Mura Masa: on why he's swapped sunny pop for moody nostalgia

He’s the in-demand producer who has worked with BTS and Chic, so why has Alex Crossan left it all behind for grungy guitars?

In a cramped south London rehearsal space, producer Mura Masa, AKA Alex Crossan, is quietly losing the plot. Takeaway boxes and empty bottles rest on crates full of wires, while a small rug added for ambience is covered in upended cardboard boxes. Heat, meanwhile, is provided by two whirring laptops, their screens full of chunky colour bars representing something technical Crossan doesn’t even attempt to explain. The 23-year-old only got back from Asia yesterday, marking the end of a tour in support of 2017’s Grammy-nominated, self-titled debut, which saw him collaborate with A$AP Rocky, Damon Albarn and Christine and the Queens. Now he’s got to figure out how to play his forthcoming new album RYC (Raw Youth Collage) with a full band, hence the place looking like an unmanned stockroom.

While that sun-dappled first album poked and prodded at the pop zeitgeist, fusing tropical house and trap while joining the dots between Disclosure and Jamie xx, its grungier follow-up offers a sonic volte face. Out go the uplifting bangers and in come dense guitars – fuelled by his childhood obsessions with bands such as Joy Division, Talking Heads and Blur – and a lyrical heaviness that reflects, well, 2020. “[My debut] was about pop music, essentially, but trying to come at it from an oblique angle,” Crossan says, perched precariously on a cardboard box. “I think in the past five years that grand obelisk of ‘pop music’ has been destroyed, because as the next generation come in they’re really not interested in genres. Anything can become pop.” He also sees the lyrical themes of this new, looser kind of “pop” shifting, too. “I think there’s a real appetite for vulnerability and emotional transparency. We’ve had a good decade of ‘Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care’ and people are like: ‘This isn’t reflective of what’s happening geopolitically any more.’” He smiles knowingly at that last bit. “They want something that connects to the world they’re living in, and I think there’s something about the guitar that’s really expressive.”

RYC, which features Slowthai on the punk-y rumble of Deal Wiv It and US singer Clairo on the blown-out psychedelia of lead single I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again, bristles with a sort of manic energy you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Crossan’s quietly studious approach to music-making. He’s the quintessential nerd (“I was never cool and I’m still not,” he confesses), as comfortable dissecting the minutiae of production as he is unpacking the broader, sociological reasons behind certain cultural shifts. While his debut loosely explored romance, RYC wrestles with his generation’s emotional crutch: nostalgia. “I think it must be some sort of reptile brain thing where it’s like: ‘Well, if I try and remember a good time, maybe that means there will be another one,’” he says. It’s a soothing balm he’s used to ease his own anxiety. “Everyone does it whether they know they do, or like that they do it.” As if to prove how far album two has drifted from the nonchalant bops of his debut, RYC also explores hauntology, the nostalgia-adjacent idea that culture is stuck in a haunting loop of self-reference. Diplo he is not, basically.

Born in the “mysterious solitude” of Guernsey, Crossan was initially keen to become a lawyer or a journalist, “because I like wordy technicalities and details”. Growing up he spent most of his time with his two brothers, playing video games (the name Mura Masa is taken from an old Japanese folklore tale he’d seen in a game) and skateboarding. A talented musician, he also ended up in various groups, dabbling in folk, punk and metal before playing bass in a wedding band. Prior to that he was in a “very new age-y” church band, like his father before him. (“[I was] later to fall away from the church,” he says solemnly. “It’s not a big part of my life anymore.”) At the age of 15, inspired by the burgeoning trap scene, he started producing his own music. While he wouldn’t say he was itching to escape Guernsey and absorb the “worries of the mainland”, he decided to go to university in Sussex, more on a whim than with any concrete ambitions. By the time he’d dropped out at the end of his first year he had a manager and record deal, with early tracks such as Lotus Eater picking up significant radio play.

Even in those early days Crossan knew what he wanted. When it was mooted that his 2015 instrumental track Lovesick Fuck should be re-released with a guest vocalist he offered his new major label three options. “I was like: ‘I want Rihanna, I want [A$AP] Rocky or I want Childish Gambino, and if it’s none of those I don’t want to do it,’” he laughs. He got his way: a version with A$AP Rocky, released in late 2016 as Love$ick, went on to be nominated for an Ivor Novello songwriting award.

The success of his debut led to production work with everyone from Stormzy to Chic to BTS, with the idea being the extracurricular stuff would run concurrently with the artist project. Did he ever think of only being a producer? “Maybe I’m too selfish to just be a producer,” he says after a pause. “Also, I feel like I have something to say that’s interesting or unique. The people I looked up to were people like Justin Vernon [AKA Bon Iver] and Kevin Parker [AKA Tame Impala] – these kind of multi-instrumentalists who are the front of projects,” he adds. “I really like how they’ve created their own worlds and then they can lend bits of that out to artists who are looking to do interesting things.” While his debut was safely in the pocket of the pop sound of the time, you suspect he’s revelling in going against the grain now. He’s adamant, for example, that “guitar music” is about to dominate 2020. “When things socially and politically get difficult, punk music suddenly comes back again, and there’s just a really healthy pivot away from music that’s not humanly understandable.”

RYC has its own anthem in the shape of No Hope Generation, a creaking, drum’n’bass-tinged emo diatribe that unpicks, among other modern anxieties, the disparity between the promised connective utopia of the internet and its lonely, isolating reality. “It’s like a self-assessment; it’s not meant to be a judgment,” Crossan says of the song’s headline-grabby title. “There’s a very witty sentiment amongst people my age. It’s the reason you get these memes that the boomers don’t get about how we’re all fucked.” To prove the point, the chorus runs: “Everybody do the no-hope generation / The new hip sensation craze sweeping the nation,” as if it’s a viral dance fad. “It’s meant to be a gallows-humour interpretation of how we’re all feeling,” he adds.

Isn’t there a danger, I say, playing boomer’s advocate, that people aren’t taking in how awful things are? That it’s just about swapping funny memes? “It’s a way of dealing with it,” he shrugs. “There’s only so many ways you can cope with being in dire means, and one way is humour.” Unsurprisingly, he has no time for the insult his generation has been lumbered with. “What’s wrong with being a snowflake?” he says, his voice tweaking for the first time. “I think if you’re calling someone a snowflake that just means you’ve been upset by something they’re saying. We’re all vulnerable, get over it.”

Part of Crossan’s own self-care has involved reshaping his ambitions, with his parallel production work now governed purely by what he finds genuinely exciting. Still, RYC arrives with big expectations, as highlighted by a forthcoming gig at the cavernous Alexandra Palace on 20 February. How does he cope with the pressure to repeat the first album’s unexpected success? “I think I’m trying to get into the space of self-trust,” he smiles. “Sort of: ‘Well, I’ve made it this far doing what I felt was right.’ Taking creative leaps feels a bit easier now.” Besides, ambivalence scares him. “There’s nothing worse than a lukewarm reaction. Like: ‘Yeah, it’s OK,’” He shudders slightly. “That’s so cutting.”

RYC (Raw Youth Collage) is out on Friday 17 January


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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