Inside-out man
At the time of his brilliant debut album, Tricky could fairly have been described
as mad, bad and dangerous to know. His new record is just as devastating, but
the mercurial artist, one of the most charismatic pop stars of the decade,
is a changed mas. Interview by Ben Thompson. Photographs by Phil Knott.
 
        Ducking and weaving languorously around the stage of a south London rehearsal room is a man who looks very like Tricky. In physical terms, the mercurial Bristolian has always tended more toward the whippet than the bulldog, but he looks leaner tha ever now, as if hatched from within his old self, or perhaps freshly removed from a set of Russian dolls.

       It is pretty much a matter of record that Tricky - aka 31-year-old Adrian Thaws - has been the most charismatic and fascinating British pop star of the Nineties: his career to date a heady, contradictory cocktail of openness and paranioa, roughness and sophistication, sensitivity and menace. Tonight he is wearing an expensive jumper.You know it's expensive because the label is clearly visable at the front of his neck, the jumper being worn not just inside out but back to front as well. If you were looking for a motto for a Tricky coat of arms, 'Not just inside out, but back to front as well' would be pretty good.

        His phlegmy West Country burr unaffected by three-and-a-half years of living in America, Tricky gets down from stage demanding 'a cup of tea for the nice journalist'. For a moment it even looks as if he might make it himself, an unexpected opening gambit for a man whose last public act in the country was to kick a Face writer in the head at the 1998 Glastonbury festival. Around that time, he told an interviewer, 'Listen, if your were reincarnated 20 times, you'd still be a piece of plant compared to me.'

         Tricky's volatile relationship with the press might seem like an unedifying sideshow - a calculated campaign to establish himself as a moody, dangerous individual with the collusion of a self-important media - but there's more to it than that. Ever since he took the title of his stunning 1995 debut album, Maxinquaye, from the maiden name of the mother (Maxine Quaye) who killed herself when he was a small child, the delicate balance between his public and private selves has been one of the most compelling aspects of his work.

         The consequences of that balance being disturbed are serious for him - he can't help seeing himself through others' eyes, and when you live your life out in the open like he does, that is a scary thing to do - so it's only fair that they should be serious for those who do the disturbing. But in crossing the line from the verbal threats that are a rapper's stock-in-trade to actual physical assault, he seened to have lost his grip on the differance between metaphor and reality. This time last year, with his music apparently locked into a claustrophobic spiral and his increasing volatility making incarceration a real possibility, he seemed not so much poised above the abyss as tumbling headlong into it.

         Under these circumstances, the upbeat and vivacious tone of his new album, Juxtapose, ranks as this year's most intriguing musical mystery. Not only is this the first Tricky record in a long time that seems to want to draw listeners in rather than drive them away, it also rediscovers the happy blend of eerie tunes and exotic rumbles that made him a star. His voice still sounds like it was recorded underwater, but it's as if the minature submarine Tricky likes to do his vocals in has left the ocean bed and is heading fast towards the surface.

        The brilliant opening single, For Real, ia a quiet manifesto, pitched seductively between Nirvana and Prince. Tricky says it's about 'artist who take themselves too seriously'. It sounds to me as if it's about Tricky himself. 'Some of these people have to live their life for real,' the lyric observes - part apology, part celebration - 'I don't have to, I've got a record deal'. At some point over the past year and a bit, this man has plainly recieved a serious wake-up call. The question is, where did it come from?

      In conversation, he is open about the shortcomings of recent records. ('People who buy my albums are living through my life. Hopefully they've got enough patience to carry on through my mistakes.') Apologises for public misdemeanours - talking scathigly of himself 'behaving how people thought this kid Tricky should behave' - and is touchingly proud of his house in New Jersey: 'I've got two acres of land and I've got a daughter [Maisey, four], so she's got her own private little park.'

      Amid the welter of new collaborators on Juxtapose - top American hip-hop producers Grease and DJ Muggs, hyperactive chatter Mad Dog (formerly of pioneering British rappers the London Posse) - there is one notable absentee. This is the first Tricky album not to feature Maisey's mother, Martina Topley-Bird, whose haunting, smoky voice has perviously been so integral to the appeal of his music, and who, beyond that, seems to have functioned as Tricky's muse. 'You're singing,' he once told her when she was struggling to get a handle on some of the lyrics he had written for her, 'but it's not you.'

      From the moment of their meeting in 1991 - he the local ragamuffin, she a haughty 15-year-old, sitting on a wall not far from her exclusive public school, smoking a cigarette - everything about their relationship seemed to express itself in mythological terms. The fact that Martina does not appear on Juxtapose turns out, with classic Trickian perversity, to ba a response to suggestions that he might have been holding her back. 'A lot of people will be angry I'm not working with Martina. She's very sad about it and so am I, but that's the mother of my kid and I'm not trying to hold her back. She'll do her own album now. She can say her own things and in a few years we'll do an album together and everyone will love it.'

     The goal of Juxtapose is, he claims, to 'go pop and get power'. His own label, Durban Poison, is finally ready to go after years of totuous negotiations, and Tricky needs the clout increased sales will bring to carry his own artist with him. 'When you think about other people's careers, you don't think about your own so much,' he says cheerfully. 'The pressure's gone.' Among Tricky's plans for Durban Poison proteges the Baby Namboos is a remix by Geoff Barrow from Portishead - previously on the receiving end of some of his most venomous invective.

    'He's a biggerm an than me,' Tricky says humbly, 'blessing us with this remix after the things I've said about him.' What? Blessing us? At last, the mystery of the new Tricky is solved. He must have got religion. He shakes his head smiling. 'I'm just growing up and seeing things more realistically.' The violent deaths of US rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, he says, 'scared the shit' out of him. 'In a field like music, where it's free and anyone can belong, you shouldn't have to watch where you're treading. If you come from a poor background but make money out of your music, that should be the safest time of your life, not the most
dangerous.'

     Making the most of this breathing space has always been Tricky's prime objective; the sudden switchbacks that have punctuated his career reflecting his determination to be an alternative artist one week and a hardcore rapper the next. 'That's what it's all about!' he exclaims. 'That is it! I'm a wannabe! One minute I want to be a black guy, the next minute I wanna be PJ Harvey.'

       The only way to understand how much this freedom means to him is to feel the weight of the factors militating against it. The fractured family background (after his mother's death he was raised by his aunts and grandmother in the run-down Bristol area of Knowle West), the gangland uncles, the inadequate formal education, the brushes with youthful criminality - among them a brief spell in youth custody for trying to pass dodgy 50 notes - all seemed to point to a very different destiny to the one Tricky has eventually embraced.

       But this still doesn't explain Juxtapose's sudden influx of perspective at exactly the point when his demons seem to be getting the better of him. Having previously said he didn't want to talk about the reasons for his weight loss, Tricky suddenly mutters 'Candida'. 'They say it affects seven out of 10 schizophrenics...' his voice trails odd, leaving the name of the mental illness that has left its grim mark on one side of his family hanging in the air.

       Candida - that's like an extreme yeast allergy isn't it? 'Yes, but it affects your mind. You know when you've had a bad day? You go to sleep, wake up and it's better. When you've got candida you wake up the same: angry and depressed. You can't sit still for five minutes. For two years I'd eat bread or have some sugar, and one minute I could watch a bad film and cry, and the next thing I knew, I'd be in a bar in New York rucking - rolling on the floor with some kid I'd never met, spitting in his face, biting people... I was a maniac.'

      'What was I like, Alan?' He looks to the assistant who made the tea - now quietly typing in the corner of the room, "Tell him about the Samsonite suitcase.' A story about a rage-filled Tricky opening a locked Samsonite suitcase with his bare hands is duly repeated. 'I was ready to explode,' he recalls matter-of-factly, 'not with anger, not with violence, I just wanted to die.'

     He's saw a series of doctors, rejecting the suggestions made by both his manager and Martina that he should consult a psychiatrist, and was eventually diagnosed with candida shortly before Glastonbury last year. Unfortunatly the treatment - 'total detox, no bread or sugar, no dairy products' - had yet to take effect by the time he got there. 'All the way up until Glastonbury I was totally illogical,' he recalls. 'I just wanted to be put out of my pain - I was thinking, maybe if I do something stupid I'll get lucky and go to an open prison and get some help. Otherwise I'll jump out of a seventh-floor window and not give a toss."

      The strict dietary regime soon bore fruit - not least an end to the asthma attacks that had plagued him for years. He cheats a bit now and again, and alcohol still turns him into 'a mad being from another planet'. He feels stupid talking about candida: 'People don't know what it is. I've even got a pamphlet which says, "If you go to a dinner party, don't even bother trying to explain why you don't eat certain things."' He wanted to send this pamphlet to everyone that reviewed his last few records, but his manager dissuaded him. Quite sensibly too, since those who loved the records would look pretty silly if what they thought was dark genius was actually extreme yeast intolerance.

      'I'm glad all that dark stuff was there,' says Tricky, 'but at the moment it's almost like it wasn't me and I've got another career. That's why I'm so happy.' He enthuses about his next album. It'll be, he says, 'very not ambiguous - the first time anybody's heard me with the vocals up in the mix, sounding like someone who's confident'. His voice clicks into its mesmeric performance rhythem, delivering key lines from new songs, one about the Stephen Lawrence case ('Did you feel him bleeding? Did you feel him leaving?'). The effect is devastating.

       The next day he threatens to beat up an impertinent phone interviewer from Select magazine. Just for old times sake.

'For Real' (Island) is out on August 2.
'Juxtapose' follows two weeks later

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