“Hello, it’s Beck..,” drawls a Southern Californian voice down the phone from a hotel room somewhere in leafy Kent.
Having shaken off the LA jetlag that threatened to ruin a joyous secret gig near London Bridge on Sunday night, the 47-year-old is on fine form ahead of his appearance on Later… with Jools and happy to look back and laugh about Kanye West interrupting his Grammy Award acceptance speech.
Beck Hansen – to give him his full name – is in an elite club of only two singing stars who have suffered at the hands of a Kanye awards bash tantrum, along with Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV VMAs. But that’s no reason why the three of them can’t be friends or even work together in the future, right?
“Yeah, I don’t know – maybe!” he jokes. “It’s the music business. You’re walking right into centre of the whole thing – it’s a circus.
“We were laughing about it. She’d had dinner with Kanye after the Grammys thing happened and Morning Phase came on in the restaurant they were in and he stopped the conversation and said: ‘What is this? This is good.’ She was smiling and said: ‘This is Morning Phase!’.
“So even when he went on that whole thing I didn’t take it personal… Ultimately he had let me know that he liked the record.”
Beck will be seeing a few more “friends” at a second surprise London gig in Camden on Thursday ahead of the release of follow-up album Colors on Friday.
But before that, he took some time out to talk about Kanye and Taylor, why MC Hammer is signing copies of his new release and how completing his “painstaking” new LP was “like finishing a marathon”.
He also reveals what it was like touring with the huge but friendly U2 “machine” and what “a thrill” it has been to see album co-writer/producer Greg Kurstin “gently take over the world!”
Just don’t ask him about Scientology.
That was a great secret show on Sunday, despite you saying the band were all jet-lagged at the start.
Thank you very much, it was a great night. The crowd helped us, we couldn’t have had a better crowd.
You’ve announced another one for Thursday night. Do you like keeping secrets and pulling surprises?
We were originally just coming here to do some TV and radio but I insisted on playing. We haven’t played here in over a year and it just doesn’t feel like we can come here without playing a gig. It’s like visiting your friends.
How was the reaction to new stuff?
I was surprised, it was great. They were singing the backing vocals! One of the songs on the new record, there’s a part where there aren’t enough of us in the band to sing the backing vocals and the crowd just starting doing it – it was beautiful.
You covered Gary Numan and The Clash at the gig, plus you perform on the same bill as Robert Plant on the Jools Holland show. Do these classic British artists hold a special place in your heart?
Absolutely. They’re so formative, for myself, the people in my band, everyone I grew up with. We were completely influenced by the 60s and 80s waves of British (and Irish) musicians. We even just toured with U2 so that influence is still there.
Tell us about touring with Bono and the guys.
It was a great experience, the audiences couldn’t be more warm. It was interesting because there was a more elevated feeling of people being passionate about being there and wanting to engage with the music.
The band and their crew are incredibly kind, thoughtful, warm and generous and the doors are open and they want to hang out and engage. Everyone is working hard and there’s lots of commotion but it’s very calm and very friendly. For such a huge machine it was striking how human and open and relaxed it was.
You’ve had another musical legend, MC Hammer, signing copies of your new album. He’s calling it a ‘great party record’.
I think it’s great to have him christen the record. We’re label mates now. I met him last year at the celebration of the anniversary of Capital Records in Hollywood. It was actually an idea of a friend of mine at the label. There’s a scene in Stepbrothers where he gets somebody to sign a samurai sword and he’s like, ‘Why did you get him to sign the samurai sword?’ and he says: ‘It’s the only thing we had!’.
How important is the whole packaging and promotion of the modern album to you?
For better or worse I’m involved in the whole thing. I’d love nothing more than to call someone up and say: ‘Hey, can you throw something together and make it great? Or I’ll just come by and maybe sing a little something’. I’m more of a hands-on artist in every way.
I have a lot of talented people and musicians I get to work with. Like Greg Kurstin, who wrote and produced the record with me – he’s now a storied producer. He was touring with me maybe 15 years ago and we’ve been in bands together for years.
I wanted to make a record in the spirit of the songwriting team. The more I look back on it, my favourite songs are from bands that had two great songwriters in them. I was trying to create a version of that for myself.
But we’re all like family and it’s been a thrill for me watch Greg gently take over the world!
The last album Morning Phase won the Grammy. How do you top that?
Well, this record started before the last one came out. We wrote the songs in 2013/14, so my idea at the time was to make a record that was very up and had a lot of light in it and positive feeling. I’d been for many years making much more experimental, abstract, darker, moodier music.
I guess a lot has changed during that time, particularly in America. Does this record reflect that?
Not really. These songs were already set in stone, long before the secretion of unfortunate events and tragedies – it’s a truly tumultuous time. But I don’t think these songs reflect that at all. This is just the record I wanted to make five years ago, it’s not really a reaction to anything.
Is it a relief now that it’s finally coming out?
More like a collapse! Like the finish line at the marathon. I can’t feel my legs! But I’ve been juggling a lot of things. We’ve been touring constantly. I’ve been collaborating with The Chemicals and Flume and helping other people write. I worked on the Pink and Lady Gaga records. All kinds of things. Like I did a charity thing with McCartney. It’s been an amazing period of time where these opportunities are coming up – so I’ve been trying to juggle it but keep my eye on the record.
What are your feelings now looking back on ‘that’ Grammy Awards night in 2015?
It was such a mixture of shock and amazement. For me the joy was watching all the people that I’ve worked with for so long all get to share in this victory; the musicians who played with me all these years, the engineers that I’ve spent 15,000 hours with.
Then externally there was this circus of media and the things that Kanye was saying and Beyonce fans who were angry and that’s something that you don’t ask for. But it’s like: ‘What did you expect?’. Ha! You know, it’s the music business. You’re walking right into centre of the whole thing – it’s a circus.
Along with Taylor Swift, you’re in an elite club of two people that Kanye has interrupted at big awards nights. Will we ever see the two – or all three of you – working together? Did someone say supergroup?
Yeah, I don’t know, maybe! We’ll see. I actually performed with her. She invited me out to one of her concerts and we did one of my songs. We were laughing about it. She’d had dinner with Kanye after the Grammys thing happened and Morning Phase came on in the restaurant they were in and he stopped the conversation and said: ‘What is this? This is good’. She was smiling and said: ‘This is Morning Phase!’. So even when he went on that whole thing I didn’t take it personal and he reached out after. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. Ultimately he had let me know that he liked the record.
Finally, can I ask you about the recent shooting at a music festival in Vegas. Are you conscious of this while on stage yourself or do you have to block those things out?
It’s the last thing I’m thinking about on stage. But when I hear about it – it’s all I’m thinking about. Because that’s my work environment, as a musician you can put yourself there and it’s horrible. Any of these shootings, whether at a concert or an airport, it’s unfortunately the world we live in and you have to keep living and engaging.
Starting with Later with… Jools?
Yeah, we’ve done it several times and there’s nothing like it. The novelty of sharing a stage with all the other musicians. It’s funny and also just a humbling appreciation of all the talent there.
Colors is out on Friday and you can watch Beck’s appearance on Later… with Jools on BBC Two on Saturday at 22.30 BST.
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