ScanS → Details Magazine Interview #2

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Publication Date: June 1998

I’m an old cynic. I’ve been here as well as there. I’ve seen the empires of popular taste arise in the night with fungal alacrity, only to shrivel and desiccate in the light of day. But tonight, in a rehearsal studio in Bermondsey, in the old East End of London, for a few moments the rank disdain abates a little and is replaced with something like awe.

It’s a rehearsal studio that could be anywhere: London or Ultima Thule. Men grown old in presenting sound putter about with leads, screwdrivers, jack plugs, and connectors. Nowadays some of them will invariably have gray hair and lots of earrings—a teasing combination. On the wall, foam bafflers are carved into uninteresting geometric shapes. The carpeted floor is strewn with magazines, jackets, ashtrays, and a single bright yellow banana.

Behind a drum kit set up on a low podium, Pete Lewinson, the new drummer for Massive Attack—the British beat combo that invented trip-hop and have influenced everyone from U2 to Portis-head—is beginning to dig his way into a kind of rhythmic mine shaft. This is syncopation as a species of deep-bore drilling; so intense and implosive are his drumbeats that were he not accompanied, I would worry about him disappearing through the studio floor, effecting the first China Syndrome of sound.

But he is accompanied. Winston Blisset calmly places the supportive struts on bass, while Angelo Bruschini (formerly of the Blue Aeroplanes) strums chords of pure Fender anguish. In the right-hand corner Michael Timothy pretends to toy with the keyboards, whilst in fact playing them. And in the middle of the floor space, jiggling, hopping, and on occasion near pirouetting as he allows his lanky form to be twisted by the gale of sound, is Daddy G, a.k.a. Grant Marshall, the biggest and the brashest of the odd triumvirate that constitutes the core of Massive Attack.

Yeah, Daddy G, see him move. He’s got a daggy old pair of combat pants which are drooping off of his slim waist; he’s got a pullover on that’s a couple of sizes too small; and he’s got a large, sculpted, saturnine, and very black face which remains curiously impassive as Pete Hew-ison’s shorty dreadlocks work into a blur. The band are hammering out the backing to “Angel,” the first track of the Massives’ new album, Mezzanine. On the recorded version, the intense, almost deathly rhythmics are overarched by the soaring vocals of Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. (The Massives have no lead singer, only guest vocalists.) But right here, right now, there are just the noises, building and building into a disturbing, overwhelming architectonic of sound.

The track ends as all Massive Attack tracks end, and as I fear my own life will end: with a series of flailing, desperate beats, then the silence of the grave. Daddy G plucks the banana from the floor of the studio and holds it aloft like some bizarre phallus. “Yeah, guys,” he proclaims, “that was ripe.” And for a brief moment I feel part of it all, part of the phenomenon that has been characterized by the The Guardian newspaper in Britain thus: “Massive Attack… so hip it hurts.”

To call the Massives’ third album “long awaited” is not so much to state the obvious as to hire a light aircraft to write it in the sky. In the U.K., their first two albums, Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994), have a status that is iconic. These are albums that have become part of the very sonic background of our society. You hear elements of them constantly pulsing in adverts, films, and plays. They appear near the top of Best of the Decade lists compiled by every music magazine in the country.

Individual tracks—most notably “Unfinished Sympathy” from the first album— are widely reckoned to be among the greatest ever cut. This is a view with which I’d concur. In the case of “Unfinished Sympathy,” with its soaring, intensely romantic lyric—“Like a soul without a mind I In a body without a heart ”—sung by the first of the Massives’ “soul divas” on this album, Shara Nelson, I think it fair to say they have created something which can be described as a truly classical music. If I were to look for a comparison to “Unfinished Sympathy” it would be among the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. It’s that impressive.

Naturally, this isn’t an excellence that is directly represented in sales—although these have been considerable in the U.K.— or in the conventional shrink-wrapping of conventional pop stardom. Rather, it can be measured in the Massives’ colossal influence. They’re the only group currently working in the country who can reasonably claim to have had a part in creating an entire musical genre: trip-hop. And this achievement is encoded in all of their music, so that much of it has the haunting, atemporal feel of something you must have heard before, although possibly only in a dream.

Massive Attack formed, roughly, in Bristol, in the west of England, in the mid-1980s. The three key remaining personnel—Daddy G, Delg (a.k.a. 3-D, a.k.a. Del Naja), and Mushroom (a.k.a. Andrew Vowles)—were among a posse of young people who hung around the sound systems that blasted out reggae music in the black district of St. Paul’s. Bristol has always been atypical for an English city: distinct from London, but owing no allegiance to the industrial north. It hosts one of Britain’s oldest black communities, and was also the launchpad for the campaign to abolish slavery.
It might be fanciful to suggest that it’s these factors that have made Bristol the British city for original popular music in the wake of “Madchester’s” awesome decline, but there is something about the place—a port city, not too big, not too small, cosmopolitan yet distinctive—that’s contributed to a vibrant, eclectic, musical melting pot. A pot out of which have come Portishead, Roni Size, the Massives, and their onetime confrere, the eponymous hero of trip-hop, Tricky.

The band originally coalesced in the form of the Wild Bunch, but it was never an orthodox or conventional group. The cross-fertilization of their sound—borrowing from reggae, soul, hip-hop, and rock ’n’ roll— was always mirrored by the free-form character of their lineup. Nothing better illustrates this than the way the melodies, rhythms, and even lyrics of their album Protection crop up on Tricky’s solo effort, the incomparable Maxinquaye.

On a ship that was always in high seas, Tricky was the loose cannon smashing about the deck. As Grant puts it to me, “It was fucking terrible. He kept calling the vibe in a totally different direction— we began to disrespect him. He had his own ideas—I suppose if we’d had Melan-kolic [their own record label] then, we might have hung on to him.” But they didn’t, and Tricky floated off into his own stratosphere: After an affair with Bjork, he fell to earth in New York and released Maxinquaye. Then came the disturbing, unearthly Pre-Millennium Tension, an album he must have purposely designed to get rid of the white college kids who had become his biggest fans.

In the wake of the split with Tricky there were anxieties—perhaps projected rather than felt—as to whether the three remaining Massives could still come up with the goods. Then there was the long wait for the new material and the ceaseless rumors of creative and ego differences among the band. The arrival of the album was announced and then repealed several times over the last year, until finally a month ago I was summoned to a small studio in Central London where I heard a rough cut of the first eight tracks. They were stupendous.

But tonight I’m not out to listen to the music, I’m here to talk to the band—and that’s where things begin to get rapidly pear-shaped. You see, the trouble is I’ve met the Massives before—we had dinner together in Bristol a couple of years ago, a rollicking evening that ended up with Grant demonstrating his new motorized skateboard to me in the front room of his house in St. Paul’s, whilst both of us were well over the herbaceous border—and I fear we built up something of a rapport. At any rate, they know how to make me laugh, and how to completely destabilize a conventional interview.

For days before we meet up again, I am in conversation with Tracey from their office. Apparently the boys were getting at each other as ever; it might be best, she suggests, for me to speak to them individually rather than together—or perhaps not at all. When I see Grant he puts it to me thus: “It’s not creative tension—it’s just egos.” And what egos! When I turn up they all say hello cheerfully and then get on with the business of disrupting my fundamental antinomies. Mushroom—a serenely handsome guy whose wispy facial hair and habitual forage cap suggest that he might be the leader of a clandestine revolutionary cell— is sitting in a plastic-backed chair reading a magazine. “Orlright, Will,” he West-Country-burrs casually, as if we’d last seen each other five minutes previously, “you’re a writer—can you define ‘irony’ for me?”

Not a conventional pop star.
Not conventional either when we go down to the pub and the conversation turns to synesthesia: It turns out that Mushroom, the electro-rhythm master of the band, can “see” sounds when necessary.
And definitely not conventional when later I drive him up to West London for a live, sat-link radio interview with Chris Douridas (“Morning Becomes Eclectic”) in Santa Monica. In the car we discuss insect intelligence, and Mushroom tells me he’s having a giant glass globe constructed for him so that he can observe the life cycle of wasps. He also tells me that he can’t abide the way he’s always depicted by the media—as a fey character prancing in the mid-distance with the fairies. I can see his point. Mushroom isn’t so much a peculiar guy as a genuinely eccentric genius. In a half-hour car journey, our conversation veers from bugs to drugs to Wittgenstein to animal rights and back to bugs.

And every time we get onto bugs he insists on turning my tape recorder off, as if the information were much too secret.
With Delge I can, at least, manage a tiny bit of straightforward, interview-type talk. I ask him about the North African rhythms that insistently inform the new album and he tells me, “We were in Istanbul and we’d done the Blue Mosque an’ all that, an’ we decided to go to see a belly-dancing club. Terrible joint—one table for the Germans, one for the Italians, an’ one for us. The dancers were a bit past it as well, but the music was terrific! So the next day we sent someone out and they got us a whole heap of cassettes.”

Delg, the white leg of the Massives’ tripod, tends to get cast as the band’s “sensible” spokesman. It’s basically unfair, because although he can front up those paragraphs of coherent music crit that interviewers like to hear, he does it to conceal a much more difficult creative sensibility. With me he discusses another of the Massives’ current guest vocalists, the reggae singer Horace Andy. “We can’t keep up with him. He spends a lot of time in Jamaica and he’s got so many families all over the place that he’s always cropping up with someone and introducing them as a relative—someone you’ve never seen before.”

But Horace Andy also provides a beautiful bit of musical continuity on the album. He sings the lead vocal on the seventh track, “Man Next Door.” The last time I heard him sing these lyrics it was in the form of a sample on the Dr. Alimantado album Best Dressed Chicken in Town, one of the best reggae albums of the ’70s. Listening to his now majestic tenor voice, and recalling his spine-chilling countertenor of twenty years before, all distances—musical, temporal, spiritual—are eradicated.

And with Grant I do manage a few fragments of straight talk as well, about working with the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser: “Of course we always knew about her, but in a sense we were looking for Liz for six years without realizing that we were. But in the end the mountain moved to Mohammed.” What he means is that Fraser moved herself to Bristol in the wake of the apparent collapse of the Cocteau Twins, and inevitably, in this small city of musical embroiling, she became mixed up with the Massives.

That is pretty much it, though: a few fragments of straight talk embedded in a morass of banter, badinage, and horseplay. Sometimes when I’m with the Massives I feel I’m with three versions of John Len-non, each one of them determined to outdo himself in terms of wit. It’s simultaneously maddening and invigorating. It’s the same kind of interplay that you experience when you hear the three of them merge rapping, toasting, singing, and percussion into their music.

And it’s the same kind of interplay that I hear tonight as the three of them sit in the studio booth. Those poor, serious swine in Los Angeles are trying to do a straight interview, but Daddy G, Delg, and Mushroom are doing what they do best: Mushroom plays mike stand with a pencil; Delg plays two triangular metal ashtrays; and Daddy G does the toasting. Effortlessly they build up a multilayered sound picture out of these quotidian elements, while the engineer and I gawp in the control booth.

Massive Attack are about to embark on a world tour to promote Mezzanine. Grant intimates that the band very much see their star linked to the new managing director of Virgin Records. But whatever the motivation for this most “studio” of bands’ going out on the road, you must go and see them. And if you can’t go and see them, go and buy their albums—all of them. And if you can’t afford to do that, then you better renounce all of your worldly goods, pick up your wooden begging bowl, and head for the source of the Ganges, where you can spend the rest of your life in peaceful, silent contemplation.

Written By Will Self