The north West London hailing artist lays bare the story of MAX MANTRA: a tale of Times Square billboards, Mick Jenkins collabs and creative freedom.
It’s rare nowadays to see an artist as young as Feux with such belief in the album format. Pressures from the music industry have put an unhealthy emphasis on virality, leading to shorter songs, more frequent releases and sped-up edits that satisfy attention spans bruised by social media consumption. Conforming to this cultural shift has never been of concern to the Camden native, who released his second album, MAX MANTRA, this month at the age of 23.
Over the last four years, since uploading a series of spaced-out lo-fi hip-hop songs on streaming services, Feux has remained defiantly independent. Dropping out of university, the rapper-turned-music polymath found his purpose by writing lyrics that conveyed a sense of aimlessness. “I don’t really know what I wanna do with my life right now, but I take it slow”, he sings dulcetly on the hook of his break-out single, ‘Life?’. Among the cloudy beat and declarations of loneliness, though, there’s giddying excitement for what the future may bring.
The music Feux’s released since has contributed towards a paradigm shift in London’s budding ‘underground’ rap circles. Alongside artists like ayrtn, Finn Foxell and Reek0, he’s shown fellow artists how far you can go by being protean. From the salient psychedelia of DUBIOUS to the astral tones of PURE NINE and OPAL BLUES’ sentient neo-soul, the chameleonic qualities of past projects show he’s still finding himself, and in so doing, proving a remarkable versatility.
Fast forward to MAX MANTRA, and Feux seems intent on maintaining the genre-melding sound that’s garnered him such a cultish following. Inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s nascent new-wave jazz scene, the record, which is split in two halves, revels in non-conformity, as each song tries to trump the last with sonically enriching textures.
Feux makes sure that the messaging is multidimensional, forcing listeners to delve deeper into the subconscious he so vividly narrates. There’s nothing linear about this album. Like the patterns that flicker in a kaleidoscope, he makes opposites collide and crash together to fulfil the notion that every action has its consequences. Visually, across a series of carefully curated music videos, we see him playing out these dualities, healing scars with hedonism but seeing trivial events build up to a point of risk and peril.
MAX MANTRA has afforded Feux a new-found freedom. Influenced by the alter-ego stories of artists like MF DOOM, the project develops yet more layers for his discography and provides an alternate self that the artist wishes to explore more of in the future. Giving the album its flowers, here, he explains the deep messaging, working with Mick Jenkins and why we’re only witnessing the tip of the iceberg.
Alter-egos have given artists an intangible creative freedom previously. What did you learn about yourself when creating the character of MAX MANTRA?
I like the fact that it’s my name; it does have an alter-ego vibe. I’m very inspired by MF DOOM and other artists with alter-egos.
For me, it’s a space where I can put out what I feel deserves to be heard. In between the Feux releases, I want to have my MAX MANTRA releases. It’s music that I’ve been making and feel good about. It was always so I could feel like I could make anything and to not conform.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of bringing on this new character?
For me, MAX MANTRA isn’t a person, it’s more so a feeling. The feeling that this album gave me was essentially the freedom that I’ve always been striving for. So, I guess I succeeded in that sense. I think splitting yourself in two is quite interesting. I learnt a lot about myself by making the album consist of several parts.
I make albums, I make projects, that’s how I present my music. I’ve definitely put myself through a lot to get this done. At this stage, there’s still a lot of building to be done. I’ve been reaching new listeners but I can’t continue spending years on an album if I’m not going to get enough people to listen. I’m definitely going to take a different approach next year, in terms of my releases. Doing more singles in my style and having a bigger project towards the end of the year.
Why do you put faith in the album format, when not many artists do so anymore? It’s nice listening to something from back to front, that was a big enjoyment for me when listening to MAX MANTRA…
People consume music differently. I was brought up picking my favourite songs on an album and just listening to those. I think it’s very scattered nowadays. I’ve always been someone who wants to bring things back from the past. We consume things so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. I wanted to put my own twist on it and to split the album in half, so people could dissect it and consume it in a different way.
It’s nice for people to see the mistakes, it’s nice for them to digest and understand them…
When you look back, you’ll be able to see things I could’ve done better. But the fact is that I did everything I could in that moment, with all the knowledge and experience I had; that’s an achievement in itself. I now look at where I am today and It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been able to see the improvements with every album and every release. I’ve seen how things have levelled up. It’s a blessing to be able to accomplish things and become the artist I’ve always wanted to be.
It feels like yesterday that you dropped out of uni. On reflection, did you think you would be releasing music at the point you are now?
If you’re going to be an artist you have to dedicate your life to it. You can’t do it half-heartedly; it’s an invigorating job. You have to always be in the mode. If I continued, I think I would still be in uni. It just wasn’t my path. I’m glad I went with my gut.
Mansur Brown sounds like a clear influence on Side A of MAX MANTRA, especially on ‘Untitled (Butterfly).’ Who else was on your playlist when making the project?
Lots of stuff from Britain’s jazz scene, like Ezra Collective. I was aiming to find my own pocket within that leftfield, slightly alternative universe. ‘Lucky You’, which is probably the most indie track, was the first song I made for the project. I have a thing where, when I make a song, it already has a place in the future. Like, I already know my next single; I’ve known for five months. I trust myself and trust my judgement when it comes to presenting my music to the world.
All the promotion and videos for MAX MANTRA Side A were released in black and white, compared to the more colourful and vibrant branding for Side B. What was the purpose of this duality?
For me, you’ve got to find the shades of your subconscious. There was a deeper subconscious with a lot of emotion, expression and vulnerability, which I think was well represented through the black and white. It’s all about balance with me. You have to have two things that hold the same weight to find the balance.
We wanted it to be a visual thing. Nothing is linear in the album. The real story is actually in the videos. We delved into the idea of every action having a reaction. The mantra, I guess, is that time heals all. There are a lot of deep messages in it, which may go over people’s heads at first. A lot of thought has gone into creating extra layers within the album that go beyond the surface. At first glance, I wanted it to look really cool and for the music to be good. But there are a lot of other aspects where people can delve deeper.
You’ve been to New York a few times during the build up to MAX MANTRA’s release. Were any of the tracks made or produced there?
The introduction of Side B was produced by a guy called Avi. He came through and we made it together in New York. I went back there this summer, as I had a billboard in Times Square. All of that stuff is initiative. People have come up to me and asked how I got Mick Jenkins on a feature and how I got a billboard; It’s all initiative. I’m still independent, I don’t have a manager, and I’m still figuring things out. All it takes is for you to push for it.
Did you just hit up Mick Jenkins with the beat?
Yeah, exactly. As simple as that. I was in France with my girl and my family when I heard from him. I connected my laptop to a speaker. I was like, ‘I need this mixed’. Once I had the mix and we sorted the vocals, I was ecstatic. I’ve been a big fan of his for a while so it was so cool to connect personally and chat on the phone.
There are a couple of other features on the record too, from Kilu and Black Svm. How do you usually go about adding other voices to your often very personal projects?
‘WRECK’ is the oldest song on the album. Lucas [Kilo] is my best friend. I got him into music during lockdown and he just went from there. We made the song a long time ago, at least two years ago. So the track and ‘GLOW’ just sat there, their time finally came and I wanted to improve them. With Blvck Svm’s verse, myself and JP [Rose] had to make a new beat and mould it around him. But with Lucas, we just did it. It’s really cool to have my best friend from childhood on the album.
Do you still make a lot of your music just at home in the bedroom?
Not really. I’ve been producing at home but not recording myself. Mentally, I feel like I’m at a standard beyond that now. MAX MANTRA was the last step towards evolving my music outside of the bedroom. I want to evolve more. I’m just getting in the zone and learning that environment, which is cool. I wanted to tell the story as best I could because I’ve spent a lot of my life working on it. I wanted to give it a chance. Overall, I am really proud of it. I was so burnt out after, that the last thing I wanted to think about was promoting the album. But I think it deserves its flowers. Once it’s out, it’s out for the world, but it’s still in your power to tell that story and for people to take it in. So, until the tour next year, I’m looking to push it as much as I can.
Will that be with a live band?
In London It will be with a live band. In every other show, it will be with a bass, guitar and the drums coming from a computer.
How have you found making your discography compatible with a live band?
I was shook for the listening party. I felt out of my depth. I had to really challenge myself. I realised that if I was going to do it properly, I needed to take the right steps to be able to perform it to the best standards. We didn’t have much time to practice but we had enough. We’re going to keep practising until the London show which will be a very special moment. I’m excited to be able to wrap things up and to give myself some time to just promote the album.
Do you and the band have any pre-performance rituals or superstitions before going on stage?
I usually do get that anxiety, but then mentally, I feel ready. With the band, we’ve only played one show, we need to practise more and will find out our rituals maybe. It’s nice getting the band up to scratch, everyone’s really talented and incredible. I have faith in us to put on a good show. The aim is for us to be happy with it and then people will enjoy it as well.
What’s Feux’s dream rider?
My actual rider right now is fruit, honey, herbal tea, rum and pineapple juice. I don’t want something that’s going to weigh me down. I don’t really drink before my set. Some fruit is always good. Hydration is key. Some people have some crazy stuff, maybe I’ll get to the point where I can mess around but for right now, I’m keeping it real.
‘Life?’ stands as your most streamed song to date. What’s one piece of life advice that you still carry dearly to this day?
Believing in yourself and your vision is super important. I find it hard to stay in that mindset and it does take a long time to get to the point where you have a clear vision about what you want to do and achieve. I still don’t know fully, but I do know that I want to have a positive impact on the world around me, whether that’s on my friends, my family, or just being able to improve people’s lives. Music has helped me find my purpose. If I can help anyone else, then that’d be amazing.
You also don’t have to believe in yourself 24/7. It’s okay to not feel confident in what you’re doing because you’re still learning. Remembering that you don’t know everything and that your way isn’t necessarily always the best way is crucial as you need to have that openness to writing in different ways and work with different artists. You also have to have the right intentions when releasing stuff to the world.
Feux rules the world for the day, what’s going down?
Number one: free Palestine. Number two: free anyone from any form of dictatorship. I’d also put my foot down on all the environmental and global warming issues too.
Manifestations for 2024?
Every year, I try to keep improving. With any releases I put out, I want to see a clear improvement from my previous work. I’d also like to travel to places I haven’t been to, like Japan and Mexico.
To wrap up, what’s Feux’s favourite biscuit?
A foxes chocolate shortcake.