What's It Like to Remix Paul McCartney?
Last summer, Beck was at loose ends in Los Angeles. “My whole year was canceled, with the shutdowns and everything,” says the singer. “My engineer’s wife was having a baby, so he wasn’t available. I really hadn’t been making much music. My studio had been dark for a year.”
Then came word that Paul McCartney had a new solo album in the works — and that he’d asked for Beck to remix one of its songs. “‘OK, McCartney’s calling, let’s get in there and figure out how everything works!’” Beck recalls thinking. “It gave me something to do.”
Similar top-secret communiques went out to a select group of artists last year in the run-up to McCartney III, the laid-back DIY delight that McCartney recorded during the peak quarantine months and released in December. The result, out this week, is McCartney III Imagined, a kaleidoscopic sampler plate of remixes and cover versions from a roster that also includes St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers, Anderson .Paak, Damon Albarn, Khruangbin, and more.
For Beck, the cheerful, major-key “Find My Way” inspired an excursion into louche Seventies funk, with a touch of his own Midnite Vultures lurking in the mix. Working alone at a home studio overlooking his backyard, he picked up a Hofner Beatle bass and “a thrift-store guitar that I put through some old pedals,” and thought back to a night a few years ago when he went out dancing in Hollywood with McCartney and McCartney’s wife, Nancy Shevell.
“It’s the warmest time of year in L.A., a loose and lazy time of year, and the feeling of that was coming into the track,” Beck says. “I wanted the whole thing to sound a little bit weathered and warped, almost like a lost groove from some other time. … And I wanted to make a track that would feel like that night when we were all hanging out and having a good time.”
Elsewhere in L.A. around the same time, Dev Hynes was puzzling through a new version of McCartney’s low-key jam “Deep Down.” “Whenever I do remixes, it’s always such a conundrum,” says Hynes, who performs as Blood Orange. “If I like a song, I don’t want to redo it, you know? So I try to see it almost as an alternate reality. … I thought ‘Deep Down’ would be one of the most challenging songs, which is why I picked it.”
Stranded for the moment at “a rented house with very limited equipment,” Hynes started by pitching up McCartney’s original vocals by five percent. “Then I removed all the chords and played around on keys to find some new, interesting chords to match,” he says. He went on to layer in the sounds of a chintzy clarinet and cello that he’d bought online during the pandemic — “They’re, like, the worst-made instruments you can imagine, but I used them” — and tinkered with studio effects until he arrived at an elegant marriage of Revolver-ish psychedelia and his own cool, sophisticated pop.
“I had to record some backwards guitar,” Hynes adds with a laugh. “I don’t know how many times I’m ever going to be linked to Paul McCartney in my life!”
McCartney III Imagined is an impressive demonstration of the ease with which the 78-year-old icon’s latest songs can glide into new sounds and styles. Perhaps no one sums this up better than Dominic Fike, the 25-year-old post-genre phenomenon whose sweetly tweaked spin on the acoustic ballad “The Kiss of Venus” was released as the new LP’s lead single.
“I was in my kitchen, making a sandwich, and my manager came up to me like, ‘Yo, I think Paul McCartney just hit you up,’” Fike recalls. “I was like, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and I went back to making my sandwich. Then a month later, he was like, ‘By the way, that shit’s due in three days.’ So I went to the studio, and in three days, I created it — kind of like God and the earth. It’s kind of a biblical thing, if you really think about it. It’s fuckin’ deep, dude.”
Fike first taught himself how to play “The Kiss of Venus” on acoustic guitar, which was a little harder than he expected. “Normally, with any Paul McCartney song, you can go on YouTube, and type in ‘How to play …,’ and there’s, like, 70 different videos of people from different backgrounds in their rooms on webcams teaching you how to play it in different keys and shit,” he says. “But there was none of that.”
Once he had the basics down, he invited his friend Ryan Raines to help build out the “fragmented pop-song energy” he was looking for, and freestyled a couple of new verses (“Have you read the paper?/People talking without no education/Go to college, go find your major/Realize you’re minor in the scheme of everything”). “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I like these lyrics,’” Fike recalls. “But [Raines] was like, ‘Nah, man, they’re Paul McCartney-esque.’ So we ran with that.”
Like most of the world for the past half-century, the three artists interviewed for this story all grew up listening to McCartney’s music.
“I’m a huge Beatles fan,” Hynes says. “It’s inescapable, especially being from England.” He adds that the greatness of the Beatles “is not even up for debate, to me. I love every Beatles album. The sense of melody, but also the idea of experimentation and pushing yourself, have always been something I’ve taken great inspiration from, as long as I can remember.”
Beck offers a similar tip of the hat. “His songs are in my DNA,” he says. “It’s pretty profound, the influence.” He mentions 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram, and the way those early solo classics led the way toward later indie auteurs: “It’s wild. When you go back to it, you’re like, ‘Oh, Animal Collective, and Elliott Smith, and a million other things,’ including myself … For somebody of my generation, that’s foundational, formative music.”
For Fike, who grew up in Naples, Florida, in the 2000s, things were a little different. “I was made fun of a lot for listening to the Beatles as a kid,” he says. “I would go to school and try to put people on. One day, my friend Pat sat me down, like, ‘Yo, dude, you gotta stop this classic-rock shit.’”
Being tapped to work on the III Imagined project years later was “pretty validating,” Fike says. “Not that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the man now that Paul hit me up.’ But I never thought he would hear any of my shit, or ever have an opinion on my existence at all.” Now, he’s looking forward to getting in the studio soon with McCartney for an informal studio session (“just two artists, freakin’ it in a room”).
A little while after Fike turned in his reinterpretation of “The Kiss of Venus,” he got another surprise. “[McCartney] called me when I was in Puerto Rico on vacation with my girlfriend,” he says. “He was like, ‘I fuckin’ love your version, man.’ He was telling me about how they made Sgt. Pepper’s and shit.” Fike laughs happily. “I was just trying not to be weird on the phone.”
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