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King Krule: God Save the King

For King Krule’s FADER cover story, Emilie Friedlander asks: Is Archy Marshall ready for rock royalty?

Photographer Geordie Wood
February 11, 2014

From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014

It’s 10pm on Archy Marshall’s last day off before he leaves London for a two-week North American tour. He’s in his bedroom, staring into the glow of a laptop screen, making minor adjustments to a rickety, percussive groove he has open in a window of Logic. The room is thick with marijuana smoke, and it’s unclear how long he’s been sitting here, the hood of his camo jacket pulled up over his head, cobbling together a “lullaby lounge mix” for his just-born baby half-brother. Marshall, aka King Krule, has a lot to get done before he flies to New York next week—including several full days of recording at the studio of Stereolab drummer Andy Ramsay—but somehow, between the endless train of rehearsals and photo shoots and hanging out with his friend Connor, who is sitting, half-stoned, at the edge of the bed, he carved out the time to pay a visit to the latest addition to his father’s family.

“All I was thinking about the whole time was how he could die so easily,” Marshall says, describing the experience of holding the newborn in his arms. This bit of ad-libbed poetry—something the sardonic Marshall is prone to pepper into casual conversation—could easily be a line straight out of one of the off-kilter jazz-rock numbers featured on his 2013 debut album, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. It’s a record full of counterintuitive chord progressions and wordplay so precociously pained that it’s almost as startling as the croaking, preternaturally low-register of his voice. Combined with his iconic red hair, gaunt cheeks and steely blue eyes, this unique amalgam of elements has proved fascinating to a lot of people much older than Marshall—including, presumably, the talent bookers at Letterman and Conan, where he played his American late-night debut last year, at just 19 years of age.

These days, when he’s not on the road, Marshall has been living and recording out of his mother’s home in the South London district of East Dulwich, a quiet, residential neighborhood full of misty, winding streets and squat, two-family homes, just a short bus ride away from his father’s flat in Peckham (they divorced when Marshall was little). It’s a place that seems more fitting for elementary school students and wandering garden cats than a young singer/songwriter, but since his mother moved out last fall to live with a new boyfriend, he decided to take advantage of the free place to live, relocating from his first adult apartment into the master bedroom of the house where he grew up.

A few months into his stay here, the space recalls the kind of adolescent dream scenario in which your parents encourage your artistic endeavors without necessarily requiring that you clean up after you complete them. There is a full ashtray perched precariously on the bed, and the floor is a jumble of fast food takeaway containers, empty cigarette boxes, newspapers, books and assorted music equipment, the most immediately visible of which are a graffiti-tagged MIDI keyboard and a clarinet, which leans dangerously close to a ketchup-stained plate. “I love it here,” says Marshall, grinding up some weed for a joint. “I can make beats in bed. I can make beats naked. I can make beats on the toilet. I can make beats in the tub.” When Marshall speaks, it often sounds like he’s rapping—luxuriating in the timbre and elasticity of his own voice, elongating his vowels, experimenting with the ways in which a given syllable can be stressed. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether he’s stringing words together to relay information, or merely for the sake of their aesthetic value.

On record, Marshall sing-speaks with the bloated, working class twang of a streetwear-clad, South London scally. He can push it out with enough terrifying force to make you want to run and hide, but when he wraps it around a line like, Girl I’m black and blue/ So beaten down for you, as he does on “Out Getting Ribs,” a 2010 single that he released under the name Zoo Kid, something about its gigantic size just makes him sound like the owner of a big and cuddly heart, albeit one perennially broken. It’s impossible to think of any other buzzed-about rock artist coming out of the UK right now whose music sounds as idiosyncratic and strange. Like any creatively restless, musically inclined kid his age, he has manifold side projects, each of them a work-in-progress testament to his changing, exploratory whims (he’s DJ JD Sports for instrumental hip-hop, Edgar the Beatmaker when he raps). But in a millennial musical landscape where taste seems to blow with the winds of the collective zeitgeist, Marshall remains something of a fixed entity, strangely impervious to any past musical reference points but his own.

Mostly, they’re family ones. Marshall can be somewhat cagey when it comes to discussing the interpersonal particulars of his family life, but it appears that they are close (on his mother’s side, at least), and that he comes from a long, proud line of artists: “My gran is a sculptor, my granddad is a painter, my other granddad is an artist, my gran was kind of an artist, my great aunt was like pretty much an artist, a photographer...” He grew up in a household with a portrait of Fela Kuti hanging above the dining room table, and he says his mother was always “banging out shit from all over the world.” A professional screen printer whose past credits include the costume design for the video for PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” she makes all of King Krule’s merchandise out of a back room downstairs. Her house, he says, was host to no small number of all-night dub and reggae music ragers when he was a kid, and while his father was generally the stricter parent, he turned Marshall on to “a lot of good rock, and a lot of good songwriting.” Unusually, Marshall’s childhood idol was John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, whose technically demanding combination of jazz and post-punk structures has provided a blueprint of sorts for the King Krule sound.

“I can make beats in bed. I can make beats naked. I can make beats on the toilet. I can make beats in the tub.”

Marshall wrote his first song at eight, and recorded his first song at 11, when his dad, an art director at BBC TV, gifted him an eight-track. His music first caught the attention of the music industry when he was only 16, after Dean Bein, founder of the Matador imprint True Panther Sounds, happened upon Zoo Kid’s music online and passed it along to the people at London label House Anxiety (Marshall subsequently signed to True Panther and XL). Still, to speak to Marshall about the trajectory of his career is to get the impression that he’d been toiling away in obscurity for a long time before that, here in this house, cobbling together his sound with a Mexican telecaster, a Yamaha keyboard and a tiny Tanglewood practice amp, its reverb knob permanently set on 10: “I was lucky, man,” he says. “For a long time, I wasn’t lucky.”

School was difficult for Marshall. Starting around the age of 13, he pretty much refused to go, preferring, in the first inklings of a stubborn independent-mindedness that would follow him into adulthood, to stay home and draw and make music. His parents tried hiring him a tutor, then sent him to two education centers for kids who’d gotten kicked out of too many schools. According to a profile on King Krule in The Guardian, he got tested for various mental illnesses, and continued refusing to go to school even after social services threatened his parents with jail time if they couldn’t get him there. “Every fucking morning, I’m woken up to go,” Marshall tells me. “I don’t care. I don’t want to go. ‘You have to go!’ I don’t care! I don’t want to go. That was pretty much my mentality. It wasn’t like, Fuck the system, it was like, Fuck this.”

Eventually, at 14, Marshall had a change of heart. He applied for admission to the BRIT School, a highly selective, government-funded secondary school that provides free academic and vocational training to talented young creativess and counts Adele and Amy Winehouse among its roster of graduates. Aside from a six-month stint with a guitar teacher whose method of instruction involved learning to play every song in the Jimi Hendrix playbook, Marshall showed up at the audition without a modicum of formal musical training. “On paper, I don’t stand as a musician really,” says Marshall. “I couldn’t say to them, ‘I’m a grade A guitarist, let me in.’ So I had to play a song for them, and it was a song that I wrote, and that was called ‘Butterflies of Venus,’ and it was a really good song.” Marshall got in on the strength of that number alone.

A bone-chilling, early-winter damp is already beginning to take hold when I arrive at an unmarked door on Record Road, an unlit block of concrete warehouse buildings in the city’s Bermondsey neighborhood. Inside, Stereolab’s Andy Ramsay—a stout, indie rock elder statesman with Converse sneakers and a curtain of graying hair—is presiding over a giant recording console while King Krule live member James Wilson improvises multiple takes of a bass line over a long, ambling jazz instrumental. A recording of Marshall’s deep, throaty voice is growling over the loud speaker, repeatedly, almost plaintively addressing a nameless woman he refers to as “girl.” Right now, though, he’s just sitting in a chair in the control room, leaning over a notepad, drawing something unseen. Eventually, he offers me a peek at what he’s working on. It’s a portrait of a girl wearing a scarf and hat, drawn from a photo on Facebook that he’s been referencing with an iPhone: “Happy birthday, Harley. You were born in a cold month.”

Satisfied with the takes they have, Ramsay and Wilson move on to a different track; Marshall continues to draw, ministering over the session without intervening. This time, it’s a faster song, cresting in a furious wave of rolling, fill-heavy drums and jagged gashes of guitar. Like drummer George Bass and guitarist Jack Towell—both also former BRIT school classmates of Marshall’s—the bassist is a conservatory-trained jazz musician. His large, brown top bun somehow speaks to this background, and you can hear it in the way he improvises, winding his way through the complicated harmonics of the track. At a particularly difficult passage, though, Wilson seems to be having some trouble figuring out which note to end on. He asks Ramsay to isolate the bit, walks his way up and down the fretboard several times, but nothing seems to be clicking.

Marshall disappears into the tracking room and comes back with a guitar. Now, band leader and bassist alike are trying to pin down the elusive note, and after plucking around for a while, Marshall seems to be certain that it’s either a high G or a low G. It doesn’t sound right when Wilson plays it, though, and when Ramsay finally steps in to settle the matter, his professional instincts prompt him to try tuning Marshall’s guitar first. Turns out, Marshall was correct, only he failed to realize that his guitar was out of tune. “The note,” Ramsay somewhat tiredly declares, is an “A sharp—a low A sharp.”

Happy accidents such as these are common in the studio with Marshall, and to watch Marshall record with his bandmates is to see how much his music hinges on his own blind but savvy intuition. He never got too deep into music theory in high school—in fact, when it came time to start preparing for his A-Levels, he’d switched his concentration from music to history and painting—but you’d never be able to tell it from his songwriting, which can be almost flamboyantly complex. “The chords are kind of—a lot of them are the same, a lot of them are made up, a lot of them don’t exist, and a lot of them do exist,” he says. King Krule’s music is also full of unpredictable rhythmic shifts, such as the very jolting turn that takes place repeatedly throughout his 2012 single “Rock Bottom,” where he’ll sing a line like watch me as I descend into shame, then lapse into a post-punk freak-out, as though that last, loaded word had somehow ripped open the foundations of the song.

6 Feet Beneath the Moon, Marshall says, is loosely based upon “a really shitty story about a girl”—an unrequited romantic interest of Marshall’s, designated throughout as “blue.” Listening to the album feels like taking a ride upon the vertiginous rollercoaster of his changing moods, shuttling endlessly between tenderness and anger, grandiosity and vulnerability, kingly grandiloquence and the hopelessness of a young man who’s certain he will end up on the dole. That his attitudes and emotions feel just as fickle and inconstant as the muse who continues to elude him sometimes makes the album seem like nothing more than an expression of the crushing, hormone-addled highs and lows of adolescence; at the same time, it also makes it a record that anyone who has ever been a teenager can identify with.

Accordingly, at this point in his career, it can be hard to tell whether Marshall is an adult who knows exactly what he’s doing or merely a hapless but very talented teenager, a moody and hermetic prodigy. At one point during our time in the studio, Theo Lalić, Marshall’s manager and de facto, 24-hour personal assistant, enters the control room in a gust of breathless excitement, whipping his laptop out of his backpack like a Santa Claus who’s arrived bearing gifts. “Well, Archy, you are now the proud owner of a Wurlitzer,” he says, opening an advertorial YouTube video for the $1,000 instrument, which he says will arrive next month, just in time for King Krule’s back-to-back tours of East Asia and Australia. Later on, watching a rough cut of a sumptuously filmed, black-and-white video for “Lizard State”—another surprise Lalić has brought into the studio today, and for which he was obliged to scour the city for two real-life chameleons—Marshall can’t stop thinking about his new vintage organ and its warm, enveloping tones. “I swear that as soon as I get a Wurlitzer I’m going to blow it up and never leave my house again,” he says.

After the studio session, we pile into the drummer George Bass’ car and fly over to a pub in New Cross, where Marshall’s friends from the BRIT School are celebrating Harley’s birthday. As he stands outside on the back patio—nearly incognito beneath his camo jacket and a large, floppy pilot’s hat—I can’t help thinking that he looks like just a normal kid, of a piece with the crowd of somewhat preppy-looking teenagers all flirting and smoking around him. Only Marshall is there being observed by a journalist, and while he has agreed to let me come in for a drink or two, he keeps his distance throughout the night, jumping from one cluster of classmates to the next, like the protagonist of a scene trying to disappear into the scenery.

Following that night, my efforts to report this story take a turn for the difficult. On my third day in London, Marshall holes up in the studio alone. Interviews I have planned with Marshall’s brother and mother in East Dulwich that afternoon fall through at the last minute, and a sit-down interview with Marshall is indefinitely postponed. After a chance meeting with XL’s Rodaidh McDonald, producer of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon and King Krule’s 2011, self-titled EP, I ask Lalić if Marshall would want to accompany me to an outdoor overlook in Nunhead—a secret, hidden spot with a beautiful view of the city, and where Marshall, according to McDonald, used to write a lot of songs. “That’d be the reservoir,” Lalić replies via text, “but he hates going there now.”

A specter of deep, psychic suffering looms large over Marshall’s work, but it’s difficult to get him to speak about the way his struggles overlap with the lyrics they’ve inspired him to write, even where they can feel sometimes like a sublimated version of a teenage cry for attention. When I finally get to sit down with him for a formal interview—during an hour-long break midway through a rehearsal day at the band’s practice space in New Cross—his answers toe a fine, even self-consciously mysterious line between the elliptical and the brutally honest. Explaining the story behind the moniker Edgar the Beatmaker, for instance, he speaks casually, almost flippantly of a time when, “[he] lost [his] mind, came out of it, was kind of like, dazed for a few days, and started reading about Saxon kingships in England…” And when I ask him to talk about the career challenges he thinks are unique to his generation, I sense from the answer that he gives me that, on some level, he is talking about himself: “So many kids just get depressed, man. Get diagnosed with manic depression, and stay in their beds and never leave. But that’s why I think it’s always good to keep yourself creative. If you can’t do something, keep yourself occupied with your art, whatever craft.”

It may be true that music has served a therapeutic purpose for Marshall. According to a recent King Krule story in i-D magazine, he spent his early adolescence going “in and out of mental institutions [and] psychiatry.” 6 Feet Beneath the Moon track “Cementality” sees him contemplating jumping off a building and literally pleading with his own brain to let me be, but it’s likely that following his early instinct to stay home and write songs has helped calm that inner storminess more than anything or anyone else.

Still, when I ask him point-blank which challenges he’s faced personally, Marshall closes up like a clam: “You know, they’re everywhere, but they’re not big,” he says. “I just love being a musician, man. Love playing. So I guess I’m happy—real happy with what I’ve got.” While that very simple and straightforward passion has landed him the job of his childhood dreams, his evasiveness with me betrays a young man who’s having a hard time adjusting to the quotidian responsibilities of an adult career in music—one that can require him to do things he may not be in the mood to do and expose himself in ways he doesn’t want to expose himself, one where saying “fuck this” isn’t always an option.

Two weeks later, Marshall is in New York for King Krule’s biggest show ever—a sold-out, headlining spot at East Village institution Webster Hall. It’s 2PM in the city’s outlying Far Rockaway’s district, and a small entourage of handlers and FADER magazine staffers has assembled to shoot the cover photo for this magazine. The team has just wrapped up, and Marshall’s back at the parked van, muttering angrily under his breath as he balls up the dress shirt he’s been wearing and volleys it onto the roof. “What does this have to do with the music?” he says, pacing on the pavement, his rosy, freckled face tightening with rage. “If you want to write about the music, come out and see the show tonight. This is the worst shit I’ve ever done. So stupid, so fake. It’s the fakest shit I’ve ever done.” Marshall has been doing interviews and photo shoots for years, but it doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood to be reasoned with. When we arrive back in the city, I receive a text from his publicist informing me that nobody—not journalists, not publicists, not even the people from King Krule’s label—is allowed backstage with Marshall that night.

Eight hours later, though, as an at-capacity crowd files into the cavernous, purplish belly of Webster Hall, it’d be hard to recognize the pre-show Marshall from the Marshall throwing a tantrum by the beach. Up on the mezzanine balcony, during a stoney, reggae-inflected opening set by his friends in New York rap collective Ratking, he rolls out from backstage in a cloud of weed smoke, waving his arms in the air to the verses that he recognizes, posing for iPhone photos with his mates. At one point, I spot him leaning over the balcony with a pretty girl, laughing, pointing at various people in the crowd. Marshall is clearly in his element, quietly lording over a boozy and fawning VIP crowd as 1,500 people await his appearance downstairs.

Truly, though, nowhere does Marshall seem more at home than when he finally hits the stage, guitar swinging from his neck, cutting a dapper figure in the sort of broad-shouldered suit jacket that made Elvis Costello a king of angular grace. All of his bandmates are wearing gray blazers, too, and from the moment that he leans over the mic to acknowledge his audience—“Hello New York”—there’s a feeling of classic showmanship in the air. At one point in the night, they’ve got half the room pogoing up and down to the galloping breakdown in “Lizard State” when the song suddenly grinds to a halt, the drummer reaching up to mute a flyaway cymbal with his hand. The room erupts in hoots and applause, and Marshall reaches down to the ground, picks up a bottle of water and takes a couple of slow, long sips. Just as you think he’s about to start the next song, the band jumps back into “Lizard State” for one final, climatic refrain.

The crowd goes wild, delighted with this display of entertainer’s sleight of hand, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that despite the painful candor of his lyrics, Marshall is the kind of artist who enjoys keeping his admirers on their toes. I think back to the week I spent chasing him around London, and I’m reminded of the moment when I attempted to impress him by telling him that I had tried to visit the reservoir in Nunhead—Marshall’s clandestine, teenage haunt. While killing time before our interview, I had jumped on a bus to that neighborhood and navigated my way to the narrow, unmarked footpath that led up there—partly because I had heard that it was a really great view, and partly on the faith that the place would hold some clues to his person. Later, I told Marshall about the creepy experience I’d had walking the length of that path at sunset—up a hill into a wooded area, my cellphone dying, the light fading fast—and how, ultimately, I hadn’t been able to find a way through the iron fence that you have to get past to see the reservoir. Nonplussed, Marshall said that he used to climb through a hole in the fence, but that he stopped going there recently, when too many hipsters found out about the place. Instead, these days, he’s been visiting a different spot, not far from his mother’s house. “It’s better than the reservoir,” he said. “The reservoir has a mad view, but the one by me—I get the whole of the city.”

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    King Krule: God Save the King