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Hark back to a freer, looser time if you please. It’s the mid ’90s and production duo the Dust Brothers (AKA Mike Simpson and John King) are maxing and relaxing in their Silver Lake Hills studio/neighbourhood recreation centre/24-hour party pad in Callyforn-eye-aye.
A rotating cast of weird, wonderful and creative types pop by and kick off impromptu jam sessions, and video games get played into the wee small hours of the morning. It doesn’t sound like work, but amid this casual chaos the most generation-defining album of the decade is being hatched.
Several weeks before the Dust Brothers had been to see one of Beck Hanson’s incendiary live shows. Naturally, they were completely smitten by his showmanship, genre-hopping musical tastes and deft skill with a leaf blower. And naturally they all got talking, and Beck ended up gently rapping on the door at the Silver Lake Hills hideaway with a batch of weirded-out vinyl under his arm and a bunch of thrift-shop instruments in tow.
“That’s basically how we got started,” says Mike Simpson of the sessions that would eventually yield the sample-strewn masterpiece Odelay in 1996. “We opened the door, let him in and just started listening to music together, and realised that we had very similar tastes.”
According to Simpson, Beck was already familiar with the technology of sampling and encouraged the Dust Brothers to record him playing some stuff he liked from their collected record libraries and mess with it on the computer.
“That was something we never really had the luxury of doing before,” says Simpson of the process. “We’d always been forced to sample from records. Whereas with Beck he’d say, ‘I’ve got some ideas’, and plug in his guitar and just start riffing. He’d play a bar or a measure and we’d take that and loop it up and he’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s incredible. Wow, I don’t even remember playing that!’ We were of like minds, had the same goals and were looking to make the same kind of music.”
This freewheeling way of making music radiates through the gleeful feel of the tracks that made it onto the album. But perhaps the biggest dynamic that influenced the daring, out-there vibe was the lucky position the Dust Brothers and Beck found themselves in at that moment of their careers.
“We were making a record in a vacuum,” chuckles Simpson. “Beck had notoriety and success from his single Loser, but I think pretty much everyone had considered him a one hit wonder and no one really expected anything more from him.”
That fact that expectations were low allowed them to experiment and labour over each track as long as it needed. “It was great to make a record with nobody looking over our shoulders, nobody anticipating what we were going to do, so we were freed up,” says Simpson. “Even the record company was like, ‘Yeah, cool. Let us know when it’s done’. I don’t think they expected much either. It was nice there was no pressure at all. We were like kids in a candy shop just goofing around.”