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Publication Date: April 2003

For any musician, the only thing worse than wallowing away in obscurity is trying to build upon years of unqualified success. For the members of Massive Attack, the pressure became almost too much to bear. From nearly the moment they appeared on the scene, Massive Attack has been heralded as one of the few truly revolutionary forces in modern music: Many credit them with putting the Bristol trip-hop scene on the map and paving the way for artists such as Portishead and Tricky. Massive’s sound synthesizes the most important aspects of electronic music, dub, hip-hop and even guitar-driven modern rock. More important, though, the members have always sought to infuse their music with a human, emotional component that makes their work connect with a far more diverse audience—an approach that has always set them apart from many electronic-music artists. Their dark, ambiguous, almost faceless public persona and careful attention to visual detail have also worked to solidify their reputation as consummate multimedia artists.

Massive Attack’s last album, Mezzanine (Virgin, 1998), which sold in excess of 3 million copies, catapulted the band from its status as a music-critic buzzword to a worldwide musical enterprise. Through the inclusion of tracks such as “Teardrop”—featuring vocals by Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins—and “Inertia Creeps” on numerous film soundtracks and because of heavy media rotation, the hypnotic, processed guitar sound of Mezzanine became difficult to escape, and it produced Massive’s most tangible level of success here in the States. Success on that level forced the band into a difficult situation: Demanding promotional schedules and the extensive touring eventually forced the members of the band— 3D (born Robert del Naja), Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant “Daddy Gee” Marshal—to come to terms with what the band’s future may hold. “We’d all gone off in different ways in our heads,” 3D explains. “It was very difficult after Mezzanine, because it was a whole year of resolving issues and splitting up effectively.”

Although Daddy Gee used the opportunity to invest time in his personal life and prepare himself to rejoin Massive Attack at a later date, Mushroom’s permanent departure from the project centered mostly on conflicting visions of where the band should take its sound. As 3D would reiterate numerous times, the band had always sought to frame each album as a reaction to its predecessor—a way for Massive Attack to distance itself from what was expected of it.

“I wanted to get away from the kind of more soulful elements we were getting into,” 3D continues. “I felt that the music I was listening to was all about safety and warmth, and I wanted to do something a bit colder. And it eventually brought around the split between me and Mushroom because we completely disagreed on that subject.” With both Daddy Gee and Mushroom out of the picture for the time being, 3D and longtime producer Neil Davidge were left with the task of sculpting the next Massive Attack album entirely on their own.

The writing process for what would become the most recent Massive Attack album, 100th Window (Virgin, 2003), began at a residential studio outside of London called Rich Farm. 3D had already spent some time constructing a blueprint for how he wanted the sessions to proceed. Armed with a collection of tiny loops, samples and odd keyboard and guitar lines, he wanted to build up a pool of sounds and ideas based on live, improvisational jams—a process he likened to classic late-’60s studio experiments. To help the process along, 3D and Davidge brought along members of Lupine Howl (Sean Cook, Mike Mooney and Damon Reece)—who are better known for their work with Spiritualized—to add live guitars, bass and drums.

“We spent two weeks of recording just hours and hours of jams,” 3D explains. “And we set up lights and strobes. When we felt the track was getting slow, we’d turn up the lights, and everyone would get a bit fucked up and try and get that old ’60s or ’70s jamming atmosphere. And we got some amazing psychedelic sort of journeys or bits of music, and we had hours and hours of this stuff, which was amazing. We proceeded to reconstruct it in the studio in Bristol, which was a fucking very long-winded process. We sat there with Pro Tools and tried to put the jams back up and sort of tried to tidy them up a bit. We were going back in to pull little bits out—like drums, bass and guitar parts— and we ended up with lots and lots of quite interesting tracks.”
With more than 100 hours of material tracked during those sessions, 3D firmly believed that it was going to be the album’s foundation. Much of the impetus behind this approach stemmed from a conscious decision to eschew any use of samples or material that wasn’t their own—both for legal and artistic reasons. Unfortunately, through the course of editing the material into usable bits, 3D felt that the essence of the recordings got lost when they were removed from their original context.

“As the year went on,” he continues, “what was apparent was that by the very nature of the process, we were destroying the moments we’d created live. And the little parts, individually, didn’t have the magic when they weren’t working alongside the other parts. When it came to sampling and rebuilding, we thought we’d created a master source of material, a big well to draw from. But it didn’t actually quite work out. I think a lot of the things I was feeling was that the bits sounded slightly post-Mezzanine, as well: very guitar-driven. And as much as I thought it was great, I wasn’t turning us on to write new songs.”

Massive Attack spent the better part of 2001 attempting to create a workable foundation from the Rich Farm sessions, which, once edited, yielded an untold amount of material. “We went through a whole period in 2001, after we’d done this, not really coming up with songs and developed tracks, but lots of hapless instrumentals, which were starting to bring us down a little bit,” 3D says. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2002 that 3D realized he had been heading in the wrong direction all along.

“It came to the end of that year, 2001,” 3D recalls, “and it was just back over Christmas. We were in the studio, listening to the little bits we’d done. And [we were] floundering a bit and coming to terms with the fact that what we were doing wasn’t very good, which is a pretty difficult place to be when you started with an idea that you thought was bulletproof. And after Christmas, myself and Neil came back into the studio with the guys, and we said, ‘Look, we just have to start again and write some new things from scratch.’”

Once 3D and Davidge had made the decision to begin rebuilding the album from scratch, they progressed quickly. The group owns their own facility in Bristol, which houses a full-fledged Digidesign Pro Tools TDM-equipped studio, as well as a secondary writing room for 3D. The secondary space comprises a Mac-based Pro Tools LE system and functions as a simple workspace. One of the most important aspects of the studio, according to 3D, is the Ethernet connection that runs throughout the facility. Ideas, sessions and files can be quickly shared between the various rooms—an ability that proved to be vital to the writing process.

“We bought a lot of spare drives, so we constantly keep things backed up on drives,” he explains. “We do a lot of restoring drives to get old sessions back up, and it gets quite complicated. But we’re kind of upgrading things at the moment because we’re always running out of bloody DSP power. It’s always the same story. But everything is on [Pro] Tools, which is quite weird because everything ends up going into the same place whether it’s vocals or keyboard parts or live jams; it always ends up in the same place.

“We used everything [on this record]: Moogs, Junos, Roland keyboards—stuff like that—and basic plug-ins like Absynth inside [Pro] Tools,” 3D says. “And we used things like GRM Tools and Speed and Amp Farm, all the usual kinds of toys, really. Damon Reece would bring his electronic drums up here, and we’d sample sounds into that, or we’d use a live kit and mike that.”
During the course of just a few short months, the band wrote the majority of the record. “We took two of the tracks with us from the previous year’s work, which was ‘A Prayer for England,’ which we recorded with Sinead O’Connor in London, and the instrumental for ‘What Your Soul Sings,’ which we liked too much to want to discard. We took that with us into last year and basically rewrote the album. We started with ‘Future Proof’ and then went into ‘What Your Soul Sings’ then ‘Special Cases,’ ‘Small Time Shot Away,’ ‘Everywhen,’ ‘Antistar;’ and then it kinda slowly developed. By February and March, I was booking studios for June and July because I was confident we were going to finish it.”

In direct contrast to the improvisational approach, 3D took the writing process back to a much more familiar place: Many of the tracks on 100th Window began as simple keyboard or guitar lines, sparse arpeggiator patterns and drumbeats. Although it may not be immediately noticeable, 3D explains that this album is far and away the most complex piece of work the band has ever put out. Where Mezzanine showcased more stripped-down arrangements and relied on heavy guitars and drums, the new album is designed to be a more intricate and exacting piece of work.

One such example of this new approach is the closing track, “Antistar.” The band booked time at Sony Music Studios in London to record the string parts that build toward the middle of the track. To achieve the Eastern-influenced feel that the group wanted, each discrete track had to be edited, and individual notes had to be pitch-bent to precise quarter tones—an exhausting process that Davidge had to complete entirely by ear. To finish the song, however, the group used a simple breakbeat rhythm that was programmed with a Korg Electribe drum machine.

“We started to work in the way we normally worked, which was to start with very simple ideas rather than lots of ideas,” 3D says. “We’d start with a couple of guitar parts with a beat put to it, sound waves or keyboard parts, and then start writing some vocals and writing some lyrics for songs. And that was just how we kind of ended up going, rebuilding everything from scratch but with very minimal moments.

“So now, of course,” 3D continues, “it does seem like it was meant to be. It was fated, but at the time, it didn’t feel that [way] at all. It felt utterly miserable, and if you look at the album budget, it will testify that. It’s going to cost me a lot of money, that whole two years working with 80,000 pieces of music we didn’t use.”

Following the release of 100th Window, Massive Attack is gearing up for its first tour in several years. Rejoining 3D on the road is founding member Daddy Gee. And if their current plans hold up, they plan to release their fifth album sometime inside of the next year.

Written By Robert Hanson