ScanS → The Big Issue Interview #3

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Publication Date: February 2010

Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall are known for being as moody as their music, and if the five deliciously dark albums they have released since they first emerged 20 years ago are anything to go by, they must be very moody indeed. Yet somewhat surprisingly, their public image is entirely at odds with the decidedly upbeat mood on show when we meet at a plush Knightsbridge hotel.

Given the fact that Heligoland is Massive Attack’s first album since 2003’s 100th Window, this is undoubtedly a crucial time for the band. If – as Harold Wilson famously proclaimed – a week is a long time in politics, then seven years seems like several lifetimes in our increasingly fast-moving musical climate. Having binned what must amount to a few albums’ worth of material, they’re keen to refute their reputation as a couple of slackers who spend most of their time lost in a haze of dope and indecision.

“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 has just been forgotten,” Del Naja explains. “You change your perspective as you go along. You’re not necessarily destroying lots of pieces of music, you’re just building on top of it and stuff Is getting buried as you go.

I wouldn’t say we’re perfectionists – I think we’re imperfectionists. because we look for the imperfection in everything.”

Do they have a strong work ethic? “Well. G certainly doesn’t,” he 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.”

“I’ve got a three-day week… if that.” Marshall smirks. 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 splif f all day. every day. 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.”

*We’ re hedonistic people, but it doesn’t define the way we are or the way we work.” Del Naja adds, taking a sip of his Diet Coke. 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.

As is the case with each of their previous four releases. Heligoland is a stow-buming album whose beguiling beauty gradually reveals itself with time. While Massive Attack’s trademark late-night atmospherics are still very much in evidence. Heligoland is a more human-sounding record than any of their previous albums, and a world away from the dense, high -tech sound of 100th Window.

Having spent much of 2008 showcasing new material that most people assumed would become their new album. Del Naja and Marshall felt the music was missing something, so they went back to the drawing board: “We were Just bored of It. really.” Marshall says. There was just a certain lack of energy we thought that it needed, and getting bock in the studio to make what eventually became Heligoland, we found the energy that we needed for it. Having taken those tracks out on tour, we felt that it just needed a little bit of something else.

Heligoland features an eclectic guest-list including Guy Garvey. Martina Topley-Bird and Damon Albarn. In the past. Massive Attack have coaxed collaborators with instantly recognisable voices such as Liz Fraser and Tracey Thorn completely out of their comfort zones. Is that something that they make a conscious effort to do?

“I don’t think you can with someone like Damon, for example, because he’s already taken himself away from his own comfort zone so many times anyway.” Del Naja replies. “When we first met him in the mid- ’90s. everyone was saying how great Bntpop was. but Damon was much more into music from the rest of the world, looking over the ocean somewhere else going. ’You’re looking the wrong way.

He was right, and it soon devoured itself, like pop always does in the end. because it needs to expand and to cross-breed to work, doesn’t It? Any music that In-breeds Just becomes weak and then dles_. he said in his poncey Darwinian voice.”

Although trip-hop was not a genre noted for its passionate attitude to political ideology. Massive Attack have become increasingly politically active over the years. When Del Naja and Albarn tried to mobilise their fellow musicians to protest against the invasion of Iraq, they were met with widespread apathy. Several years later. Del Naja is still frustrated and confused by the« refusal to take a stand.

“It was a very inert time.” he sighs. “We couldn’t get any really well-known mustctans 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 antiwar and anti death. If you’re not a humanist, there’s no point in believing in environmental issues or saying save this or save that, cos if we don’t f**king save ourselves from ourselves, then what’s the point in anything?

“Like a lot of people. I didn’t believe the 45-minute claim for a second, and although we d*dn’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.”

Their timeless debut. Blue Lines, went on to become one of the most important albums of the last 20 years, and spawned countless pale imitations, yet despite the fact that they had single-handedly invented trip-hop. Massive Attock were determined to dive straight into unexplored musical terrain:

“I don’t think the whole trip-hop thing and the success of Blue Lines necessarily drove us mad.‘ Marshall mumbles. “It Just spurred us on to make sure that we never repeat the same formula. I suppose that’s the ethos we’ve always had. The whole scene became a generic cage for us. And we had to get out”

After the release of their third album. Mezzanine. Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles jumped ship in 1999. Unhappy with the band’s move away from their hip-hop. Soul and reggae roots, while Marshall’s role in 100th Window was minimal. In reality, it was a Del Naja solo album in all but name, and he subsequently considered retiring the Massive moniker altogether.

Our time is drawing to a close, and as ever. Massive Attack are behind schedule. Del Naja is an hour late for a meeting in a Soho studio where he is due to finalise the artwork for the new album, and Marshall has a car waiting outside to drive him back home to Bristol to look after his three young children.

“Every other record we’ve made has had at least one pretty gigantic conflict in the middle of it. which maybe you could say actually defined that record.” explains Del Naja as we say our goodbyes. “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 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.

Written By Johnathan Wingate