In Rare Public Appearance, Beck Talks Sheet Music Project, Participates in Awkward Q&A

Beck Song Reader Exhibition - P 2013
Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Beck Song Reader Exhibition - P 2013

The line that wrapped around the block from Los Angeles' Sonos Studio creative space spoke volumes of Thursday night's main attraction: Beck.

With the attention-shy eccentric making a rare public appearance for an interview with KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic host Jason Bentley, he also fielded questions from the audience, which ranged from thoughtful to uncomfortably inappropriate (for instance, one female audience member asked Beck how he lost his virginity, which he did his best to laugh off). 

Why put himself through the public grilling? To celebrate his Song Reader project from last year -- an unconventional release of 20 tunes on sheet music compiled without any accompanying recordings, published by McSweeney's (editor Jordan Bass was also in attendance).

For this event, art lined the walls from artists who had contributed to the project, creating visual presentations for each composition. There was also a recording setup in the middle of the room where the show's guests could record their own versions of the songs, and a player piano on the side that rolled through the track list. 

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The exhibit runs until March 24, but this one-on-one offered a chance to go deeper into the concept, as well as score some free beer. Plus, promised Bentley, Beck would perform following the Q&A. Among the questions asked:

Bentley: "Talk about the unintended consequences of all of this -- or perhaps they were intended consequences -- because as you brought this out into the world, there was a whole very modern online manifestation of this old-timey concept. Did you anticipate that going in?"

Beck: "Yeah, I had no expectations. I thought at least it'd be a beautiful book to look at because of the design they put together. ... But I think the thing that's really interesting is, I'll never know the things that people have done with these songs. We just know the ones that are on YouTube or that people share ..."

Bass: "When we started this in 2004, 2005, I don't even think YouTube had been invented yet. So it would have been amazing if we could predict that, but I don't think we had any idea that that kind of world was gonna grow up around the book as we were figuring it out. It was this lucky thing where we sort of stumbled into this audience who knew what to do with it."

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Bentley: "Will you ever record these songs?"  

Beck: "I wasn't planning on it. Initially I just wanted people to get their hands on the songs and not be influenced, because I think recordings have become definitive for songs over the decades, so we really associate a song with whether Tom Petty did it or Black Sabbath, so I thought there was something interesting about the period before recorded music where songs didn't have anyone telling you how to play it or how to hear it or how to feel it."

Audience Member: "Did you write any of the songs with a particular artist in mind or would you like to hear any artist living or dead perform one of these songs?"  

Beck: "I thought of Hank Williams, I thought of George Gershwin or Cole Porter-type of singers. I thought of this sort of group of songs as playing with the American songbook; something that could include everything from Stephen Foster to punk rock to folk to country to everything."

Audience Member: "When was the last time you dropped acid?"

Beck: "I don't know, maybe in 10 minutes."

Though such awkward instances of a too-bold crowd -- a bizarre mix of fans, hip kids and members of the music industry -- were few, they did set a tone for the night that overwhelmed and failed to captivate anyone for very long. Equally distracting: celebrity attendees including Giovanni Ribisi, John C. Reilly, Kyle Gass from Tenacious D and a makeup-free Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway

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Following the Q&A, Beck retreated to a private listening room in the back while other artists performed compositions from the collection. First up was ukelele-playing singer-songwriter Amy Regan and a member of the band the End of America, who had recently performed the entire 20-song set in New York. 

"I think this is a very timely project and it asks a lot of questions," she said after a lovely rendition of "America Here's My Boy." "To me, it's not just a album. It's a discussion to be had."

Afterward, End of America showcased their swelling three-part harmonies on "Please Leave a Light on When You Go" (watch video of the performance here), Tim and Eric's Tim Heidecker and Nick Thorburn delivered an an electric run-through of "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard" followed by a country-tinged "Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings." 

Closing out the performance portion was Adam Green of Moldy Peaches and Binki Shapiro of Little Joy, who casually sang from a lyrics page, and then at Bentley's suggestion, played a song from their new self-titled duet album.

Despite a noticeable hustle by event organizers, trying to get Beck back onstage proved futile, forcing Bentley to tell tell the crowd: "I bring bad news and Beck is not going to perform for us. ... But I'm going to invite Kyle Gass of Tenacious D to perform his favorite Beck song." 

Although the crowd roared, not even Gass -- who had been front and center with a 20-something date on his arm throughout the night -- wanted to go up there. No way, he said, with a shake of his head.

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