Collaboration where it's at for Beck

BERNARD ZUEL
Last updated 11:34 13/11/2012
BEck
SUPPLIED
RACING THE CLOCK: Beck Hansen.

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Beck Hansen is in a hurry. Not in speech, mind you. He has a slow manner of talking, almost a drawl that could attract flies, and he can leave enough space between words to make Harold Pinter feel twitchy. Even his laugh is slow, building up in low intimations before rolling out in a murmur.

But the man who began his single name career as Beck in 1993, declaring himself a loser - ''so why don't you kill me'' - and singing as if raising his voice or his tempo was beyond or beneath him, is feeling the pressure of time.

This hurry - existential as well as practical - has been manifesting itself in recent years, though it may be hard to see why.

The 42-year-old has ostensibly been on a break since his last album, Modern Guilt, in 2008. He has two young children with his actor-writer wife, Marissa Ribisi (sister of actor Giovanni and another second-generation Scientologist), enough money to live on and no need to exert himself.

However, in that time, he has written and produced an album with actor Charlotte Gainsbourg, produced albums for fellow giants of the indie world, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, did the same for actor Donald Glover (under Glover's nom-de-music of Childish Gambino), put out a one-off single with Jack White, contributed songs to several film and TV soundtracks as well as PlayStation games, produced two songs on the new album from country star Dwight Yoakam and set up a ''record club'', where a bunch of musical friends re-record a favourite album in one day.

Clearly the concept of taking a break has a different meaning to him, even as he tours with the band and the songs from his early years of fame, which brings him to Australia.

''There is always more to do than there is time to do it, so I feel like as time goes on, I'm playing catch up with a longer field of things to catch up with,'' Hansen says, slowly. ''When I was 25, I felt like maybe I was a year behind; now it's beginning to feel like five or 10 years.''

That urgency has not been about desperation, he says, nor some late-career desire to try on as many hipster styles as possible.

However, the possibility that he might not have time to do everything that comes up, or could come up, spurs him these days in maybe even odder directions.

Hansen and Yoakam may seem a strange combination but their indirect history goes back some years (both live in Los Angeles; Hansen's father has written string arrangements for Yoakam) and the attraction to the benefits of cutting your teeth live and not in a TV karaoke talent show is mutual.

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''You don't really encounter anyone like that, so steeped in his experiences, coming up in a time where you play music in a bar and the music is part of an atmosphere, a destination event, where you had to really hoot and holler to be heard,'' Hansen says. ''I remember the first five or six years that I was playing, I encountered a lot of that. You had to work to be heard over the patrons of the bar.''

While Hansen says his main contribution to Yoakam was ''getting out of the way'', his involvement with Gainsbourg, daughter of Jane Birkin and the great French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, was more in depth and intense. For her album IRM he wrote the songs, including pretty much all the lyrics, played on them and shaped the direction of the record, which was in effect virtually a Beck album with a guest vocalist.

This suited Gainsbourg, who says that ''when I look back on the album, it's his lyrics, his references - I felt quite a foreigner in his world'' but marvels at how it captured her nonetheless.

All this work has filled a need for Hansen, but where has he found the time for his own work?

''I started a record about four years ago. Recorded it. And every year or so that the songs come out [I] work on them for a few weeks and then I get busy with other things,'' Hansen says. ''I did the record originally [to be released soon after] and then after two years it felt like old news, like it was irrelevant now. As the years go by, it feels even more so, because this is from a completely different decade.''

It sounds like the kind of box set extra, the ''lost album'', which would excite fans if it ever got out.

''Yeah,'' he says a little wearily. ''I've got a few of those. Fortunately or unfortunately - I haven't figured that out yet.''

Not that we'll hear any of those unreleased songs when Hansen plays in Sydney twice this week. The show is based around the reunion of the band which made Odelay and Sea Change, and the set will be dominated by that period of his career. The distance afforded by the years has made it easier for him to look again at his past and maybe see, and say, something fresh.

But even now, Hansen can't keep his eyes off other projects and other names, in particular his long-held, ''unbelievably presumptuous'' wish to collaborate with David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. ''I hope to do, and it probably sounds corny, some intergenerational kind of dialogue,'' Hansen says.

''I think there are certain things that people do - there's a lot beneath the surface with all these artists, certain things that you probably couldn't articulate would rub off; becoming privy to somebody's approach, the way they hold a guitar or where they stand with the microphone.

''I started to feel in the last 10 years or so that [sharing ideas] had completely died and people were much more individuated. My interest was in the hearing and spreading these ideas and approaches and hopefully that makes music better all round.''

-The Age

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