In August of 2009, Beck Hansen—the artist who rose to fame in the 1990s as simply “Beck”—announced that his latest musical project would be a “Record Club,” the purpose of which was to get a bunch of his musician friends together in his studio to cover an entire album by artists like Leonard Cohen or The Velvet Underground in just a day. Once completed, the results were posted on his website and became internet favorites for music fans who enjoyed the rough, experimental, and often wildly unexpected takes on classic tunes and melodies that Beck and his friends put together on the fly.
The “Club’s” third installment covered Skip Spence’s Oar, and along with artists like Feist and the members of Wilco, the session also featured British singer Jamie Lidell. Admirers of the singer’s soulful voice and signature voice-looping method gleefully streamed audio of Lidell performing songs like “War in Peace” and “Books of Moses,” but got an even better surprise when they learned that Lidell had followed up the sessions with a rushed bout of frenzied creative activity, leading to a brand new album, Compass, released by Warp this past May.
Lidell has already had a long career behind him, both as a member of electro-act Super_Collider and as a solo artist with three albums under his belt. Originally a Berlin cult-hero who produced dense, complicated experiments with Super_Collider and on his first solo record, Lidell began to gain some serious worldwide attention in 2005 when he released Multiply, a record which linked his earlier electronic wanderings with his love for classic soul and R&B, a marriage that worked especially well thanks to the revelation that Lidell’s voice was capable of the kind of range and power that most Curtis Mayfield or Prince-loving young white-boys could only dream of. The live shows promoting this album also thrilled fans who were amazed by Lidell’s voice-looping performances, in which he sampled his own voice live on stage, over and over again, in order to build up the backing tracks he would then belt out the main lyrics over.
His follow-up, 2008’s Jim, saw Lidell abandoning many of his left-field production techniques in favor of a more straight-up retro-soul sound. While it brought Lidell more widespread notice than ever before, it seemed to many longtime fans to lack the unpredictability of his earlier work. In his review of Compass AllMusic.com critic John Bush says of Jim that “Lidell created an excellent soul record—and just that.”
Bush contends that his latest effort, however, “as on any good Beck record, finds time for everything from R&B to hard rock to the type of gut-bucket experimental rock that Tom Waits would be proud of.” Bush compares Lidell to Beck not because Mr. Hansen actually has a credit or two on Compass, but because this latest album represents an equally far-reaching push against genre boundaries, one that calls to mind the willing-to-try-anything attitudes apparent at the “Record Club” sessions. As Christian John Wikane put it in the PopMatters review of Compass, “if there is an underlying theme that unites the 14 tracks therein contained, it’s sonic exploration.”
As he prepared for the first U.S. leg of his world tour, the always-engaging Lidell found a moment in between sound-checks to talk to PopMatters about the latest incarnation of his live show, the differences between his approach to previous albums and Compass, as well as a very big concert he’ll be playing in the not-too-distant future ...
What show are you sound-checking for?
We’ve got a show tomorrow in Philly and then there’s one gonna happen the next day, and then Toronto, then the West coast. It’s 27 shows, kind of like a little micro-tour. We’re starting tomorrow. It was yesterday we just played a show. We pretty much did nine countries in the last month. We weren’t hanging about. It’s been great man! Taking the new band out for a spin.
What will the setup be like for this tour? For Multiply it was just you and your looping machines. For Jim, you had the full band out there with you.
It’s pretty different. There’s a keyboard player, bassist-stroke-guitarist ... drummer stroke-nutter [Laughs]. So there’s like four of us on stage. It’s quite a compact unit. So we can take the songs and explode them in a way. It just feels good to take the songs and not treat them to preciously. The songs kind of lend themselves to improvisation in a way. And some songs just don’t translate themselves well to a live production. They’re too lavish or whatever. So in order to do it justice you kind of have to reinterpret them pretty heavily.
Will you only be playing the new album or are some older songs going to make an appearance as well?
It’s about a 70/30 mix, which is a bit weird obviously because the album’s so new. It’s always a tricky situation when you go for a bit of a different sound cause a lot of people are coming out to hear me do old songs. Which is fine, we’ve got those. From Multiply onwards basically. I still do a solo section at the shows so you never know. So it’s cool to be able to play around like that. I actually have a catalogue at last. It’s cool. It’s a good team. I’ve got a good team.
We’re also supporting Prince this year. We’re doing this show in July. It’s the biggest gig I’ve ever been offered to play. There’s going to be 80,000 people. It’s in Belgium.
As you said, with the album coming out so recently a lot of your fans may well be hearing some of the Compass songs for the first time ever at these live gigs. How has their response so far?
It is a little bit of a stretch for some people. It does depend on the territory. I’ve got some pretty hardcore fans in, like, Belgium and Holland. And some audiences are more freaked out by a whole new show than others. I wouldn’t expect it to be any other way. But at the same time you have to kind of go for it. So I’m trying not to be fazed by it, you know what I mean? Cause I’m just trying to do something new and explore some outer edges. You have to go through with it. I’ve enjoyed it. It sounds great.
It is a very different album in a lot of ways. You worked with a lot of collaborators, like Beck and Feist, but you actually were sort of more alone than usual because you were working without your usual co-producer [Canadian musician] Mocky.
Yeah, I almost thought it was necessary so I could answer that question of what do I sound like. Even though I worked with all these people it was very much my production, with the exception of “Coma Chameleon,” which had Beck. But 13 of the 14 songs are totally mine. It feels good to go through it all and not completely fall apart, because Mocky is such a stabilizing force. So it’s interesting to let go of the stabilizer. Trust through it a bit. That’s what this album’s about. Trusting, intuition a little bit. When you’re faced with those situations and not giving in to the dark reactions. It’s a little bit more raw, a little bit more art college, a little bit more me!
That difference is apparent in the lyrics as well, which directly explore more themes than we saw on the past couple of albums. Was there a different approach there? On Multiply one could say that the lyrics were incidental to the looped-voices, while on Jim you were writing lyrics that fit into a classic, already established song structure. It seems like you might have had a lot more freedom, and thus far fewer guidelines when writing the Compass lyrics.
I actually just realized I had a lot more to say [Laughs], which makes writing lyrics a lot easier. But at the same time I was in a vulnerable position when I realized the lyrics were gonna be more personal. I found it more rewarding, really, to ultimately just dig in, see what was inside and put it down. Yeah every album’s really different. It was an interesting one this time. It was a very lyrically guided record
You’ve been pretty outspoken in the past about the downsides of being a professional recording artist these days. How are you feeling about your “job” now that this latest record is out?
Yeah. I mean I am [happy]. A lot of people remind me that this is a less commercial record. It doesn’t have as many big singles. It’s maybe a little more tricky, I guess you could say. It does leave me a little more in a different place. In terms of touring I don’t want to think about the logistics and the cost of everything. I’m definitely trying to do it for the art now, putting the music at the forefront. And like just have to trust that everything else will follow. And if it does hopefully everything follows.
So having the kind of freedom you seem to be afforded now to do what you want is pretty enjoyable?
Yeah, well I feel like I’ve been through a lot and done a lot and it’s left me at a place where I can branch out and try and all kinds of stuff. I’m lucky in that. And before I did Multiply and all that, it was a pretty bizarre place to be in for some people. So I know what it’s like to wear all the hats, whether be an outsider artist or be on mainstream TV or something.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. It sounds like you’re incredibly busy.
Yeah, well. It’s my last day in New York before all the shit hits the fan and we’re back on the road. So running around trying to do everything possible. Cheers!