ScanS → Sweater Magazine Interview
Publication Date: August 1998
The end of the 20th Century looms overhead like a foreboding shadow eclipsing the sun [yikes!], it’s becoming easier to separate the true players from the well-packaged pretenders. The three gentlemen that comprise Massive Attack (3-D, Daddy G and Mushroom) have bravely stepped forward as players of the highest degree.
Effortlessly cool, endlessly inspired (and inspiring) and frankly without peer, Massive Attack have quietly and effectively defined the future sound of club music over the last ten years.
Without albums like Blue Lines or its successor Protection, we wouldn’t have Tricky, Portishead, Mo’Wax ecords (label honcho James Lavelle has often cited Blue Lines as the record that set him on his current path) or the experimental hip-hop vibe tagged ‘trip-hop.’ Even Sean “Puffy” Combs’ current formula of pop-single-as-cross-cultural-time-capsule has echoes of Massive Attack’s most comprehensive moments. Hardly what we’ve come to define as “pop stars,” the trio truly embody pop culture as a whole.
But when it comes to Massive Attack, I guess I take it kind of personally. A lot of it has to do with Christmas, 1991. Two glorious months in Paris’ 10th Arrondisement with a cool girl, existing on little more than wine, crepes from the cool guy on “our” corner and each other.
This delicious debauchery of days spent bumming around Les Hailes or soaking in the modern classics at the Centre George Pomideau museum were soundtracked by two records: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Massive Attack’s Blue Lines.
While Screamadelica helped make sense out of my own convoluted sonic landscape of ecstasy-soaked acid house, druggy Britpop and old-fashioned ‘rawk,’ Blue Lines felt like my very own Dark Side of ‘he Moon.
Spacious without being empty, brimming with classic soul and cinematic imagery, it was nothing short of a revelation. Introducing the hip-hop Nosferatu better known as Tricky and his lethally lethargic rapping to the world, that dark yin was balanced by the soaring yang of vocalist Shara Nelson, which turned MA’s legendary single “Unfinished Symphony” into clubland’s “Kashmir.”
Interspersed with cerebral whispers from 3-D and Daddy G along with the seductive lover’s rock croon of reggae legend Horace Andy, Blue Lines is shaping up to be perhaps the most influential album of the ’90s.
As said decade draws to an unpredictable and increasingly confusing close, Massive Attack are once again providing the perfect sound track to the proceedings with their third album, Mezzanine. I catch up with Daddy G at one of the countless hip little cafes that dot Manhattan’s Soho district to get the lowdown. Looking like the consummate i-D vision of contemporary coot in dark denim and a puffy vest, he’s an affable soul who obviously enjoys talking about his art.
But first things first: Where’s the rest of the crew?
“We’ve just had enough of each other today, that’s all. I’ll take you back to the hotel to meet up with them later.”
Over the course of the three separate interviews, it becomes clear that tension between the three isn’t limited to today; it’s become fuel for their creative muse.
“To be honest, we weren’t really getting along that well making the record.” G admits. “It got to the point where we were going in and doing our parts individually. There weren’t too many occasions where we were all in the studio at the same time.”
“We just got sick of each other.” he elaborates. “We’ve known each other for so long, you know? We seem to get on really well outside of the studio, but in the studio…We’re oil fiercely independent and adamant about what we want in life and in music, so there’s always a conflict with what we’re doing. I think it’s both good and bad. Especially with this record, it created a claustrophobic sound that’s quite tense. There was a lot of shouting that went on behind closed doors.”
That concentrated stress has resulted in what are easily some of the band’s darkest moments. Songs like “Angel” and “Inertia Creeps” ooze with the dense murkiness of an especially difficult comedown.
“It’s that kinda thing where you’ve been up all night partying, and you can’t really connect with the daylight.” explains 3-D later, retaxing in a dark Soho Grand Hotel suite. “The title Mezzanine is pretty much a metaphor for where we’re al right now as a bond. We’ve been on tour a lot, and wo kind of feel like we’re not really with it anymore. Everyone seems to aging in different ways. All of our friends seem to be getting older and growing up, and we’re definitely not growing up. We don’t feel like we’re in the same time zone as other people. It’s the feeling of not really fitting in. It’s a bit paranoid and a bit isolated.”
He agrees that internal conflict played a major role in shaping the album’s black tone.
“The album became a very individual project for everyone.
We were all in our own space. It was a very unstable process and we’ve all been feeling quite unstable in our lives. The word ‘mezzanine’ represents neither the ground floor or the balcony.
It’s like being stuck in the middle.”
That same cerebral uncertainty is reflected in Mezzanine’s disturbingly stark lyrical content. Always preferring visual imagery over straight narratives, the oand’s primary lyricist 3-D explains that this is his most personal work to date.
“A lot of it’s about relationships, and how difficult they’ve been for us to maintain. You never feel like you’re with someone properly because you’re always miles away. ‘Inertia Creeps’ for instance, is about being in a relationship primarily because it’s convenient, safe and comfortable. Even though your head’s somewhere else and you want to make a break and move on, you’re too scared to do it, so everyday you feel that tension growing stronger oround you. As a result, you end up blaming the other person. It’s a kind of personal betrayal. Musically, the idea was to have the track move forward while the vocal is trying to maintain a stillness and hold everything back.”
“Now that the record’s done, I listen to it and realize that 3-D has again written some fucking good lyrics,” admits G. “I think he’s a lyrical genius. To be honest, most of the words I write are shit. I have Tricky and 3-D to live up to, and I just can’t write as good as they can. 3-D ends up writing lyrics for me and I make them my own.”
Not exactly “happy as Hanson,” huh? But Massive Attack have always made a point to reflect real life in their sonic creations. Daddy G chalks it up to growing up as three musically-obsessed kids in the heart of Britain’s tumultuous pop culture influence of the past 20 years.
“We come from a varied, multi-racial background. Just look at us: We’re like the United Nations. We’ve all grown up with socially different influences, different friends, and we’ve drown from all of that. I’m from London, where you naturally have lots of influences.
The saturation point (in the UK) is really quick. In America, it takes so much longer for something culturally significant to filter through people’s psyches. A record can come out in January, but not have any impact until the next January. In England, it’s a whole different ball-game. Something can sweep through the entire country in a matter of weeks. That’s where we were. We were young kids absorbed in music. We were all DJs. Wo all hove a history in punk, so we’re kinda used to the whole guitar thing. Back in the ’80s, we went through so many different worlds of music. There was new wave, two-tone, hip-hop, the post-punk thing with bands like Gang of Four and the Clash — this is all probably before your time,” he odds laughing.
“Bands were making so many cross-cultural moves back then,” he continues. “You hod the Slits working with Dennis Ravel, a dub artist who preceded Mad Professor. The Clash were working with artists like Futura 2000 and Mikey Dread. Taking the punk thing and mixing it with the reggae thing to create a whole new sound. The Clash’s Sondanista! is the perfect testament to what I’m tolking about. They even did that disco track, ‘The Magnificent Seven'” (the bassline of which has been sampled by many a house producer).
When it comes down to it, G simply sees it as a British thing and finds him waving the Union Jack as Massive Attock’s primary influence.
“Frankly, I just don’t think you’d ever get this type of a musical hybrid in America. The integration of people in England, and the obsessional way British people take fashion and music and style. We take that shit so seriously. I hate to say this, but I think that England is a lot more tolerant of even the racial makeup of the band than America, where most people might not be able to grasp where we’re coming from. I hate to say that, but that’s how I feel. I mean, look at Fishbone. In America, they’re considered a fucking weird band. Where do they fit in? In England, they’d be the norm.”
Strong words, perhaps, but not without merit. Especially in light of the fact that the members of Massive Attack are well aware of their significant status among the global underground Illuminati. They know that upon the release of a new Massive Attack record comes intense scrutiny and microscopic dissection.
“There are a lot of feelings that go into making an album like this, especially in Europe and England, since we’re deemed as runners of this type of music,” says G. We’re considered the group that instigates
the forerunners of this type of music. “We’re considered the group that other people into doing what they’re doing “I’m not trying to say that we’re like the Rolling Stones, where we travel separately or shit like that,” he clarifies, “but since we’ve been deemed as such a creative force by so many people, it really does ends up affecting you.”
Case in point: Massive Attack’s highly-debated live shows. On their initial American jaunt in support of Blue Lines, they performed as a ‘sound system,’ a term lifted from Jamaican crews of yore where DJ’s select backing tracks while MC’s and singers take turns on the mic.
But confused American audiences unfamiliar with such old-school tactics (and expecting a live band) quickly labeled them unable to pull it off live.
“We wanted to do something comfortable, and the sound system thing was quite comfortable for us,” remembers G. “But then we realized that it wasn’t going to work, so we started to incorporate more live instruments. Then it just got stupid, because we’d have these musicians playing along to a beat on a record, and if the record skipped or anything, the whole song would just collapse. We needed a drummer to give us flexibility. We just keep expanding on that. We’ve done a lot of live shows over the past three years, and now I can say that we’re fucking good live.
Now I can say that Massive Attack is a band.”
Expected to be even bigger and more elaborate than the band’s triumphant US tour for the Protection album in 1995, tongues are wagging over the fact that they will be accompanied on tour by vocalist Liz Frasier of 4AD legends the Cocteau Twins. Her ethereal vocalizing is a perfect match for the album’s future goth leanings, and on ‘Teardrop” the combination transcends even ‘Unfinished Symphony” for raw emotional beauty.
“She’s just had a baby, so we’re really going out of our way to accommodate her. She’ll have her own bus, a nanny and everything,” says 3-D. “The thing about Liz is that her voice is just so amazing and out there, but at the same time as a person she’s so cool and unobtrusive that you feel completely at ease with her.”
“She’s always had her own language,” he says in reference to the indecipherable syllables that comprise her singing style. “We’ve been accused of being somewhat hard to understand as well, so it was an ideal match. It leaves the music open to your own personal interpretation. It’s not so cut and dry.”
As the last few beams of late afternoon light fade to evening black, 3-D’s restlessness becomes apparent. Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call from one Colin Greenwood, better known as the easy-on-the-eyes bass player for post-rock superstars Radiohead. It turns out that the Soho Grand Hotel does double duty as Britpop Central, and tonight all of the UK kids ore in a partying mood. We’d already run into Terry Hall (the singer for two-tone ska legends the Specials) on the elevator, and Mo’Wax/U.N K.l.E mastermind James Lavelle is also here and up for some Manhattan shenanigans.
With some serious partying imminent. I wonder if Massive Attack’s rumored penchant for controlled substances is in fact a reality.
“Drugs don’t play so much a part in our lives, but they’re definitely around. They seem to have sunken into the culture and become like a layer that’s just there. Not just for the generations coming up. but for people in my age group, over 30.1 have friends that are probably taking more drugs now than they even did when they were 18. It’s scary, isn’t it?”
Having lived through England’s infamous ‘Summer of Love’ and the whole Ecstasy explosion, the question begs to be asked: Does Massive Attack know how it feels to candy flip?
“Yeah, definitely,” 3-D replies with a slightly embarrassed chuckle.
“It’s just weird, because the whole culture of Ecstasy is so pervasive in England that you can’t really ovoid it. If you listen to early Prodigy and other music from that era, it all sounds so whimsical and transient, as if it wasn’t really real. To me, that’s exactly what Ecstasy is. I don’t think any drug has had any great influence on us to the degree that it’s affected what we do musically. The most influential thing in our world is probably social politics and how we get on and relate to other people. The instability of life.”
3-D gets up to answer a knock at the door. It’s the band’s manager, sporting a huge grin and a large FedEx package.
“Is there a VCR in here? Adidas sent us the tape,” he blurts excitedly.
“They want to use one of our songs for this year’s World Cup theme,” 3-D explains. “For us, this is like a dream come true. The song they’ve chosen is ‘Angel’ as well, which I find interesting because it’s not a song you’d normally associate with that kind of high-profile media event.”
Yet another example of how Massive Attack have quietly soaked their way into the fabric of pop culture. This World Cup connection doesn’t come as much of a surprise, with the band’s music finding its way onto a multitude of movie soundtracks (Sliver, Welcome To Sorejevo, Hackers, The Jackal, Batman Forever and 187, just to name a few) and even the current Victoria’s Secret TV campaign, which finds the likes of Tyra Banks and Helena Christensen slinking around to the strains of the Blue Lines single “Safe From Harm.”
“Our music is quite visual, so I guess it was a natural progression,” is 3-D’s summation. I really want to work on a soundtrack where we work closely with the director and are an actual part of the creative process. That hasn’t happened yet.”
The phone rings again. It seems that the pre-party at the hotel bar is reaching critical mass and 3-D’s presence is strongly requested. Another knock at the door. This time it’s Mushroom.
Long chided as the baby of the group, Mushroom is the mysterious silent-but-deadly type who exists on the edge of the chaos that is Massive Attack, but is just as integral as his counterparts. The group’s certified hip-hop head, to interview ‘Shroom is to talk about pretty much anything but his band.
“I don’t know what’s going on tonight, but the boys are seriously itching to go out,” he intones in a quiet voice. Still going through his booty from a day shopping in Brooklyn for trainers and gear, Mushroom asks me more questions than I ask him. I finally get him to talk a little about Melankolic, the band’s own record label that has already released such stellar projects as the new Craig Armstrong album and the upcoming debut from Bristol soul boy Lewis Parker.
“We just wanted to have some vent to put out artists that we truly believe in, like Horace Andy or Alpha. Music that might not otherwise get the kind ol distribution that it deserves.”
Another knock at the door. It’s 3-D. It’s parly time.
Talking about the current state of hip-hop (Mushroom namechecks the Rawkus label as a current fave) and the validity of what is known as big beat (“I think a lot of people can’t listen to hip-hop unless they know that a certain kind of person is producing it,” he diplomatically states) on the elevator, the man they call Mushroom has a lot on his mind.
But the seriousness quickly fades as we approach the lounge to find a majority of Radiohead along with a bevy of women that look fresh from a Miu Miu photo shoot waiting for our arrival.
3-D hands me a Newcastle and turns his attention to one of the aforementioned beauties. Mushroom just smiles.
“Looks like the interview is over, innit?”
Written By Scott Sterling