Listen, I’m not saying Labrinth’s an alien. No one’s saying that. Aliens, after all, are rather tuneless things. ET had terrible timbre. Spock had zero soul. Not one of the rubbery beasts in the Star Wars cantina band could really strike up a tune. The single good song in Men In Black is largely down to Will Smith who (at that point in his career, at least) was a verified human being. And, by all accounts, the little green men with big eyes who abduct Kansas housewives are much more interested in uncomfortable metallic probes than in Grammy Awards or, I don’t know, Pulp.
Labrinth, on the other hand, is highly musical. Relentlessly, celestially tune ful. I interviewed him once before, back in 2019, and I said then that he seemed to be a sort of “COSMIC SATELLITE DISH” tuned into “UNIVERSAL PIRATE RADIO” who heard snatches of unwritten songs at all hours; could find a drum beat in the rustle of a crisp packet.
So he’s not an alien, really — but he is alien-adjacent, in the parlance of our age, which may well still be the Space Age, or quite possibly the Post Space Age, or quite possibly just the Billionaires With Toy Rockets Age. Only time will tell.
Labrinth’s peculiar knack is the modern version of Bach and Beethoven’s divine inspiration, or that time when Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday after hearing its melody in totality during a dream. Labrinth absorbs fragments of constant, otherworldly radiation, it seems, and then runs them by something he calls his Board of Directors — the collective noun for the various, vying elements of his internal creativity that advise him constantly on his musical choices. They are a vocal bunch. Mostly, they just ask him if he’s telling the truth with his music — the acid test of good creativity, the antidote to writer’s block, in Labrinth’s view, and often the hardest thing on Planet Earth to do.
More recently, the Board seems to have settled on something that is a mirror to outer space instead of just a receptacle for it — a bit like one of those little reflective surfaces they put on the moon to fire lasers at and make sure it’s still there (I think). Ends & Begins is a record Labrinth describes as “Natural Born Killers in space.” It comes off the back of the wild, mammoth success of the HBO drama Euphoria, which became the most tweeted-about show in history earlier this year and whose runaway popularity can largely be attributed to the kaleidoscopic, soulful, otherworldly soundtrack that Labrinth single-handedly scored and produced.
This new album is the natural, ambitious progression of that sound and energy — in the same way that Labrinth’s interests, he tells me, are not in Musk-shaped fripperies like Planet Mars, but in galaxies far beyond the limits of the Milky Way; or somewhere, perhaps, in the endless, energetic cycle of reincarnation which means he doesn’t fear death as you or I do, and which make him excited for the greatest adventure of all: the unknown. On top of that, the songs are really, really good.
Here, we discuss Tinie Tempah, ADHD and the problem with thinking too much.
GJ: You’re dialling in from your studio right now. How many hours a day do you spend in that room, do you think?
L: At least 15 hours a day. As much time as possible. Because I have kids I have to leave at seven. But before I had kids I could stay in the studio for four days and not even notice I had stayed in there. I wouldn’t sleep. I would stay up for four days and keep going. Then I’d notice. “I’m feeling kind of tired, I don’t think I’ve been eating properly…”
We last spoke in 2019. How have the last three years been for you?
Imagination And The Misfit Kid was the album I decided to make back then because I was like, I need to make what my instinct tells me to make — even though it felt like I was treading on dangerous ground. And I guess my instincts were right, because a lot of my music [from that album] ended up on this massive HBO show Euphoria, which just became a worldwide smash. A lot of the things I was saying at the time came to fruition, where I just said: “I have to trust my instincts and I better stick to what I’m saying.”
You’re about to release another album. How do you know when an album is done and you can finally stop tweaking and tinkering with it?
You only know how to finish an album by failing miserably at it. It’s literally about learning how to let go. That’s how you finish an album — just put one more nail in the coffin and walk away. I guess there’s so much more life to live, and so much more music to make, so getting stuck on a record can feel like you’re not living. So over the years I’ve learned to let it go.
Kanye West famously tinkers with records until five minutes before they’re released — and sometimes even after they’ve been released, too…
I’m that guy, bro. Every record that’s going out, I’m still calling the engineer saying: “The kicks are too loud!” And they’re like: “Lab, it has to go on DSPs tomorrow — what the fuck?” So I know how to hold onto little bits as opposed to running back into the studio and changing the whole record. But with this latest one, I have thought: “Do you know what, I should just delete it and start a whole new one.” I’ve progressed since then. There are moments when I feel, “I’m so excited, I love this stuff.” And other times when I think: “I’m bored of this stuff, it’s old.” The music industry moves on all the time, and I move on all the time.
"I think writer’s block to me comes from narrow thinking"
The new album has a sort of cosmic theme. Are you interested in space? If you ever got the opportunity, would you want to live on Mars?
I watched that film, The Martian, and I hated it. So I wouldn’t want to go to Mars because I don’t want to have to make vegetables on some random spot on Mars. I don’t want to be that guy! But I’m more interested in leaving the Milky Way — going into other galaxies. Because I think my brain is like: “This one’s boring already!”
It’s kind of an escapist record, then?
It’s a few things. It’s inspired by space — a cosmic energy. But also by my wife and my relationship. All the songs are loosely based on themes and moments that happened in me and my missus’ relationship. It’s not deep, or phonetically telling the story. But more like: “This moment with my missus inspired this record.” So every record has a moment to it. And I wanted it to kind of be like Natural Born Killers in Space…
Do you believe in fate and destiny?
I feel like a lot of the stuff on Earth is pre-written. I feel like us humans are arrogant enough to believe we’re important enough to make every choice in our life. But I look at everything that’s going on on Earth — the way that the trees work, the way that all the systems work. They all look like they’re pre-programmed. So why do we think we’re any different? How arrogant of us!
Pass Out was your big breakthrough hit, with Tinie Tempah, back in 2010. What was your life like before and after that song?
Before Pass Out I was a homeless bohemian, sleeping in the studio and eating Jammie Dodgers until I literally was red-eyed and almost half dead. Then loads of people would just come into the studio — and a lot of my music got spread out to all sorts of people, and that’s how I ended up getting a publishing deal. After Pass Out came out, my whole career kicked off and I was touring, and as soon as I was touring I just wanted to be back in the studio. And so I found a way to go back, and I’m still here!
How did the song come about?
The record label said: “We love you, your music is sick. But we want something like Rihanna’s Umbrella or Beyoncé’s Sweet Dreams.” So I was like: “What the fuck did you sign me for?” I got really frustrated, and I just started thinking of things like: could I make a grime song popular? That’s what was in my head: could I make a concoction of grime that would still work in the clubs? And then my publishers introduced me to Tinie, and he came into the studio and I played Pass Out to him, and he was like: “Yo!” But I didn’t know he liked it — I just thought he left the room. But luckily he came back in and we did the song…
Last time we met and we discussed that early period, you said: “Being famous is a bit like being a toddler and getting all the attention I never got. You’re the number one toddler. You get used to it — and then when that dissipates, you want it again…”
Absolutely! But that’s evolved since then. Every artist in the industry is just a toddler, waiting to be told “Good boy” or “Good girl.” That’s what we all are — the inner child is like: “Please, somebody say, ‘Good boy!’”
Do you still feel like that?
I don’t care too much about your “good boy” now. I’m the bad kid. I’m the wonky one, who maybe got dropped when his mama was rocking him to sleep and maybe hit his head wrong.
How many songs have you made in your lifetime? Tens of thousands?
Yeah, definitely. I was listening to an interview with Aphex Twin when he described just wanting to write music all the time. Before that, I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. But then I realised there are other weird people like myself, where it just never stops and you always have an idea. And you just want to keep putting it together. I’ve got endless hard drives of music. I found out that some of my behaviour is maybe due to ADHD. I got diagnosed with ADHD a few months ago. I started reading up about it and a lot of my behaviour and the way I make music is due to this thing.
Has that changed the way you think about your creativity?
I think it made me understand some of my behaviour and some of the procrastination, the unfinished music that gets left around, and some of those behaviours of my journey in the industry. I see now why I’ve done some of the things I’ve done, and it’s kind of nice to sometimes see a perspective on why these things happened, and why I tick the way I tick.
I’ve heard you say before that you have conversations with yourself when you’re in the studio. Is that right?
One hundred percent. I call it a Board of Directors. The best example is the film Inside Out. It’s not necessarily my emotions, but it is my Fellowship Of The Ring. They’re like: “Lab, I’m hearing funk here; Lab, throw that bass down from this…” I feel like I get inspired that way. I feel like I have all of these guys sitting around in the studio. Maybe I need to get sectioned. When I was working with Sia, she was like: “I love it, you sound crazy.” A lot of people say it’s like I’m a kid talking to my imaginary friends. I remember Zendaya saying, “Lab, there’s something wrong with you — you’re so weird, but I love it.” She says it’s a joy to watch, because I look bonkers.
“You can’t control the drive. You can only control the choices made on the drive.”
Do you have an imagined listener in your head when you’re making a record?
I just ask myself: “Are you telling the truth?” I think writer’s block to me comes from narrow thinking. When you feel obligated to write a certain type of record, writer’s block can come easily. But when you leave the road as open as possible, you’re going to go: “I’m tired today, let me write a song that fits the way I’m feeling right now.” And you find yourself back on this excited loop of having another idea, and it just spirals.
Have you learned any tangible lessons or techniques from the other huge producers you’ve worked with: Sia, Diplo, Kanye West?
“Be famous and make loads of money!” No, I’m joking. A lot of them were very creative, and they just seemed to me like kids wanting to make the best they could make. Sia was mad instrumental in the process of me letting go and learning how to make music. I remember going to her house and she had written the words “Don’t think” down the wall. Sometimes you can think to the point that you ruin your life. She told me in the studio: “Don’t hold onto it, don’t overthink it.” She’s one of the nicest people in the music industry. She’s a super-warm person.
Do you overthink?
I do think less, though I still think a lot. But it gave me a coping mechanism; a way to be watchful of it. Are you holding on too tight to something that you can’t control? That’s really what overthinking is — you get attached to ideals and desires, and as soon as you get too attached to your desires, you can ruin your life, because you cannot control the outcome. You can’t control the drive. You can only control the choices that are made on the drive. You can stop the drive, of course — but even dying is another journey, so we literally can’t control where we’re going.
What do you think happens after death?
I’m so excited about it, man. It’s beautiful, bro. We’ve been taught to be scared of death. But I look at Earth as the advice. Nature advises you about the way the world works and whoever the programmer of all this shit is. Death goes on to create a new life. Nothing truly dies. When an animal dies, it feeds the earth, and the earth goes on to feed the next animal. Everything to me is a circle. Dying to me feels no different — it doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like a transformation to me, but I’m not going to force it to happen. When it’s time, it’s time.
When we met before, you had just turned 30, and you said your head, your heart and your soul had all come into alignment. Do you still think that’s true?
You caught me in an interview right before all the stuff happened in Euphoria and I did the Beyoncé song in The Lion King. I just felt like I could hear myself, if you know what I mean. And I still feel like that now. I feel like I want this album to have been one of many records, and I’m heading up to a place where I’m going to release a stupid amount of music. I want people look at this album and see that this was lovely — a colour from the canvas that Lab displayed to us. For me, it’s more about not just this album, but a lot of albums I want to shift. I really just want to relentlessly release music.
Want more music icons? We speak to George Ezra on fame, fear — and almost losing his foot (well, sort of…)
Become a Gentleman’s Journal member. Find out more here.