After moving to Berlin early this Spring, he immediately started work on a new musical project called Skilled Mechanics. In his trademark husky West Country burr, the Bristol born musician, producer and rapper explains where the name came from: “It’s from a documentary about espionage. There was an ex-C.I.A. agent on this programme speaking about assassins who were sent abroad by the US to start revolutions and topple governments. He called them ‘skilled mechanics’. I thought that was a great name for someone who was a killer basically. The name was so dark and cynical it just stuck with me.”
Luckily for us, the only ‘killing’ Tricky is doing this year is in the studio and on the mic with Skilled Mechanics’ self-titled debut which is coming out on his own record label False Idols. For most musicians, stopping working as a solo artist and forming a band is a sign that they’re sick of the spotlight but in typically perverse fashion, perhaps the opposite is true for Tricky. He explains that some people have been voicing their frustration with him for his habit of often playing second fiddle to his various female co-singers: “People have been asking me for years, ‘Will you ever take charge vocally? Will you ever lead as the singer on one of your albums?’ On Adrian Thaws, my last album, I came to the forefront vocally. I was more in your face on three of the tracks but I wanted to build even further towards a catalogue of songs where I didn’t rely on a girl singer. But I realised it would be hard to do under the name Tricky because people would always associate that name with me using a female singer.
“I haven’t been alone at the front of the stage on my own since before I released my first album Maxinquaye 20 years ago. I needed to change. It is good to change and to keep on pushing yourself.”
So he formed Skilled Mechanics a loose collaborative project that would allow him to work with many different artists, while at the same time pushing his unique vocal talents to the forefront. The most prominent of these collaborators on the new record is DJ Milo, who is not only one of his oldest friends but also the first person he ever recorded with not to mention his introduction to The Wild Bunch.
Talking about the seminal Bristol sound system crew who were pivotal in launching the careers of Massive Attack and Soul II Soul founder Nellee Hooper, Tricky says : “When I was eight years old, I lived with my aunt and Milo did as well. She was like a stepmother to him. He was about 16 and already putting on parties with The Wild Bunch. They would be playing at St Paul’s Festival in Bristol and he’d get me to come down and appear on the mic. It wasn’t battle rapping or cussing people’s mothers. It was just about who had the best rhymes, the best flow and the best lyrics.
“I used to practice with Milo round at Daddy G from Massive Attack’s house. I can remember we did a cassette. This was the first time I ever released music and this tape went all around Bristol. He would be cutting up a break and I’d rap over it. But me and him went very well together. There was a little bit of magic about it. That night after the St Paul’s Festival, we had a party at G’s house and it was just me on the mic and Milo on the decks and it was only about 20 or 30 people in the house. At first you could have heard a pin drop but then they just went mad. And then I realised, maybe, that this was for me.”
The pair have worked on the odd white label or underground track since but this is the first major project they’ve undertaken together. Tricky says: “Milo is on five of the tracks. Some of the tracks I did with him sound like old school hip hop but not dated - very modern. We talked about it for many years but before now the timing wasn’t right.”
Another major player on the album is Luke Harris, Tricky’s regular drummer but his presence was almost accidental: “We were on tour recently and the band were soundchecking while I was in the dressing room. I could hear the vocals loud and clear but then my regular singer, Francesca Belmonte walked past the dressing room. I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ So I went out to have a look and there was my drummer filling in for her on vocals because she needed the bathroom. There and then I said to him, ‘Do you know what? On my next project you’re going to be my vocalist...’”
One of the tracks that Luke sings on is an unlikely cover of ‘Bother’ by Corey Taylor - who is better known as front man of the heavy rock band Stone Sour and a member of horror masked nu-metal act Slipknot. Tricky laughs: “I imagine people will be surprised at this. But when Luke and I went into the studio I knew he could sing but I didn’t know what kind of voice he had. I had to know so I could write for it in the future. So I said we should cover a song he really loved. And he said that when he was really young he used to listen to this song all the time, on his headphones. So we covered it because he was obsessed by it.”
The album contains another cover version, ‘Diving Away’, which is a version of ‘Porpoise Head’ by Porno For Pyros. Tricky explains: “I toured with them in Australia in 1996. My daughter Mazy, who was about four years of age, was with us and she had frontman Perry Farrell wrapped round her little finger. He took all of us to Sealand in Australia. So there was me and Porno For Pyros all trying to get her pram onto the Australian metro. But how many big artists would do something beautiful like that? I think it speaks volumes about him. So I’ve got a lot of love for Perry Farrell and I’ve always wanted to cover one of his songs.”
As well as guest appearances from firey Chinese rapper Ivy 艾菲; London based singer Renata Platon and Danish singer songwriter Oh Land, the album also contains the vocal talents of Tricky’s current creative foil, Francesca Belmonte, on the track ‘We Begin’.
Tricky has also found time to write his most personal, confessional song to date, the future single ‘Boy’. He explains: “All the problems I have now are because of my childhood. I went to Bristol at Christmas time a couple of years ago and I ended up having an asthma attack. My eldest daughter drove down to the hospital to collect me and I said, ‘I think it’s because I’ve eaten something.’ And she said, ‘No it’s not. You’re remembering stuff. It’s because you’ve come back to Bristol, you’re being reminded of stuff.’ It’s obvious really. Most of my problems stem from when I was a kid.
“The first time I remember seeing my mum was in an open, glass topped coffin in my grandmother’s house. I was about four years of age and she was in the room opposite mine. I found my dad in the phone book when I was 12 years of age. For some reason I used to sit in my auntie’s house and go through the phone book. This says to me that I was looking for an identity. Looking for myself. I found someone who had the same last name as me and my aunt said, ‘That’s your dad. Why don’t you give him a call?’ I used to go and see him and he would literally forget my name. It’s almost like I could have written this track 20 years ago but it was something that had to come out eventually, I had to put it down. But everything on that track is true. Every word on Boy is actual fact.”
Skilled Mechanics is the statement of a true original British talent - one who will never coast on his former achievements and will always keep on changing and adapting to face the future.