Two decades after he stumbled into the public consciousness, Tricky finally sounds free.
Ten albums deep into his career, the Bristol artist’s creative high points are now thoroughly familiar: formative scene-stealing appearances on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines; the dazzling Maxinquaye, still one of the most impressive debuts of the decade; and 1996’s underrated trip-hop touchstone Pre-Millennium Tension. If his subsequent releases have felt patchy and provisional by comparison, his voice – a strangled mumble, intimate and harrowed – has remained a reliably chilling constant. As David Bowie once put it: “Here come the horses to drag me to bed/ Here comes Tricky to fuck up my head.”
Things, however, seem to be changing for the boy from Knowle West. His latest album, False Idols, puts aside the grab-bag approach that has characterised his work over the last decade. It’s his most focused record in yonks, honing in on particular sonic tropes (orchestration, bass) and a specific mood (threat). Following an unhappy period at Domino Records, False Idols is also the first release on Tricky’s new imprint of the same name, also home to young artists FiFi Rong (“Her stuff is different. It’s very awkward”), Francesca BelMonte and his brother Marlon Thaws (“he’s chaos, he’s like me”) Although he’s now based in Paris, we caught up with Tricky during a brief stop in the UK (on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, no less). In person, he’s ebullient and motor-mouthed: thoughts zoom off on tangents, anecdotes breed anecdotes.
Although 2008’s Knowle West Boy and 2010’s Mixed Race enjoyed a fairly warm critical reception, he’s vocal about the fact he “never should have signed” with Domino: “It’s not Domino’s fault: there are some great people at Domino, I met some really good people there who actually work on day-to-day stuff. Very cool people in there, good people. But a relationship with me and Laurence [Bell, Domino founder] is never going to work, because my attitude is like, “You ain’t [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell. Chris Blackwell is one of the few people who can suggest something to me in the music industry, but he would never do that. It was little things, like I didn’t agree who was mixing my album, right? Because somebody who worked on MIA’s album was mixing it, and I thought, “What have I got to do with MIA? But the answer was: “Well, he’s hot now”. Now, if you have to go with whoever you think is hot now, it means you’re not really a music person. So my problem is, instead of letting things go, they build up and build up and build up – and the next thing you know, the relationship is not good.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/4)
His newfound freedom has proved invigorating by comparison: “Domino, I was doing business. For three videos and a short movie, it cost me €5000 [with False Idols]. One video on Domino was €50000. I know I gotta pay that back . I also know they only do good with guitar bands. So it’s like, okay, I’ve to get that 50 grand back: “You’d better get guitarists on the album”. So, straight away, I’m thinking business. Now I’m now worried about how this record does, because it hasn’t cost too much money. But Domino, two videos, we’re talking 100 grand, I gotta pay that back to them also knowing they don’t do anything with electronic music. So it’s like: “Get guitarists on there, make it sound like a Specials album, da-da-da-da-da”. That’s the wrong attitude to have”.
How have his less-than-edifying experiences with Domino shaped his feelings about a rapidly changing music business? “The one thing I’ve got a problem with is the celebrity culture. Wow. It makes me don’t have respect for a lot of musicians” Cue a parade of rapid-fire and highly entertaining anecdotes: “One time, I was in a club called Life and I was with a friend, and a guy I knew came over and said “Lenny wants to meet you”. And I said, “Lenny who? I don’t know any Lenny?” and he said “Lenny Kravitz”. And he was over the other side of the room. He said, “Yeah, do you want to come over? He wants to meet you.” Well, one: I’m not a fan. Two: you want to meet me, but you want me to get up…He thinks he can say to me “Look, I’ve got a studio in Miami, we should record…” No! I’m not going to record with you, because I don’t like your music.”
Jay-Z fares better (“a very nice guy…he came over to me”), unlike a well-known UK tabloid favourite: “Y’know the girl – what’s her name? Had a meltdown on me. I was in a club a few years ago in London. Can’t remember her name”. He has a sudden moment of revelation: “Katie Price! I was chatting to her, and I don’t know who Katie Price is – I haven’t lived in this country for 17 years – and someone introduced me and said “This is Katie”. And you know when you don’t hear – it’s a club, it’s loud! And I said “Sorry what’s your name?”/ And she said “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m nobody. I’m the cleaner”. And I thought, “Have I upset this girl?” So I said to my friend, and he goes “that’s Katie Price”. And I said, “Who’s Katie Price?” I don’t understand that. I wasn’t being rude, I just didn’t’ know who she was.”
He’s similarly unpretentious about his own celebrity status: “I don’t have any friends who are musicians…Sometimes I get a business class ticket somewhere, and the business guy next to me wants to know what this guy with tattoos all over is doing in business class. I usually say, “I’m a manager. I manage young artists”. I just lie, because the last thing I want to do is sit down and talk about my music. It’s unnecessary”. He also believes that fate and chance trump talent: “I see myself as being very lucky. I’m lucky to be able to do what I love. And I think if you forget you’re lucky as artist, that’s when the ego starts. Because you’re not successful, you’re not talented, you’re just very lucky to get an opportunity that not many people do.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 2/4)
Unlike his last two records, which Tricky dismisses as overthought and over-wrought, False Idols came naturally, “like eating, like breathing”. The sessions only took two weeks; of the 19 tracks recorded, 16 were deemed strong enough for inclusion. Lead single ‘Somebody Sings’ was knocked out in an hour between sessions: “I’m a naive artist – that’s why my music sounds different, ‘cos I haven’t got no musical knowledge. So the only way for me to make music is not to think about it. And the ones I’ve thought about, I don’t think they’re so good. So now hopefully I’m going to remember this. Don’t think, just do.” Even though he’s learning new lessons, Tricky sees himself as the same man that shook the world back in 1995: “Some people consider me successful. This is what young people need to realise: being successful isn’t going to make them happy. I’ve done ten albums. I’ve still got the same problems: I still wake up and don’t feel good, I still miss my mother from all those years ago, I still haven’t got over certain things. So success is not going to make everything all right. And I’m still me.”
Tricky came of age during the Thatcher years. How does he feel about her passing and all the attending pomp? “For such a negative woman, she influenced a lot of music. I really don’t like Margaret Thatcher – I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but musically she made some great stuff, because she was so bad. She’s very important musically. It’s funny: I don’t agree with any of her politics at all, but she made me who I was. She made me a rebel in a way, going through that. When you hear The Specials talking about Maggie Thatcher, that’s when I first got my political identity…I think it’s a little perverse how much they’re spending on her funeral, which is sick. But I wouldn’t have changed her for the world.” There’s a sneaking hint of admiration for the Iron Lady: “I did love that strong woman vibe. You’ve gotta love that. The first woman prime minister, and she was tough. The way she dealt with people, she wasn’t playing.”
I ask him about ‘Valentine’, a spooky reading of the familiar jazz standard ‘My Funny Valentine’, previously selected by Tricky for his 2003 contribution to the Back To Mine mix CD series. What inspired him to tackle the song? “Bjork. I was in a relationship with Bjork, and I don’t think it was a good relationship for her. I wasn’t good. She played me that song, and I think it was me trying to salvage something good from our relationship, because it was not a good time for her. I feel bad about that, because she was so good to me and so nice to me. She played me that one day in her house, and I can remember exactly where and what she was wearing and where we were in the house. So I think sampling that was me trying to salvage something beautiful form it. And maybe it’s an apology to her…I learnt a lot from Bjork, and that was why I sampled it. It was me trying to give a gift back. She said to me once: “Never learn to sing. Never take a singing lesson.” I said, “Why?”. And she said, “You’ve got weird melodies, and if you learn it will change it.” She always used to say that to me, and she knew me better than I knew myself.”
I ask him about his killer remix of ‘Ima Read’ by queer rap icon Zebra Katz – like Tricky, an artist with an ear for darkness and a complicated attitude towards gender binaries. Rather hilariously, it seems Tricky didn’t quite know what he was letting himself in for: “You know what? I didn’t know he was gay. But that don’t matter to me, I don’t care. The video, he seems like a tough guy to me, quite ghetto. And then, what’s crazy is, I did the vocal, and then I researched him. Have you sent that thing about him being on the A-Train?” He looks genuinely flabbergasted. “I’m like “What the fuck?”. He camps it up. I rang my daughter – me and Martina have got a kid, eighteen – and asked if she knew this guy, and she likes him, and I was like “I didn’t know he was that effeminate”. So it was a shock to me. But I got no problem with the gay thing, because I know my sexuality. I think he’s brave. Artists need courage. If you’re gay…it’s like the Kray twins, Ronnie Kray, right? Not like he’s a gangster, but you have to respect him for being like “I’m gay, so what?”. Anybody who’s got that much strength, you have to respect them. So I’m planning on working with him again.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 3/4)
A self-described “obsessive”, Tricky has been keeping busy. False Idols might not drop until May, but he’s already looking ahead: “I’ve got another album ready to be mixed, and I want to start recording. But I’ve got to slow down a little bit to get this done.” He’s also working on a “weird” and “violent” French short film called Sophie Sees (“It’s about a girl who thinks she’s a video director. But she’s not.”). He sounds most enthused about tending to his stable of False Idols artists: “You put someone out who’s not known, you get love for that and it comes back. Almost like instant karma.”. He nurtures a daydream of supporting his own artists on tour. “I want someone to post on Facebook – Francesca, she’s featuring on his album – but her album is much better than Trickys!” A little like those legend-minting appearances on Blue Lines all those years ago? “That’s what you supposed to be doing as an artist – helping people”.
Before we wrap up, it’s impossible not to ask: what was the story behind that bizarre cameo during Beyonce’s 2011 Glastonbury headline set? Tricky compares it to his infamous bit part in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (“a terrible thing for me to do, but where I come from you don’t get opportunities for a huge Hollywood film”), and recounts the story like it’s an incident from Curb Your Enthusiasm: “She’s got a guy who does her choreogra-lalalala. What’s it called? The dancing stuff. She was in England, she wanted somebody to do a feature. He mention me – I don’t know if she knew who I was. I don’t think so. She might have heard about me, but I don’t know. He mentioned me so she said okay, and i had to do that becuae it’s so perverse, to go on stage with Beyonce. I don’t know much about her and I don’t know her music and i really can’t say I’m a fan. She’s a nice girl . But I can honestly say I’m not a fan.”
“I went on. The smoke, the dancers…and then my mic didn’t’ work. When my mic didn’t’ work, I just started watching everything. And she’s so professional – when she saw my mic didn’t’ work, she came over and started winding down on me. It was professional, but it was sexy. And I’m not that kind of guy, I’m a bit shy. So she’s winding down on me, and I look at the front – and Jay-Z is right in front of me. It’s just weird. I got a cousin, he’s a Jamaican guy in London, and him and his friends were watching it. And he and his friends, they were talking to me, they said “Go on Tricky! Wind it! Wind it!”. But I couldn’t do it’ There’s no way I can grab Beyonce around the waist and start doing that stuff.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 4/4)