ScanS → Irish Times Newspaper Interview
Publication Date: August 2003
Robert Del Naja is the last man standing. Massive Attack redefined the boundaries between pop and experimental dance music throughout the 1990s but as success piled on success the once large and vibrant collective shrank and fractured, leaving only one man: Del Naja, or 3D as his Massive Attack persona is known.
Daddy G had opted out of the making of this year’s release, 100th Window, to spend-tinie with his new baby and the pair had already split with third member Mushroom in a prolonged fit of hazy acrimony A long, slow process of communal self-destruction over the past 15 years has seen the selfdescribed hip hop collective assimilate and spit out a mass of incredible talent, including Tricky, Sharon Nelson, Nellee Hooper and Tracey Thorn.
Back in those days outsiders looking in saw Massive Attack at the centre of a musical community held together by a savage, feral creativity that pulled the rug out from under foggy, reactionary distinctions between ‘real’ music (made with guitars) and the ‘fake’ (made with computers). In the late 1980s and throughout the ’90s they were the epicentre of a Bristol-based scene that also produced Tricky, Portishead, Roni Size and Reprazent.
“Everyone was so different and everyone was such opposite types of characters it’s quite amazing we actually stayed together so long as a group of people,” says Del Naja now. “Everyone was constantly rowing, it was a constant row, and Bristol being such a small place it was difficult to co-exist with other bands without sort of like egocentric bitterness kicking in. And when Portishead and Tricky and ourselves were all sort of happening in ’94, everyone really hated each other, you know what I mean? And no-one wanted to recognise the term ‘trip hop’ and nobody wanted to talk about each other and it was all just really bitter and silly.”
It is no surprise, then, that Del Naja has ended up on a solo run with 100th Window, or that surprisingly similar feelings persist about the making of that record. “I felt a little bit angry about it and I felt frustrated and I felt abandoned a bit,” he says. “I felt that if I walked away in the same way there’d be nothing, and I knew that. I felt quit# angry that the responsibility was on my shoulders to do something and it was a tough time at certain points.”
Anger, frustration, bitterness, bile and competitive paranoia: this is what it feels like to be in Massive Attack, and these dark, supremely negative obsessions are apparent in almost every note the band has produced. You can trace a line from 100th Window’ relentlessly downbeat mood to most of its predecessor Mezzanine, of which 100th Window seems a pale imitation. Listen to ‘Angel’, ‘Risingson’ or ‘Mezzanine’ from Mezzanine and hear the muted howl of internalised horror in every pristine note. That line extends right back to the edgy, nasty worry at your ears that is ‘kar-macoma’ from Protection or ‘eurochild’ from the same record, right back to ‘Safe From Harm’ from their debut, Blue Lines.
The music is testament to Del Naja’s status as the high priest of modern paranoia. Only weeks ago he ran out of a screening of The Matrix after 20 minutes because he suddenly believed the woman in front of him was hiding a bomb (“I thought ‘fucking suicide bomb Chechnya’ you know what I mean?”) inside her coat. “I’d been dying to see that film for fucking months, and that’s how fucking paranoid I am,” he says, still disappointed and slightly bemused at himself.
Being in Massive Attack has beenadarkjourneyfullof conflict and clashes of vision. “I think our relationship with Mushroom had gone as far as it could go because obviously as you get older your personality develops, your stubbornness gets thicker, it gets a bit harder to penetrate,” says Del Naja about his split with co-founder Mushroom.
Even in happier days, the process of actually making Massive Attack music sounds as though it was fraught, difficult and intimidating. “The studio would be a meeting point. It’s very rare you’d all sit around writing together. At the point when you brought something into the studio it was either going to be a nightmare or a real experience because the other two were either going to destroy your idea or add to it and make it amazing. You never knew which way it was going to go; it was always that way.” It has been a rough ride for Del Naja and Massive Attack, then, with years-long gaps between albums which themselves were centred around collaborations, which is always a more difficult route than that of a self-contained band.
Yet it would not be music that would provide Del Naja with an even bigger challenge, it would be a heady concoction of war, crime and possibly even corruption.
Earlier this year, for the first time, the real world matched up to Del Naja’s paranoia. Del Naja was a vocal opponent of the US and UK led invasion of Iraq in the months and weeks leading up to the latest Gulf war. With an album on the way his profile was high and, along with Damon Albarn, he led the protests of various figures in the music world whose efforts were receiving widespread attention.
Then, in February Del Naja was arrested for possession of child pornography. The tabloids were tipped off and Del Naja’s anti-war credibility disappeared overnight. The album had been released only two weeks before.
The charges were quickly dropped because of lack of evidence. The arrest, made at the same time as a number of other arrests on child porn charges, had been made on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence. Other arrests were made after an international police sting matched credit card purchases with internet records and evidence on hard drives to prove that users had accessed and bought child porn.
The only evidence in Del Naja’s case was that he had downloaded legal porn from a company that also supplied child porn from the same computer server. “Outside the realm of newspapers they [the allegations] didn’t exist whatsoever, so to me it was always a mistruth and it was always going to go away.
The only truth about the whole thing is that the police and the newspapers collaborated illegally to run a story which wasn’t true,” says Del Naja, in an admirably level voice.
Does he think the arrest was politically motivated? “The timing of it all was obviously very cynical with the record and the tour and everything, that w^s quite remarkable. I can’t be sure exactly why they went to those lengths to try to take me down in whatever way they wanted to, 1 find it amazing because I’m not the sort of person who lives by the media. I think that the fact that at that particular point I’d been very vocal, very active, very angry about everything and up there and I think maybe it was time for me to get shot down.”
For Del Naja there is, though, a personal and artistic light at the end of the tunnel. He has repaired his faltering relationship with Daddy G, who will accompany him on tour. “I think the good thing for me and G is we came out of a really low period. Obviously I wasn’t seeing him, he wasn’t making the record, his life had changed dramatically, he’d had a child, and the silence was getting a bit thicker, we could have easily let ourselves split up, nice and easy, all those years of friendship just drifted away, you know, typical human way.”
“But I think we seen it, we’ve got the fortunate situation to see how bad it got and know that we don’t have to go there again, which is good ’cause often you don’t really survive those moments, a lot of bands don’t survive those moments.”
Massive Attack may be a fraction of its former size, and 100th Window might be a disappointment, but for Del Naja there is one comfort: now they are two.
Written By Matthew Magee