When Alex Crossan was ten years old, he made his own drum kit. He had just discovered Slipknot's first album via the video game Guitar Hero, and, enthralled with what he'd heard, vowed to learn the percussion parts himself, regardless of the tools at his disposal. So, on his bedroom floor—in his family's beachside bungalow on Guernsey Island, off the coast of Normandy, France—he got to work. "I used to lay my pillows out to get them like a drum kit," the soft-spoken 21-year-old explained. "I bought some drumsticks, but I did use my hands for a while … I remember laying my pillows out and drumming along to the Slipknot song[s]. It took me ages."
Crossan has a slight build, pale skin, and close-cropped bleached hair. He is a veritable sponge when it comes to discovering and learning about music, and that curiosity shines through in the music he makes as Mura Masa. "One week I'd be really interested in playing guitar," the soft-spoken Crossan said of his early interests. "And then it'd be bass. Then I'd see a video of somebody drumming and be like, 'I want to learn how to do that!'" We were seated at an outdoor table in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, having walked over from the nearby Academy Records, where Crossan had picked out records from Swans, Mac DeMarco, and Prince, as well as a collaboration between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.
"People get scared," he said with a half-smile. "They're just like, 'Oh, it's something new, I have no idea how to do it, so I'm not going to try. I'll embarrass myself.' But I'm the worst for like, 'Oh, what's that over there?' And I'll just try it. Like, if I'm at somebody's house for a party or something, and there's some weird instrument they've brought back from Indonesia—I'll be the first to go over and pick it up and be like, plink plink, making horrible sounds. But then I'll get it. And I'll get into it. It's the same thing with making music. A lot of people might say, 'Of course I'm not going to put this heavy jungle sample in the middle of this cowboy country song.' But that's how you make interesting shit. That's how new ideas happen."
On Mura Masa's self-titled debut album, out July 14 via Anchor Point/Polydor, Crossan offers some of his new ideas, ones that promise to ripple out through pop music at large. He was one of the biggest draws and most buzzed-about performers at the first weekend of this year's Coachella, with guest performances from a list of his collaborators like Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky, Desiigner, and NAO. In some ways, Crossan seems like an unlikely candidate to snag some of music's big names on his first go-round; his native Guernsey is a four-hour ferry ride from the British mainland, and it has hardly any clubs, DJs, or electronic music. His parents, though, were musically inclined: His father, an architect, played bass, and his mother played piano and used to manage the American rock band Cousins from Venus. They both encouraged him to pick up instruments at a young age.
In his early teens, Crossan began playing in local punk-hardcore bands. But at 15, he started self-producing, searching for samples on YouTube and other corners of the internet, and posting his tracks on SoundCloud, where they began to gain traction from music blogs. At 20, he moved to Brighton study English literature and philosophy at the University of Sussex; a year in, he left to pursue music full-time. His big break, though, came in early 2016, when his steel drum-laced instrumental song called "Lovesick Fuck" caught the attention of A$AP Rocky. The New York rapper would eventually team up with Crossan to re-up the track into the single "Love$ick": "I wanted to find a way to modernize [the song] and to inject a different energy into it," Crossan explained. "And who better to do it than Harlem's finest? Shout out to New York." He laughed, pointing out that Rocky spends a lot of time in London.
"But I was like, 'Right, I need to impress Rocky.' So I booked Abbey Road, and we did it in Studio Two, which is the Beatles' room, where they did all their shit." When Rocky called ahead of time to let Crossan know he was running late, the latter was surprised at the former's lack of pretense. "I was like, 'Are you the real Rocky?' [He's a] super professional dude. So polite, so nice. Every time I see him, he remembers who I am, which I think is lovely. Of course I was [starstruck], but it was make or break, so I had to keep it cool." The two ended up bonding over talking about Tame Impala and the elitism of runway fashion.
For Crossan, his debut record has no lyrical narrative—"There's hardly anything tying these songs together other than the fact that I made them," he said—but as a whole, it is an ambitious experiment with a diverse group of artists, incorporating samples spanning multiple decades and styles from jungle to dancehall. For those sick of the sea of EDM-pop laden with tinny synth-riffs and post-dubstep womps, Mura Masa is a welcome solace. He may follow in the current mold of producers leaning on singers and rappers to bring star power and melodies to their tracks, but if you take Crossan for the next Chainsmokers, you're very, very wrong. Even the record's most straightforward pop track—the summery single "1 Night," with Charli XCX—contains elements of calypso and trap: "I wanted to send Charli something that was poppier for me," Crossan says, "But more of a left turn for her. I mean, she's a pop star and I'm not. You could say I make pop music, but there's something else going on there was well—it's not just brazen pop. But I thought it'd be fun to meet her halfway."
Each collaboration on Mura Masa has a story, but two in particular seemed to stick out to Crossan. The first of these is "Blu," a mid-tempo duet with Damon Albarn, whose work Crossan reveres: " Demon Days was the first record I ever bought," he said of Albarn's Gorillaz project. "And that [record] is its own thing. If you listen to "Kids with Guns," it's basically some sort of Ramones song—but then you get on to "Feel Good Inc." It's like a rap song, but it's also like, Danger Mouse produced it, so it's a pop thing. [There's a] De La Soul feature on it, and then it's acoustic in the chorus, and then it's about a windmill, and it's just like, 'What is happening?' But then it all comes together. Everybody loves that song. It doesn't really matter what it's composed of. It just has that instant reaction with people."
The second standout in Crossan's eyes is "Second 2 None" with French alt-pop artist Christine and the Queens, who penned the lyrics over a looping sample from a 50s-era vaudeville film: "We got into the studio," Crossan said, "And she sings the whole thing through from start to finish. One take; it's amazing. She was like"—here, Crossan paused to get in character, affectionately imitating singer Heloise Letissier's French-accented English—"'You wanna do it again?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I guess, while we're here, just in case.' So she did it again, exactly the same—just as good, so consistent. And I was like, 'I think we got it.' And she was like, 'Maybe there are some harmonies, we can put in?' And I was like, 'You're right, there probably are.' So we went back. Two more takes, just two harmonies. It was an hour. And I was like, 'Well, shit.' To come in and one-take it—she's an amazing singer, amazing performer, very important cultural character as well. The way she's elevating drag culture—she just raises a lot of important questions about sexuality and gender. She's Bowie-esque in that way. And she dresses like the bomb. She's a presence."
Though Crossan's featured artists on Mura Masa take center stage in certain ways, it's clearly a product of his mind at work. On each track, he's spliced in ambient audio clips—recorded himself, in person—from the home country of the vocalist. Some are quite personal to his own life; the album's opener, "Messy Love"—one of the only songs on which Crossan himself sings—begins with him getting off a bus at New Park Road in South London, when he first moved to the city. Another is "Nuggets," a thumping, bassline-driven banger that likens love to a drug-induced high and features the sultry-voiced Bonzai, whose real name is Cassia O'Reilly. The track ends with a moment Crossan recorded in Dublin when the two were visiting O'Reilly's hometown: "It's Cassia and her best friend Tori talking... we were hanging around their [former] neighborhood and they kept seeing people who they used to grow up with. They started talking about: It's funny how you think everything is going to be fine when you're a kid. And then Tori says, 'And now, everyone's fucked.' I'd started recording at the right time!"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most personal song for Crossan is the album's most understated, "Give Me The Ground," just over one minute of Auto-Tuned guitar and vocals (a "Kanye-Sufjan Stevens thing") that serves as a final, final kiss-off to an ex: "I basically only used to make music about this one breakup that I went through," Crossan said with a dry smile. "I was so sad about it. [I was] too young to care that much. I really dragged it out, as well. It was like a couple of years I was miserable about it, and I'd forgotten about it, how I felt. I went out into the country, up the River Thames outside of London, just to be on my own and make music in this cottage with a recording studio in it. And for some reason, [that relationship] came back to me... and I wrote 'Give Me the Ground.' That was like my final 'fuck you,' and all that came out was that little one-minute stint—a whimpering end to that whole feeling. And I like, coughed at the end 'cause I'd been smoking! It's just like a footnote, and it's totally different from anything else on the album."
"[The song] just came out," he said, shaking his head, then summing it all up: "And I was like, 'Cool, I really like this.' So I put it on."
Matt Seger is a photographer and video producer at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
Avery Stone is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.