ScanS → Sunday Times Interview #2

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Publication Date: January 2010

Somewhere back in the early 1990s, when Britain was dull in a different way, I first heard Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Then in my early thirties, 1 already thought I was too old for popular music. I’d sat out 1987’s so-called Summer of Love in a deckchair, and all the dancey-ravey music of that era struck me like someone stupidly wired beating up on a drum machine. London’s Wigmore Hall beckoned — and I was looking forward to it — when a girlfriend 10 years my junior plopped a vinyl disc onto my turntable and this sinuous, sensual, subversive soundscape sprang into being somewhere between my ears. Or was it in the room? Or even encompassing the whole block of flats?

There was this outside-in feel to the music, the “trippy” element supplied by echo, backbeat and tape-looping, then there was the underlying angular geometry of hip-hop: the Sprechgesang geezer lyrics buttressing the high-flying notes of the soul diva Shara Nelson. The band have always kicked against the categorisation “trip-hop”, which was coined to describe the emergent Bristol sound, and there’s something faintly charming about how they’re still at it.

In conversation with Grant “Daddy G” Marshall to mark the release of the band’s fifth studio album, Heligoland, he said: “I don’t look at trip-hop as being an apt name for what we do. I understand people wanting to look in record shops and find an album under that title, but it doesn’t really stick to Massive Attack.” His partner, Robert “3D” Del Naja, remains equally intransigent: “The trip-hop thing was always strange. I think all the bands — us, Tricky, Portis-head, Roni Size — nobody wants be in the same place, everyone wants to be individual. And as far as we were concerned, with the history of Bristol, we were the only fish in the pond. Full stop. Anyone else in our territory was an intruder.”

It’s difficult to imagine Elvis railing against the designation “rock’n’roll” 20 years after the Sun sessions, but then Massive Attack have never viewed themselves as being anything but entirely sui generis. Which makes it all the stranger the trajectory their music has described. In the early 1990s, as I say, theirs struck me as an essentially subversive sound, vitally connected to the sexual act and the derangement of the senses by any means available. The Massives took it to one level, and Tricky — their one-time musical co-conspirator in the Wild Bunch, the baggy sound-system collective they all came of age in — took it still further.

I remember attending a Tricky gig at Brixton Academy in London where he remained with his back to us for the entire set, leaving the audience interaction to his then lover and musical partner, Martina Topley-Bird. Not that the audience were doing that much interacting, for the skunk smoke lay in a dense pall over the darkened auditorium, like mustard gas over the Somme.

Somewhere towards the back end of that decade, however, I began to notice Massive Attack, or trip-hop, music cropping up in films and TV programmes, used to express grittiness, Britishness and modernity. Into the Noughties, the phenomenon became more pronounced, with the Tories even having the gall to launch their 2000 mini-manifesto to the strains of Man Next Door, from the band’s album Mezzanine. I say gall because the Massives soon put a stop to this particular hijacking — but the fact remains that, from being the Sensurround of the underground, its echoes and back-beats had become the Muzak of the overground.

When I put this to Del Naja, he was effusive: “I know, you find it in all the darkest and most disturbing documentaries, anything that is pretty miserable, it keeps popping up — and it’s the opposite of how we started out, but if the idea is that this expresses authenticity, that this is the way things really arc, then it is flattering’. According to Del Naja, their control over the use of the music is limited: “It’s a blanket agreement that all bands have to adhere to.” But surely, I asked, this doesn’t apply to advertising? “No, they can’t use it for that, but there’s always an army of producers out there who are quite willing to copy what you do and keep within the legal parameters.” It’s a nasty little irony that Del Naja often turns on the television and finds himself listening to incidental music unable to tell whether it was his own or a fake, while this man’s core creative process depends, in turn, on sampling the music of others. Not that the Massives’ output has ever been anything but distinctive: after the first two barnstorming albums, Blue Lines and Protection, the band released Mezzanine in 1998 and shed the founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles the next year.

Mezzanine, which featured a more guitar-based sound, was a departure, while 100th Window, released in 2003, was a voyage to the outer limits of computergenerated sound. As Del Naja put it: “At that point, it was as if the machines were in control of us; it was when Pro Tools had suddenly become amazingly powerful. With the new Macs, you could constantly alter everything minutely for ever.” The Massives’ fifth album has been slated for release every year since 2003, but, as Del Naja said: “Portishead took 10 years between their second and third album, and that took the pressure of all of us.” Not that Del Naja and Marshall have been idle: Daddy G, rather than being simply the latter’s nickname, is now an apt designation, for he has three young children. Del Naja, together with the producer Neil Davidge, has worked extensively on film music — his latest being 44 Inch Chest — not that he takes an entirely positive view of the results: “No matter what the director tells you at the beginning, they’re going to ask you to fill the whole film with music and, after a while, it beats you dead. I’ve worked on films that have been great at the beginning, but by the time we’ve finished, we’ve destroyed them. Every bit of realness — of silence – has been obliterated.”

Silence hasn’t been obliterated on Heligoland. Named for a niblet of land off the German Bight, it features Horace Andy, a longtime Massive Attack collaborator, on vocals; Martina Topley-Bird is also prominent, together with Tunde Adcbimpe, Damon Albarn and Hope Sandoval. The album has an earthy, sometimes even raw feel; unlike 100th Window, it’s definitely not Mac Pro’d to the hilt. There’s Adrian Utley of Portishead on guitar, Albarn and Davidge on bass. “With so many people,” Del Naja said, “we were keen that all the sounds of the instruments should be very apparent. Hopefully, it sounds almost as if it were being played live, rather than recorded ” The Massives have always had a certain fissiparous approach to their work as an ensemble, and this continues.

Marshall is a DJ at heart, starting with a sample and “trying to lose it so that nobody can find it”. By contrast, while Del Naja will still sample other people’s work, he’s more conscious of the songs as narrative forms: “The track that ended up as Babel began life as two songs, one about falling in love with a porn star and the other about extraordinary rendition, but they ended up joined together.”

It sort of works, but lyrics have never really been the best part of what Massive Attack do; even with the magisterial Unfinished Sympathy, and its exquisitely tortured refrain, “Like a soul without a mind /In a body without a heart/ I’m missing every part”, there’s a sense that the words can’t really match the grandeur of the sound-scape. This makes it all the more surprising how far into agitprop the band have now gone – the light show for the gig I saw featured an enormous flashing signboard that was plastered with quotes, statistics and slogans covering everything from the aforementioned renditions to the banking crisis. The Massives weren’t really a touring outfit until Mezzanine, but they’ve covered a lot of road since. Heligoland has already been toured in the UK and a world tour begins in the spring.

Neither Del Naja nor Marshall take their political commitment lightly. Del Naja was heavily involved in the antiwar protests before the invasion of Iraq, but told me he found himself “disappointed and horrified”, both by the war itself, but also by the politics of mass movements such as the Stop the War Coalition and CND. “We prefer to interface with smaller organisations now.” And so it was that during the band’s curatorship of Meltdown in 2008, they heavily promoted Clive Stafford Smith’s Reprieve (which campaigns against the death penalty), while they are also involved with Hoping, a charity that helps Palestinian children.

“You’ve got to feel total empathy,” Marshall said, “when you realise that people exactly like us are going through this stuff.” Which may be something of an overstatement, because I’m not sure there are that many people quite like Del Naja and Marshall – who, despite all the odds, have held together an anarchic yet musically fecund outfit for more than two decades.

It’s an old adage with great bands that it’s always the most interesting members who quit first, but Massive Attack buck the trend Heligoland is harshly scabrous and melodically seductive; it should be music impossible for the mainstream to co-opt, but no doubt there are tyro producers the world over doing exactly that, right now.

Written By Will Self