Interview by Adam McKibbin
Thavius Beck shoots straight and pulls no punches, even when it causes some discomfort for listener and artist alike. "That is one of the main reasons I don't rap very much," he admits, talking about his deeply personal and richly rewarding new album, Dialogue.
On "Violence," he eviscerates mainstream hip-hop culture and the audience that keeps it afloat, addressing both groups with a righteous (but not self-righteous) fury, accusing these millionaire gangstas of "shucking and jiving, bug-eyed grinning, with your ancestors spinning like gyroscopes in their graves." The songs that turn inward are even more memorable - and even more unflinching in their accusations and revelations. "Sometimes" brings lines like "Sometimes I wish I wasn't here" and "Most times I feel apathetic." So when he hits the final stretch of Dialogue - definitely an apt album title there - the listener understands that the command "Live your life with some purpose / Otherwise the shit is worthless" is not preaching from up high but as much intended for artist as consumer.
For all Beck's lyrical talent and courage, though, the brightest highlight of Dialogue is his exceptional production work throughout, which draws influence from electronic producers as much as hip-hop.
Not surprisingly given what you've just read, Beck is a great interview subject. He recently took time to answer some questions about life in LA, his different hats as teacher and entertainer, surprise collaborators past and possibly future, and the price of getting personal.
The track times on Dialogue are consistently concise. Only three tracks even crack the 3:00 mark, and those appear sequentially at the end of the album. How much was it a deliberate decision to keep the runtimes lean?
It was definitely a conscious decision to keep the songs short. A lot of my older songs would stretch to 4 and 5 minutes, but there wouldn’t be much going on in terms of the arrangement to keep it interesting for that long. I started to pay more attention to songs on the radio and how they were formatted, and also became more aware of when my songs were going in to territory that was excessive and unnecessary. Ultimately the goal was to make people press repeat instead of skip.
We’re both Midwestern expatriates who have logged some serious time in L.A. Do you feel like you’re out here for good? What are your favorite aspects of L.A.?
Well, I moved out here 14 years ago, so I feel like LA is home. Am I here for good? Honestly I can’t say. Right now it’s hard to see myself living anywhere else, but I have always wanted to live in Europe. Since I have a few friend who have done that successfully, I think that may be something I eventually do, even if for just a little while.
As for my favorite aspects of LA (aside from the weather), it has to be the absurd amount of opportunities available to anyone who is willing to talk to people and be seen. If you go out enough, you’ll end up being friends with several millionaires… and if you talk to them right, they might be able to do something for you. That’s not something you normally encounter in other parts of the country.
Have you kept an eye on the Minneapolis scene – like Rhymesayers, for example – or do you feel pretty detached from the city after all these years?
I am so far removed from anything going in Minneapolis that I didn’t know anything about Rhymesayers until I had to sell their records at Amoeba. When I left it was the end of 1995, and I hadn’t heard of them or anyone on the label back then. Once I came to LA and was part of Global Phlowtations, my focus was solely on our music. I had no interest in what anyone else was doing, especially anyone in Minneapolis. Even now I’m not really up on their stuff… but to be honest I really don’t listen to underground hip-hop. I try to avoid it.
The cruel old saying about teachers in the arts is “those who can’t, teach.” But you can and do – and still teach Ableton Live workshops. How much do you get out of that experience, and do you find that it influences your own music in any way?
I actually get as much satisfaction out of teaching as I do out of performing. It’s a very satisfying feeling to see a light go off in someone’s head when you explain something to them in a way they completely understand, and then see how excited they get when the realize how they can apply it to their own music. Performing is fun, and more personally rewarding in an ego-stroking sort of way, but it’s also kind of superficial because it’s ultimately just entertaining people. Rarely does someone go to a show and walk away learning something that will benefit their life. They go to have fun; escape their problems; drink, dance, and lose themselves. When I teach someone, they walk away with something that will make them better (hopefully), or at least give them a way to express themselves. I feel like that is a much more meaningful contribution to society than making people dance. But like I said, I enjoy both very much.
Probably one of the best things about teaching is that after every lesson I have an example that I created specifically for that lesson, and it’s usually something I wouldn’t normally do on my own. You learn something from everyone… I think it’s given me an even better understanding of Ableton Live and the numerous ways I can use it.
Artists are always asked about who they’d like to collaborate with, and I read an interview where you mentioned Beth Orton, which is an interesting prospect. I’m a fan, too, so I’m interested in what draws you to her music? Any progress? How can we make this happen?! [It turned out the dream collaboration is actually Beth Gibbons of Portishead fame, though my lead-in otherwise still applied.]
I think she has an absolutely beautiful, haunting, tragic, emotional voice, and she adds so much more to any bed of music with voice and her lyrics.
I used to record music videos on my VCR when I was in junior high and high school, and I remember recording the video to “Sour Times” when it first started showing on MTV (back when they played videos) and "Glory Box." I would play that shit all the time and just couldn’t get enough of Beth’s voice. Then I bought the album Dummy when it came out and listened to it non-stop… that album was a big influence in my approach toward my own music at that time (as it was for a lot of producers), and really since then it was her and Bjork that I dreamed of working with. I haven’t even attempted to reach out to her yet because I haven’t really started on my new record… But for some reason I feel like it can happen, and I will keep putting it out there until I know I’m ready to approach her later this year. I think we would make some amazing music together…
Speaking of collaborations, you recently worked on scoring a film on the Suicide Girls. How did you come to get involved in that project – and were you a fan going in?
Oddly enough, I have an on-going relationship with the Suicide Girls… one of the songs from Decomposition was licensed for their first DVD a few years ago. Then last year, a gentlemen named Mike (who does a lot of editing for them) contacted me to see if I’d be willing to score a scene for their 3rd DVD (which should be out any day now)… they were redoing a scene from Fight Club and wanted me to do a piece for it. I guess they liked what I did enough to ask me to score the feature length film that they had been sitting on for a while. I had always wanted to make music for film, so I jumped at the opportunity to do it. I ended up creating about 60 minutes worth of original music for the film, but when I went to the screening it sounded like they only used about 15 minutes of it, which was a bit disappointing. But I still have an original film score credit, and I got paid, so it could’ve been worse, hahaha!
The album ends with some powerfully personal statements that translate into direct calls to action for the listeners to, well, get their shit together and have a moment of clarity. What are some songs that have given you a moment of clarity as a listener?
I draw inspiration from some abstract sources, so when it comes to gaining clarity from a piece of music, it’s generally something that evokes a certain emotion rather than the words or a specific message. One of my favorite songs is called “Hope” by The Mahavishnu Orchestra… there are no words, but just the way the song builds (it’s less than 2 minutes long), the chord progression, the time signature, the musicianship… there is so much in that short piece of music… not to sound corny, but it’s like a ray of light in a way… like an intense spotlight that illuminates only what needs to be seen at that moment. When I can get lost in music like that, it makes a lot of the bullshit melt away and helps me focus on what’s actually important.
On both “Sometimes” and “Pressure,” there’s the sense that the song is the beginning of a new day. Those songs were written months ago (at least) – do you feel like you’re in a better place now than when you wrote lines like “Most times I feel apathetic”?
I ebb and flow, like the tide. I come from a long line of people with mental health issues, and the fact that I’m as functional as I am in spite of the circus in my head amazes me sometimes. But I notice that I cycle back and forth. I made those songs during moments of intense self-reflection, and to document how I felt at that moment (which is generally what my beats are; a reflection of my current mood). A lot of things were happening that caused me to feel very motivated and positive about the future, which I hadn’t for a long time. But then certain things will happen to make me question what I’m doing or have done and then I slip back into that apathetic feeling. Right now my perspective on life and music is changing, and I feel like I have a better understanding of what I want out of all of it. So in that sense, I am definitely in a better place than I was when I wrote that line.
Have you written any lines that make you go “Whoa, I don’t know if I want to put this much out there about myself”?
The majority of Dialogue makes me say that… it’s kinda hard for me to listen to songs like “Sometimes.” That is one of the main reasons I don’t rap very much. I’m not gonna sit there and battle somebody or rap about some stupid shit on my records… if I rap at all it will be something that is relevant to me, which means that it generally will be personal. I don’t think I will be making another like Dialogue anytime soon. I just needed to get some stuff off of my chest.
You logged some time as an Amoeba employee; Amoeba has thrived while a lot of hallowed L.A. record stores have obviously gone down for the count. Do you think there will always be a place for the physical store and the physical product?
Will there always be a place? No, not at all. I don’t think physical media will be completely dead for another couple decades, but I think it will be dead in my lifetime. There is talk of holographic discs that can hold a terabyte of information that are nearly ready to go… there is too much of an industry invested in making money off of physical media for it to disappear now, even though we are already in a position to go download/digital only. Once more people have high-speed internet and there is more available bandwidth (and more ways for people to make money off of digital content), physical media will be completely pointless. All it’s doing now is taking up space in landfills.
Thanks again, Thavius!
Thank you... you asked some very good questions. I appreciate all the people who took time to read this.