Beastie Boys: “We Were Abducted By Sasquatch!”
It should have been a quite simple question. Actually, it was a simple question. The Beastie Boys – Adam Yauch (Master of Ceremonies Adam), Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D) – are sat in a wooden office on the fifth floor of a Manhattan Brownstone apartment. Their forthcoming album, their sixth, To The 5 Boroughs, is their first for more than five years, their first since 1998’s Hello Nasty. All manner of things have changed in this time. You may have bought your first ever piece of music int his time. You may have little idea who the Beastie Boys are.
So the question is a gentle one, to get us all going.
Where have the Beastie Boys been?
“Ah, now, that’s interesting,” says Mike Diamond, as if it actually is. You nod your head in serene understanding as he says, “Mostly we’ve been in New York.” You stop nodding your head as he follows this with, “Apart from the time we were abducted by Sasquatch.”
“Like the yeti, like Big Foot. He lives in a cave in north-west America.”
Does he now.
“We bring that up because it had a major influence on the album,” cries Adam Yauch. “At the time, we were captured and living in the cave, we learned a lot of the Sasquatch and yeti ways. We learned a lot of the dance moves and a lot of the musical and rhythmic elements of the yeti. We have bona fide Big Foot beats on the record. The record wouldn’t have existed without Big Foot.”
And he taught you how to dance, you say?
Adam Yauch is sat to my left, Adam Horowitz is sat to my right. To his right sits Mike Diamond. New York sunshine yawns in through the windows. Only Horowitz doesn’t rise immediately to his feet. His bandmates – his millionaire, late 30-something bandmates – are up and dancing, like – click – that. This is a Beastie Boys video, only without a television screen, only with me as their camera. They fashion break beats with their mouths – “bish-uum, bish-uum” – and move their hands, arms wandering, fingers outstretched. Their thighs and knees do the other work; up and down, up and down.
They take their seats and begin talking again, Horowitz joining in: stories from years ago, that and this, this and the other. It’s like trying to control three mongooses who have been raised solely on a diet of absinthe, methamphetamine and Sunny Delight. Only more difficult.
Listening to them – eyes moving as if you’re following a squash game – it’s not difficult to see the band they once were, or at least the band that people proclaimed them to be.
In 1986, the Beastie Boys released their first full-length album (following two EPs, Pollywog Stew and Cookie Puss) and titled it Licensed To Ill. The following year, they arrived in Britain on the special guest slot of Run DMC’s spring tour. For the UK press, it was as if the deathly wind from the Russian Chernobyl nuclear disaster had drifted into town. The Beastie Boys were public enemy numbers one, two and three. As the visit neared so the stories accumulated; daily tales of loutish squalor, always exaggerated, often invented. So much so that their tour may as well have been called Friction From Fiction.
Yes, it’s true that Volkswagen owners everywhere had the silver badges ripped from the front of their vehicles (the band fashioned the garments on chains around their necks, sparking a nation wide trend) many of whom will still display intermediate Tourette’s Syndrome at the very mention of this group’s name. It’s true that the band had girls dancing in cages at the side of the stage and a giant inflatable penis that they filled with helium. And, yes, it’s also true that Yauch was arrested at Liverpool’s Royal Court following an incident with a fan and a baseball bat.
“I also threw a chicken out of a hotel window at a man wearing a bowler hat,” he says. “I don’t know if I hit him or not.”
But then it got really, really silly. The Beastie Boys were on the news. Questions were raised in the House of Commons. The Daily Mirror ran a story that alleged that the three then-teenagers mocked a group of terminally ill children (suffering from leukaemia) in Montrose, Switzerland. The story was entirely of the paper’s own invention. Utter bullshit. But hey, who was gonna believe the spoiled brat Yanks?
“That first visit was kinda crazy,” says Adam Horowitz with commendable understatement. “Our first impressions of the UK were not great.”
The band were not to return for more than five years (for a single performance at the Marquee Club, then on London’s Charing Cross Road). In between, in 1989, they recorded an album, that has since been quite rightly recognised as a masterpiece. But at the time the dazzling, brilliant and astonishingly inventive Paul’s Boutique was not what the Beastie Boys’ public expected or, as it turned out, wanted. Whereas Licensed To Ill arrived heavy with catchy, gloriously thick-headed singles (Fight For Your Right To Party, No Sleep Til Brooklyn) its successor was having none of it. Artful and idiosyncratic, Paul’s Boutique, at least at the time, suffered a quiet and lonely fate. Comparatively, it died on its arse.
“That hurts,” says Adam Horowitz.
“No, that you said that.”
But it did die on its arse.
“When it came out it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.”
Perhaps, but Licensed To Ill sold millions and millions of copies.
“Let’s be real,” says Mike Diamond. “[Paul’s Boutique] was viewed as a huge disappointment in comparison. And we gave a shit, then we didn’t give a shit.”
“Basically, right after the album came out there was a change in the administration at the company,” says Yauch. “The head of the label got fired and everyone down got fired. Partly because they signed us to the label. So we went in and met with the new president and said that we wanted them to work a long time on the record. And he said, ‘No, we want you to go back in the studio and make a new album. We want you to forget about this one. Because we have a new Donny Osmond record coming out and we want to concentrate on that.”
“No, that’s true.”
All of which worked out well in the end. The lack of limelight allowed the Beastie Boys to regroup and eventually to be re-appraised, this time correctly. Check Your Head (1992) and Ill Communication (1994) confirmed the band as being something quite unique , something cross-cultural and outward thinking. So much so that the Beastie Boys – who once recorded an almost misogynistic song called Girls – were scheduling concerts in aid of the oppressed peoples of Tibet (Adam Yauch, for one, subscribes to the Buddhist faith), as well as kicking The Prodigy from the support slot of one of their tours in protest at that band’s song Smack My Bitch Up.
The Beastie Boys became the very serious collection of people you see before you today.
So they’ve been here for years, but for the Beastie Boys things have been quiet of late. The cover of To The 5 Boroughs features a pencil sketch of the Manhattan skyline, sharp and clean. It takes more than a second to spot the focal point of the picture, hulking there on the left-hand side…
The World Trade Center.
Ask them about this and the Beastie Boys, for the moment, become serious.
“There are two reasons, I think [ that the buildings are on the cover],” says Mike D. “One is that the New York we grew up in – and bear in mind we all grew up here, in Manhattan and in Brooklyn – the Twin Towers were very much part of that, and we can’t separate that visually from the New York of our imaginations. And then when it came time to lay the artwork out we actually did try a couple of versions without the Towers in them and it just felt weird to us to look at. But it also called more attention to the Twin Towers not having them there as it did having them there. Or at least just as much.”
“Of course the music is going to be affected in some way by what happened,” says Adam Horowitz. “Is it possible to have a dialogue about New York that isn’t in some way influenced by what happened on September 11? It might be. But I still think that event is in the consciousness somewhere, even if you’re talking about the most mundane of things. Even if you’re talking about where in the city is the place to get the best falafel.”
Is the job of art to attempt to fill the vacuum created by the event?
Ad Rock thinks for a second, but only a second.
“Of course it is.”
It’s a ride in a yellow Checker Cab Company car to see, and hear, the Beastie Boys ( who are currently busily discussing the best place in town falafel, by the way – disagreeing, to-ing and fro-ing ) through streets that are a riot of colour. Past a din of delicatessens, peep shows, diners, florists, convenience stores, theatres, cinemas, fitness centres, hotels. An electric hum, a fearless stare. The thing that happened here, the defining moment of our century thus far, occurred only miles away. A humbling event. Pause for thought, sure. But to see New York as it goes about its ceaseless clatter is to see a city, still, as intimidating as it is breathtaking; a city that could never sleep, even if it wanted to.
To The 5 Boroughs is there, waiting on an Apple Mac computer, wired to a seat that vibrates to the rhythm of the music, inside an almost open plan office of wooden austerity. We’re down on the Lower West Side, just off Canal Street. Up five flights of stairs, a broken elevator. Signs on the stairwells reminding you that this is not a place to sneak crafty smokes.
It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful noise.
As lyrics stream down the right hand side of the screen, you attempt to take it all in. Impossible of course, but here’s what we know so far. To The 5 Boroughs is typically dazzling, if untypically uncluttered. A ( by their standards) straightforward-ish hip hop album, with songs that chirp and yell with the kind of noise and colour familiar to the 21st century digital boys.
There are references to Miss Piggy, to New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, to the Tokyo Trade Agreement (reneged upon by their Texan employee, there in the White House) to Wile E coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, to Public Enemy (‘We’re gonna party for our right to fight’), a punk rock record shop called Bleeker Bobs (over in the East Village), Men Without Hats and Winnie the Pooh, among others. There is peacenik poetry, (‘I’m getting tired of the situation/The US attacking other nations’) and there are pink politics (‘We need to move a little on over to the left’).
But on a first listen the song that stands out – the song that explodes – from To The 5 Boroughs is An Open Letter To NYC. Busy with wounded and loving pride, the song is very much the totem of the album, the pulse of its immediate sentiment.
They rap: ‘Since 9/11 we’re still livin’ / and lovin’ life we’ve been given / ain’t nothin’ gonna take that away from us / we’re lookin’ pretty and gritty cos in the city we trust / Dear New York I know a lot has changed / Two towers down but you’re still in the game / Home to the many rejecting no-one / accepting peoples of all places, wherever they’re from’.
Listening to this it almost seems as if To The 5 Boroughs could well be titled A New York State Of Mind.
“That title’s already been taken,” says Adam Horowitz.
I know, but…
“We could have called it A New York Sack Of Shit,” says MCA.
Guess what? The Beastie Boys are fucking around again. They are, by turn, liars, children, comedians, raconteurs, dancers, adults, philosophers. They insist on being interviewed together, with no substitutions allowed. This means that what we get is what we’ve got; three men – three middle-aged men, if you fancy picking nits – who talk incessantly and and climb over each other’s sentences like ants clambering over a tape recorder. It’s as impossible to control as it is, later, to transcribe. You imagine they quite enjoy this.
They look good for their age. Horowitz is small and looks almost cherubic, the quietest of the three. Yauch, grey and stoical, is rough-voiced and responsive, if not always in the way you might think, or expect. But it’s Michael Diamond who is the dynamo today, the fuel for their folly. Loud if not loutish, it would only take half a tab of acid before Mike D began to look like Mr Spock.
All the while, the three of them are talking, talking, talking.
“Have you heard of a place in England called Chesthairshire?” asks Diamond.
There’s no such place.
“There is!” He’s insistent, now, alive. “We’re friends with the mayor of Chesthairshire.”
Obviously you’re talking bollocks.
“See, that’s an English word!” This is Mike D again. “He uses that word all the time.”
If you think about it, or even if you don’t. the Beastie Boys are almost without peer. They began life as a reedy punk rock band, aping their heroes in the Bad Brains – rather badly, as it goes. They moved on to an almost avant-garde electronic beat music, and did this with an ear for uncommerciality but promise nothing of what was to come. When they did go commercial they did so in a way that excited people, of course, with which also terrified some of them, in a way that modern music is perhaps incapable of doing any more. They fused new forms, utilised a new-ish promotional tool called music video, reached over to the people who want to hear them. And there were millions upon millions of them.
Then they were supposed to go away – they had their time, they’d made their money. A band who even in 1987 had the nous to take Fishbone and Public Enemy on tour with them, the Beastie Boys were not yet spent. Derided for being plastic and (sometimes) white and (yes, even) Jewish, they’re still here. Actually, they’re more than still here. Interviewing them might be like trying to land three particularly feisty fish (and failing) but the Beastie Boys exist in the present tense. Because after 20 years of existence almost everyone I’ve spoken to wants to know what the new album sounds like.
It sounds like it was meant to be. Even though it was never meant to be.
“Other than a hair metal band who tend to start up specifically with the intention of being big and famous, how many people start bands with any kind of future in mind?” asks Michael Diamond. “I know we didn’t. And I know we don’t make albums that we think at the time are masterpieces. We just record songs that we like and fit it all together as best we can. It’s all in the present. Being in a band is all about the present, being fun and about it being something you want to do right now. There was never any thought to the future.”
“Yeah, still. We just do what we do, and here we are.”
The time is almost up; the Beastie Boys have another interview to ‘do’ and I have four Ibuprofen to swallow. For the next journalist, the band will wear wicker hats every time they answer a question in a ‘serious’ manner. Honestly.
“This is one of the best interviews we’ve ever done,” says Mike Diamond.
Are you insane? Are you on drugs?
“Hey come on,” he says. “How many bands do you know that have told you about them being kidnapped by a Sasquatch?”
“I have a headline for this article,” sys Diamond. “I’m going to give it to you free of charge. Ready?”
“It is – ready? – Big Foot: Serious As Cancer!”
There is now, a pause, easily the longest of the interview, in fact, the only pause of the interview. I’m the one who breaks it.
“What?” explodes Mike Diamond, almost screaming, almost wide-eyed. “That’s hot shit!”
“You could call it Big Shit,” says Adam Horowitz.
Thinking back about what this piece was meant to be is almost to laugh, or cry, in gentle exasperation. The title was going to be The World According To The Beastie Boys. How they were then compared to how they are now. How they’ve put away childish things and grown up with dignity and grace.
Still, it’s worth one final go. As the band prepare to order food, the final question arrives.
What do you believe in now that you didn’t believe in then? All three members have the same answer, it’s just a question of who says it first.
And as he says the word ‘Sasquatch’, Adam Yauch – MCA – becomes the winner.
Words: Ian Winwood
Photo: Phil Andelman/Nasty Little Man
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