Revisiting Roots: Tricky Interviewed
“I haven’t actually read it, and the people talking in there - uncles, friends and all that - I don’t need to know what they said. Reading a book about yourself…it’s a bit weird.”
Tricky is speaking from Berlin, where - for someone who just picked up this year’s ‘Classic Album’ Q Award, and a much-anticipated autobiography 'Hell Is Round The Corner' about to hit the stores - he lives a surprisingly simple life. That’s how he likes it though, as someone who doesn’t tend to dwell on his huge impact on music, or even his past at all.
For most people, letting go of this particular past would be a tough one. In the forthcoming book, Tricky opens with the stark statement that his first ever memory is seeing his mother in a coffin, aged just four.
Maxine Quaye - who Tricky says took her own life after struggling to cope with her debilitating epilepsy - looms large in his story despite not liking to dwell on the past. She is the namesake of his ground-breaking, award winning 1995 album ‘Maxinquaye’, but she might also have passed on a love of words to her son - it turns out she was a budding poet.
“I didn’t find out my mum used to write until Channel 4 did a documentary about me [‘Naked And Famous’ in the late 1990s] and that’s when I found out,” says Tricky. “My auntie put my mum’s poem in the documentary. So all my early life I never knew. When I found out, it kind of made sense.”
For Tricky, growing up when she did, and where she did - the white, working class South Bristol neighbourhood where he too grew up - meant the creative life he had in later life was out of reach for her.
“My mum just wasn’t writing at the right time,” he says. “She was a Knowle West woman, she didn’t have a vehicle to writing a book. But by the time I grew up I had music. My mum was too early. It kind of made sense.”
Despite what you might think for someone who lost his mother at such an early age, the early chapters of Tricky’s book give a real sense of security and of loving homes, despite turbulence, violence and plenty of moving around. Family - and his were an (aply) pretty wild bunch - is clearly important to him, and he sees them as having done a good job.
“A friend who’s a social worker reckons I’ve had a bad life, the word they use is ‘neglected’,” he reflects. “They’ve read the book and say I was neglected and had a hard upbringing, but I can’t see it myself. I was moved around - my nan’s, my auntie’s - and it’s funny hearing them say they deal with children now who’ve grown up like that. It’s hard for me to see it.
“It all depends how you look at things. I was living with my grandmother, and her grandmother was alive until I was about 12 or 13. I could go to anyone, I used to go from house to house, so I don’t see it as a hard life. It’s interesting to see how someone else sees it as traumatising. I understand what they’re saying but I don’t feel it. I think it’s a different generation, I was brought up by the generation of ‘pull your socks up and get on with it’. Now it’s different. If I’d had a social worker when I was younger they would have said it was neglect. I didn’t know what depression was either, I thought it was just boredom. So it’s a generation thing.”
Reading his book, you get a sense of how Tricky - brought up by grandparents and great-grandparents - is a sort of bridge between the war generation and the modern world. “That’s exactly how it was, almost like I grew up in another time,” he agrees. “My grandmother - remember she was a white woman, well not really white - listening to Billie Holiday [the first music he remembers ever hearing], her dad was an American GI stationed in Bristol, so it was very old school. You couldn’t dwell on things - you had to get on with it, we didn’t have Facebook or Instagram to go on and say ‘I’m not feeling good today’ and you wouldn’t say that to your family either, you just didn’t talk like that.”
Tricky’s memories speak to that toughness. He remembers being told by his auntie to get out of the house when he was moping around, or even waking up to find his step-grandfather (who he was living with at the time) had circled all the vacant bedsits in the back of the Bristol Evening Post and left it on the kitchen table as a not-so subtle hint. “Right, it’s time to go,” Tricky thought.
All these memories are told in a very matter-of-fact way: seeing his dad pull a flick knife; his uncle’s mate shooting someone in the neck; his Uncle Martin kidnapping and “carving” people up. Alongside these are wholesome sounding tales of picking vegetables, hunting for rabbits, half living of the land despite his urban environment. On numerous occasions he refers to his family, and his upbringing, as being part gypsy and part gangster: “I was brought up with a little bit of a criminal minded attitude too.”
Women are a big part of this as well. Tricky’s outlook and creative life has been shaped by the females making up his family - his mother, his daughter Mina - whose birth he’s attributed to making him feel again after being numb, and whose tragic recemt death has been a huge emotional blow - by Martina Topley-Bird (mother of Mina and vocalist on ‘Maxinquaye’) and by the tough yet loving women of his early years. When he says tough, he means it. According to Tricky's book, his great-auntie Maureen was a top female streetfighter in Manchester, and that's a thread that seems to run through many of the female figures in his childhood. “My auntie’s mother broke her arm in a fight - that’s her own mother - over who I was going to live with,” he explains. “So I had women fighting over me. I felt wanted - it was impossible for me to not feel wanted.”
The unconventional, somewhat wild upbringing he experienced - wanted by his family but not really expected to behave, or go to school - gave him a freedom that Tricky thinks made him the artist he became. “Everyone looked after me, but also let me do whatever I wanted,” he remembers. “I could be in a blues or in a club, smoking weed - I didn’t have discipline. I think if I had - I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I could have done with some! - it would have changed what it did. Not having discipline, it let me do whatever I want, which is what I do in music now. I’ve made 13 albums and not one of them sounds the same. If you know about music you know I’ve got nothing to do with that word ‘trip-hop’ - nothing I do sounds the same.”
Defying convention is a thread running through his life. In the book he describes how he spent part of his teens freaking people out by wearing eyeliner and a dress, wanting to look like the girls in the video for Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Girls’ - something he says, looking back, he wouldn’t advise a young black kid to do in the ‘80s - which speaks to his approach to life, refusing to fit into a box.
He loved 2 Tone as much as reggae and hip-hop, traversing black and white musical worlds. His indefinable music also speaks to this refusal to pigeonhole creativity, and the people he’s collaborated with also reflect this: everyone from (childhood hero and The Specials frontman) Terry Hall, Björk and horrorcore hip-hop crew Gravediggaz, to Grace Jones and PJ Harvey. It makes total sense then that he’d make rap and the beginnings of trip-hop with Massive Attack on their ‘Blue Lines’, and then move onto his own dark, subversive sound.
It’s also not surprising that this unconventional kid - especially one coming of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s - spent a lot of time living in squats, becoming part of the national network, a community that partied together and survived together. That way of life bleeds into his present-day Berlin existence. “I learnt so much from that,” Tricky says. “Squatters in London knew squatters in Birmingham, or all over. In the Kings Cross squat this guy Gary taught us to get up and go to the market early in the morning and find veg that people had dropped - nothing wrong with them - and we’d go back and make soup.
“I’ve lived with acres of land, I’ve done the money thing. But I’m more happy just living in an apartment. When people come to record with me they might be shocked because my apartment is nothing expensive, a normal place. If you live in a big house it’s great when people are around, but when you’re on your own it’s not. I live very simply now, and I think squats and my upbringing taught me that. Rabitting and all that - a bit gypsy. They were like gangster gypsies. My Uncle Martin would be out rabitting and hanging out with gypsies, then the next minute be suited and booted and in his own club.”
Another feature of his formative years are sound systems. As a young person growing up in Bristol that’s hardly surprising - the city’s heartbeat is its sound systems - but it also ran in his veins: Tricky’s father ran Studio 17 sound systemm and his paternal grandfather before him ran the sound as Tarzan the High Priest. Tricky says that hearing South London’s Saxon Sound was a huge turning point for him, when music really started to take over his life and send him in another direction.
Arguably his whole career has come out of sound systems - the early urge to grab a mic, then Wild Bunch coming out of that tradition but playing hip-hop and funk, leading onto work with Massive Attack and beyond. Why does he think sound system culture is still so important today? “It’s so ingrained in our culture now, it’s so part of our history,” Tricky reflects. “I know white guys who can drop patois, Jamaican slang words. Jamaican culture is now so part of English culture. Wild Bunch wouldn’t have been around if it wasn’t for people like my granddad.”
He talks about the influence of sound systems on hip-hop and grime - that essential set up of a DJ and someone on the mic - and how the culture once seen as singularly Caribbean is now impossible to untangle from UK musical culture.
Pushing sounds and ideas forward is something that Tricky is still very much a part of. His label False Idols released a compilation album in August, featuring a selection of mostly unsigned artists from around the world, hand curated by himself. It’s what really keeps him interested in music. “Everyone was really happy to be on it. I’d love if someone [one of the lesser known names] it went on to do really well,” he says. “Having successful records doesn’t do anything for me, sell out arena tours don’t excite me. Stuff like this does.
“Most of them were unsigned, I found them while I was travelling - Mexico, Guatemala, New York - people I met, people I heard on soundcloud. If I put an album out now it wouldn’t even chart. I don’t really mind, it’s because I don’t play the game. My music isn’t commercial, but then ‘Maxinquaye’ wasn’t commercial. I think here it’s all about the next big thing.”
He talks about his recent tours with Tool and how to him American audiences seem more loyal, or the industry more appreciative, than here in the UK: “Look at Massive Attack - they changed the face of English music, but they don’t get that much love now. The Brits should be giving Massive Attack an award for fucking years of excellence - I don’t know what they should call it, they should make up an award for those guys. They’ve still got loads of fans, but in England where’s the awards for those guys? Shaun Ryder, he’s known by the younger generation as just a reality TV star, but that’s a legend right there - he changed everything.
“You don’t hear people talk about his lyrics or his songs, it’s all ‘Look at him he’s such a character, such a personality.’ Awards here seem to be a pat on the back for an album that’s made loads of money.”
That’s not putting Tricky off though. He says he’s got an album coming out next year, with a new guest vocalist on the record throughout - “It’ll feel like an album rather than a compilation” - with its first singles dropping in February. Despite a new book delving into his history, and his ground breaking musical past, this artist is all about the future.
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‘Hell is Round the Corner’ is out on 31st October and published by Blink. Pre-order here.
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