverty, and then there’s this music that’s so full of spirit. But it isn’t just phony happy music — it’s genuine. That’s often the case in struggling cultures or among struggling people: The music does just the opposite.
If you have time to make really dark music, then it’s a privilege. I’ve always felt that way. I didn’t come from suburbia. I didn’t come from a place where I had a lot of time on my hands. I couldn’t relate to sitting around and complaining about being miserable. That didn’t seem like an option to me.
What were your options growing up?
I was born in Los Angeles. My parents lived in a rooming house near downtown. My mom had just come from New York, and my dad was from up north. They were very young. My mom was 18 or 19 when they had me. Then, later on, we moved to Hollywood and lived just off of Hollywood Boulevard.
But you do come from a notable family. Your grandfather was a pioneering avant-garde artist, and your mother spent some time on the New York Factory scene of the ‘60s. From the outside, that might seem like a privileged situation.
Oh, man! What can I say? [Laughs, looking slightly appalled] No, it wasn’t a privileged situation. What I’m doing now is pretty sweet for my family, because there’s been a lot of struggle for a long, long time. My grandfather was an originator of so many ideas, but he never had it together enough to present them. He never documented himself like other artists did. He was pushing all these ideas, but he struggled with being recognized. He died in June 1995, before he was able to watch you take those Grammys.
What do you think he would have said to you?
[Gazes off] I wish he’d been alive to see what’s happened. He was around when “Loser” came out, and he was incredibly proud. He kept all the articles. He connected with the things I was doing with hip-hop because he came out of the hipster, Beat thing — using language as freestyle expression, coming up with the most outlandish combinations of slang and rhyming things. But he didn’t get to see what I’m doing now.
Was he around much when you were a kid?
He was this strange phenomenon, you know, who’d come from out of nowhere. I remember he came to stay with us when I was about 5, and he brought with him bags full of junk and magazines, cigarette butts, all sorts of refuse and materials that he would use for his art pieces. I had some some old toys that had broken and didn’t work stored in the back room somewhere. He found an old rocking horse, the kind you buy at Kmart, made out of plastic with springs on it. And he offered me five bucks for it — which, for me, was an unheard-of quantity of money. I immediately said yeah, he could have it. But I couldn’t understand what he would do with it, what use he could have for it.
So I came back from school one day and saw this thing sitting at the side of the house, vaguely familiar but somehow completely unrecognizable. He had taken the thing and glued cigarette butts all over it, severed the head off and spray painted the whole thing silver. It was this metallic headless monstrosity. I think I was interested, but something within me recoiled as well. It was — it was so raw: something so plain and forgotten suddenly transformed into this strange entity.
At the time, it was more of a curiosity to me. But in retrospect, I think things of that nature gave me the idea, maybe subconsciously, that there were possibilities within the limitations of everyday life, with the things that we look at that are disposable. Our lives can seem so limited and uneventful, but these things can be transformed. We can appoint ourselves to be — to be alchemists, turning shit into gold. So I always carried that with me.
How old were you when you found out that your mother had been a Factory denizen?
I didn’t really understand it until I was about 16 or 17. I had gotten into the Velvet Underground’s first record, and I pulled it out and started looking at it. My mom saw that I was into it and said, “I know them.” I said, “Tell me about that stuff.” I already sort of knew about it, but it hadn’t really connected until then.
Was it exciting to you that your mother had a connection to the Velvet Underground?
You know, that time period — anything in the ‘60s, but especially something like that scene — is always blown up into this larger-than-life thing. The whole Factory thing — it was really just Andy’s scene. It wasn’t really a life-impacting situation. I mean, [my mom] hung out a few times; she was on film. It was all about “Everyone’s a star.”
Was your father, who played bluegrass music, instrumental in your decision to make music?
He was just a musician for hire. He played violin. I heard him play here and there, but it wasn’t like I went into the living room and people were jamming or anything. I just remember that he was always working. I liked what he played, but it wasn’t like I went out and picked up an instrument and started playing myself. It wasn’t until a lot later that I picked up an instrument.
Your music is about taking remnants from other periods and recycling them for a new era. And you grew up during a very transitional time in L.A. — the ‘70s and ‘80s — when developers came in and destroyed the face of old Hollywood.
Yeah, I spent my childhood watching the decline of Hollywood Boulevard, watching the dying embers — the final light of the Hollywood era — fade into decay. I remember certain relics of the ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood eras [being] still around when I was growing up. They had the lunch counters, shoeshines and family owned businesses, which have now turned into rock-poster shops and bad souvenir shops.
We lived near Tiny Naylor’s, which was a monument from the age of the ‘50s drive-in coffee shops. It was just a megalopolis of hamburgers and milkshakes, that whole — you drive up, and the waitress puts the tray on your car. They still had that up into the ‘70s. And right next to that was Ali Baba’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant with belly dancers, and on top of it was a two-to three-story statue of Ali Baba.
Then in the early ‘80s, all that was suddenly gone. The developers came in and tore it all down and turned it into giant condominiums and block apartments. I remember seeing L.A. just transformed within a couple years. All of a sudden there was minimalls everywhere. The ‘80s came and conquered. And it erased a lot of the heritage of that city. It’s not the same city at all.
It was around that time that your mother and father split up, and your family moved away from Hollywood, back to the downtown area where you were born. How did that transition affect you?
I spent the rest of my childhood there — all my teenage years. By that time it was a little Salvadoran neighborhood bordering on Koreatown. I was the white boy on the street. A lot of drugs, a lot of refugees from the Central American wars. It wasn’t the safest place, but it was definitely a community. I remember walking to the bus in the morning to go to school and there’d be roosters and chickens running through the street and mariachis passed out on the sidewalk. There was an anarchy there in the neighborhood, but still, it was a neighborhood.
It’s just east of South Central. I remember meeting the Cypress Hill guys, and we were talking, and we realized we grew up within a mile of each other. They were saying, “Shit, man, we thought you were from England or something.”
A lot has been made of the fact that at 18, you took a bus from Los Angeles to New York. What prompted that?
There was a special on Greyhound: You could go anywhere in the country for 40 bucks. It must have taken at least a week to get there. I stopped off here and there. Went through the South.
Any wild experiences on the road?
At some point in the middle of west Texas, the sun was going down, and I realized that all the straight people — all the working people — had gotten off the bus and everyone left was a drug fiend or an ex-con. I remember one of them whispering in my ear as soon as I fell asleep: He was going to slit my throat. I knew I was descending into the heart of America. I was discovering the heartland at that moment.
That sounds scarier than living in downtown L.A.
I don’t know about that. At that point I’d seen some fucked-up shit: People machine-gunned on my front lawn; coming out in the morning and playing with the bandages when I was a little kid.
You saw someone machine-gunned?
No. It happened on my front lawn overnight. But back then it was nowhere near as bad as it is now. L.A.’s an incredibly violent place.
How did your journey across America fit into the evolution of your music? I mean, that’s a pretty romantic thing to do — go across the country on a bus.
There was no romanticism left in it by that time. As a teenager I’d read all the Beat literature; I’d read all about the folk revival of the ‘60s. I knew that was all gone. It wasn’t about that. I was intensely into the blues, country blues, but I knew it wasn’t a romantic thing. [The blues] came out of hardship, misery. I think in the ‘60s it was romanticized — the wise-old-bluesman thing — but I didn’t really have any illusions about it. You spend about two minutes in the downtown L.A. Greyhound bus station and your romanticism about taking a bus trip across America will be eradicated and exterminated immediately.
You mean to tell me that at 18, you felt absolutely no thrill in taking to the highway? I mean, now you have the benefit of hind-sight: You’ve grown up, seen things and put things into perspective. But then, you were a teenager. Were you already so hardened that you didn’t even get a rush from it?
See, I’d known that kind of thing. I quit school early, and I was working jobs, and I had already taken trips by myself. By the time I was 16, my mom was treating me like another adult. I was just someone else living at the house. I came and went as I pleased. I’d traveled through Europe on $150, you know, so — I was used to going somewhere with no means, not really knowing anybody, sort of making my way through it. I dunno, I was naive. I tend to trust people.
Why did you quit school?
I wanted to go to school more than anything. I would never want to give the idea that I left because I didn’t think school was important. It was just the circumstances that I was in. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and it was pretty crowded in there. There were sometimes five or six people at a time when I was a teenager. I have a brother. He’s younger than me. And when you’re a teenager, you want space, you want time alone. Also, the part of Los Angeles where I was going to school, it wasn’t exactly the safest.
Do you wish you had finished school?
Oh, yeah, definitely. More than anything. I envy my friends that got to go to college. I thought maybe I would work for a few years and save money to go to college, but that never worked out. I went to New York instead and was playing music. I thought I would eventually go back to school, but I never have.
What was it like when you arrived in Manhattan?
I remember getting to New York, and there was this anti-folk scene happening. I remember literally standing on the street and running into some people, and when they saw I had a guitar, they’d say, “There’s an open-mike night — why don’t you come?” And I was probably scared to death to play.
What did you live on?
I just trusted that I’d find somebody who’d let me crash here or someone who knew about a job, and I’d get a job for a while. I never pushed to get anywhere. I just always trusted that I would end up where I was supposed to go. That was always my belief. And that would happen to greater or lesser degrees. If I ended up in a weird place, I’d just make the best out of it, you know.
And so you made the best out of the anti-folk scene.
It was an insular scene, but there was a lot of space within there to do almost anything you wanted. I remember going in and getting as drunk as possible and getting up and playing a few tunes. We could take our cue from KRS-One, rewrite an old Woody Guthrie song, make it something totally different. It felt powerful because we didn’t need guitars, amps, a practice space or anything; each person was a one-person band.
I guess you could say that was a time of realization or de-realization — forgetting what you know and starting over. It was before all that ‘90s alternative thing. It still felt that something was possible, that there was no way it was going to get turned into something commercial, that it would always remain true, that you wouldn’t be able to work a formula out for it. There was a feeling that “We will not be fooled.” It was innocent in the sense that it wasn’t a post-post-post-post-thing, you know?
Then you moved back to L.A., “Loser” happened, and you were suddenly introduced to the wonderful world of Innocence Lost: the power of celebrity in the ‘90s. How have you dealt with all the attention?
The thing that frustrates me is just how simplified things can be made — cut down to the lowest common denominator. How can you sum up my life — or any life — in a paragraph in USA Today? It takes all the dignity and all the expansiveness out of it.
If you don’t fit into someone’s mission of what a musical personality should be in 1997, then they’ll just make you into it. They air brush out Neil Young’s sideburns and give Patti Smith a nose job. People, music, everything in our culture — it’s so disposable now. That was the most upsetting thing about a recent magazine cover I was on. I wasn’t cool enough, so they just made me look the way they wanted me to look. They put makeup on me and made my hair a different color. They even changed the structure of my face! That’s weird. It’s fucked up. The bottom line is, they made me look like a junkie. But I’m not a junkie. I’m not self-destructive.
What gets me is that it’s just too easy. I’m shocked when I see people take the easy way out. It’s easy to be a rock musician with a drug problem because it’s been done before. There’s already a romance to that. It’s already been applauded. It’s like doing a cover of a song that was No. 1 years ago. It’s a safe bet. There’s nothing creative about it.
Some might say that you do the same thing with musical styles, using technology, dabbling in the past to create something new.
Yeah, but that’s not really the same because I’m not trying to get to the artifice, I’m trying to get to what it is. People have this conception that I put on different characters. But to me, there’s a definite continuity in what I do. If there wasn’t, it wouldn’t work. If I was just trying on a bunch of silly outfits, then there wouldn’t be any weight to what I do. I would be a dilettante. But I’m not a dilettante. I’m committed to what I do. There’s nothing dilettantish about it.
You spend a lot of time crafting your sonic collages. How important are the words of your songs?
I couldn’t sing my songs every night if I thought, “Oh, I just scribbled this down — it doesn’t really mean anything.” It’s got to have some connection to me. It’s weird that in America, almost every review I see says, “Oh, the lyrics are nonsense; they don’t mean anything; they’re not important; he’s not really saying anything.” I’ve written hundreds of songs, and I got bored of saying things the same way. I wanted to use the language differently.
But I didn’t want to be pretentious or pompous in the way some songwriters suddenly decide, “OK, now I’m a poet; I’m going to turn these lyrics into poetry.” For me, the words still have to be funky. Especially in the area of music I’m working in: It’s not art music; it’s not conceptual. The words have got to feel good, and they have to sound good; they have to fit the rhythm. That’s the hardest thing. You got a melody, you got this thing that’s musical, and you want to stick words on it. Words can really weigh something down. And if you put in the wrong words, I’m telling you, it’ll ruin the music; it’ll ruin the melody.
Dylan put a lot of thought into things like that — “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Tombstone Blues.” And some of your more surreal songs, like “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut,” remind me of that stuff.
Oh, yeah. A lot of Dylan’s work, the music was writing the words. But there’s meaning there, too — a lot of meaning. I would say that people are just being lazy if they can’t find meaning in words like that. You know: Be creative! I don’t want to fill out the picture. You fill in the blanks. That’s the way it should be.
Like when you sing “She’s alone in the new pollution,” you want people to really explore the lyrics, ask, “What the hell’s he saying? What does that mean?”
Yes. But I’m not trying to confuse people. I want to communicate. A song like “The New Pollution” — I mean, pollution, it’s a presence in our lives. And isn’t it interesting to use a word like that — something with such horrible connotations — in the context of almost a love song? That’s where you create friction. That’s where you can start to get to someplace where you aren’t dealing in the banalities of everyday, pedestrian rock lyrics. Not that I mean to be snobby about it — I can appreciate the good ol’ song, and I still like to write that way sometimes.
Let’s talk about “Devil’s Haircut.”
I would like to say that everyone should have their own idea of what that song means, from the most obvious — “Oh, gee, I got a bad haircut” — to something incredibly involved and academic. For me, I had this idea to write a song based on the Stagger Lee myth. The chorus is like a blues lyric. You can imagine it being sung to a country-blues guitar riff [sings like an old bluesman]: “Got a devil’s haircut — in my mind.” And all the images in the song — “Something’s wrong/My mind’s fadin’/Everywhere I look there’s a devil waitin’” — it’s a blues song. So that’s where I wrote it from. And that’s why I get frustrated when people say, “Oh, that’s a bunch of gibberish.” It’s the way you perceive it. Maybe people just aren’t patient enough to get into it.
Patience, observation, scrutiny — the loss of these qualities in our contemporary culture seems to make you sad.
Yeah, and each generation loses it a little bit more. They lose their ability to articulate their experiences. That’s why the so-called Generation X is an easy target. Most of Generation X can’t even defend themselves. They don’t know how to put the words together to bring out their inner experience. That’s a loss — a big loss. And then when somebody does come out full of angst — which is something commonly associated with this generation — it’s written off simply as whining. As if it’s not real. As if it’s just made up. But it’s not; it’s more substantial than that.
Who is doing the writing off? The baby boomers?
Yeah, and there’s a dominance to that generation that will always be there. It’s a large group of people. And we can’t really steal any of their fire. We’re not allowed to. If we come out, and we speak about things that enrage us or things we feel strongly about, it gets reduced to “whining” or “angst.”
The interesting thing is, you’re fairly old school in your own music and thinking.
I’m a traditionalist in a lot of ways. A lot of what my generation is into, what it represents, I’m totally against. I find that I connect much more with older musicians. I think a lot of my generation has been fed a culture that’s just so disposable. I can see that a lot of it is very 1997 — stuff that’s very of-its-time disposable. A lot of simple techno stuff — it’s going to look stupid 10 years from now. It might look fresh and new and exciting now, but it’s going to look old and stale as time goes by.
In a 1968 Rolling Stone interview, Eric Clapton was asked what he thought of the San Francisco music scene as compared with the British scene of the time. He said: “The English music market has been bred so long on immaturity, in the press and music papers, they are concerned with nothing else but Top 40, and music doesn’t really matter . . . . They could use, from San Francisco, a little more openmindedness . . .” Isn’t that what you’re saying about the current American alternative market?
The thing is, there was disposable culture in the ‘60s. It’s not just a ‘90s thing. The pop thrill, the newest and freshest thing — there’s a place for that. I recognize that need in our culture: the new thing, the new magazine, the new shoes that just came out that you dig for about five minutes before they get old, and then you throw ‘em away and hop onto the next thing. But it seems to be so dominant today.
But it’s funny that you would read that to me. I’m interested in seeing things that people said back then because so many things haven’t changed. Like you see stuff Dylan said in the ‘60s, and it doesn’t seem like he’s the institution that he is now. He was just another musician. And that kind of puts things into perspective. If you look back at stuff like that, you’re more likely not going to get caught up in all the mess, all the hype.
Every time I see you out, you’re with your girlfriend, Leigh. I’ve seen you at restaurants in L.A. with her; she accompanied you to the Grammys; and she’s here in London with you now. Does your relationship play a big role in your life?
We’ve been together for five years. She knew me when I was a penniless nothing. She liked me long before anybody else did. And that’s important. I mean, like any relationship, you have your work, and you talk about work, and if something’s fucked up, [your partner will] comfort you.
With two successful albums and now the two Grammys, a lot of doors should be opening up for you. What are some other things you’d like to do?
I enjoy making videos. I have a lot of ideas. I spent about five weeks of my life doing the video for “The New Pollution,” and, damn, it’s a lot of work, but it’s satisfying in the end.
It was a bit shocking to have this picture — something visual in my head — translated into existence. I’m used to being able to do that with sound — to have an idea and approximate it in a song — but not with an actual picture. It’s frightening to take something that you dream or daydream or imagine, something you’ve conjured up in your thoughts from out of nowhere, and put it into existence on a screen. [Laughs] There’s something wrong about that, something very disturbing when you can do that. It’s a power that we shouldn’t have. But it’s exhilarating.
Did it come out the way you wanted it to — the ‘60s go-go dancers, the hood ornament that comes to life, and the hair-metal-band scene?
Oh, yeah. It’s insane that it came out exactly the way I pictured it. It’s a whimsical video. It’s very silly; most of it’s not serious at all. And I think that’s what videos should be. I think videos should be more about just ruining everything you’ve built up in the music. I think you should just go and blow it all up by making a bunch of dumb, funny imagery.
Is it true that you might work with Snoop Doggy Dogg?
I don’t know. We’ll see. I met him last year. I would have had no idea that he even knew who I was or dug what I was doing, but he knows what’s up. He’s into it. He’s into what’s going on in the music that he isn’t involved in. He said to me, “I dig what you’re doing. Your tracks are tight.” That made me happier than almost anything. Just to connect with that thing.
Obviously, the blues and rap are very important to you.
I think the big problem with music now is how segregated it is. In the early days there was such a connection between black and white music. And, of course, rock came right out of that marriage. Even in the ‘60s, there was still such a warm connection — the Stones were totally into that culture. You don’t see that kind of connection now. You don’t see the big alternative band being as much into what somebody in the R&B world is doing. And I think that connection is what perpetuates popular music and keeps things fresh and ensures that there’ll be a crop next year. Right now, we’re mining the same old thing, we’re growing on the same soil, and it’s all worn out, and it’s getting dusty, and it’s going to blow away pretty soon.
In your Rolling Stone Top 10 list, you put Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s over-the-top horse-and-carriage performance on the MTV Video Music Awards as one of your favorite events of the last year.
It excited me so much! Just the boldness. I think it was one of the best moments in music last year. I appreciate acts that are bold. Even if they’re completely misguided and overdone. That’s what it’s all about.
It was amazing. I just howled when I saw that thing roll onto the stage. Then I howled again when I saw it on your list.
[Laughs] And I didn’t even see it. I just heard about it.