Beck happened to share a Lollapalooza bill in 1995 (Sonic Youth headlined) with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, whose recently-released album, Mirror Traffic, Beck just produced. Both of them wrote and sang and explored the pop potential of noise and negotiated rock semi-stardom with a bemused detachment that lazy critics read as, like, ironic or whatever. And their refusal to make definitive voice-of-a-generation-ish statements established them as two of the key voices of a generation defined by its distrust of its own voice, not to mention its complicated relationship to career ambition. “I think there’s been several points where doors opened up and I might have gone more commercial, and had greater success,” says Beck, 41, who probably could’ve written eight sequels to his novelty-folk-rap hit “Loser” before anyone complained. “I just never was interested in going in that door.” He talks with GQ’s Alex Pappademas about the stigma of having a huge hit, and coming to cultural ascendancy in the post-Kurt, pre-bling ’90s. The full interview is here. A small bit below:
GQ: Do you ever say to yourself, “Whoops, I kinda missed the boat on that sound”?
Beck: All the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown out stuff. I had a point about two years ago when I took a bunch of the songs and just completely turned them inside out, and even those—now, like, they would be coming in the wake of a lot of other stuff that did the same thing. I don’t know. It’s an interesting time, because things are moving so quickly. You could sit on an idea for longer when I was starting out, and it’d still be okay. My first single, “Loser,” sat around for two and half, three years. It was a good three to four years old by the time people really noticed it.
GQ: And then it came out, and everyone reacted like it was the newest thing imaginable—the voice of the moment.
Beck: Yeah, I know. Before it had come out, I was convinced that it was just old news, that it would be irrelevant. There’s something I like about working on a piece of music and then letting it sit for a while, but now, I think if you sit on something, it will become irrelevant really quickly.
GQ: The list of artists who’ve had something like a “Loser” in their creative life—a huge novelty hit, right out of the gate like that—and then gone on to be accepted as artists and become people an audience wanted to hear from over and over again—that’s a fairly short list. There’s very few people who pull that off. Was there a point that you realized, “Okay—this isn’t some fluke thing that’s happened. I’m going to be around for a while. I’m going to have a career doing this”?
Beck: I think I always did the opposite of what you would do to have a career. When I did Odelay—for the time, that was not a commercial record in any respect, and I think everybody working on it, from my management to the record company, looked at it as sort of a creative experiment, and expectations were pretty low. I don’t remember anybody who I worked with, who was around, saying, “These songs are great. People are going to love this record.” It was nothing like that; it was just—people thought it was an interesting experiment. I knew that was probably the last thing I’d get to record that a lot of people might hear, so I wanted to make something that was interesting and not something just trying to ride on the success of “Loser.” I think there’s been several points where doors opened up, and I might’ve gone more commercial, and had greater success. I just never was interested in going in that door.
[Photograph by Mark Seliger]