West Country boy turned Wahlberliner

Words By Jonny Tiernan / Stephanie Taralson
Photos By Robert Rieger

A pioneering graduate of the trip-hop era, Tricky has parlayed his artistic vision into a career spanning three decades. He’s just released his 13th album, uniniform, the first he’s produced since his move to Berlin three years ago. Here we talk with him about this new chapter, his lifelong journey in music, and the virtues of his new home city.

Tricky is a man whose reputation precedes him. It’s well known that he follows his instincts and trusts his feelings, and he isn’t the kind of person who gets bogged down by how he might be perceived. We experience this firsthand during our photoshoot with him. As we settle on a good spot to start taking shots, two women standing nearby ask us what we are doing, with a somewhat accusatory tone. Tricky decides that he doesn’t like their attitude and suggests we move somewhere else. He turns and walks away. We follow.

As soon as we find a new location, Tricky relaxes into the shoot and the initial tension bleeds away. He is friendly and laidback, chatting with various characters that stop by to see what we are doing. After a few minutes, the woman who caused the upset at the start of the shoot comes over bearing a spliff as a peace offering. Tricky jokes that it is her way of apologising, and she laughs.

Talking after the shoot, he’s passionate and engaged, riffing on celebrity culture and how he respects people who are famous yet remain grounded. He tells us about an encounter with Dave Grohl, who came up to him in a bar just to sing the Outkast lyrics, “Ain’t nobody dope as we are, just so fresh so clean” at him, and how Chris Martin is also a really good, normal bloke. We get the sense that Tricky’s working class background makes him more comfortable with people who don’t put up fronts; who are honest and true to themselves.

Tricky grew up in the Knowle West neighbourhood of Bristol in the 1970s and ‘80s. By his own admission it’s not a glamorous place, and difficult to explain without having grown up there.. “If you’re not from Knowle West, you don’t go to Knowle West,” he explains. Nevertheless, it’s a place that is close his heart. His 2008 album Knowle West Boy is a tribute to his youth, and he speaks fondly of his former stomping ground. He has since lived all over the world – Paris, London and LA to name a few places – but for him, none of these cities have greatly impacted his music, whose inspiration runs deeper than his immediate surroundings. “I’d say it’s a product of my life, not my environment,” he says, speaking of his signature style. “It’s my family, people I grew up with, friends that shaped me musically forever. My little neighbourhood. Obviously I could be influenced if I lived in Spain and started working with Spanish singers and stuff, but I took shape way before I went to LA, Berlin or New York, you know? My life was shaped already.”

You never know where an album is going to lead you.

Rising to prominence in the golden-era of trip-hop in the early ‘90s, Tricky famously collaborated with Massive Attack on their first two albums before stepping out as a solo artist. His debut record Maxinquaye was released over 20 years ago, and its universal acclaim instantly marked him as a unique talent. The album became the perfect accompaniment for indulging in the hazy hit of weed, and ushered in an era of heady beats and dense atmospherics. He caught the trip-hop wave alongside artists like Portishead and DJ Shadow, and emerging record labels like Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune. Tricky became a central reference point of trip-hop, personifying the introspective, experimental nature of the music. “I started in the days when being credible was being underground, and the pop artists were the pop artists,” he says. The music industry was entirely different then, and high record sales were not the reserve of huge pop stars.

Contemporaries like Morcheeba came along, adding a pop element to the genre to ride it up the charts, but Tricky avoided mainstream add-ons. He eschewed the commercial, resolutely sticking to his own way of doing things, refusing to follow fads or fashions. It’s a trait he has carried throughout his career: played the part of the outsider, pushing himself in different directions, embracing change, constantly moving. In time, almost all of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, splitting up and crashing out, but Tricky never let up.

He continues to work and produce independently, without any interest in the pop world or the trappings of the industry. “If I do an album and it only sells 30,000 records, that’s OK, because I don’t have the same pressure as other artists. I don’t care about mansions or big cars, and I’m not trying to be the richest person on the planet. Money has never interested me at all. For some people, making more and more money is an ambition. I don’t think that’s my ambition. If I’ve got money and I can travel, see my family and live without stress, then that’s enough.” It’s an ethos he sees mirrored in Berlin: the ‘poor but sexy’ image of the city rings true. And Tricky appreciates the degree to which the capital is pronouncedly unmotivated by money. “I feel here as well that people ain’t obsessed with money. You see people working two or three days a week, doing the job they love doing for less money rather than doing a job for a lot of money. People are very relaxed here.”

It’s this attitude that spawned a diverse and long-running music career, which has brought him to the release of his 13th album, ununiform. The album title reflects his own idiosyncratic way of doing things, subverting convention and channelling change. Plus, it’s a serious achievement for any artist to release a 13th studio album; to have produced this many records in the ‘churn them up and spit them out’ modern music world is an increasingly rare feat. It’s his first album since moving to Berlin three years ago, and while the city may not have influenced him musically, the lifestyle here has clearly had an effect on him personally.

“I don’t do things here I don’t want to do,” he begins. “In other cities I’ve lived in, I’d do stuff not because I wanted to, but just because they were there to do. Like, I don’t mind going to clubs, but it should be because I want to go, not because I am bored. Here, I feel more satisfied. In other major cities I don’t feel satisfied, so even though there’s lots of things to do, I still feel restless. In Berlin I don’t feel restless for some reason. You know, I go to bed at 11 o’clock at night I’ll get up at 8 o’clock in the morning. I am not up all night just killing time. I’m more satisfied with my life.”

Perhaps life in Berlin has mellowed Tricky out in a way that life in London or New York couldn’t. Directly before moving to Berlin he had spent six months in London, but says “it was much too fast for me, too speedy.” It’s a bit of a cliché to state that people ‘find themselves’ when they move here, but Berlin is a city that offers the opportunity for a slower pace of life compared to many other major capitals. Tricky appears chill, relaxed and healthy. It could be that he shares this common experience of those who feel a greater sense of freedom and the opportunity to be themselves in Berlin. On the other hand, ununiform certainly feels like Tricky has returned to his roots and rediscovered his form, and the album is peppered with nods to his past. He’s comfortable with where his music is now, and doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone. Part of this can be attributed to his self-releasing the record on his own False Idols record label. Thus, he’s not indebted or answerable to anyone but himself. The result is a raw, personal, emotional record, and by his own admission his finest work in years.

The last song’s got to feel like the end of the album but also the beginning of something, because then you have the next album. It’s gotta say goodbye and hello at the same time.

Because Tricky’s peripatetic lifestyle has seen him living in many different cities and surroundings over the years, you might expect the method by which Tricky produces music to have naturally evolved, but he tells us the opposite is true: “Nah, it’s exactly the same. Same equipment basically from when I started, no new technology. It’s all very simple.” It’s another example of how Tricky stays true to his roots, not in a traditionalist sense, but by being confident in knowing what works and what he likes. Perhaps this is why every track from his dense discography is imbued with a sound that is recognisably ‘Tricky’, irrespective of whether it’s a punk-tinged banger or something more introspective.

In 2018, Tricky will turn 50. It’s a mammoth incongruity. He exudes youthfulness and has an aura of mischievousness, as though he’s always willing to have some fun or cause a ruckus. At this stage of life some people consider slowing down, but he shows no signs of hitting the brakes anytime soon. He gives the impression that he thinks a few steps ahead, his mind ticking over, working out his next move. When asked what keeps him making music, whether he has a particular goal or ambition, he’s philosophical. “Just ‘cause I love doing it,” he says. “My goal is the journey, not what I get from it. Different albums take you to different places. One may do well in a particular market, so you end up going there. Somewhere like Hong Kong. I’ve been to Venezuela – Caracas; I’ve been around the world. In March I’ll go to China or Mexico. An album always takes you somewhere and you never know where it’s gonna go. In November I’m doing a show in Leipzig for the first time. So it’s not the goals, it’s the journey.”

“It’s not just the physical journey, but artistically too,” he continues. “You never know where an album is going to lead you. Albums are like constant mad things with different opportunities. Doing an album creates a great opportunity. Being on a soundtrack or in a movie changes your life. The shows as well, because when you’ve been doing a tour of your album for three or four months, the song structure starts to come out. One song ain’t going to sound the same after you’ve done it 40 times. Something is going to change about it, whether it’s a vocal or a musical part. So it’s a whole journey. The music keeps growing.”

Tricky’s live shows are notorious, and they’ve received some mixed reviews over the years. It’s part of his nature to treat them as more free-form affairs than rigidly rehearsed and choreographed routines. The band rehearses the songs, but he rarely rehearses himself, preferring to take the gigs as they come and do his thing. He’s aware that this isn’t for everyone: “Our show can go anywhere, and some people don’t get or understand my shows. Most shows can be a bit about love and hate, because you are just going with the vibe, you know?”

It’s the mark of a true artist when they’re willing to take risks and try new things, even if it means some people will be upset or not get it. Our conversation turns to his feelings on the dearth of artists these days. He dismays that no one is making fully realised albums anymore. “Two good singles and the rest is garbage,” he succinctly puts it, and it’s hard to argue with. A shift towards single tracks and a focus on being included on the right Spotify playlists has taken over as the industry standard pathway to ‘success’. Naturally, some artists are still making great albums, and good singles have been used to shift questionable albums probably since the format existed, but the pendulum has definitely been swinging away from long players.

This isn’t how Tricky approaches music. He sees albums as complete pieces of work, finished only “when it’s a piece of music from the beginning to the end,” and also part of a longer continuum. He explains: “The last song’s got to feel like the end of the album but also the beginning of something, because then you have the next album. It’s gotta say goodbye and hello at the same time.”

Whether it’s living in a new city, living a healthier lifestyle, or just life in general, ununiform marks a new period for him. “I see albums like chapters. On this new album, musically there’s a bit of change that happened to me, I can feel it. It still sounds like my music but there’s a big change coming. I’m going to say my last album was just an OK album, but this album is a lot stronger. I’ve been recording again and the music is even stronger. This is a new chapter.”

After more than 20 years of making music, Tricky is still writing his own story and carving out his own path. You’d think with a career this long, and with so many milestones, that it might have built some expectations into Tricky’s mindset, but he remains humble. “You know, actually I don’t expect anything. Anything that happens is a bonus. It’s like, the radio has been playing one of my songs, and I never expected it, but it’s happened. It’s a bonus. If you don’t expect it, it’s all good.”

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