Some time towards the end 2019, Archy Marshall, AKA King Krule, found himself in Warrington standing on a wide stretch ankle-high grass. Behind him, smoke curled into the wintry sky above Fiddlers Ferry power station. With the sun setting over its chimneys, he picked out drowsy notes on his guitar, singing deeply over the top.
What on earth was the flame-haired singer up to, miles from his south London home, his Fender Mustang hanging loosely over his shoulder? As it turns out, Marshall has a new stomping ground these days, having moved to the north-west after his partner became pregnant in 2018, to be closer to her family. “I left this city and went up there and it feels great,” he says as we settle at a table in the pub near his mum’s house back south, to the west Peckham Rye. It is another cold evening, and he is in London rehearsing in preparation to tour Man Alive!, his third album as King Krule. The story behind the trip to the power station became clear before Christmas, when Marshall uploaded a grainy video titled Hey World! to YouTube. Along with footage four new songs were shots snow, the moon and copious electricity pylons (Marshall’s current fixation). His girlfriend, who was heavily pregnant during parts the recording, was behind the camera. “I was super cold in front that power station – I remember after five or six takes I was like: ‘Fucking hell, my fingers are falling f.’”
But Marshall’s freezing digits were worth it: Hey World! is both an intriguing intro to his new record and a window into a new, calmer stage his life in Cheshire’s wide expanses. Having left the grime and grind London, things have changed for the 25-year-old, who first emerged as a snarling, hollow-cheeked teen in the 2011 video for the searing Out Getting Ribs and built a reputation for angry, tender songwriting, blackened by the stories his young life.
That debut single sparked pandemonium, and after a self-titled EP laid out his untamable vision for a new sound built from jazz, hip-hop, punk and his beloved no-wave, 2013 debut album 6 Feet Beneath the Moon cemented him as a thrilling new voice. Bile and brilliance spewed from his lean frame in equal measure. Tracks such as Border Line and Ceiling had plenty the former, while Baby Blue and Ocean Bed showed his deft touch for a love song. Beyoncé posted a link to Easy Easy (a bellowed rock’n’roll number about nicking stuff from Tesco in Surrey Quays) on Facebook, and Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt began sniffing around for collaborations. Marshall, meanwhile, told MTV he “wasn’t surprised” Beyoncé was into his stuff.
In 2014, under his real name, he released A New Place 2 Drown, a tripped-out LP that came with a companion art book made with his brother. The hype spread internationally as Marshall toured, and in 2017, his expansive second King Krule album The Ooz won him a Mercury nod, by which time he had become something a counterculture icon. All the while, he drank in the same pubs and did his bit to promote the scene he came from, supporting south London music and ensuring that its bars and DIY venues still hosted King Krule shows. After one riotous gig in Bermondsey before The Ooz came out, he left to tour the US. He remembers that period as “a really inspiring time”, and things would change dramatically once it was over.
Upon his return to London, Marshall discovered that his girlfriend, who had been on the road documenting proceedings, was pregnant. Their baby, Marina, was born in March last year. He scratches his head as if to crank its contents into gear. “When she was born, she was the biggest expression life and love, but I also lost some good people last year,” he says. “Those juxtapositions between death and such extreme life must have had an effect on me.”
As much as this reclusive character might not favour the idea, for King Krule fans the new outlook represents big news. Marshall’s skin-pricking, red-raw songs have always affected people. He says some fans have been sharing their emotional connections with him for as long as he’s been releasing music. The former Brit School pupil was always confident he would do well, but he has tried to foster a low-key approach, shunning the limelight in favour pints, roll-ups and splurges restless creativity.
Even so, his every move fascinates. Each new morsel, sonic or visual, still brings a blizzard attention. Pitchfork even ran a news story about his impending fatherhood. Marshall has always remained distant, an approach he adopted while dabbling in misdemeanours as a teen as he shuttled between his parents’ separate houses. But now, the mellow scent change is in the air.
Recorded in London and Stockport with saxophonist Ignacio Salvadores and co-producer Dilip Harris, Man Alive! was made, like its predecessors, by night. Initially, Marshall drew inspiration from thinking about the many head injuries he has suffered from assorted accidents in his life (he decided against displaying a lurid painting one on the cover). Mostly, though, he wrote about his changing surroundings. He recalls strange twilit occurrences during recording, such as the night he dozed f with a Johnny Rotten interview in his headphones and awoke to the sound a random self-help demo, or the time he came to and found an inexplicable crack across his laptop screen.
But such atmospheres colour only sections the album. It arcs from the King Krule staples guttural anger and noise (the rumbling Supermarché, Stoned Again’s rough and tumble, the nerve-jangling Comet Face), to lush guitars and zen-like contentment (Airport Antenatal Airplane, which samples Nilüfer Yanya’s voice and is dedicated to his daughter, and Please Complete Thee, arguably Marshall’s purest song yet). Even the sedative Alone, Omen 3, written about finding empowerment in depression, feels joyous. A patchwork sampled voices and field recordings add to Man Alive!’s pleasantly dazed atmosphere. On the record – which, at 40 minutes, is his shortest so far – there is a sense that something inside him is thawing. “I see a beauty in everything that I knew was always there, but I can understand it a lot more now,” he says. “I really like the beauty in the lows, the highs, the hatred and the love, I appreciate humanity, the people around me and conversation. I’m more open, accepting and interested.”
Marshall started down this path in the wake The Ooz, a long, ten tortured album that functioned as a purge, its title a tribute to the gunk the human body naturally produces. “I’m finding another way expressing myself, a temperament where] I know what I’m doing,” he says. “When I was younger, I was on stage before anyone knew about me, and as soon as the industry] machine caught wind, it didn’t stop. It got to a point where I was being thrown into stuff like New York music showcase] CMJ when I was really young. And, do you know what? It was fucking bullshit.”
Now more than ever, Marshall is endeavouring to stay bullshit-free. He’s smoking and drinking less, too. Inside his head, he has barely deted from the time back in 2012 when his mother Rachel, a costume designer and artist, doubled as his manager. He eventually signed up with XL Recordings and Adele’s management company, but family has always been more important to King Krule. Marshall’s brother Jack does his album art, while their dad Adam, an art director, contributed spoken word on The Ooz and paintings for the new record, the title which was pilfered from the boys’ musician uncle, whose images pylons (see, we told you he was obsessed) also adorn the inlay. Pylons pop up again in the lyrics to The Dream, a mumbled lullaby about halfway through Man Alive! that sums up its entire mood.
When the singer leans back and says: “I’m simple in a lot ways. I’ve got simple pleasures,” it’s easy to understand. “I never took that step that I guess was expected. I have kept things very similar to when I started. I’ve always been conscious my integrity in a sense when to accept big cheques. I was lucky I had a core group people around me that I loved.”
Marina’s arrival means that group now has a new member, and Marshall’s face lightens every time he talks about her. His latest side project, he reveals, is “writing kids’ songs that are stupid as hell; I make them up for her and translate them on to the guitar, 80s Robert Wyatt-style.” That process started when Marshall would rock her to sleep. “She sleeps longer than me, man. I’ve been blessed, it’s been pretty easy because how good she is,” he explains. “She loves music. She loves to stare at the guitar and she loves to strum it and feel the vibration the strings. She wants to climb it, she wants to hit it.”
Marshall approached Man Alive! in the same spirit. He enjoyed uprooting to a new studio in Stockport, where there was “a comfier chair” and two engineers who could go blow-for-blow with Marshall working through the night. The Hey World! film also finds him playing a small pink guitar with unicorns printed on it, borrowed from his partner’s younger sister. But don’t take the piss, he warns: “People saw it and thought it was a ukulele … Fuck that, no way!”
These songs, he says, have taken him back to the crux King Krule. “It was just me and my instrument, an instrument that I’ve been in love with since I was eight years old, one that has looked after me and given me success, love, hate and all these things.” Marshall wants his listeners to feel these new songs “deep in their bones” just like he does, and is excited to get back into “method acting” on tour next month. “I just love the theatre music. I think about one little image me, writing something down or something happening to me and I’m there,” he says. “This record sounds really good live. I just want to go and play it.”
Man Alive! is out from Friday 21 February