Written by James Barry
Most people in a bar, at a show, in any social setting, are preoccupied. They are spellbound by their minds’ ceaseless chatter. Thoughts of themselves, of how others perceive them, of how their hair looks, of the emails they need to send in the morning; these churn all evening inside the engine of self-consciousness. If you listen closely, you can hear it humming underneath the babble.
Yet there are some who face this sea of thoughts unspoken, where anxieties float like jellyfish, their tendrils stinging hearts into shock, and ford it like a dribbling brook. The whitecaps hide and the waves part for these individuals. The tides concede to their purpose. For they are in perfect alignment with their will. They are absorbed in the present moment. They are out of their minds and in their bodies. They are unconcerned with whoever is watching, and this makes everyone watch.
One of these individuals entered the Wonder Bar on a Monday evening in July. As the final act, he climbed the stage and looked upon the crowd like Friedrich’s Wanderer. Then he played a set with a few close collaborators under the name slowdust. And every song felt like it was the last song of Ray Beck’s life. Every beat of the drum, every strum of the guitar was his pulse. With his hair hanging, obscuring his face in a blur as he nodded his head to the groove, it was easy to tell he wasn’t there for attention. He was there to play. The crowd was happenstance.
In a digitized environment where artists are compelled to seize every opportunity to sell themselves on social media, Ray Beck dwells in the shadows. He doesn’t want fame. He doesn’t want acclaim. He wants to wake up every day in his alcove and create new music with people he loves. He makes art for art’s sake. When Oscar Wilde penned his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he wrote, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” he was thinking of artists like Ray Beck.
And while the following conversation may not reveal the man behind the art, it offers insight into the mind of a pure creative. It offers a taste of what life is like for someone whose blood cells are musical notes. Someone who plays the way everyone else breathes. But before all this praise makes Ray faint from bashfulness, here is a humble message from the artist himself: “I don’t think I’m special by any means or think my art will ever change the world. But if it helps just one person, then I’m glad I put it out there into the universe.” Enjoy.
What have you been listening to lately?
Aw, man, that’s so loaded. I’ve been listening to all kinds of stuff. My musical taste is all over the place. I’ve been listening to this psych rock band called Wine Lips that I’m super into…this artist Gillian Welch that a friend turned me onto, she has this album called Time (The Revelator) that’s really good. And there’s an artist who was in this group called Duster, he has a project where he writes and records solo stuff and works with different artists under the name Helvetia. So I’ve been listening to that a bunch. Too many different things.
Is there a difference between an artist you listen to for enjoyment and one whose work you draw from? Or do they all blend into one?
I listen to so many different types of music, so I generally just listen to it for enjoyment. And if something comes from that inspirationally, whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m sure that happens. But generally, you listen to music because you want to feel something. And, to me, music is the most important thing. I listen to a lot of different stuff … that’s another funny thing. I write and record a lot of music and a lot of it does not sound the same. I’ll record things in a million different ways or sit down with my guitar and write a riff that’s something like crazy psych rock and extremely heavy. I don’t release much of my music at all. I just record it and keep it for myself.
So you listen to all kinds of stuff and then you don’t box yourself in to any one sound when you’re making music, you just let those different influences flow through you…something like that?
Yeah and then that stuff ultimately turns out to be different music projects with other people. Like, we have this thing coming up, we just started this other band and that’s called DRKHRT. And that’s just heavy, fuzz-driven craziness…a way to blow off steam with people I really respect who are dear to me.
That makes me think of some artists who disregard those expectations, who may come with a completely different sound from record to record like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Have you listened to them at all?
I just saw them in Philadelphia in the winter. A lot of friends of mine, and one friend in particular, who’s always telling me you need to just put all this music out and just put it out under your name, because it’s wild that you play all these different sounds, you’re on some Ty Segall shit. You should be doing this. And I’m just like “Yeah, whatever.” (laughs)
As long as you put it out it doesn’t matter what artist’s name it’s under. Is that right?
Music is a really personal thing to me, but it’s also social. My friend network, the strongest friendships and relationships I’ve come across in the past 10 years or so come from people I work with in music … just getting together with people is really fun to me too.
So how does a project come about? Do you just write songs and start to feel a pattern emerging between some of them?
I wrote a whole album in the wintertime that I worked on diligently for a while. I had some different people play on it while I was in Philadelphia … a couple of people who I respect and admire a lot. I wrote all of that stuff and I’ve yet to do anything with it because it was its own time period…and that time has now passed. I lived it, and played it and obsessed over it for months, it took a lot of energy from me. I feel like a lot of people are generally interested in making art just to have people hear it. And I don’t really care so much about that. I do this because I have to.
So it can be interesting at times, when subjectively some stuff is really honest and touching on things I’m not ready for people to hear. So then I make the stuff and then I don’t do anything with it but to write a bunch of songs and get together with other people and have it be its own thing. That’s when it really comes to life. And there are things where, if I write them, I know friends of mine would do it way better justice than I would…So it’s like, “Here’s this stuff, and you do your thing now.” So then it becomes free and open. And that’s what ultimately makes it special.
So you like it when the ego is removed from music. Is that right?
Hahaha. Ahh man…I have a lot of really strong opinions about music. I think a lot of the time it can come off as negative…like an elitist prick or something like that. I just like what I like. It’s funny. At the end of the day I want to play with people who are real and no bullshit. I’ve played with people who are control freaks or egomaniacs, and it can make the situation rather daunting.
Music is personal and it’s important who you spend your time creating with. It’s just like a romantic relationship, it takes mutual respect and good communication, or else it just doesn’t work. I get the same satisfaction meeting up with people and playing in a basement as I do playing a show somewhere.
I would love it if this town could be how it was when I first moved here. That was about eight years ago. It seemed like it was rooted in a more DIY aspect…I feel like the internet has made artistry different, and it has made people rather vain, and unfortunately I find myself feeling that way at times when I try to promote things I do, and it makes me feel some kind of weird way.
But you think there’s an opportunity for people to come in and do things better. You’re not saying it’s doomed.
There are a lot of people in this area whose music I genuinely love. I think it’s awesome. I just think, because of the opportunities and the places, these situations are lacking. Places have shut down or changed. There should be shows all over the place and incorporating local acts with touring acts a bit more for sure. That’s how bands network. You play with them, then you go to their city.
I feel like I’ve just watched overlord money turn Asbury Park into a glorified food court. It’s watered down. But I do think there’s a resurgence of different people playing right now, and different projects they’re doing that may change things a little bit … but like anything else, this is just one place. You can’t overplay a place, and if you are gonna make music with the intention of being a successful artist, you should be on the road. We’re in a place where you can drive an hour that way and play a show in Philly, and you can be in Brooklyn going an hour in the other direction. It’s a great place to land and to be. So I think it’s awesome. And there are so many people doing really interesting stuff. And I do enjoy it very much. So, I don’t want to be negative about it.
Do you think this change you’re seeing in Asbury is indicative of a change in music scenes everywhere? Do you think it’s a national trend?
Absolutely. It’s not just here. We’re living in a different time. I remember watching an interview with Steve Albini, who’s one of my favorite audio engineers, and there’s something to be said about the power of the internet. I fantasize everyday about not being on any sort of social media at all and still being able to write music and play shows and stay connected with people, but unfortunately you have to live in that world. And I wouldn’t really know about anything going on if I weren’t on the internet. That’s how I see stuff.
So, to his point… You as an artist, you have a tool at your fingertips. And whatever drive or whatever importance you seek for yourself, whether you’re a painter, whether you make pickled vegetables and you want to sell those, you now have all the necessary power to spread your word if you want. Which is amazing. Half of the music I listen to is probably recorded by someone on their interface in their bedroom — as long as you can still hear it. A good song is a good song. But that shit is everywhere. Change is everywhere. But the good thing about the change is there’s a lot of good stuff being created by a lot of people, and it is easily accessible. It’s awesome.
It’s a double-edged sword, this new tool in artists’ hands.
Yes. And it’s a daunting feeling to want to make art and when it comes to the internet world then you have to be like, Hey! Check me out! Look at me. Me! Me! Me! Come listen to this stuff I just made, come see us play. It’s exhausting. I’ll be doing this until I die. Playing is what’s important. Wonder what new promotion will come in the next 20 years.
How many songs have you recorded and never released?
Hahaha. Probably over 250, maybe 300.
Do you think there’s a connection between your recognition of music’s permanence and your reluctance to release it?
That’s a possibility. You always have those moments when you know your phone has over 1,000 voice memos on it, and you could die walking down the street…get hit by a car or something, and then your family and friends get to sit around and listen to all these deep expressive thoughts you’ve had. That’s what it is for me. If I could create a bunch of stuff and it could be left somehow for later, that’s ideal. Not that I plan on dying. But the idea of a funeral going on with all of the songs you’ve written that no one heard would be pretty cool. Probably the only time people would “actually” listen. It’s like all the secrets would be told.
Let’s get into some of the songs you have released. I was listening to your latest two tracks, “Good Life” and “Spark,” and I noticed they both address a you. Is it the same you?
Wait, the same you, let me think of the lyrics…Yea I would say generally a lot of that stuff comes from relationships I’ve had with other people, whether I realize it or not. “Good Life” is a song about giving up on some things I had been doing for quite some time that I didn’t want to do any more. Just saying I’d rather live a better way. “Spark” is the self-realization that I had actually spent years being insane, but still able to see moments burning in the distance from my past.
Did you personify those things when you wrote the song?
It comes down to a specific person that I had gone through something with. I was also involved with relationships with other things that were not human. “Good life” is about leaving alcohol and drugs and someone who I loved.
And all those things become one entity, one person, in the song. Is that true?
Yea I would say that’s totally true. I’d say my struggle with addiction and other relationships end up being the same thought process.
And, to me, they become one person through lyrics like, “I don’t ever want to see your face again.”
Yes. And that has a three-way meaning. So that includes someone I was involved with, substances I was using, and the person I used to be.
When you find new music, what do you find yourself paying the most attention to in your first listen?
I love hearing what people have to say. I also played in an instrumental band for 10 years where there were no vocals, and it was just about the music. And that was one of my favorite bands I’ve ever been in. So, I listen to the production a lot of the time. But for the most part, the lyrics are what I would take home, or the reason I would truly listen back on something…Whether it’s relatable, or I just like the key of the song, or I like the message or the thought someone’s making me think. So yea, vocals first, and then everything after that is just how the song is put together. I wonder how many mics they used, I wonder where the mics were placed…And most of the songs I ever write and record all sound different, as far as the recordings go, because I do it differently all the time. I mic stuff differently, I’ll sing stuff with different microphones and different tape delays. It’s like a giant science experiment that’s constantly evolving.