Comfortably Numb With Tricky

The self-taught wunderkind and trip-hop pioneer has been churning out hard-to-classify records for more than two decades, and he 'never learned to play music.'

Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws, better known as Tricky, has been making moody electronic concoctions for more than 20 years. Though his early collaborators Massive Attack ushered in the trip-hop genre in the 1990s with their looped, scratched, and restructured jazz and orchestral samples, and his other Bristol compatriots Portishead introduced cinematic soundscapes and noir touches to the genre, Tricky popularized a darker, more intricately layered sound that often includes delicate and fluttering vocals from guest female artists.

After a tiff with Massive Attack in the early ’90s, he branched out to pursue his own work, making his debut as a solo artist in 1995 with Maxinquaye, a sultry 12-track meditation on sex, relationships, addiction, and gang violence. Since then, the Brit, who produces and writes all his own music, has released 11 more uniquely individual albums, culling from genres as diverse as hip-hop, ambient, electronic, techno, dub, and reggae. His inimitable sound varies slightly from album to album, but you can always count on Tricky’s textured low-pitched growl to pull it all together.

After a leisurely day of Panantukan (Filipino dirty boxing), cooking, and a walk around the neighborhood, the artist spoke with us from his Berlin apartment before he settled in for a night watching historical documentaries on his iPad. For more than a half-hour, he regaled us with stories of his life growing up in Bristol, England, without a mother and father; his experience working on his latest album, Skilled Mechanics; and why women (including the Icelandic electro-pop diva Björk) find him hard to date.

SF Weekly: What time it is right now? Are you in the UK?
Tricky: No, I’m in Berlin now. It’s about 9:15 at night.

SFW: Why did you move to Berlin?
T: I moved from Los Angeles to Paris, and then got sick of Paris and moved to London. And then I didn’t really like London, so then I moved from London to Berlin. I used to love London. But it just didn’t work for me this time. So then I tried Berlin. It’s a very easy place to live. It’s quite slow here.

SFW: Oh really? How so?
T: It’s like living in a village. It’s quite green. There are parks everywhere. And it’s very slow-paced. Even though it’s like club central and people come from all over the world to go clubbing here, it’s got another side. Like, I haven’t been to a club once here. It’s also not all about money. You won’t see the kind of cars you see in London here. For instance, I’ve never seen a Bentley Sport here, and you don’t really see Ferraris that much. It’s a very, very relaxed place. You see a lot of young people work three days a week here because they can afford to pay their rent and stuff. It’s also very family-centric. You see people with their children all the time on bikes and stuff.

SFW: How long were you in London before moving to Berlin?
T: I was there for about seven months.

SFW: Why didn’t you like London?
T: I had a good time for the first couple of months because I lived in an area where I first lived when I first moved there, so there were people there that I hadn’t seen for years. But it was kind of weird seeing some people who were strung out on drugs. When I knew them, they were like club guys or club girls. And then, all of a sudden, now they’re like crack heads. Or they’re homeless.

SFW: How long were you in Paris and Los Angeles before that?
T: I was in Los Angeles for about five or six years. And then I was in Paris for about five years.

SFW: Why did you end up leaving Paris?
T: It’s a great city, but I just got bored of it. I lived in about five different areas in Paris. And Paris is a very small city. So kind of once you’ve been there a few years, you’ve done everything.

SFW: You’ve kind of lived your whole life jumping around from place to place, haven’t you?
T: Yeah. When my mother committed suicide, she left me with my aunt, and then I lived with my grandmother for a few years, and then back to my aunt. So from when I was young I’ve been moving around a lot. Maybe it’s because of that?

SFW: I read an article from a while ago where you said, “I’m not normal.” Do you still feel like that? And how do you feel like you’re different from other people?
T: Yeah, I’m definitely not normal. Even my daughter tells me there’s something wrong with me. And I think it’s due to some obvious aspects. My mother killed herself, and my dad, I was too young to remember him. When I was old enough to know who he was, I found him in a phonebook. For some reason, I used to look through the phonebook for my last name. One time, when I was 12 years of age, I was at my uncle’s house and I was just sitting on the stairs just looking at names in the phonebook. And then I saw my last name and I said to my aunt, ‘There’s someone here with my last name.’ And she said, ‘It’s your dad. Why don’t you give him a call?’ So I called up and then I got to meet him. So from that lifestyle, I’m not going to be normal. The mother of my kid tells me I’ve never had any discipline. Like for instance, I was going to clubs at 14 years of age. And I didn’t have to go to school. You know how some kids are told you have to go to school by their parents? Well, my grandmother was from a different generation and she didn’t think school was important. So she did the opposite. She used to keep me at home. I’d watch horror movies. She’d say things like, ‘Oh, it’s really cold today. You don’t want to go to school do you?’ I had the worst attendance in my whole school. But since I never had no discipline, that’s partly why I got into music. For instance, I could go out and do anything I wanted. I wasn’t told, ‘This music is a dream. You’re not going to be able to do that. Get a job.’ No one ever talked to me like that. It was like, ‘Yeah, go out. Go and do it.’ So I’m definitely not a normal person. Girls find it very difficult to date me. Because I’m just, like, not consistent. I’m emotionally numb. Björk told me I’m emotionally numb. I will always remember that.

SFW: So are you single right now?
T: Yeah. I’ve been for a while now. For about a year and a half to two years. And I’m kind of not really bothered by it. I’m more interested in work and music than I am in anybody. So it would be difficult to be with someone anyways. Also, I could be with someone and I cannot talk. I can be in the same place for 10 hours and not say one word. It’s like they’re not even there. I’m good at being by myself. So I kind of space out. Like, if I’m listening to music, I see that as a personal thing, so I don’t want to listen to music with a girl. I want to listen to music with headphones on. Everything is kind of done by myself. If I watch a movie, I want to watch it by myself.

SFW: I know that with Martina Topley-Bird, you guys had a child together. Have you had relationships with any of the other singers you’ve worked with?
T: Besides Björk, no, not really. And we didn’t really work together. Well, we did work together, but it wasn’t properly working. So no, it was just Martina really. And with Martina it was kind of a long time after we recorded and then we didn’t see each other for years afterwards, then we got into a relationship.

SFW: Would say that what you know about music is entirely self-taught?
T: Yes, but I’m still totally naive, that’s why I have my own sound. If people know my music, they know that I don’t sound like anybody else, and that’s because I’m naive.

SFW: How do you stay naive so that you sound fresh and different?
T: I don’t learn too much. I’ve never learned how to play music. Someone said to me, ‘Some of your stuff is out of tune with the vocals.’ But it still works because I don’t know what I’m doing. In music schools they would tell you that’s wrong. But I can do that. My song structures are really weird. They’re weird because I don’t know time signatures. You get a lot of people who try to make strange and weird music and I see right through it. It’s like when people are trying to make strange or weird music, you can’t try. Your music is either dark and strange or it’s not. You can’t think about these things. Rather than being, they’re trying to be. It’s like who has got time to think like that? I don’t think I’m going to be this or I’m going to be that, I just do it.
SFW: When you go into making an album, like with Skilled Mechanics, do you have an idea of what you want to do? Or do you just start making music and realize it as you go?
T: Sometimes I go in the studio and I don’t do anything. And sometimes I might go in the studio and start recording, but then I end up listening to music or I end up cooking food or I end up going for a walk and not finishing. So I don’t ever go in thinking of anything. It’s like a hangout for me. I’ve got my room with my equipment and it’s a place to hang out. Sometimes I might go in with the intention of recording and then end up going out for a coffee and then some food and not coming back there until late at night, and then just going to bed. If I feel like doing it, I do it.

SFW: Did you work on Skilled Mechanics while in Berlin or London?
T: That was in Berlin, yeah.

SFW: Was that a good environment to work on an album in?
T: I just work wherever I live. I don’t record in commercial studios. I haven’t been in a commercial studio for many years. So wherever I’m living is where I record.

SFW: How long did you work on Skilled Mechanics?
T: For about four or five weeks. I don’t work longer than that really on albums. Like, I’ll take three months at the most to record and that includes mixing as well.

SFW: Wow. Is that because you think if you spend a lot of time you’ll start thinking about it a lot and changing stuff?
T: No. I just know what I like and what I don’t like. And I think a lot of artists — and I witnessed this by being around different artists — they don’t know what they like. So they’ll make something and instead of going with their natural instinct — because you know right away when you make something whether you like it or not — they’ll start thinking about it too much, and then up sitting on it and never putting it out.

SFW: Do you have a favorite or least favorite of all your albums?
T: There’s a couple of albums which people overlooked I think, like they haven’t really seen how good they really are. People love Maxinequaye and Angels With Dirty Faces and Pre-Millennium Tension, Nearly God, and Juxtapose. Those are kind of like peoples’ favorites. But to me, Blowback and Vulnerable, I think those are on a different level. I could release those albums right now. Like, I wouldn’t release Maxinequaye now because to me it sounds old. But Blowback and Vulnerable, I don’t think those albums are ever going to date.

SFW: Is that because you think they don’t sound like any other type of music that’s out yet?
T: I just think they’re musically advanced. Like False Idols, for instance, is a very emotional album. Blowback is more technical, it’s like big soundscapes. So I think some albums people don’t get yet. Mark Monroe, he was a marketing director at Island Records, said to me years ago that people will catch up with me because I work fast.

SFW: I know for a while you were really sick of talking about Maxinequaye or the ‘90s in general. Do you still feel that way?
T: It’s actually, what Mark Monroe was saying, is becoming true. Because I didn’t actually get what he was saying at first. He didn’t mean catch up with me like people are behind me and I’m advanced or anything like that. It’s just like people getting into things. Also, sometimes, I didn’t promote something properly. Like, I’d put something out and then I’d just leave it. But I think people are starting to talk about other projects now because it used to be all about Maxinequaye. The other day I saw a few people online talking about the Vulnerable album. So it’s almost like people are starting to talk about these albums as time goes by. It’s like what Mark had said is starting to happen. People are starting to get round to these albums.

SFW: When you do shows, do you perform live or DJ?
T: No, I don’t DJ. I’ve DJed before, like only about two or three times. But I kind of find it a bit, I don’t know. I don’t fancy being a DJ. I’ve got a friend who DJs and he goes on at like 3 or 4 o’clock at night sometimes, and you’ve got to carry all this stuff. It seems like quite a lonely life to me. I don’t really fancy going to a club and getting behind the decks and just DJing and then getting a taxi to the hotel. It’s not very personable. It’s like with a live show, we’ve got to get there for sound check, so we’re in the club for a while and you’re there and doing stuff and working. But with DJing, you kind of get there, you go on, you play, the you go home. My manager has been on at me to DJ for some time. I’ve done it a few times, but I just can’t. Besides, everybody’s a fucking DJ now.

SFW: My last really weird question is what are you going to do when we get off the phone?
T: I watch documentaries. I don’t have a TV and I haven’t watched TV since I left America actually. Last time I had a TV was in Los Angeles. I do miss things like The Simpsons and Dexter. So I just watch documentaries on my iPad, stuff about history and politics.

Tricky plays with Rituals of Mine at 8 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 23, and Monday, Oct. 24, at The Independent. $30; theindependentsf.com.

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