After almost two decades of running from his troubled roots, the British musician Tricky has finally found a home in Paris. He talks about his new album, Mixed Race, and why he had to leave Los Angeles.
Tricky brings his music to Paris
The great Lost Boy of British music, Adrian "Tricky" Thaws has been on an exotic, erratic musical odyssey since he first added whispered raps and stuttering rhythms to Massive Attack's Blue Lines album in 1991. Born in a "white ghetto", the tough council estates on the southern fringes of Bristol in the south-west of England, Tricky was largely raised by his grandmother after his mother committed suicide when he was just four. In 1995, he paid tribute to her by compressing her name into the title of his classic debut solo album Maxinquaye, a landmark experiment in race-blending, gender-blurring musical alchemy.
Now 42, Tricky has been running away from his troubled Bristol roots for almost two decades. During extended exiles in London, New York and Los Angeles, his highly eclectic body of work has included collaborations with PJ Harvey, Elvis Costello, Damon Albarn, Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Keidis and dozens more. He has also been romantically linked to several of his musical partners, including Bjork and Martina Topley-Bird, the honey-voiced singer with whom he had a daughter, Maisey.
"I've always been lucky with women, since I was a kid," Tricky tells me in his trademark gravelled rasp. "I think its because I'm shy - I've got this Tricky persona but I'm very awkward and shy. I think girls either like very confident guys or shy guys, and I've been lucky. Also, girls sense things. I'm a motherless child and women are natural mothers, so they want to mother me."
Paris is Tricky's current home, or at least the latest port of call in his restless global adventure. The French capital is also the birthplace of his new album, Mixed Race, a culturally rich melting pot of furtive mumbles, lopsided grooves and veiled menace. The album features an international gallery of guests including the Irish-Italian chanteuse Franky Riley, the Algerian rai crooner Hakim Hamadouche and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream.
Tricky calls Mixed Race a "gangster album", but more in the sense of gritty authenticity, not some pimped-up Hollywood fantasy. "It's hard and it's militant," he says. "It reminds me of when Public Enemy first came out. There's no excuses, it's not asking for any radio play. Some of it is quite urban, like Ghetto Stars. It's what I would see as an urban gangster album without the glamorising."
After more than a decade of American exile, Tricky has returned to Europe seeking fresh stimulation and a closer connection to Maisey, now a teenager. As usual, his movements and motives come swathed in shady explanations involving dubious biographical tangents.
"I tried London for a bit, but I've got too many friends and family there," he explains. "I like Paris because I get bored easily, but I don't want to go to clubs all the time. I sit in cafes for three or four hours by myself here, just watching people. In LA, if I was bored, it was too easy for me to call someone up and make something happen."
The LA sunshine certainly seemed to sap Tricky's creativity, resulting in a five-year sabbatical from music that ended in 2008 with his fitfully excellent comeback album, Knowle West Boy. He hopes to return to California one day, but only when he is "mature" enough to avoid trouble. "In LA you can either be very good or very bad," he explains. "At one point I was the healthiest I've ever been, but at another point all I did was drink and smoke."
The tipping point in Tricky's American adventure came when his cleaner brought her child to his Hollywood home. Discovering an Uzi submachine gun under the rapper's bed, he fired it through the wall into the flat next door. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but the police took a very keen interest. "Lucky it was on semi-automatic," Tricky nods. "When you first have a gun you're very safe with it, but then it becomes like a toy."
This lurid anecdote may be another questionable factoid from the Trickypedia, but Mixed Race is certainly riddled with guns-and-gangsters imagery. Tricky has close family ties to the criminal gangs who used to control Bristol, and has seen several of them killed or imprisoned. He even had a brief spell behind bars himself as a teenager, but insists he is not attracted to a life of crime.
"It's not that I'm drawn to it, I can understand some people who live that lifestyle," he argues. "If I've got a friend whose doing certain things to survive, I'm not going to judge them."
Once notorious for his violent outbursts, Tricky's hair-trigger temper became a real problem in the late 1990s, which several psychiatrists failed to remedy. A nutritionist finally diagnosed him with the chronic digestive disorder Candida, but not before he considered some desperate measures.
"I was in New York," he recalls. "You start thinking crazy, and I thought: maybe if I go to prison I'll get help. I have to do something dark, like shoot someone. But when he gave me this medication for Candida, the next day I felt better immediately."
All the same, Tricky expresses no regrets about his infamous attack on a magazine writer backstage at the Glastonbury festival in 1998. The interviewer had angered him by writing about his relationship with Martina and Maisey.
"My uncle knocked him out," Tricky nods. "If I see him again he'd get knocked out again. Say what you want about me or my music, but if you bring my family into it you're going to get knocked out. This is a guy who was unhappy with his own life and took it out on me."
This does not sound like a mellower, more mature Tricky, but he insists he is a much calmer chameleon nowadays. He has even patched up his frosty feud with his old musical mentors Massive Attack, and they are planning their first collaboration for more than 15 years. For all his love-hate fascination with violence, Britpop's great Lost Boy insists he is a lover, not a fighter.
"I've never been a fighter," Tricky laughs. "Luckily, all my family and the people I used to hang out with at school could fight, so I never got bullied. But me, I could never fight. My sisters are tougher than me."