Break from tradition; MUSIC

In bed with his leg in plaster, Tricky tells Ben Thompson why he won't do what's expected of him
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Hotel rooms are notoriously impervious to the characters of the people who stay in them. Close proximity to a wicker basketful of complimentary toiletries cuts down to size the aura of many a supposedly charismatic individual. It takes only a few seconds after gaining admittance to his quarters to realise that Tricky - aka Adrian Thaws, aka British pop music's most wilfully creative and precocious underground talent - is not one of these people.

It's midday, but the curtains are drawn. Tricky obligingly turns on the light to reveal a floor that is covered with interesting-looking boxes full of recording paraphernalia. The eye is beckoned by a trail of distinctive objects - a chess board, an asthma inhaler - to the far side of the room, where its inhabitant sits in the middle of a rumpled bed with the commanding but mischievous air of Yul Brynner in The King and I. Something about Tricky looks different from what I'd imagined. It's not that his hair has got a bit nappier. Or that he is wearing nothing but a pair of grey, trunk-style briefs and a hilarious teddy bear pyjama top. The thing is that his leg is in plaster, and he is hunched over a silver coffee tray with two crutches for support.

Ever since his first album (the seductive and sulphurous Maxinquaye) was released to rightful acclaim in 1995, people have said Tricky was heading for a fall. But not this way. How did he come by the injury? He can't exactly remember, beyond the certainty that "a stupid amount of drinking was involved". One minute he was out celebrating a friend's birthday in New York, his current hometown, the next he was back at his flat, getting up to answer a phone call from his record company and collapsing in a heap. Never one to miss an opportunity to study the human condition, Tricky has taken to disability like a terrier to a skateboard.

"Last night," he croaks chattily, his Bristolian burr fruity with smoker's phlegm, "I was going out to dinner with my A & R man and there was this guy in a bar who wouldn't let me pass. I said 'Excuse me, I'm on crutches,' but he just turned around and looked at me. I couldn't believe it." He shakes his head in bewilderment: "Give people half a chance and they're such shits." A pensive pause. "And I include myself in that, because I'm people too." As if to hammer this point home, Tricky avenged himself on the man who wouldn't give way by getting him thrown out of the bar: "I went to security and said he was really drunk and wanted a bit of trouble."At this point he looks as close to sheepish as a West Countryman can afford to.

It's hard to believe that Tricky - affability incarnate today - has developed a reputation for being a difficult interview subject: going to the toilet and not coming back for two weeks, pushing tactless questioners up against the wall by their throats. Even immortalising in song his desire to kill Sunday Times and Face journalist Andrew Smith. The truth of it is that Tricky probably has more to fear than his interrogators from the publicity process. From the beginning his penchant for dramatic disclosure has made his complex psyche an adventure playground for journalists: the fact that his first album was named after the mother who died when he was very young and who may have committed suicide; and that his muse Martina was the mother of his child. Even a man who did not smoke the quantities of industrial-strength herbs that Tricky does might have had recourse to the odd bout of paranoia on finding such issues the stuff of public debate.

Part of the reason for his move to New York was a desire to get away from what he scathingly terms "the silly badboy stuff" in which his career was becoming embroiled. Notable among a number of rancorous incidents was a very public near-fist fight with fellow former Bjork associate Goldie. "It really upset me that I even got involved in something like that." Tricky looks downcast. "I can't put the blame on him. If you think of someone like Bob Marley or John Lennon - not that I'm trying to compare myself to them - but you can't imagine them ever getting into that sort of situation. Then again," he brightens, "Bob Marley ... [the ensuing pause would seem to indicate that the great Jamaican was not above getting into the odd scrape] and John Lennon, [laughter] he used to talk quite freely.

"People tend to think I'm loudmouthed or angry," Tricky continues, "but actually I'm just very, very sensitive. What that kid did to me last night, that'll hurt me for weeks." New York is not traditionally considered a suitable environment for sensitive people. "That's what I like about it. It's so brutal. But it keeps you going. In some ways it's quite relaxing ... I think it's helped me grow up." Happily, growing up does not seem to have diminished Tricky's instinctive playfulness. He has recently been causing a stir among the notoriously macho Big Apple rap community by turning up at hardcore hip-hop functions wearing lipstick and a sarong. "I do get some funny looks," he admits, "but I tend to be left alone. If people think you're weird enough they won't ask you why you do things."

For anyone seeking an explanation for the serpentine course Tricky's career has taken since his first album came out - the bewildering collaborative cornucopia of Nearly God, the wilfully sketchy and abrasive Pre-Millenium Tension - this remark points the way. A less adventurous soul might have been happy to repeat the formula, but Tricky subsequently has seemed determined to move beyond the limited range of possibilities traditionally available to the black performer.

"I see no colour," he declares roundly. "I never have done. I can honestly say that I am way beyond that, which is why it scared the life out of me when all the fuss about Maxinquaye started - realising that as a black artist, you're either a rapper or a soul singer, and I didn't want to be just either of those things. I wanted to be a musician." The resulting dialogue between Tricky and his talent takes another unexpected turn next week with the release of the exquisite, shimmering "Makes Me Wanna Die", his most commercial single in several aeons. "Everyone banking on it so hard has spoilt it," he says sadly. "Before it was just a nice song, now it's ... I don't know what it is. I can't even listen to it."

! Tricky is on tour - complete with plaster-cast - all this week, with a special acoustic show at the Hackney Empire (0181 985 2424) on Tuesday. "Makes Me Wanna Die" (Island, single) is out on 21 April.

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