Beck: Rambling Grandfathers And 'Modern Guilt' The rock icon's early work was liberally infused with humor, but his new album is perhaps his darkest yet. He explains how he writes lyrics off the top of his head — and what that has to do with his jive-talking grandfather.
NPR logo

Beck: Rambling Grandfathers And 'Modern Guilt'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Beck: Rambling Grandfathers And 'Modern Guilt'

Beck: Rambling Grandfathers And 'Modern Guilt'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're going to end this hour with a little Beck. He's got a new album out, but let's start with some early back, back in '90s, when he came out with what must be the ultimate slacker tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Loser")

Mr. BECK HANSEN (Singer): (Singing) In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey, butane in my veins, and I'm out to cut the junkie with the plastic eyeballs, spray-paint the vegetables and dog-food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose…

MONTAGNE: Beck Hansen was more awkward, skinny white kid than rock star, and his quirky classic, "Loser" introduced listeners to his most endearing quality: humor.

(Soundbite of song, "Loser")

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) Soy un perdedor. I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?

MONTAGNE: Much of his early work is infused with a sharp comic tone. Think songs with titles like "Sissyneck" and "Satan Gave Me a Taco." In the last few years, Beck's records have become more serious. His latest, "Modern Guilt," may be his darkest yet.

When Beck sat down with us to talk about his work, he said it's not that he sees things differently. It's just that when he was starting out, his first instinct was always to go for a laugh.

Mr. HANSEN: I came out of playing in coffeehouses and bars, so really, just as a performer, that was kind of a survival mechanism. Usually, I was the first band or playing in between the bands that people actually came to see. So the humor was something that just sort of helped me get people's attention, I guess.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) How do you like me now? Pretty good, going on, feeling strong. I clipped (unintelligible) up my sleeves…

Mr. HANSEN: A lot of the songs were written about people that I knew, usually neighbors that I had. I had some pretty eccentric neighbors, and a lot of what I encountered in life at the time went right into the song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) And they were singing like this: I don't know (unintelligible). Now I'm coming down the (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: Your new CD suggests you're in something of a different place from certainly your earlier works, and even your last couple of projects. Let's play one song, "Volcano," which is indicative.

Mr. HANSEN: Okay, yeah. This one's pretty serious, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Volcano")

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) I've been walking on these streets so long I don't know where they're going to be anymore, but I think I must have seen a ghost. I don't know if it's my illusions that keep me alive.

MONTAGNE: I don't know what I've seen. Was it all an illusion, a mirage gone bad? Many of these songs, in fact, most of the lyrics, have a - some are depressed. Some seem as if the narrator is anxious.

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: The title track, "Modern Guilt," it really exemplifies that.

(Soundbite of song, "Modern Guilt")

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) I feel uptight when I walk in the city. I feel so cold when I'm at home. Feels like everything's starting to hit me. I lost my bed 10 minutes ago.

MONTAGNE: So you can tap along with it, but it's kind of a complicated, mixed message as a piece.

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah, the way a lot of my songs are written, I write the music first, and I record it, and then with a song like "Modern Guilt," I just get on a microphone and I write something really quick, sort of off the top of my head so I can remember the melody. And what happens a lot of times is that what I initially sing on there ends up being on the record. A lot of these things, I don't really get to spend too much time figuring out what it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Modern Guilt")

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) Modern guilt is all in our hands. Modern guilt won't get me to bed.

Mr. HANSEN: Sometimes when you record something and write something off the cuff like that, you'll say things that are a bit more simple and more direct, and simpler lyrics work better, I think, melodically - unless you're doing the talking blues or rap, which I think is one of the things that first attracted me to - I mean, I wouldn't claim that it's rap. It's spoken, you, whatever, a song like "Where It's At," or - and having…

MONTAGNE: And why wouldn't you claim it's rap?

Mr. HANSEN: Because, you know, it doesn't come from hip-hop. You know, I used to hang out with a lot of poets and people who did spoken word, you know. So I think I thought my rap, quote, "rap," songs were coming from that.

(Soundbite of song, "Where it's At")

Mr. HANSEN (Singing) There's a destination a little up the road from the habitations and the towns we know, a place we saw the lights turned low, the jigsaw jazz and the jet-fresh flow.

And my grandfather was an artist, and he came up in New York in the '40s and '50s, and he spoke in that kind of zoot-suit, hipster lingo of that time, you know, the Beats, and I think I had a lot of influence from him.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about him for a moment. His name is Al Hansen, and by the '60s, he was an artist who was leading a school of art. People would know Yoko Ono. Of all those, probably, artists, she's obviously the most famous.

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah, that's the Fluxus movement. He passed away when I was in my early 20s. So I never really got to sit down and ask him about all these things, but I definitely remember the way he talked.

MONTAGNE: How did he talk?

Mr. HANSEN: He had a lot of made-up words, or what seemed to be made-up words. He was just riffing all the time. You know, it was broken-down traffic miasma. We boogied uptown over here and whatnot, and this and that. It was all just rolling off of his tongue.

(Soundbite of song, "Where It's At")

Mr. HANSEN: (Singing) Pick yourself up off the side of the road with your elevator bones and whip-lash tones. Members only, hypnotize you. Move through the room like ambulance drivers…

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing those artists did, they made collages and assemblages. It did occur to me that it's something like you've done in music.

Mr. HANSEN: Well, yeah. He liked to say he was an alchemist, but really it was that he was broke. He couldn't afford art materials. So I think he decided early on, I'm going to make art out of what I have around. And so it was candy wrappers and cigarette butts. And when I was a child, he used to send us to the garbage can. When we were at a restaurant, we'd go to all the ashtrays that were left, and we used to collect all the cigarette butts for him for his artwork.

MONTAGNE: Have you ever written a song with your grandfather in mind? He sounds like such a character.

Mr. HANSEN: I don't think I have, no. I mean, he's in there somewhere. I think I have an assignment now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah, no. It was a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear full songs from Beck's new album, "Modern Guilt," at NPR Music on This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.