Tricky on tour, talks Massive Attack reunion, fame, Gary Oldman & more
The best kind of artist is the one who forges their own path. They're the one who strays away from the herd while creating music that's both innovative and original. That kind of artist also is never afraid to push the envelope and take a few risks. A person who optimizes that is Tricky, the Bristol, England born and bred experimental musician who has been part of famous collaborations with fellow Bristol natives Massive Attack along with having a reputable solo career. He's never one to be pinned down by a genre or a label and he's been consistently putting out music since the mid-90s.
On the heels of his latest album Skilled Mechanics that came out in January along with the release of The Obia EP in September, Tricky is visiting North America for a tour that begins at the El Rey in LA tonight (10/20), includes a set at Beach Goth on Saturday, and includes a BrooklynVegan-presented NYC show at Webster Hall on October 28 (tickets). The US dates are with Rituals of Mine (fka Sister Crayon), who also just opened for The Album Leaf. The full set of updated tour dates is below.
Before the festivities I had a chat with Tricky about what initially made him latch on to the sound that was coming out of Bristol, how he deals with fame, his time on the set of the cult sci-fi film The Fifth Element, what inspires him to be prolific, recently moving to Berlin and his recent series of shows with Massive Attack.
BV: During the mid to late 80s you collaborated with the sound system collective The Wild Bunch, which would later become Massive Attack. The music, which would later be labeled as trip hop, was very much ahead of its time by combining the elements of jazz, hip-hop, new wave and acid house to become uniquely its own thing. When this style was burgeoning, what initially made you latch on to it?
Tricky: First off, trip hop is a stupid name made up by the media. I've done 12 albums and not one of my albums sounds the same as each other.
It's all very experimental.
It was kind of accidental to be honest with you. I was hanging out with a guy named Mark Stewart who is one of the innovators in Bristol who took bits of punk, bits of hip hop and had a couple bands with Mark Stewart & The Maffia and The Pop Group. He was in the forefront of music, he was doing sound systems which were influenced by reggae sound systems. My granddad also had one of the first sound systems in England and one of the first well known ones in the country because my dad's Jamaican and my granddad is Jamaican. With all of that, it all happened accidentally.
After the acclaim your debut Maxinquaye got after it was released in February of 1995, you were uncomfortable with the worldwide stardom that followed. 21 years later, do you still have issues with fame or have you dealt with it in a way that makes it more comfortable?
I'm still not comfortable with it. Unless you got a massive ego or you love the attention, I don't think there's anything about it you can get comfortable with. I'm in a good position now where I'm known but I'm not as famous as someone like Kanye West. I can still go to the shops, go to the supermarket or go down the street and have no problem. I don't think I'd ever be comfortable with it though.
Losing your anonymity is one of the worst things that can ever happen to you. There are so many famous people who are sick, fame causes mental illness. If I'm walking down the street and while you're walking you're in your own vibe then two people walk past you and one of them says "Ah, that's Tricky" to the other and as you see them staring at you as you're walking it changes everything about you. It changes the way you walk, it takes you out of your meditation and stuff like that is not natural. To be comfortable with it you have to play the game really well and that's what you want, you love it, you have a bit of an ego and you're somewhat of a business person because of money. With me, I don't think I'd ever be totally comfortable with being a really famous person.
You would probably feel more like a target. Some people obsess over celebrities to a ridiculous extent.
It's not so much of a target, it's almost like when you're sitting down in the morning and you're having a cup of coffee. You're meditating, you're in your own world, you're kind of still waking up and it's your private time. Or you can be in a place getting food and people are staring at you. It's just uncomfortable, it's invading your privacy. Sometimes people come up to me and they'll say "Hey, I like your music" then we'll shake hands and keep it moving, which is ok. Then someone will come up to me and ask "Can I take a picture with you?" while I'm sitting down eating without being aware that they're invading my own meditation time.
That's just rude.
Yeah, it is.
Outside of your musical career you played the right hand man for the antagonist Mr. Zorg in sci-fi film The Fifth Element. That film, which has gained a cult following over the years, was made before CGI played a big role in cinema. What was it like being on the set and working with Milla Jovovich, Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman?
Gary Oldman is a very normal guy, he's very down to earth. To be honest, if it wasn't for him I don't know if I could have finished that film because it was a lot of hard work. Music is like second nature to me. Acting is a bit different and it was my first film but Gary Oldman is a guy who doesn't take himself too seriously and he's an incredible talent. Bruce Willis wasn't really around. He has that Hollywood thing where he has a policy where no one is allowed to talk to him.
I don't know if that's totally true but that's what people were saying around the set. I never even met Bruce Willis while filming. I wasn't even interested in meeting him to be honest. I was hanging out with Gary Oldman most of the time and with Milla I didn't actually know who she was until we went for some food and she was in my apartment and my friend came around. He walked past the room, seen her and he came into the kitchen and said, "That's Milla. What's she doing in your house?" I never even had a clue of who she was. I was hanging out and I had no idea who she was.
She was very cool, very nice and very sweet. Gary Oldman is someone who I've admired for years from a film he did called The Firm, which is an iconic English independent movie. It's legendary in England and being with him was just amazing.
You've released 12 albums throughout your career. What inspires you to be such a prolific artist while a lot of your contemporaries don't even have half the resume you have?
That's going back to the fame thing again. It can take up half your time. It's a business in itself and it props up the ego as a part of the celebrity culture. After my first album, I realized how lucky I am to be able to do what I'm doing to make music. How many people can say they survive off of doing something they love? I've traveled around the world, I've made music in different countries and I've toured all around the world. That motivates me to keep wanting to put music out.
I've had nurses play my music to kids in burn units. I've had a guy who was in a coma and his parents played my music. I've had a woman who was pregnant say to me "You're in my life, you're in my children's life." I've realized that it's bigger than me and because I don't get tied up with fame, I consciously want to be motivated. Just being able to go into the studio is lucky.
Once I was in London, I was recording all night and I came out of the studio and there was road work being done nearby. I was getting in a taxi at around 6:30 in the morning and it was a really nice car that picked me up. There was a guy who was about 60 years of age working on the road doing laboring. It was freezing cold, he was more than twice my age and I was thinking about how I could be this young guy in the studio all night just making music and there's this guy working on the road. That made me realize how lucky I am and I just love making music. The more I realize how lucky I am the more I want to do. Not many people can follow their dreams.
Marvin Gaye once said - in the 70s, after he already had an established career full of hits that, "I don't make records for pleasure. I did when I was a younger artist, but I don't today. I record so that I can feed people what they need, what they feel. Hopefully, I record so I can help someone overcome a bad time." What you're talking about is reminiscent of that, and it's really cool that you have that perspective. A lot of musicians don't.
Again, that's where the fame comes in. A lot of musicians need it because when they become famous they begin to love it. Fame is a mantle for the ego and insecurities. I know I can be insecure at times but I know myself well enough that my ego isn't that big.
It's a massive corrupter.
It really is. Unfortunately we're in a celebrity age now where people have six million followers on Instagram and I have no idea what they do. I've never heard of them and these are the mad times that we're in.
There are a bunch of artists you've collaborated with on the new album including Oh Land, Francesca Belmonte, DJ Milo and Luke Harris. How do you find different artists to make music with? Do you seek them out?
Usually people find me. Most of the time they reach out to me. I've known Milo since I was seven years of age so he's practically family. He can be in Bristol with my cousin now or he would be at my Auntie's house or my sister would be with his sister. They could be together right now hanging out, so our family is close. Sometimes I might not talk to him for a year but our sisters are hanging out. That's going to happen every now and again but eventually we'll hook up and work on something. We've been working together for many years but we did some underground stuff in New York while we were both living there.
Luke Harris is actually my drummer. I heard him do a soundcheck one day and I heard him singing one of my songs. I never knew he could sing, I never had any idea he could sing and when I heard him I thought to myself "Wow! When I record my next album he's going to come and sing on it." It was totally accidental but most of the time it's people reaching out to me.
Accidents have been a common theme for you during your career.
All the singers I've worked with joined up by accident. Martina Topley-Bird is a good example of that, it's all from bumping into people.
You recently moved to Berlin. What made you want to move and how is life treating you in Germany?
I used to hate the place because I used to come to Berlin to do press years ago and it wasn't that I genuinely hated it, I just never understood it and it was never my vibe. I moved from Los Angeles and before that I was in New York and afterwards I lived in Paris. I got really bored of Paris and I moved back to London for a weekend and I thought that the place had a really great vibe. When I moved back there I realized London was a great place to be in for a weekend but not to live, it wasn't me anymore. I was in Berlin doing press over the summer and it was like being in a village in a city.
It's so mellow, it's so laid back it's unbelievable. You kind of have to slow yourself down. When I first came there I went to a supermarket and people were talking to the cashier and having conversations while everything was taking so long. People actually talk to each other in Berlin, people have conversations and at first I was antsy because everything took so long but now I'm the guy who talks to the person behind the counter. It's all slowed down and it's a looser lifestyle there.
I got a bike and I haven't had a bike for years, it's just a really mellow city. Berlin is also club central. This is the place where DJs come to go out. This is the place where they go clubbin' so there's everything there if you want it but it's such a mellow place. There are trees everywhere.
You'll see people in the summer taking barbecues to parks and setting up music. The people are cool, no one really bothers you there. It's not very monetary as well, it's not a money city. Most wealthy people in Berlin are still renting, they might have a house outside the city but in the city they're still renting. My manager for instance is a wealthy guy and when I first went to his apartment I was expecting more. For how wealthy he is I was expecting a lot, lot more.
Something more extravagant.
Yeah, I was expecting something totally different. I've lived in different houses and apartments and I've lived on acres of land in New York and New Jersey so I've lived that kind of life for a while. I was expecting that from my manager's place and he had just this normal apartment. People also dress any way, you can go to a shop in your pajamas and no one would take any notice of you. No one cares what you look like and there are a lot of different characters so it's a very interesting place.
It must be great to come back to Berlin after touring.
When I go London to work, I go there two to three days at a time, I'll become tired without even doing anything. Then I'll come back to Berlin and the atmosphere is so laid back.
You recently joined Massive Attack on stage for some European shows. Any plans to work together again in the near future? Any chance of shows together in the United States anytime soon?
At this time I'd say no but you never know. I just put out a track from them on The Obia EP I just put out so it's kind of weird. The EP has guys from Russia, guys from L.A. and Berlin so I'm putting out a Massive Attack track and there's a good vibe with them giving me a track for me to release. They have it under a different name [Euanwhosarmy] because they're signed to Virgin in England. You kind of never know what's going to happen.
After this run I don't think I'm going to do any shows for a while because I've been away from it so long. There was a magazine article someone sent me and they were laughing because it said "The rapper Tricky is back with Massive Attack for the Bristol show" when it was never the case. I've produced music for them, I'm not just a rapper.
You're more of a full on collaborator.
Yeah, I was part of Massive Attack. I've produced more stuff with that group than most of the actual band members. So much time has gone by that it's a different thing now. When we toured years ago, I was in Massive Attack and I was an actual part of it. Now, even though I have a great relationship with everybody in the band I still feel like I'm a bit of a stranger.
I'm only doing one or two songs with them nowadays so it's more like I'm just coming to say hello. It's a lot of time to sit around and do one or two songs. I don't do soundcheck with my band, my band does my soundcheck but I'm there at the same time with them listening. I might walk on stage because I'm bored but my mic is already checked so I don't have to do anything. I believe the band should soundcheck obviously but I don't want to keep going through all the songs because I don't want it to be too rehearsed.
My shows change every night but with Massive Attack I'm not that involved. Even though I don't do my soundcheck, I'm around and I'm still at the soundcheck. I'm walking around the stage, I'm listening to things on stage and I'm getting the vibe but with Massive Attack I'll show up around 7:00 or 6:00. I'll sit around and go on but it's a lot of time to be waiting around to do one or two songs. It's almost too long to be waiting around.
With my show, we don't have a setlist. We have between 30 to 40 tracks, three of them are warm up tracks. Those get us into a vibe and after that, any track could come. There's freedom and I go up and down with my band. One show recently I tried getting the guitarist to do more stuff to carry on because I was vibein' and he wasn't having it because they have a set way of how they do their thing. My stuff is where I'm directing everything, if I point to a guitarist I need the drums to stop. When the guitarist stops, I'll have the drums kick in again.
Massive Attack works in a different way. They don't vibe on stage, they have a rehearsed set. A soundcheck obviously helps make sure everything is right but my band and I don't have a complete set list. Songs might change, I might break it down to the drums and bass and something new happens or I'll just have the guitarist play something and I'll vibe.
You bring more of an improvisational approach to your music.
Yeah. It's very improv while with Massive Attack I'm a bit more restricted, not that there's anything wrong with that.
With my own music I'll have fun on stage while with Massive Attack I'll get bored. If I point to their guitarist to do something he ain't going to do it because he works for them. He's got his show to do. At the last Bristol show I was having a good time and I thought I was on one of my shows almost. So I went over to their guitarist so he could carry on playing something and he looked at me like it wasn't going to happen. That's not a bad thing but it can get boring when you're only doing one or two songs versus a complete performance.
With your band you're playing the lead, while in Massive Attack you're playing the guest so you're in two completely different situations. There's definitely a lot of contrast going on between those two.
Tricky - 2016 Tour Dates
Thu 20 Oct 2016 El Rey Theatre Los Angeles, CA*
Fri 21 Oct 2016 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA*
Sat 22 Oct 2016 Beach Goth 2016 Santa Ana, CA*
Sun 23 Oct 2016 The Independent San Francisco, CA*
Sun 23 Oct 2016 The Observatory Santa Ana, CA*
Mon 24 Oct 2016 The Independent San Francisco, CA*
Thu 27 Oct 2016 Underground Arts Philadelphia, PA*
Fri 28 Oct 2016 Webster Hall New York, NY (tickets)*
Sat 29 Oct 2016 The Sinclair Cambridge, MA*
Sun 30 Oct 2016 Double Door Chicago, IL*
Wed 09 Nov 2016 Teatro Splendor Aosta, Italy
Thu 10 Nov 2016 Leoncavallo Spazio Pubblico Autogestito Milan, Italy
Fri 11 Nov 2016 Viper Theatre Florence, Italy
Sat 12 Nov 2016 New Age Club Roncade, Italy
Mon 14 Nov 2016 Culture Factory Zagreb, Croatia
Tue 15 Nov 2016 Pogon Kulture Rijeka, Croatia
Thu 17 Nov 2016 A38 Budapest, Hungary
Sun 20 Nov 2016 Sinner's Day 2016 Hasselt, Belgium
* - w/ Rituals of Mine