It’s a funny moment, when you’re a young person, and you come across an even younger person who is deeply, unambiguously, in every thinkable respect, cooler than you. Do you remember when this happened to you? It comes well before the body-wide, achy realization that you, as a fan of sports or music or any endeavor that enshrines the young, are doomed for a long life of this: screaming at the playoff game, swaying at the concert, this is the rest of your life, hollering at prodigies.
This is before all that. It is just the first time you find yourself looking up to someone smaller. The person doesn’t give it all away at once, but over time you can figure out that they have seen and heard things you’ve never seen or heard, that they have that very coolest thing: opinions that are not just poses or fads but convictions, a sensibility all their own. The appearance of this person is like a bucket of ice water on the ego—bracing and also somehow clarifying. In that new awareness you might start asking questions. What’s this dull universe I’ve been wasting my youth in? What or where made this person? How do you even get to be that way so soon? How can I?
Not everyone responds to the same prodigy in the same way. The first time my roommate encountered my prodigy, he said “Who is this band that’s playing? Doesn’t this sound like Randy Newman in a bathtub? Or underwater?”
This was seven years ago. Shambling into my mental cafeteria, stink-faced in an ill-fitting suit, was a gaunt and pale kid with a little flare of red hair. He has the voice of a man who smokes five packs of cigarettes a day and the build of a man who eats just one pack of cigarettes a day. He is going by the name “Zoo Kid,” which is a perfect name, just two pleasant nouns tacked together, not a syllable wasted. “This Zoo Kid’s gonna go places!” was a thought I had back then, probably.
That the internet never forgets is mostly a curse, but I’m glad its amber has preserved his unchanged Bandcamp page from 2010, allowing anyone to retrace the initial thrills of finding tunes so good from a source so raw. Just a black page tiled with grainy, indeterminate subjects, each a portal to one jam recorded by a London kid and some friends in a parent’s apartment. Below each song are notes from the then 15-year-old songwriter:
NOTE TO LISTENER: Perspectives change throughout.
“And it is about reptiles”
The Infamous, this track is full of the cliche’s of a teenagers love angst.
WH Auden’s ‘Victor’ inspired some lyrics despite both having very different meanings. The aggression and the emotions involved however makes for a very heart pouring tone.
“A heart pouring tone,” for sure. His name is Archy Marshall, or in the native tongue ah-chy mah-shall, and already his bedroom recordings are gems that hold up to steady listening seven years later, by which time he is a rock star, a concept that used to feel obsolete to me.
Almost all of these tracks would later be polished—the production no longer deep-fried, the backing instrumentals tightened up, the phrasings a little less florid and idiosyncratic—so they could appear on his debut album 6 Feet Beneath The Moon. By this time he’d signed with the very good label XL, and made one very good EP, and shed the very good name Zoo Kid, opting instead for the just okay grown-up name King Krule. The cleaned-up versions of “Ocean Bed” and “Out Getting Ribs” and “Baby Blue” are still good. But a certain strain of obsessive might try to convince you that those Bandcamp tracks still stand as some of his very best; Archy seems to vaguely gesture in agreement, noting that “some of the greatest stuff I’ve done has been badly recorded.” A few months after posting these tracks, he released a video, and this would be his first step down the not long, but surely strange road to seeing his songs posted on the Facebook page of Beyoncé. Picture that end to this story, then witness a simmering little Tilda Swinton, baring his teeth on every snarl:
What’s cool is that the Zoo Kid back then—even at that hormonally addled age when identity feels most volatile; when the body is erupting in hair and pus and the mind’s always on the outs with itself—is neatly contiguous with the King Krule of now. Already at 15 he’d stumbled upon his unmistakable style: tunefully grayscale, mopey and somehow still vital. Much of the classic Archy Marshall flavor comes from the contrast in parts, in voice and in accompaniment. There’s his guitar playing, with all its errant, jazzy tendencies. An early Krule guitar line is a wandering, clear creek, prone to form random little eddies of melody, any of which you could fall into on any given listen. He can play smooth and pretty, and he can shred when the occasion calls for it, but much of the rough texture found in his music is coming out of his face.
This is an apt time to talk about Archy Marshall’s voice. Forget whatever contrast we were just talking about, here is the strangest known case study in contrast in voice and body:
That voice comes out of that. What can it do? He can dial it from “Intone” to “Moan” to “Snarl” to “Bark.” On paper that looks like an awfully narrow band, but what he does within it is astounding; he is singing like no one you know—sometimes singing like a guy with a hot hardboiled egg in his mouth, sometimes singing like a guy who is trying to sing not from the diaphragm like a teacher once told him but from the lower intestine, from the very guts themselves. You will mishear words, constantly and beautifully and often irrevocably. You may wonder why a kid this cool dreamt of being young Frank Isola. You will wonder why a “jet lover” might be melting in the first place, and you will never find a way to remove the image from your brain. Between his accent and his own particular vocal tics, Marshall is nearly without parallel when it comes to making familiar English words sound alien and unforgettable. If this is Randy Newman in a bathtub then I never knew how badly the world needed Randy Newman in a bathtub.
By the time you find a way to parse the actual words, you are rewarded with a loose, impressionistic patter that’s sometimes as memorable as the delivery itself: “Spastic gyrations / and abbreviated / bathing suits / See, I suit you.” Marshall’s lyrical concerns are simple and consistent and he’d established his go-to motifs as early as the Zoo Kid days: lizard, cement, ocean, being trapped beneath cement or the ocean, a range of blues and grays, the difficulty of love, insomnia, monotony and ennui.
His listening habits and musical appetites strayed, sometimes taking him away from the guitar as prime mover—he did a whole album of morose hip-hop instrumentals under his birth name; lately he’s getting into bossanova sounds and now takes the stage with twin saxes—but through it all, you can always make out the distinctive stamp of an Archy Marshall production. No matter what the genre at hand no one sounds or sulks quite like him. Every song is a fitful rainy day. It is a vibe all his own.
Marshall listens to everything there is to listen to, music that is not fashionable and rarely of this decade, and even takes on different personas depending on whether he’s fingering a guitar or an MPC, but he is not the mercenary type, not the type of musician who wears genres like cheap costumes and then casts them aside into the rubbish bin once he’s done with his concept albums. Every record bleeds into everything else; it all becomes part of his accumulated gunk. A tour through his discography takes no sudden left turns. Even when he dives fully into hip-hop for an album, he’d left all the breadcrumbs in earlier tracks like “Neptune Estate” and “Bathed in Gray” which verged on boom-bap sounds. He’s just expanding his vocabulary.
The breadth of that musical vocabulary, whether he’s dropping soul or dub or blues into conversation, somehow never comes across as precious or try-hard. This is roughly the difference between someone who knows a lot of words because they read and talked a lot and someone who went on a deranged thesaurus binge and came out spitting polysyllabic gibberish. One person has an organic sense for when the word or chord fits the phrase and when it doesn’t. Instead of cheap pastiche it’s fluency. This is basically the reason I believe in Archy Marshall’s future, and believe he’ll outlast almost everyone else in his generation: No matter what currents take over the cultural mainstream, he will be surfing them comfortably, grooving to his own shit.
Depending on which of his many interests he’s looking to tap, he can hit up a range of accomplices. In between King Krule records he’d been working with the New York rapper Wiki (of RATKING) and the London electronic duo Mount Kimbie, whose strung-out dialtones suit him remarkably well; he’d produced a beat for Earl Sweatshirt and tried working with Frank Ocean, “a different kind of cat,” but, in a report that collapsed my personal universe, reported “I don’t think he liked it.” He has cool friends and makes new ones everywhere. A guy once sent him a tape of himself playing saxophone under a bridge in East London. They now play regularly together and Marshall describes him as one of his best friends, credits him with loosing some blockage in his creative process that went into his new album.
When I hear late King Krule I feel the overwhelming sensation is that he has digested large swathes of music that I wish I had the patience for or awareness of, and has made it immediately available to me. This is a nice service! The pleasure of following his career is basically the pleasure of seeing a smart person confront new ideas, take them seriously, reconcile them with previous understandings, and pump out rich new stuff that seems like it could have come from any of the previous three decades or any of a half-dozen nations. His genius is the recombinant kind. He’s a hoarder who eventually gathers all the junk in his garage to decorate a guest room for you, and it is, despite being his personal Pantone shade of gray, a room you never want to leave.
His new record is called The Ooz, and it is a fair hodge-podge of all his different inputs. If you’re wondering where the odd title comes from you are encouraged to reverse the letters of Zoo Kid and have yourself one chuckle. (He used to play in a band under that name, too.) The cover is blue sky with a pinkish trail cut by some unseen plummeting object. The record lurches along the full range of his influences, descending from the bare-boned riffing of his youth into much murkier territory. Once again he is off doing his own thing. “Logos,” full of clacking claves and warm loungey keyboard line laid down by Archy himself, is the Muzak you might listen to in purgatory.
In “Emergency Blimp” he offers a tense, thrashy number that could even convince some feet to leave the floor, and definitely did mine:
When I went to see him tour this album it was fortunate that I knew it was called The Ooz and contained a song of the same name because it allowed me to decipher one sentence among the dozen or so that he growled between songs. “This one’s called The Ooz,” he said. I nodded in comprehension. Hearing that last, impossibly low word amplified by the mic was to have a vial of molasses poured into my ear canal, the realest ever onomatopeoia. The crowd seemed to linger on his every word of banter even as they understood very few of them. The venue was large and pretty full.
For most of my life the concept of a “rock star” has felt totally worn-out and irrelevant. This is not to say that idol worship is dead; we have even more mechanisms for it than ever before. Just this specific idea of someone who balances both artistic merit and popular acclaim and has a certain brooding charisma that makes people scream. Almost no one holding a guitar—though St. Vincent and Mitski have made strong cases lately—could even try to stake a claim. Looking over the popular guitar-centric music of the last decade can sometimes feel like a graveyard of talents who were making music too narrow in scope to endure; people left behind by the shift in cultural energy away from them and towards other sounds.
Kanye West is surely a rock star but even as he churned out perfect records he became such a sad, swollen caricature that you didn’t want to be him, or be around him. Eventually he became more interested in being Steve Jobs than being a rock star. Perhaps the difficulty here is that the all-seeing eye and perfect memory of modern fame means that the ass-showing comes around for everyone eventually, especially if you are living a rock star’s life. There is still plenty of romance to the recluse approach, but then one day even Frank Ocean resurfaces and reveals that he listens to podcasts by the huckster Tim Ferriss through an earbud while performing onstage, and I am left wondering if anything anymore is allowed to maintain perfect cool. Either I’m not looking hard enough or this is no longer possible.
King Krule is still possible. Wearing a baggy plaid shirt—he ditched his uncle’s shapeless suit for this tour—and standing in front of a black-and-white backdrop streaked like a formica table, he went all the way back to the beginning. When he hit the plangent opening chords to “Out Getting Ribs,” the song that made him (somewhat) famous, the audience whooped in approval. His fans wanted to get to know him, and some of them wanted to get to know him very, very well, and said so out loud. Solitary on stage for the encore, he appeared unfazed by any of it, and played the song perfectly. My smile still felt as stupid and slack as it had been for an hour; the future felt secure, and whatever concept eluded me now felt obviously, hilariously legible.