Fish'n'chips sort of guy: Tricky comes home
Words Garry Mulholland
Photography Mickey Gibbons
They used to call him Tricky Kid. They still could. The 40-year-old Tricky still looks ridiculous fit and ridiculously young in his black, skinny-fit t-shirt and khaki combats. His hair is a mass of dreadlocks, piled on top of his head. He is enthusiastic and extremely talkative, as if he’s been bottling up conversation since 2003, and is just desperate to communicate.
We are at the west London offices of Tricky’s new record label, Domino, also home to Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and The Kills. He’s kicking off the promotion for his first album since 2003, Knowle West Boy, and he’s already done one interview with me on the phone from his current home in Los Angeles.
Knowle West Boy is his best album since 1998′s Angels With Dirty Faces, and his most accessible since his much-loved 1995 debut, Maxinquaye. It’s his most varied and frivolous record, with a range of different (and previously unknown) co-vocalists, a cover of Kylie’s ‘Slow’, and self-confessed tributes to favourites like Tom Waits (‘Puppy Toy’) and his beloved Specials (‘Council Estate’).
Knowle West is the area of Bristol where he grew up as plain old Adrian Thaws, and the album is a deliberate attempt to re-connect with his roots as well as his English audience after living in America since 2001. The likes of ‘Council Estate’ and ‘School Gates’ are acutely autobiographical, and contrast neatly with the likes of ‘Cross To Bear’, which is inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. It’s the first Tricky album which could legitimately be described as fun.
Both on the phone and in person, he answers every question revealingly, without pausing to think about how he might be perceived. The only time that he betrays interview technique is when I compare him to fellow nineties Bristol scene graduates Massive Attack and Portishead: he very quickly and cleverly distances himself completely from what they do.
Some of his quotes, in the cold light of print, sound like hip hop braggadocio – about girls, money, his work. But they don’t come off that way in person. His description of his working process is the most unpretentious and self-deprecating of any musician I’ve spoken to, and his staccato West Country accent takes much of the edge off of his more declamatory statements.
He says a lot of funny things, but never laughs at his own jokes. His energy and honesty are disarming – the polar opposite of the moody, paranoid hardcase that the media presented him as in the late nineties. He immediately makes you feel like his mate, and that you’re having a chat in the pub, although, very occasionally, his attention wanders, as if there’s something important he should be doing. “I’m a very fish’n'chips sort of guy,” he insists. “It’s easy once you meet me to see there’s no difference between us.” And this is sort of true, except for the unconscious eccentricity that often separates geniuses from the rest of us. For example, on the one hand, he has total recall of events from 20 or more years ago. On the other, he’s so flaky with the present that two of the Knowle West Boy songs – ‘Veronica’s Song’ and ‘Joseph’ – are named after the vocalists, because he’s lost their details and doesn’t know how else to track them down. He couldn’t do the same with the female vocalist on ‘Bacative’ – she’s the sister of a friend of a friend who was passing by the studio. Tricky doesn’t even know her given name.
The two lengthy interviews give me a lot of material about the new album. You sense that first single ‘Council Estate’ means more to him than anything he’s done before, partly because of the autobiographical lyrics, but mainly because it pays musical tribute to The Specials, and it’s The Specials that first made him “dream I was in a band”, as he puts it. He also talks at length about the film that he’s directed to promote Brown Punk, the label he co-owns with legendary ex-Island owner Chris Blackwell, which he hopes will be in cinemas next year.
But space is limited, and I decided to sacrifice a lot of the stuff about his latest projects in favour of the hilarious, poignant, occasionally angry and occasionally scary anecdotes about his past. It’s these stories that give you a real insight into why Adrian Thaws grew up to be such a maverick, and why so many journalists have found him difficult. It’s all very well wetting yourself over corporate American gangstas, but when the real, British, working class thing is sitting in front of you, middle class boys are inclined to be intimidated and more than a little disturbed by the less glamorous realities of a genuinely tough upbringing.
Pigeon: The early signs suggest that Knowle West Boy is attracting more attention than any album you’ve made for a long time. Are you relieved?
Tricky: I’m satisfied with it, so I don’t really give a fuck what anybody else thinks – fans or music people. I think it’s a good album. After five years… it ain’t a comeback album. I’ve been doing stuff. But it is five years and I really wanted to make my presence in England known again. The fact that people are interested in me is a bit of a relief, in a way. But I’m still quite naïve about the business. If I only had two interviews to do, I’d still believe there was interest. My ego, you know?
Pigeon: You moved to New York in 2001. When we spoke before you admitted that England had made you jaded.
Tricky: Yeah, jaded. My life had become a cycle of album and tour. And I was tired of people looking at me. Tired of people asking me stuff… a guy in the street just now asked me if I was in The Fifth Element. Tired of that shit. I missed the times like when I was a kid growing up in Knowle West, and I was just one of the crowd. There’s a lot less pressure on you. It starts making you paranoid, walking into a club and everyone’s staring at you. I come from a place where you didn’t wanna be seen. We used to steal cars and break into stores and put on leather jackets and do runners. Coming from that to everybody recognising you… I get real paranoid if someone looks at me – I think they want a problem with me. So you’re always on guard. Always on guard.
Pigeon: So you went to stay with family in The Bronx…
Tricky: I was living in New Jersey, I had a cousin in The Bronx. That’s where I chose to hang out. We hung out with this reggae soundsystem. One of the guys is Rod – or Rodigan – who is the reggae singer on ‘Bacative’ and ‘Baligaga’ on this album. They had a house with a wall knocked down in-between and a studio, and people used to just come in and chat. We used to hang out outside this Jamaican restaurant. And I had a few friends in Manhattan and it was just clubs, bars, parties. I had three or four girlfriends – a girl in New Jersey, two girlfriends in Manhattan, and a girlfriend in Connecticut. And it was just like… chaos. But the main thing was that, apart from the core people I was with, no one knew who I was. I was just a kid hanging out on the street. So no one would really give a fuck. There were 30 of us going to a club so no one would notice me. Just smoking weed and drinking.
Pigeon: You weren’t making music at this point?
Tricky: No. Then I went to LA to make music for [blockbuster Hollywood producer] Jerry Bruckheimer. He’s such a good guy. He set me up in a studio in Brentwood. I’d go there every day, make five real dark tracks, and five more commercial tracks. And every time, guaranteed, he’d choose the darkest. I thought he’d be quite different. And I got kinda stuck in LA because of 9/11. Then I made Vulnerable in 2003. And then I didn’t do anything – not recording, not writing lyrics – for about three years.
Pigeon: What made you start again? Was it difficult getting back into it?
Tricky: I got to a point where… I’ve got a kid who’s in school. It costs a lot of money. All of a sudden it’s like, you’d better start working! I’d been living off my money and just partying.
Pigeon: Have you done well enough out of music to just take three years off, then?
Tricky: Yeah. But I was doing crazy things. I used to have a car service what cost me 200 grand a year in New York. From New Jersey, it would take me to a club, I’d come out of the club at six o’clock in the morning, the car service would take me home, I’d sleep for a few hours, shower, get back in the car service and do it all over again. I had a house in New Jersey, two apartments in Manhattan, and a hotel room for partying. Buying an ounce of weed a week. So I’ve done very well out of music. I bought one of my cousins a £16,000 bracelet, sent my kid to a good school, bought Martina [Topley Bird, his former musical partner and mother of Tricky's daughter] a house which she rents out. But it still reached a point where I’d better start working.
Pigeon: So was it hard motivating yourself to work again?
Tricky: Nah! Because I still love being in the studio. When I sit around, I tend to think too much. When you’re in the studio, you don’t think about your problems, so it wasn’t hard at all. And my fanbase deserved another album from me. I owed people. But it took me a long time to find the right label. I had some really terrible meetings. Executives saying things like, ‘This is a hit song if you have a middle-eight!’ You just pick up the CD and walk out. A year went by. Epitaph [the US indie founded by Bad Religion on which Tricky made two albums and that also signed Tom Waits] was a great label but they never had no presence in England. This is my home country. I’m moving back at the end of this year. So Domino seemed perfect.
Pigeon: How do you go about composing? Do you play many instruments?
Tricky: Keyboards. But I don’t really play. I’m still very naïve. I don’t really know about music – I’m a one-finger guy. I remember I was in Japan once, and all the press wanted to come into the studio, and I’d never done that. They were watching me make this track and were all waiting for something magical to happen. And at the end, one of the Japanese guys comes up and goes… ‘Ah! Golden finger!’
Pigeon: Listening to ‘Council Estate’ on the new album made me wonder what it was like for an unusual black boy growing up in what you’ve described as ‘a white ghetto’. I mean, you like wearing women’s clothes, for example. Did you get a lot of hassle from the kids around you?
Tricky: No, ’cos I’ve always been weird. So my friends didn’t expect any different. The first time I wore a dress was at 15, out to a club in Bristol. I wasn’t the toughest guy among my boys, but I was the leader. I was always with loads of people, but by myself. I had no inhibitions. I think that was a lot to do with my grandmother as well. She never forced me to go to school. She let me go to clubs at 14. I come from a criminal background, so the first thing she’d say to me is, ‘Take anything out of your pockets that can ID you’. ’Cos I’d be out robbin’, and most people get caught by leaving a school report behind, or something. She taught me criminology! I remember Martina saying to me once, ‘You’ve got no discipline.’ In my family, getting caught was bad, but going to jail wasn’t bad. So you think that was normal. Putting on a dress… I didn’t give a fuck what people thought. That comes directly from my family.
Pigeon: Where did the name Tricky come from?
Tricky: Krust! Do you know Krust? [Yes: Bristol drum'n'bass veteran and member of Roni Size/Reprazent.] There’s a place called Broadwalk Shopping Centre, and when I was about 15 I was supposed to meet him there. But my uncle from Manchester had come down and I got in the car and drove straight back to Manchester with him. About six weeks later, I come back. My uncle dropped me off at Broadwalk… and Krust was there. It was like he’d been waiting there for six weeks! So he says, ‘You tricky bastard!’ And that was it… I got the name.
Pigeon: The whole Wild Bunch-derived Bristol scene of the late eighties/early nineties – Massive Attack, Nellee Hooper, Smith & Mighty, Roni Size and Krust, Portishead – did it feel like you were in the centre of a creative hotbed?
Tricky: Nah. Because not everybody… Smith & Mighty and Wild Bunch were the biggest things. I remember Rob from Smith & Mighty wanted me to do a track with him, but 3D [Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja] was against it. Everybody was very separatist. So it didn’t seem like there was a movement. It wasn’t competitive, but it was cliquey. Also, they didn’t want Knowle Westers in certain clubs. I saw a different kind of racism. I saw my friends being beaten up by the police and they’re white guys, and I’m a black guy but I haven’t been touched. It was a class thing. So I always felt like a bit of an outcast. Knowle Westers were stigmatised. We weren’t wanted anywhere. When I joined Wild Bunch, the likes of Daddy G [Massive Attack's Grant Marshall] and 3D couldn’t go to Knowle West… they would’ve got robbed.
Pigeon: You spent time in jail, is that right?
Tricky: Hmmm. For Forgery Of The Crown. I had all these forged £50 notes and had all these kids going round to stores. I did one myself, stupidly. My uncle got murdered, and at the funeral I went into the store. Plain clothes turned up, punched me in the stomach and cuffed me up. One of my friends grassed me up and I had to go to Horfield Prison. But only for a few months. I was in youth custody, so I must have been 18 or 19. When I first got back to Knowle West it was like a coming of age… I felt good. But I didn’t have a good time in there. It wasn’t the violence or whatever. It was little things. Like the food. And talking to someone and asking, ‘How long have you got?’ and them saying, ‘Three years,’ like it was three minutes. What was scaring me was that you could get used to this. The food, the boredom. It wasn’t for me. I never went back.
Pigeon: When you were getting bad press in the late nineties, do you think it was because the largely middle-class journos just didn’t understand someone from your background?
Tricky: In a way, yeah. A mixed-race guy who people saw as black, talking about Kate Bush and crossing-over. People didn’t know how to handle that. And people were putting everything down to race. There were misunderstandings and a bit of fear. People still have a perception of me as a moody, dark dude. The press made me look hardcore. It takes a while for people to warm to me because of that. But the press have done great things by me too, so I can’t complain.
Pigeon: There were incidents at the time that made you look bad. Weren’t they true?
Tricky: I was somewhat to blame. I don’t regret anything, and I was responsible. But I’m also bright enough to know that they were responsible, too. Like the guy from The Face magazine [Craig McLean, who was assaulted by an associate of Tricky's in the late nineties]. This was outrageous! He came to Atlanta to interview me… I don’t even remember his name anymore, but the guy did not like me. He started to fuck with me. He asked me things like, ‘Why do you hold Martina back?’ And I told him the truth, which was that when we first signed to Island, me and Martina were going to be called Maxine Quaye. Island were very against that ’cos I was already known as Tricky. That’s why it was, my name. So the press wanted to talk to me. I tried to fob press off on Martina, but they wanted to interview me. So there’s your answer. Then he started on, ‘She’s a one-parent family. You’ve basically abandoned her.’ I still pay for my kid to go to school. Me and Martina talk every day. I just didn’t like the way he treated me. So… I see him at Glastonbury. He starts arguing with me. He’s drunk as fuck. He called me an animal. Now, I had people with me – people from my family who don’t know about this music industry. They didn’t understand it. So one of my family knocked him out! Then in the press it’s like, ‘Tricky knocks out editor of The Face!’ But if you’re fucking with the bull, you’re gonna get the horns. I was standing behind my uncle waving at the kid, going, ‘Don’t!’ So I couldn’t do anything right after that.
Pigeon: But, ironically, Maxinquaye was labelled a ‘dinner party’ or ‘coffee table’ album…
Tricky: It was weird to me. Not so much the coffee table thing, but… it was seen as intellectual. I’m far from being intellectual! I thought I’d be a ghetto artist.
Pigeon: But the music you made and make sounds nothing like R&B or ‘urban’ music…
Tricky: Yeah. But I saw what I made as totally natural. I listened to The Specials, I listened to Public Enemy. Really, I had a different upbringing with music. The first time I heard Bob Marley was from a white kid in Knowle West. When I was growing up I would stay with my cousin and Miles Johnson from The Wild Bunch. And while they were getting ready to go clubbing – and I was too young to go out – one minute they’d be playing David Bowie, then it was Funkadelic, then it was Marc Bolan. My music background was very diverse, and I took it for granted that everybody’s like that. If I like Kate Bush, everybody does. Realistically, people from where I come from don’t know who the fuck Kate Bush is. It’s all an accident.
Pigeon: When you started working with Massive Attack, were you aware that this was The Big Break?
Tricky: No. It went from fun to… not so much fun. When we got a record deal and my friend Miles left the band, the music changed. Suddenly people were worrying about what you said on the mic. I wanted to do some Jamaican cursing on one track and 3D wouldn’t let me. To be honest with you, when Massive Attack signed a deal I was getting £200 a week and a pager, which meant I didn’t have to go out and thief. It was just work. After a while, I didn’t turn up in the studio. They did a video once called ‘Where’s Tricky?’ I was hanging out with my old friends and still getting into a little bit of trouble, even though I’d done the prison. But to me, Massive Attack were a hustle. I wasn’t interested in being famous or being a star. It was just… survival. I didn’t like the manager Cameron McVey. I didn’t understand what he was about and I don’t think he liked me from the first time he seen me. Coming from my background, I was still suspicious of everybody. It was Miles Johnson and Claude Williams who got me in the band and they left… Mushroom’s the only person I hang out with now and again. They weren’t really my mates. When I was in a court case for two years in Oxford, not one of them came. Not one of them visited me in jail.
Pigeon: It does seem like everyone from Massive Attack’s early days has fallen out with them one-by-one…
Tricky: It’s 3D. The only guy left in Massive Attack now is 3D. He’s always wanted to be a pop star and The Wild Bunch weren’t like that. Shara Nelson wrote some of them songs and it would have been good for them to keep doing singles with her. But 3D got threatened, thinking she’s gonna take over the band. She got fucked over. Mushroom got pushed out. 3D’s very ambitious. He’s a control freak. He wants to be a superstar. I ain’t got no beef with 3D ’cos I left of my own accord. But I could totally see what was happenin’. As soon as Shara blew up on that single, he was threatened by that. She was still on wages. That’s why he’s the only one left. Why would he get rid of Mushroom and Daddy G? [Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall has rejoined Del Naja for the new Massive Attack album, to be fair.] Originally, 3D was brought in by Miles. He was a kid that used to hang out with them and try to get in the band. He loved The Wild Bunch and used to do graffiti and stuff. All of a sudden he was in the band. And then his ambition took over the band. So really he’s left on his own. But I don’t know if that can be a great life. He had all his mates around him making music, and now he’s by himself. Pretty depressing, in a way.
Pigeon: ‘School Gates’, on the new album, is about you making a girl pregnant in your teens. Is it about Martina?
Tricky: “No, it’s about a girl called Malika. She’s half-Jamaican and half-Spanish. Basically, I met her when I was a kid, about 15. And at that age I wasn’t really into girls – I was into money. I was always looking for somewhere to rob. But my mate liked her mate and asked me to get off with her while he got off with this other girl. Next thing, I’m with this girl. We were going out with each other for years and I used to wait for her outside her school. She got pregnant when we were 16 or 17. She said to me that the kid was mine, but told everybody else that the kid wasn’t. I’ve only seen the kid once, when she was three, and she looked exactly like my daughter, funnily enough. Some people still think she’s my kid. And I don’t really know how to handle that. Do I just turn up? Does the kid know I’m supposed to be her father? I’d like to find out, but it’s kinda hard. This is something I’ve really got to sort out. I don’t wanna just turn up in this 23-year-old girl’s life and say, ‘I’m supposed to be your dad.’ I need to go and see her mum, when I have some time to go to Bristol.
Pigeon: Blimey, I don’t know what to say. Let’s go onto another song from the new album, ‘Puppy Toy’. It’s a duet with Leeds chanteuse Alex Laws, and if you just take the lyrics you sing, it’s a typical ‘all women are gold diggers’ hip hop theme. Except that you give the woman in question a very funny and aggressive right-of-reply all the way through the song.
Tricky: Yeah. I was brought up by women. A lot of the men in my family were in jail. I was disciplined by a woman. I grew up watching the women in my family having street fights. I’ve seen my grandmother fight men outside grocery stores. My Uncle Martin did 30 years in jail, on and off. My Auntie Maureen, she got remarried, and this guy was not from the world we were from. And my uncle kept going round smashing up their house, drunk. So one time, Maureen came out, threw pepper in his eyes, and stabbed him in the stomach. Twice. So women, to me, are just as gangsta as the men. A lot of my lyrics are written from a woman’s point of view, like ‘Broken Homes’. That’s why I need female vocalists. I wish I could sing like Janis Joplin or PJ Harvey. But I can’t. The female singer on ‘Past Mistake’ and ‘School Gates’ is my ex-girlfriend who I’ve just had a horrific break-up with three months ago. And it’s funny – we wrote ‘Past Mistake’ when we were good, but it had started going bad. Her name’s Lubna Mhaer. She’s a French-Moroccan from Nice. One day we were in bed listening to it and I’m like, ‘Wow! This is about us!’ It’s like I knew this was gonna… I hurt the girl, know what I mean? Sometimes I write songs and it’s only later I know what they meant. There were a few songs on Blowback that could’ve been talking about 9/11, but were made before it. But with ‘Past Mistake’… I didn’t really love her properly. I loved her like a sister, not a girlfriend. And I was willing to stay with her because she’s family. But we kept arguing and arguing. Even though I weren’t in love with her, I changed for her. I wouldn’t fuck around with other girls. I was thinking of having kids with her and marrying her. I was happy. But for some reason, she wouldn’t give me a breather. She won’t speak to me now. So ‘Past Mistake”s about me and her.
Pigeon: Who’s the male vocalist on the haunting ‘Joseph’?
Tricky: He’s a busker! He’s a young kid, around 22, just trying to earn money to stay in LA. I met him outside a food shop and he just played me something, right there and then. And Queen Latifah was sat there! It was very weird. I said to him, ‘Call me tonight. Here’s my number.’ And Queen Latifah was like, ‘Wow! You’re different.’ ’Cos apparently you don’t give your number to buskers. She is the coolest lady… I’ve got to know Latifah since then and she’s a beautiful person. Anyway, he came round, I gave him lyrics and a melody to sing, he did it. I’ve called the song ‘Joseph’ ’cos I’m hoping he’ll hear it and get in touch. ’Cos I’ve lost him and I want to work with him again.
Pigeon: Fidget house don Switch co-produced a couple of tracks on your album, including ‘Council Estate’. What’s he like to work with?
Tricky: He’s a good guy. But he’d listen to these tracks with live drums and say, ‘Do you want me to change these to electronic sounds?’ And I’d say, ‘Why would I want that?’ People have a perception of me that I’m the Electronic Kid or something. But I wanted live sounds. He does things like M.I.A., which ain’t really my thing, to be honest. She’s a talented girl but I’ve never been into all this trip hop shit about new music. I don’t know if there is any new music and I ain’t trying to chase anything, or be part of any scene. I’m not a dance artist. So then he started to understand what I was sayin’. He probably didn’t think I was right, but that’s his world – the clubs. And I don’t give a shit if they play my music in clubs. And he was like, ‘But your fanbase…’ and I was like, ‘I don’t care about my fanbase. If I make an album I like, my fanbase’ll like it.’ I was once talking to this hip hop guy, suggesting things he could try. He said, ‘Nah, my fanbase won’t like it.’ I said, ‘Well, get another fanbase then!’ You can’t be dictated to by your audience.
Pigeon: So what do you listen to?
Tricky: Hip hop. Earlier today I was listening to Capone-n-Noreaga. Public Enemy and Rakim. I still listen to The Specials and Kate Bush a lot. Some of the Britney Spears new album. Fucking wicked! A band called Paleface – a very underground band from Nevada. It’s like white NWA. Not a lot of new stuff, to be honest with you. There’s a girl called Hope who’s done a wicked track – you can only find it on YouTube – it’s like a traditional love song… beautiful. I like some Arctics stuff. I still listen to The Stone Temple Pilots. And Nirvana.
Pigeon: You, Portishead and Massive Attack have all made ‘comebacks’ this year. Suddenly, nineties Bristol music is on everyone’s radar again. The Portishead comeback was an unexpected commercial and critical triumph. But still people refer to what you all do as ‘trip hop’, a term all of you hated…
Tricky: Well, that doesn’t bother me because I’m so different to Massive Attack or Portishead. And my fans seem to realise it. I haven’t heard the Portishead – it’s not a band I listen to. I don’t listen to Massive Attack. So I’m in a totally different world.
Pigeon: Is it true that Portishead’s Geoff Barrow engineered your very first single?
Tricky: No, he was the tea-maker!
Pigeon: Do you wake up sometimes and wonder how a teenage criminal from Knowle West managed to become a globe-trotting pop star?
Tricky: Yeah! Especially as my grandmother’s 85 now and she’s never even been on a plane! I’ve always felt like I shouldn’t be here but somehow I got my foot in the door. It’s a bit of a piss-take, in a way. Like it’s all some surreal movie. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it. That’s why I needed to take time out after Vulnerable. I’d started to take it for granted. I needed to be taken down a peg or two.