Interview: King Krule
Skiving off school, shrugging off early hype, don’t expect Archy Marshall to be the ruler of a new generation
Words Alex Denney
Photography Dave Miami
The image is poetic: a slender figure in a hooded top and baseball cap, no more than a child really, stares out over a twilit cityscape from a hill flanked by scores of tower blocks. His eyes seem to burn with a mixture of apathy and longing. What’s he thinking about?
“These walls grow too large / I start to lose the sense of life / The room becomes a warning as I see they’re washing away my pride”
In the wake of last year’s riots, many of us worried about the failures which had led up to this point. Remember that woman on the news unable to contain her anger at the “feral youths… feral rats” who’d smashed up her posh babywear shop? It was as if we’d strapped our kids to a sinking ship and then rounded on them for having the audacity to try and swim.
In the video to ‘The Noose Of Jah City’, Archy Marshall could be one such feral rat. When the track was released last November, its ghostly, circling guitar figure and sense of barely suppressed resentment made some people wonder if the teenage songwriter was a spokesperson for a generation’s ills.
That proved too much for Archy (“who would want to be called that?”) and his mum, who promptly withdrew her son from the public eye while he finished his studies at the BRIT School in London (a plan which didn’t quite come to fruition: Archy dropped out halfway through his final year).
In any case, the idea of a spokesman for a generation — least of all one too young to get served in a pub — seemed pretty old hat. Instead, Archy’s worldview spoke to the disappointment of the everyday; to that knot in your stomach that comes with feeling “suffocated in concrete”, but continues to hope for something, anything else.
It was a voice that rose out of a pit of boredom: not the glue-sniffing, Ramones variety, but the more elegant formulation of Howard Devoto (“I’m living in this movie / But it doesn’t move me”) or the novelist Alberto Moravia, who wrote of reality as a too-small blanket that won’t keep you warm no matter how you much you adjust it.
But if the spokesman hat didn’t seem to fit him all that well — leave that stuff to Plan B, perhaps — then Archy was at least well-placed to observe the fault lines in a society that’s become more class-conscious than at any time in recent memory.
Born and raised in Dulwich, South London, Archy is from creative stock; his dad is an art director for the BBC, his mum a screen printer who runs workshops for kids in nearby estates. He talks disdainfully of the area’s recent development (“It’s got so much money being put into it, but they’re just building modern flats for the middle classes to come down and buy”), and he’s adamant his family is not part of the gentrification process:
“I’ve got a very stable, middle-class dad. But I live with my mum who is self-employed; she’d been employed by the council and various other companies and jobs would be very few and far between. So I do feel that I got to experience both a working-class and a middle-class lifestyle when I was younger.”
In person, Archy’s a tough one to fathom: soft-spoken but uncommonly assured for such a young interviewee, he talks with a slightly shifty, south London twang and sucks greedily on his fags like they were prison-rationed. His get-up — a vintage shirt with silver chain worn under the collar and a baseball cap — is weirder still.
On this point, new single ‘Rock Bottom’, released on Rinse in late September, might offer a clue. The track was written when Archy was 13 — amazing enough in itself, given the intricacy of its choppy, jazz-inflected style — after he was expelled from school and forced by the council to attend courses for problem kids in the area.
Says Archy: “I had this experience of going around centres in Peckham and in the Southeast, just being the skinny white ginger boy thrown into a fucking lion’s den, getting bullied every day and shit like that. It was just to get me back into the idea of being in a routine, getting out of bed and going to school…
“It was pretty rough, because it wasn’t the sort of environment for the kind of person I was, because I’m not aggressive physically, I’ve never been interested in that side of life. But I was thrown into it, I got robbed quite a lot and I’d be getting dragged to school by my dad, because he was angry.”
As with his music, which draws on myriad styles — dub, punk, jazz, early rock’n’roll and doo wop — to create something that’s both unique and utterly out-of-step with his peers, Archy’s an autodidact whose habitual bunking off class brings to mind the late Captain Beefheart’s oft-wheeled out gag: “If you wanna be a different fish, you got to drop out of the school.”
“I guess I’ve always, since a very young age, been very against any sort of schooling,” he says. “I think it was just a combination of where my attitude lay in terms of wanting to get an education, but feeling like I didn’t get anything out of it. I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t like and who weren’t gonna help me by being there. So I always felt against it in that sense, and I always wanted to get away from it and, if anything, damage it — damage the people who kept me there… teachers, maybe. And it basically got to a point where I had to leave.”
Though the experience left its mark on the young songwriter, he says it did teach him to stick up for himself — both physically and verbally — as well as bringing some other, unexpected benefits: “Half of the people that would have robbed me, I’ve met,” he jokes, “so I can get around without being hassled now.”
It was around this time Archy started writing ambient electronic tunes to ease the strain of his predicament. Enrolling at BRIT School for his GCSEs, he started releasing music under the Zoo Kid moniker (‘Out Getting Ribs’ was the track that first alerted many to his talent). As for the track ‘Rock Bottom’, it’s remarkable: “Another lost soul never accomplished a goal / or made a light out of their lives / they’re the ones who pulled out their knives,” he sings of his tormentors in his trademark wounded dog of a croon, displaying an empathy and lightness of touch most lyricists twice his age couldn’t hope to get near.
That judiciousness of approach was perhaps less in evidence when Archy offered qualified support for the London riots in an interview with Pitchfork, a position he’s in no mood to climb down from today.
“I did support the aggression involved,” he says. “I think something like that needs to happen, because there’s a lot of corruption from around the areas that were affected really badly. There’s so much corruption around, and I’ve seen quite a lot of it.”
What you mean, ‘corruption’?
“I mean general criminality from the police. In terms of drugs, but that’s just where I’m from, what I’ve seen. So there needs to be something happening about that. But the outcome of it, and the actions that were involved in it, they were just fucking ridiculous. They were perpetuating consumerism — it wasn’t changing anything and that’s what I was sad about, because it proved to me that the youth of today don’t actually have any knowledge to go out and change things.”
Of course, it’s often forgotten that in the four-day spree of “shopping with violence”, as one observer famously put it, that spread round the country in summer last year, the trigger for the rioting was the police shooting of an alleged drug dealer in Tottenham. Not that Archy is under any illusions as to why the vast majority of people got involved. “If I’m honest, it was like a perfect excuse for someone that I know to go out and get whatever the fuck they want for one day,” he says of one friend that did take to the streets.
Musically, Archy cut his teeth on his brother’s punk and no wave records, his uncle’s ska and his mum’s rap and Afrofunk collection (a picture of Fela Kuti sat on the wall of the family dining room, though that has since been replaced by an image of Katie Price (“you’d have to ask her about that one”). His mum once dated the drummer from first-wave UK punks The Ruts, and early musical endeavours included making hip hop instrumentals by looping old jazz records he found lying about the house.
He talks witheringly about how BRIT School started attracting “a very braindead kind of person” after recent successes saw its profile rocket, and perhaps unsurprisingly, sounds jaded by a lot of music he hears coming from today’s crop of musicians.
“I just think it’s boring — no one’s unlocking anything,” he says. “I think Connan Mockasin and Dirty Beaches, them lot are fucking cool but at the moment I’m not really into anything that’s coming out. I don’t understand it, man, I don’t — it’s become more spoon-fed now, you know what I mean? People are just being given what they listen to, and I kind of wanna change that. There’s no substance, no aggression, no pain. No one’s talking about really being in pain.”
While Archy’s output to date may be slim (he hopes to have an album out early next year), his talent is undeniable. And ultimately, we should all be excited by the arrival of an artist willing to sup deep from the cup of life down to its bitterest dregs.
Listen to a broadcast Archy made for Rinse showcasing some of his influences on the Soundcloud player below: