MIA: interview

Mathangi Arulpragasam, MIA, is one-woman musical ideas factory, style icon and general advert for multicultural London; she’s one of Time Out London’s 40th birthday heroes

  • See all Time Out's 40th birthday London heroes

    Why did you leave London for New York?

    ‘I left in 2006 because I just couldn’t afford it in London any more. It’s so expensive! I’m going to bitch about London actually – I don’t think enough people complain. I was living in Shepherd’s Bush and could get something ten times bigger for the same price in Brooklyn.’

    What do you miss most about it?

    ‘In London the people are just more real, more human. There’s wit and sarcasm. The weather’s shit, too, so you make better work because you’re at home all day. In London it’s easy to turn feeling pissed off into a place to generate something positive from. You’re raised with a need to do something with your work, like have a go at the system. In New York everyone’s really neurotic and talks about themselves all the time.’

    What’s the future for music in London?

    ‘At first I found the music I was making really hard to find a home for. I felt like my attitude was really British, but not the actual sounds I was making. Back in 2003, when I made “Galang”, there were no clubs that had an “anything and everything” attitude. There was no such thing as Baltimore Club, no Bali funk. I remember taking my demo to every dance person in London. People were like, “We don’t know what this is!” The first people to champion me were a club in Manchester. Now in London you have Santogold and the hipster scene, and you have kids sat on Ableton making remixes like Sinden. That space is finally getting filled.

    I also love the way in London I can get on the bus or train and go and access different cultures. I can hang with Mauritians in Brixton, Bengalis in the East End. I wanna see more of that coming through in the music. In Shepherd’s Bush my local corner shop was run by Polish people and it had, like, one chunk of cheese and one jar of pickle with little labels saying “cheese”, “pickle”. It was like, my god, are we living in wartime? So in the future I want to see a weird Polish slit-your-wrists Joy Division coming up. That would be really amazing. Art-wise I’m still waiting for the next, post-Damien Hirst generation.’

    Who are your London heroes?

    ‘When we moved to England in 1986 I was ten years old and I didn’t know anything about punk or hip hop. The only words I knew in English were “dance” and “Michael Jackson”. We got put in a flat in Mitchum and the council gave us second hand furniture, second hand clothes and a second hand radio that I took to bed with me every night. There was a black family on one side and an Irish family on the other. Between them and the radio I got to hear London Posse, who were the best of the British hip hop and had a really original flow and fresh beats that made me feel good, and The Clash, who were also really important for me and for London. Then the Irish family nicked my radio while I was at school.’

    What’s your favourite place in London?

    ‘Topshop! Every kid in Manhattan is so excited that it’s finally coming to America. I’ll have a spell where I don’t go in there for ages because I get on a vow against, y’know, consumerism. But they’re just so good at copying shit, faster even than the people that buy it. I remember living with Luella [Bartley, UK fashion designer], and even before her catwalk photos had been developed and put on the internet, Topshop had their designer in the factory making the clothes. The tights I’m wearing today are from Topshop – there’s always something.’

    What’s the best London party you’ve ever been to?

    ‘I’ve lived so many lives in London. I’ve lived weird ghetto parties, then raves. The best parties are always the ones you can’t remember. When I went to St Martins I used to party all the time, and there’s one night that everyone still talks about. The moment we walked in we found this wallet that was just like something in a movie – no ID, just loads of money and loads of drugs, every coloured pill you could think of. You know I like colours! It was like finding a bag of beads. We took some, didn’t think it had worked, and just kept going through the colours. Then everything happened at once. The next day I didn’t remember a thing. All I knew was waking up in a house in Caledonian Road and my shoes had no heels. It was just such debauchery.’

    When and where in London were you happiest?

    ‘I loved every moment of my time at St Martins. That’s a truly great contribution to London. All the creative people who were running the world at the time, like Alexander McQueen and the sensationalist artists, were from London, and I just blagged it in with no qualifications. There was that feeling of people being really creative ‘cos they had no money – like Matthew [Stone, the artist and St Martins grad] who started Wowow! in New Cross, all these Super Super Kids wearing washing powder boxes ‘cos they were skint.’

    Sum up London in a sentence…

    ‘Multicultural remix. There’s also a quote from “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” where Paul Newman says, “I have vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” He’s talking about robbing banks but hey, it works for me.’

    What does Time Out mean to you?

    ‘The internet before we had the internet, that’s what Time Out is.’See all Time Out's 40th birthday London heroes

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