ScanS → Q Magazine Interview #2
Publication Date: January 1999
Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack is getting his acceptance speeches down to a fine art. In 1996, when the band won Best Dance Act at the Brits, he dispensed with the whys and wherefores to announce, “Pretty ironic – none of us can dance”. Today, collecting the Q Best Album trophy, he is just as economical. He thanks the band’s manager and their co-producer, and that’s it. He does not remark on the irony, but it’s there – indeed, it’s audible to the entire room – as the beautiful strains of Liz Fraser singing Teardrop strike up over the PA. Only the people at Massive s table, however, understand the significance. Of all the songs to play…
In April, the month that Mezzanine was released, the band embarked on a world tour. The final stretch is a series of large arena shows in major European cities, beginning tonight in Stockholm. Two airport-bound limousines are already waiting outside the Intercontinental, when the band are approached by Danny O’Connor, a reporter for Radio One’s news service, The Net. O’Connor conducts a brief interview with Del Naja (3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom). It’s well known that the trio fell out badly during the making of Mezzanine; what’s less clear is whether the arguments have now been resolved. O’Connor asks Del Naja if there will be another Massive album; Del Naja replies evasively, “In one shape or form, there may be”. What about solo projects? Marshall concedes the possibility, but doesn’t say when. O’Connor feels he has enough material to compose a story for The Net’s Ceefax pages.
An hour later, 40,000 feet above sea level, Marshall reclines, quaffing champagne, his long legs extended into the aisle of a tiny private plane headed for Sweden. He and Del Naja distribute plates of sandwiches, consumed by all but Vowles, a vegan whose allergy to dairy products has rendered him able to eat only a fraction of the Earth’s food. Del Naja and Marshall, a pair of likeable piss-takers, work their way through the mini-bottles of spirits one by one. Vowles is teetotal. They answer to “D”, “G” and “Mush” respectively, like a toddler losing his way in the alphabet, or a chord that is impossible to play.
Their live show, in which they are accompanied by a four-piece band and two singers, is a coalescence of dark, hypnotic music and white light. An intense, cerebral two-hour performance, it rivals Radiohead for rock dynamics, taut nerves, implied drama, miraculous sound and throbbing aftershock. Del Naja, ostensibly doing little more than whispering into a mic, is subtle magic in action, the embodiment of Mezzanine’s neurotic pulse and buzzing head. Thereby, you might say, hangs a tale.
In January 1996, a lot of equipment started arriving at Christchurch Studios in Bristol. Neil Davidge, a local producer-engineer who rented a room there, knew Massive quite well: he’d worked with them on a remix of Karmacoma for the Bosnian aid album Help. Now they were moving in as neighbours.
After two hugely acclaimed albums – Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994) – Massive were changing. The vexed issue was: how can a group styled in hip hop translate its music to live performance without exposing its shortcomings? Previously, the show had been based around drum beats scratched by one man (Vowles) from two discs at a turntable. As Massive became a hotter ticket, it was felt the concerts should sound -and look – more substantial. Their friends Portishead, part of the same sampling-and-scratch-ing culture, had toured successfully with guitar, bass and drums. “It would have been unspoken,” says Massive’s manager Marc Picken, thinking back, “but there was probably an element of, Christ, we should be doing this.”
By the time Massive moved into their new studio, they had a guitarist, a bassist and a keyboard player, and were about to add a drummer. It wasn’t a reversal of policy as such – there had been a degree of live instrumentation on both their albums – but it certainly raised eyebrows when Del Naja, Marshall and Vowles fronted a full band on Channel 4’s The White Room in February “We did a wicked version ofEurochild (from Protection),” Del Naja remembers fondly, “with fucking excellent grunge guitar.” When BMG Records commissioned a track for a compilation to mark the Euro ’96 football tournament, Eurochild was what they got: engineered by Davidge; beefed up with guitar. For the first time, Massive’s augmented live act had dictated the way their records should sound.
As album sessions got underway (with Davidge booked until September ’96), Vowles and Marshall worked on bass and drum loops. Del Naja materialised almost a month later, bringing a semiformed idea and a pile of new wave records: Gang Of Four, PiL, Wire, Bristol’s own Pop Group. It was the music he’d loved in his early teens. It had edginess, paranoia and confusion; its atmosphere still crackled 20 years later. His idea was for Massive to make an album like it. How – he didn’t know. “I probably went in there a bit fucking heavy, a bit pig-headed,” he now admits. “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.”
He found an ally in Marshall, a new wave fan himself, who’d grown tired of Massive being perceived as masters of smooth, polished, urban soul. Vowles wasn’t convinced; what was so wrong with Protection?
Angelo Bruschini, Massive s guitarist, has a rock background. Formerly in The Blue Aeroplanes, he’s used to a routine whereby songs are written, rehearsed, demoed and then – and only then -recorded in a studio. However, he spent much of 1996 playing random notes on guitar for hours on end, being sampled by Davidge and Del Naja, who would then use a computer to experiment with the guitar’s tone, speed, texture and very “guitar-ness”. “We really did take a lot of liberties,” Davidge laughs. “Angelo would come into the studio after doing a long session the day before, and say, Wow, that sounds good – what’s that? I’d say, That’s you, mate.”
When September 1996 arrived, the tracks in progress were an ill-fitting jigsaw of Del Naja’s barmy post-punk samples and Vowles s chilled-out R&B grooves. Nothing was ready.
The first deadline had come and gone.
On the eve of the Norwegian cup final, Oslo is joyful. The square opposite Massive’s hotel resounds to football songs and the lobby is a black-and-white striped contraflow of supporters’ scarves. The band members move from the lifts to the door, and out towards the bus.
Tonight’s concert at the Spektrum Arena illustrates what a year its been: they played Oslo in April to 1,000 people. Now they’ve upgraded to a 7,000 capacity venue, and every ticket is sold.
The recording methods at Christchurch were, by early 1997, reaping dividends. A series of live jams (with full band personnel) had been transferred to hard disk and edited into loops and mini-bites, as Massive hunted for newer, more peculiar sounds. Cutting and pasting on computer, they worked on six songs a day, two hours at a time, hitting the “save” button whenever they got bored.
The album’s working title was Damaged Goods, an old Gang Of Four tune. As Massive continued to honour live commitments – Davidge would lose them for weeks at a time – Del Naja would return to Bristol feeling increasingly damaged himself. He was writing lyrics about panic attacks, hangovers, morbid thoughts and inexplicable actions. On tour, he would check into his hotel room and glance back at the door as he walked to the lifts, wondering what silent terrors awaited him on his return. He found it difficult to interact with friends in Bristol.
It was now clear to Davidge that Del Naja held the key to the album and must be understood at all costs. The co-producer says, perfecdy serious, “Quite often he wouldn’t actually be able to verbalise what he wanted, so it was a matter of trying to get inside his head and understand him as a person – all the things that are going on in his personal life, everything.” If Davidge found this difficult, guitarist Bruschini had never experienced anything like it. Here was Del Naja, frustrated by a sound in his head that he couldn’t articulate, miming an imaginary guitar and going, Ner-ner ner-ner! Ner-ner-ner, ner! Thus was the Best Album of 1998 made.
One song had a hissing groove; a bassline that changed completely halfway through; absurdist lyrics made menacing by the urgency of their delivery; and a staccato guitar effect that sounded like the track was hyperventilating. This was Risingson, which Massive decided to release as a limited edition single, as the album had just blown its second deadline. Bruschini recalls, “Most of the songs were still in a blueprint form six-seven montns down the line. JNobody knew how the hell it was going to happen – nobody.”
Horace Andy, the sweet-voiced Jamaican reggae star now in his late forties, has sung on every Massive album. Del Naja had earmarked him as the ideal vocalist for a bizarre version of Straight To Hell by The Clash that sampled a Sex Gang Children record. They cued the track up for him in London’s Olympic Studios, only to discover that Andy, a religious man, was unwilling to sing the word “hell”. There was no way round it. “It was like, Let’s fucking sort this out now” Del Naja snaps. “In the space of four hours we stripped all the music away, wrote loads of stuff around it, keeping some of the old melody, putting in Horace’s new melodies, taking the Sex Gang sample away, halving the tempo and adding new words.” This was Angel, the album’s brilliant opening song. One line in particular would set the tone for the music that followed: “Her eyes… she’s on the dark side.
In July, as Massive debuted Angel and three other new songs at key festival dates around Europe, Risingson was released. The joint-strangest single of the year (alongside Paranoid Android), it charted at Number 11. “They were very, very nervous,” Bruschini confirms. “There was a big sigh of relief when that sold, I think.”
With half the album recorded, Massive granted their first UK interview in two years. The London listings magazine article featured a heated argument between Del Naja and Vowles over the merits of Puff Daddy. Announcing that he’d grown out of hip hop, Del Naja managed to antagonise the hip hop-loving Vowles, who didn’t like the implication that his tastes were immature. “The next album’s gonna take six years,” Marshall dead-panned. “In fact, we re splitting up after it.”
They very nearly had.
Backstage at the Spektrum in Oslo, an amused Vowles is watching Gym And Tonic by Spacedust on MTV. Egged on by Marshall, he turns the volume right up, attempting to blow the television’s speakers. A reticent character, Vowles is hard to interview; there’s one song on Mezzanine he’d rather not talk about. It’s Teardrop. Del Naja, choosing his words carefully, says, “Me and Mush can’t talk about music any more. There’s things we want to say to each other that aren’t very nice.” Marshall is less circumspect. “At the time,” he frowns, “it seemed like an act of treachery.” When Neil Davidge picked out a pretty harpsichord melody one April day in 1997, there was no hint of the drama to come. Vowles, arriving at the studio, asked him what the tune was. Davidge replied it had just entered his head. Taken by it, Vowles got him to play it into the computer, whereupon they began adding sombre piano chords and beats. They gave it the working title No Don’t – a back-to-front way of saying “don’t know”. It already had the potential to be the equal of Protection’s heart-tugging tide track.
In the three years since Tracey Thorn sang that song, Massive’s pool of suitable (and available) vocalists had changed. Del Naja’s one-time part-ner-in-rap Tricky, now a solo star, was no longer an option; to compensate, Marshall had to increase his own role considerably. The only female singer used on the sessions so far was a discovery of Picken’s, Sara Jay, who sang Dissolved Girl. Vocalists for other tracks remained up in the air. “You just hear a piece of music and think, So-and-so would sound good on this,” Vowles deliberates.
“It just makes itself apparent to you. It’s like deciding what clothes to wear.”
Vowles, whose attachment to No Don’t had grown strong, believed it needed a soul vocalist. Marshall and Del Naja, however, imagined someone entirely different: Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. They argued over this – bitterly. As Fraser was pencilled in for a session in late May, Vowles saw his control over the song slipping away. Years of simmering tension came to a head. Something happened that put everybody in a terribly awkward position: one day Massive got a call from Madonna’s management in America saying she adored No Don’t and would – of course, thank you – be delighted to use it. Er… what? Nobody has ever confirmed Vowles as the sender.
By the time Massive extricated themselves from this embarrassment, relations between Vowles and the others had deteriorated, but he still had one last card to play. When Fraser sang her chillingly lovely melody line (on what was now called Teardrop), it wasn’t to the instrumental backing of No Don’t, but to a similar instrumental constructed by Davidge from several other sources. Petulantly, Vowles had taken his ball home with him.
Now that over a year has passed, Del Naja is diplomatic: “It’s difficult for me to talk about it now, because it’s obviously a bone of contention between us all. But me and G were obviously really unhappy about the situation. It was at a point where, after a lot of meandering, the album was finally starting to develop. There were seven or eight tracks happening which were really sounding like they made a lot of sense.”
With Angel, Risingson and now Teardrop in the can, the album had its opening three songs. Fittingly, since Fraser’s vocal had given the sessions its greatest boost of energy, Teardrop would stand out as many listeners’ favourite track. “It sounds good now,” is all Vowles will say of Fraser’s remarkable performance.
As the sessions at Christchurch descended into pettiness (“Are we a fucking punk band now?” Vowles is alleged to have shouted at one point), manager Marc Picken and co-producer Davidge rallied to save the album. A holiday cottage in Cornwall was hired in September, enabling Del Naja, Bruschini and Sara Jay to fine-tune ongoing ^ material in the countryside, leaving Christchurch free for Vowles and Marshall to work – though not | at the same time. The thinking was: as long as the three guys didn’t meet, they wouldn’t fight. Amazingly, it proved a viable arrangement.
Del Naja’s image of the album – an agitated mutant unable to communicate – now mirrored the bad feeling in the band. He had a title for it: Mezzanine, a floor between floors; a no man’s land; a stuck lift. Returning from Istanbul in July, he’d brought cassettes of Turkish music which inspired a new track, Inertia Creeps. Full-throttle and super-percussive, Inertia, along with three other incomplete pieces – Group Four, Black Milk and Mezzanine – made up the “big four”, a quartet of shadowy, sinister gatecrashers that marked out the distance they’d come since Protection.
By late November, activity was intense on three fronts: recording in shifts at Christchurch and in Cornwall, and mixing at Olympic. Liz Fraser, whose name it was once again safe to mention, had sung on Black Milk – and this was an important turnaround, because whilst it sounded as saturnine as any Del Naja track, it had been created by Vowles and Marshall without him. “I was like, Fucking great,” beams Del Naja. “The album’s taking shape without me having to be there.”
Del Naja, taking charge of Group Four, oversaw not one but two Fraser vocals — sung weeks apart – and had Davidge stitch an epic, near-Zeppelin finale onto the original frame. As for the title track, it went to a fifth mix at Olympic. Christmas passed and still they weren’t ready. Even at ultimate deadline, arrangements were being tweaked. They were like the chefs on Ready Steady Cook, frantically wiping the surface tops and adding the garnish seconds after the gong has sounded. “Literally, the final mixes were going down and we were saying, No, stop – try this instead!” remembers Davidge. “That’s why I wouldn’t say that any of those tracks are necessarily finished. We just stopped at that particular point.”
On Monday, November 2, 1998, while Massive were awaking in Copenhagen, Danny O’Connor’s story ran on Ceefax. It suggested the band had given their “strongest indication yet” that a split was possible. The Sun found the full transcript of his interview on The Net’s Web site; “sampled” some unrelated quotes and glued them into an incriminating paragraph; and suddenly Del Naja was “admitting” Massive were breaking up.
A hastily issued Massive press release rubbished the claim, blaming O’Connor’s “cliched” questioning, although it somehow forgot to condemn The Sun’s deceit. In all the fuss, nobody quoted Vowles, who’d said that work on a new album was likely to commence in early 1999.
Marshall, who has described the recording of Mezzanine as the most traumatic time of his life, tells Q he has no wish to repeat the experience. In future, therefore, they will work separately, White Album style, on self-written tracks, then bring them together. “Being apart will give people the freedom to work,” Del Naja agrees. “I think it’ll be a better way”
To put Massive’s trials, tribulations and traumas in context, one needs to go down a couple of floors. While they were making Mezzanine, Bristol rock band Strangelove, working in Christchurch’s studio downstairs, recorded an entire album, promoted it, toured it – and split up. Massive Attack are still together.
Written By David Cavanagh