Over 26 years and seven albums, the Beastie Boys have explored every genre from punk to metal to hip-hop, but as The Mix-Up, their mellow, new, all-instrumental album proves, they’ve also learned how to kick back and relax. Over sushi and green tea at Oscilloscope, their expansive downtown Manhattan studio, the pioneering trio discussed their history as a band, their musical influences, their new record (out June 26), and beer helmets.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why put out an all-instrumental record?
MCA: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Ad-Rock: It’s something that we’d been talking about for a long time, when we started working on Check Your Head. Then we kinda went some other ways, put vocals on stuff. We kinda did it with The In Sound From Way Out!, but that was more of a compilation.
Mike D: On our last record [To the 5 Boroughs], we were all bringing stuff in — either stuff that we had done in software programs, making beats, or on samplers or computer-based things that we would bring in and play for each other and then collaborate on. For this record, we decided to do a 180 — sit down in a room with instruments and see what happens.
Does this mark a return to your roots, then? At least in terms of production.
MCA: This is [sort of] how we made Check Your Head and Ill Communication. There are a few different ways that we’ve gone about making music, but one is just going in a room and not really having anything written or anything planned. We all just start playing and then do that for a couple days, then go back and listen to it all and see what sounds good and then make some songs out of them. Start out improvising, then put together pieces that work.
Aren’t you ever afraid that you’ll accidentally copy someone else’s song? Maybe fall into a groove and say, wow — this sounds a lot like —
Mike D: There were a couple of times when we had something, [called it] a day, then came back and said, oh, you know why we liked it? Cuz it’s…
MCA: Sly and the Family Stone. [Laughter]
What are some musical influences on The Mix-Up? What were you listening to while you were recording it?
Mike D: We listened to a lot of different kinds of music.
Ad-Rock: A lot of quartets.
MCA: Three Dog Night.
Ad-Rock: I don?t really like them.
Mike D: But Three Dog Night have songs and stuff.
Ad-Rock: Jeremiah was a bullfrog?
Mike D: That?s a song.
Ad-Rock: I know — I just don’t like it.
What about dub? Was that an influence?
Mike D: Dub was a big influence. Prince Jazzbo. Of course Lee Perry stuff. Augustus Pablo.
MCA: But also a lot of stuff that was influenced by dub records, like PiL, the Clash, the Slits, the Specials. So I think there are some of those influences on this record, kind of a second-generation influence from dub.
Mike D: And now, we’d be the next couple of generations down after that.
NEXT PAGE: The Beasties on what inspired License to Ill — ”drink tickets.”
So, you’re starting a tour this week — where are you going to be playing?
Mike D: Barcelona.
Oh that’s right — you’re playing the Sonar festival in Barcelona. Have you been before? Isn’t it mostly electronic music? Or at least it used to be.
Mike D: And it all takes place throughout the city, or it’s one site…?
When I went, it was on a place called Montjuic — literally ”Jewish Mountain.” Or ”Jew Mountain.” Something like that.
Mike D: So they’re sending us to the Jew Mountain? I guess that makes sense.
Yup, back to the ghetto.
Ad-Rock: Three Jews from New York. Where you gonna send them? Jew Mountain…
Mike D: They got tons of Chinese food up there — you’re gonna love it!
MCA: Sounds like the name of a horror film: Night on Jew Mountain. [Laughter]
Mike D: One of the things we’re gonna do on this tour — for most cities we’ll do one main show, more stuff with Mixmaster Mike. And then we’ll do a separate show the next night or the night before — the ”gala” event. More band arrangements of older songs and new songs and mostly instrumental stuff. Last tour [we did] pageants. We’d hoped that people would dress up accordingly. Some people did. So for the gala events on this tour, we’re hoping that people also take that seriously and apply the dress code to their experience.
Ad-Rock: It is a gala event — you figure, you’re going to wear, like, cargo shorts? We’re not billing it as a BBQ.
Let’s talk about Bad Brains — you produced their new record, Build a Nation, right?
MCA: Yeah. We grew up listening to them. I was just talking to Darryl [Jenifer, the band’s bassist] on the phone, and he mentioned they were thinking about recording. I think I volunteered. It was cool, though it took a long time, for some reason. But it got done. And it’s coming out. On the same day as our record. Strange coincidence.
Okay. Let’s talk about your history as a band. Let’s go through each record, starting with License to Ill.
MCA: Well, we started out as a hardcore band. We first put out a hardcore record. Don?t know if you would really count that.
Yeah, you used to play at CBGB’s. Are you sorry that it’s gone?
MCA: Yeah. I think it’s a void. When I walk by and see that it?s not there.
So your first record after your hardcore days was License to Ill…what were you thinking about when you made that record?
Ad-Rock: We focused on beer…
Mike D: …and beer helmets, too. You put the cans in…
Ad-Rock: [License to Ill] was also inspired by drink tickets. And getting into the club for free, then getting the drink tickets, and how many drink tickets you had…
Mike D: And then when the energy started to go down, going to the next club. Sometimes we’d try to write lyrics on napkins at, say, the Palladium or Danceteria, and then go back to the studio and record.
Ad-Rock: Once we bought beer helmets on 8th Street, started walking on Broadway to 10th. There were two women out front [of a restaurant], obviously executives, having a margarita out front, and Yauch [MCA] and I come up and we’ve got the beer helmets, and we’re like, ”so, ladies…” Then we hear, ”Nice hats, guys,” and there’s a cop car parked around the corner. He gave us tickets.
MCA: We weren’t smart enough to put bags on the helmets.
NEXT PAGE: The Beasties on recording Paul’s Boutique — ”I crashed a rental car into the gate at the house we were renting.”
Let’s move on to Paul’s Boutique.
MCA: The next record was pretty radically different. We left Def Jam and went out to the west coast and started working with the Dust Brothers. We were just planning to do a couple of songs with them and see how it went. We ended up staying out there for a long time and making a whole record with them. We listened to a lot of jazz and funk records, trying to find things to sample.
Mike D: Like the Meters, Idris Mohammad.
Ad-Rock: Dick Hyman. Things of that ilk.
Mike D: We just went out there to do a couple songs. Just kind of hanging out and having fun in the studio. No beer helmets, but heavy weed use.
Ad-Rock: We were listening to a lot of old breakbeat records. We met Mark Nishita [Money Mark], and I bought a drum kit from his brother.
Mike D: I crashed a rental car into the gate at the house we were renting as we were making Paul’s Boutique. So our engineer Mario had gone to school with Mark, and knew that he was a good carpenter. And he said, ”My friend Mark can come fix the fence.”
He didn?t mention the fact that Mark also played keyboards.
Ad-Rock: We started playing [with him] later.
MCA: Just as Paul’s Boutique was being released, there was a big turnover at the label, where a new president comes in and fires everyone. So everyone went hands-off. We went to the new president and said, ”We spent a long time working on this record, and we really like it, like to pull it out on the road,” and he said…
Ad-Rock: He said, ”You know what you guys? I appreciate everything, but we’re gonna just have to wait until the next time.” And we’re like, ”What do you mean, next time?” And he was like, ”Next record. The new company’s really behind this new Donny Osmond record.” He said, ”I’m a Deadhead, so I know where you guys are at.” [Laughter]
So is that when you started your own label, Grand Royal?
Ad-Rock: Yeah. The label thing happened because, basically, our friends had a demo and were trying to get a deal, so Mike and Adam sort of started Grand Royal.
Right. And that’s when you made Check Your Head?
MCA: We were jamming in [Mike D’s] house until his crazy neighbor came up with a gun and chased us away. So we decided to build our own recording studio. We spent three years screwing around in the studio, and finally finished [Check Your Head], and that came out, and then we toured for a little while. Then we came to New York and recorded a bunch for Ill Communication. In a studio called Tin Pan Alley.
Mike D: Also sometimes known as Bulls— Alley. It’s kind of a s—ty studio.
Ad-Rock: We were just in the mode of touring and touring and just in the mode of playing music — just really into it.
Mike D: Then we took a break for a bit, before we started Hello Nasty. We all gradually moved back to New York [for that].
What pulled you back here?
Ad-Rock: The bagels and the pizza.
Mike D: While we were recording Hello Nasty, we took a tangent and recorded a hardcore 7-inch called Aglio e Olio.
Ad-Rock: It was kind of like this record now, in that we were trying to decide what to record, and we started recording hardcore songs.
MCA: So we did a handful of hardcore dates under the name Quasar, until we got a cease and desist. From the Quasar company.
Mike D: Then after that tangent, we resumed Hello Nasty. We finished that and went on tour for a long time. Then we did To the 5 Boroughs. And Yauch set up this studio here, Oscilloscope.
NEXT PAGE: The Beasties school us on nato — ”It’s the Limburger cheese of beans.”
Why make a New York record? 9/11?
MCA: We did kind of start on it pretty shortly after September 11th. I think there’s just a lot of feeling about it, about the war and whatnot. While we were making that record, Bush was invading everybody that he could think of, trying to figure out who to include in the ”axis of evil.”
Mike D: Being native New Yorkers and growing up in New York, and also being New York residents and being here making that record, especially here, in downtown New York. It almost would’ve been dishonest not to deal with that somehow.
I really like this new song on the new album, ”Freaky Hijiki.”
Mike D: A lot of kudos coming off of ”Freaky Hijiki!”
Ad-Rock: I talked to someone from Japan today who wanted to know what was up with ”Freaky Hijiki.” Wanted to know if we were making fun of [hijiki].
MCA: I heard in some kind of British review, that it was a hippie thing, a hippie reference…there’s nothing hippie about hijiki.
Mike D: Actually, in one of our sides today [pointing to something brown and stringy on his plate], is the freaky hijiki. It is a Japanese sea vegetable, yet here it’s mixed up with tofu. So we renamed it ”freaky hijiki.”
MCA: There’s nothing hippie about this —
Mike D: People been eating sea veg for a long time.
MCA: It’s a Japanese staple.
Mike D: So I’m kind of concerned. Japanese people think we’re making fun of sea vegetables? We love sea vegetables. Why would we make fun of them?
Ad-Rock: I said we that we wouldn’t do [that]. Unless it was called ”freaky nato,” then we’d have a problem.
MCA: Nato is freaky to begin with.
Mike D: It’s a fermented soybean that in Japan they often [eat] it with breakfast. It’s very…pungent tasting. Unless you grow up on it, it’s a hard taste to like.
MCA: It’s the Limburger cheese of beans. [Laughter]
So, you’re all back living in New York now. Do you ever get stopped by the paparazzi?
Ad-Rock: I got a little something on my way to the studio today. There’s a high school right around the corner of my house. When I’m walking my dog in the morning, I see a lot of the kids smoking joints. And I’m passing these kids — and they’re so high, reeking of it — and this girl says, “Oh, s—! That dude is famous. What’s that dude?” Then there was a little discussion as I kept walking. But I had a full outfit on, so I could?ve been anybody.
MCA: There’s a homeless guy right on my corner in my hood, and every time I walk past he goes, “Hey Hollywood! Whassup? You got any new movies coming out?”