In the lawless hours that stretch between midnight and sunrise, Alexander Crossan knows what you need. Spurred by that blip in recent history that revoked our right to party, Crossan went into the creation of his third album as Mura Masa with simple intent: to reverse-engineer the precious resource of hedonistic joy.
That mission spawned demon time, a genre-splicing headrush of a dance record, blinged out with guest appearances from Shygirl, Slowthai, Erika de Casier, Tohji, Isabella Lovestory, and more. It’s well-established that Crossan is one of the most ebullient producers of his generation, but demon time flexes his dexterity as a songwriter, a vibe curator, and — above all, perhaps — a wicked party host.
In conversation with The FADER’s Salvatore Maicki, Crossan discussed the demons that got him there, the lessons PinkPantheress taught him about songcraft, and everything he’s still got up his sleeve.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: When Raw Youth Collage came out in January 2020, most people considered it ill timing. From a listener’s perspective, though, it was perfect. That record fueled so much of my angst during those vast stretches of unknown. How did you feel in the months after putting it out?
Mura Masa: The second album is always difficult, so I wanted to skip the difficult second album, and maybe even the third album, and go straight to the weird fourth album that nobody asked for. I wanted to free myself up from being expected to make a certain kind of music or say a certain type of thing.
I think it came a little bit early in terms of the guitar music revival — now the whole pop-punk thing has hit overdrive, and everyone’s trying to be All Time Low and Paramore. I played guitar in punk bands as a teen, and it was nice to return to that with a fresh perspective after having produced for so long and learn to curate that distortion.
Tell me about the time after R.Y.C.. You’ve spent so much time giving it the TLC it needs, and now you can’t tour it and express it in the way you designed it to be experienced.
I put £100,000s into the live show. I had a full band full of really cool kids I’d scouted. We managed to play a few big shows, and it felt like a real zag from my previous zig. It was exciting for me, and then everybody got sent home halfway through the tour.
We were running away from COVID around Europe. We’d pull up to a country and the government would put it in lockdown that day. The show would be canceled, and we’d drive to the next one and try again. After two or three times doing that, we put everybody on flights home. At that point, we didn’t know what we were dealing with. The whole thing seems quite banal now, but at the time, it was like, “What happens if you catch this thing? Is it a death sentence?” I didn’t have time to mourn the record because of the anxiety of the lockdown. I spent the first six months not doing anything, just being at home.
I hate to always bring the pandemic into it, but building up to this moment and then having it cut short — how did you reckon with that creatively?
Every artist has the same story: “I thought I was gonna do loads of stuff. I ended up doing nothing.” But it was good to step away from it for a second and have an excuse to not have to be on all the time — touring and promoting and posting —and give some thought to other things.
I wanted to say something introspective about isolation and loneliness, so I started down that path. The revelatory moment for me with this new album was realizing the opposite: “Isn’t it more exciting to imagine what music will sound like when we’re allowed to be together again?” But that didn’t happen until a year into lockdown.
Did any of that music from the introspective, isolated part of your brain make it onto this record?
“2gether” started as a six-minute ambient tech dirge. It was horrible. It sounded like a Lorne Balfe score. Looking back, it does say something about how I was feeling at that time, and it felt important to include something of that in the record. But the overriding motivation for the music became “How do we have fun? How do we soundtrack things that are mischievous and devilish and funny?” It’s disarming to present occultish, evil imagery in this charming, cutesy way.
Something I realized is important to me when I’m making stuff is “Does it make me smirk?” Having time to realize that [helped me center] the whole record around it and chase that feeling at the expense of all else.
When did the first demon reveal itself?
I realized that if you sped up “Babycakes” by 3 of a Kind a bit, you could put a drill beat under it. It made me giggle. I thought “Aw, that’s so cute!” That alchemy of throwing things together in the pot was the first feeling of “Oh yeah, I can just have fun, and that can be the impetus in itself.”
The idea of “demon time” came because I didn’t have a name for chasing that feeling. I was having a cigarette with Shygirl, and we were talking about how one of us had been up to no good in some way, and She said “Oh, it’s definitely on demon time.” And it clicked: “That’s the perfect way to describe what I want to do.”
I’d also been reading a zine that Ema Gaspar published called Closet while I was making and listening to music. The way she illustrates has an extraterrestrial kind of demonic energy, but it’s presented in a way that’s so approachable and aesthetically gentle. It suddenly occurred to me: “Why don’t I reach out to Ema and see if she’ll help me create a world around it?”
Once you had the idea, did you start to see demons reveal themselves?
We were all still stuck inside, so I was trying to presciently predict what people were gonna want or need. I was sensing a hunger in pop culture: There were a few big artists doing introspective, quieter albums — lockdown albums, if you like. And it felt like people appreciated the empathy but were actually yearning for escapism and optimism and a renewed relationship with joy.
I was vindicated as we got out of lockdown — hearing stories of friends doing stupid shit because they hadn’t been able to get out in so long, relationship breakdowns that resulted in a new wave of single people who’d been cooped up for so long and needed to make up for lost time. There was a kind of gold rush for joy, I think.
Hedonism was at an all-time high last summer. The highs were so high and the lows were so fucking low. Most of these songs marry those two: Even the saddest choruses on this record are turned into things of joy when you speak the demons into existence. You’re unleashing them, in a way.
That’s the complex nature of demon time. It’s not 100 percent about happiness or fun, in the traditional sense, because it can be really fulfilling and cathartic to make a mistake and have fun doing it. It’s this weird version of fun that people find themselves having in a post-pandemic world.
Talk me through how you assembled your roster of collaborators on this project.
The framework [was] “Is this person doing something really interesting? Are they making something fun in their own work?” It always starts with a love of what they do individually from my side, and hopefully a requited love from them for what I do.
Then there’s a meeting in the middle — a stepping into each other’s worlds — and that’s true on this record more than ever. But a fourth dimension is combining people: Having PinkPantheress on [“bbycakes”] is already sick. With Shygirl, that hasn’t been done before. You have two Vanguard U.K. artists on a song with a classic U.K. garage sample. But what would be more fun is to alchemize that with a really punk U.S. rapper, and it had to be Uzi. The whipping up of all of those ingredients is a different, bigger type of fun than any of the individual parts. I was more in my curatorial bag than ever, trying to be some sort of mad, wise U.K. Warhol.
It definitely feels like your most global record to date. Did you get to travel at all to bring these collaborations to life?
Most people came to me in the end. By the time I’d started assembling the Avengers of fun, you could do a [COVID] test and hang out, so there were opportunities for physical meetups. Obviously, some of it was remote, but it’s become interestingly inconsequential in modern pop music whether you’re actually together when you make a song.
For better or for worse?
For better if you’re a 17-year-old kid in Utah who loves hyperpop and wants to work with [likeminded] people. because it doesn’t matter where you are. For worse if you’re trying to create a special record that has a magic air about it or comes serendipitously.
I’ve read that a guiding light for you on this record — as opposed to the heavy planning of the first few — was a notes app that just read “fun.” Do you remember when you wrote that and why it became foundational?
Normally, I write a big brief for other people’s benefit — the collaborators, the label, my manager — [where I] pull together a bunch of references and pin down what the hell I’m trying to do. But that felt wrong on this one, like, “I should just be referring back to the singular question: Is it fun?” For example, it occurred to me to make demon-themed jewelry, and all sorts of roadblocks immediately came up: It’s really hard to manufacture jewelry. It’s really expensive. I remember looking at the note, like, “Fun. It would be fun. Let’s find a way.” That attitude permeates every aspect of the record — not just the music, but the campaign as well.
You’re often referred to as a producer, but the songwriting really shines on this project, and I’m curious if you went into it with more intention than usual.
Thank you. It’s nice to be recognized in that way. I think an invisible, underrated part of what any good producer does is serious songwriting input. If you’re Pharrell, you wrote the whole damn thing and someone is just performing it. It’s one of my favorite parts of [producing], and I’m willing to go deep and restructure things.
“blessing me” started as a 15-minute improvised take that Pa and I had done. It was right at the end of a session. Then [it was] taking what he’d done and chopping up lines, finding lines that rhyme with each other, replacing breaths here and there and getting the cadence right, making it sound like he just came out with that chorus. That’s a really important part of the process that’s all over the record. “hollaback bitch” is another one. I brought Shygirl the majority of that first verse, like, “Here’s a bunch of lines. Here’s the concept.”
The era of R&B pop [when there was] a simplicity or a naivete to the songs, both in the structure and kind of sonically, really aligned with the idea of [demon time]: “It doesn’t matter if it’s the most technical sound in the world because it gets the party going.” Pharrell and Timbaland, in particular, are guilty of using the first synth preset that they find, like, “Yeah, that sounds great!” The same goes for the songwriting. The line you improvise as a joke that makes everyone in the room laugh… You think, “Oh, but we couldn’t include that” — that’s the line. That happened all over this record: People were joking and didn’t know I was recording, and I was like, “That’s it. That belongs on a T-shirt.” And they were like, “Yeah, but don’t use that.” I had to talk people into embracing the idea that it’s not that serious.
I appreciate your use of restraint on this record, when it comes to these really sticky choruses; you get one or two. You’re not overusing these hooks to keep us coming back. It’s dished out in a way that doesn’t overfill.
That goes back to something PinkPantheress and I talk about a lot. She’s the queen of 60-second songs… and she was saying that people consume music now via the looping video, so the repetition of the chorus is built into the medium of consumption. You only need one chorus because it’s gonna loop anyway. When Post Malone released “Rockstar,” there was a big controversy because the version he uploaded onto YouTube was 1:30 of the chorus over and over. I find that a really envelope-pushing way of looking at modern pop music.
The songs on demon time don’t stick around. I just came from rehearsal, and we’re adding the songs into the live set. It’s funny when you get to the end of them because a lot of them just stop, like, “Okay, that’s all the ideas for that song. I’m not going to long this out.” It’s interesting in a live setting, but I kinda like it.
When you were engineering these sounds that populate this record, was there one in particular that gave you grief, that you had to really finesse?
I can think of a couple examples where I had to go back and make it sound more “demon time-y,” but I’m not quite sure how to verbalize that idea. The process for this album was different from anything I’ve done before. Normally I get in the room with people and feel out an idea — not think about sonics or anything, just get it to a place and decide if it belongs.
With this album, I spent a few months beforehand harvesting drum samples and synth patches — things that to me sounded like the album art or this idea of demon time, things that were fun sounding — and building up a palette of paint, almost, so when I was in the room with people I knew I wanted to be on the album, I could just start loading in these sounds without any second thought of “Oh, is that the right kick sound? Is that synth a bit too X or Y?” That streamlined the process because it shortened the gap between having the good idea and executing it, which allowed for a lot more fun.
Where did you pick that up?
It came about quite logically. If the idea is to completely eliminate thought from the process and get as close to completely off-the-cuff expression as possible, then you want to set up your tools in a way that allows for that. But it’s actually similar to some of the early techno pioneers: They’d have their specific Roland 505, and they’d make an EP using just that. It’s not that odd for a band, either, to write an album and then get in a studio with a producer and spend a week dialing in guitar tones, picking snares.
My favorite sound on the record is the Jesus Christ producer tag, which was a revelation for me. It pops up all over the album, along with a bunch of other radio DJ-style demon time tags I collected during the album recording from the collaborators. It’s really comical and exciting and sacrilegious. It doesn’t really belong there, but it’s one of the more demon-time-y sounds. The source of that sample is an extremely well-kept secret that a few people around me know but I can’t disclose.
Three albums into your career, how do you feel the mission of Mura Masa has changed, and what are you taking from this project into whatever’s next?
I guess the mission has always been to do something people don’t expect but keep it within the limits of popular culture, to Trojan horse some interesting stuff into a listenable environment. That’s remained true, but I’m moving into a period of curation and transitioning from only thinking about my artistry into discovering a side of myself where I’m not the main piece of the puzzle; I’m just pulling strings and getting people together, creating fun playgrounds and platforms for people to express themselves on.
Getting comfortable with that was a big part of this record and something I’ll carry forward. But the biggest revelation is that it’s not that deep. It’s just music, and it should be fun. We’ve had such a shit time of it recently as human beings. We deserve some fun.