COVER STORY | King Krule Reflects While Adrift

Music Features King Krule
COVER STORY | King Krule Reflects While Adrift

I can still remember it vividly, sitting down in my high school’s computer lab and illegally downloading King Krule’s “Easy Easy” from a bootleg upload on Grooveshark. That was before administrators unleashed a massive spike in web-filtering and none of us students could get too far past Google’s search pages. But that one moment of discovery was a revelation, especially after I’d spent much of my teenagerdom listening to Top-40 radio and Nirvana CDs. The mumbling that transcribed a familiar melancholy; the maniacal saxophone solos; the slow, melting guitar chords. I’d never heard anything like it. Eight or nine years ago, I likely had a mental bucket list of musicians I’d give anything to just have a chat with. And, I can guarantee you that Archy Marshall—the London jazz punk who parades as King Krule—would have been at the very top. Fast forward to now, in 2023, and that devotion still rang true when I hopped on Zoom with Marshall to talk about his brand new, fourth album Space Heavy.

But in 2020, just as his third album—Man Alive!—was released, the whole world shut down because of COVID. It was a detriment to Marshall and his band, as their tour got cut short amid—what he considers to be—an apex in their own performative togetherness. “I had to abandon a lot of [Man Alive!] emotionally. I had to abandon the cathartic answers that I was gonna find whilst playing it more and more,” he says. “We was playing, probably, the best we’ve ever played. We was in a really good place, musically and physically, and had a lot to give. So, I felt quite cut short, really.” Marshall wouldn’t play another King Krule set until in the fall of 2022, when Man Alive! was in the rearview and Space Heavy was written and recorded. Yet, he had to give those 2020 tunes their day in the sun, but under the same approach as something from 6 Feet Beneath the Moon or The OOZ. “The momentum, at the time, was more important than anything else. To get back to it, it was just a different time. [The songs] had to be looked at and treated in a completely different way,” he adds.

I sought out this cover story knowing perfectly well that Marshall is a brutally honest and hermetic interviewee who rarely cracks a grin and refuses to make eye-contact throughout conversations with writers. He doesn’t shine it on for the tape recorder. In fact, knowing his every word and mannerism is being archived likely adds to his dodginess in conversation, which is why his face washes aglow and his back straightens when he talks about his daughter Marina or the finesse and talents of his bandmates. When he can take the spotlight off of himself, it is then that his interest becomes palpable and his monologues stretch a paragraph or two—which is ironic, given how self-reflective and analytical every King Krule album has been so far. But then again, why explain yourself or give context to the world you’ve built when all of it is right there, embedded in each tracklist you make?

What I learned in about 30 minutes on Zoom with Marshall is that, if he doesn’t fuck with what you’ve got to say, you’re going to get a one or two-word answer. You have to think on your feet, because the great, philosophical question that you thought was so cool and special might be met with a “not really” or an “I don’t know” and that’ll be that. To some, it might be frustrating or deflating to not have an artist gleefully glob on some kind of schtick for the press—and I’d be lying if I tried to play it off like it wasn’t—but there is a bit of wonder to all of that hardness. The only person who knows every secret of King Krule is Archy Marshall, and it’s going to be him—and only him—who shares pieces of that world with the rest of us. And, along with his notable evasion of interviews, that approach has perpetuated his own mystique.

Marshall told Loud and Quiet three years ago that he doesn’t trust journalists. It’s the kind of mantra that would have served him well back in the heyday of CREEM’s biting, Lester Bangs-driven criticism. I understand the place that that attitude comes from, too. Writers want a story and, ultimately, they are going to paint their subjects in whichever light will generate the most clicks online. Digital media has changed the way creatives get lauded or scrutinized. Praise even their blandest work and maybe you’ll get a retweet from the artist’s account; pan truly good shit and Twitter fingers will ferociously weaponize their opinions against your own.

But, I imagine a lot of Marshall’s resentment towards people like me has to do with how he was portrayed 10 years ago when he was getting ready to release his debut album. Sure, I’ve loved King Krule since I found him—and I would even consider myself a buff in some form or another—but when The FADER called Marshall a “prodigy” not even six months after 6 Feet Beneath the Moon came out, perhaps they’d expected him to be the savior of rock ‘n’ roll sent to counterbalance the big-box-chain-exclusive-vinyl-variant bands selling out around him. And now, in their review of Space Heavy last week, The Line of Best Fit has gone as far as labeling Marshall a “forever prodigy.” And that’s quite a nasty label to throw onto someone, especially a creative who’s long removed from his youth and is making thoughtful, career-defining work in his late-20s.

Any adjective you can think of has been applied to Marshall’s artistry: genius, acquired taste, rebel, embittered teen, polymath, wunderkind. I’d say all of those have been true at some point or another, and a few have endured for a decade. But none of those terms were drawn up by Marshall himself. No, they were put there by writers and listeners. Sure, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon is one of the greatest rock debuts of the 21st century. But, it is often near-impossible to outrun the pythonic emblems of greatness when folks can’t shake 10-year-old prophecies that no longer deftly apply. To mystify an album like 6 Feet Beneath the Moon is to stunt whatever follows it. The OOZ was a double-album masterpiece that broke all of the clichés of a “sophomore slump.” Anything less than what those two projects built was going to send elitist critics into a tailspin, which is likely why prestige magazines did not revere Man Alive! with as much adoration as its predecessors in 2020. And what a shame that was, given how that album was so particularly larger-than-life for how it was shrunk down into a digestible one-act achievement.

In a world where music sites find great success in anniversary pieces, I find myself unable to resist asking Marshall what his relationship to 6 Feet Beneath the Moon looks like now—especially after putting out three more albums, traveling the world and starting a family. “Going into that record, I thought I was gonna blow up to a massive scale—in terms of celebrity and fame—and it never really happened,” he tells me, before chuffing himself into a quick laugh. “It was quite a good learning experience. And, you know, everyone feels like that when they release stuff, especially if it’s lucky enough to be released on labels.”

When he was interviewed by The Guardian in 2013, Marshall dreamt about becoming a “fully suited-out” 30-year-old who was ready “to go from being a kid to being a king.” There was a lot of personification being done by him in-response to the lofty, generational accolades being heaped onto his existence. And, despite his reserved anti-candor, Marshall lets out a brief spell of transparency around how he feels about the weight that was attached to the King Krule name when he was barely 18: “There’s a lot of feelings and iconography that was trying to be placed on my back, as a young person. People asked me in interviews quite a lot about the element of being a ‘figurehead’ of some kind of disillusioned youth. And part of me was playing into that, as well. My ego was definitely getting stroked in different ways,” he says.

As for how 6 Feet Beneath the Moon sounded back then, what with the instrumental explosiveness and his own gutteral growls and snarls (that became one of his many trademarks), Marshall attributes its compositional aesthetic to age and wanting to open the book of King Krule in a hurry. “It was probably gonna always stand out as one of the rawest pieces because it was when I was young,” he says. “All the songs, their purpose was really integral to why they were created. Now, naturally, I feel more about the audience and stuff when composing. Not too much, but I guess it just seeps in in a different way.”

When 2017 arrived, Marshall—after releasing a solo record under his own name in 2015—put out The OOZ, which was the greatest rock album of that year. It was there where he’d fully lived up to the imagery of his own creative process. Themes of water and space and trickling liquids and fluidity were coupled with seering plinths of the margins from his off-stage life that he chose to share: existential dread, forgone romances and mental health. All of that came glazed atop immersive, night-drenched instrumentals that—as the title aptly suggests—ooze and quake to their own intuition. There was no stacking on The OOZ, as each song percolated into the next, a stylistic choice Marshall made intentionally and titled the record after accordingly.

“I was way more considerate of ‘this is not a mixtape, but this is something that, basically, is just a big dump of stuff that is supposed to ooze into itself and into each other and then it’s done.’ And then with [Space Heavy], there is just a lot of individual composition. There’s some albums that I like which have a melody that goes throughout the record.” Marshall plays into that fascination especially on “Flimsier” and “Flimsy,” a pair of tracks that share the same chords and melody, the latter of which then returns again on “Our Vacuum.” Though most of the sequencing on Space Heavy don’t have the same phenomenology, those three songs are purposefully put in three different chapters on the tracklist. “[Those three songs] were placed throughout it to have space for the listener to then come back into that melody a little bit, which is, I guess, kind of subconcious. But then, otherwise, there’s not really any conceptual element apart from it’s just what worked in cycling,” he adds.

Space Heavy follows a similar alchemy as Man Alive!, in that it’s a tight, 45-minute affair. Marshall wanted to avoid unloading a surplus of tracks into this project, staying away from the double-album nature of The OOZ. Done with his longtime producer Dilip Harris and bandmates—drummer George Bass, saxophonist Ignacio “Galgo” Salvadores, bassist James Wilson and guitarist Jack Towell (who, as Marshall puts it, came to the studio to “flex some of his musicianship)—he assembled 15 tracks with a heightened focus on contradictory musical forces, an effort to stay raw through meticulous and dynamic precision. “I think we, maybe, recorded too many times of George and Galgo, just to get it right. But as soon as we got it right, it was like, ‘All right, that’s the take. We’re using that.’ And I think it was mainly because surplus starts to really stunt the process for me. I find it a bit overwhelming, and I find it hard then, with too many options to form the direction I want to go.”

While the sprawling, untethered energy of The OOZ worked for him six years ago, Marshall is much more interested in how diacritic he can get. And, this time around, he’s gotten particularly stoked about having Space Heavy’s physical release stretch across only a single vinyl disc. “I think it might be the first record we’ve done which is one vinyl, which I’m pretty happy about,” he laughs. “Because, two’s a bit much sometimes. It disrupts a lot, and you can lose one! That’s always happened to me, I’d lose one.” But, Marshall quickly gets serious and reflective again when I ask him about how deliberate he is now during each album’s assembly and how much he considers the boundaries of concise record-making.

“There’s some regrets on some recordings, where I feel like I could have played some of the best bits of the compositions for, maybe, like, one more round—like I do live now. But, at the time it felt like the right decision, so I don’t really care. There’s always regrets when you make a record anyway, because it’s kind of a strange reverse of it, that then you got to spend a year with it, playing [it live]. And you realize the possibilities that are there whilst you play it more and more and more, because you get bored. With [Space Heavy], I don’t know. I was just really enjoying being a composer, and maybe that’s where the concise element might come in—because I’d like to leave it before it had too much time on it. I’m gonna just leave it there, so the information is there,” he says.

Marshall has long been a fixture in the echelons of masterful stage work. The talk around his shows and the energy that surrounds his image is fascinating and spectral in a lot of ways. Especially here in the United States, Marshall has a big following that refuses to shy away from spreading the good word about his performing chops. On live renditions of famed tracks like “Baby Blue” and “Dum Surfer,” any rigidity goes out the window, while improv and the wattage of the King Krule band’s magnetism takes over. When it comes down to what fuels Marshall to hypnotize a crowd with renditions of “Pink Shell” and “Cellular” and “Easy Easy,” it’s about him trying to embrace the rockstar persona his work so often dares to evade.

“Sometimes you’re like, ‘Damn, I want to see a man play this. I want to look at him and see him play this.’ Sometimes it’s as simple as that. I want to see myself, in front of all you guys, play this,’” he says. But that mindset shifts when he considers the denser, more-emotional parts of any given setlist. “You kind of have an idea in your mind, like, how it could play out with kids in the crowd. And then, with the romantic stuff, you think about how that is going to play out when you think about moods, basically, and think about how their moods are going to be interpreted. That influences stuff.”

King Krule Space Heavy

Credit: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

Marshall’s work is often looked at as talismanic of an uncategorizable sound. Is it jazz? Is it post-punk? Is it avant-garde? To American listeners, he’s as close to a God as any punk can get—as if he is a high-res rendering of King Pleasure and the Buzzcocks all rolled into one ferocious entity. That international stardom only ascended when Marshall’s 2013 song “Out Getting Ribs” became a viral TikTok audio, and he even made the song his encore go-to earlier this year. But things are much different across the pond, as people treat him like an artist, not a celebrity. Marshall can still go to pubs back home and enjoy the same DIY stuff as he did 10 years ago without getting hounded by inconsiderate fans. He’s not a spectacle folks pay to see, but a neighbor they are invested in on a human level and a face they’re happy to remember.

“I can still walk down the street and the interactions that I have are usually very respectful and understanding of who I am and understanding of the art and from sensitive and warm and open people, which I really appreciate,” he says. “That kind of gets thrown out the window a little bit when you go across the world, because people do treat you a bit more as a something and not someone. The best form of success for me so far is the fact that people appreciate the work but also appreciate my space and who I am, and I’ve been pretty lucky with that.”

On Space Heavy, Marshall continues his infatuation with the double entendres of space. While the name of this record feels akin to 6 Feet Beneath the Moon and his Molten Jets: Live On The Moon performance, the songs here are very much gnawing away at the surface-level lunar symbolism in an attempt to reveal the ambidexterity of the word “space” itself and how Marshall might begin occupying all of it with someone else close by: empty chests, spilling guts, many moons, cavernous sheets, open gates, beneath burger grease, the minutest minuscule gaps, underwater ecstasy, vacuums, lakes, voids and cups of tea. “It’s something that really inspires me and ticks my imagination. With the idea of a heavy space, I was able to find multiple approaches towards it,” Marshall says. “It was something that kept coming up as a theme in songwriting naturally and it’s about something you can’t see, you can feel. There’s some mystery there that I think everyone’s searching for some kind of understanding of. When I think about it, my imagination just expands and expands. And I kind of enjoy that.”

Earlier this year, Space Heavy was teased with “Seaforth,” one of the most-candid and generous songs of Marshall’s career so far. Back in March of 2019, he and photographer Charlotte Patmore welcomed a daughter—Marina—into the world together. He told The Guardian that her birth spurred “the biggest expression of life and love” at a time when he had lost some loved ones in his life. On “Seaforth,” he considers the place that his daughter will live in (“I see you, the same eyes / Reflect the world that falls apart”) and how he might tramp across the ruins holding the love of another person (“Up here, I’m freer than the birds / We soar above the broken Earth / The train line in Seaforth / We sit and watch the planet dyin’ up above / We sit and smile without concern / Now walk through shop centers together / Our love dissolves this universe”).

“I think that, naturally, I gained a lot of perspective. And through that perspective, certain things—that were more serious or that, maybe, you put more weight into—vanishes, because you have to occupy a large amount of your life on something new. The perspective thing is quite interesting because, yeah, that’s going to change the way that I write, the way that I see the world, the way that I interact with the world, who I speak to and how I speak to them. I can’t define it; I think I’ve just become aware of it,” Marshall says.

Space Heavy doesn’t necessarily feel like the epitome of what a King Krule album is supposed to sound like at this point in Marshall’s career. Instead, it feels like the perfect dichotomy that arises when you’re raising a child at a time when the planet is caving in on itself. A song that’s jagged and brutal and in your face like “Pink Shell” is offset by a lullaby like “If Only It Was Warmth.” As Marshall explains, he sees “instruments and sounds as very clear moments and clear expressions of emotions.” I ask Marshall if writing and singing songs with his daughter has softened his world at all, to which he replied: “No.”

But even so, on a track like “Seaforth,” there’s a line that sticks out to me still: “This faith is all I have,” Marshall sings, before it echoes back at him. It’s a powerful yet simple thesis statement for Space Heavy, and it points to the musician looking past all of the entropies of self-doubt and global chaos and finding a grounding, affectionate and hopeful force within his own progeny. “It’s good to keep on going and to look forward, and I think that’s quite important and that’s what I’m doing every day. I keep a nice momentum moving forward and that’s helped me a lot,” he adds.

The album was written over the course of two years on the trains Marshall would take while traveling back-and-forth between London and Liverpool, two places parts of him were living in at the same time. At a time in history where everyone was enraptured by displacement, it makes sense that Space Heavy manifested from the barren, distanced present Marshall was tumbling through and spreading himself across. “I write down as much as I can that I find interesting, so I keep my book close to me,” he says of his days spent commuting. “And my instrument is, essentially, my best friend. It’s the thing that’s made me loads of money and it’s made my life more comfortable and uncomfortable. I wasn’t getting my guitar out on the train, because it’s a bit intrusive to other peoples’ space, but I would write a lot on the train and then record a lot. Some songs were written in 10 minutes and some songs had been deconstructed from compositions that have been around for six years, seven years.”

Space Heavy is a language of its own accord, and Marshall is no stranger to forging the King Krule name into a literary powerhouse full of colloquialisms so unique (like the songs on the tracklist called “Hamburgerphobia” or “Toirtoise of Independency” or “Empty Stomach Space Cadet”) that they charm you into exploration on the basis of vocabulary intrigue alone. And Marshall, whose lyrics often take on the guise of a gonzo scripture, aims to articulate the architecture of his own mortality.

“Poetry and writing for me, the purpose behind them, isn’t necessarily to write lyrics out of them,” he says. “The purpose is to find new observations and new understandings of the surroundings that I’m in and to express myself in a way that I think other people might find interesting and might like to read one day—because I like to read other people’s ideas and I do it all the time.” he says.

He speaks of his beloved guitar like a poltergeist: “I spend hours and hours alone with it, and it haunts me and it makes fun of me and I have to get my head around it.” Unprompted, he explains the reasoning behind why he approaches arrangements the way he does: “Ever since I was young, I always found it easier to create my own thing [rather than] play other people’s things, because I’m not that good,” he says. I tell him I disagree with the last bit of that statement. “I was just fishing for the compliment,” he fires back, gazing off-camera with a rare ear-to-ear smile.

Space Heavy coalesces a broken outlook on existing somewhere in a fractured landscape with a mature, defanged resolution. Marshall has been grieving these past few years, but, after the anger and the guillotine blades dull, somebody is there waiting for him to return home. And that is what makes the narrative of Space Heavy so special. “Through my age and through my development—and just getting older and understanding myself in different ways—I’ve just kept myself super open and really not put pressure on the moments which are stunting and the moments which have blocks. There’s no need to put pressure on yourself, sometimes. And to understand that we’re forever changing and evolving as people and to keep yourself open and take what you can take,” he adds.

10 years after his debut, Marshall is still mangling the beauty around him into something roaringly fatalistic. He’s a father now and that responsibility and joy and worry has found its way into the work, too. Together, they provide a perfect balance that is emblematic of something divine yet tragic. “I guess it’s my turn to burn through / The rest of these funny days,” he once sang, at the end of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. Knocking on the door of 30, Marshall has turned inward more than ever. Only, this time, he is also considering how consequences and grief and trauma and love affect others beyond his own psyche. You might listen to Space Heavy and think he is settling down slowly, but I would ask you to reconsider the patience and technique that it takes to approach a desolate, unrelenting present with a gesture of softness and lightened bemoans.

There’s something urgent in Space Heavy‘s delicacy, but that doesn’t totally rid the album of Marshall’s guttural wails either. Some of these songs are among his maddest ever; but some are equally maddening in their own orbits of tenderness. Greatly local, contemplative and anti-masterpiece, Space Heavy will not cure the epidemic of a rock ‘n’ roll sick with a chart-minded autopilot, ticket website-hellscapes and stadium-show fantasticals. All Archy Marshall has ever wanted King Krule to be is an ongoing archival of his own curiosity towards what shapes the earth before him might take and how he might begin to pronounce them. And now that he has a joy in his life to pass those affections down to, his eyes are open wider than ever. “There’s always been a desire to express myself through music, and I’ve been lucky enough to be given a choice like this in life—where I can sit comfortably with it being an occupation for me now,” he says. “And I really, really take that into my heart, because I’m proud of it and I want to keep expressing it in different ways. I’m still searching for everything, like anyone else. I’m still searching for new ways to describe things and new ways to look at things.”

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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