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By Alex Distefano
‘I Don’t Know What I’m Doing’
Chatting (very, very quickly) with Brit trip-hop music pioneer Tricky
I’ve just gotten off the phone with Tricky—’90s recording pioneer of narcotic come-ons and spliffed-out paranoia—who’s returning to the shelves and stages with Knowle West Boy (Domino), his eighth full-length and first release in almost five years. I had replayed the album’s possible themes several times over in my head before our interview, its 13 songs nodding to heritages revisited and futures uncertain. But right now, it’s only Run-D.M.C. that I hear . . .
“It’s tricky to rock a rhyme/To rock a rhyme that’s right on time/It’s tricky . . . tricky, tricky, tricky.”
At this moment, after a brusque, unrevealing six-minute interview, truer words have rarely been spoken.
Admittedly, having to indulge a journalist’s interrogation during an agitated sound check in Russia is far from an ideal situation. Still, I had expected a bit more to work with, considering the source material’s calcified brooding and melodic entrails.
“I don’t do anything—I just make it; it comes out,” says Tricky, when quizzed about his process. “I write, [and] it comes out. I don’t think about it, don’t go in the studio with many riffs or ideas. That’s why I’m not rock or hip-hop.
“I don’t know what I’m doing; there’s no thought process behind it at all,” he continues reticently. “You make a song, and you think, ‘Where the fuck does it come from?’ You don’t make music; it makes you,” he counters, when asked if he arranges his recordings in a specific manner, whether for the benefit of his emotions or those of the audience.
“I’m not a scientist. I don’t think about treble, bass—I don’t give a fuck. I just make music,” Tricky concludes, when asked if there’s a particular frequency that resonates most naturally within him.
And that’s the meat of it.
It’s not that Tricky doesn’t have a lot to say; it just seems he’s put it all in the album title. Knowle West Boy refers to one Adrian “Tricky Kid” Thaws, born in the Knowle West neighborhood of Bristol, England. Growing up listening to Blondie and the Bomb Squad with graffiti bombers and the Specials over a ragga sound system, Tricky did “premillennium tension” way before anyone else (even branding an album with that title in 1996).
In the years since he burst forth laying down verses with Bristol’s Wild Bunch—who transmogrified into Massive Attack, the patron saints of “trip-hop”—Tricky has gradually tempered his more petulant tendencies. Since 1995’s Maxinquaye, he has released projects that reflect both confrontation and community. And Knowle West Boy encapsulates all angles. Where at times Tricky has sounded disconnected, Knowle is definitely one of reconnection. Though living in New York and LA for most of the past eight years, he has revisited his recording roots in Britain’s dancehall and dub scenes, dallied in two-tone punk and skunk, and been featured on a couple of tracks co-produced by Switch (collaborator with M.I.A. and Santogold, among others).
Still curious to confirm his intentions with Knowle, I turn to Google and discover a much more forthcoming (though still relatively linear) character than I had previously experienced. As revealed to UK magazine The Wire, Tricky’s regular use of a resolute female character as foil against his smoggy murmuring comes from his growing up with fierce women—his grandmother and aunt—following his mother’s early suicide. On Knowle West Boy, this tradition is upheld, sublimated across the bluesy pub rocker “Puppy Toy” (featuring Alex Mills), the ghostly metronome regiments of “Veronika” (featuring, um, Veronika), the sepia-toned recesses of “Past Mistakes” (featuring Lubna), and the glacial cross-stitch of “Cross to Bear” (featuring Hafdis), among other tracks.
Tricky is at his strongest when haunted rather than outright possessed, as bristlier tracks such as the masticated spoken-word “Coalition” and a guitar-scrawled cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Slow” actually pale in emotional impact against the smoldering, nigh-extinguished relationships on more baleful tracks. Still, the mood and production are perforated by humor and hope—less elegiac than some past efforts, even while embracing the topics of religion and cultural crisis.
Reflecting on both our “interview” and his album, Tricky has proven hard to nail down in more ways than one. Knowle West Boy is Tricky’s reconciliation with his roots in Bristol’s “white ghetto” and its class warfare, accompanied by arrangements that refuse to be ghettoized in any genre. As Tricky admits in an interview on website the Stool Pigeon (www.thestoolpigeon.co.uk), he never intended his music to be analyzed and applied as “intellectual.” He may not have spoken volumes to me, but Tricky has still managed to add an interesting new chapter to his story by looking back—a Tricky situation, indeed.
Tricky performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Thurs., Sept. 11, 8 p.m. $22.50-$25. All ages.