Maybe one day she’s make an album cover that it doesn’t hurt to look at
When I did this interview, M.I.A. still didn’t know if all her visa issues had been resolved or if she’d actually be able to play the Siren Festival, even though she’d been booked and the announcement had been made and everything. And I think that sort of instability is the key to Kala, her new album, which I really liked the one time I heard it and which I can’t wait to hear again. As she was making the album, she was totally unable to depend on any sort of constant, and so it’s a party album about upheaval. I did this interview over the phone, obviously, and I don’t much like doing phone interviews, but we still managed to cover a whole lot of ground. My feature on M.I.A. is out in the paper now, and it’s the first cover story I’ve done; I promise I was in no way responsible for the blue wig. There was a whole lot of interesting stuff in the interview that didn’t make the article, so here’s the expanded version.
Do you mind if I ask where you are right now?
In London at the XL office.
How long have you been in England for?
A couple months.
You’ve been shut out of the US for a while now, right?
Well, last time I was there, it wasn’t too long ago, actually. It was like January or February or something.
But you had to cancel some shows, right?
What was happening there? You’ve had some visa denials, right?
Well, it’s not denied. It’s kind of like I haven’t been denied; it’s just that nobody knows what’s going on, so we have to wait until the paperwork gets done, basically. It’s just kind of bureaucratic paperwork stuff. We’ll see. I think generally there’s just some bands over here going through it. Like, I think the Klaxons are in the same boat. So I don’t know. I think it’s just that some people fall into it and some people don’t. It’s just one of those things. I don’t really have a definite answer from them about what it’s about; it’s just something that bands seem to be going through if they’re from England.
Are you looking forward to getting back over here?
Yeah, my house is there. I have an apartment in Brooklyn. It’d be nice to go there.
You’ve been stuck away from it?
Well yeah, I haven’t been able to have access to my work and stuff.
Where in Brooklyn is your apartment?
You recorded some of the new album in the US, right?
Yeah, Baltimore and Virginia.
You were in Baltimore with [Baltimore club producer] Blaqstarr, right?
The song you did with him, “The Turn,” it’s funny. Of the songs you did on the record, I would say it’s one of the ones that sounds the least like club music.
I know. But that was the thing, to go to Baltimore and leave with a ballad instead of a club banger. Because what’s the point of following a formula?
Is that what you went down there intending to do?
I think ultimately when you get in a room it’s about putting two people together and pushing each other, going somewhere we haven’t been before. With Blaqstarr, I think it was more important that he went to somewhere like that with me than me making another club track. And I think it was really cool; just the circumstance in which we made it and how we are together is really funny. I don’t think in terms of making art around Baltimore he’s allowed to be that experimental, and he really gets into it and has mad ideas. So he’s kind of doing things for the first time, and he’s really excited, and it’s just fun for me to do it like that.
His stuff probably sounds the least like typical club of any of the producers down there.
Yeah, it’s true. He’s really really soulful, and what I see in him, he’s only like twenty and he’s still finding himself. He can make club music at the blink of an eye. It’s really easy for him, and he’s just got catalogs and catalogs of stuff. But that song, we were spending New Year’s Eve together, and he’d never drunk tequila before; it was the first time he drank it. And he kept saying, like, “Shorty, I can’t feel my legs! I can’t feel my legs, shorty!” He was just so drunk, dragging himself around the floor and stuff. And I was like, “Get up! Let’s make something!” It started off sounding really drunk, but he can just come from a more soulful place, and that’s what I wanted to explore in him, to see if the club music auteur has something soulful that you can extract.
Kala is sort of a folk music album. You’ve been to all these places in the world and extracted bits and pieces of local dance music and fused them all together into this big messy thing. Was that from circumstance, from not being able to stay in one place?
Yeah! My dream is always to get a place and stay there and just do it. I would love to wake up every day in the same bed. You can have your stuff around, and you can have an idea or a thought and come back to it in a few days. You’ve got something to remind you, a note on the wall or whatever. And none of that method of working existed as soon as I left my house in London in 2004. I actually still haven’t been able to put my feet down in a place I could call my home. Even when I was living in Brooklyn, if you squashed all the days together, I’ve had that apartment for more than a year and a half, and I’ve been there about a month. It feels like I never got off touring, but I haven’t really spent much time touring. It’s as much as a human brain can compute and remember and be inspired and make something in a spontaneous way without losing it. It’s really hard to explain.
You recorded in India, Trinidad, Jamaica. Did you spend time on all your tracks in all those places?
Yeah. The way I did it initially, when I put in a visa application, I was just going to go out and kill time in India. I just started going away and coming back to London, going away and coming back to London, but it was always a fucked up situation. You go somewhere, but it’s not like you can just be there forever. You still have to come to the meetings; you’re tied to the embassy meetings. It takes ages to go through, so then I’d have to go back and do that, and it would take like another month. It was never a clear, defined idea of what this album was going to be. It’s something that happened like that. So when I started recording a song in India, say “Boyz,” I recorded the drums in India, then I had the files in Trinidad. We put it together and did the vocals in Trinidad, and then we did some extra work on it in Brooklyn, and then we went back to India and did some extra extra work. So each song has layers and layers.
There’s a sort of tension on the record. “Boyz” is a party song, a dance song, but it never explodes. Is that a function of the disconnected way it was all put together?
No, I think I just have a different way of getting music. With “Boyz,” I guess it is like a collage, but I do all my music like that. I don’t really do it in a classic sense, like these are the five pieces of happiness dispersed through three and half minutes. It’s too easy to always fill the same formula. So I think with “Boyz” I was trying to not follow any formulas and just do something. It started off using the drums, the drums that sound like a bass. I just really liked that drum, and that’s what I was trying to use, and it fell into, like, “OK, we’re going to make soca that’s not really soca.” And in Trinidad, I was trying to to make a song that wasn’t very soca-ish, but I was in a soca environment with soca producers who were having a lot of soca stuff going on. I wasn’t thinking about American clubs at the time, about what sort of stuff they were listening to, what kids in Paris were listening to. I was just there in the moment in Trinidad. It had the ups and downs: the basic chorus, soca for the tempo, and you just fuck around with that. You create a new way to feel music.
Musically, there’s a lot of soca and dancehall and rap and Bollywood stuff on the record, but the way you use your voice and deliver the lyrics, it’s so flat and unaffected so much of the time, it kind of reminds me of Delta 5 and the Slits, the British postpunk stuff. Do you listen to that stuff.
No. It’d be nice to listen to it. I have listened to it. But yeah, to me, this was just what was happening to me naturally. I was just reacting to loads of stuff. And I think that if I heard something and liked something, then there’s no reason for me to do that thing again. I wanted it to be difficult and raw and not get into it so much. I was putting more into the the production side of it, so that’s how the lyrics and stuff came about. I was just in a different place.
It sounds a lot fiercer and heavier. The drums on this album are just crazy disorienting, nothing like the last one.
Yeah, I think most of my energy did go on knowing I could do that. I knew that on Arular, but I felt so crazy into doing that part of the production, I managed to narrow it down and get it close to what I thought. But this time, because I went off and recorded it myself, I had more control over it. I had the ability to fuck around with it more, whereas on Arular, some of the songs I just got given. Like “Pull Up the People,” I just took the beat and wrote on it. I didn’t really have any input production-wise. It is mental, but then I felt that that the whole world was going kind of disco/electro Justicey kind of beat, which seems to be the common thread wherever I go these days, the kind of dance-music revival of the 90s, I thought it was really important to introduce an organic sound. But it’s still really digital and futuristic music. But every time you progress in that sense, futuristic music doesn’t have to always be made of the same synthy doodle stuff. And that’s the thing: to go get a drum that’s two thousand years old from a temple and then to make that sound into something else. So philosophically, it’s the same thing: the faster you move through time and culture, it’s important to always have somebody throw in the basics, the traditional stuff, so you get to have the best of both worlds.
Would you say it’s still party music?
Yeah, it is still party music. It’s still optimistic. But as a person I hit a lot of lows during the making of this album. And every time you go through something like that, you want to cheer yourself up, so you make the happiest song you can. I think my work will always be optimistic; it’s something I use to make myself feel better.
Do you like the Justice-type disco stuff?
I love it; I think it’s great. But too much of anything is not good for you.
You recorded with a whole bunch of people for the record, and a lot of it didn’t make it on. How did you decide what was right for it and what wasn’t?
It was really weird. By the time I got to the US to work with Timbaland and everything, I was already too far developed into the sound that I had, which was turning out to be something. It felt better to me that it was self-contained. When I went to the US, I remember one day, around the table, it was like Timbaland, Lil Jon, Akon, stuff like that. We all sat around the table with about five different producers, and they were like, “So, let’s get it started.” It’s really hard to get to that point after being away for like eight months and then just making music for the sake of making music and making hits. And that’s what I felt like. I was in Beverly Hills, and I had the opportunity to make anything I wanted and to make an industry hit, and it would be amazing to do that and everything. But maybe it’s more precious to have a piece of work, to make something that was really self-contained and thorough in its fucked-upedness. If you’re going to be the Other, than maybe it’s OK to have that purist attitude. And I found it really hard to find my place in that music, not playing on your sexuality, singing about sex and singing about a woman that wants to be a maneater or whatever, it was really difficult for me to figure out what I was supposed to be saying in my situation. And that’s the situation if you’re a female singer.
There’s a Timabaland track that I guess is a bonus track on the album in the US, and it’s on his album in the UK. It’s a great song, but there’s a part where he’s like, ‘Baby girl go to your teepee.’ What was that?
Don’t ask me! It was kind of funny. I don’t like to butt in when that’s going on. I just thought it was pretty funny at the time, so I left it. It was kind of funny to meet him and work with him. It was amazing because he’s amazing at what he does; he’s a legend. But by the time that our paths met, Timbaland had already been Timbaland and done all the cool weird shit. He’s sampled babies and cows and things, and I was making tracks sampling chickens. And he was like, “I’m done being cool; I want to work with Celine Dion.” And I was like, “So you just want to make Titanic?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” In my career right now, I’m not trying to make Titanic. I want my songs to just be what they are, and I wasn’t thinking like that.
Bjork has saying something similar in interviews after working with him, that he was asking her if she wanted to make weird music or make hits, like he had his weird music zone that he could go into or his hit zone.
My thing is that it is amazing but you kind of have to be a blank canvas. You have to be really good at being that thing. You have to be able to be emotive. You have to have to be able to sing everything exactly how it’s supposed to be sung. You’re just supposed to be technically really good. And you just do what you’re told. So I might a well be working in theatre if that’s what I was going to do. I might as well just get hired out to do different projects every six months and spend my life on Broadway if that’s what I wanted to do. And it’s nothing to do with artistry. At that time, I had that “Down River” track, and when I brought that to Interscope and played that for them, I already had like eight songs. And when I played it for them, they were a lot more inspired from what they were hearing off me. At one point, when Interscope played “Boyz,” Will.I.Am and Pharrell and Timbaland were all in one room, and I was just coming from India, working in a little studio with cockroaches and little kids using my blank CDs as frisbees and shit. And then I sat in a million-pound studio with T.I. and Britney next door. They were playing my stuff, and I felt like I’ve done this to the point where I can bring it to Interscope. And now they can hear what little kids in Australia sound like, which they’re not going to actively go out and seek because everyone’s in their comfort zone. And at the same time, I was like, if I can already do that, what’s the point of working with big-name producers?
The Wilcanna Mob “Down River” track, they are Australian aboriginal kids, right?
They sound tiny.
They are, yeah. I think when they made that track, they were really really young, because they made that track like two years ago. Now their voices have broken, but that’s how they sounded before their voices broke, and it’s really cute. Everyone always thinks it’s a midget. But no, they were ten.
Are you going to bring them out?
I’d love to, but I think that two of the best ones, Keith and Buddy, they’re both in a young offenders’ institute.
Afrikan Boy, who’s on “Hussle,” who’s he? I’ve never heard of him before.
He’s this Nigerian kid, and he’s a refugee who lived in Woolwich, which is the worst neighborhood in London. I went there once in my life accidentally when I fell asleep on a night bus, and it was like the worst day of my life. So this neighborhood now has the biggest African community. And he did this track called “Little,” which is about shoplifting in this really cheap supermarket, this market for immigrants where everything is like 10p. And the song is about him actually going to shoplift chicken, and he gets caught by security. He does the whole song in a Nigerian accent and talks about how he’s nineteen but he lies to go to school and says he’s fourteen. When I heard it, I was like, wow, that’s the first person I’ve heard who’s coming from a really grimy neighborhood and background, and he’s talking about issues that I’ve never heard of before. And he’s not embarrassed about it; he’s actually joking about it, and he’s able to take the mickey out of himself. It was just so random how that happened because that week I was like, “Oh, let’s get someone on ‘Hussle.'” So I got in touch with him, and he wrote that part for “Hussle” and came and did it. And it sounds like I wrote it or something, but that’s the type of shit he says. I think he’s the first sign that there could be more me’s out there.
The stuff you say on “Hussle”: “I hate money cause it makes me numb,” “Why’s everyone got hustle on their mind?” Was got you to the point where you were saying that stuff?
I felt like if you lived with that sort of attitude, you really had to sacrifice a lot of other things. And every number-one hit coming out of America is like, “Hustlin’, hustlin’, hustlin’,” When I was in Liberia, you get into the huts, and little kids are listening to that shit. And it’s cute to see them dancing to it like, “Wow, yeah, the “Hustlin'” song, that’s so cool!” And then it’s like, actually, it’s not fucking cool. You have to give them something else as well. If it is about working or if you’re talking about money, then I don’t think that 99% of music should stress that. So at the time, I was just asking somebody that question. I don’t want to live like that.
Is “Jimmy” about anyone or anything in particular?
Well, there was this journalist. When I was in Liberia, I think he was in Rwanda at the time. And he was like, “Hey, you should fly down here and meet me.” He was covering the genocide, and he emailed me and told me that genocide tour. So if I did come out, he’d take me out on a date, he offered me the option of going on a safari and sitting by a luxury pool down in Kenya or something or going on a genocide tour in Rwanda. And I was like, “Wow, I’m sure that no one else is going to say yes to the genocide tour in Rwanda; maybe I’ll do that.” But to get from Liberia to Rwanda, it’s the craziest journey. I would’ve had to take like five planes and God knows what would’ve happened, so in the end I didn’t go, so I wrote the song instead.
So that’s what it’s about? The journalist?
Well, “Jimmy” the song is a really old Bollywood disco song. It was huge. It’s like “Thriller.” When I was a kid in Sri Lanka, it meant a lot to me. My mom used to get me to be a professional party buffer. I used to dance a lot as a kid, so people hired me out at birthday parties. That was my theme song. I used to do a performance to “Jimmy.” I used to have a cloak and a cardboard guitar, and I’d do this big disco-dancing number and get all the kids to dance, and then they’d pay me and I’d leave. So that song to me is really really personal. And I was in this place, in Liberia, and it was really heavy. I was doing lots of heavy, heavy stuff, not really thinking about romance. And obviously I’d been in this weird relationship before, and I’d come out of it, like “Maybe I should just do this mad trip and go meet this person.” And it’s just a mash-up of all those things, whatever I was going through that week. I wanted to redo “Jimmy” for a long time. When I was in India, I’d already recorded the strings and everything for it. But I’d never attempted to do “Jimmy” the whole time I was with Switch because it was just one of those songs; I had to be drunk enough to be that disco. It all came together that week.
What about “XR2”? The “where were you in 92?” part seems pretty cryptic.
No, it’s just that that’s one of the things in London. Coming from London around that time, we had rave music, and it was a really interesting time. And it’s interesting, too, with the revival of it, nu-rave and everything going on right now. So it’s not really cryptic; it’s just about 92. Everything about 92 is in there.
So is it a challenge? Are you asking the kids who are reviving that stuff right now where they were in 92?
Well, I think it’s interesting. I’m signed to XL in England, and they’re basically the people that brought rave music to the forefront. All my favorite songs came out on this label, all this rave music I listened to, and I found that out after I signed to XL. So it’s not really a challenge. The XR2 is a car that we used to drive in. And it’s how we dressed and the attitude of it. I just remember rave music made you feel really amazingly competent in your little bottle of shit that was going on. We used to drive around in little XR2 cars with bass-tubes, and it was really noisy and crazy. Nobody liked us, and everyone was coming home at eight in the morning, still high off ecstasy and shit. And now it’s a different version of that, so I thought it would be nice to bridge the two.
So it’s kind of a memory song?
Yeah, it’s my back-in-the-day song.
Is your live show going to be different doing this stuff? It sounds so different. It sounds bigger, more suited to echoes and noise bouncing off walls.
I’m still open-minded about it. If something else needs to be added or if something jumps up, I’ll do it. But right now, it’s kind of more stripped-down. I feel like I need to learn to play some instruments.
For when you’re onstage or when you’re recording?
I can guess it when I’m recording; I have more time to figure shit out. But when I’m live, that would be cool.
You’re going to be doing this show that this newspaper’s going to be sponsoring at Coney Island. Have you ever been to this thing before.
No, I haven’t.
Did you decide to do this show, or did someone book you to it?
Well, I think it’s just been a long time since I’ve been able to get into the US. I do have somebody that I work with. Sometimes I’ll accept shows if it’s from friends, and sometimes I’ll have a booking person doing it. At the moment, I’m more careful about booking shows because of the visa. But it just seemed like the nicest one. I’m not looking loads of stuff, but I’ve never been there before.
Are you going to do another Piracy Funds Terrorism?
Me and Diplo don’t talk, so it’d be hard. But yeah, maybe with someone else. We’ll see.
You don’t talk at all anymore?
So the stuff that he did on the album, is it older?
Yeah, the “XR2” stuff. I did “XR2” in the beginning as a MySpace song, and then it grew. It did really well in London. And now I’m putting it out on a different label.
The version on the album sounds different from what was on MySpace.
Yeah, it’s grown. “XR2” as a song has got its own life beyond what’s going on with this record. I don’t know what Diplo’s doing. I think he’s really busy right now. And I’m having visa issues, and it seems like a pointless exercise to get together and do that thing.
Yeah, that makes sense. The first one was so good, though.
I know. The thing is that I have so much stuff that I could just stick out a Piracy Funds Terrorism 2 now; I could just put it out with how much stuff I have: the stuff that didn’t make the album, the different versions, the remixes that DJs have for me already. I just felt like I want to be inspired by something, and it would be nice to be there in America to be there.
You did a song with Three 6 Mafia; did it not fit with the album?
Yeah. Girls have to figure out how to work with Three 6 Mafia better. When Three 6 Mafia work with girls, they can only be one-dimensional. They’re better at doing their own stuff.
They don’t make that scary music for you that they make for themselves?
Yeah, they’re like, “You’re too gangsta, man, you’re too gangsta!” And I was like, “How could you say that to me?” And they were like, “Look, you should sing about pretty things! Be pretty about everything! Sing about unicorns!”
They told you to sing about unicorns?
Well, not unicorns. They were talking about singing about being on the dancefloor with hot guys. If that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I would’ve done three years ago. Why do you think I would’ve waited until I got in the room with you to make that song? If I wanted to just sing about shaking my ass, I would’ve done that a long time ago. Don’t you think I would’ve come to that conclusion a long time ago? It’s a pretty simple, obvious one. And they were like, “Well, we can’t have gunshots. We can’t have anything bad. We can’t have you talking about anything that’s too you because you’re from like Shalanga. Shangalangalang.” At the point when I met them, it was just amazing. They carried their Oscar around in their bag, and they still didn’t have a passport, and they’d only been to like three states. They’d just been to LA and back, and I was catching them at that time when they were just about to move to LA and get millions and do their MTV show. So it wsa a really interesting time. They were working with Paris Hilton, getting a TV show and moving to Beverly Hills, really doing that thing. And I don’t know if I want a song that sounds like Paris Hilton.
I guess that’s all the questions I had, unless you wanted to talk about anything else.
I hope I can make it to the festival. I kind of want to make it home. I’m still living like a student, you know?
So Brooklyn is what you mean when you say home now?
Yeah, that’s where all my stuff is. I have bits of stuff here, there, and everywhere, and my family is here, but not being able to access your shit is tough. Growing up, I thought I was going to be independent and be my own person, and it’s a long time coming.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on M.I.A.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Simon Reynolds on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Douglas Wolk on M.I.A. and Diplo’s Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1