ScanS → Option Magazine Interview
Publication Date: May 1998
Waiting in a trendy Manhattan tapas bar, Grant “Daddy Gee” Marshall is hardly angry that his bandmates are late. As a matter of fact, he’s rather happy to have a few minutes away from Robert “3D” del Naja and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, Massive Attack’s other core members. The Bristol-based Englishmen have spent the past three years in close quarters — touring behind their 1994 release, Protection, living atop one another in the incestuous confines of their hometown, and most recently recording Massive’s third album, Mezzanine. “We’ve been fighting like mad,” says Daddy Gee, though the 39-year-old DJ and producer seems oddly proud of the fact — suggesting that he won his share of the battles. “The studio was a main clashing point because we’re all so fiercely independent. We’re stubborn about what we want to hear. We just get fed up with each other really, and this album reflects that. Before it was a case of pretending we were all into the same thing. Now we’re making a clear statement — we’re not.”
For Massive Attack, tapping into this kind of tension is like a miner hitting gold. Having changed the face of pop music with its 1991 debut, Blue Lines, the group trailblazed a rugged path through reggae, hip-hop and soul, incidentally devising a hybrid that would come to be dubbed trip-hop. More importantly, the group — a collective of up to 15 people on the LP — infused the art of sampling and mixing with the subdued rage and disturbing blues that made immortals out of Billie Holiday and Leadbelly. Their spare sound, in which empty space holds as much power as bent notes, was honed through hard work — from spinning at illegal warehouse parties 12 years ago with their former sound system, the Wild Bunch, to their baptism by fire in “real” studios to discovering and working with uncut, new talent like Tricky.
Now, after collaborating with Madonna on a Marvin Gaye tribute, launching their own label Melankolic, and spawning a whole generation of Massive Attack imitators, the band continues to evolve on Mezzanine (Virgin).
Made in their own Bristol-based Christchurch studio, the album is deeper, rawer and darker than the band’s past two full-lengths. Its opening track, “Angel,” resonates with a guttural bass line and heavy, distorted guitar while the vocals of Jamaican reggae great Horace Andy (a regular guest on previous Massive albums) floats over the melee, detached and serene. A previously released single, “Risingson,” also relies on a down-on-the-ground bass line, but incorporates the techno trickery of sampled effects and staticky, processed vocals. But Massive hits a new stride with the indelible “Inertia Creeps,” in which Middle Eastern rhythms dip and weave like an opiated dancer in a smoky den. Mezzanine also features the sheer, ethereal vocals of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser on “Teardrop,” cutting through the album’s density with a soaring, heaven-bound lightness. And deep in the background of the entire disc, there’s a buzzing, electrified undertone threatening to explode in a flurry of sparks.
“I think there’s a lot more tension in the album, from the nature of the way it was made,” says Daddy Gee, whose booming voice and carefree cadence fits his large frame and accessible demeanor. “There were certain personal problems: we weren’t getting on that well, Horace wasn’t here a lot of the time and Liz just split with her boyfriend. I think that’s reflected on the album being disjointed, and slightly edgier. Everything was a bit up in the air.”
Finally, the rest of Massive Attack arrives. Mushroom looks tired and 3D is cranky. As all three cram themselves together into the corner of an L-shaped banquette, they still look as disconnected from one another as New Yorken riding the subway. 3D asks Daddy Gee what he’s drinking.
“My usual shit,” answers Daddy Gee.
“What’s that?” asks 3D.
“A Kir royale!”
“Oh,” quips 32-year-old 3D, rolling his eyes. “The usual” With that, they’re already at each other. Their conversation tumbles into Bristolese slang, full of lilting cadences and quick, cut-up phrases. They spend a lot of time bickering and contradicting each other (Daddy Gee: “The Verve have not overexposed themselves.” 3D: “Of course they have.”) while avoiding a direct eye contact. Though Mushroom, 31, remains silent most of the time, the Massives often talk over one another to get their point across. It creates a sort of confusion, one that even their waiters pick up on — it takes three of them just to get the trio’s lunch order straight.
“We actually went into the studio at separate times to do this album,” says Daddy Gee. “Each one did their own little thing, and that took up a lot of time. Each one of these tracks is a personal little obsession for one of us. The roles weren’t really shared; sometimes we collaborated on a couple tracks, but it was never all three of us in the studio like in the past.”
That’s a new process for these three, who came into music as teenagers, working as a team. But as all members will shockingly agree, working solo added new dynamics to the Massive
souna Dy presenting very personalized and defined (rather than collaborative) ideas and moods as jumping off points. “Each track was very individualistic,” says 3D. “We’d put down a track — the ideas in our head we needed to exorcise — then someone else would come in a few days later and mess with it. Other times, one of us would record a really simple tune, then we’d all come in pissed and jam over it. Finally, it was like just pulling the best stuff out of the mix and putting it together like a puzzle.”
While 3D talks of autonomy in the studio, Mushroom and Daddy Gee differ on just how personal or emotional Massive’s music is.
“I think it’s not so much emotions as it is influences. It’s not like we deliberately make a sad or happy track,” Mushroom says at last.
“I disagree,” says Daddy Gee. “I think we’re very emotional. All our albums reflect the certain time and space that we were in.”
“The only criteria with this album,” 3D cuts in, “were that we weren’t gonna do what we did before. We were gonna take more risks.”
Yet the lack of a real game plan has always been the method to Massive Attack’s madness. The band relies as much on the endless possibilities of chance and improvisation as it does on the bankable precision of machinery. “I think what you lose in translation is what becomes a lot of the song,” says 3D. “A lot of ideas start with a simple sample, a list of ideas, a lyric, a song, a beat, whatever effect you want to give. Then, when trying to get that, you lose a lot of stuff, but what you gain out of that loss is new sounds. You never know what you’re actually gonna get. Something else takes over.”
“We’re not an architectural band,” says Daddy Gee. “It’s never been that we map something out and play it. Instead, it’s trying to translate something in your head, but to get it from there to paper to tape — there’s always that gray area. That’s where it can be quite exciting, where accidents happen. It also makes it so there’s no restriction to what we do — we got the right to break down and let chaos rule.”
Daddy Gee, 3D and Mushroom grew up in Bristol, a port city 120 miles west of London. Influenced by American hip-hop and reggae, Daddy Gee, the son of immigrants from Barbados, started the Wild Bunch sound system with now-famous producer Nelle Hooper in 1983. Mushroom and 3D (the son of Italian immigrants) were among the many who soon climbed on board, and the collective of DJs and rappers played warehouse gigs and parties at the notorious Dug Out club. They mirrored the work of American rap acts like Eric B. & Rakim, but added local flavor with rhymes about pubs, soccer and cricket. As DJs, they began experimenting, blurring the lines between rap, soul, funk, reggae and even punk.
“The bands that were influential to us, like Public Image and the Clash and the Slits, encompassed not only what new wave, rock and punk was about, but introduced other elements into it — like soul, reggae, pop,” says 3D.
“When we were young kids growing up in England, there was an infatuation with quick, fast hits, so we grew up listening to loads of different stuff,” he continues.
“Bristol also has a big West Indian community, so we grew up with a heavy West Indian influence in our music. We just took all those elements as DJs and mish-mashed them all together. As music lovers, we played everything at once.”
By 1986, the Wild Bunch had released their first single, a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” Though they made a small splash in their hometown, the Bunch began to disintegrate as police began cracking down on their makeshift venues. Hooper went to London and began producing Soul II Soul, while Daddy Gee and 3D borrowed money from family members to try their hand at promoting parties in Japan. They came home broke.
Their fortunes began to change when the two were approached by Neneh Cherry’s partner, Cameron McVey, to contribute to her first album, Raw Like Sushi. In turn, McVey agreed to produce their own debut under the new name Massive Attack. The single “Daydreaming” was released in 1990, and Massive’s groundbreaking Blue Lines came out the following year. While its initial ambient qualities lured listeners in, the more intense undercurrents of despair and rage eventually overtook and entangled fans like slow growing vines.
“When we first came out, our music was quite direct and to the point,” says Daddy Gee, attempting to explain how the group inadvertently became pioneers of a new sound. “We restricted it to this minimalist sort of thing, and that was the beauty of what we did. We weren’t very conventional. We left space in the music. We worked in a way that was more based on imagination than physical ability. I think that’s what’s shone through.”
Though Blue Lines made Massive Attack relatively famous, gave rise to Tricky’s career, and paved the way for Portishead (whose founder, Geoff Barrow, did some of the programming on Massive’s debut), it was also the beginning of new problems for the band. It spawned a disastrous U.S. tour, where the band — used to playing warehouses for local patrons ready to party and dance — was panned by critics for its boring stance onstage. The return home also found vocalist Shara Nelson leaving to pursue a solo career. It took the band another three years to pull itself together to release Protection. Partly produced by Nelle Hooper (who ran out on them when Madonna called for his services on Bedtime Stories), the album highlighted the slithery rasp of the Tricky Kid, the creamy vocals of Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn and newcomer Nicolette over the band’s layered moodiness. Once again, Massive Attack’s subliminal sound resonated through the electronic and rock underground, inspiring artists like DJ Krush or DJ Shadow to look beyond the obvious. It also made trip-hop a marketable term. “We got lumped under the banner of trip-hop, but there’s not much connection between us and Portishead,” says Daddy Gee, noting that their Bristol hometown was just a convenient link for outside observers. “But what do you expect? They did it with Liverpool. They did it with Manchester.”
Following the release of Protection, Massive finally embarked on a successful tour (“We used a real band and were more confident of our own abilities,” explains Daddy Gee), put out three albums by other artists on its own label and saw Tricky become hugely popular with his own debut, 1995’s Maxinquaye. Tricky took the opportunity to openly bash Massive Attack for not giving him greater artistic freedom within the band, but the members of Massive really don’t seem that bothered by his grousing. They speak of Tricky as if he were a cantankerous little brother. “We’ve known him from the time he was 15,” says Mushroom. “I think what he’s done musically is really good. Even though it’s not quite all there yet, I really respect him for pushing the lines the way he has.”
Now Daddy Gee and 3D are arguing about Quentin Tarantino, and have pulled Mushroom into the battle. Oddly, it’s not even a debate regarding the filmmaker’s merit, but a disagreement over why he’s so good.
“Tarantino put out violent gangster films, then Jackie Brown. It stood out ’cause he used his imagination,” says Mushroom, putting his two pence in.
“The thing about Tarantino that’s great is he samples everything from the ’60s and ’70s — musically, visually,” 3D asserts.
“No,” Daddy Gee argues, seemingly for the sake of being difficult. “Tarantino’s great because he makes it relevant now.”
All of a sudden there’s silence, and six eyes settle on a voluptuous woman who’s just entered the front bar. Massive Attack finally falls into silent agreement on at least one thing — she’s the bomb.
Earlier on, Daddy Gee had admitted that one common problem the members of Massive Attack faced was keeping a relationship going while working and being out on the road. “If we lived in London, where women there were more accustomed to having careers and living in a transient society, it might be easier. But we’re in Bristol. Our girlfriends don’t understand going away because nobody ever leaves there.”
“The problem is trying to retain that duality of your life when going on tour,” adds 3D. “When you go on tour, you’re not effected by things at home. Like the new Labor government, or even Thatcherism, didn’t effect us the way it affected out friends who were jobless. I’ve got the money to buy a round of drinks, to do what I want to do. It’s so abstract, because we’re not hugely famous, but we’re also not leading our old lives.”
Though Massive Attack has chosen to stay in Bristol over London or even New York, it’s not that they have an unconditional love for the city. Asked what the main industry in Bristol
3D. “Imagination is the main tool. If not, underground DJs can be just as boring as mainstream producers. There is a certain upstart behavior about it all. Like the garage bands of the ’70s making music in their own bedrooms. Now with computer technology, the more advanced it gets, the more the everyday person has the ability to reproduce anything they hear. Sampling’s like cloning — it’s just gonna grow and grow, get more extreme. But that technology makes it easier to be uncre-ative as well. You can put a magazine together now, a TV show, a website — the concept is great, give everyone the ability to be an artist. That’s the way it should be. But when that happens, you will have a quantity of really low-quality stuff out there. It’s like anything. Like sports — you’ve got a lot of mediocre players, but every now and again, one person will shine through.” Massive Attack may be among those stars, but in cosmological terms, they’re more like an unexpected discovery than a calculated sighting. As self-taught producers and musicians, their understated sound broke down boundaries that the amped-up, overhyped grunge bands from the era of their debut couldn’t even reach.
“The reason our success was out of the blue is that we caught people’s imaginations with what we did,” says Daddy Gee. “We were the underbelly of what was going on commercially. It was brave for Virgin to take us on. They could see we had a vision. Also, with a band like us, you can’t just be thinking of how one album will do. It’s more like, ‘Where are they gonna go from here?’ We’re trying to do that again, like a new starting point. Like reinventing ourselves.”
Written By Lorraine Ali