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A Quietus Interview

Something Really Beautiful: An Interview With M.I.A.
Anna Wood , May 15th, 2017 09:16

Ahead of her Meltdown festival, M.I.A. talks to Anna Wood about misfits, British identity and staying wide awake in the music industry

On the heels of recent Meltdown festival curators Guy Garvey, David Byrne and James Lavelle, next month M.I.A. is bringing her own selection of artists to the Southbank. She describes them as “new outlaw musicians from everywhere, who have contributed to keeping things weird, exciting, opinionated, loud, emotional and brave”.

They include Mykki Blanco, Princess Nokia, Giggs, JD Samson and Father. One common thread between them is a kind of loose collaborative energy, a fluidity that assumes a healthy disinterest in getting approval, an appetite for new stuff, a disregard for goals and a default setting that looks outward and makes trouble. Much like M.I.A. herself, of course.

Almost 15 years after her music career kicked off with 'Galang', and 10 years after it went massive with 'Paper Planes', MIA is still making ace songs (in classic popstar fashion, she announced she was retiring last year and then released a batshit-hectic, 'Blue Moon'-sampling new song, 'POWA').

She's still talking loudly about the refugee crisis (in her 'Borders' video, which she directed, and in last year's 'Freedun' with Zayn Malik), her background (west London-born of Sri Lankan Tamil parents), the corporatisation of the music industry and every other chewy topic that comes into her orbit. She is exploring and poking about, trying to work things out and make them better, collaborating and making noise.

Tell me about this Meltdown line-up.

M.I.A.: I want to create a chaotic utopia. I'm taking suggestions.

Hmm. Moonlandingz, Madonnatron…

M.I.A.: I do need more... I already feel it's too acceptable.

Well, The Moonlandingz singer once smeared himself with his own shit on stage.

M.I.A.: Oh, I'll have to run it by [Southbank staff member] Hugo.

I've seen that sort of thing here before. Two weeks ago there was a naked man squirting himself with fake jizz in the basement.

M.I.A.: Oh really? Cool. I saw a Japanese artist who pushed his piano onto the dancefloor and set it on fire and then sung on it. I've forgotten his name and I've got to track him down.

So is that part of your impetus, curating the festival, pulling things from the outside and getting them into the Southbank Centre?

M.I.A.: A little bit, yeah. Not just society's misfits in behaviour but in appearance and belief, so it's lots of things coming together and seeing how it goes. I'm not good at doing the other thing, putting on the glitzy festival with all the glitzy people, that's not what I signed up for. Giving the same people platforms all the time.

It's a lack of respect for the audience, maybe, trotting out the same old thing.

M.I.A.: It's a lack of respect for the audience but it's also a lack of respect for truth. Because it's just about selling things, and [the artists she's booking] don't make a nice clean bubble to click on. I know that. If you're talking about coexisting and tolerance then you have to live by example, and you can't have shiny people all the time everywhere, which is what breeds that sort of thinking - this is better than this, that is better than that, and we don't want this, and we don't want people with three legs, you know. I want this Meltdown to be like the bar in Star Wars where all the aliens are welcome.

That's three tits, isn't it, not three legs. Three tits would probably go down okay.

M.I.A.: Yeah, that's true. That would be more accepted than having some unknown Syrian coming to sing.

In your Meltdown announcement you mention bringing together artists who are “off the grid”. What do you mean by that?

M.I.A.: A lot of political bands just dropped off the face of the earth because if you didn't give your thing to somebody else in the food chain... When I came out there were a million different artists all doing shit. We were running up and down, travelling with each other's ideas, listening to each other. The genre was eclectic. Your playlist could have a hip hop song then a dancehall song then it skipped to an electro song and then you listened to LCD Soundsystem and then it was Peaches and then it was a Jamaican song, you listen to Vybz Kartel next to a Brazilian girl in the favelas that no one's ever heard of, and then you jump to a song sung by a mute person in Africa, and that's what parties sounded like. The DJs that did well were the people who embraced that, and different types of sounds came out. And then suddenly you had to choose how you funnelled up [the foodchain] and gave your talent to these five artists at the top, and they became all those things and then it became just one thing at the top.

So they took in all those genres and made it one homogenous thing?

M.I.A.: It's like we'll take a bit of that and a bit of this and a bit of this, and this artist will be like the racehorse who will carry this thing and make 300 million because this is how we know how to tour it, to generate income.

And what happened to the other people?

M.I.A.: That's how the industry crashed. Because before, when I came out and mp3s happened, it was an amazing time for the internet – it distributed wealth. Everybody made a bit of their money. It was across countries, across genres, across social groups, Justice were as big as Radiohead, a smaller French artist, and an even smaller French artist. But now it can only be Daft Punk.

And that's about the music industry making money through touring and through economies of scale?

M.I.A.: I'm not sure how it happened. But we basically had, here's our fanbase, here's our fanbase, and no one had interconnected the data. There was mine, and Diplo, and Le Tigre, here's Justice, we all had our own following, and they weren't connected, and the bigger person who was able to monetise came and bought the data of all these people and they sold one act to all these people.

So who's that one artist? Because that's me you're describing, listening to Justice and Le Tigre in 2004.

M.I.A.: So your data got collected, and now you're getting sold the same five artists as the kid in Sheffield who getting sold the same thing as the kid in Italy or Lagos or whatever. No matter what the environment is - she's coming outside and seeing lots of different shit happening, but she's getting sold the same artist as the kid in Australia, in Nigeria. Before we were well prejudiced about how who you dressed like. If you were my fan you dressed a certain way, and if you were a fan of The Kills you dressed a separate way, you didn't dress the same. And you knew what someone listened to by looking at them. Now everyone fucking dresses the same.


M.I.A.: And I'm like… don't you think all these artists are good at the little things that they're good at because of the life they've had. Like the person in Hull who's an amazing guitarist because they've nothing else to do and they're skint and they play all the time in their garage and became really good, right? And if they didn't have that life, they wouldn't be good in that way. And the person who's really good at the drums, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, he was really great at it because of however he came to learning that thing, and Kurt Cobain was really good at being Kurt Cobain, because of his thing, but if Kurt Cobain had to give all his shit to this big band over here, for example Coldplay, what's the point of fucking having music?

Isn't this the same old process, where the edges get sucked in, then there's some kind of upheaval...

M.I.A.: No, never before in history has this happened because for the first time in history you have a monetised space where the distributor of music owns the product itself that it's distributed on. You've never had that before. Like Sony Music was that thing, but there were millions of independent labels, they didn't buy out every independent label. When I got signed, each one of these bands was on their own independent label, then they all got bought by one label and we thought that was the problem, but we're beyond that by five or ten years now. Because when I signed in 2005, the biggest thing was all these [big label] mergers. Now Apple has happened. We only have Apple, Spotify and Tidal, three major things, and who knows what could happen in five more years, we don't know. And that happened so rapidly. So the business of music has become - I feel like it's weird to be putting Meltdown on at this time.

You've still got Boy Better Know, you've still got Kill Rock Stars. Maybe the industry and the music are separating.

M.I.A.: Some people are [managing that]. That's why I Wayne is on there, because he was a guy ten years ago who just said no to anything and went to live on a farm, which is why I booked him, because it's important to meet him and to see, well, that's the extreme version. Then there's me who's in the middle, because I signed to XL and XL licensed me to Interscope and then my boss at Interscope became the Apple Music guy so I'm right there. I also had gone as far as being managed by Roc Nation who owns the other one, which is Tidal, so to me it's such an important thing to figure out but I don't know how to go about it.

But there's an optimism in what you're doing, in Meltdown and in your music. A lot of what you do like being a very energetic magpie, spotting things that are valuable and putting them together in a new way. That inherently is optimistic, because you don't know the end result.

M.I.A.: Yeah, I don't know what the goal is. I don't know even how much some people are already tied in, like I've had to fight for Giggs from Drake because he's just magpied the entire UK grime scene, so I've had to fight for this, but I think it's important, right now. It's important to do that for him, to fight over people, say I'm going to fight for you too, to take him into some other zone, it's important to confuse them. A lot of people that I want, though, who are really outsider musicians are really hard to get because they're so outside it. I wanted Cat Stevens but it's Ramadan so he won't do it. I wanted to represent a different decade, and I wanted someone who goes back further than me. I go back the furthest on this thing, I never really noticed that before. I'm going to have to fix that or I'm going to look really old.

I want to ask you about the snap general election.

M.I.A.: Great. Meltdown is bookended by the election and Refugee Week. It's looking really great.

What's the best possible outcome for 8 June?

M.I.A.: I have no idea. But I think that's what Meltdown should be, not paying attention to that. It should be somewhere to go that's different to that. We just get it day in and day out, I can't go on social media anymore because it depresses me. I don't want to check my tweets. I'm bored of it. That's why I want to create something really beautiful here. I don't know what that is.

What do you think Theresa May means when she says British values?

M.I.A.: I don't know. I would love to ask her that. What time period are you talking about, because you're not going to rewind to the 1800s. [We've been following] America for a while, so if British values just means American values, what does that mean right now? Because that's not looking so great. So what is British values? If it's something that's futuristic, if it's something you have to redefine, the identity, then everybody has to be able to chip in and say, 'This is what's important to us.' But the British public are really quiet right now. I don't hear the British public popping off, and making noise, because everyone is just Brexited out. We're out of this shit. If the future of Britain is to be defined, isolated from American and European identity, then British identity needs to be really vocal and vibrant and loud, to create what that is. And right now, because of how we've been played, there's no fucking money here, we haven't supported our own artists and culture, we haven't championed them. Who are the big headliners at festivals in the last five years? Most of them are American. Who are all your number one hits? Apart from Ed Sheeran, most of them are American. We haven't created the bedrock for things to pop off, and then suddenly we're like, This is the year we're going to recreate the identity of Britain, without Europe and without America. We haven't been told that, though - we're told we're out of Europe but we haven't been told we're outside America. I don't know what it is and who's going to do it.

The fucking Tories are going to do it.

M.I.A.: No, because you need somebody really creative to define the identity of future Britain. With Cool Britannia and the Sensation exhibition in the 90s - that was the last time Britain had a stab at giving itself an identity. And that happened because a bunch of mayors got together and had a stab at it. But we haven't had the money to do that, or the appetite, because we're so battered right now.

I think mayors and cities are our biggest hope at the moment. Centrifugal powers.

M.I.A.: Like a ripple effect. There's something to that because they also interact more without all the pressure, like when mayors get together they probably have better conversations and have better notes to share about running different cities, and just do what suits. Basically, like when you combine all the religions and take the best bits, you should be able to combine all the cities and take the best bits, the information, the tried and tested things. Whereas countries see the power, don't they, and the making money out of wars. Instead of going to war, we should put the money into arts and culture and let creative people define what Britain is.

That would involve trusting people to be great. War assumes people are no good.

M.I.A.: That mentality has taken over because of the way we've promoted things. It's been accepted, to live with fear, and to fear that it's going to be terrible, prepare for the worst. The meat and potato of our existence right now is influenced by what happened after 9/11 - we put our thinking into protecting borders.

We worry about this stuff but what are we actually worried about? It stops us just getting on with things.

M.I.A.: Everyone just gets on with things. I've just come from Serbia, they came out of crazy shit ten years ago, and they've got huge immigration, and they're just getting on with it. They lived through a war, more recently than [we] did, and we were talking about it. War is an hour away and you carry on as normal. You cook and eat and everybody's got no money… and then overnight their currency was massively devalued… There's all these other elements kicking in, that you weren't prepared for. And people just overcome it, and get on with it. They're more accepting to immigrants than, say, Hungary is, who came out of communism a decades before. We were talking about the difference between how both these countries dealt with these things. It's interesting to see the differences.

You've just been to Hungary too?

M.I.A.: Yes, I was there yesterday, saw some exhibitions. I was there to meet a Hungarian artist who I'd like to have make something nice happen for Meltdown. I want to programme an entire album that is touch-sensory stuff. I don't know what to programme but maybe trees where you touch the leaves and it plays Michael Jackson or something. So it's music everywhere, even in places where you're not seeing a band. It'd be cool to programme a space where everything makes a sound when you touch it - the pillars, the chairs.

Playing is important, playing with your environment, when you're feeling fearful.

M.I.A.: That's what it's about for me, the humanness of it. That's why it's important to have someone chaotic, even if they are going to bring chaos into it, because it's alright to have that. It's human.

Meltdown is at the Southbank Centre, June 9 - 18, with gigs including Princess Nokia & Yung Lean, JD Samson & Mykki Blanco, Young MA & Tommy Genesis, MHD, I Wayne & Dexta Daps, Young Fathers, Soulwax, Giggs, Crystal Castles, Father and Afrikan Boy