Beck talks ‘Hyperspace’ journey, from Zankou Chicken to Paisley Park

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music
Beck at Paisley Park. (Photo: Vevo)

Beck just released his Paisley Park EP, an Amazon Music-exclusive collection of Prince covers recorded at Studio A on the “surreal hallowed ground” of Prince’s own Paisley Park compound. He’s the first major artist to be invited to record there since Prince’s death in April 2016, but the crossover makes perfect sense. Beck tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, “I play Prince songs at least every other show that I do. … We have a whole bunch of them chambered and ready to go.” And the Prince influence has actually long been heard in his own music, especially Midnite Vultures, which turns 20 this month. 

That album’s “Debra,” possibly the geekiest seduction attempt ever recorded, was a hilarious, if unintentional, send-up of the Purple One’s loverman persona. It even made Rolling Stone’s “18 Awesome Prince Ripoffs” list, although Beck has said that its inspiration actually came more from ‘90s R&B slow-jams. Regardless, the over-top-ballad — depicting wannabe lothario Beck wooing a JC Penney employee named Jenny with falsetto promises of cruises in his Hyundai lovemobile to the Glendale 'burbs and threesomes with her sister named (you guessed it) Debra — has no doubt inspired many cheap dream dates at Zankou Chicken, the now-notorious Silver Lake eatery where the song’s Beck, Jenny, and Debra enjoy a romantic fast-food meal.

Yes, forget all the hype surrounding Popeyes chicken sandwich. In the ‘90s, Zankou Chicken — a family-owned, L.A,-based, Armenian and Mediterranean chain known for its delicious spit-roasted chicken, shawarma, falafel, tahini, and "secret" garlic sauce — was where it was at.

“I think it was in the neighborhood where we were recording; I was just riffing the lyrics off the top of my head,” Beck recalls with a chuckle. “I was 24 years old at the time. It seemed like a good idea. I'm like, ‘Where would I take them?’ And honestly, I'd probably take them to Zankou Chicken.”

One might assume that Zankou’s business increased exponentially after “Debra” became a staple of Beck’s legendary live shows, though Beck laughs, “I doubt it. I doubt that there's a crossover, sadly.” He adds that he “didn't even get a free meal” at Zankou as thanks for all the free publicity, “I think there was a point where they offered me one while — but I was on tour, permanently.”

Zankou Chicken popped up in pop culture multiple times after the release of Midnite Vultures — in the music video for Childish Gambino's song "Sober,” in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Rob Delaney's book Mother. Wife. Sister. “Debra” also appeared in a memorable Baby Driver scene in which the characters debate the song’s meaning. But Zankou eventually made the news for truly bizarre reasons, when the restaurant chain’s owner, Mardiros Iskenderian, shot his sister and mother and then took his own life in a murder-suicide. That tragedy even became the subject of a fascinating episode of the famous "My Favorite Murder” podcast. “There's some intrigue in Zankou Chicken,” Beck notes darkly. “There's always some noir just around the corner, when you're talking about L.A.”

On a lighter note, Beck is known for mixing up his musical styles — Midnite Vultures was preceded by the frothy tropicalia of Mutations and followed by the acoustic heartbreak of Sea Change — and he admitted to Yahoo Entertainment in 2004 that not everyone seemed to be in on the Midnite Vultures joke at the time. “Midnite Vultures had a lot of goofiness, with me singing in all these cartoonish voices,” he said. “I thought of the whole thing as a satire. One of the titles I was thinking of was Satyricon. To me, it was like, if the world was going to end in 1999, which is what everyone was talking about at the time, what would the time capsule be? So I was riffing off all the stuff that was happening at the time. I wanted it to sound like Captain Beefheart produced by Puff Daddy. That was my grand concept. But I think people didn't get it. Maybe they got it in Europe a bit more, because I think my humor is a bit dry.”

For his latest album, Hyperspace — which comes out Nov. 22, one day before the Midnite Vultures 20th anniversary — Beck has once again switched gears. His last LP, a 2017 collaboration with super-producer Greg Kurstin called Colors, was his poppiest effort to date, but Hyperspace, which was largely co-written and co-produced with Pharrell Williams, is a groovy chillout album. “I think this album was going to be more varied, and then at the last minute, I just kind of went with the quieter, more smooth and atmospheric songs that just felt like, ‘OK, this feels like a record.’ And, then all the other stuff I'll put on an EP, maybe,” he says.

“We've been hanging out and making music for a while, I would say for about seven years. It had been a while since we'd been together,” Beck says of his partnership with Williams. And then beginning of last year, he kind of emerged and I did something for N.E.R.D. Then he said, ‘Hey, I got the song, come down to the studio’ — and it was ‘Uneventful Days.’ And, I said, ‘Let's get some of those things we were messing with back in the day.’ We thought we’d do a couple of singles, and then it just felt an album after a while.”

There’s one standout Hyperspace track, “See Through,” that reunites Beck with Kurstin, but, as Beck points out, “It's really interesting, because it doesn't sound anything like what we did on Colors. And it shows that we're sort of brothers or sibling or something, in the way that we can just sort of chameleon through any kind of sound.” 

To Beck’s point, the same day that they recorded “See Through,” Kurstin asked Beck to channel one of his many other personas — by recording a gender-flipped, completely improvised, spoken-word vignette for Kurstin’s band the Bird & the Bee’s “Hot for Teacher” cover on Interpreting the Masters, Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen. “‘Just be the teacher and just sort of riff,’” Kurstin told Beck. Beck convincingly played sexy educator “Mr. Goodbody,” though he didn’t necessarily think he was right for the role. “I kept telling him he should get George Clooney or someone,” he laughs. “I didn't feel crushworthy! If I were a teacher, I don't think I would be.” 

Beck says that, like most people raised in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he’s a big Van Halen fan (“They're the Southern Californian Led Zeppelin”), and he confesses that he has “a soft spot for hair metal,” even though when he came up in the early ‘90s, he and his fellow Silver Lake scene musicians (Weezer, the Eels, Possum Dixon) were the antithesis of what had been happening on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. He even jokes that dressing up as a hair-metal headbanger for his “New Pollution” video in 1996 was a lot more of a stretch than posing as an R&B womanizer in “Debra.”

“Psychologically, it was for me, it was a very dark place! I was on the other side of the fence. I thought of the hair-metal guys as being kind of, how do I say it? They did not take kindly my sort. I was just sort of a non-entity,” he laughs. “There's a lot of peacocking and posturing, but I do have a fondness for that era too. I do appreciate now, later in years, that sort of crazy way they looked and dressed that just sort of seems wild and fantastical now.”

The above interview is taken from Beck’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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