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Publication Date: Feburary 2010

They have released just four albums since their groundbreaking 1991 debut — Blue Lines – and have seemingly spent half of their career arguing with each other, so the biggest surprise about Massive Attack’s latest record isn’t so much that it took so long, it’s more that it has arrived at all.

Even by their standards, Heligoland ha,s been a long time coming, yet it is undoubtedly the sound of a band firing on all cylinders for the first time since 1998’s ‘difficult’ third album – Mezzanine – which signalled the departure of founding member, Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, who was unable to live with what he saw as the band’s betrayal of their hip-hop and reggae roots. Although he toured to promote their last long-player — 100th Window — Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall’s role in the making of the album was so minimal that many believed it was little more than a solo project by their one remaining full-time member, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, who was considering retiring the Massive Attack name entirely.

Happily, there is no obvious sign of friction today when we meet in a suite on the top floor of The Berkeley Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge. It has to be said, they are a bit of an odd couple. They both (pictured left) laugh a lot more than you would expect, but you can still detect something of a polite awkwardness between them. Marshall is 6 ft 6 and displays a decidedly happy-go-lucky persona, entirely at odds with his mean and moody onstage presence. His partner in rhyme is slight by comparison and talks 10 to the dozen about any subject you care to mention.

Named after the German archipelago of two tiny islands in the North Sea, Heligoland is a more organic song-based album than any of their previous releases, although their sumptuous subterranean sound is still at the heart of their music. Having previously expanded their musical palette by bringing in instantly recognisable voices such as Elizabeth Fraser and Tracey Thorn, Heligoland features an eclectic array of singers including Damon Albarn, Guy Garvey (Elbow), Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) and Tricky’s former-muse, Martina Topley-Bird.

The band were formed from the ashes of The Wild Bunch, a Bristol-based soundsystem who got together in the early 80s and built their reputation on their fusion of punk, reggae and hip-hop. Blue Lines introduced the voices of Tricky, Shara Nelson and Horace Andy to the public consciousness, and although it sold well in the UK and immediately received a raft of glowing reviews, its commercial fortunes were limited elsewhere, despite the presence of Unfinished Sympathy and Safe From Harm, two of the most memorable songs of the last 20 years.

Massive Attack produced a seamless mix of soulful melodies, slow-burning hip-hop rhythms and hypnotic reggae grooves that was as innovative as it was influential, with timeless albums like Blue Lines and Protection capturing the Zeitgeist and laying the foundations for much of the music that emerged over the next decade. While their smoky subterranean sound was perceived as dance music, it was undoubtedly music for the head rather than the feet.

When you first released Blue Lines, did you find it frustrating that everyone seemed to be focusing on ‘trip-hop’ at the time?

Robert Del Naja: Well, trip-hop was a phrase which was initially coined by our friend, James Lavelle, and I think it was actually a pretty accurate way of describing something which sat in between hip-hop and psychedelic soul. The music had a different quality to it and took you on a different journey, so it wasn’t easy to pin down, and I thought that made sense.

You seemed to get pigeonholed alongside other Bristol-based bands like Portishead, yet what you were doing was completely different to them.

RDN: The problem for all of us at that time was that, being in a small city, none of us wanted to be in the same game and we all felt that we were the biggest fish in the pond. That was particularly the case for us, because we felt that we were probably the godfathers of the scene and we didn’t want these upstarts in our pond. When everyone started to establish their own identities, it was difficult for us, Tricky and Portishead to constantly have that reference thrown in your face. We didn’t want to be so closely associated with anyone else, so there was a natural reaction to respond negatively to it.

Grant Marshall: It was a generic cage, really. There just wasn’t enough bread to go round in the pond we were swimming in. There was definitely something special about Blue Lines, but it was coming from the inside out, because we thought we were doing something different to everyone else. When we were recording Blue Lines, the whole club scene was all up-tempo house or rave music, and we were the antithesis of that really.

Having started out as a DJ soundsystem, did you find it difficult to make the transition into becoming a fully-fledged band?

GM: Eventually we just naturally evolved from that soundsystem thing into the band situation. We emulated the Jamaican reggae soundsystems for years, but that became quite restrictive, so it was time to move on from working with turntables to bringing in musicians like Talvin Singh to play with us. We were playing a lot of the backing tracks off the vinyl, and if the record jumped, then the drummer is completely out of time, so it was all a total mess. We were heavily involved in the club scene, and we’ve still got that love. You can’t forget where you came from, can you?

RDN: The funny and ironic thing is that initially we came from the DJ thing where you just tore peoples’ music apart, sampled bits of it, looped it and then basically stole it without any reverence to it. You might take eight bars off one track and then go -We’ll have that — and then go and make a tune off of it. To be honest, it was really totally about stealing and it had nothing whatsoever to do with respect. Blue Lines was a series of fucking accidents.. .At best (laughs). We had massive rows and we nearly split up halfway through the making of that record, because nobody knew what we were gonna come up with or what the intention was. Blue Lines was a speculative demo which became what it was with a lot of help from great people like Horace Andy and Shara Nelson, and it then became an album and we suddenly became ‘an albums band.’

Having created such a stir with Blue Lines, did you feel under a lot of pressure to follow it up with something equally different?

RDN: Protection became this slightly difficult record to follow Blue Lines with, and Mezzanine was then a fractious process of trying to do something different and fight against everything we’d been doing previously and that caused a lot of resentment in the group. Mezzanine was conceptually different from the previous two, and by that time, we were stuck in that zone of being ‘a serious albums band.’ There’s always been a pact with the devil to kind of move on from the last thing, whether you like it or not. For us, after each record it feels like it’s all fallen apart and broken away, because it’s such a tenuous thing we do in the sense that it’s so unorthodox and we’re so different. There’s definitely loads of accidents and mistakes and a bit of blag involved in what we do. Sometimes you’re not really sure what you’re doing and you get away with it, but that is tempered with a lot of fucking effort. You might get away with it once, but blagging is not something you can live off on a long term basis, because people will see through it very quickly. Although a lot of politicians get away with it.

Do you think that the power of music has been dissipated over time? The concept of seeing an album as an artefact that you cherish seems to be disappearing rapidly, doesn’t it?

RDN: Well, that’s certainly true. When you talk about an artefact…Something to hold…That process hasn’t really got any weaker for us. For me, the creation of the thing that you first see on a digital ad is as vitally important as the record you listen to, because it’s your gateway into what’s been going on. We’ve been punished by the record company for years, because all of the special things we wanted to do in terms of sleeves and packaging would cost us because it’s deducted from your royalties. Surely there’s got to be a bit of give and take, hasn’t there?

Do you think everything is too disposable to be truly valued these days?

RDN: It’s a very funny time. No wonder people are shying away from it and just getting it any way they can. There is a total devaluation in everything generally in the way that we live today. Everything is fast and disposable, and that’s symptomatic of the human race evolving, the speed at which we travel or the amount of information we exchange. As kids, we used to go out and have to find something, save up for it and beg and borrow to actually get it…Or in some cases, steal for it. Now, even stealing isn’t really exciting, because you can get something for nothing without taking the risks, so there’s no point in even stealing (laughs).

GM: It’s back to that old thing that nobody really wants to pay for anything. I’ve got teenage nephews and nieces, and they don’t really care how they get hold of it so long as they’ve got it. Music seems like it’s less important than it was. We’ve come from that whole background of getting Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire album and going – wow, look at this. It’s a Zippo lighter – then taking it out and looking at it and opening it up. I mean, the first thing ‘D’ does when he gets an album is to give it a good old whiff {laughs). If you do that sort of thing, the whole physical side of it is complete, and I really think it adds to the whole aural experience.

Do you sympathise with the younger generation’s perception of music as something that you download as opposed to something physical that you can hold?

GM: You’ve got to have some empathy for these kids, because it’s just fast food to them. You’ve got an MP3 player, so you haven’t got the room for records and you haven’t got the time to be looking at them either. The people that I know who used to collect records have still got their records, but they’ve got no record player. They haven’t got the space or the time to sit down in front of the fire and enjoy the ritual of playing a record. I’ve got this music room downstairs with all my DJ stuff down there, and I’ve got records wall-to-wall. My litde five-year-old is used to playing CDs, so he looks at these turntables like — Fucking hell… What are these arcane things? He loves getting on the decks, because it’s like travelling back in time. Come and look at these antiques {laughs).

RDN: Come and have a look at daddy’s steam engine, son. You put the coal in there and watch the water heat up, then we’ll get some steam going and
we’ll be off soon. I was brought up listening to albums. It’s a ritual to put a record on, isn’t it? My mum introduced me to The Beatles’ albums, and the punk albums were heaven to me, because they were all powerful. After that, the DJ thing stripped that back into tracks, snippets of tracks and breakbeats, and then all of those things became as important as the album for me.

Is digital music of equal value to records and CDs?

RDN: I buy a lot of my stuff digitally as well as physically, so because of the history we’ve had, it all has equal value for me. I don’t believe that there’s a right or a wrong in terms of how you buy, collect or listen to music, but I think that what it actually means and how people value things has changed. Having said that, that’s not just music…It also goes for film, art and everything else. It’s all changed.

It’s been seven years since your last album. How much material have you actually binned?

RDN: It s not that we scrapped all of the other stuff we were working on — some of it’s been shelved, some has been dismantled and some of it’s just been forgotten. I think it’s a natural process with anything, because you change your perspective as you go along. It’s been seven years since 100th Window, but apart from a few tracks we kept from the past couple of years, it’s only been seven or eight months making it. Modern technology means that you can noodle around forever. With this record we were determined to strip the noodling away and make it sound more personal, so every sound you listen to is very present and clear in the room with you. You’re not necessarily destroying lots of pieces of music, you’re just changing it and building on top of it and stuff is getting buried as you go. I wouldn’t say we’re perfectionists -1 think we’re imperfectionists — because we look for the imperfection in everything.

GM: We were a bit bored of it. There was just a certain lack of energy that we thought it needed, and getting back into the studio, we found that energy. Having taken these tracks on tour in 2008, we kind of felt that the music just needed a little bit of something else and we felt like we had to start again.

Do you have a strong work ethic?

RDN: Well, ‘G’ certainly doesn’t {laughs). I wouldn’t exactly say it’s nine to five, but I actually work really hard. If I get to the studio at midday, I might stay until 10. I go in pretty much every day, sometimes on the weekend if I feel like it. I always feel like I’ve got to be doing something, so if I wake up with a load of ideas, I’ll go into the studio and exorcise some demons. I’ll walk to the studio and try and do all my mundane stuff on the phone, so when I get there, I haven’t got to think about it. ‘G”s phone goes off every five minutes, so he’s always getting distracted by something or other. We’ve both got very different ways of doing things.

GM: I: ’ve got a three-day week… If that. There’s a really weird perception that all we do is sit around taking loads of drugs, but it’s not as if we sit there smoking spliff all day, every day. I spend a lot of time playing table football as well {laughs). I don’t know… Maybe when we were making Blue Lines and Protection we were sitting around and smoking weed and stuff like that. We all know what we all get up to of an evening, but it’s definitely more of a recreational thing and it doesn’t actually hinder the creative process as such.

Would you say that you are quite hedonistic people?

RDN: To be honest with you, I think that drugs have enhanced the spirit in the studio, not necessarily the music-making. We are hedonistic people, but it doesn’t define the way we are or the way we work. There was a time on the tour in 2003 when it was very messy, but this recent tour was the most sober one I’ve ever done. It’s a two-day recovery for me after a big party now, but I can’t imagine anything more hideous and dull than a completely Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous tour. I’ve seen so many bands go that way, and I think it’s just so boring when things get driven in that direction.

Has your approach to sampling changed since you first started?

RDN: In the last decade, computer power has changed everything. In the mid-80s, we were using samplers to steal things in a completely anarchic and selfish way. We stole whatever we felt we wanted. You worked within your parameters, sampled a few seconds and then you’d be able to make a track out of it. Take a few bars from Billy Cobham’s Stratus…And boom, Safe From Harm was made. We’ve made a lot of lawyers very happy over the years by sampling, so we were like — OK, maybe it’s time to sample our own music.

Are you conscious of the fact that however much it has changed over the years, your music has always been instantly recognisable?

RDN: No matter what you do, you want to do something which sounds like nobody else, but you also don’t want it to sound like what you did yesterday, and if you can achieve that, I think that’s as good as it gets. Our personalities and all of the personalities of the people you work with are vital, because you want to work with like-minded souls, people who you admire, trust and respect. Hopefully, you then end up with an album with a very communal spirit.

What are your main criteria for selecting the singers for each song?

RDN: You often give people the tracks they don’t expect so they’re not in their comfort zone or you’re not in your own comfort zone. I mean, fuck me, over the years we’ve taken Horace out of his own comfort zone on every occasion.

GM: So much so that he can’t even go back to Jamaica now. He gets beaten up as soon as he gets off the plane {laughs). It’s like — You’re making that white man music again.’ Girl I Love You – from the new album — that’s a really good example of taking Horace away from what people might expect him to be doing.

How do you go about taking someone like Damon Albarn out of his comfort zone?

RDN: I don’t think you can with someone like Damon, because he’s already taken himself away from his own comfort zone so many times anyway. When we first met him in the mid-90s, everyone was saying how great Britpop was, but Damon was much more into music from the rest of the world than what was happening in England at the time. His perspective was the opposite of what everyone else thought it was. Everyone was looking in, thinking it was all about London and the Britpop thing, and he was looking over the ocean somewhere else going -You’re looking the wrong way, boys. He was right, and it soon devoured itself, like pop always does in the end, because it really needs to expand and to cross-breed to work, doesn’t it? Any music that in-breeds just becomes weak and then dies…He said in his poncey Darwinian voice. Even Noel Gallagher has now given Damon the respect he deserves, hasn’t he? I think he said that Damon is the real musician and he almost feels like a fake compared to him. The last time you spoke about Oasis, I got confronted by Liam in the toilets of the Met Bar saying that I’d slagged them off. I said — Don’t you mean ‘Daddy G’? Are you sure you haven’t got our names mixed up? And he goes – ‘No, man. It was ‘3D’, not ‘Daddy G’.’ I suppose we’ve both got really silly names, so it’s hard to tell {laughs).

GM: Well, I wouldn’t mind meeting Liam in the toilet with him pointing at me like that. I’ll knock the fucker out, I tell you.

How did you pick the vocalists for Heligoland?

RDN: A lot of them were natural choices and acquaintances of ours, so it was about time to do it. There was Damon, and then Guy Garvey was approached because of Elbow covering Teardrop and us loving Elbow. Hope Sandoval was somebody who we’ve loved for years…She’s the queen of angst. I suppose she was probably the most unpredictable name we worked with on.

Which artists would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t worked with already?

RDN: I think one of the saddest things was probably Jeff Buckley, because Elizabeth (Fraser) had a very strong relationship with him, unbeknown to us. She wrote Teardrop around the time of his death, so it was kind of about him. We were sitting at the table next to him at a hotel in London, but I was too shy to speak to him. That was an opportunity that we will always think was missed. The sad thing about death is that sainthood often follows, but in that case, he was just fundamentally brilliant. Aaron Neville has got a voice we’d love to work with. We have approached him, but it’s never quite happened.

Although you seem to be getting on a lot better than you were around the time of 100th Window, Heligoland still sounds pretty dark, don’t you think?

RDN: Really? It’s funny, because I thought it was much lighter. I think there’s quite an interesting variety of moods and perspectives…Light and shade. In terms of melody and rhythm, it’s a lot more urgent and upbeat, but if you mean dark in terms of the words, then I suppose it is still pretty dark.

GM: It’s the same dark times as when Blue Lines came out. We haven’t really achieved much as far as the state of the country goes, have we? The same key elements are still high on the agenda — shitty government, recession, the rise of fascism – so you can’t help but take those things on board when you’re making a record. When we did Blue Lines we were writing about things that were happening to us every day and things that we saw on the news, and so we just took all of those elements and wrote about them.

You have always been a political band, haven’t you?

RDN: The fact that we come from the margins of a multicultural city which has a strong history in the slaving business and also the fact that we got together in the 80s in the middle of Thatcher’s Britain and what was happening at the time with things like the Bristol riots is an important factor. That whole history is our history…We come from that. Lyrically, our music is political, but it’s political with a small ‘p’. There’s lots of lyrics which are just about being alive now and how fucked up and mad it all is.

When you and Damon Albarn tried to mobilise other artists into protesting against the invasion of Iraq, you were met with widespread indifference, weren’t you?

RDN: It was a very inert time. We couldn’t get any really well-known musicians behind us at all. Who knows why they were so reluctant to get involved? People just seemed to be paralysed by the fact that they didn’t know the answer. People were going – If I support the anti-war movement, am I pro-Saddam, and if I don’t, am I pro-war? To me, it was about being anti-war and anti-death. If you’re not a humanist, there’s no point in believing in environment issues or saying ‘save this’ or ‘save that’, ’cos if we don’t save ourselves from ourselves, then what’s the point in anything? Like a lot of people, I didn’t believe the 45-minute claim, and although we didn’t believe that having a million people on the streets protesting against the war that day would change anything, it seemed the right thing to do as a citizen of this country. We thought it might make the next government say -‘actually, this isn’t what the people wanted.’

Can you believe that it’s been almost 20 years since you released Blue Lines*.

GM: It’s scary, like people showing you pictures of yourself when you were a little kid. You pretend you remember them, but you don’t at all. I think it’s a bit like that with Blue Lines, because people keep telling us what a masterpiece it was and what a seminal album it was, but to be honest, we don’t look at it like that. It was just our first album, and it was great, but now we’ve moved to the next thing.

RDN: You don’t feel that different, you still feel that you’ve got the same energy and the same ideologies.It’s quite surreal. When Tricky came to the soundcheck in Paris the other day, we hadn’t seen him in about five years, and as I watched him walk up the stairs I thought, ‘Oh fuck, it’s Tricky’. What are we gonna talk about? And he was just like,‘Alright, Jack? How you doing?’ It took me right back to the beginning, because nothing had really changed.

It must have been difficult for you when ‘Mushroom’ left the band after you released Mezzanine.

RDN: It was tough, man…Really tough. After all this time and effort we’d put in and all of this friendship, all these moments were suddenly gonna be taken away. It wasn’t the fact that he left that was upsetting…We came to the conclusion that everyone was going in different directions and we just couldn’t work together any more.

GM: I didn’t find it at all upsetting when he left (laughs). After Mezzanine, it didn’t feel like we could work together again as a three-piece, so Heligoland proved that we can move forwards together.

Would it be fair to say that you wanted to broaden your musical horizons and he wanted to continue doing the more hip-hop based material?

RDN: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes you’ve got to make it confrontational in order to get a response and to create something, but we got to a point where there was a reluctance to even clash heads anymore. When you’re not doing that as a band, there’s no chemistry and no energy left. It was the contrast between the individual people in the band which brought us together in the first place.

GM: It was totally fire and ice, wasn’t it? You get brimstone off that, don’t you? It was a black and
white, oil and water sort of thing…And that created the sparks and the whole dynamics of what we were doing. The different pull on sounds and personalities has always been where we’re coming from.

Do you see each other a lot when you’re not working?

RDN: When you get to Heathrow on the last day of the tour, everyone just waves goodbye and it feels like that’s it. We don’t hang out together that much outside the band, although I actually live at the end of his road. It’s fine, because we get more than enough opportunities to hang out together doing this.

This band has always been always been incredibly important to you, hasn’t it?

GM: I know it sounds corny to say this, but me and ‘D’ have been to the lowest depths working menial jobs and stuff like that. When you actually get into something that you love and it’s given you the lifestyle and it’s opened the doors that it has for us, you’re not gonna turn your back on it easily. The more we do it, the more passionate we are about it.

RDN: Every record we’ve made has had at least one gigantic conflict in the middle of it which maybe actually defined that record. There has always been a history of conflict in the band, but this is the first record we’ve made without all the arguments. We’ve known each other for 27 years, so it’s a bit like a partnership or a marriage. We’ve had our moments of bitter feuding and resentment and all that crap, and then you realise it’s unimportant in terms of the big picture. Like they say, blood is thicker than music. At the end of the day, we’re family.

Heligoland is out now on Virgin Records. A deluxe triple-gatefold 180gm vinyl edition is available from The Vinyl Factory (

Written By Jonathan Wingate