It’s like 1995 all over again. Portishead are back, Massive Attack have just completed Meltdown and have a new album imminent. And here’s Tricky, going back to his roots on a Bristol estate for inspiration.
What’s more, he’s prepared to talk fully and frankly about the experience – and why he really isn’t part of that scene.
His new album Knowle West Boy has landed him on the Domino label, whose offices we sit in. And it’s not long before he uses the ‘F’ word – but not the one you might expect.
“It was fun doing the new record”, he says enthusiastically, “it was like taking every song as a different album. I was in bed one day listening to Kate Bush, Army Of Dreamers I think it was, and I’m like ‘I wish I could have written that song’. And I just realised that fuck! I’m a musician and I can be Kate Bush today and The Specials tomorrow, and I’ve never done anything like that before, I’ve always just been me. And so it’s like takes on The Specials, Cross To Bear is my Kate Bush song, and it’s being able to be who you want in a different way.”
Despite the elements of other people’s music, he agrees Knowle West Boy is his most personal album yet. “Yeah, some of the things I talk about on there are about my kid and shit, and stuff like seeing where I grew up – but it was easy to do it. It’s almost like art, all this stuff’s been in my head for years, so why don’t I write about it! It was easy and happened really quick.”
Humour, not a personal trait readily associated with Tricky, is there in abundance. The example I give is a cheeky “piss off”, given at the end of School Gates. “Yeah, it’s a very English sense of humour,” he says. “The girl doing it, she’s got a Leeds accent, and it was just funny how to hear her sing and hear her talk, and I’m like ‘answer me back’. You can picture it, a Coronation Street vibe. It’s like the vibe where I grew up, girls like that. My first girlfriend was like that.
“It’s funny, I was in Bristol the other day saying to my cousin’s boyfriend, ‘I need to meet someone like a girl who works in a chip shop!’ I’ve done the models, I’ve done the actresses, know what I mean, but I have a certain fondness for those sort of girls, it’s part of my culture so I’m attracted to it. Sometimes I wish I was with a girl like I grew up with, who makes me laugh and will say something like ‘you talkin’ to me?’ And I miss that sometimes. When I feel stress because I’m busy and working, and you think ‘wouldn’t it be cool to pick up the girl from like a chip shop and come back up to London?’ – she’s just finished work for the weekend, she’s normal, she don’t give a fuck about anything, and you can just go to her town and chill out and stuff.”
Suddenly focussed, he continues. “It’s like getting a bit of strength back. Being with an actress or a model, you might be with a beautiful woman but they don’t really support you, and as I get older I don’t need to be supported by someone who’s just good looking physically I need someone who understands me and will say something that makes me laugh. The girls I grew up with, they just say things that crack me up, and I’ve just got older man, I’ve just turned forty, and I need that more. You need a bit of support, you know? If your life is flying around the world doing fashion shows and print work, how would you support me, you know, not just by being there but by saying something that makes me laugh on the phone?”
Spending a year in Los Angeles while Knowle West Boy was finished brought this home further. “I ended up going out with a French girl funnily enough, which is the closest I could get as there weren’t any English girls over there. But I liked staying in and watching a DVD. You try and get a girl in LA to stay in and watch a DVD in LA – you have to be going out with her for a long time man! They wanna go to clubs and restaurants. Some chicks will only call you on a Friday night when they don’t know where they’re going! You go and meet a girl, you hang out with her, and then you don’t hear anything from her for a month. Then all of a sudden she’ll call you and go like ‘hey babes, what you up to, what you doing tonight?’ and I’m like ‘I don’t even call you fuckers back.’”
He expands on his theme. “You meet a girl in a club and hang out for a couple of days and then say ‘let’s go watch a video at my place’ they don’t wanna do simple things, they don’t wanna carry shopping with you. I met a couple of American girls and it wasn’t for a long time til we were doing the couple things, a long time.”
The environment wasn’t devoid of stimulus for the album, however. “Oh no, I’m lucky like that – I can be in Alaska and still record. I don’t need to be stimulated by people because it’s like meditation so I don’t need any of that stuff. I’m really lucky like that.
The priority in Los Angeles was to finish the album, and Tricky took a radical approach. “I stripped it apart, and I kept the songs but got rid of everything else. Because I was thinking about the lyrics so much the music was generic, and it wasn’t my music, but I was happy with the songs. I went and ripped off loads of songs – I didn’t realise I was doing it cos it was quite easy. And I was like, Oh I’m gonna do the Specials today but then I’m like ‘fuck, this sounds like the Specials!’ Normally with my music you don’t know where it comes from. With this you could even name the song. So I took it back and stripped it, but the good thing is I got the songs out of it. Unless I ripped off The Specials I don’t think I’d have been able to do Council Estate. So I got the vocal and the melody and in a way it was a good thing but I still thought it was a bit generic.”
While in America, he also expanded his filmography – he memorably appeared in Luc Besson’s sci-fi The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Milla Jovovich. This time he worked with director Jerry Bruckheimer, an episode he recalls with enthusiasm. “I did a movie called Bad Company, a comedy, some CSI, a New York crime thing and some other projects he was doing. He’s a very open minded dude, this guy. I met with him and I said ‘D’you know what, I really wanna do this but I don’t know how to make music to pictures’ and he was like ‘just go off and make ten pieces of song, you don’t have to watch anything, and then come and play them to me’.
“So I’d go off and write 10, 20 pieces of song that were about a minute long, and go into his office and he’d say ‘I’ll take this one, this one, I don’t want that one’. He obviously had the images in his head. And what’s funny is I put ten dark things and ten lighter things, thinking he’d choose the lighter things as it’s Jerry Bruckheimer, but every time he chose the darkest things. He surprised me like that.”
As part of his unenforced sabbatical, Tricky also lived in the Bronx. “Funny things happened there. I’m totally naive sometimes and one day I was there with my friend, and we’re outside a restaurant, and my friend says ‘Go in to the restaurant and stare at this guy, just look at him’. And I’ve got this vest on, jewellery, the mohawk, all tatted out and I go in there and look at the guy and the guy looks up and says ‘what with the tattoos and all that you look serious. And I realised that people just leave me alone so that means I can stand up and survive without being Tricky. I had friends in the Bronx who didn’t know who I was, and they were my friends. So that meant I could survive by just being me, not a musician or anything – people liked me for who I was. Some people thought I was a bad guy because of how I look. And it made me realise ‘ah, as long as I can eat without the fame and the music, I can survive’. You’re in it so long, if you start thinking you need this you’re in trouble.
“If I can’t go back to anonymity tomorrow, then I’m in trouble. One day I’m gonna go back to anonymity, it’s gonna be someone else’s turn and no-one is gonna be interested whatsover in what you say, taking a picture of you, and that time’s gonna come to every artist sooner or later, it’s like death. It’s coming! What do you do when you lose all that?”
We don’t know. “I realised by being in the Bronx, New York and New Jersey, that I’m comfortable. You can go into a club and still be able to talk to a girl, to have fun, to dance and eat and feel good about yourself. Because that’s scary when you get all this acclaim, people saying nice things to you. What happens when that’s gone? And I realised I didn’t need it, which was very uplifting to me. Very uplifting.”
He agrees this enabled him to approach his music differently. “Sometimes you get to the point where you’re making music for survival. I’ve never tried to be current but people have always seen me as a forward thinking artist. Even people who don’t like my stuff, they look at me as ground breaking. Now you can get caught up with that, and now I’m like “I can just keep my music honest and be me”. So it’s a lot of pressure off! Now it seems like it’s a fun time for me, the next album will be even more fun! And I’ve earnt the right to have fun, I’ve put in the work, I should be able to have fun. This album was done for my fans, because for five years I’ve been getting e-mails to my fan website ‘we miss you’, all this beautiful stuff, and I’m like ‘fuck, I’ve taken all these people for granted, I’ve got to make an album for them’.
So Knowle West Boy is his answer? “I’ve made this for all my fans. And I’ll do that with my next album. Because I’m very punk rock – I do Maxinquaye and people go mad over it, and straight away I do Nearly God to say ‘fuck you’. And you get into that sort of attitude, which is great. My fans love Pre Millenium Angels, that’s one I couldn’t have done without that attitude, but also I feel like I wanna give a bit more now, not critics – I don’t give a fuck – but these are the people who’ve stayed with me. And I’ve got kids who are fifteen who know me who shouldn’t even know who I am. So this is like my people phase, it’s exciting. And I think I’m just gonna get better, and that my next album’s gonna be much better than this one, because I wanna give. It’s a different vibe.”
The enthusiasm shows how making an album of his own compulsion has fired him up. “Yeah, and I can’t wait for people to hear this album, I can’t wait for them to have it! And it’s the first time I’ve ever felt like that.”
His own label, Brown Punk, has been around for a year now, and Tricky is positive on its progress. “It’s gone really good, we’ve got a vibe going! But first of all, me and Chris and Emily Taylor, before we released anything we wanted to create a vibe. So we’ve created a vibe, now this year we start releasing. This is about creating a culture. Not a youth culture, but I’ve always seen Brown Punk as like two tone, a subculture.
So that is starting to happen, and we’ve got people around the world saying ‘I’m your Brown Punker’, and we’ve got people starting to do Brown Punk nights. We’ve got music and videos but we wanted to start a vibe first. There’s a kid in Russia who does a Brown Punk night every month, a guy in California, and we’ve never met them! So now that’s moving it’s time to start releasing. And now it’s time to bring it together. We’ve got The Dirty, and they’ve got to go to Russia in a few months, and the guy who’s doing the night, he’s flying them out there!”
The question has to come at some point, and with Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead returning at the same time, the coincidence can’t be ignored. It doesn’t bother Tricky though. “D’you know what, to be honest with you, I had some legal problems with the album. It should have been out about six months ago, and I wish it wasn’t coming out at the same time. I don’t think it’s a good thing for any of us. I think it’s totally unfortunate.”
I suggest as they’ve all moved on, they perhaps shouldn’t be bracketed together, and he nods vigorously. “Exactly, exactly. None of us have got anything to do with each other. I can see the similarities between Portishead and Massive Attack, because Geoff was a fan of Massive Attack, he was tape hopping – otherwise why would he use a singer with beats on it? It’s because he was around the Massive Attack guys, because he was around us. And I’ve never been part of that. Maxinquaye was all done in Harlesden, everything in my bedroom there. So I’ve never been part of any Bristol scene.”
So there’s a Harlesden scene? “Harlesden’s got it’s own vibe; I was living there for two years, being a stranger there, chilling out, so I should have a Harlesden sound. It is very bad timing, but it is going good. The first interviews I did from Europe, they talked about the Bristol scene, but now when it’s mentioned it’s like ‘you haven’t got anything to do with each other’. People like you realise it’s all to do with timing. I thought it was going to be a problem, all I’m going to hear now is the Bristol scene bullshit. The Massive Attack album isn’t out yet, and the Portishead one is kind of low key, and I’m doing the exact opposite. It’s making it separate entities, you know what I mean?”
Finally we have to finish, but not before Tricky looks forward to a set of dates this autumn. “I’m gonna do loads of live stuff man, because this is my people time. It’s the first album I do the majority live, and I’ve also chosen some of their favourites. Before I’m the sort of guy that would say “I know you like Overcome but I ain’t playing that, fuck you”. Now yesterday I chose all the ones people scream out for – live, and the majority of this album. I’m gonna stay on this tour and promote, do photo shoots, interviews, because I’m having fun. Before I wasn’t interested, now I’m having fun and I’m doing everything!”