ScanS → Future Music Magazine Interview
Publication Date: September 1994
NINETEEN NINETY-ONE was a big year for Massive Attack. Their stunning Blue Lines album brought us a distinctly non-cliched mix of dub, hip hop and soul, carving a home for itself somewhere between the dance floor and the car stereo. For the Bristol-based band, it brought no end of accolades and praise from the press, and a Brit Award nomination to boot. Unfinished Sympathy, the seminal symph(ath)onic single that bonded Shara Nelson, a 50-piece string orchestra and that strange vocal drop-in (hey-hey-he-cy-hey!) that sounds, perhaps, just slightly out of key, retains an unsurpassed and stark beauty. It will continue to do so for many years to come.
Three years later, Massive Attack arc back with a new album, Protection, out mid September. They’ve retained their characteristic edge and edginess – stripped dub hip hop, with plenty of space in the mix – but this time we’re closer to car-stereo territory. It has been the proverbial difficult second album, certainly in terms of production. For when Shara Nelson walked down that LA street for the Unfinished video, observed by director Baillie Walsh’s stcadicam, she kept on walking straight into her own acclaimed solo career. Mas-sive’s manager and co-producer followed her lead, leaving the core membership of 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom with a few personnel problems.
Politics aside, genuine artistic reasons account for some of the delay. There has been a learning stage: the band have acquired a lot more gear, and that has required some serious getting used to. There has been a more thoughtful approach to putting the music together, usurping the Blue Lines start-rap-stop feel. But then, of course, they had to wait for the right vocalists to come along…
We’re siding in a hotel in Bristol, and Mushroom is talking kit. He seems to regret that he has become the band’s techie rep. 3D writes a lot of the lyrics, and Daddy G supplies the samples from his massive collection of old funk records; both take turns on the mic. When it comes to writing, ideas tend to come in from all sides. But today, Mushroom is in the hot scat (G joins us later). Although he feels the pressure is on, he has obvious knowledge and interests in technology, clcctromcs and sound.
Don’t take no kit
“When we made Blue Lines, ” he says, “the only bit of equipment we owned was an EnsoniqliPS keyboard and a Numark I775PPD mixer, the one with an on-board sampler. At the time, there weren’t that many engineers who were up on looping. We got through a whole barrage of engineers looking for someone who was good enough. One guy, Jonny Dollar, who’d worked with Neneh Cherry, was really up on the stuff, and he stuck with us for the album.”
Blue Lines was propelled by samples and breaks,
whereas Protection is much more a programming affair. The band only had to clear three samples this time. Weather Storm, a laid back instrumental with a tinkly piano melody, features one of those samples, a bass and drum loop lifted off a 70s* funk record.
“A lot of our stuff, our inspiration – a lot of where we come from – revolves around a record collection,” admits Mushroom. “Compared with a lot of bands, our kit is minimal.” In his eyes, maybe, but not to Joe Musician: Mushroom, for instance, owns a Roland JD-800 synth, Hammond XB2, Crumar Composer (“used on 70s’ scicncc-fiction films like Phase IV”), an AkaiSI000 sampler, an Atari with Steinberg’s Cubase MIDI sequencer, a Hohner String machine, a couple of ARP synths and a Yamaha RX7 drum machine.
Leafs it alone
Not every item of equipment gets used, it transpires: “The Hohner is still covered in leaves from when I bought it. It’s just basic stuff,” he’s quick to emphasize, “because sampling is what we’re mainly about.”
Only three samples were cleared, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are three samples on the album…
“Take Protection,” Mushroom continues, referring to the smouldering, slow burning title track. “The hi-hat is a one-bar sampled loop, then I programmed some James Brown snares andwah–wah over the top, then added some keyboards.” The piano is LA Grand from the JD, underpinning a subtle Roland TB-303 antacid line.
“The whole thing was programmed in my home studio. I just wrote it as a complete piece of music, without a song in mind, then we sent it off to Tracy [Thom, of Everything But The Girl) and she wrote this incredible song over the top.”
Incredible is something of an understatement: it’s unlike anything you’ll find on an EBTG album. The music builds noticeably over a 16-bar loop, while Tracy skips from verse to chorus to verse. She wrote it in just a few days and, according to Mushroom, was so professional that she had the vocal down in 10 minutes. The result could be the Unfinished Sympathy of this album.
Another distinctive voice on the album is Nico-lette, who has worked with Shut Up And Dance. On Sly, the likely October single release (with remixes by Tim Simcnon, Underdog and Future Sound Of London), Nicolette oozes a mix of Billie Holliday and Shirley Basscy’s Goldfinger.
“Docs that remind you of South Sea Islands and James Bond?” asks Mushroom. It certainly docs. “We were going for this ‘spies and waving palm trees’ sound.”
Sly contains a high string part, played by an 18-piece orchestra, which is mildly reminiscent ofBjork’s Venus Is A Boy. That’s not such a surprise when you discover that Nellee Hooper produced the album, as he did Bjork’s Debut. The elusive Nellee goes back a long way with the trio: they grew up together, forming the underground rap group The Wild Bunch in the early 80s, before Ncllcc left to work with Soul II Soul in 1986. The programming, other than what Mushroom did at home, was performed at Nellee’s London suite. “He’s got an E-mu Vintage Keys, a Roland System 100, an ARP 2600 and an OSCar. The synth line on Sty is the ARP 2600.”
The final vocal – excepting the rapping of 3D, Daddy G and long-time collaborator Tricky on Euro Child and the hypnotic Karmacoma – is supplied by rcgg3c singer Horace Andy. Horace, with his exaggerated tremolo wobble and genderless voice, covers Light My Fire. It was recorded live, allegedly: the band wouldn’t just sample off a load of crowd sounds and stick them behind Horacc, would they? “Oh. no, there’s nothing like that!” says Daddy G, a huge grin on his face.
Safe from vocals
There arc two instrumentals on the album: the aforementioned Weather Storm, and Heat .Miser, a pastiche featuring Exorcist-John Carpenter style keyboard lines and spooky asthmatic breathing. Why were they not turned into songs?
“Cos the vibe wasn’t right,” replies Mushroom. “But also, we listen to a lot of house, which is mainly instrumental, so we didn’t see anything wrong with getting them on there. With W’eather Storm, when we met up with this brilliant pianist called Craig Armstrong and got him to record the piano melody, we just felt the track didn’t need anything else.”
“Heat Miser happened through haphazardness,” Mushroom says. “We just floated through it, adding things as we went along. There wasn’t anything really planned. It started off with the Isaac Hayes loop, the piano used at the end of One Love on Blue Lines. A guy came in and did the drums, we sampled him off and tightened it up. The handclaps and bass drum were sampled from records, and the deep breathing is five of us in the studio, slowed down and looped.”
On Heat Miser there’s a touch of Nellee’s Novation BassStation. Mushroom shows great interest in the new bass synths, but thinks he’ll plump for a Deep Bass Nine bccausc he prefers the modular approach. Regarding the deep dub bass on the album, Mushroom says it’s all down to F.Q. “I like to chuck things through a row of parametrics. It’s better to E.Q things on the spot rather than waiting till the final mix: you get a better vibe that way.” That vibe pervades Protection. Mushroom, Daddy G and 3D agree that each song was treated as a separate project, even without the benefits of a vocalist on-hand, and that is dearly in evidence. There’s time yet for 1994 to be massive for Massive Attack. A difficult second album? Yes, but worth the wait.
Hymn to the Big Drumbox
Mushroom is a major fan of the good old Yamaha RX7 drum machine. “The RX7 featured quite a bit on Blue Ones, on Hymn of the Big Wheel and Be Thankful. You can hear It on the Tracy Thom song Better Things: there’s like a dolphin hitting its head against the side of a submarine, it’s like an exclamation mark at the end of each chorus.”
One of the instruments tuned right (town creates the effect. Mushroom owns up to an RX7 gunshot in the Ugm My Fire ambience too.
I started with an RX7, which I reckon is one of the best drum machines that’s ever come out really, for the editing. There are classics like the [Roiand TR) 808 and 909. but I think Yamaha tried to put a weird angle on that drum machine, like endless decay on some of the sounds.”
Massive Attack don’t play live, but that’s not going to stop them touring with a show later in the year. And what a show it’ll be.
“We’re making an effort to use our artwork interactively.” explains 30. creator of Missive’s colourful screen print images. setting on the floor of his art studio. “We want to make the images more direct. So we’re hoping to put on an exhibition which will tour with a OJ sound system, possibly with the two running together. People can meet us and talk to us. surrounded by our bits and pieces. And virtual reality machines.*
Virtual reality? Was this Virgin’s idea, in the wake of the publicity around Peter Gabnel’s X-ptora 1 CD-ROM?
*We approached them. We’ve always been pretty hands on with all the new tech. No one knows what you can do with VR. where you can got it and how much it ail costs, so we re trying to get our hands on as much tech as poss. with backing from Levi’s. If you took into it. you can get quite involved in VR. and It’s not as expensive as you might imagine.’ In this way, they hope to spread the understanding that there’s more to VR than a few arcade games and a crap film about lawnmowers.
But this isn’t the virtual MIDI control that Thomas Dolby talked about in FM 17. Massive want to exploit their visuals: the ambiance to such a VR event will be provided by a dub version of Protection, a project to be undertaken by remixer The Mad Professor.
‘The animation is being generated at Elec-tnc images In Soho: it’s the Euro Child image, six spheres representing the chaos found in bringing the people of several countries together.’
3D approves of what Gabriel is trying to achieve with the remixing idea on X-ptora 1. but that’s not the path he wants to follow.
I feel that’s one approach. Hands on with the artist, but we want to be more dynamic. The VR will be more fantasy, more like a game.”
The original Jamaican sound system idea -turntables and a mic – is about a return to the roots of the Massive vibe – the mid 80s Wild Bunch days when Nellee and the boys formed the ruffest crew in town. Mushroom admits the band couldn’t play traditional instruments live, but: “What we’ve always done has been best coming from turntables. They’re instruments in themselves.
Written By Dave Robinson