SHADOWS&LIGHT Inside the method
of pop music's
most enigmatic
by Michael Gelfand
Who is Tricky? 
To those who wish to decipher his complex musical method, this question is fundemental. Yet no one has yet been able to construct a complete picture from the clues that lie strewn about in his wake. His very name warns of contridictions that await those who try to seperate the truth from the hype.
Ever since Maxinquaye (Island), his 1994 debut, slithered into our collective conciousness with its sinewy "trip-hop" grooves, Tricky's musical peers as well as astute listeners have scoured his cumulative body of music for evidence that might reveal what kind of mind it would take to create such a disturbing though engaging sound. Judging from the dark, violent energy that permeates his work and the intensely aggressive manner in which he cross-dresses in press photos and in public, you'd be hard pressed not to conclude that Tricky is a confusing - if not very confused - individual.
       What makes the task of figuring him out so dicey is that he thrives on spontaneity, which makes him an inverterate risk taker. His blunted honest lyrical approach and musical dynamism reflects - and often exagerate - the turmoil of his past (as a troubled youth growing up in Bristol, England and as an under-utilized, short-lived member of the band Massive Attack), his present (as a major-label recording artist and owner of a small record lable), and his future (which is geared toward securing his place in music history while providing emotional and finacial comfort for his three-year-old daughter). The disjointed androgyny of his public persona - an obvious extension of his provocativeartistic vision and the fulfillment of his desire to be all things to all people (including himself) - further muddies the water by subverting the values most of or society still embraces.
     As far as his music is concerned, Tricky has made a habit of forcefully layering and interwining disparate styles to forge an enveloping sound that thrills us with examples of what can happen when rules are ignored. It's the sound of someone who disavows all musical theory and goes only where innate creative instincts lead. It's a sound that seems to come from everywhere at once a complex hybrid of hip-hop beats, gothic moods, psychedelic samples and epic hard rock riffing that's made all the more unsettling by the sickly gurgle beneath Trick's own subterranean growl. (Many people refer to the sub-genre he created as "trip-hop," but Tricky.
abhors that name and, not surprisingly, prefers to call it "Tricky music.")
      The release of Angels with Dirty Faces (Island), his third record, is sure to add another wrinkle to our skewed perception of his work. As with past efforts, the music is moody and chaotic, but Tricky's sound his evolved, resulting in his most sonically challenging and focused effort to date. He continues to offer his hallmark of warbling, twisted vocal harmonies and desperately dissonant textures, but with tempos more frenetic than either Maxinquaye or 1996's Pre-Millenium Tension (Island), Angels points to his growth as a composer.
            Current tracks like "Money Greedy," "Mary McCreary," "You," and "Talk to Me" are infinitely more insidious than, say, the sexy lull of Pre-Millenium Tension's "Christiansands," with an off-kilter harmonic complexity and an intangible menace that's at once dangerous and sexy. This is due in part to the fact that Angels is Tricky's most player-oriented album yet. He inspired his studio band with his ideas, conjured the appropriate vibe, gave them space to create, and conducted the overall performance to his complete satisfaction. "Everyone who was involved [in the making of Angels] trusted his vision," recalls Martina Topley-Bird, whose soulful croon is often used as a textural juxtaposition to Tricky's gravelly song-speak vocals. "He directed it all. He's the center of everything, you know?"
         In person, Tricky proved not nearly as "dark" as he seems from afar. He readily admits to being cocky and fiercely competitive, but the man behind the demonic public facade is actually friendly; clearly, he enjoys the life he leads. Also, during the hours we spent together in his loft apartment in New York City's downtown Tribeca and subsequently in his favorite East Village restaurant, it became clear that Tricky always gets what Tricky wants. (In particular, this means that you should never order crispy fried red snapper in his presence unless you are prepared to go hungry - he ate mine right off my own plate. Tricky indeed)

       You've been quoted as saying that you want to be the best musician alive, but gauging from the credits on your records, it doesn't appear that you play too many instruments. Looking around your apartment. I see a guitar over here and a keyboard over there, so I know that you're at least vaguely familiar with these instruments, but apparently you're not playing a lot of stuff. Isn't that problematic?
       I've done the studio thing on my own and done everything on three albums, and I've done strong live shows. So now I know I can do the studio thing, and I know I can direct a full band, and I have to keep knowing I can do all this stuff. This album is the most I've ever used other people; almost twenty percent of it is other people playing live. A lot of it is samples that I play live, which is kind of hard to explain, but I feel like I'm strong enough now to direct anybody.
       So when you say "the best musician" you're talking about being a conceptualist rather than a player?
       Sometimes. It all depends. On this album, yeha... like the drums on "Mary McCreary," [drummer Calvin Weston] didn't play all that. He played it, I took it and played it again. I didn't loop it - just flew it in live. I played the guitar line live. If you've got a guitarist in there, it's kind of stupid to try and direct them unless you've got a melody. I might say to someone, "Play this" - and I did that on a lot on this album - but then, with the cello, I don't know a fuck-all about the cello. I have to let [cellist Jane Scarpatoni] do her thing.
    A song like "Money Greedy" started out with sampled sounds, but it all depends. I wanted "Money Greedy" to sound like a rock band. I wanted it to sound bigger than anything I've done. The only way that we're going to get any more sucess than what we've got really is the sound; the music ain't gonna compromise.
     But when you say you want to be the best musician, what does that mean? What will you be the best at?
     Where I'm going. I want to turn things around.
      If you work to be the best, you imply that someone will be the worst. You turn the subjective value of someone's creativity into an objective fact, and a competitive, contentious fact at that.
     Well, I've got to have something to live for. I don't give a fuck about getting paid. I do not give a fuck! I have to get paid so that my kid has got money and I can be comfortable, but it ain't just for the money. Apart from that, you get bored.
     So you view music in competitive terms?
     I see music as war. I'm that sort of person. I don't want you doing better than me, and if you do, there's no way I'm going to listen to it. No way it gets played in my house. That goes for hype as well. Everyone's talking about [Mercury electronica artist] Roni Size. I've never heard his stuff, but I'll be fucked if you're going to tell me what to listen to. If you're going to dictate to what I listen to, you've got no chance. I'm not disrespecting him. People are loving his music, but I will not get dictated to. It's war. Perhaps it's because I'm competitive. People strive to be the best.
     You're rumored to have a limited attention span...
     Very limited.
     Does that make it hard for you to write music?
     A lot of these hip-hop kids do their drum beats at home, get their sounds up on a general basis, and then take it into the studio and work from that. Every time I go into the studio, I go in there with no ideas. Just my sounds and my keyboard. then I make a tune. I do it one time. Sometimes I don't get it right, and these kids will laugh at me. Just the other day I was mad tired and I was fucking around with this tune, and they were all laughing becuase they all got their shit
  Tricky relies on a modest amount of equipment to bring
his sonic creations to life. Both at home and on the road his musical universe revolves around his trusty Yamaha QY20 workstation but he's been know to capture sounds off of vinyl and CD with a TASCAM DA-30 MKII DAT player, and a TASCAM 122 MKII cassette recorder. A Korg X5 keyboard provides Tricky with an outlet for experimenting, while an Akai MPC2000 holds down the sequencing duties and supplies most of his drum sounds - although he'll occasionally employ an E-mu Planet Phat for kick drum parts. A Lexicon MPX1 handles all the digital effects. Tricky sings into a Shure Beta 58A; a Sprint by Soundcraft Rack Pack is used to mix all the madness down to an Alesis ADAT so that Tricky can use his original vocals in case they capture the right vibe. Mixes are monitored via a pair of Event 20/20 bas powered speakers or Sennheiser HD 265 headphones (with the help of a Furman HA-6A headphone amp). A Furman AR-1215 voltage regulator and PL-8 power  conditioner / light module keep all the equipment fired up and ready to go.
together before they come into the studio. I don't give a fuck about getting my shit together before; I make music. I fucking act off of instinct. If my instinct's working good this day, great. If it's not, this tune ain't working. That's natural instinct.
    I know kids who can create something they want. I can't create something I want - I can only create. My music has a mind of its own. I play around with sounds, I record it, and I'll play around with more sounds. I can't have an image in my mind where I sat, "I'm going to do that." It don't work. I have tried it, but it goes off in its own way.
     Some kids can go in and say "I need a four-bar loop, and it's goona go boomp-da bah-boomp didit-dah," but I can't do it. The music's got a mind of its own. You don't have to try too hard. You go in and play around and keyboards, and the fact you can't play makes it even more interesting 'cause you're thinking, "Ah, what's this, man?" And you record it. Say there's a drum set. I'll go cuh-cuh cuh-cuh and record that into a computer. Then I'll do a keyboard part over top of it, or a string sound. Then I'll sit back and listen and hope that I like it and that it moves me. It's just instinct. Music grows; it's got a life all its own. If you listen to something long enough, it'll tell you a part. It'll say, "I need a string part here. I need this melody." It speaks to you.
    If it's not speaking to you, how and when do you push it?
    I'll know. If I'm in the studio and it's on my time, I'm gonna whack that song off and do another one, but if I'm making an EP with some kids who are waiting to do their thing, I'm just like, "Fuck it, go on." I don't mind looking stupid in front of people. I know some people don't understand what I'm doing, but that doesn't matter.
      I don't need to look for the inspiration. It's there. I love playing around with a guitar, and especially instruments I have no knowledge of. I love it. Making sounds out of things, it's just fucking graet. I don't need [to force] inspiration. I'm like a kid sitting there with a crayon and a pen: I'll sit there at the keyboard for ages. just to hear the sounds coming out of the speaker.
   That's pretty cocky of you. Some people would probably even say that it's ignorant and that you're diminishing the value of practicing and studying your instuments, as if you're saying, "I don't need to prepare. I'll just do it."
     I suppose it is kind of cocky. I'm lazy, cocky, and risky but when you get into risky situations you perfom better. Like putting yourself in a situation to do an album a week.
     It involves making a leap of faith.
     Like doing some of our live gigs. We'll make up shit while we're going along. It's risky, but the scary potential of it makes you perform.
     You manage to get that across both on record and onstage. Do you have a preference for recording or performing?
     They're very different, but I need both of them. If I ain't in the studio for a week, I would get didgy. And if I ain't toured for so many months, I get didgy. The live show is mad. It's very, very intense now. It's energy. Very punk rock. Very angry. A lot of emotion. I shake my head like it's some voodoo ceremony.
      Performing, to me, is just feeling it. I don't dress up to go onstage. I do not give a fuck. It's got nothing to do with anything. I'd perfrom with a broken leg and a big cast. Don't mean nothing to me. What my band wears, I do not give a fuck. I know you'll get the voodoo when you come to see it. It takes you away, and you get your anger out. I love it. It's dope.
     You've been known to keep your back to the audience throughout your entire shows. Why?
      'Cause I'm shy. People don't believe that. They think I'm militant or on some "Mr. I-Do-Thigs-Differently" kick. But I've never ever gone to live concerts. To me, to go see some band run around onstage... unless you're a fan. I'm a musician, and it's hard to be a fan. And I don't want to perform and shake my ass for people. I'm no one's dancing monkey. Don't come to my show and think I'm going to shake my ass for you.

   How would you desccribe your vocal style?
    Rough. Rough. Funny enough, but girls find it sexy. Weird as fuck. I think what it is is effort, making up for what I haven't got. I can't sing, so you hear me trying, and I think people connect with the effort.
    You have a pretty distincitve timbre. I always thought that you ran your voice through a vocorder or purposely distorted it.
      It's worse some days. Smoking don't do anything to it, but drinking... awghhh. That's what good about this album, because I knew I couldn't come back with the same vocal style again - you know, with the mellow stuff. So it was a challenge. That's why me and Martina work well together. She's somewhere else I'm not, and I'm somewhere else she's not. But we haven't been able to give people a lot of that. People said the best tracks on Maxinquaye were when we sang together - but I don't want to give people what they want. So straight away we stopped doing that.
     What's mad is that I hear a lot of people doing that shit now. I can remember when [Daddy] G [from Massive Attack] first heard [Maxinquaye's] "Aftermath." G's a good guy, but he's typically arrogant - not as in rude, but he's funny. He said, "Jack. I'm not into the tune, but we should take that vocal style an make it ours." And I'm like, "Fuck you. What do you mean ours? If you don't like the tune, you don't want to put it on the album, how can it be ours? So that makes me feel like we started something. And everbody's fucking doing it now. And we can't! I can't make another album like Maxinquaye. I'd love to, but everybody's doing it. It was like, "Fuck this." In a way, people have chased me from my own music.
    Does your own image - whether it's right or wrong - as kind of a dark presence in pop music influence the way you actually make music?
     It became important on this album. For the first time, I'm thinking "image" because I don't want people to try and say I'm "dark" again. This time I've got bright cloths: I'm the futuristic player, the transvestite player, with all the gold. I've got lipstick on - raw, colorful shit - because I know what they're going to say. They're going to say, "Tricky's come out and he's dark," but the album isn't dark and moody. It's less dark than all of them. [In the past] I wore a wedding dress with guns, so they think that's dark, but it's not. It's like yin and yang. I love the idea of wearing a dress and having guns, or some real B-boy clothes - hard clothes - with makeup. I love wearing Fred Perry tops - what skinheads 
used to wear - with a sarong and lipstick. I always loved it. It's like me and Martina's vocals. Getting her to sing the real heavy shit and me being the mellow, weak one. I've always loved reversing things and using the yin and yang of it.
      People often perceive a certain street-wise gangster mentality in you songs. How much of that is intentionally planted in the music.
      It's all street-wise. When I was fifteen, I used to write shit about shooting people and taking down girls' pants. But then I really got into Prince, and I think all the lyrics got mixed up. I listen to Prince and I want to write something that's beautiful and not hard-core. Some kids just listen to hip-hop or jungle or rock, but I started hearing loads of different stuff, so my lyrics changed. People like Terry Hall talked about their suffering. Bob Marley. billie Holiday. They changed my world. They'd say, "If I was your girlfriend," and I'd think, "God, if you could say that to somebody..." Can you imagine that? What a thing to say. I wanted to write shit like that, so I think it just changed. It's still street-wise, but it's a different twist.
       Would you consider your music hi-tech?
      It's quite old-fashioned in some ways, as in it's got real old-fashioned sensibilities. People do think I've got equipment up my ass, but no, I'm a very non-technical person.
     So it's more organic tha gear-driven?
     Very. I'm very non-technical I use things to the bare minimum. Like the QY20. You've got two writing modes, and I use the simple four-track mode. You can do hundreds of things on it, but all I can do is make a tune. You could quantize it, but I don't give a fuck. I don't even do that. I just lay down a drum pattern and three other sounds, and then I take it into the studio, dump it down, and work on it afterwards.
     Have you tried working on other workstations that the QY20?
      Yeah, but you can't keep up with it, man. You could go on forever. I know people who spend and spend and spend. Every month something new comes out, but it all achieves the same thing. I don't think equipment makes your music, really. That's enough to make your music. You've got to have some soul, man. You hear people who use machines, and their music is technically advanced, but there ain't no soul in it. Shit, music without soul? It's no good to be technical. If music ain't got soul, it's not music.

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  photos: Melanie Weiner
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