Mellah’s ‘What It Is’ video is a gloomy, claustrophobic look at political nuance

The South London songwriter tells NME about how new single ‘What It Is’ grew from his desire for political nuance

Holed up in an impressively slick, self-built studio in the South London’ area of Peckham, Liam Ramsden creates some of the most intricate music in young British indie. Under his Mellah guise, his work is a million miles from the scuzzed-up punk South London has become known for – instead, he deals in texture and tonality, a wide-ranging instrumentation giving his productions the feeling of a millennial Beck.

On ‘What It Is’, Mellah’s latest single, he shoots for something even more dazzling. A shape-shifting, percussive cut of what could largely – and perhaps reductively – be tagged as ‘indie’, Mellah’s music feels much more otherworldly than his grounded conversation might suggest. The track, he explains, is about the intricacies of political belief, the absolution that people find in their own thoughts and feelings, and “keeping an open mind – not listening to other people, and making your own decisions on things”.

Backed by heavy drums and an insistent, twanging guitar, ‘What It Is’ is a track that feels musically reminiscent of the mental horrors of a young, liberal generation, but lyrically searches for a deeper connection with those outside of our usual frame of reference. It’s a thematic thread which runs from his last single, the fidgety ‘Cigarette Lighter’, which saw him sing of how: “Left says ‘bigot’ / Right says ‘dreamer’ / But at the core, neither are either.”

In the new single’s accompanying video, Mellah is dragged through swamps and lakes, blindfolded and yanked from side to side. Meanwhile, stylised, choreographed footage of dancers intertwining beneath the flickering light of illuminated flares – a beautiful dance routine, which appears more like a riot. NME met Mellah in his Peckham studio to discuss the thoughts, fears and feelings that found home in ‘What It Is’.

Tell us about the thinking behind ‘What It Is’.

“I wrote it at a time when I was working in film, and some of the guys I worked with were really right wing. To the point of actually being fascist. One of them wanted to bring back hanging for gay people. Weirdly, the environment there was that they could say whatever they wanted, and no-one would really say anything, apart from me. It was pretty horrible.

“Whenever I’d have a social confrontation with them, their response would be, ‘Yeah… but it is what it is, mate.’ So, it was written about that – “It is what it is, but what it is isn’t right” – and not taking the status quo as unchangeable. All the ‘rules’, someone’s just made them up at some point. It’s about following your own gut instead of listening to what other people think is right.” 

What was it like, being in that environment?

“They all hated me by the end of it. I had another band called Middle England, where we all used to dress up as housewives. I showed them all pictures of me in a dress and it really freaked them out. They were just terrified of anything that’s not the Coach & Horses in Surrey… It’s pretty backwards.”

People like that seem quite emboldened at the moment.

“Yeah, they do… I kind of think that’s because they’re told they’re not allowed to think like that. It’s okay to be left-wing; it’s socially acceptable to be liberal. But it’s not to be right-wing. During Brexit, I thought one of the biggest quotes was “people are fed up of experts”. If you tell people they’re wrong the whole fuckin’ time, they don’t go, ‘Oh right, I’m wrong.’ They just go to find people who agree with them.

“I think if you’re working class and you’ve worked your whole life, you don’t really see yourself as having privilege. Whereas you have got shitloads of privilege if you’re white and you live in England – but that’s hard to see if you’ve grown up with not much.”

Do you think people’s minds can be changed?

“Absolutely. But I don’t think they’ll be changed by telling them they’re wrong – it’s conversation and seeing things differently that changes minds. London’s one of these weird bubbles. There were more black kids than white kids in my school, and it’s just a big melting pot. But if you grew up in a little town in Devon or something, and you see crime being associated with black people, you don’t think ‘Oh, that’s because black people statistically have less opportunities, so they might turn to crime’. You think, ‘Black people do crime.’

“Everyone has this obsession with being right the whole time – that’s what my song ‘Cigarette Lighter’ was about. I think the left-wing is as guilty as the right-wing, especially on social media. Because whenever anyone says anything right-wing, the result is immediately, ‘You’re a bigot, you’re a racist.’ They’re just told to shut up. And I do think those views are based in a casual racism, but no one ever changes their mind by being told they’re wrong. You have to listen to people. Otherwise it just ends in shouting – all that does is make people even more emboldened in what they’re doing.”

These things are seen as very black and white.

“Exactly. And another thing I don’t like is this idea of banning things. Like when people were like, ‘Ban Trump!’. Fuckin’ let him come! And just protest, have a conversation – don’t ban him. Because all that does is push him underground and makes the people who side with him feel like they’ve got something to fight against. All you can do is talk about it, and try to show people that it’s bollocks – because it is bollocks. With Trump, let him in, let him say what he’s got to say, and then counteract him with all the reasons why it’s bollocks. Because the arguments don’t hold up!”

Mellah’s new single ‘What It Is’ is out now via Columbia.