Selling out hasn't been as simple as Tricky imagined.
The former Adrian Thaws made reviewers swoon with 1995's Maxinquaye, a moody, atmospheric tour de force that helped establish the trip-hop genre worldwide. But although he clearly felt worthy of the praise he received (his ego is as juicy and robust as an overripe peach), he wasn't much interested in accepting it graciously. Instead, he tested journalists and fans by pushing his songs into increasingly dark realms and daring them to follow, only to discover that with each succeeding album, fewer and fewer were willing to do so even when the music was strong. Finally, after the belly flop of 1999's Juxtapose, a collaboration with rap producer Grease and Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs that richly deserved the dismissal it received, he realized he needed to make some alterations, and pronto, if he wanted to avoid a one-way booking on the Obscurity Express. So he ditched his longtime label, Island Records (he swears Island didn't drop him, as has been widely reported), and after a stopgap EP for Anti, a subsidiary of Epitaph, he signed up with Hollywood Records, an imprint whose parent company, Disney, represents everything he'd spent his career attacking.
Subsequent changes were just as unexpected. Blowback, released on Hollywood in July, is loaded with big-name guest stars with little underground cred; the roster includes Alanis Morissette, most of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Live's Ed Kowalczyk and, oddest of all, Cyndi "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" Lauper. Moreover, the sound, achieved by an A-list of producers, engineers and mixers, is smoother and lighter than ever before, trading the power and mystery of Tricky's best work for overt accessibility.
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Tricky hasn't tried to hide the motivation behind these creative shifts: In his Hollywood bio, he said straight-out that he wants to appear on MTV, VH1 and corporate radio outlets. Clearly, the bad man is ready to make nice. But although a few mainstream stations have given a spin to Blowback tracks like "Evolution Revolution Love," sales have been modest and notices are split between raves for the CD's murk-free sonics and accusations that Tricky is now more interested in airplay than art -- a charge to which he essentially pleads guilty.
Still, writing off Tricky would be a mistake. While Blowback may disappoint loyalists, it's not the qualitative meltdown it might have been, and Tricky remains among the most riveting performers in music today. In conversation, he's just as entertaining -- a master of self-love eager to confirm his genius at both music and manipulation. In 1996, he released a disc titled Nearly God. Today, he'd probably leave off the qualifier.
New Times: The people who've said negative things about Blowback have pegged the album as, "This is Tricky trying to be commercial." What do you think of that kind of commentary?
Tricky: That's stupid, because when the record went out and we sent everybody the press kit, I told everybody, "Yeah, this is Tricky trying to get radio." And what they've done is gone and repeated me and used it as a way of getting at me, to show they're knowledgeable. But the thing is, there isn't any music like this out there -- no music like this album. So it's breaking boundaries, the fact that it's getting on the radio.
NT: A lot of critics cling to the starving-artist myth. They think a true artist shouldn't care about having success and they should be satisfied with the hope that they'll be appreciated after they're dead. But that doesn't do an artist much good while he's alive.
Tricky: That's right. But those critics are going to trip over that myth in two to three years' time, when this album is still being played. Because I hyped this album up. I'm the one who said this is my first commercial album, this is my first radio album. And people can't get past that. People don't like the words "Tricky" and "commercial" together -- especially the hard-core fans. But in a couple years, when all the hype dies down, people will realize what this record is. It's better than anything I've ever done. It's better than Maxinquaye; it makes Maxinquaye look silly. And I don't think that's going to become apparent for two or three years.
NT: Comments like those really get to your fans, because they see Maxinquaye as a great album, and they can't believe you'd say anything even semi-negative about it.
Tricky: You're right; when I say that, people really don't like it. But I know it's true. See, when I first made Maxinquaye, it might have given you a vibe like, "Wow, I've never heard anything like this before." Now you play it and it sounds like everything else on the planet. I'm not disrespecting the album. It's just the way everything's gone.
NT: What kind of acts and artists out there do you think are lifting things from Maxinquaye?
Tricky: Timbaland has definitely got that vibe off of me. And Portishead and Massive Attack -- their new stuff just sounds like my stuff. And those people are heard worldwide, so people are getting an influence from them. And I know I've influenced some rock stuff, because a lot of different people are into my music. I've influenced garage music and jungle music. It's only in the last year or so that I've noticed it. I've had my friends around me for ages telling me this, but it's hard to see that, because I just see myself as a little kid from Bristol. It's hard to see myself as a person with the power to influence all of music. But now I can hear it; I listen to stuff and I can see what's going on. But this new album is so much more complicated than Maxinquaye. Maxinquaye is like a baby to me, and there's so much more going on with Blowback. There's a lot more depth to Blowback."
NT: It also has a much cleaner production.
Tricky: Oh, yeah -- I wanted an American album. I wanted it to sound big, and that was the plan, before I even started.
NT: Is part of the appeal to this approach a subversive one -- that the album is more subversive than your other ones because more people will get a chance to hear it?
Tricky: Exactly. That's what these people don't understand. They've read my press kit and thought, "Oh, no, Tricky's gone commercial." But this is still an extreme album. I've listened to the radio, listened to KROQ in L.A., and when you hear "Evolution Revolution Love" on there, it doesn't sound like anything else they play. And the record's actually saying something -- it's political. It's going back to the days when people actually used to talk about things on records -- not just [he mimes Crazytown's "Butterfly"] "Come my lady, come-come my lady." People ask, "What are your goals for this record?" Well, my goals are done. Hearing "Evolution Revolution Love" in the daytime on KROQ, that's it.
NT: It sounds as if another one of your goals is to work with the system, which is a big change, since your previous albums have had songs on them attacking record companies. Is this a new philosophy, too?
Tricky: Yeah, it is, because I found out you can't just bang your head against the wall. And the best way to change things is from the inside, really -- by using the system. I used the system to make five or six albums, most of them very non-friendly. But I'm sick of hearing rubbish on the radio. I'm thinking, "Why can't something be good and be on the radio?"
NT: There's nothing popular that you like?
Tricky: To be honest with you, no. The people who are claiming to make "new" music, well, I'm not hearing it. And that goes for trip-hop, too. Anything I've heard that's called trip-hop is rubbish music. It's just weak, watered-down music from 10 years ago. It's no better than doing Beatles covers or something. I don't want nothing to do with that, because I don't want to stop growing -- and I don't want to be labeled, because once you are, you stop growing. I don't know where I'm going to be in five years, and I don't want to know. I just know I'll be here.
NT: If Blowback is a commercial success, does that set a trap for you? Will you have to follow it up with something that's more commercial yet?
Tricky: Oh, no, I've never worried about that. There's no pressure on me at all. That's the business. Alanis Morissette sells 22 million records, and then her next album sells three million and people say it's a disappointment. But three million records is a lot of records. Disappoint me every day. What the business wants and what I want are two different things.
NT: When you left Island, you said you didn't want to become a boutique artist like Tom Waits, who gets great reviews but whose albums don't sell in big numbers. Did you feel you were being shoved into that corner?
Tricky: It was kind of like, you don't have to do anything more for Tricky than you did for the last album, because the press is going to review it. Whether it's bad reviews or good reviews, the press always reacts to his stuff. So it just got boring. All their work was done for them. But Hollywood is paying more attention. Like they know never to remix one of my songs without me knowing about it. Don't even release a photo without me looking at it. They know what I want and what I don't want.
NT: Are you enjoying the irony of being on a label owned by Disney?
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Tricky: I love it. It's so perverse. It's brilliant, it's mad. We haven't had any problems -- and what's really good is I get to do what I want to do musically, and then they'll send me 50 Walt Disney films for my kid. Or I could just go into Disney's offices and pick up cartoons, DVDs, videos, records. My kid's got all the Disney stuff. So it works both ways. It's perfect.
NT: A lot of people will have a hard time picturing you sitting down with your kid watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Does it bother you that you have a reputation for being humorless and a little bit frightening?
Tricky: No, I kind of like it, to be honest. Like I can be in a club, and I can guarantee that not many people are going to come and talk to me -- and I like that just fine. I don't want to go into a club to talk about my music, I don't want you to tell me you love my music. I'm not interested. All I want you to do is buy my records. That's enough for me.