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Publication Date: March 2010

Fans of Massive Attack tend to share at least two distinct characteristics: good taste and patience.

The cutting-edge British group have been a watchword in innovation throughout their near-20 year recording career, and as they return fo the frontline in 2010 with only their fith studio album Heligoland, they do so with the usual credo that if it’s good, it s worth waiting for.

Since its predecessor 100th Window was released, military regimes have fallen, entire systems of mass communication have been established, and reality TV has become our oxygen. The managership of their two local teams, Bristol City and Bristol Rovers, has changed eight times. But that’s a different story.

Whispers that Heligoland might be just around the next horizon have been circulating among diehard fans for years, but if Massive Attack have learned anything, it’s that you can’t please your audience until you’ve pleased yourself.

They’re have been quite a few attempts to make it, says the band’s Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G, with more than a hint of understatement. ‘It’s had two prototypes we binned them and started again. We’ve been making it constantly over the last three to four years. There’ve been times when we thought maybe this body of work might be the basis of the album Then that’s been binned. Last year, we did a tour for what was mooted as the album release for September. We got back from touring and it was not quite sitting right with us. SO we went back an started again.’

It is indeed worth the wait. From the opening of Pray For Rain until the close of Atlas Air 53 minutes later. Heligoland is one of those rare pieces of work that could only be one group, yet paradoxically remains quite unpredictable. The effect, as ever, is cumulative. With Massive Attack stuff, smiles Daddy G. ‘you’ve got to listen about 10 times to get the picture. Even I have to listen to it 10 times.’

On Pray For Rain itself, a characteristically moody, dark, soundscape is momentarily exposed to the light by some close-harmony vocals. That Beach Boys thing?’ asks Grant Marshall. ‘I wouldn’t quite have been brave enough to describe it like that, but yes, I knew you were thinking that. Well, that’s what we do. We’re music fans. We sometimes look at records we love and not rip them off, but take that aesthetic into something we do.’

If those seven years since their last studio record, bypassing the 2006 retrospective Collected, Massive Attack have continued a slow transition of faceless trip-hop boffins into a real live touring act. Last September’s UK dates were followed by more here and in Mexico. Australia and New Zealand in February, with North America to come in what will become their busiest year as a performing act. So the unmatched visual presence that has informed the group’s entire career is now not just a screen or a sleeve, but also on a stage. Marshall calls it an honest evolution from the DJ culture that fostered them, initially as members of the Wild Bunch soundsystem in late 1980s Bristol, to the live arena of today.

But the biggest surprise in talking to Marshall, for all the group’s carefully-maintained mystique and impregnable artistic sovereignty, is that they clearly keep a healthy sense of perspective. Ask him if the delays in completing Heligoland also have to do with the several side projects undertaken by his fellow band mainstay Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja. and he stops you short. Not really,’ he laughs ‘It’s just that we’re lazy bastards, if the truth be known.

He goes on does a lot of soundtrack stuff, but that wasn’t really a distraction as such. Me, I’m still struggling to be the world’s No.1 DJ. That’s always something that runs alongside.’

The band have always worked separately on tracks, bringing them in for group consideration, but this time, something took longer to gel. It was never a case that we ever sat down and said “Right guys, let’s work on a track now.- It was more a case of each of us. including Mushroom at the time (Andrew Vowles, who left the band as a full-time member in 1999), brought in different ideas we were quite passionate about, and involved people we thought were appropriate at the time.

I was working on some tracks in the studio that I was working in. D (that’s 3D) was in his studio working, we got these tracks together for the album and when we got back we realised they weren’t bonding that well. Also touring them, other ideas came into play.

So we went back and stripped quite a lot of stuff back, re-recorded some new things and started working with (British producer] Tim Goldsworthy, brought him over from New York. When we went to work with Damon Albarn. That was what fashioned a lot of the tracks.’

Described by Marshall as nothing less than a complete genius.” Albarn now takes his place in the kind of A-list cast of collaborators we’re used to hearing on each Massive Attack project. From the day we heard Shara Nelson’s soulful wail on the timeless Unfinished Sympathy in 1991 land watched her walking down Los Angeles’ West Pico Boulevard in that unforgettable video), the band have worked with a faultlessly cultivated guest list, including Tracey Thom, Liz Fraser and Horace Andy. “The thing about Massive Attack.’ says Daddy 6. is we come from that DJ record collecting fanbase. So people like Tracey, Liz, Horace Andy, Sinead O’Connor, they’re people we grew up with and bought their records. It was a dream for us to knock on their door.’

The latest members of the extended collective also include Elbow’s Guy Garvey. Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio. ex-Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval and Martina Topley-Bird, former intimate of another Bristol trip-hop graduate. Tricky.

‘I didn’t know Guy that well, he’s more a friend of D. but he’s a really intelligent wnter and an amazing guy. We’ve always wanted to work with Martina, because she’s had that Bristol connection and she’s got this brilliant spirit and creativity she brings to tracks.”

But Marshall is careful to nip that notion of west country-camaraderie in the bud before it gets too cosy. “That old notion of Bristol (artists] all trying to eat from the same pot is a nice notion, but to be honest we’re all fiercely independent there. As much as people like to say the trip-hop scene. I don’t think that sits well with us. If you ask anybody from Portishead or even Smith & Mighty, it’s just a journalistic term, which we understand, but it doesn’t describe what we re about.’

That said, the strong visual sense that has illustrated everything Massive Attack have taken on and won them endless awards in the process – is a thread that connects those days to these.

‘Working with 3D, even in the hip-hop days, that was the first thing that grabbed our imagination as a group.’ says Marshall. “Even in the Wild Bunch, before Massive Attack. 3D was always part of the visual side, it was the dressing up and the music, and we carried that ethos through to the band thing. The fact that D’s been doing the record sleeves, and there’s always a good visual content when we’re on stage, it’s all part of it.’

Director Mark Gondry’s 1995 clip for Protection was an MTV Europe Award winner for Best Video, as was Walter Stem’s Teardrop three years later. This time, the band invited such fearless art gurus as Jake Scott, Baillie Walsh and Dougal Wilson to make whatever films their imagination suggested for tracks from Heligoland, while Del Naja has again designed the album sleeve.

Cynics might say that the other thing that’s changed since the band last released a new album is that people stopped buying albums. Where does Marshall think Massive Attack sit in the onerous commercial conditions of 2010?

I’ve got nephews and nieces who are teenagers and they’re totally into Massive Attack, but I wouldn’t even expect them to buy an album.’ he says. They’re always trying to give me downloads. It’s definitely changed the whole game, and for us it’s a case that you have to give people more now.

I don’t actually think the imperative is selling records anymore, the whole thing’s changed. For us, because we’ve evolved from the DJ background and moved into becoming a band, and now a touring entity, that’s where you can make the money. Or lose the money, in our case, taking this big multi-media screen with us.’

For an act that always worked in the periphery of daytime music, Massive Attack’s unclassifiable sound has become an increasing part of the mainstream in recent years. Perhaps most notably, Teardrop from 1998’s Mezzanine album, became the theme for the TV smash House, starring Hugh Laurie. The band would later be told by its executive producer Bryan Singer that his entire concept for the series was based around the track.

While their label actively chases such sync deals, the group shy away from overt business dealings. ‘That’s why we reinvent ourselves every five years.” says Marshall. To move those shadows.’

Reinvention is a word used too cheaply, but Massive Attack remain the masters of it. And if you believe Daddy G, not just reinventing, but regenerating. That aborted work for Heligoland won’t really be completely binned, will it?

‘No. of course not,’ he smiles, that’ll be on the next album. We all recycle now. don’t we?’

Written By Paul Sexton