ScanS → Q Magazine Feature
Publication Date: March 2012
As people we were in a completely grey area when we were making Mezzanine,” Robert “3D” Del Naja told Mojo in 1998. “None of us knew what the other wanted, and maybe we didn’t care either, which is even more destructive. It could be the end, for all I know, but this is definitely a transitional period. We’ve got a lot to sort out.”
Whether the phrase was a conscious choice or a subliminal one, “grey area” perfectly suited the mood of an album that used the intermediate floor in buildings as a metaphor for that perilous no man’s land between the night before and the morning after. Claustrophobia, self-sabotage and creeping madness weren’t just the defining themes of the album but everyday hazards for the three men -Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles – who spent two years making it and, in the process, wrecking their friendship beyond repair.
During a fractious one-off interview to promote 1997’s stop-gap Risingson single, Marshall joked darkly, “The next album’s gonna take six years. In fact, we’re splitting up after it.” He wasn’t far off the truth. Massive Attack’s next album, 100th Window, took five years and featured only one of the group’s original trio. Marshall, not a man given to hyperbole, described the making of Mezzanine as the most traumatic experience of his life.
Massive Attack were never a conventional band. They owed their existence to The Wild Bunch, a multiracial collective of DJs, musicians and graffiti artists who formed in Bristol during the ’80s.
“Without The Wild Bunch thing we probably wouldn’t have ended up in the same band,” Del Naja later told The Guardian. “It was hip hop that brought us together.”
Their long-gestating debut album, 1991’s Blue Lines, reflected that musical eclecticism and collective spirit. The trio were ideas men more than songwriters or musicians, enlisting a string of gifted collaborators who came and went: tape operator Geoff Barrow formed Portishead; rapper Tricky and singer Shara Nelson went solo; only reggae veteran Horace Andy kept
coming back. After 1994’s Protection, their fluid, nocturnal reimagining of hip hop became an easily imitated style with a name they loathed: trip-hop. They were eager to transcend it.
In January 1996 they rented Christchurch Studios in Bristol, hired engineer Neil Davidge, and set themselves a September deadline. Del Naja was determined that the album should reflect more of his punk background. His working title, Damaged Goods, even came from a 1978 single by Leeds post-punks Gang Of Four.
Vowles, however, regarded punks as interchangeable with racist skinheads and wanted to continue in the “lover’s hip hop” vein of Protection. In one tense session he reportedly snapped, “Are we a fucking punk band now?”
“I probably went in there a bit fucking heavy, a bit pigheaded,” Del Naja admitted to Q. “I was sampling loads of ridiculous things which were never going to work, like Stiff Little Fingers and 999. But I was trying to break the mould.” Throughout the summer Del Naja and Davidge stockpiled samples and played around with guitarist Angelo Bruschini’s improvised jams. Meanwhile, Vowles was still mining the jazz and soul records that Massive Attack were associated with. By the end of the summer they had two irreconcilably distinct mountains of raw material. “We’re all stubborn cunts,” Marshall told NME. ‘We used to pretend that we all got on and were into the same thing but that’s bullshit.”
The gulf was more than a matter of musical taste. When they broke off from the studio to play live, Del Naja experienced the drug-frazzled paranoia and panic attacks that would be captured in the muttering hotel-room lunacy of Inertia Creeps: “Been here before, been here forever.” His vices widened the gap between himself and the non-smoking, non-drinking Vowles. “I think Mush runs on economy drive, he uses just enough electricity to keep himself going and that’s it,” the more even-tempered Marshall told NME. “D’s on full fucking throttle the whole time.” But what brought the band to breaking point, it seems, was a strange episode that Marshall described as “an act of treachery”.
In the spring of 1997, Neil Davidge came up with a pretty harpsichord part that inspired Vowles to add a beat and solemn piano chords. He called the track No Don’t and talked about finding a soul vocalist for it. The others, however, insisted on former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser. Vowles objected. A little while later Madonna’s manager called the studio and said that his client, who had previously worked with Massive on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, loved No Don’t and would be delighted to record it for herself. The band never found out who had offered her the track but the finger pointed at Vowles. That was the backbiting intrigue that lay behind the most beautiful song on the LP, now rewritten and renamed Teardrop. “Liz’s voice is so immense and ethereal,” Del Naja raved. “She threw a million words into the air and we tried to grab a few and work out what she meant.”
In the case of another highlight, creative differences proved more productive. The band had booked Horace Andy to sing on a cover version of The Clash’s Straight To Hell, which sampled goth band Sex Gang Children. But when Andy arrived he explained that his Rastafarian faith didn’t permit him to sing the word “hell”. Reluctant to waste the session, the band hastily reworked it. Out went The
Clash and Sex Gang Children, in came a slower tempo and lyrics based on Andy’s own ’70s hit You Are My Angel. Just four hours later they’d written the ominous opening track Angel.
But after the No Don’t incident Massive Attack decided they needed distance. Del Naja and Bruschini decamped to a cottage in Cornwall, leaving Marshall and Vowles in Christchurch.
This seemed to work. The ghost-world hip hop of Black Milk was a Bristol creation, while Del Naja and Davidge spliced two separate Liz Fraser performances into the eight-minute paranoia-fest of Group Four. “It’s about a security guard who decides that in order to have complete control of his life he fucks off his friends and family and just lives around his shifts. Totally regimented, no compromises,” Del Naja explained, leaving others to draw their own conclusions. Inertia Creeps, built around tapes of Turkish music procured from a tawdry belly-dancing club in Istanbul, is Del Naja laid bare while the Isaac Hayes-sampling instrumental (Exchange) offers a glimpse of the softer, warmer album that Vowles wanted to make.
In January 1998, after a full, deadline-busting two years, the album was finally finished in a tense flurry of mixing at Olympia Studios in London. “Literally, the final mixes were going down and we were saying, No, stop – try this instead!” Davidge told Q. “That’s why I wouldn’t say any of those tracks were necessarily finished. We just stopped at that particular point.” Del Naja was more damning: “I’m never satisfied. There are three or four tracks on Mezzanine which are still flawed and they’ll never be right.”
Nevertheless Mezzanine was a hit, dislodging Robbie Williams from the top of the album chart. It also won the reader-voted Q award for Album Of The Year, an honour which had previously gone to OK Computer. There was serious talk of Massive Attack producing an album-length dub remix of Radiohead’s record and sessions for the next album were planned for 1999. But even in upbeat interviews during the Mezzanine tour their peace treaty seemed fragile. “There’s unity on the road, which is a good feeling compared with the feelings we had for each other at the time we were making the album,” said Marshall, trying to put the worst behind him. Vowles dolefully explained how he’d love to use D’Angelo and Erykah Badu next time, “but I don’t think the others would be down with that.”
In July 1999, to the surprise of nobody, Massive Attack confirmed that Vowles had left. While making 100th Window, Marshall took extended paternity leave and Del Naja became the last man standing. “After touring we all went back to Bristol and the phone stopped ringing,” Del Naja told The Big Issue in 2003. “And when the silence began and the distance became apparent it was always going to be much harder to bridge the gap. That’s why it fell apart, which was very difficult and very sad because it was a friendship more than a band. I could imagine one day working with Mushroom again,” he said wistfully. “I’d like to think that could happen.”
Written By Dorian Lynskey