ScanS → The Face Magazine Interview
Publication Date: September 1994
We’re an hour out of London en route to Bristol when the train shudders to a halt. A huge thunderclap rents the evening air and the slate grey sky is suddenly streaked with white lightning. On cue, the intercom crackles into life and announces that normal service will not be resumed until the electrical storm has passed. “Electrical storm, e-lect-ri-cal storm,” muses Mushroom from Massive Attack, spreading the syllables out for maximum effect. “Here, that’s a good album title, ain’t it?”
In the seats opposite, his Massive co-conspirators, 3D and Daddy G, remain distinctly noncommittal. “Alright, how about ‘Heat Miser’?” Mushroom continues, his freeform thought process locking into an inner logic that is obvious to him, and him alone. “That’s a real cyber-kinetic title, ain’t it? ‘Heat Miser’ by Massive Attack.” Daddy G shakes his head. But 3D has taken the bait. “That’s hard. I like that.” The two of them are up and running now. “How about ‘Magnets And Pulleys’?” continues 3D, seemingly off the top of his head. “If anybody asks us about the music on the album, we’ll just say, ‘It’s all done by magnets and pulleys.’”
After three-and-a-half years in limbo. Massive Attack are now limbering up in their own inimitable manner for the buzz that will greet their long-awaited second album in September. First, though, they have to find a name for it, a task that has taken on a slightly surreal edge. At one stage, they toyed with the idea of calling the album “Punk”, for reasons that remain characteristically vague (ie for no real reason at all). Earlier this very evening, Mushroom had misheard 3D say the words “backing track” and, for an all-too-brief moment, the record was going to be called “Vacuum Pack”. Then, for an even briefer moment, “Cellophane”. This surreal word association football continues apace until we finally touch down in Bristol and, safe at home, the three core members of Massive Attack chill out and agree to talk about where they’ve been for the last three years and, more importantly, where they’re at in 1994.
“Everyone thinks we just sank back into the whole Bristol time frame for three years, messing about and doing very little,” 3D elaborates over dinner later. “We’ve been very busy. Apart from the creative stuff in the studio, we had to sort a lot of problems. We lost a singer [Shara Nelson], our manager [Cameron McVey] went off to do Neneh Cherry’s album and took our coproducer [Johnny Dollar] with him. Basically, we were tied up with a lot of strife, but hopefully, it’s all been sorted out. This feels like a new beginning to me. ”
Whatever its eventual title, the new Massive Attack album certainly sounds like a new beginning. It is no understatement to say that, give or take a few tell-tale moments, it is virtually unrecognisable as a Massive production. For a start, there are only four (count ’em) samples used on the entire album, and it contains only two rap tracks. Elsewhere, they move into cinematic soundscape territory on a pair of extended instrumentals, and add to their legacy of inspired cover versions with a live and direct dancehall-style version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”, featuring a brutally minimalist drum machine beat, live saxophone and reggae singer Horace Andy. “He’d been singing it for years at mic checks,” laughs Mushroom, “but when we asked him if he’d heard The Doors’ original, he went, ‘Who are The Doors?’ Apparently the old Jose Feliciano version was a big Jamaican hit in the late Sixties and, as far as Horace was concerned, that was the original.”
The latter song is easily the tuffest track on an otherwise mellow and ethereal album that features the dreamily exotic voice of new singer Nicolette as well as the inimitable vocal presence of Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl.
Add to all this the guiding hand of producer-of-the-moment Nellee Hooper, and you have a finished project that is, if anything, even more fascinating than its component parts suggest. What it all adds up to is a more pared-down, dreamy album that, if it doesn’t possess the big panoramic sweep of “Blue Lines”, is hypnotic in an altogether more insidious way. The words “ambient” and “electronic” spring to mind. I Only “Karmacoma”, with its strangely aboriginal, multi-layered rhythms and the tell-tale twin voices of 3D and Tricky, suggests any link to what went before. “It ain’t ‘Blue Lines 2’, that’s for sure,” nods 3D. “But you could see it as a companion piece. I suppose it’s more dreamy and soundtracky than before.
This is homogenised pop world and the problems – ol promotion, of definition, of identity – that have dogged their every step. Back in the days when the British rap scene was a resolutely underground early-Eighties’ inner-city subculture, The Wild Bunch, featuring Mushroom, 3D, Daddy G and Nellee Hooper, were Bristol’s numero uno posse in full effect. Their attitude to music making was shaped by two prime sources: the collective ethos of Jamaican sound system runnings and the cutting-edge experimentation of New York’s original old school rap crews. With two turntables and a microphone, The Wild Bunch rocked the local club scene and cut a handful of highly influential records, most notably “The Look Of Love”, a song that kick-started the whole lovers’ rap hybrid later taken to its logical conclusion by Soul II Soul after Nellee Hooper hooked up with Jazzie B.
If Soul II Soul and Massive Attack both entered the Nineties at the forefront of the new age of British dance culture, they also ran into the same set of problems when their respective lead singers, Caron Wheeler and Shara Nelson, departed for the lure of a solo deal (similar scenarios were played out following the success of the excellent debut albums of both The Chimes and The Young Disciples).
Recently, a Galaxy Radio DJ offered a free pair of Glastonbury tickets to the person who could come up with the perfect fantasy act to headline on the main stage of the festival. The guy who won opted for Massive Attack reuniting with Shara Nelson for a live set. Wishful thinking, of course, given Shara’s subsequent solo career, but I wonder how many people who bought “Blue Lines” entertain the same kind of fantasy. Looking back, it seemed like a creative marriage made in heaven – those panoramic soundscapes, that strong, defiant voice.
“I dunno,” muses the ever-diplomatic 3D. “Who can predict what way we would have developed even if we’d stayed together? We might not have been on the same wavelength when we came back into the studio after such a long time. Shara’s album sounded very different to anything we would have done. People want to get on with their own things and, with this kind of set-up, for better or worse, they always have that creative freedom.”
“After Shara left, we had to think long and hard about where we were going,” Mushroom continues, “and that’s when we made a decision not to look for another soul voice. We had to change and move on and we were working on stuff that wasn’t really for the dancefloor. A lot of the music was already written and we just needed to find the right vocalists. That was the difficult bit. The decision to work with Nellee again just came naturally. It seemed the obvious thing to do after Cameron and Johnny went.”
With Shara now embarked on a reasonably successful solo career and Tricky just about to release his first solo album on Island, I wondered if Massive had felt an even greater degree of pressure to deliver a second masterpiece. There is a telling moment of silence from all three. “I suppose there’s always pressure for a second album,” offers 3D, “but there would never have been much point in trying to replicate the kind of thing we did with Shara. A lot of people might initially be disappointed that there’s no ‘Safe From Harm’ or ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ this time round, but what we did was follow our instincts and try and do something a bit different. And, we still have three great singers on board..
Indeed. The extended Massive posse now includes the aforementioned Nicolette, a Nigerian-born singer who cut an overlooked album, “Now Is Early”, with the Shut Up And Dance crew back in 1992. Her voice is a thing of strange beauty, insidious in a distinctly sexual way, and described by 3D, not inaccurately, as “like Billie Holiday on acid”. In Massive’s consistently surreal scheme of things, she definitely fits. So, too, surprisingly, does Tracey Thorn, who shines bright on two characteristically personal songs, “Protection” and “Better Things”, both of which seem grittier than anything she has done of late. “I was really surprised when they contacted me,” she tells me over the phone after an Everything But The Girl soundcheck in Leicester University, “and I was also very flattered because I loved their earlier work. They sent me five almost completed backing tracks, mostly stuff generated from loops and samples. It was different to sitting down with an acoustic guitar but, after a while, it was quite a liberating experience musically.”
For their part, Massive Attack have been Tracey Thorn fans since she first appeared on the pop scene with The Marine Girls back in the early Eighties, and they all namecheck her first solo album, “A Distant Shore”, as a post-punk classic. By now, you might quite have sussed that the new Massive Attack material isn’t quite as dancefloor-friendly as their previous work. Which is indeed the case. The music on this album is too dense and atmospheric to move a post-techno audience, although Tim Simenon has already remixed “Sly”, creating a floor-shaking monster that could well do the trick.
The problem, as ever, will be promotion, but the band have some very ambitious multi-media plans. “The last time we went out live on the East Coast of America, it was a big mistake,” Mushroom recalls ruefully. “We just jammed on the mic like an old-fashioned sound system but they put us up on a bright stage right after a ten-piece jazz band and the whole atmosphere was wrong. This time we’re going to create an environment where the raw sound system attitude works. We’d rather just rock a crowd with sound, maybe have a few visuals with singers and DJs stepping up to the mic, Jamaican-style, with one red light above the decks.”
If that plan sounds unerringly simple, there are more ambitious projects currently being hatched that, if they come to fruition, could place Massive Attack at the cutting edge of audio-visual club culture. “Because we’re not a pop group who get up on stage and play, we’ve got to create suitable environments for people to come and interact with the music,” explains 3D. We’ve got this whole installation/exhibition/animation project underway using computer graphics and virtual reality. Hands-on stuff that will take the mystery out of virtual reality. The thing is, people are baffled by it ’cause they’ve seen The Lawnmower Man and they think that’s it – you blast off into cyberspace, go mental, have a wank and everything’s happening.
“That’s all a pile of crap. We’d like to create a 3D world with the right software, then transfer it to VR and install it in a record shop or a gallery where people could come in and enter the VR world of Massive Attack. We’ve designed this animated character called The Euro Child made up of six spheres, and he represents Europe, the chaos and the confusion that goes with six parts trying to make up a unified whole. So, imagine going into a record shop and instead of putting on headphones, you put on a specially installed VR set and you become Euro Child, and there’s these six monkeys throwing kung fu stars and if they hit you, you start cracking up and the dub versions of the songs are playing and suddenly the floor’s on fire and it’s all going on. Mad!” There follows another round of freeform wordplay as 3D and Mushroom fantasise about the limitless possibilities inherent in The VR World Of Massive Attack featuring The Euro Child. A computer animation company is already working from blueprints and storyboards, and a dub version of the album is mooted, probably featuring versions sculpted by south London’s Mad Professor. A touring exhibition of dub soundscapes, paintings and videos is also planned for galleries and suitable clubs.
“Things tend to come together slowly where we are concerned,” says 3D, “but we also spend a lot of time planning and trying out ideas. It’s not just a Bristol thing, and all this stuff about Bristol being the graveyard of ambition is a bit overstated. Look at Tricky, he’s into his own thing in a big way – real chaotic Tricky-type stuff that’s brilliant. We like all the chaos, but we also like to be in control ’cause that’s the way we are. Anyway, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly. ” Now that would be an apt title for the second Massive Attack .
Written By Sean O’Hagen