Today we explore the world of King Krule - from his influence on youth style and uniquely eclectic sound to his mythical south London.
Richard Linklater’s 90s film Slacker follows a group of twentysomethings through Austin, Texas as they attempt to make sense of the world around them. In the opening act, Linklater plays a man convinced of the hidden meaning in his dreams, as if they are telling him something profound about his existence. As they navigate early adulthood, the young characters of Slacker all seek an intangible substance to life, beyond work and the messy realities of the city.
It’s a film frequently referenced by Archy Marshall, a fascinating beatnik figure whose shadowy post-punk and bruised jazz explores a similar kind of yearning, a dreaminess that feels very urban. When we meet in the greenhouse of a pub in Dulwich, south London, Marshall empties out his pockets in front of me as if he is under police interrogation. Buried under curls of cigarette paper, general coat funk and notebook scraps is a pocket-sized tape recorder. He hits ‘play’.
“I do a lot of field recordings – rain and walking home on nights out,” Marshall explains as pitter-patter sounds from the Dictaphone. “I want to put reality in my records – it creates this whole universe. I like the sound of my feet on concrete.” Many of these noises have made it onto The OOZ, Marshall’s new 19-song opus, his second as King Krule. One particular moment on it, he tells me, came after a stand-off with an hysterical urban fox. “If you grew up in England, the sound of foxes screaming is quite iconic. I remember being a kid, being so scared of foxes, thinking they were women. Like something bad was happening.”
As well as documenting the sounds of south London, Marshall hides Easter eggs around town, stuffing scrunched-up lyric sheets into the nooks of pubs. “There are certain places that I’ve got a connection to, that I end up writing in,” he explains. “There are lyrics from this record in a few pubs around south-east. Sorry, I don’t want people to know where they are...” It’s Marshall’s documentary-style approach that makes The OOZ such timely art – perfect flâneur walking music, an OST to the streets beneath the river.
But it’s also a personal record – an outpouring of vivid and varied emotions, from heartache and hopelessness to a feeling of panicked dislocation. One track, “The Locomotive”, is a slow and cold lullaby occasionally walloped by thundering guitars. Or in this case, a passenger train. “The train is a metaphor for the weight on your back,” Marshall theorises. “It becomes an exodus; you’re waiting for it to come.”
Foreign-sounding voices dot much of the record, sprinkled in to add an air of faraway exoticism, as if Marshall had finally caught that train out of town. “The Cadet Leaps” features icy-electronic producer Eyedress, who recites a poem about a spaceman having an existential crisis thousands of feet above earth. “(Archy) hit me up out of nowhere on Facebook; he asked me to recite the poem in Tagalog... I’m shit at Tagalog,” recalls the beatmaker, a native of the Philippines where the language is spoken.
“Slush Puppy” is led by the ensnaring intonations of XL Recordings’ Okay Kaya, whose Norwegian vocals were slowed down far beyond recognition in the final cut. The hopeless love song drifts like a cloud of dopesmoke into The OOZ – suffocating to the point of anxiety-inducing. “I was feeling pretty useless (at the time of recording), so the words I sing on the song came about in that way,” remarks Kaya. “I would record vocals either as voice memos or through a sound-card, then send over dry for him to mess with.” (On a lighter note, Kaya reveals that the pair frequently swap clips of goofy BBC show Robot Wars).
For “Bermondsey Bosom (Right)”, Marshall even recruits his father, Adam, an art director for TV shows like Merlin and beloved 90s drama This Life. Reading a poem that plays like a career-spanning eulogy to his son, he references everything from the 2011 King Krule EP (and specifically the myth-making, dubbed-out anthem “Portrait in Black and Blue”) to Marshall’s debut 2013 album 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. “It sounds like a fucking M&S food advert,” Marshall japes of his dad’s delivery. “I was drilling him in the studio, being like, ‘I want it a bit softer, I want it to be a bit more grotesque.” For a studio recluse, Marshall rounds up a large supporting cast on The OOZ.
“I had a desire to get so many people involved, especially my friends,” says Marshall. “I almost wanted to collect them, like Pokémon – I would record you and put you in a time and place in history.” The musician usually baulks at the thought of co-authorship, and didn’t even seem bothered when a jam with Frank Ocean at his mum’s house last year amounted to nothing. “I’m a bit of a despot when I’m writing, it’s kind of monolithic,” he admits, seizing something with his eyes in the distance. “Frank’s cool, though.”
When the sulking rap-groove of The OOZ’s second single “Dum Surfer” dropped in September, it was a surprise to find Marshall’s baritone had somehow dropped a further octave. The singer had purposefully dried his vocals out for the album, a reference to the booming, room-filling esprit of Serge Gainsbourg on his perverted concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson. Also, he was interested in sounding bored of life. “I guess that idea of the mundane is something I played with a lot,” he says of a song that is refreshingly off-trajectory for King Krule. In spirit, it’s much closer to his output as Edgar the Beatmaker – Marshall’s hip hop side-project named after Edgar the Peacemaker, an early English king responsible for the first historical record of Dulwich.
In the video for “Dum Surfer”, Marshall looks even iller than he sounds. Directed by music-clip maven Brother Willis, the video sees the King Krule band stalk the premises of a battered members’ bar like junkie zombies, their faces daubed in sweat and make-up that looks like bruising. At least the five-piece are dressed cool, turned out like a 70s jazz fusion band playing a Las Vegas wedding.
When it comes to his personal style, Marshall is constantly evolving. In the video for early single “Easy Easy”, he dons an oversized suit like a 70s court reporter; in the short for the equally crowd-pleasing “Out Getting Ribs”, his hair is quiffed like a 50s teddy boy’s, revealing a strikingly contoured face that’s part Tilda Swinton, part young John McEnroe. Other times, Marshall looks like the archetypal south London art student: bucket hats, Oakley shades, loose-fitting plaid shirts and skater tees.
The afternoon we meet, Marshall’s going through an Asian military phase: dressed head-to-toe in navy-blue utility wear, his cocked beret, padded blouson jacket and combat jersey nods to the uniform of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao. “I’ve spent a couple of years just growing my hair out, looking disgusting. I kind of indulged in that for a bit because I was like, ‘Fuck looking (fashion-savvy) like that,’” he says. “As I got older, it became fun. Even if it’s the most expensive bit of clothing or the trashiest pieces, it’s about how you’re wearing it, how you tuck it in, how it moves on your body. I always wore baggy clothes – I’m skinny, and I like this look of just being out of proportion.”
Before our interview, I catch Marshall live at a DIY space set in an industrial estate, round the corner from where The OOZ was recorded. Marshall spent the tense build to “Dum Surfer” eyeballing the crowd – a tough, testing gaze that seemed to penetrate the darkness. He’s been pulling this kind of bad-cop act since his first pub show at the age of 12, staring down the people who ignored him from early on. Perhaps a twisted kind of showmanship possesses Marshall as soon as he steps on stage – or maybe he’s just forgotten that he does it. “I don’t like to interact with the crowd that much; they have their job, I have my job,” he mumbles. “In doing that I come across quite moody and quite minimalist. I don’t speak much and that’s something I’ve always been empowered by, in a way. Some of the best relationships with other people are in silence.”
“I don’t speak much and that’s something I’ve always been empowered by... Some of the best relationships with other people are in silence” — King Krule
With more than ten years’ live experience to his name, Marshall worries less and less about what might happen at shows, especially now he’s flanked by an ensemble of hand-picked virtuosos. The newest addition, Buenos Aires-born saxophonist Ignacio Salvadores, turned up in his Facebook messenger inbox. Replying to messages and music submissions from fans, Marshall came across a clip of Salvadores freestyling under an east London railway arch. Soon after, he was invited into the King Krule live band. “It gave me so much life and energy to create again,” Marshall says of their synthesis. “I can’t even comprehend how it came about.”
It’s this kind of open-access networking that has previously drawn Marshall into the American hip hop world, a universe that thrives on DM reach-outs away from the middle management of PR. Collaborations with the likes of Rejjie Snow and Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt (who spent four weeks squatting in Marshall’s mum’s house recently) have come about unforced. “Archy makes songs out of the weirdest sounds,” says Snow, after I reach out for comment about their as-yet unreleased collaboration. “His music is hard, but for me it’s the humour he subtly lays within it that I love about him.”
Humour is an important asset to The OOZ, Marshall responds, when I relay Snow’s thoughts – especially when you consider how dark a lot of the album is. So dark, you might say it verges on over-the-top. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand with melodrama – there’s a humour to (my music) that I’ve always been aware of.” For context, he offers me a glimpse of his inner darkness. “I’m really self destructive, I’ve not been healthy and considerate with myself — and I’m always aware of that. I think humour is natural in situations like this; you’re stepping back a little.” Much of the camp horror of his new work comes from the moments where he is simply screaming into the mic from a distance – a deeply existential drone, given the content. “Nowadays, if I play enough, my voice is huge... I just like the idea of being able to stand that far away from a mic, still hear it, and shoot into it.”
Looking back on his uncompromising repertoire now – material you can’t imagine coming out of anyone else – Marshall is able to see his achievements with increasing clarity. “When I dropped out of school, it was like, ‘Damn, I’m in this limbo now, I’m in this place,’” he ponders, as the evening din closes in around us. “At the time I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a step towards having a career, or I’ll just become a junkie, a criminal or something.’”
Three days after The OOZ was released, a cloud of Saharan desert sand and European forest-fire debris formed as a result of Storm Ophelia, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a strange sepia shadow across the UK. For a short while that afternoon in October, the skyline of London looked like a dystopian oil painting – something simultaneously real and imaginary.
Both real and imaginary is how you could define much of the output of Marshall, who has openly compared his storytelling to that of a semi-autobiographical film. “(It’s about) creating this world that you’re only getting snippets of, somewhere in-between dreaming and reality,” he said recently of his music. I take this thought to him, and, as ever, he’s reluctant to give away too many clues. “I disguise a lot of stuff that could be said straightforwardly. It’s kind of abstracted by indulging in memories and the motions...” There’s a story in there worth hearing, he assures me of The OOZ, a dense and rewarding one that could well be his crowning work.
The last 30 seconds of album closer “La Lune” is the sound of rain caught on Marshall’s Dictaphone, a downpour washing away another night-walk home. As Marshall packs the recorder away, I’m reminded of the city fox we spoke about – a curious kind of mascot for an album about searching for meaning in the urban malaise. “In that moment, we were beings that are scared of each other, but not knowing anything about each other,” Marshall says of the encounter, crystallising all it means to be alienated and disconnected from life, standing on the precipice of the real world.
The OOZ is out now