Tricky On… Revisiting His Roots and Keeping the Darkness At Bay

Adrian Thaws isn’t much of a drinker. A shot here and a beer there maybe, but the MC/producer better known as Tricky has never been known to numb his senses the way he did during last year’s run of Maxinquaye shows. Meant to immortalize one of trip-hop’s enduring templates, the UK trek marked the long awaited reunion of Tricky and his onetime lover/muse Martina Topley-Bird, but felt like a mistake the second “Overcome” kicked in. Enough that he stepped off stage for a second and started hitting the bottle. Hard. And as Tricky admits in an lengthy interview from his Paris home, “I can’t get messed up onstage because I get weirdly negative and dark. I don’t really respond to the crowd; I get into more of a fuck you vibe.”

Which kinda sounds like the spotty track record of Tricky’s post-millenial output–a oft-frustrating, sometimes brilliant procession of LPs meant to dispel any notion that he’ll ever make a record cut from the same narcotic cloth as Maxinquaye. At least that was the case until last week’s False Idols full-length, a co-release with !K7 that finds Tricky declaring independence with his most consistent record since 1996’s Pre-Millenium Tension. More than just a simple return to form, it’s one of the year’s most eminently listenable albums, from the Chet Baker-sampling “Valentine” to the bleak but beautiful “Nothing’s Changed.”

“I’ve always wanted to do what people don’t expect or what they want,” he admits. “I don’t know what it is with me, but I should have made this album a long time ago–for the listeners.”

In the following exclusive, the divisive, reluctant icon speaks candidly about everything from his recent Massive Attack sessions and the sobering state of fatherhood to the reason why he still feels bad about his ill-fated relationship with Björk…

self-titled: As a longtime fan, I wanted to start by saying thank you for not being full of shit. So many artists claim they just ‘returned to their roots’ with a new record, but you actually did it with your new one.
You’re not a fan; you’re a like-minded person. We’re similar in some ways, know what I mean? People like you deserve an album like this–people who’ve supported me with no radio play. I don’t get the fan thing…We might not have met, but we have something in common–a friendship in a way.

Well if you and I are bonding over this record, I have to say that’s a little worrisome, as it’s a really tense one.
It’s emotions, whether it’s tension or sadness. I think that’s what the music industry is lacking at the moment. I’d rather feel something than nothing. Everything has gone so further the other way. It’s just a business now. What young people are listening to isn’t saying anything. It makes you wonder where the art has gone, to be honest with you.

Do you feel like you have a lot of pent-up feelings to express on this record because you were so concerned with surprising people in recent years?
Sometimes I feel like I get frustrated because I need space to breathe. I’m an experimental artist. I know how to do a formula album, but it’s boring to me. Let me make my mistakes. I’m not the biggest selling artist in the world, but I’m one of the most looked at, whereas with someone like, say, Justin Bieber, no one gives a fuck. It’s a good thing, but people forget I’m still learning.

Well you’re not a classically trained musician by any means. This music just comes out of you right?
Exactly. And I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’m learning as I go, but I also don’t want to learn too much.

This album was recorded rather quickly. Was the writing done quickly as well?
On my last two albums, I did the music and wrote the lyrics to the album, but on this new album, I had lyrics from a long time ago. One of my singers, Francesca [Belmonte], puts everything I write into a book. I might write on a piece of paper, or I might text it to her, and she’ll gather it all.

Does looking through that book scare you at all–just seeing the things that came out of your head in the past?
What shocked me was when she showed me “Is That Your Life.” I wrote it like an urban rapper on some gully, ghetto stuff, but I’m not a gangster, so I can’t do that. And “We Don’t Die” is about a friend who died in Paris. She fell into the Sienes [River] after a party. Just a crazy way to die; she was only like 30 years of age. [Those songs] remind me of my early days, when I used to write put the lyrics down, then look back and be like, ‘Whoa.’

Did you feel like your mother was speaking through you on any of these songs like she has in the past?
Yeah, “Nothing’s Changed.” I find that song really hard to listen to. Francesca loves that song, but I told her I don’t really want to listen to it again because it brings up all of the same shit. It’s almost like I’m bored of it. I’m not sad anymore; it just brings up these memories I thought I’d dealt with. Obviously I haven’t.

It’s interesting you say that because that one seems especially sad to me for some reason. It also references “She Makes Me Wanna Die,” but it’s not like you’re covering yourself. It’s more like you’ve remixed your own song in a contemporary way.
Right. It’s goes back to what I did before and says, ‘Nothing’s changed.’

You recently reissued Maxinquaye, but “Nothing’s Changed” reminded me that people don’t talk about Pre-Millenium Tension as much. Do you feel like it’s overlooked in a way?
Well it’s funny. The press goes on about Maxinquaye but when I’m touring, there’s kids 18 or 19 I’m meeting and the albums I sign the most are Pre-Millenium and Angels With Dirty Faces. They’re bringing me those albums, not so much Maxinquaye. So yeah, Maxinquaye has overshadowed those albums in some ways.

Maybe it’s just the fact that those records are so much darker than Maxinquaye.
I suppose that would make sense. Maxinquaye is easier to focus on than those two albums because it’s easier to get into.

Were you involved with the Maxinquaye reissue at all?
No. They asked me a couple questions but I didn’t take any notice of it, to be honest with you. Especially since I’m not even on Island now; it doesn’t make any difference to me at all. It’s just business. I appreciate what Maxinquaye has done for me, but apart from that, I don’t even think about it. In a way, I don’t even understand why an artist would want to reissue their record. It don’t make no sense; it’s not like [Maxinquaye] is some massive Michael Jackson record or something.

You played those shows with Martina too. Were they tough for you to do?
It was terrible, just horrible–the worst. My old manager convinced me to do it. I should have said no. I always thought Maxinquaye lacked something live. The more I build my catalog, the better my shows can be. Maxinquaye is too linear to do live. I don’t know if I’d want to see an artist doing just one album. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And the crowd was so different than any crowd I’ve had. I usually get young people at my shows, but this one didn’t have any. It was a really strange vibe, almost like it was people who work at ad companies, not music people.

Those album shows are always weird. I can’t see how an artist could get into a genuine headspace if they’re simply performing an album from front to back. When I’ve seen you in the past, you aren’t going through the motions like that, you know?
Exactly. And that’s the only way I can perform, because I can’t sing, and I can’t dance. All I’ve got is frustration and rage. All I can do is mean it, 100-percent. Performing Maxinquaye was just like a showcase.

Since you and Martina know each other so well, did you find it hard to even talk to one another after those shows?
It was weird; we’ve got a good relationship because we’ve got a kid together, but at those shows, we didn’t talk to each other. Like I talked to Martina yesterday; she was mad because I gave my kid some hashish. My kid missed school for two days because she smoked up. So Martina was on the phone, but we could laugh about it. These shows were more shuttered.

How have you found the experience of being a father? As your kid gets older, do you feel challenged to be there for her more than your father was for you? And how do you balance the life of an artist with the responsibilities of being a parent?
It’s really heavy. I love my family obviously, but I love my kid like I’ve never loved before. Because of what happened to me in my youth, I’ve emotionally numbed myself, so it’s hard having Maisie. I look at her and I just want to cry because I love her so much. I’m not used to that, but what’s great is she gets it. She can see how I’m scared of my emotions sometimes, probably because I’ve lost people. You shut down, you know? But she’s 18 now, and she helps me with it. She gives me advice.

One other good thing about being a dad is that before you have a kid, it’s all about you. You’re in your own head, and everything revolves around you, but when you have a kid, you start living through them. Like my kid is going to college, and she’s singing now, so I have to worry about her school fees and other things. In a way, it takes a lot of pressure off you.

Does part of you hope she goes down the path of being an artist as well?
I don’t care what she does as long as she’s happy. She goes to a really good school, but she knows if she feels like she’s had enough of it tomorrow, she can leave. It doesn’t matter what I already paid for. I also tell her be an artist, but don’t be famous. Do it in a smart way because being well-known has ruined some of my life. If you live in a glass bowl and people are always watching you, it’s going to affect you. I may not be as famous as, say, Madonna, but I’ve still been affected by success, so I let her know all about the trappings. I don’t necessarily want her to be a singer. If she was a hairdresser, it’d all be good to me.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with now because I know what it is. When you don’t know you’ve got it, it’s the worst.”

Fame really fucked you up didn’t it?
Oh yeah, it messed me up. And what was crazy was when I realized how my fame made me mentally sick. A lot of young artists don’t want to make a great album now. They just want success, but they have to be careful what they wish for. Success is being happy. Now I’m happy. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got.

The condition you suffered from for a while, candida, had a lot to do with how you felt too right? Especially since doctors are unsure of how to treat it?
Yeah, it comes from pharmaceutical drugs. Like I had asthma when I was younger and they’d just treat it with antibiotics and steroids, which really messed with the candida. Then I found a nutritionist that said that’s just the chain of it. Antibiotics and steroids affect the lining of your stomach and your brain as well. And then instead of treating anything, they give you antidepressants. Some people with candida get committed because they’re seen as having schizophrenia or they’re manic depressive. And they’re not; it’s the pharmaceutical drugs breaking your body down.

So you found more of a natural way of dealing with it?
I had to do a mad detox. I was sick for like six weeks because I had to get all of the antibiotics and steroids I’d gotten over the years out of me. It was horrible, but after six weeks, it was like the sun coming through. It was unbelievable. What’s sad is I lost a lot of relationships through candida, but you can’t go back and say, ‘I’m sorry, I had candida.’ Even my uncle said he didn’t want to be around me anymore, that he didn’t recognize me. The candida broke me down. If I hadn’t found a doctor, I would have been on antidepressants next–Valium, stuff like that. And to a certain extent, there aren’t many ways of coming back from that.

How many years ago did all this happen?
About 12 years ago, but it comes and goes. Because you have to change everything, not just your diet. I still have it. Sometimes it makes you really angry, like someone can say the most harmless thing to you but you turn and get moody. If I don’t eat the right food–if I eat too much sugar and stuff–I can get moody and I know it’s the candida. I know I have to be by myself. It’s a lot easier to deal with now because I know what it is. When you don’t know you’ve got it, it’s the worst.

Do you feel like some of your best songs came out of that condition? Or do you feel like that’s bullshit–the idea that the best art comes from struggling?
I think Pre-Millenium was the beginning of the candida. Even the worst things have a positive side to them. Not many artists get to create music with complete madness without going completely over the edge. Because I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t doing drugs. It was the candida. And I was recording manically. I think it was a good thing to feel this.

Shifting back to your new album, you mentioned a lot of the lyrics are old. Is “Valentine” a reference to your relationship with Björk?
Not lyrically, but yeah. She was very good to me. She tried to take care of me, but I wasn’t a good boyfriend. Sometimes I feel bad about it when I look back on that situation, because it was a beautiful relationship. I remember when she played me [“My Funny Valentine”]. I knew Chet Baker but I didn’t know that song. Maybe [“Valentine”] is me apologizing, and maybe it’s some regret because it is influenced by Björk, yeah.

You mentioned having some irreparable relationships before. Is this one of them?
Yeah, it’s almost like you can’t go back and apologize. It’s too late; it’s done. Maybe I’m hoping she’ll hear it or read some of the press because I can’t [apologize]. Maybe it’s just trying to remember something that was more positive than I thought it was at the time. I didn’t realize how good she was to me. She loved me, you know what I mean? And I don’t think I realized that at the time.

You’ve been very fortunate having such strong female figures around you all your life.
You know what it is? I could be with a group of friends, and I could be the most quiet, and a girl I’m not trying to kick it to will try and get me. It’s because they’re natural mothers, and they know I’m a motherless child. [Ed. Note: Tricky’s mother committed suicide when he was 4.] I feel like girls can [sense] it even if they don’t know my story. Even the women in my family. It’s ridiculous. I’ve got cousins that are younger than me, my singer Francesca, my two daughters, and they all look after me. It’s amazing.

“Somebody’s Sins” is another song that stood out to me. You’ve talked about religion a lot over the years; it’s been a major indirect influence even though you’re not a religious person.
Yeah, because of all the images we grow up with. It’s such a powerful image–the man on the cross, you know? I think it’s just embedded in me through television, movies and stuff. It’s a strong image, and I love playing with it. And you’re right–I’m not religious.

Was your Nearly God record meant to play with that imagery?
That was actually a writer. I was doing press, and he said, ‘So what’s it like being nearly god?’ He was thinking about my success at the time, and I thought there’s the name of my new album.

And of course writers took it as you believing that literally.
Yeah, which is really funny.

The single you put a video out for recently, “Does It,” reminds me of what you were discussing earlier–music that actually tries to say something. What do you think about the world we’re living in right now; are we hopeless at this point?
It’s not hopeless, but we’re living in really bad times…Robert Kennedy is one of my heroes. I think he was a much more sensitive man than his brother. I was watching his ‘this is not a time for politics’ speech the other day, then I watched some Malcolm X stuff, and some Martin Luther King, and it makes you think, ‘Where have all the good people gone?’

There’s a speech Malcolm X did where he said, ‘The price for freedom is death.’ And they asked him if he was afraid of dying, and he said, ‘I’m dead already.’ He knew what was gonna happen, but he gave up his life for other people. So we had Malcolm X, and we had Bobby Kennedy, and now we have Obama. He seems like a great actor to me–a superstar. I find him quite funny. If you really look, he’s got the same people [President] Bush had in, and he’s not really doing anything.

You’ve lived in Paris for a while now. Do you feel pretty detached from what’s going on in the States and the UK at this point?
Well I like politics that work. When Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, democracy got hijacked and the oil companies–the good ol’ boys–took over. That’s why Obama is everywhere–he’s a false idol. He’s there to say one thing, then do the other. But if you put him on TV enough, some people will believe it. I think we’re really not in good times, and this is my thing with music–Public Enemy taught me things. Chuck D educated me, and made me want to seek knowledge. Lady Gaga is not gonna make me wanna do that. Neither is Rihanna or Justin Timberlake. If things are gonna change, we need the younger generation to help. We’re all so heavily medicated with so many visuals, so much music, so much TV, so many movies; it’s just medication for the masses, you know? There is hope, but it’s not looking hopeful.

So what do you tell your daughter? Do you try to push her towards certain music?
Yeah, and she’s also smart enough to know that certain things don’t matter to her. She knows what’s going on. So I don’t have to worry about her, but when she was younger–like, say, 13 or 14–she was really into Rihanna for about two months. That worried me a bit; no disrespect to Rihanna, but I want my daughter to be stronger than that. Rihanna does all of these images of a strong young woman, but to me, the way she’s manipulated shows that she isn’t a young, strong woman. It’s more selling sex than talking about anything. If I had a young daughter now, there’d be no television on.

What’s one record you would play for a younger daughter now then?
Kim Deal from the Breeders, although as we all know, she had a heroin problem. But that can happen to anybody. Kim Deal never sold sex; she was just a great artist, one of the most underrated artists we’ve had. That’s what I’d play my daughter–things like PJ Harvey, the Breeders, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday. What a strange voice she had; it stays with you even when she’s finished singing. She’s magic.

“I got angry with him and said, ‘Listen, the kids out there don’t give a fuck about Tricky, and they don’t give a fuck about Massive Attack.’ And that’s okay.”

Francesca’s been working with you for a while now, but not many people realize that. How would you describe her?
Francesca is a very old soul. To be 25 and try to sing blues music is kinda ridiculous; you kinda have to find your own way, but she’s managed to do that without any of it sounding like second-hand emotions. She’s a rare creature, the real deal.

Going back to what you said earlier about not being a gangster, I feel like a song like “Bonnie & Clyde” comes across as genuine because you witnessed a lot of crime and violence growing up.
Yeah, but there’s guys I know–like a couple of people in my family–I couldn’t talk that shit with. They wouldn’t take me seriously because someone else has always been through something worse. And if I’m not living that, it’s not fair for me to pretend that I am. Because there’s people out there who have to live it. Like my uncle had his thumb bit off in the streets. And another uncle has done 10 odd years in jail. I couldn’t do that. I’ve also had one uncle and one cousin murdered, you know? And friends who’ve been shot, so for me, there’s someone worse than you around the corner. So if I started to do that gangster stuff, it’s almost setting me up for a fall. Someone out there might want to test me, and I don’t think it’s worth it.

It’s funny; I know a Jamaican gangster in L.A. He wouldn’t like the word, but he’s a gangster, right? I was in his house and there was this American guy there–this street guy–and he said, ‘You know, there’s certain songs of yours I can’t listen to when I’m stoned. It makes me paranoid.’ Which is really funny; I don’t talk gangster stuff but the violence is in there.

Well it’s something you lived through, and it just comes out.
Right. It’s like how some people can talk about killing someone, but it’s about as scary as a fish finger. Rage is something from inside. It’s a darkness, and yes, my music tends to have that.

You mentioned mortality earlier. Do you think about it more now that you’re past the age of 40?
No, I don’t really care, day by day. The only thing I think of is how I don’t want to hurt people like my daughter when [I die]. But the mortality thing? We’re just on a ride; you take it as it comes. I’ve had a pretty amazing life. I don’t think I’ll carry on having an amazing life, but what can you do?

Before you go, I know you were in the studio with 3D from Massive Attack recently. Is anything going to come out of that?
I don’t know, to be honest. We did three or four tracks but I can’t even remember what I sang like, and I’ve kinda lost interest. We hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, and we got into an argument within two hours. My thing is, I don’t give a fuck about Tricky or Massive Attack. If I lose all of this tomorrow, if I never make another record, I’ll still be happy with myself. But 3D, god bless him, he loves that Massive Attack thing. He hasn’t got a life apart from it. I’m too hard on people, but to me, I see that as a sign of weakness.

He kept going on about Massive Attack, what we created, and da, da, da. Now I ain’t gonna sit around talking about that. If someone asked me about [Maxinquaye] in the press, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to sit down with 3D and talk about how Maxinquaye changed things. That’s boring to me. So I got angry with him and I said, ‘Listen, the kids out there don’t give a fuck about Tricky, and they don’t give a fuck about Massive Attack.’ And that’s okay.

I don’t think he gets me. It’s like, this ain’t a friendship; it’s strictly business. That’s all it ever was. I just don’t want to sit around talking about how good we were or how good it was. Just be yourself and I can relate to you. Now don’t get me wrong; he’s a nice guy. He’s not malicious, and he’s a nicer person than me, but I don’t want Massive Attack or Tricky to make me who I am. I’m happy with myself.