Catching Up With Cheerfully Defiant Tricky
The artist Tricky, considered by many to be one of the forefathers of trip-hop, is, as he revealed in conversation one recent early morning, many things. He's outspoken about the current state of the music industry and isn't afraid to call certain artists out. He's proud of his new record, Vulnerable (Sanctuary, 2003), but doesn't want to hear it anymore. And sometimes, when he talks, he seems to contradict himself. What he isn't is brooding or menacing. And he certainly doesn't seem to deserve the "Prince of Darkness" tag he's been saddled with by the press for much of his career.
After having flown overnight from the UK to his home in Los Angeles, he answers his telephone one chipper bloke.
"Hello," he says. "How you doing, mate?"
Fine, you know, OK. How about you?
This is not the grave, gravelly voice that's marked seven albums over almost 10 years, the perpetual target of the British press, plagued by controversy. He's just a guy who sounds glad to be home. "I was just hanging out in London," Tricky says. "Chillin' out. I'd just finished a tour."
He's been touring behind his latest, Vulnerable, an album some have called his best since his solo debut, the classic, Maxinquaye (Island, 1995), which he produced after auspicious appearances as Tricky-Kid on Massive Attack's first two albums, Blue Lines (Virgin, 1991) and Protection (Virgin, 1994). Maxinquaye introduced a sonic blueprint heavy, reverberating, dubby beats, threatening basslines and evocative, strangely tender, his & her vocal interplay others are still trying to replicate. "I think it's stupid that people are all trying to do it, all trying to make albums which are called 'trip-hop,'" he says. "You've got Nelly Furtado..." He stops himself.
As for the artists who've built their reputations and careers using the formulas he devised, he says, "I think they should get day jobs, man, or do something positive, like fucking do some charity work or do something. They're getting too much and giving too little. If that's all you want to be is be famous, like Justin Timberlake, d'yaknowwhatImean, I don't know whether to slap him or give him a hug. That guy desperately wants to be loved. See, he thinks by being a black man he's going to be loved. I don't know what he's trying to do. And Eminem and most of the industry, to be honest with you."
With the release of Maxinquaye and its follow-up, the claustrophobic (and still totally current) Pre-Millennium Tension (Island, 1996) and also, in 1996, Nearly God (Island), a collection of collaborations with such female vocalists as Björk and Neneh Cherry, Tricky seemed poised to ascend. Since then, however, his albums have been met with critical lashings and, lately, indifference.
It's true that Maxinquaye was surprising (it was new, the genre in its infancy) and that no one had heard sounds combined that way before. But Tricky says he's never wanted to repeat himself. Not with the shadowy neo-blues of Angels With Dirty Faces (Island, 1998) or the poppy hip-hop of Juxtapose (Island, 1999).
"It's almost like people want me to have success off of something that I did almost 10 years ago," Tricky says. "I still want to learn. I'm not a master of anything. I don't know more than any other artist. I'm still trying to learn and I have to learn by my mistakes, so I'm just going to keep putting out music, d'yaknowwhatImean, 'cause I'm learning. I never want to put out the same album. I never want to do that. It's been an obsession. I never want to repeat myself."
While Vulnerable revisits some of the themes introduced in Maxinquaye, and introduces a new female vocalist (Costanza) who sounds similar to Tricky's original muse, Martina Topely Bird, the album doesn't sound like a retread. It's uneven in parts especially the dated, grinding guitars of "How High," "Moody" and "Wait for God," sounding lost there but it shows a more accessible Tricky maturing (yikes!). "Stay" is propelled forward by its melody, by Tricky and Costanza, who play off one another in a way not heard since his work in Maxinquaye, and by strings that sound is if they're there for a reason, not as a trip-hop prop. "Anti-Matter" is bouncy and is kindred spirits, in its keyboard sounds, with Rick James' "Superfreak." "Car Crash" takes its time and, with a shuffling beat, develops into a warm ballad.
Tricky's most striking work over the years "Overcome," "Christiansands," "Poems" has represented the tension, the battle to find beauty in amongst the noise that haunts us. It's always been a struggle, freeing but finite. Like the moment the noose is placed around your neck and the platform falls and you see everything you've ever wanted at once, but then, that's it, you've cashed out. "Car Crash" isn't as immediate as its predecessors. It's also not as exhausting. You live to press play again.
"The album's called Vulnerable," Tricky says, noting the burden that comes with his self-imposed mission, "because every time I release an album the critique on me is so heavy it's almost like I risk my career. So it's like I think I'm the most vulnerable artist out there, and what press don't realize is that I'm an experimental artist. I experiment and I'm not always going to get it right. And I'm going to put it out like it is. 'Cause I've got the power to do that.
"I think Vulnerable is all right," Tricky answers, when asked about revisiting his work, something he seems reluctant to do. With an attention span constantly revving, it appears as soon as a record's done and out he's ready to move on. "I think it's the best album I've done. I think it's better than Maxinquaye, to be honest wit' you. There's more there. But, I think in the next five years I'm going to make the best music five, ten years the best music I've ever made. I can feel it. So Vulnerable, I think... I ain't going to be negative, 'cause I'm negative with a lot of my stuff. It's the first album in a long time I'm proud of. There's nothing on there that sounds like anything else. Like, Maxinquaye, I don't really want to hear that. I don't want to hear people talking about it or none of the albums. But this, it's like I've started again and I don't mind this being part of my history."
Tricky admits his art hasn't always been the driving force behind his work. "Juxtapose I did to get out of my record deal," he says, frankly. "Blowback (Hollywood, 2001) I did for the money. The albums ain't that bad but it's not the right reasons... A woman, many years ago, said to me, 'You're in my life and you're in my children. I play your music to my children.' And this other little kid turned up in Bosnia he was only about 12 and the first music he ever listened to was mine, when he was 8 years of age. And his mum was trying to get him into music when he was a baby and he wasn't havin' it.
"And then she found Maxinquaye and ever since then he's been listening to other people's music. And, it's like, I forgot the reasons why I did things. And I swore on this album [Vulnerable] that it was going to be for that woman with the kids. And be for that kid [in Bosnia]. And be for the people who stayed with me for the ups and downs, d'yaknowwhatImean. Usually I take a lot as well. This album is like, you know, just giving."
From "Car Crash" to a delicate cover of "Dear God" to a choir appearing on "Hollow" there seems to be a pronounced theme of rebirth on the album. Tricky, admitting that his songs and their sentiments are strongest when worked through with a collaborator, thinks Costanza helped make the difference on Vulnerable. "Finding Costanza, that was me getting back to what I think I do best. People forget I write songs as well. And I write melodies and stuff. It was like a rebirth, writing for a singer again. I haven't done that for a while. And I'm writing all the lyrics and writing the songs, and this is a new opportunity. To go back, too, because sometimes you have to go back to go forward. And sometimes I move so fast I forget, d'yaknowwhatImean, what I've learned. So, going back with Costanza, it was just like, easy. And it was so easy with her because she knew my music. It was a hundred percent trust. If I asked her to do something there was no vibe, it was just really easy."
Tricky hasn't worked with any particular partner and has ceased collaborating with Martina Topely Bird since the UK press went after him. "The Face magazine tried to make me into Ike Turner with Martina, right? That's why I decided not to work wit' her."
And why does he think the British press is so tough on him? "They hate me," he says. "It's all personal. If you read any reviews from England, it's like hate."
He had been considered, with the releases of Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension, a critics' darling. At some point that all changed. Tricky is pretty clear about the catalyst. "It's because my uncle knocked out the editor of The Face magazine," he says. "It's really simple, basically."
But it's not so simple. "See," Tricky says, "all this Martina thing turned, right? I was in Atlanta, the guy, the editor of The Face, who's also a writer, flies over and starts asking me weird questions like, 'Why doesn't Martina do any of these, why doesn't she write lyrics...?' And I've never thought of it. The reason I write the lyrics is 'cause I ain't got two days to sit around and wait for a song. I like hearing things instantly. I didn't think much of it but then I realized, basically, that he was trying to make me into Ike Turner.
"And if you read the press about Martina [who's just released her solo debut] now, in England, it's heavenly. So that's all against me still. Like, 'She's finally left the darkness...' What's mad is, her album and she's the mother of my kid, so I can be honest, right? her album's shit. And she doesn't even sound like Martina. And what's mad is, my fans, who have heard her things, are quite sad."
Tricky says that he "created Martina," but that doesn't make him an Ike Turner-like figure. "The way she sounded. Her first demos, I'm like, 'No, you can't sing like that," he says, "'I want you singing like this.' She wouldn't have sounded like this. I put her words. I dressed her, made her look how she is and that's why I'm glad she's doing her album now because people will see the difference. But the press over there want to make me the villain, so all her press is so positive now, and I can't see what's positive about it, 'cause you've got to have good music to have positive press, I think."
But what about that reporter from The Face getting knocked out? "I seen the guy in Glastonbury, we were headlining Glastonbury, and I seen the guy from The Face magazine and I'm saying to him, 'Look, you're a cunt. I don't like you. You're a prick but, check this out, right, you're going to have bad karma 'cause me and Martina, working together, it touched people's souls. And now I've decided not to work with her because of you, 'cause I ain't falling into the trap, so you're going to get your karma.' And then we started arguing. And then he started arguing with my uncle. My uncle don't do press. He don't do any of that stuff. I'm not going to punch the guy in the head, d'yaknowwhatImean, 'cause I do music. So my uncle slapped him and he went to the floor.
"This was about two years ago," Tricky goes on. "So then the press is, 'Tricky Knocked Someone Out.' I got nominated for six Brits before I left England and then I moved to America and I've never got nominated for a Brit since. And the press, all his little friends in the press, just turned against me.
"People don't like the fact that I do what I want to do," Tricky says, defiantly. "I don't play the game of Brit-pop star. I don't go out to any of the trendy clubs there. I don't hang out with any famous people. A lot of artists in England, they've got writers as friends. They go out and they hang out with writers and they go to all these trendy little places together, you know, like the Chemical Brothers and Blur and all that. So, you know, with me it's a personal deep hate. They hate me. I'm not playing their game, and what's funny is they hate me but they made me, and it's too late to break me.
"America's adopted me," Tricky says, acknowledging homes in New York and Los Angeles, "so I'm like, 'Fuck England'."
Tricky is no fan of the contemporary music scene. "Most of the industry has become really contrived," He says. "Like rock music has become so contrived.. Like not so long ago we had Kurt Cobain. And, like, who've we got now? It's incredible how it could fall at such acceleration. Kurt Cobain wasn't that long ago, and you can still play 'Teen Spirit' now and it's better than anything on the charts. You can release that album tomorrow and it sounds better than anything. And, I think, 'cause we're in an icon age, that you've got people like Justin Timberlake, right? People like Kurt Cobain probably listened to his peers and said, 'I want to write a song as good as that.' People like Justin Timberlake want to be famous, they want to be an icon and think your fame is more important than your art. Just being famous now, you can be an artist.
"You got, who's that girl, Electra Karma, Carmen Electra, it's like, who is she, what does she do? What does that girl do? And that basketball player with the tattoos "
"What does he do?" Tricky asks, exasperated. "Who is he? Get a fucking life, man. Go out and get a life or do something positive. Take that money and turn it into some positive shit. It's like that boy will go to the opening of a crisp packet. He'll go to the opening of a potato chip, to be photographed. And, it's like, this girl what does she do? She fucks famous people. Things have just got too complicated."
As you might imagine, there's no love lost between Tricky and the current and former members of Massive Attack. "That's another crew, they hate me, those boys," Tricky says, matter-of-factly. "When I left Massive Attack they were basically blowing up. You know, the first album, everyone was saying, 'The Pink Floyd of urban music' and all this stuff. I left them when they were at their most successful. And then I think the press did to them what they're doing to me, but in a different way. The press was like, 'Now Tricky's left the edge is gone.' So between that, and me leaving at the time, they seen it as disrespectful. So they just ain't got no love for me.
"In Paris," he continues, "I was doing a radio show and they'd done it about four weeks before and they were slagging me off on the show but thinking I didn't know. I'm a person, I don't give a fuck about that, d'youknowwhatImean? I can see them and say hello and know, 'You guys are cunts because I know you're trying to stab me in my back.' I don't worry about it."
It's been many years since Tricky and Massive Attack last worked together, but it appears that their rich collective history, informing both musical triumphs and personal beefs, will continue to link them. "It falls back a long time ago," Tricky says. "See, they're very jealous of me. [Massive Attack's] 3D has always been jealous of me. He always used to say things like I was a 'kid,' 'cause he's older than me. He used to say things like, 'How come you can go to clubs on your own? Why can you do that?' He's always liked the security blanket, and then when he signed to Virgin he wanted to be famous. 'Cause Massive Attack, Wild Bunch, was nothing. 3D was such a small part of that and it was the other characters that made up that vibe. That's what made me want to be in the band Miles (DJ Milo) and Claude and people like that.
"And he [3D] took over and he sold out to be a little English pop star. So he looks at me and he can see I haven't sold out and I think he hates that. He hates it because my soul's still intact. I can walk around a festival and keep my head high and know I'm doing what I want to do and he kind of sold out for his success. He gets very insecure around me, 3D. And Daddy G, the tall guy, he gets really insecure too."
What's surprising is that as negative as some of his comments may sound, Tricky never once raises his voice or expresses much, if any, anger as he talks. His tales are often delivered with laughs and amusement. He obviously enjoys being the bad boy, the provocateur.
As for new music, Tricky doesn't listen to much. "I think it's like a cancer," he says. "If you have to hear it in the car, that's one thing, but if you have to hear it around your house, I don't want to be poisoned by it. I listen to old music. Like Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. And Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush... the stuff I grew up on. The Specials."
After giving it a bit more thought he does mention Modest Mouse as an example of something current. "He's like a 2000 Pixies, I think."
The new music he's most excited about is dwo qlbums' worth of material he's currently completing work on. I got one called Nearly Goddess, which is like 14 different females all on these tracks I've built. And I've done an album it's the album I would have done when I left that Massive Attack, if I wouldn't have met Martina. It's very street, very laddy, you know, making fun of Eminem and different rappers, saying, 'Look, basically, you're rubbish.' It's called Rodigan & Tricka. It's Jamaican-English. American rock. It's a mixture of everything."
Don't bet against him. And, if you do, keep it to yourself.
(For those interested in hearing what makes Tricky tick, his installment of the "Back to Mine" series is released September 15.) Jesse Zeifman [Monday, Sept. 8, 2003]