“One of the things people say when they meet me is, ‘God, you’re not overbearing or dark. You seem like a nice guy,'” says Tricky, mimicking surprise. “I make jokes, I fuck around, I’m a kid. I spend 70% of my time laughing. I don’t walk around all dark. I might take my photos like that because I’m not a clown. But I’m a really soft, feminine, gentle, normal guy.”
Once an image is tattooed on the public consciousness, it remains in place until an equally persuasive alternative comes along to erase it. To the average Joe, Jarvis Cocker is still the bloke who waggled his bum at Michael Jackson, the Prodigy’s Keith Flint is the pointy-haired firestarter and Tricky is the surly misanthrope who burned his bridges before he’d even finished crossing them: threatening journalists, scowling at audiences, warring with his record company and making albums choked with noise and paranoia.
A decade on, he maintains that his reputation was exaggerated, though not entirely unmerited. “Sometimes I’m in a bad mood, sometimes I’m in a good mood. It’s like everyone else. But they take it to extremes with me. It’s an excuse for why my music is how it is. The easiest way is the age-old ‘Van Gogh was crazy, he cut his ear off.’ You know what I mean? ‘If his music’s dark, his life must be hell.'”
Today, at least, it is impossible to reconcile the caricature with the sprightly, loquacious 40-year-old bobbing around on a record company sofa, his short dreadlocks bunched up like pineapple leaves. His speech is several degrees higher and faster than his throaty, viscous rapping voice and peppered with words — villainry, bullyism — that are strange to the ear. Between mouthfuls of takeaway food, he stabs the air with his fork for emphasis.
Tricky’s current home is Los Angeles, but his first album for five years, the vibrant and varied Knowle West Boy, is named after the rough district of Bristol where he grew up, a place he left as soon as he could. The first single, Council Estate, is a ragged, punky statement of solidarity with those from similar environments. “Remember, boy, you’re a superstar!” he tells them.
“We’re the same,” he explains. “When I lived in Knowle West, I must have been the same person I am now. It wasn’t like someone came and sprinkled superstar dust on me. So that means all the kids who come from that kind of background can do what I’m doing. They’re superstars just waiting to happen.”
He seems sincere, and he would be an unusually generous judge on a television talent show, but his statement isn’t really true. Few residents of Knowle West in the 1980s had the inclination and nerve to wear a skirt to hip-hop clubs and only a singular talent could have developed the distinctly British rapping style, both playful and ominous, that he demonstrated on Massive Attack’s first two albums, or crafted a solo debut as rich and strange as 1995’s Maxinquaye.
Tricky’s upbringing was far from typical. His father left before he was born and his mother, Maxine Quaye, committed suicide when he was four. “I was with a friend the other day and his dad just died and it really hit him heavy,” he says.
“And I thought, ‘Thank God I ain’t got to go through that.’ I think I’m lucky in a way. Because the relationship I got with my mother in my head, if it was like that in real life [her death would not be] something I’m going to come back from.”
His childhood explains his admiration for women, and correspondingly dim view of male behaviour, as well as his fluid attitude to racial identity. He was raised by his white grandmother and aunt (“My family’s colour-blind”), who encouraged him to spend his nights performing with the future members of Massive Attack in the famed Wild Bunch sound system. Three of his uncles, on the other hand, were “very bad men” who served serious jail time.
Tricky served a short sentence himself, for possessing forged £50 notes, when he was 17.
“I didn’t like the lifestyle,” he says. “Little things bugged me — the food, and being surrounded by men.” He says he almost died during an asthma attack after officers took eight hours to respond to his call for an inhaler. “That fucked my head up. All right, you’ve done something bad so they put you in prison, but surely you have to be looked after.”
Another court case, for assault, ended in acquittal. “I didn’t do it, but I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could have been looking at five to six years. That would have been it.”
How does he feel when he goes back to see his family?
“I feel detached from it. It’s like I’m just visiting from another planet or something, just touching down and then I’m leaving.”
The more Tricky talks about himself, the more contradictory he seems. He is a normal guy who feels like an alien, a gentle soul who still has to suppress the urge to thump people who cross him.
This is why his lyrics teem with multiple personae, why he enlists so many different people (including, on Knowle West Boy, an ex-girlfriend and a busker he met in the street) to sing them.
“I can be anything I want when I do an album. I can be vulnerable, I can be weak, I can be nasty, I can be strong, I can be good, I can be bad. They’re all in there — but in society you don’t get to use all these personalities because you’re trained.”
On his first three albums (four if you count 1996’s pseudonymous Nearly God), his main muse and mouthpiece was Martina Topley-Bird, with whom he has a 13-year-old daughter. He stopped working with her in 1998 after he thought two specific journalists were casting him as an oppressive Ike Turner figure (hence the threats).
Does he miss her voice? “Not at all, because we’re like brother and sister now. If we’d carried on working, we wouldn’t have built this relationship. Right now she’s one of my favourite people in the world. I wouldn’t give that up just for a vocal.”
Tricky says he’s lazy, but he gets a lot done. Despite being a voracious weed-smoker, he studies a host of martial arts. He even taught tai chi for three years in New York, an image that boggles the mind. He swore off acting after a small role in Luc Besson’s sci-fi folly The Fifth Element (“That’s hard work, man; the only good thing is I got to meet Gary Oldman”) but he’s just directed his first film, Brown Punk, named after his own record label.
“I took 12 tracks and wrote a movie around them,” he explains. “You think you’re watching a documentary. It’s like Spinal Tap but not funny.” Publicists take note: there’s your poster quote.
He also recently exhibited his digital photographs in Paris and Tokyo. “Really it’s only because I’m Tricky that they did it,” he grins. “It’s like David Bowie could piss in a glass, put it outside a museum and it’s art.”
He’s thinking of moving out of Los Angeles soon. It’s making him complacent and he needs new stimuli. “I like being disconnected,” he says, pitching forward, fork aloft.
“I like being a stranger. I like it on the outside. I’m comfortable with strangeness. That keeps me going.” —