It’s a little hard to believe that Alex Crossan, who is known for his zeitgeisty electronic music as Mura Masa, is feeling nostalgic. This is hardly a mid-life crisis – he’s only 23. But on his newly released second album, R.Y.C., which stands for Raw Youth Collage, he’s mostly stopped making songs that sound like what pop could be in five years’ time, and started favouring guitar-led tunes that look energetically backwards, sometimes even further than his own childhood.
He’s sampled Seventies New York punk band Television on I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again, played Stranglers records to Slowthai to get the rapper in the right frame of mind for the shouty single Deal Wiv It, and reanimated the bleeps and chirps of the earliest Nintendo games on In My Mind. On the raw, pounding No Hope Generation, this perennial innovator, who has worked with Stormzy, A$AP Rocky and Christine and the Queens, summons the spiky-haired rock of Blink-182 and Green Day. “What am I to do, I’m walking backwards through my head again/I need help to buy, I need help to cope,” he sings – which is another big change for a man who previously let his computers do the talking.
“I wanted to write an album about our dependency on nostalgia – escapism through past life regression,” he explains over a flat white in a Kings Cross café. “The way to do that for me sonically was to think about the music that I grew up with. So for me it was a very natural connection, but when you listen to the two albums side-by-side, they might as well be by different artists.”
That abrupt change has prompted… mixed reviews, shall we say. There was a lot of love for his self-titled debut album as Mura Masa in 2017, which added global instrumentation such as Chinese flutes and steelpans to bright synths and rousing beats. It dented the UK top 20, was Grammy nominated for Best Dance/Electronic album, launched him around the world on tour for so long that he was still in huge demand across last summer’s festival season, and made him big enough to play a gig at 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace next month.
On the new material, it turns out Crossan is not the most dynamic singer, and the guitars can sound a bit anaemic after the digital processing that he puts them through. But it has allowed for much more of his true personality to come through. He’s not just making the cool sounds of the moment any more. “For me it feels very personal. The music feels authentically me. The first album was more about pop music as a sonic construct. This is much more narrative and a bit conceptual, maybe. I’ve put more of myself into it.”
He lives in Peckham now but as a teenager in rural Guernsey, he had never been to a significant gig, and spent his time playing the bass guitar with friends in a range of emo and metal bands. Today he’s interested in that feeling of longing for things we were too young to experience fully at the time. You can hear it too in the classic house of 29-year-old Georgia’s new album Seeking Thrills, or the rave samples on Jamie xx’s 2015 album In Colour. He’s been reading Retromania by the critic Simon Reynolds (subtitle: “Pop culture’s addiction to its own past”) and Mark Fisher’s writings on Hauntology, about “finding the future in the unactivated potentials of the past.”
He formulated his own thoughts in a kind of mood board which he shared with the new guest vocalists, including Georgia, Slowthai, American DIY pop star Clairo and Ellie Rowsell of Mercury-winning indie band Wolf Alice. He shows me a bit of it on his phone. There are photos of flowers on a black background and text saying things like: “nostalgia viewed through rose-tinted lenses”, “melancholia”, “innocence”.
“People older than me do ask how I can possibly feel nostalgic. It’s just something I felt was always a place for me to find refuge or escape or just a bit of joy,” he says. “I wonder if it’s to do with the way that everyone is digitally linked now. We all have access to the same space. You can listen to Nineties music on Spotify and you don’t even have to do any digging. It’s a way of getting comfort that a lot of people my age are sort of depending on – trying to imagine a simpler time that might not even have existed.”
His song No Hope Generation comes loaded with humour and irony, but there is something serious at its core. “If you ask most people my age, ‘What’s the common sentiment of your generation?’ They’d say something along the lines of, ‘Well we’re all fucked, aren’t we?’ That’s the reality that we’re living in. At least if we’re able to confront that as a group, there’s some solidarity and camaraderie.”
He also speaks interestingly about his generation’s ability to be genre-fluid, avoiding musical tribes in favour of a disparate playlist of sounds that’s unique to each individual. “It’s the same way we get our news now – on this big feed that’s an amalgam of lots of sources. Music is about identity now. There used to be cliques like mods and rockers but now people are assembling their own personalities through playlists, identifying with lots of different things at once.” That’s what can allow him to feel comfortable remixing guitar band Haim (for which he won his first Grammy last year), producing A Brand New Day for Korean boy band superstars BTS and Zara Larsson, and also making the Slowthai single Doorman – as savage a piece of punk rock as anything since 1977.
At the same time, his latest musical left turn doesn’t mean he’s lost interest in where music is going next. Guitars are back in style more generally, he argues, reeling off a list of bands he likes including Fontaines DC, Squid, Black Midi and Black Country, New Road. “Its influence is spreading. The rappers are all suddenly talking about Kurt Cobain. Playboi Carti is a reincarnation of a punk. Lil Uzi Vert is the Marilyn Manson of rap.” He also claims spoken word is a big thing to come, and he isn’t talking about the podcast boom. His track A Meeting at an Oak Tree features his friend Ned Green telling a story about a teenage tryst and a banana.
“Now Lana Del Rey’s doing a spoken word album, which is some vindication,” he says. “There’s a reaction to all the Auto-Tune and overproduced vocals, this pivot from shiny electronic polished things to more downbeat, authentic, emotive things.”
All of which, as he tells it, means he’s making the sound of the moment again, even as he might appear to be going in reverse. Authenticity is in, and he’s got it to spare.
R.Y.C. is out now on Polydor. Mura Masa plays Feb 20, Alexandra Palace, N22 (alexandrapalace.com)