MIA interview: ‘I want a hologram of Julian Assange on stage’

Maya Arulpragasam is planning to blow Victoria Park to pieces when she headlines Lovebox – but it’s okay, she’s a local

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It’s 1.30pm in Pittsburgh, and MIA sounds sleepy. ‘I’m just waking up, even though it’s a bit late,’ she says. ‘It’s all right, I just got myself a coffee.’ This behaviour is acceptable – last night she played a gig that The Washington Post called ‘seizure-inducing’, while a Pittsburgh paper will brand tonight’s show ‘eardrum-pounding, eyeball-searing bedlam’. She’s earning her lie-ins.

When we speak Mathangi Arulpragasam is making her way across America and Europe, ahead of her homecoming headline slot at this year’s Lovebox. After a spell residing in Brooklyn, she moved back to east London three years ago, a stone’s throw from Victoria Park – a site that’s sure to get a pounding when the lights go down on Lovebox’s Saturday.

MIA found her way into music via art and film, graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2000, meeting Elastica’s Justine Frischmann then going on the road with the band. She designed an album cover and directed a video for them, then began meddling with a synthesiser and started making her own music. After hits like ‘Paper Planes’ and albums such as ‘Arular’, she’s accrued a wealth of mainstream accolades without having to sacrifice her DIY aesthetic, racking up controversies via her views and videos, making notable friends (Julian Assange) and enemies (the Sri Lankan government) along the way.

The influences continue to be eclectic. Her last album, ‘Matangi’, was named after her accidental namesake, the eponymous Hindu goddess, while her last single ‘Double Bubble Trouble’ riffed on ‘Trouble’, the 1994 pop banger by south London girl duo Shampoo (who must be tickled by it, wherever they are). MIA, meanwhile, must be happy to be playing gigs at which she can swear as much as she wants without fear of any legal actions. She’s currently being sued for $16m by the NFL for giving the middle finger during the Superbowl halftime show in 2012,  which we’re asked not to mention during our interview. She brings it up within 58 seconds.

© Daniel Sanwald

How’s the tour been going so far?
‘Yesterday I played Washington and I had the liveliest crowd. Tonight’s venue is  next door to the NFL stadium, so it’s gonna be interesting. I hope it doesn’t get blown up halfway through my set.’

So this is the subject we’re not allowed to talk about?
‘We’re not gonna talk about that, yeah, you’re right. We’re not talking about that.’

Well you can. You can talk about whatever you want.
‘No, I don’t wanna talk about it, I’m just saying... it’s right there. You know. Maybe that’s kind of cool, because the fact that I’m right next door to the NFL stadium makes me wanna do a better show.’

Sing louder.
‘Yeah. I calculated that I would have to do a venue like this about 40,000 times in order to get enough money to pay for the lawsuit. So… it’s going good.’

I notice that in Detroit you’re playing the world’s largest Masonic Temple.
‘Interesting.’

Are you into Freemasonry at all?
‘This is a really cool subject. [To whoever else is with her] So, guys, do you know that I’m playing the largest Masonic temple in two days? Yeah. Weird. [To me] Where is that again?’

Detroit.
‘Detroit, yeah. Wow. Well. Hmm. It’s weird because the concept of my album is Matangi. And I feel like it’s immune to anything like that because the thing that my album’s inspired by also comes from a temple, but it’s a different temple. The way I see it is a lot of that stuff is information that initially derived from these ancient places: ancient Muslim, Hinduism. Then it got converted to different belief systems. So I feel not really affected by it because it’s newer and a western constructed thing. I don’t really pay too much attention to what that is. What do you think about it?’

Well from what I gather it’s a lot of charity work and some silly dressing up. I think a lot of stuff you can read about is probably removed from the modern reality of it.
‘Well in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, being a mason meant that you built a house. I don’t even know what constitutes a Mason and what doesn’t and how you get in or not, if it’s an old boys club to preserve money and power.’

Well I looked at the Detroit Masonic Temple website and from what I gather it’s just a venue for hire within the place.
‘Yeah, maybe it was more powerful once upon a time.’

Is there a concept for your tour? What’s the aesthetic?
‘It was supposed to be a temple created out of lights. It comes from when I was in Kerala [in India] doing an art exhibition – they decorate their temples with LED lights. It’s really beautiful to see this ancient building that’s 1,000 years old decorated with cheap Chinese LED lights. An Indian wiring system is a bit chaotic, but that’s why the visual thing that it creates is really cool. I was gonna have a bunch of Indian people travel with me, then every morning when we got into the venue they’d do the whole venue. But fire and safety people didn’t let me get past stage one. I did a set in India as a test run, and as soon as we plugged it in the whole thing exploded and burnt down. So it didn’t really work. That was two hours before the show.’

Sounds a bit ‘Spinal Tap’.
‘I know. It’s been like that a bit. So I had to do it properly. Streamlined.’

You play Lovebox on July 19, the day after your birthday.
‘Yeah. I was supposed to play on my birthday but they changed me over to the Saturday.’

Did you want to play on your birthday?
‘I don't know. I don’t really do anything for my birthday. I have a birthday complex, and just don’t deal with it. All my family are coming, and my little nephews and nieces are old enough to come and see me now. And I haven’t played a London show for a long time, so I’m looking forward to it.’

Will you have time to watch anyone else?
‘Yeah. I’m touring with A$AP Ferg at the moment, and A$AP Rocky’s on at Lovebox. I’m looking forward to it. There’s a massive ad for it outside my house – I wake up and look at it to see who else is playing.’

Nas is playing – I know you two are fans of one other.
‘Yep. We’re doing a show together in Paris.’

Do you ever do onstage collaborations at festivals?
‘No, I’m really boring like that. That’s an American hip hop thing, people come out and do shit, you can get that from other people. I want a whole bunch of other shit. It would be nice to have a hologram of Julian Assange. I want this dancer from Africa – he’s the only guy on the whole planet who can dance as fast as he does. He’s from this tiny village. I really want him to be part of the show, but I think I’ll have to actually go there and help him to get a passport. It’s not very easy.’

You’re living in east London now. Did you spend much time there in your teens?
‘I did, but it is weird being there now. It’s the third reincarnation of east London that I’ve seen. I was there when it was run by Bengalis and it was a no-go area. Then when I was at Saint Martins it became a fashiony art school area. Now I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just gone super-professional – there’s a lot of bankers.’

Did you hang out in Victoria Park?
‘Not really. Mostly around Brick Lane and Hoxton. And by the time people started moving out to Victoria Park, I left to live in America for five years. So at the time that it turned into a thing, I totally missed it all.’

You shot your ‘Double Bubble Trouble’ video in London recently.
‘Yeah – it’s the first video I’ve directed since I did the Elastica one 15 years ago for £100. I took time out with this album: I took three months off, moved back to London, it felt like there was no pressure to have this album be anything, or to come out with any certain visual aesthetic. And it felt like people forgot about it, or the label forgot about it, so it was a nice time for me to be creative and make what I wanted.’

Coincidentally I recently learnt what ‘double bubble’ means in prison slang, if that’s what you’re referring to.
‘What does it mean?’

In prison if you lend or give someone something then you get double back in return.
‘Hmm. That’s not what I mean, no.’

Right. Irrelevant then. So tell me, were Shampoo a big deal for you?
‘Well, yeah. I wanted to make a very London thing, I think that’s probably why the video was shot there. I guess they were like the British Tatu, before Tatu.’

They were much better than Tatu!
‘Yeah.’

Do you know Shampoo’s history?
‘Uh uh.’

They made indie fanzines, one for the Manic Street Preachers. They were in a video of theirs, ‘Little Baby Nothing’. They were on the fringes of that scene – they were punkier at first. ‘Trouble’ had some good B-sides. I know it’s dismissed as a novelty song, but they were all right.
‘Yeah, I had that hook originally on [‘Matangi’ closer] ‘Sexodus’ but then I didn’t wanna not use it, and then this song evolved. It was the last song that got made on the album, and I really liked that bit and I turned it into the main hook; originally it was more of an intro, as a shout out to those kind of girls in London.’

‘Trouble’ came out in ’94, at the height of Britpop.
‘Yeah.’

There’s been so much Britpop coverage here recently because it was 20 years ago. Obviously you spent a lot of time on that scene with Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn. what are your feelings on it now, looking back?
‘Well, they were an intelligent bunch. It makes me feel that back in the day you couldn’t come to music unless you were fucking smart as well. It was amazing being around that, because I think the combination of me coming out of St Martin’s – which is really concept-heavy – and falling into that lot straight after college… they were so tough. They were just so beyond it all the time, and that was the whole aesthetic of Britpop: they were bored by it all. They were too smart. It had that sort of vibe. The only reason they put up with me is because the set of problems I had was a bit alien to them, and they didn’t know how to process that then because it was new. The Sri Lankans only came over to England in the late ’80s, so by the time Britpop was big we’d only been there ten years. Two totally different worlds. But I totally respected their world because they were amazingly well-read, intelligent, socially aware, super-talented people.

‘That sort of snobbery – in a good way, the best possible way – of how you lived your life, I really miss it now. Now, anyone can make music, and anyone can become the biggest thing in music: it’s not about values or integrity or intelligence. It’s not even being socially-conscious or aware, even when it comes to pop music. You are only successful in the pop world if you are totally fucking wrong and you’re supporting the wrongest shit ever – that’s when you’re the biggest. So I do miss it. Even when I started touring back in 2005, the bands that were around – Sonic Youth, whatever punk bands from that time, even the American ones – they all shared the same ideology. When I was touring, on the road, it was something I could identify with, and it’s not really there any more.’

So that whole scene influenced and inspired you more than people might think.
‘Well in the beginning I never saw myself as a musician, and I wouldn’t put something out unless I could dance to it or it was something I could take home and play to my brother. The first time I played my brother ‘Galang’ and ‘Sunshowers’, he threw the CD in the bin. He said, “That’s so shit.” So I was in two different worlds. I would play something to Elastica or [Pulp bassist] Steve Mackey, who helped me with ‘Galang’, and they would like certain aspects of it, but then when I played it to people who were actually in the hood they’d think it was shit. And then whatever people in the hood really liked, all the Britpop lot would be like, “That’s shit.” So that definitely helped in maybe forming what I became in the end, because of those contradictions. I had to please both of them. It was conceptual street music in the end.’

When you Google ‘Matangi’, eight out of the first ten results are about you, not the Hindu goddess.
‘I know, it’s really fucked up, isn’t it? I don’t know how to get round that, though, it was something I didn’t really think about. The first day I read about Matangi I took a screenshot, because I knew it was never gonna be the same again.’

This means that in Google terms, you’re now bigger than God.
‘Hmm. If you look at it in Google terms, I’m more recent. It’s just about timescale. But it’s bullshit to live life like that. You are what you do this week – that’s what’s fucked up about culture. The other day I did an interview and they said, “Your and Kanye’s album are the same because you’re saying, “I am God.”” And I was like, no.

‘It’s weird because with MIA and the Matangi thing, it’s still the codes of whatever I used to be about. It’s the same codes and the same subject and the same concept. But now it’s done through trying to understand the story of this deity rather than me telling you what’s going on right now. It’s now saying that freedom of speech was relevant 5000 years ago and it’s relevant now, and I can prove it because they invented a god to represent it. It was more like that. But sometimes it gets interpreted weirdly.’

Matangi the goddess signifies freedom of speech and art. What does your mum think about the fact that you grew up to reflect your accidental namesake?
‘Well my mum is a strict born-again Christian who goes to church four times a week and prays for me a lot. My dad’s a Christian too, but he’s a deserter because he was like, “This is bullshit, I don’t believe in God.” So they don’t have a history of Hinduism. I think three out of four of my grandparents were Christians: only one was a Hindu. But when I lived in Sri Lanka I lived on Temple Road next door to a temple, and it inspired me more than my dad’s family talking about church. My grandma prayed to Jesus a lot but it was the culture of the temple that was really amazing. But when I came to England I never really was a part of it. I was a bit of an outsider. In born-again Christianity, anything that’s not in the Bible is really terrible and you could go to hell. So it’s made my mum go to church more, because she’s like: “My daughter’s this crazy thing. Her album cover’s got a scary face.” I tried to explain the concept to her, that it’s amazing, and that it’s about freedom of speech, but she’s not interested.’

But she’s coming to Lovebox?
‘She’s gonna come to Lovebox. Because, somewhere in my mum, I’m still her daughter. So she gives me the benefit of the doubt.’

Read our review of ‘Matangi’



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