Don’t Get Bitter on Us, Beck : Thanks to his rap-folk song ‘Loser,’ the 23-year-old musician is one of the hottest figures to emerge from the L.A. rock scene in years. But now that he’s going national, how will he hold up under all the attention?
A lot of people are eager to give Beck Hansen advice these days.
One cautioned the young musician not to become “angry and bitter.”
Another took it even further:
“He said, ‘Don’t choke on your own vomit,’ ” recalls the singer, who goes by his first name, sitting in a small Mexican restaurant near his Highland Park home.
Thanks to his song “Loser,” a rap-folk concoction with witty wordplay, a catchy beat and an air of electric currency a la Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” he’s seen by some as the hottest and most intriguing new figure to emerge from the Los Angeles rock scene since Axl Rose and Perry Farrell in the mid-'80s.
An unknown just months ago and still largely a mystery, Hansen has come out of nowhere to become the young man of the moment. And we all know what’s happened to successful young men of other moments in rock, from Dylan to Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Vedder: They become angry and bitter--or worse.
The fact that Hansen seems so young and frail on first encounter--he’s 23 but looks about half his age--makes people especially protective of him. There’s an almost waif-like air to him, a sense of wide-eyed, vulnerable sincerity mixed with a sparkle of mischief in his penchant for obtuse, stream-of-consciousness statements.
Even the team of professional advisers that has now assembled around him on the eve of the March 1 release of his first major-label album, “Mellow Gold,” seems oddly in dread of the very stardom that it feels is inevitable for him.
“I keep telling Beck that he’s the guy who has to walk down the street and be recognized,” says Mark Kates, the Geffen Records A&R; director who signed Hansen to a deal in December after a fierce competition with Warner Bros. and Capitol. “He should enjoy his anonymity while it lasts, because when it goes, it goes.”
And it’s going fast. Before last summer, Hansen was virtually unknown, and to those who had encountered him he was something of an enigma, jumping on stage between acts at Los Angeles clubs and coffeehouses to play strange folk songs or, sometimes wearing a “Star Wars” storm trooper mask, do what could best be described as performance art.
Then last summer “Loser” started turning up on college stations KCRW and KXLU and eventually commercial outlets around the country, including L.A.'s KROQ. Before long his performances were drawing record-label scouts by the dozens. Hansen’s shows were still the unrefined and seemingly uncommercial presentations as before, but there was such a buzz that even before he was formally offered a record deal there was talk of “bidding wars” and “hype.”
“I didn’t really know what an A&R; person was until maybe last July,” Hansen confesses. “I thought an A&R; person was like somebody who worked at A&M; (Records). I had A&R; and A&M; mixed up.”
Now, though, he is on a major label, surrounded by a powerful brain trust that includes John Silva, the manager of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads. It’s overseeing a ballooning career that Hansen says he never really pursued and is still not sure he wants.
Hansen seems almost blithely oblivious to the fame that may be headed his way. Though “Loser” has been called “the ultimate slacker anthem,” he believes its success is merely a fluke of luck and timing.
“It wasn’t intended as (an anthem),” he says. “It was just goofing around at a friend’s house on an eight-track. There’s a lot of ideas floating around in the song, but it wasn’t meant to be some like triumphant message.”
In recent weeks, the record, originally released last summer by tiny Bongload Records, has been No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s modern rock chart, with the 30 radio stations that report for the chart playing the song an average of more than 20 times a week.
And that raises a second fear: that Hansen will be a one-hit wonder.
“I told him, ‘You gotta make sure this isn’t the peak of your career,’ ” Kates says.
But the Geffen executive believes he’s dealing with an artist who can take care of himself: “He’s a smart guy. I’m not that worried about him.”
Hansen has plenty of experience taking care of himself. His childhood was spent shuttling between his office-worker single mother in Los Angeles and his grandparents in Kansas, where his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.
“I was left to my own devices a lot,” he says of his youth.
He dropped out of school after junior high (“I woulda got my ass kicked in high school”) and worked a stream of menial jobs including loading trucks and being “a leaf-blower guy.”
It wasn’t until he was 17 that music entered his life.
“I was at a friend’s house and we were hanging out and his dad had a bunch of records,” he recalls. “He had this Mississippi John Hurt record and the cover was just a close-up shot of his sweating, old face and it looked pretty cool. So I stole it.
“It totally blew me away. I’d never heard music like that before, but it was exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. I wasn’t into that much music before. I was into some punk bands, I liked Pussy Galore when I was like 14 or 15. But this was so great.”
Inspired by the venerable singer-guitarist, Hansen explored blues and folk music further, learning how to finger-pick guitar and discovering such icons as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie Johnson.
“All these old people, they were the original punk rock,” he says.
Then he moved with his girlfriend to New York and found himself part of a music community.
“She disappeared and I was kinda left to my own devices again,” he says. “So I kinda started hanging out on the street in the Lower East Side. I had my guitar and there was this whole kinda punk-rock-folk scene and noise- music- chaos- poetry- underground- basement- 40-ounce- malt-liquor- being- crazy scene going on.”
He fell in with the likes of folk singer Roger Manning and members of the bands King Missile and Galaxie 500 and played on shows at small clubs and coffeehouses. In 1990, daunted by the prospect of another New York winter, Hansen returned to L.A. and gradually tested the waters.
“I was working in a video store and living in this rooming house over in Los Feliz and I would hang out at the Onyx (coffeehouse) and sometimes just bring my guitar and play a few songs,” he says. “They gave me a show there and I met some guy who had a tape recorder in his living room and we went and made a tape, and I started making these tapes and passing them around.”
Slowly he started to attract a handful of music industry supporters. One, Rob Schnapf, had just started Bongload Records with his partners Tom Rothrock and Brad Lambert. After seeing Hansen play at Jabberjaw, Schnapf felt he would suit their small venture.
A loose comment by Hansen about a developing interest in rap led Schnapf to hook him up with Karl Stephenson, a young hip-hop producer. Hansen went to Stephenson’s house, played a slide guitar lick that the producer sampled and surrounded with a solid beat, and started spewing out stream-of-consciousness lyrics that, intentionally or otherwise, summed up the experience of the young and the aimless.
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nose job
the daytime crap of the folk singer slob
He hung himself with a guitar string
A slab of turkey neck and it’s hanging from a pigeon wing . . .
Soy un perdirdor
I’m a loser baby
So why don’t you kill me
“Loser” was really just a one-off experiment, and Hansen put the track aside and went back to his folk songs, making his home tapes and releasing several independent singles. “Loser” sat for a full year, until the Bongload guys asked if they could release it as a single.
Then the explosion happened. Geffen A&R; man Tony Berg was struck by the song and played it for KCRW music director Chris Douridas, who played the song on his “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show.
“It was one of those unbelievable finds,” says Douridas. “I called the record label that day and asked to have Beck play live on the air. He came in that Friday, rapped to a tape of ‘Loser’ and did his song ‘MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.’ ”
The impact was immediate. Hansen played that night at the downtown club Cafe Troy and the place was packed, and soon the scouts were sniffing around.
Hansen was flabbergasted.
“I never really wanted to draw attention to myself,” he says. “I was just going to do my thing and play for friends of mine and make up songs about people that we knew and making up jokes that only my friends could understand.”
He even seriously considered not signing a deal with any record company.
“I decided (not to sign) a few times,” he says, insisting that money was never an issue with him. “I didn’t want to fall into some situation where I had to be something I wasn’t.”
Ultimately, though, the Geffen team convinced him that he would be able to do things his way with them.
“They were willing to take the music on its own terms and take a chance,” he says.
Now that Geffen’s got Beck, what do they do with him?
“With something that has developed a life of its own, the only thing a major label can do is get in the way and mess it up,” says Geffen’s Kates.
So the strategy is pretty much to stay out of the way. First of all, the deal Hansen got is notable for the creative freedom it allows him.
“I come up with songs, I give ‘em to ‘em, they say, ‘Great,’ press ‘em up and put ‘em out,” Hansen summarizes.
But beyond that, Geffen has given him a non-exclusive contract, meaning Hansen remains free to release material through such small, independent labels as Bongload and Flipside.
Of more concern to Geffen’s marketing and promotion staff, “Mellow Gold” is not an album full of “Losers.” Fans of the hit may well be taken aback by its rough folk songs and blasts of experimental noise.
Kates sees the diversity as more a blessing than a curse, but it’s still a big challenge to the company.
“We feel that because of ‘Loser’ we have this platform for people to check out what he’s about,” Kates says. “He’s a complex guy, both musically and personally. So we’ll do what we would have done without a major hit. We don’t want to overestimate people’s interest in him. But we’re confident that when people see him and hear the extent of his music they’ll like him even more.”
The plan is for Hansen to hit the road with a band he’s now assembling, playing for the most part in the same small clubs he would have been in without the hit. And to follow “Loser,” Geffen will release “Pay No Mind,” a relatively straight, folk-type song.
As for the press, the big bugaboo for Vedder and others, Hansen has few qualms, at least for now.
“Sure, it’s just talking to someone,” he says. “It’s just a bunch of words.”
His main interest is just to keep exploring music, writing songs about his experiences and playing.
“I’m not doing this for some kind of big giant rock explosive overpowering transcendent feeling,” he says. “There’s nothing like that. It’s just me getting up there and speaking my mind about anything and basically saying anybody can get up and do this. That’s the whole point--pick up an acoustic guitar, everybody’s got ideas.
"(People are) just fed all this stuff, all these CDs they have to buy, all these TV shows they gotta watch, all these, um, Pop Tarts they gotta toast. But (people have) plenty of songs themselves and they just don’t realize they can get up there and just do it. It’s not such a holy thing. You know, eat a burrito, write a song."*