Tricky returns to the live arena

After five years in the wilderness, Tricky is staging a comeback. Matilda Egere-Cooper caught up with the voice of trip-hop about where he’s been – and why he thinks that Jo Whiley has got it in for him

Tricky isn’t convinced he’ll ever be Number 1. “I’m too ugly for people like Jo Whiley,” he concedes, before offloading a heap of grievances he holds against commercial radio and the discspinning powers-that-be. Perhaps it’s the nippy cold that’s blown into Paris this afternoon that’s played a spell on his once-prickly-but-so-farserene mood, or the fact that given a soapbox, the man born Adrian Thaws is famously known to let rip on whatever subject takes his fancy for the day. He explains he had hoped his single “Council Estate” would have a shot of receiving a bit of airplay on Radio 1 because Whiley’s producer’s liked it, but she on the other hand, wasn’t too keen. “I’m not a guitar band talking about college stuff,” he frowns. “I’ve done records, like big singles on this new album, but there’s no way Radio 1 are ever going to play me. Jo Whiley is not a supporter of mine.”

He suspects it stems back to the time he appeared on her Channel 4 show back in 1999 for an interview that, as he puts its, “didn’t go well” – no thanks to an apparently hardcore marijuana habit and a battle with candidiasis, a fungal infection which gave him schizophrenialike symptoms, one of which he described back then as “spaced-outness”. “From then she didn’t like me,” he gripes. “But what does Jo Whiley really know about music? My daughter doesn’t even listen to anything on Radio 1.”

If Tricky had considered crafting pop records after emerging as one of the forerunners of trip-hop back in the early Nineties, his career would tell a very different story, perhaps one which would have started with plenty of accolades, critical-acclaim and the thumbs-up from Ms Whiley, and ended with a nasty slip into obscurity. Reflecting over the course of his career – which has seen the 41-year-old release eight albums, earn a Mercury Prize nomination and achieve some minor success in the US – he’s proud he’s been able to achieve longevity in his organic approach to fame. “I can take five years off and still have a career,” he says, proudly. “I go on tour and I see a lot of bands, who think because they have a record deal, they really think they’re there. And next year, you never hear from them again.”

Tricky’s now enjoying a return to the UK music scene. Last summer, he released Knowle West Boy, a nostalgic, semi-biographical album based on the area he grew up in Bristol. Much tidier than his former efforts and rooted in punk, hip-hop, ragga and rock, it received positive reviews and reminded the public that at his best, the star’s capable of side-stepping the scowling menace of his youth to present himself as stable artist who is still quite relevant. It also shrugged off any remaining associations with his trip-hop roots. “To be honest with you, a lot of these so-called trip-hop artists don’t even exist anymore,” he points out. “People that listen to my music know that I have nothing in common with these people. My name’s always going to be thrown about because I’m supposed to have invented it, but that’s something I really take no notice of.”

This year, he’s gearing up to go back on the live circuit, and is currently in Paris for a number of gigs, before returning to the UK to headline the NMEAwards tour, ahead of the awards show on 25 February. He’ll also be returning to the States for a tour in March. He admits that his time off has made going back on the road challenging. “Like, I haven’t really toured like this… ever,” he says. “Especially after taking five years off.” So touring was a bit hard? “I’m getting used to it.” How’s he prepared for it? “You can’t prepare,” he says, slightly annoyed. “You just go on tour.” He explains that those who’ve never seen his show before are in for an “experience”. “It’s nothing they’ve never seen before,” he offers more politely, “in terms of energy.”

It’s likely he’ll still put on a brooding display which, nowadays, contradicts a more pleasant personality you can only imagine is on account of him growing up. He’s aware he’s still misunderstood, considering his less than glittering relationship with the press – he was once involved in attacking a journalist at Glastonbury over a decade ago. But he now describes himself as a “bit of a joker, very lighthearted, very kind of chilled out”. “I’m a bit childish – I kind of muck around all the time,” he smiles. “I’m kind of relaxed, quite mellow. “

Tricky first made his name back in 1991 working with Massive Attack under the moniker Tricky Kid – a nickname given to him because he always looked young, which I point out, still applies. “I’ve always kind of looked like a kid really,” he smiles. He appeared on their albums Blue Lines and Protection before going solo with the much-lauded, platinum-selling Maxinquaye in 1995, named after his mother who committed suicide when he was four years old. His troubled childhood, which included a brief stint in a young offenders’ institution for distributing fake £50 notes, served as a gothic inspiration for his following albums, including 1996’s Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces, release two years later.

By this time, a move to the US had an impact on his life, especially as he’d become a more reclusive artist who’d shunned the infamy that’d come with his tempestuous personality, dating and having a child with fellow trip-hopper Martina Topley-Bird and fighting with Goldie over Björk. It was in New York that a doctor diagnosed his candidiasis and put him on a strict diet to control his mood swings. He dabbled in acting when he stayed in LA, first appearing in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element(where he supposedly angered Gary Oldman for eating a Twix on set) and a few episodes of Emmywinning urban comedy Girlfriends, which he says he landed after having a fling with one of the show’s leading stars. He also did some score work for Jerry Bruckheimer.

But he says his biggest highlight of his 12-year exile was being given a day in San Francisco. “The mayor declared it Tricky Day on 2 September,” he shrugs. “That was kind of… bizarre. They gave me a plaque and it’s in the records. But I usually forget about it, to be honest.” He decided to move back to the UK after LA turned into “one big party” and signed with Domino Records to release Knowle West Boy and the follow-up which he says should be coming out in the summer.

Hollywood has also rubbed off on him – he directed the video for “Council Estate” and is currently shopping his first feature-length directorial debut, Brown Punk The Movie, a nod to the name of his the record label he’s currently setting up. I took 12 songs and I stuck them all together to make one story,” he explains. “You really don’t know what you’re watching.” At a test screening of the film last year, he said the audience were a bit baffled. “People that don’t really know me are going to think it’s real,” he smiles. “You’ve got to see the movie really. It’s a bit complicated. You won’t know what the fuck is going on.”

He didn’t set any New Year’s resolutions this year because as he reasons, “If you want to do something, you do it today”, but he wants to keep making good music, whether or not it’s being heralded as his second coming. “It’s been all real positives, but that doesn’t make any difference to me though, d’ya know what I mean?” he says, resolutely. “I don’t think about how people see me… If I do an album, and people don’t like ’em, it doesn’t worry me. I do albums for me first and if people like ’em, then cool. I don’t really care.”

Tricky headlines the NME Awards shows on 18 February, Manchester Academy, 19 February Glasgow Arches, 20 February, London Shepherds Bush Empire. The single “Puppy Toy’’ is released on 23 February through Domino Records

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