King Krule: The Ballad of the Space Cadet and the Deep Sea Diver
It was dusk as the plane began to descend over the South China Sea towards land, and the sun was gently climbing a curve through the sky. Archy Marshall hates flying. Something about floating through the air at 900km/hour in an aluminium tube feels unnatural to him, and this was his 22nd flight of the year. But as he peered down onto the pastel blue sea, dotted with little red ships and industrial cranes, he felt visually stimulated – his eyes had never seen a landscape like Hong Kong’s.
It was February 2014. By this point Archy and his band had become vampires, nocturnal animals, blooming moonflowers; touring the planet, playing shows every night, partying until the sun rose, and then waking up in places like this. As the taxi to the hotel sped through Kowloon, he pressed up against the window and observed the hugeness around him, skinny soaring buildings disappearing like stalks into the clouds, as people leaned out from vertigo-inducing heights to casually hang their washing.
At the window of the room in his skyscraper hotel, he gazed all the way down to earth; onto the city and all the roofs below, and all the water and mud that had gathered on those roofs, and thought to himself, “I’m pretty fucking lucky.” It was a moment he had almost imagined a year earlier, when writing his debut album, Six Feet Beneath the Moon.
The world had been waiting for an album from Archy Marshall ever since he appeared on Bandcamp in 2010 as Zoo Kid: a red-haired 16-year-old guitarist with the sandblasted vocals of a 74-year-old whisky drinker. His demos were good, too good. Songs like Out Getting Ribs and Baby Blue were vivid and lyrical distillations of metropolitan dreams and nightmares that made critics delirious. By the age of 18 he’d changed his name to King Krule, released an EP via True Panther, and been nominated for the BBC Sound of... poll.
When the debut album was finally released in 2013 it was a raw and melodramatic account of teenagehood. His fans loved it. The critics, once again, loved it. Frank Ocean sang his praises and Beyoncé shared one of the album’s tracks to her 64 million plus Facebook followers. Superlatives like “the voice of a generation” began to thrum around his name.
“I thought that was it for me,” he says. It’s 8.12pm on a Friday night, and he’s sitting across the table from me in a South London beer garden, wearing a heavy jacket with a thin silk scarf and a black beret. At least I think that’s what he’s wearing – I can barely see him; there’s no outdoor lamps near us, and the moon is one of those weak and fading crescents that’s no help at all. His new album The Ooz came out today; he celebrated with a homemade Full English.
By his right hand side is an ash walking stick with an ornate golden handle. At first, I assumed it was a fashion statement, something to accentuate his status as the unofficial King of South London, but when it took him more than 30 seconds to shake my over-committed and outstretched hand earlier I quickly realised it was actually keeping him upright. He badly hurt his knee while drunk two days ago, messing around up a hill nearby which has “the best views of London”, and he could barely move onstage at the album launch show last night in Kingston-Upon-Thames. It’s clearly plaguing his thoughts. It’s even infiltrated his dreams: his subconscious mind took him on a jog with Sky Ferreira and her ‘dad’ David Lynch last night, but all Marshall could do was limp along behind them.
He slides a match out from a box and lights a rollie. It briefly illuminates his face and the golden cap on his front tooth flickers. He blows out a beam of smoke and picks up where he left off, recollecting the release of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon: “I remember thinking, I’m gonna be huge, I never have to worry about anything again.”
It felt like that for a while at least, as his prodigious talents sent him across Europe, Asia and North America. But, as artists of every generation discover time and time again, critical acclaim doesn’t always equate to financial success. “It was one of those records that resonated with people,” he explains, “but those people didn’t necessarily put money in my pockets.” As his world tour came to an eventual end, he began a turbulent descent back to earth.
He returned to London to find he’d been kicked out of the flat where he lived alone, and all of his possessions were now back at his mum’s house where he grew up in South London. “I’d done all these things, but I didn’t have much to show for it,” says Marshall. When friends asked how it was to tour the world, he’d say, “Yeah, it was alright.”
London felt like a different city to the one he’d left behind. “This used to be a free city in a lot of senses,” he tells me, “there were squats and stuff. But that freedom had gone downhill.” Over the course of the next 12 months, he channelled much creative energy into A New Place 2 Drown – a collection of 12 songs and an accompanying book made with his brother, Jack, and released under his own name. It was hip-hop inspired and meticulously produced, filled with stories that documented his outlook on life as he left his teens and entered his 20s. But as time went on, a deep rot came to riddle his work as King Krule. While on tour in Japan, he’d bought one of the most beautiful guitars he’d ever seen: a 60s Fender Jaguar. Now it sat on a stand next to his bed at home. He liked to wake up to the sight of it shimmering back at him. Sometimes he’d put it in his bed and sleep with it. “I wanted it to be next to me,” he says, smiling into the air between us as if he can see it now. But every time he tried to play it, he despised what came from his fingers.
The writing of The Ooz became a torturous experience. Any compositions he completed began to haunt him. Deadlines came and went, and a depression of eternal uselessness settled on him like a chemical fog. He wanted this album to be about mundane activities, and the feeling of being isolated in a city – but those very experiences had made him feel creatively imprisoned. His hair got long and his beard got patchy. “I was in a grungy state,” he says, “I was wearing super baggy clothes and smelling bad.” He’d read an old article about Kurt Cobain that said the Nirvana singer used to set aside an hour a week to reply to all of his fanmail, so Marshall decided to try doing the same via the King Krule Facebook page.
“One day, I had this message from someone asking if they could stay at my house,” he says. “They were coming to London to work for a bit, and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’” Note to reader: this may sound weird, but apparently the Marshalls’ family home is renowned for having a revolving door policy for anyone willing to sleep on the couch. “She came for a few months, and she was this super dry, super moody girl from Barcelona,” says Marshall. “I liked her. She inspired me to be wanky again. I’d been sat on my arse for too long. Now I needed to look good. I wore better clothes, shaved, brushed my teeth, ate better and saw myself differently for a bit. I felt like I had romance in my life, which worked hand-in-hand with creation.”
"There is something empowering about being disgusting around conventionality"
She wasn’t the only character to wander into his orbit. In another session of fanmail replying, he found a video of a man playing saxophone under a bridge in East London. The man was called Ignacio Salvadores, and Marshall replied telling him to come to a jam they were doing that week in Bermondsey. Salvadores was quiet in person, and they only spoke briefly. “Then I threw a shitty mic down his saxophone, ran it through a delay pedal and we had a jam,” says Marshall.
They connected and Salvadores became a fixture. He started to stay over at Marshall’s home. They ate, slept and played together. “It turns out he was a prolific musician, bohemian and transplanetary explorer from Argentina,” says Marshall. “I liked his approach to music. There was a freedom to it. He had way more energy than me in terms of being a human.”
Sometimes Salvadores would disappear in the dark hours of early morning to go play saxophone in the park nearby. On other occasions, Marshall would wake up to the sound of him playing at the end of his garden. “These nice saxophone lines would hit the windows and concrete of the houses opposite and bounce back to me,” says Marshall. “It was good to have romance like that around you.”
The Ooz formed, as influenced by Salvadores and the girl from Barcelona as it was by the dark and grungy days that preceded their arrival. It’s an album about loneliness, depression and isolation, but it is also ruthlessly expressive. The Krulian tropes that have come to define his sound are ever present. The album is drenched in the colour blue, both in mood and lyrics, and the moon once again looms over him like Coleridge’s albatross. The city is a claustrophobic dichotomy of “paradise and parasites”, a motif that recurs throughout the album in three different languages. And yet despite its tortured themes, the album feels musically liberated. It is a vast 19 songs long, and runs to one hour and seven minutes. “I wanted to make something unconventional and long,” says Marshall. “I’ve seen reviews that say it goes on a bit, but it’s my expression so I don’t give a shit about that. I wasn’t going to compromise.” He dives deeper than ever into his no wave style of post-punk, peppering his sound with jolts of jazz, dub and soul. The baritone sax of Salvadores spreads through the bloodstream of The Ooz like an intravenous hit of opiates.
We stop talking about the album, and I fetch us two more pints. The pub garden has got busier, and it begins to hum with the infectious late evening excitement of people getting royally pissed after work on a Friday. Marshall starts to talk more freely, about everything from Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus to Flat Earth Theory and the assassination of John F Kennedy. Bukowski, he tells me, was a writer he used to hate, until he realised he was becoming him. He tells me a story about coming home from a night out at 9am in the morning and vomiting on the bus as commuters politely made their way around the scene he’d created. “Everyone would be mad polite, doing their own thing, on their phones,” he says, laughing, “and I’m just in the middle, stinking, staring at them all. I kinda like that. It’s funny. I’ve read a lot of Bukowski and there is something empowering about being disgusting around conventionality.”
I ask him what he’s read or watched recently that has had a particular affect on him and he begins to talk about the 1967 film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It was Martin Scorsese’s directorial debut and Harvey Keitel’s acting debut. “It’s fucking amazing,” says Marshall. “It’s really interesting because Scorsese has a freedom in it that you just don’t really see in a lot of his other films.”
Marshall’s passion for film has moulded the way he visualises his music, using his lyrics to frame characters and his production to evoke mood. Listen to The Ooz in a dark room, and you can see a film formulating in your mind’s eye; a story played out across abandoned streets under moonlight, or in the black sky amongst the stars, where you never quite know if what you’re witnessing is reality or a dream.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that marriage of visual and audio,” he tells me. “With The Ooz, I wanted to create these characters which were ultimately myself, but they are in these different spaces.” He’s talking about the deep sea diver of Midnight Blue 01, who’s surrounded by the crushing pressure of the ocean, sinking without a trace into the black abyss of below. Or the space cadet of Cadet Limbo and The Cadet Leaps who waltzes through the universe, in search of distant life. And there are other references to the narrator as a tiny man, or as an ant. Marshall, it seems, is almost always a microscopic entity, submersed, and sometimes drowning, in the sublime magnitude of whatever emotional or physical environment envelops him.
It reminded me of nearly every story he’s told me tonight, whether it’s about being on a plane over the South China sea, or at the window of his skyscraper hotel in Hong Kong, or on a hill overlooking London at night, or floating as a space cadet six feet beneath the big white moon. It seems Archy Marshall is forever somewhere up high, alone and tiny, looking down on the world and trying to make sense of it all.
Photography: Joshua Gordon
Mask by: George Edge
Screen print by: Marcroy Eccleston Smith
The Ooz is out now via True Panther Sounds / XL Recordings