ScanS → Q Magazine Interview #3
Publication Date: April 2010
Massive Attack have been hunting spiders. “You could really see the whites of their eyes!” says Robert “3D” Del Naja. “I was shitting it with the camera.” An afternoon among the foliage of Sydney’s majestic Royal Botanic Gardens, seeking out enormous spiders in the 28-degree sunshine, has gone some way to shooing away the day’s hangover. The morning after the gig before had been rough. Last night’s all-back-to-his had finished when Del Naja finally got his head down at 6.30am (“fell into, onto, under, the bed…”). He woke to find broken glass swept into the corner of his rented kitchen, the floor like a Jacuzzi. “It was like a fucking teenage pyjama party, man,” he says. “Fucking glass everywhere, fag ash, fag butts – it was, like, ‘What the fuck happened here?”’ He’d fared better than long-standing guitarist Angelo Bruschini. “I came offstage, G [Grant “Daddy G”Marshall] handed me a spliff. Took one drag and had a total whitey,” the genial peroxidehaired musician explains. “They had to get me a cab.” He didn’t make it to bed at all. “Lay on the floor in front of the TV, woke up at 7am.”
Massive Attack are not what you think. In photographs the pair look like they’ve been sent round to menace you for late rent. In person they could scarcely be more geezerly, grabbing your arm conspiratorially and cackling away, Del Naja’s chamois-creased face testament to a life enjoyed to the full. (“He’s a party boy,” says someone who’s worked with them throughout their 22-year career. “He’s Damon Albarn’s best mate. What do you expect?”) And never let it be said the visually astute Bristolians don’t appreciate the power of a strong image. When one magazine lit on the groundbreaking idea of publishing a photograph of Marshall smiling on its cover, he hit the roof.
Tonight is the second of two Massive Attack shows in front of the Sydney Opera House, the start of a tour that will see them traverse Australasia, North America and Europe between now and summer. Last night one of the world’s most spectacular settings proved a fine backdrop to one of music’s more spectacular live shows -a cerebral 16-song, 106-minute performance that rivals Radiohead for rock dynamics, vexed nerves, implied drama, astounding sound and thrashing aftershock. A carnival of white light and black vibes, it incorporates miraculous vocal turns from the extended Massive family – one-time public school choirgirl Martina Topley Bird, Studio One veteran and father-of-16 Horace Andy (clearly no fan of Protection) and session singer Deborah Miller, whose full-bodied takes on Safe From Harm and Unfinished Sympathy are even better than those made famous on record by Shara Nelson. In the catering area next to the stage facing the Opera House, adjacent to Sydney’s shimmering harbour, Del Naja and Marshall steel themselves for Round Two.
“I’m in a right old state tonight,” says Marshall.
“I’m in a right old state every night,” sighs Del Naja.
Someone fetches them restorative flutes of champagne. Marshall sets about doing what every
Massive Attack article is obliged to report him doing – building a terrifying spliff.
“Don’t say I’m making a spliff in this interview,” he says.
“Best thing to do – give him a bit; erase his memory,” chortles Del Naja.
“Like fucking Men In Black!”
“A Jedi mind trick! Exactly!”
Last night the audience demographic was broad. Surprising, perhaps, given that Massive Attack’s landmark Blue Lines album came out the same year Pixie Lott was born. “Oh, fucking hell,” Del Naja says. “That’s terrifying.” Nowadays when they ask teenagers how they got into their music, they’ll sometimes say through their parents. Blue Lines was the album they were conceived to. “That’s my line, actually,” booms Marshall. ‘“You were conceived to Blue Lines?
Do you fancy a shag to Blue Lines?’”
“That’s the shittest chat-up line,” says Del Naja. “That really is a bit weird…”
But then even if you were to take away the celebrated songbook and stellar singers from the performance, you’d still be in for a pretty good night out. That’s down to their light show, devised with ongoing collaborators United Visual Artists, the British collective whose work has been seen in London’s V&A Museum. Stage-spanning dot-matrix screens become Del Naja’s graffiti wall: slogans and figures are sprayed across it with agit-pop abandon, the content tailored to their location. Last night NICOLE KIDMAN GETS SAUCY FOR VOGUE got a big cheer; PAULINE HANSON TO EMIGRATE -referring to the anti-immigration Australian politician – wild applause. (The less specifically Antipodean GERARD ON JENNIFER: I TRIMMED HER BUSH was also popular.)
“One time, going through Spain, we went from Spanish to Catalan to Basque in three days -gave our programmers a fucking nightmare,” says Del Naja. “We try and make it not too pop; but not too much information to do everyone’s head in. That balance of information and disco. It’s the disco information unit!”
“Hurrr! Hurrr!” says Marshall.
In Milan last year they earned a warning from police that they could “incite violence” after scrolling the message that 180 minors had died in police custody in the last decade – something they’d seen posted by left-wing Italian blogger Beppe Grillo. Someone put it on YouTube and the authorities came knocking. “It was probably the most complete cycle of information we’ve ever been involved in,” says Del Naja. Responses like this make Massive Attack happy. “Oh yeah, it’s funny watching people’s faces,” he continues. “Some people come to our gigs with sunglasses -people who come regularly – cos their eyes are so fucked. You see them on the front row: Oh, you’ve been before, then.” “Headphones on as well,” Marshall fibs.
The last time the winners of the recent Ivor Novello for Outstanding Contribution to British Music were in Australia, The Matrix sequels were in the cinema and a saucy new singer called Christina Aguilera was on the up. When you’re the sort of band who spend seven years toiling over your album, touring becomes the carrot at the end of the stick. “You work hard in the studio, you need a bit of play. It’s become a bit more recreational, touring. It has to be at my time of life,” concludes Marshall, who is 50.
“You do everything recreationally,” says Del Naja, and they fall about.
Sydney, Del Naja surmises, “is a fucking strange place”. “Fucking colonies… it’s like a housing estate on the beach, isn’t it? If every fucking didgeridoo sold to a tourist went back to the aboriginal people, they might be a bit better off, you know?” He considers this. “I mean,
I haven’t actually seen an aboriginal person.”
If Massive Attack’s live show is now a masterful fusion of the electronic and the organic, of sound and light, it wasn’t always thus. “Man, we did some fucking terrible shows,” says Del Naja. “Our thing as a sound system [The Wild Bunch, the ’80s DJ-musician-graffiti collective that included Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper] back in the old days was a laugh. But when we tried to recreate that onstage on [an early] American tour, we got cancelled after one coast.” “We got laughed out, didn’t we?” “We cleared the whole room, man. We had three people left. And they were all our mates. And they decided to be even more enthusiastic, which made it worse. It was like, Shut up, we know this is shit. Don’t fucking clap. Just go with the rest of them, go and have some fucking fun and leave us alone. We had the curtain dropped on us halfway through the set. Horace was singing [Blue Lines track] Five Man Army. Prince was watching, too. We always imagine him with his thumbs down, Roman emperor-style.”
Recent events have rather put Del Naja in mind of those early days. For top-drawer fifth album Heligoland – which reveals its charms slowly, the dictionary definition of “a grower” -he returned to his graffiti art roots and painted the cover art, an ominous-looking figure beneath a monochrome rainbow. Transport for London then banned all advertising carrying the image.
Their reason: paint drips in the picture would encourage graffiti. “Obviously the irony is wonderful,” says Del Naja, who during his time on Margaret Thatcher’s Youth Opportunities Programme got community service for painting on walls. “It’s fucking funny. The first thing I’d painted in ages; we’d done photographs for the last three albums. But I think they had a problem with the minstrel-based image…”
“It was confrontational, wasn’t it?” offers Marshall. “And I don’t think they liked it.”
Still, along with fellow West Country iconoclast Banksy – who cites Del Naja as his inspiration, though cut his contribution to March’s documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop: A Banksy Film, “Yeah, cheers for that!
Don’t worry about my time! Anything for you, Banksy mate! ” – you have to conclude their youthful hobbies have seen them alright.
“It’s still the punk ethic, innit?” says Marshall. “We blagged it, my son! We blagged it!”
Topley Bird comes andjoins us. She’s just finished her support slot. Massive Attack are onstage in 15 minutes. Time to get ready. She eyes up Del Naja. “Are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday?”
It is with admirably perverse Massive Attack logic that their big set opener is United Snakes, 10 minutes of wobbling rave bass, dry ice and strobes that you can see the audience scratching their heads to place – then giving up. (It was the B-side to the UNKLE remix of False Flags, a song itself that’s only found on the two-disc rarities package of 2006’s Collected Best Of.) But then the band have given up selling themselves in the usual way. There will be no singles from Heligoland. Their next release will be an EP of new music. These days their income comes from playing live (Heligoland is free to download with every ticket in Sydney). Even after all these years they’ve remained a headlining draw; one European festival has reportedly offered them £500,000 to play this summer. And why not? Massive Attack have never dated because they’ve remained removed from whatever else is going on in music: releasing the groovily sombre Blue Lines at the height of acid house, the classically-influenced Protection when every other hipster had “gone” drum’n’bass and the angry, rock-centric Mezzanine when everyone was holding hands to The Verve’s The Drugs Don’t Work. (“Are we a fucking punk band now?” grumbled founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles; then left.)
Onstage Del Naja reintroduces “the lovely Martina Topley Bird” to sing Heligoland’s lovely Babel – Massive Attack’s rolling cast of singers becoming like actors in a play, deployed for different scenes and each eliciting their own response from the audience. Del Naja might have accepted his band’s 1996 Brit Award for Best Dance Act with, “It’s quite ironic, cos none of us can dance”, but on both nights he’s dancing for everyone – jittering like a cat around a rocking chair. (“It’s the only way to stay awake, innit?” he’ll joke afterwards.) You might question Marshall’s input – he joins Del Najafor Risingson, Mezzanine, Atlas Air and Karmacoma only before disappearing backstage to his Veuve Clicquot and monster carrot – were it not for the cheers that greet every rumble from his 6’ 5” frame. Horace Andy’s take on Angel, originally a cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell before being rerouted when he balked at the lyrics on Rastafarian grounds, is spectacular. As befits a group whose Atlas Air started life as a song about falling in love with an internet pom star, became one about online relationships and emerged as a diatribe against rendition, you’re hard pressed to work out what most of Massive Attack’s tunes are actually about, their stock in foreboding unease being of an unspecified bent. And if there are times when the on-screen sloganeering (dialogue between fighter pilots; British MPs’ expenses claims; Jean-Paul Sartre quotes) becomes less Babel, more babble, it’s hard to come away from these evenings, as Marshall milks a lugubrious closing Karmacoma for all the love the audience has to give, without concluding that Massive Attack remain utterly unique.
Post-gig Marshall, Del Naja and Topley Bird reflect on Bristol’s recent polling as Britain’s “most musical city” – a figure arrived at after it was deduced the city has spawned more musicians per capita than any other. “There’s fucking 75,000 students there, and they’ve all got guitars,” reasons Del Naja.
“I thought we were third?” says Marshall.
“No, third most violent,” says Del Naja.
It’s information, they conclude, the Bristol City Council “will use on their brochures for the next 10 years”. Doubtless next to their photo. “They’re so fucking lame! Maybe we should impose our photo on top of a slave ship,” figures Del Naja, referring to Bristol’s prominence in the 18th-century slave trade, “and give them that.” And what of their new EP, due out this month? Del Naja: “We’ve got loads of tracks we haven’t finished…”
Topley Bird: “Pfffft!”
Del Naja: “See, you can tell by the level of humour and enthusiasm how close they are…”
If you think the group whose MySpace page states, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly”, can’t chivvy themselves up, you could well be wrong. Del Naja wants to get another album out this year. Music to the ears of their beleaguered parent label EMI? Maybe not. “That would get us out of a record deal. We could sell our albums for £2 digitally and make more money than we do in our fucking deal.” Then there’s the hush-hush Heligoland remix album, being done by enigmatic dubstep artist Burial. “It’s happening, but we can’t talk about it. He’s very private and paranoid about it,” says Del Naja.
“He’s more mysterious than us,” chuckles Marshall.
That would make three Massive Attack albums in one year.
“I know!” says Del Naja. “Can you imagine? Everyone would go, Those cunts! They had it in them all the time.”
Written By Johnny Davis