M.I.A. interview

M.I.A. talks about the industry right now, Lady Gaga, Kesha and the new musical underground

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“Sorrrrry,” M.I.A.’s been busy - very busy. So busy our interview happens 44 hours later than was originally scheduled. Maya Arulpragasam has valid reasons for living up to her stage name, though, she’s only just back in London after being marooned in the US for 18 months; “banned”, she says, from leaving. Maya is seen by the government of her native Sri Lanka as a dissident, publicly accusing them of “genocide” for their part in a 26-year civil war that ended last May. She claims they’ve been “pulling the strings” recently to make life difficult: disappearing visa applications and hacking into her Twitter and email accounts, “wishing all kinds of crazy illness on my baby and stuff like that”.

“People used to come and park outside my house in LA,” she says. “I felt so powerless”. Add in a mother alone and made sick by similar visa bullshit this side of the Atlantic, and it’d be churlish of NME to rue a few hours spent twiddling thumbs. It hasn’t been all espionage and irritation, though - there was the arrival of that aforementioned baby, son Ikhyd is a year old now - and a new album too. Due out this summer, the follow-up to 2007’s Kala sees M.I.A. hook-up with dub-step hoodlum Rusko and rekindle her creative relationship with Wes Pentz, aka ex-boyfriend Diplo, for the first time since ‘Paper Planes’ (“it’s OK now, but was awkward at first,” admits Maya, now engaged to Ikhyd’s father Benjamin Bronfman).

Last year also delivered an Oscar nomination for her music’s appearance in Slumdog Millionaire, while she’s recently signed Sleigh Bells and Blaqstarr to her own label, NEET. She also scooped a lot on Time magazine’s list of the ‘World’s 100 Most Influential People’, and this true star looks like she will continue to set the agenda into the next decade. We can’t wait to see what M.I.A. has in store for us…

In future decades, how will people look back on music in 2010?
I’m not sure, but music now should be like a sonic massage. You want to really feel it, internally. The police use sound cannons at public protests that explode people’s inside with a single note - human beings have to come up with the opposite of that.

Which artists are you excited about in 2010?
The new Sleigh Bells album epitomises how kids are feeling in America - so much energy, but nothing to do with it. Everyone wants you to be an apathetic consumer over there, so it’s cool to have some weird discomfort going on. I like that Alexis [Krauss, vocalist] used to be a nice girl in a pop band that never made it. She followed every step an American child usually follows - singing in the mirror, wanting to be Britney Spears, etc. - so for her to arrive at this noisy place is interesting. I’ve signed Blaqstarr ,too. He’s from Baltimore, and whenever he goes out a million screaming girls follow him. People are gonna hear his voice and suddenly be reminded of what’s human about us all.

Do musical tribes still exist?
There aren’t tribes any more - how can there be when we all live in computers, on social networks? People listen to and access music differently now, so the tribal thing has to be reformatted.

What place does politics have in music today?
I’m always encouraging people to be more vocal. Google’s more powerful than any government now - people think it’s God. They’re storing all our data and one day they’re gonna turn against us. That’s what my new album’s about - I’m living fucking proof that politics doesn’t work. Every time I breathe it’s documented on my computer and yet I’m still on some stupid list somewhere that says I’m a terrorist.

Do we still need record labels?
Are they even interested in making money from music anymore? Lady Gaga plugs 15 things in her new video. Dude, she even plugs a burger! That’s probably how they’re making money right now - buying up the burger joint, putting the burger in a music video and making loads of burger money.

What do you think of The X Factor [British equivalent of American Idol]?
Oh God, I’m so bored by it already, people need to get over it. X Factor shit’s irrelevant. I’m more concerned by how someone like Kesha can so blatantly copy Uffie. Everyone’s fine with it. Not a fucking lawsuit in sight.

How do you think you’d have fared on the show?
I would totally flop. Are you serious?! I’m not a ‘showbiz’ person. I got signed and made an album without playing a show. I scouted four different people to sing ‘Galang’ before I put it out as my own demo.

Do you think those programmes and the internet have destroyed the mythology around popstars?
I don’t know. Again, there’d Lady Gaga - people say we’re similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music’s reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She’s not progressive, but she’s a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do! That’s a talent and she’s got a great team behind her, but she’s the industry last’s stab at making itself important - saying, ‘You need our money behind you, the endorsements, the stadiums’ Respect to her, she’s keeping a hundred thousand people in work, but my belief is: Do It Yourself.

What’s more important to you - performing live or making records?
Making records is my art, but if you’re an artist, questioning a lot of things it’s important to have that live space what you do isn’t gonna be twisted and manipulated.

How important are image and visuals to your music?
Very. But it’s not like “Haus of Gaga” (laughs). Me blindfolded with naked men feeding me apples and shit.

Where’s today’s true music underground?
In people’s hard drives and their brains, it just hasn’t been outputted yet. It’s really important to be physical, especially now so many of us have become typists and voyeurs. We need a digital moshpit like we’ve never seen, harder than how people were doing it in the punk era. We need that energy, but digitally. It’s coming.

Who’s pushing music forward in 2010? Are people taking enough risks?
Of course they aren’t! We have, what, a million songwriters? And probably three risk-takers. I like this guy DJ Borgore. He’s coming out of the Tel Aviv which has gotta be weird, and in terms of dubstep he makes the hardest shit.

Who or what is the enemy of music right now?
Money is always the enemy of music.

Is it still possible for a musician to ‘sell-out’ in 2010?
Back in 2003 I was in a bedsit, hand-spraying very 12-inch and just wanting to make art. Everybody gets turned into a product push so fast - these weird fucking ‘hipster’ parties promoting Red Bull or whatever. There’s a difference between saying ‘no’ to everything and ‘yes’ to everything. I’m not fucking Coldplay because I said ‘no’ to certain things. When I did my ‘selling-out’ show for MTV they made me a hundred grand and I built a school with it in Africa.

Would you ever make a record for a Twilight soundtrack?
They asked me. Luckily Jimmy [Iovine, chairmen of M.I.A.’s US label Interscope] had beef with the Twilight people, so he stepped in and told them to fuck off.

What do you hope to be doing in 2020?
I’m going to be an artist. Whatever I think an artist is in 10 years. I’ll be doing that.

Source: I typed it out of NME