Lion's Den

You’re the ‘No Hope Generation’. You’re anxious and depressed, but with a self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek stoicism that feels, historically, new. There’s the communal sense that something sinister is rooted in the way we’re living, that the dissolution between online and offline life has increased isolation instead of freedom - but you can’t remember a life before screens to compare it with. And whilst you’ve accepted by now that you cannot expect to buy a house, utilise your degree or imagine a life beyond debt, for the ‘No Hope Generation’ a quiet, shared understanding has also slowly emerged. “Everything is shit,” offers Mura Masa, “but not necessarily in a sad way.”

Breathing new life into - amongst other things – New Wave, Emo, Folk and 90s Rave – Mura Masa's sound is constantly evolving, whilst also paying tribute to the alternative roots which shaped him.

“We are seeing a new type of lexicon come through,” says Alex, “in which we know we’re all dealing with these problems, but can at least recognise them in each other.” And that is a source for something that looks like hope. 

Finding a community of others, like you, who don’t fit in has long-proved formative for Mura Masa. He began making music at the age of fifteen, lacking total affinity with the local metal and folk scenes of Guernsey, but gaining exposure to electronic music across the water (a necessity, as the island’s only night club has now shut its doors). Mura Masa’s debut album contained snapshots of Alex’s upbringing, but it also soundtracked the very specific move to London and the melting-pot he abruptly became exposed to. “I was quite overwhelmed on my first record,” he remembers now. “I back-educated myself in the lineage of English music, and had the chance to suddenly discover all these new sounds and cultures first-hand.” What emerged was an album bursting with curiosity and creativity: one in which rap royalty like A$AP Rocky sat next to pop pioneers like Christine & The Queens or Charli XCX - not to mention lifelong heroes like Damon Albarn – with little in common besides Mura Masa’s singular way with modern pop. It went on to shift more than half a million units, and continue a journey which has seen Alex already win a Grammy (and be nominated for two more), be shortlisted for an Ivor, appear on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, and have the confidence on his latest album ‘R.Y.C’ to put himself and his generation under even closer analysis. 

Thematically, ‘R.Y.C’ (Raw Youth Collage) addresses our cultural addiction to nostalgia, and its uses (and limits) as a means of coping with the difficulties of the present. “The starting point was noticing in my own life a tendency to rely on nostalgia for escapism; whether playing old video games or meeting up with friends and only recounting tales of our youth.” And once you notice these patterns, he thinks, they’re everywhere. News feeds feel less concerned with the here and now than they are an amalgam of memory, whether packaging the past up into bitesize Youtube compilations, celebrating the 90s via an online quiz, or repurposing the dinosaur from the Chewitts packet as a meme. Even Alex’s recent trip to the cinema to see ‘The Joker’ was preceded by trailers for a ‘Terminator’ reboot, a ‘Bad Boys’ reboot, and a sequel to ‘The Shining’. “It can feel,” he says, “like capitalism has caught up with how to prey on familiarity. We are effectively sold the same thing over again, made slightly differently, because it makes us feel good.” 

Far from being a point of despair, though, this realisation kickstarted a crucial conversation for Alex and his mates – one which was as much about his own headspace as this general climate over-connectivity. “I realised everyone has this secret other life; a sort of arrested development where we’re always regressing, reviving, or craving something more innocent. This album is about why we need to do that, and whether it’s a valid way to find some joy in the world we live in.” For Mura Masa, nostalgia can be a jumping-off point to really consider how reliable your memory is, and also give the listener the perspective to do something about their present. “Because someday, you’ll probably be nostalgic for right now.” 

Over the last year or so, these meditations have found a sound (and singing voice) for Mura Masa. He became deeply influenced by the concept of Hauntology – in particular Mark Fisher’s book, ‘Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures’ – in its discussion of a culture in which everything is a reference. This came at an intersection where Alex was also falling back in love with guitar music, and observing a general pivot towards alternative, band-culture going on around him. “I thought that if I was going to explore these themes, then it should take the form of music that makes me nostalgic. And that was bands like Joy Division, The Cure, Talking Heads…a lot of Emo and Britpop…and the rock renaissance of the early noughties with groups like The Strokes.” Rather than suddenly front a band and make a rock record, the challenge was to work backwards; to manipulate, disorientate, and (as he did on his debut) blur the line between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’. “In the same way that we misremember how things sound in our heads,” Mura Masa says, “I wanted to create an album that sounds like it was played by a band who aren’t actually playing it at all. Everything is me in my studio: all  of it is programmed, sequenced or sampled. There are no live drums, and all the guitars are synthesized in the laptop.” This is, then, live-band music by way of digital pointillism, and often as painstaking for Mura Masa to bring to life as that sounds. 

It’s to the credit of ‘R.Y.C’  - and its sometimes-heavy topics - that it still sounds like so much fun. Lead single ‘Deal Wiv It’, for instance, is a riotous outburst of gentrification, austerity-stirred classism, and caustic British humour (in which “life is hard, but it’s quite exciting”). “I love slowthai’s political outspokenness, but also his optimistic attitude towards life,” Alex comments. “I introduced him to The Stranglers and asked him not to rap, but just to talk: there is a 20 minute version of the song which is a total diatribe, and it’s genius.” Elsewhere, ‘I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again’ unites Mura Masa with Clairo, a leading light in America’s burgeoning DIY scene (“we ended up writing a song about not wanting to relive teenage heartache, however romantic it might have seemed”). Other songs further dissolve this boundary between what happened, and what’s imagined: ‘In My Mind’ recalls the best rave you were never actually alive to go to (but finds comfort in the fantasy that feeling evokes), whilst the spoken-word poetry of Ned Green on ‘a meeting at an oak tree’ is a heart-in-mouth moment of young love interrupted. “Everyone can relate to that story,” says Mura Masa, “or think that they can relate to it. It’s actually very specific to Ned, but those sorts of universal, fetishist stories of teenage love inform what we expect our lives to be like, and whether we live up to them or not.” 

What’s emerged on ‘R.Y.C’ (Raw Youth Collage) is in fact something deeply optimistic, a message that’s rooted in its very first line: “Good times. / that place we used to hang out; / that thing we used to do; / was it ever even there? / I miss it.” If your youth – and its assorted musical scenes – will always appear rose-tinted in the rear-view, then perhaps the present is not so hopeless after all. In this more pragmatic light, tracks like ‘Live Like We’re Dancing’ (with Georgia) become an attitude to live by. It’s an outlook that’s also in the very fabric of ‘R.Y.C’ itself: the album artwork twists a love of Pixel art (and its influence on childhood video games) to reflect how we, too, make up the back-story of our youth in fragmented style. Zoom in on the image and it essentially disappears, but with the benefit of distance (plus time, age, and experience), what you are looking at resembles a smile.  

Even when interrogating the past, with this sort of eye-for-detail Mura Masa can’t help but sound like the future. Here is an artist able to channel those highs and lows of youth culture, and use it to expand what music should sound like right now. ‘R.Y.C’ (Raw Youth Collage) is an album that strikes on the zeitgeist of his ‘No Hope Generation’ precisely by studying the road that took them to this point. What Alex wants people to take away is the fact that “it’s possible to feel happy even if it means relying on something that isn’t necessarily true, or is half-imagined, or might not even have happened at all. If we can find a shared remembrance of a good time, we’re more likely to be able to find that again. A little bit of escapism is healthy.” Or as the album’s towering crescendo ‘Teenage Headache Dream’ puts it: “seems like the good time’s over / but nothing’s really over anymore / Just take control.“