“And then there was an uncomfortable silence”: Max Dax talks to Tricky

Words by Max Dax

In this in-depth interview taken from the new Summer issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, MC and iconoclast Tricky speaks to EB Editor-in-Chief Max Dax about the music industry, Prince and why Barack Obama is worse than George W. Bush.

 

Tricky’s never been one to mince words. Since releasing his genre-defining trip-hop masterpiece Maxinquaye in 1995, the Bristol-born bad boy is notorious for blowing the smoke from his ever-present spliff in the direction of celebrities deemed worthy of being knocked down a notch. And now, he’s made an entire album about it: False Idols takes swipes at everything from the vacantness of celebrity culture to the perceived neoconservative, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing politics of Barack Obama. Some might call him a hater; others will salute his truth with a hallelujah. Either way, a conversation with Tricky is never less than entertaining, as Max Dax found out recently in Berlin. Main photo by Luci Lux, taken in Berlin.

 

Tricky, when we last spoke you mentioned you were convinced we’d meet again to celebrate when your album went number one in Germany. That’s a bold statement, not something you usually hear from artists, but rather from promoters. 

Well, I have a new label and my deal is actually with Horst Weidenmüller from !K7, which is a special thing—something you might call a love affair rather than just business. In contrast, I spoke to Laurence Bell from my other label Domino after a show not too long ago, and I realized they’re really all about radio. Look, everybody wants radio play, and that’s cool. I mentioned something to him about Franz Ferdinand. I said I liked some of their stuff, because they write some good songs sometimes. I asked him how one of their albums was going and he was like, “It’s all finished, we just have to work out the singles.” And I was trying to figure out what he meant. Was the album finished or not? How would he know when an artist is ready? He owns a label. He doesn’t sit in the studio and know how to make music . . . It’s like, with this new album people keep telling me, “You’re back! You’re back!” But I haven’t been away. I’ve simply chosen not to do certain things because I haven’t been in a love affair. So, I guess you could say I’m back because I’m happy. You can’t make your best music when you’re not.

There’s another kind of artistic love affair I hear on your new album, False Idols, with the voice of Chet Baker. I also remember you once did a remix of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. You also performed it live . . . 

I grew up with her voice. My grandma used to play Billie Holiday’s music day and night.

The new album also has some excellent sampling of Baker’s voice from his classic “My Funny Valentine”. By talking about jazz legends and using their voices, you’re probably confronting younger audiences with them for the first time. Are you looking to educate your listeners? Why do you love these older voices so much?

Because when I was going out with Björk, that’s what we listened to. It reminds me of her. And Chet Baker was such a real artist; he had so much pain. We’re missing that in music now. The last true voice I could relate to was Kurt Cobain. Now it’s all just such a celebrity culture, and it’s weakening music. By sampling Chet Baker it’s me offering him to people because you’re not going to get him in real life. And I think I respect older music more than I do new music.

Have you ever listened to “Little” Jimmy Scott?

No.

You should. A few years ago he also did a great version of “Strange Fruit”. His voice is like this transcendental sonic gate to the past, but still extremely relevant. 

I’ll check it out. When I did my remix of “Strange Fruit”, it was odd working with her voice, too. Very spooky. Definitely not earthly.

That means you were able to work with the voice on a single track?

Yeah. I listened to it over and over and over again in a little apartment in New Orleans. It was a very eerie vibe listening to the original without the instrumental backing. The same goes for Chet Baker.

Do you consider artists like Chet Baker and Billie Holiday to be your teachers?

Actually, I think about them as peers. There aren’t that many people I respect in the music industry. Most of them are dead. It’s almost like me giving respect and, as you mentioned, introducing them to a younger generation.

Would you say your music is a kind of channeling medium?

Well, yeah. Like with “Black Steel”, my Public Enemy cover. I did it because I wanted to take it to a different audience. Some people are so good that their message should be taken to a bigger environment. I knew Public Enemy was, first of all, an urban thing, and I wanted to show it to kids who aren’t from there.

You could think of Public Enemy’s name as a nod to the old James Cagney film. Your album Angels with Dirty Faces is also a Cagney reference. Do you ever think you would have liked to have lived back in the twenties or thirties or at some other time in the past? 

When all the blues and jazz guys went to Paris—that was a special thing. It was pure music, without an industry.

You could have been Miles Davis’ rival for Juliette Gréco in the late forties and fifties. When I met her she said that she once invited him to meet her in Manhattan at the Waldorf Astoria where she stayed and he told her he didn’t want to come. But she couldn’t figure out why, so she finally persuaded him. She told me she had been shocked when she realized how badly he was mistreated by all the white staff. It was embarrassing.

Fucking hell, it’s strange. You don’t usually associate that kind of racism with Miles Davis. You think the guy’s untouchable, a legend, so they should treat him like a legend. Those were different times.

I’ve done a few interviews with Miles Davis sideman and Weather Report keyboarder Joe Zawinul, and he recalled often being offered to sleep in “white” hotels, while the black band members of the groups he was in had to sleep elsewhere. Suffice to say he refused and preferred to stay with the musicians.

We always tend to forget that segregation wasn’t even that long ago. It’s truly difficult to understand all that in light of the insane amount of great music that was played and released back in the day.

People sometimes seem to forget that music used to be about so much more than just business. Bob Dylan recently said that he gets nervous listening to new music.

Did he really use the word nervous? Now, that’s interesting.

I think what he meant is that there was a certain honesty in the sadness of people’s voices in the past. And now, amidst the neoliberal “creative” environment of today’s music industry, people only consider whether or not they can sell something.

I got you. Take “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead and try bringing something like that to Radio 1 in England these days and they’ll laugh you right out the door. Nowadays, you’ve got all these artists who’ve become ATM cards for big businessmen, so the music industry is kind of fucked, you know? As it’s got worse, I’ve gotten worse. I’ve become more militant. I’m not so easy going anymore. I’ve become kind of obsessive. For instance, I had this thing happen to me: 3D from Massive Attack came over to my house last year . . .

Robert Del Naja—how’s he doing?

He’s doing good, or he seems like he’s doing good. Anyhow we agreed to do some songs and within an hour we were arguing, and not over music. It’s because he walked into my house with this Massive Attack bullshit. And I had to say to him: “The younger generation don’t give a fuck about me. They don’t give a fuck about you or Massive Attack. I’ve got a daughter who’s eighteen and she don’t care about my music. She doesn’t know who you are, by name or otherwise. So get over yourself.”

My guess would be that he’s not so used to be being spoken to like that—or maybe I’m wrong? I’d be very curious to know how he took it. 

Look, back in the day when me and him used to write together—tracks like “Karmacoma” or “Blue Lines”—I didn’t notice certain things. 3D’s a good man and he’s got a good heart. He’s not a malicious person, but he loves his Massive Attack thing too much. I’d like to think that if this all ended for me tomorrow, I’ve still got friends. I’ve got family who don’t give a fuck if I was famous or not. I’m going to be the same person. I don’t need this to say who I am. I like to see myself like DJ Milo—he walked away from a huge record deal, went to New York, got a job and started doing music in his bedroom. Milo without the music is still Milo. He was just in Bristol with some of my family. But 3D’s different. He needs Massive Attack. Without Massive Attack, he’s nobody. And he knows that. I’m not being disrespectful; it’s just the truth.

Maybe he should go to therapy.

I think he should love himself more and forget the Massive Attack thing. I think maybe he should have kids. When you have a child you forget about yourself. You begin to see the world with their eyes. After recording with him for a few days he’s texting me, I’m getting messages from him. He wants a buddy. He doesn’t want just someone to work with. He wants a buddy to go out together and DJ and drink together—you know, he’s 3D and I’m Tricky, and we party together. But I realized that I didn’t want to hang out with him. Should I tell him that? What should I do? Should I just not answer him? So I asked my cousin for advice and she was telling me: “Just keep it business.”

That’s a tough way of seeing it.

I told you before: as things have continued, I’ve gotten more militant. I ain’t got time for certain people no more. If you were a famous artist and you walk in here like a pop star with your pop star attitude, in the past I might have politely said, “Hey, how are you doing?” But now my mouth just won’t open. My hand won’t even extend to you. Because the lack of honesty you know has just . . . well, here’s another story: I was in New York one time in a club with a friend who doesn’t make any music. My friend’s not interested in any of that stuff, he had a job at the airport. The only thing he was interested in was women. He loves chasing women. Anyhow, we were smoking a spliff and this promoter guy I know comes over and is like, “Lenny wants to meet you.” And all I can think is, “Who’s Lenny?” I said to the guy I know, “I don’t know no Lenny!” And the promoter’s like, “Lenny Kravitz.” He’s sitting over there and wants me to get up and go over there, even though he wants to meet me.

It sounds like he isn’t used to casually running into people. 

Well, he ended up coming over and said, “Oh, I love your music.” And then there was an uncomfortable silence, because I think I was supposed to say it back to him. But it’s not true, so at some point he’s like, “I’ve got a studio in Miami, you should come down and record.” We’re in New York and at the time I lived in New Jersey. I had a studio twenty minutes away, so I was like, “Why would I come to Miami?” He was like, “So we can record together.” And I was like, “Why?” And he couldn’t answer. That annoys me. Just because you’re so famous and have so much success you think I want a part of that. Artists need to be brought down to earth a little bit.

So what’s the difference between working with Lenny Kravitz and someone like Grace Jones, who you did collaborate with? I mean, she’s famous too.

I love Grace. She’s mad. And she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She’s just a crazy woman with talent. And she’s extremely funny, got an amazing sense of humor. Kravitz has got no sense of humor about himself at all.

I met her at the Marco Polo restaurant in London once and I only had a fifteen-minute slot scheduled. I was on my way there, already annoyed, but next thing I knew, we’d had two bottles of Chardonnay and talked for almost two hours. It was great. And we were talking a lot about you! 

She’s great. You know that Grace Jones doesn’t need the music thing to be her make-up. I respect artists who can do all this and then put it down. People shouldn’t take it for granted. And if I like you, you shouldn’t take it for granted when you meet me. I’ve seen Prince on the dance floor in a club in L.A. and had a drink in my hand walking back to my table and security told me to walk around the dance floor. When I asked why, they just replied, “Prince is dancing.”

You think he’s living in the past?

It’s so old-fashioned. That stuff is over anyway. I used to listen to Prince. I had a lot of his stuff. But now he’s just a has-been.

 Then again, I caught a Kode9 DJ set in Turin, and he started it all out with “Sign O’ the Times” and put this great bass line underneath. He didn’t extend the three minutes, but it sounded like an entirely new journey. You say Prince is a has-been, but he really was a proper somebody when he still was releasing hits, wasn’t he?

He was an incredible talent! But his mind is that of a has-been’s. Undoubtedly he’s one of the most talented artists of that generation, but he still thinks that if he walks into a room, he’ll get the coat taken off his shoulders. Those days are over. The Prince “persona” is from a long time ago. You can’t survive like that, especially with someone like me. Because if Prince walks into the room right now, unless he came to talk to me, I wouldn’t go talk to him. Because I don’t give a fuck about him and I don’t respect the man.

Have you seen any of his recent shows?

No, after that thing in L.A. I haven’t wanted to. Someone actually had tickets for me for a show in Paris when I was there. But I was like, “Nah.” I just sat at a café and smoked weed, chilled out. Once someone acts like that, it’s over for me.

I know you’ve spent quite a bit of time in Paris. Who have you been meeting in Paris that you wanted to work with?

There’s a guy called Seyfu, who’s a very, very good rapper. He’s very real, very anti-popstar. I lived around Chapelle, which is kind of ghetto. I’ve got another friend, who’s an amateur boxer and he introduced me to a bunch of people. But I often meet people just by walking around. See, I’m very accessible. I’ve got no entourage. I walk by myself. You might see me in a supermarket or at a health food store. I’m working with a camera guy at the moment that I bumped into randomly once. He said if I ever needed anything, I should call. So I called and ended up doing two videos recently with him.

So the album title False Idols is a reference to people like Lenny Kravitz and Prince? 

Yeah, all that stupid shit. And new artists too, like, say, Rihanna. Look at the power that girl has got. And she’s doing nothing with it! It seems she has more problems keeping her clothes on than . . . It’s like all she sells is sex, right? No disrespect to her at all, but when you have that much power going on, help somebody. Do something. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in her own country. Comment on it! Say something about it! Say Obama is a big fucking liar.

I think she’s originally from Barbados.

Well, fine. But she lives in the U.S. If you’re just going to be famous and it’s a mantle for your ego, then it’s a waste of time.

What’s your daughter listening to?

Well, she’s finally starting to listen to my music now. She told me the other day that she really liked Blowback. She thought it was very “advanced”. Now she’s going through them all and analyzing them. She only knew Maxinquaye before, but now she’s getting in Nearly God and . . .

What about Angels with Dirty Faces?

She’s not gotten to that one yet.

That album’s spirit reminds me so much of Miles Davis’ Cellar Door Sessions and The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Also your live shows from around Angels with Dirty Faces were amazing. Do you have any plans to release live material?

I didn’t record any of them. If anybody did, that would be nice to release, but I don’t look back. I move on. I don’t really live in the past. I’ve got another album, Hixx, that’s about to be mixed and False Idols isn’t even out yet. I don’t think I’ll be able to bring Hixx out this year, but most likely in January 2014. And then I’m going to do a rap album with DJ Milo. I’ll do some of the production, but then have him do some of it too. I just keep things moving.

You mentioned Obama’s deceitfulness before. You were living in Los Angeles for a while. Was this when you started seeing him critically?

When he was first elected I was going out with a black girl, and she kept saying how great it is to have the first black president. In America, still to this day, it’s difficult for blacks and Hispanics. Obama was a false hope, another false idol. But because I’m English, my experience as a black person has been different. I saw through him from the beginning. But when you’re desperate, you grasp for desperate measures.

He’s a brilliant rhetorician. 

Absolutely.

I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes when he gave his inauguration speech  . . .

But if you look at all the people behind him, you realize he’s Bush with a black face, right? When Bobby Kennedy was killed, that was the end of democracy. Before that, when J.F.K. was killed, that was the rise of the Bush’s and all the ex-slave owners and those in the opium trade. Obama is just coming from that.

How so?

He’s related to Dick Cheney—that’s his eighth cousin! If you go back far enough you’ll see it. He’s worse than Bush, because Bush is easy to see for what he is. Obama is dangerous because he seems so good. He’s got a black wife and black children but he doesn’t give a fuck about anybody or any thing.

He regularly invites musicians to play at the White House. What would you do if he invited you?

The only reason I would go would be for the moment when he goes to shake my hand, which is when I would say: “I can’t shake your hand—there’s too much blood on it.” I would like to sit down with him and tell him, “You’re a dog. I have no respect for you. If there is a hell, you’re going there.” ~

Tricky’s False Idols is out now on !K7. You can stream the album here.