The Big Read – Mura Masa: “If you’re smart right now, you’re making guitar music”

Back in 2017 Mura Masa made one of the most infectious British dance albums of the decade. So to follow it up, he’s made an angsty, guitar-driven punk record about the chaos of modern life. Sure. Thomas Smith meets the producer to ask about finally embracing the frontman role, his friendship with Slowthai, the power of nostalgia and why making guitar music is 2020’s smartest move. Pictures: Fiona Garden

How do you follow up one of the best British dance albums of the last decade? Do you rope in even bigger guests to help you build a headline-worthy set like Disclosure did? Or maybe collect the swagbag and head to Las Vegas for a million-dollar DJ residency like Calvin Harris? For Mura Masa, the answer was none of the above. Instead, he decided to pick up the guitar and make 2020’s first great rock album.

Eh?

“I skipped the difficult second album and made the weird fourth album,” he tells NME

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Mura Masa – aka 23-year-old Alex Crossan – is talking about his second full-length record ‘R.Y.C’ (short for Raw Youth Collage). “It wasn’t a kickback to say, ‘Look what I can do. It’s probably actually the opposite of that. I thought, ‘What if I was doing what I wanted and didn’t really mind what people thought of it?’”

“It’s definitely a left-turn,” he says with a wry smile.

Just a bloody bit. Mura Masa’s self-titled 2017 debut is a joyful listen. Featuring high-end guests like Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky and Damon Albarn, it became the blueprint for how to lace modern electronica with a catchy pop sensibility. It made him a festival hero, landed him a Grammy nomination and he ended the campaign playing a sold-out show at London’s Brixton Academy.

‘Raw Youth Collage’ might as well have been released by a totally different artist. This time around there are crunching guitar riffs and a punk fury that sizzles from start to finish. In the past, Crossan would often leave the singing to his all-star mates, but this time, he takes the lead on several tracks – his distorted vocals sounding ever more pained through various filters. It’s a bold, angry new direction.

“If you’re smart right now, you’re making guitar music,” he tells NME, when we move from a boozy bar full of Christmas revellers to sit outside on a freezing December evening. That was his idea – he’s a “mumbler”, he says and the bar might drown him out. “I feel like people are now praying for some authenticity and some human touch to music. There’s no simpler outlet to that than guitar and piano.”

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It’s this kind of authenticity that sits at the core of ‘Raw Youth Collage’. Tailor-made for Gen Z, it’s a scrapbook of anxiety and nostalgia, a continuation of the DIY ethos embodied by 2019 heroes like Clairo, Beabadobee and Billie Eilish. Take the song ‘No Hope Generation’, where Crossan references the paranoia experienced by young adults looking to get on in life (“I need help to buy / I need help to cope”) while re-energising the same spiky riffs found in Joy Division’s post-punk anthem ‘Disorder’. Then there’s ‘Deal Wiv It’, a ‘Parklife’-sized rant by rapper Slowthai, in which he muses on the prices of pints and gentrification in his hometown of Northampton.

Crossan’s return to the guitar – his first musical experiences in his native Guernsey were playing in bands – was inspired by the new wave of British bands currently making a right old racket. He namechecks Brighton art-punks Squid, London’s sax-fuelled Black Country, New Road and experimentalists Black Midi for breathing new life into the scene. “I think this year is going to have some weird revival for guitar music,” he says. “It’s so fresh sounding to me. But maybe it will get ruined in six months and some DJ will do some fucking shit guitar song. Maybe it’s me!”

For the as-yet uninitiated, here are some key facts about the man that is Mura Masa. Crossan grew up on the Channel Isle of Guernsey, but currently lives in London. He began his musical career uploading original tracks and remixes to SoundCloud aged 17 in 2013, but has gone on to do sessions with Stormzy, Nile Rodgers and BTS. He’s never broken any bones, is not quite convinced that ghosts exist, and if you end up round his gaff, his killer dish is lemon and garlic pasta. He buys really nice olive oil.

He’s also Guernsey’s biggest cultural export since Les Miserables – the Victor Hugo novel and West End musical-inspo was penned by the 19th Century novelist while in exile there, trapped between Britain and France. It’s where Crossan was lived until he moved to Brighton to study English Literature at University. He remembers the island fondly but now realises its attitude is quite at odds with his current beliefs. “It’s very monocultural and quite conservative, which doesn’t necessarily align with where I am politically, I guess,” he says. “I do miss it sometimes, but I wonder if I miss the place, or the old life and people.”

So how did he make his own fun back in the day? Started playing in deathcore bands, of course. “There was a bit of a rock-to-metal scene there. It was sort of around the time of US bands like Veil of Maya and Born Of Osiris were about,” he says of noughties Guernsey’s strong metalcore vibe. He played in some slightly more safe-for-Guernsey bands, too, including the church group, a function band for weddings and acoustic gigs with his brother. 

Currently he’s in the process of piecing together his own band for his new, earthy direction. He’s recruited a “bunch of kids” from the UK and the US to play live with him but, as of last December, he’d not even met them yet. Their first outing? London’s 10,000 capacity Alexandra Palace on February 20. That seems rather big for a first show? “Yeah, I know…” he says, lightly grimacing. Probably not the first time he’s heard that.

Memories of his time on Guernsey are key to this new album. ‘Raw Youth Collage’ is both a manifesto for an uncertain youth and Crossan pining for the simpler times of his childhood. Whether those times were actually better or not doesn’t really matter – he’s fascinated by the power of nostalgia, whether it’s real or manufactured. “When I was growing up in the early noughties, I remember the time being very serene, peaceful and innocent,” he says. “But actually there was Tony Blair’s oil wars going on halfway across the world. I’m very much a nostalgic optimist. I choose to remember the good bits and embellish them a bit.”

One of the album’s highlights, ‘In My Mind’, is a perfect example. The song sticks out from the rest, building on his established electronic sound and pairing a glitchy beat with his serene, distorted vocals. On it, Crossan remembers observing the rave scene from his serene – and quite dull – island home. “The album tries to explore different nostalgic influences of mine, one of those is witnessing club culture from really far away in Guernsey,” he says. “It’s telling the story of people who misremember club days that they weren’t actually present for. There’s a lot of indulging in rose-tinted nostalgia of that time and the raves, but in reality you might have thrown up a lot that night, or it was really hard to get to this bridge under the M24.”

He acknowledges that collective misremembering can have dangerous side-effects. “I think everyone does that with their own lives and drags it out and adds some colour. I think that’s how we’ve got to the point where we’re at culturally. Everyone’s talking about making ‘so-and-so great again’ and to get back to simpler times and to get out of the EU. Let’s go back to something that didn’t even exist’”.

There are few people you can trust to make sense (or nonsense, your pick) of the world right now. Prime suspect is Slowthai. The chaotic Northampton rap-punk MC’s 2019 debut ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ was a stark and funny state-of-the-nation address. Crossan and Slowthai first worked together on the rapper’s bruising 2018 single ‘Door Man’ – an early peak into Crossan’s ability to match Slowthai’s excitability with guitars and drums.

The pair have teamed up again on ‘Deal Wiv It’, the album’s loudest moment and NME’s Track Of The Year 2019. Originally a 20-minute studio diatribe from Slowthai, the finished version features his ranting about the cost of boozing (“I went to the pub and asked for a pint for three quid/He said it’s a fiver, well that’s gentrification, you prick”) and opportunities for young adults (“No options in this life gimme nothing”) but a strange sense of optimism to finish (“Life gets hard, but it’s quite exciting/Spin around it’s young white lightning”).

It’s origins start with Crossan’s girlfriend, who suggested he and Slowthai could do a modern version of The Stranglers’ ‘Peaches’ – utilising the same talk-singing vibe, repetitive guitar work and sardonic, topsy-turvy attitude. “I think he’s very uniquely optimistic and has this positive, humanist attitude,” Crossan says of his mate. “I don’t think a lot of people manage to have that attitude these days, but he combines it with this visceral, vitriolic rage. I think he’s one of the only punks in the world right now.”

For Crossan to make such a sharp turn away from his electronic sound could also be considered pretty punk. Not to mention risky, especially when you consider that his tried and tested formula earmarked him as one of Britain’s best young producers, with a reputation that would land him co-writing credits on Stormzy’s debut album ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’, and a producing role on BTS and Zara Larsson’s 2019 single, ‘A Brand New Day’. 

“If you’re not changing what you’re doing and exploring different parts of your musical output, I think you’re slowly dying,” he says of his new direction. “This album does feel like a risk, but it feels like an exciting risk that people are on board for.”

Having guests was something that he thought of doing away with too, but he couldn’t help have a few. “I picked them so carefully this time,” he says of new album’s team-ups including Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell (‘Teenage Headache Dreams’), British pop producer Georgia (‘Live Like We’re Dancing’) and rising R&B hero Tirzah (‘Today’) who join Slowthai and Clairo (‘I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again’).

What Crossan wanted to avoid was an uninformed cast of big names, only there for the clout. “I can definitely think of a couple of electronic acts that have done albums with loads of features on them, then the second time around, the question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Who are they gonna get this time?’ They do that, it’s not as good and [they have] an identity crisis. I just wanted to skip that whole thing and just start indulging myself right away,” he laughs.

It’s an album built on instinct. “Like the song ‘Vicarious Living Anthem’,” says Crossan. “I was in a session with Fred Ball (Rihanna, Jay Z) and said I wanted to make a punk album, so he said, ‘Pick up the guitar then,’ and I basically did that song right then. I think the moment I realised it was a really stupid thing to do, that’s when I fell in love with trying to do it.”

As risks go, this one is timed pretty nicely. The No-Genre Generation have idols who don’t care so much for tags and labels (see Brockhampton, The 1975, Billie Eilish) and the occasional curveball isn’t just welcomed, but necessary. Holding onto attention spans in the playlist era has become an even bigger challenge, which is something that Crossan embraces. “There’s less classification which is good. A decade ago you had indie bands, nu-rave, DJs and pop stars all jostling for position and trying to break down the boundaries. In the end, that culminates in the rapper being the new rockstar and the new punk – it’s in the middle of all that type of music.”

Yet in among this boundary-breaking, he admits that he’s a bit of a hermit, only really going out to gigs and raves to support mates. London, he finds, is a bit of a “brain jungle”. It’s why his social media channels are private and only focus on his work. “In my opinion, if you’re not using social media ironically or to achieve social justice, you’re a mutt. No one cares what food you ate. No one cares who you’re with or what party you’re at. People can only pry as much as you allow them to.”

He’s not in the business of documenting his life on social media, but ‘Raw Youth Collage’ hints at an artist slowly coming to terms with the power and value of his own voice. By digging deep into his own past – and that of his collaborators – these songs provide a window into the psyche of Britain’s confused and maligned. There’s anger and irony in ‘No Hope Generation’ and ‘Deal Wiv It’, but it’s equally as memorable for French touch house music-inspired ‘Live Like We’re Dancing’ – an ode to embracing life’s sweet moments – and the woozy ‘Teenage Headache Dreams’, the album’s psychedelic closer. ‘Raw Youth Collage’’s honesty might help be that voice for his fans, but he’s not sure if he feels equipped to be at the front of the movement.

It’s been the elephant in the room so far. Does Mura Masa fancy himself as a rockstar?

“Everyone has the fantasy of themselves as David Bowie or whatever, but I didn’t know if I had the stones to do that,” he laughs.. But he deserves more credit than that. Playing your first show with a brand new band at an arena? Admirable stuff. Ditching your world-beating sound without a second thought? Ballsy move. Making the year’s first great guitar album? That’s some rockstar shit right there.

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