Enjoying a prolific streak, Tricky returns with his eleventh studio album, Adrian Thaws. We speak to the Bristolian maverick about his new release, personal independence and the problem of superstar DJs
“It’s just my birth name. Thaws means when ice thaws so this album could be called When Adrian Melts. My first album was my mum’s name and now I’ve come to the point of using my birth name. People still don’t really know me, it’s saying ‘you still ain’t got a clue who I am’.
The Skinny meets Tricky in London’s opulent Mayfair hotel to discuss his (almost) eponymously titled new album, Adrian Thaws. This is his eleventh solo release, a revivified short sharp shock of club and hip-hop influenced outrospection. Following 2013’s False Idols, it's his second release in under eighteen months, a prolificacy attributed to forming his own label after a troubled dalliance with Domino Records.
The issue of identity looms large within Tricky. His persona, once delicately balanced between the foreboding and the febrile, appeared to settle upon a very uneasy truce: Tricky became a self-styled “Mr Darkness,” a portentous harbinger of anti-pop, as much at odds with himself as with the dark forces of the record industry. But on the evidence of Adrian Thaws, Tricky in 2014 is awash in brio and swagger. “Music’s easy to make. Don’t let any artist fool you that it’s to do with talent or intelligence or genius,” he declaims.
Yet his passive aggressive rhetoric belies quite a few paradoxes at play. On the one hand, he boasts “I don’t give a fuck about what people think about me,” yet when The Skinny questions the origins of lead single, the thumping electronica of Nicotine Love, he replies it was a riposte to a Facebook message from a fan who expressed surprise at Tricky’s interest in house music. “I do a thing called Tricky’s Choice which is DJ-ing with YouTube,” he explains. “So I choose a YouTube video and post it every few weeks. But there was a funny comment under some house tune I posted. Some girl said ‘Wow! Tricky likes house music!’ But how the fuck would this girl know what I like? It was so ignorant. Social media is good and bad. Bad because it gives ignorant people a voice. Just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I can make house tunes in my sleep. It’s got one beat, once you’ve got that one beat, you’ve got a house tune. People have this horrible habit of projecting their thoughts onto others. That song is a reaction to that: you ain’t got a fucking clue, you’ve never met me, don’t be surprised about what I like or what I do. I’m still finding myself – tomorrow I might wake up and find I love house music and only do house music! People are a work in process; when you judge them, I find it really ignorant and annoying.”
"People are a work in process; when you judge them, I find it really ignorant" – Tricky
Tricky has never shied away from his influences; rather, he inveighs them as a sort of alternative education experienced on the Knowle West streets of Bristol. But two of the covers on Adrian Thaws come from strikingly different schools; the smooth, sensuous lovers' rock of Janet Kay’s Silly Games and the menacing proto-gangster rap of London Posse’s Gangster Chronicle. “I’ve always wanted to cover Silly Games but needed to find the right person to cover it with,” Tricky says. “My daughter was listening to Little Dragon and Tirzah. I didn’t know who Tirzah was and I was going to go for Little Dragon but my daughter said 'Tirzah would suit you more.' And after I heard Tirzah for the first time I thought this is the person who can do Silly Games. And she takes it somewhere else.”
London Posse were trailblazers in the UK rap scene of the late 1980s and this isn’t the first time Tricky has invoked them on record. “London Posse were one of the few bands I travelled for. They weren’t famous, it was all on tapes, cassettes. MC Bionic, it’s funny, I flew him to New York to do some songs on Juxtapose. For me, that guy is the best rapper England has ever had. Young artists would still be rapping in American accents if it wasn’t for Bionic. He was the first guy to rap with a Cockney twang. I know his lyrics off-by heart, one of the few rappers I can recite. He influenced so much that guy, I had to cover that song. The sampling on Gangster Chronicle [the song employs the same John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra sample later utilised by Massive Attack on Unfinished Sympathy] – London Posse used the sample way before Massive Attack. Way before. People need to know their history. We’ve been doing it live for about five years.”
This theme of educating, or re-educating people, repeatedly crops up. Tricky appears to hanker back to the days when rap and hip-hop and club music were on the margins, on the periphery of the mainstream. And his role is that of teacher, to tackle complacency on the dancefloor. While the Adrian Thaws album certainly isn’t backward-looking or overtly didactic, it is a defiant ‘fuck you’ to the predominance of the DJ figure as an iconic figure, a nearly God if you will. “I don’t really go out to clubs now because DJs have become superstar DJs,” he says. “Clubs are based around alcohol and drugs. When I was a kid, you went out just for the music. Not for the superstar DJ. There wasn’t this thing where DJs were expected to play a certain thing. DJs played anything what was good. Anything. Now you’ve got these DJs playing what people want them to play. When I was young, you learned something from DJs. Now DJs play not for themselves but for the crowd. And it’s all drug based; drugs I never did when I was young, like cocaine, and E, weren’t around. This album is what I consider club music. Their laptops… DJs used to carry boxes of records! They’re overpaid, they’re not knowledgeable about music anymore, they’re just in a scene. I think it’s all bullshit.”
Adrian Thaws isn’t a singular entry in the Tricky canon; all of his albums have been ‘fuck you’s in one way or another. But this relentless independent streak is arguably the man’s most defining and, at times, most frustrating feature. Is it really possible to be truly independent in an industry as conceited and sycophantic as this? “Martina [Topley-Bird] said once that I have no discipline and that’s why I got into trouble with the police and stuff,” Tricky says. “But you know, I got freedom now. Major labels are on a two year thing… I say things about Domino, I’m not slagging Domino off but I was stuck in that situation of being worried about my chart position and record sales and so on. Before I mixed the Mixed Race album, Laurence [Bell, Domino Records co-founder] would come to Paris and listen, to see if I was ready to mix. Now, this guy has never made an album in his life. How would he know? I’ve forgotten more about music than he ever knew. That I find weird. Now I’m on my own label, I’ve got freedom. For an artist, it’s the most important thing: if you’ve got freedom, you’re productive. Now I haven’t got that stuff around me, I’ve got more space to do what I want and if I’ve got space, I’m productive naturally. Asking someone permission – someone who’s not a musician – to mix is ridiculous. We’re talking about a guy who runs a record label. He’s a very good businessman but he knows nothing about music.”
Certainly Adrian Thaws is a remarkably well-appointed album. Its brevity ensures there is no filler, the guest vocalists – particularly Francesca Belmonte whose furtively erotic vocals glide through the concussed jazz of I Had A Dream and the hi-NRG minimalism of Nicotine Love – play out the unstable and unsteady relationships evoked in Tricky’s lyrics, be it personally or politically. Is it his best album to date? For once, Tricky is coy in his answer. “It’s better than False Idols but… there’s better to come. We’re growing all the time.”