ScanS → The Guardian Magazine Interview
Publication Date: May 2013
MIF’s flagship show is a tantalising team-up between moody musical pioneers Massive Attack and The Power Of Nightmares’ Adam Curtis. The band’s Robert Del Naja tells Rob Fitzpatrick about venturing into the unknown.
Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja likes to live dangerously. With just a few weeks to go before the opening night of his band’s highly anticipated collaboration with master documentarian Adam Curtis, the actual content of the show is still completely up for grabs. Just after we talk, Del Naja -AKA 3D, or these days simply D – is off to meet Curtis to nail down some specifics. There are, he says, “a lot of different options and ideas on the table”, but the fact remains that they still don’t really know yet how it’s all going to sound or look. Isn’t he a little bit concerned?
“No!” he laughs. “That’s exactly what makes it all so exciting. I believe this is totally in the spirit of the whole Manchester Festival. This is a place where people come together and fantastic things just happen.”
D’s confidence is understandable. It may all seem a little touch-and-go at the moment, but Massive Attack are working with a team – Curtis, regular Massive collaborators United Visual Artists, Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett and stage designer Es Devlin – who have a track record of delivering head-scrambling, preconception-busting, visually stunning live art. The centrepiece of the show will be a five Massive Attack performance – their first in three years – but even the music they will play is yet to be decided upon, and may not be exactly what you expect. “I will tell you this: we are going to be doing something we’ve never done before and we will be messing with music we’ve never even gone near before.” Massive fans know better than to expect a grudging run-through of the band’s best-known songs, but the MIF show will find them voyaging way off the map. “There’ll be other people’s music,” reveals D, “some classical pieces, the like of which we’ve never attempted and I’m still not sure how we’re going to actually play! You can see how many different ways there are of thinking about it all.”
The show will have a cinematic feel, with D and Curtis focused on telling a story through issues and ideas (“It’s actually a lot of stories with a lot of possible endings,” he clarifies). With films such as The Century Of The Self and The Power Of Nightmares, Bafta award-winning Curtis has proven himself to be one of Britain’s most visionary filmmakers, someone able to weave gripping narratives from the complex series of events that shape all our lives. Over the last few months he’s been a regular visitor to Massive Attack’s studio in Bristol.
“We hang out,” confirms D. “We listen to things and watch things. We’ve become almost like two DJs putting a playlist together. It’s quite fun and I’m learning from him all the time.” Interestingly, D says his new partner’s musical knowledge is incredibly extensive, admitting it’s Curtis who has the wider knowledge of popular music. “As Massive Attack, we’ve always been attached to particular ideas. Adam has a much more global understanding of music and culture. It’s been an extracurricular education for me, like evening classes!”
Two years ago, D was up in Manchester watching Damon Albarn unveil his Dr Dee creation when MIF director Alex Poots asked him if he would like to create his own show. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Dude, I’d love to do something with Adam Curtis.’” Poots texted Curtis immediately and the wheels were quickly set in motion. D had just watched Curtis’s BBC documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace and was hugely excited about the idea of working with him. For Del Naja, Curtis is someone who fills in a lot of blanks; someone who can expand what you think you know about current events and world history, opening your eyes to the hidden connections you may never have even thought about.
“Like most people,” says D, “my opinions are based on having just enough information to get by. Consequently, my arguments normally unravel when anybody asks a deep and meaningful question.” One of Curtis’s key roles in the project is to provide some journalistic weight to the recurring themes in Massive Attack’s lyrics.
One of those themes is what D calls the “whole nowness of today”, of living in a hi-tech era when rapid advances in science, understanding and information-sharing mean that “we are always on the cusp of tomorrow. It’s amazing, but there’s a danger that we can become passive. We have so much information, so much news – so why would you bother to look back, to consider how we got here?”
On Massive Attack’s last tour, he says, the band became almost like an app, presenting a view of the world through a barrage of statistics flashed at the audience on a giant UVA-designed LCD screen. “As much as I love that form of information gathering, there’s something more powerful about a story being told through the history of different people, about how the decisions we make in the past end up trapping us in the future. That’s the great thing about being human: the unknown.”
D has described the concept for the show as a “collective hallucination”, while Curtis says it’s about “the power of illusion and the illusion of power”. It’s easy to extrapolate those sentiments into a darkly conspiratorial web of political lies and deceit, but both of the statements could just as readily be applied to a band appearing on stage. Popular culture is built on the idea of theatricality; while we may like the idea of a band representing something raw and real, lights, backdrops and amplification all separate them -and us – from reality.
“Absolutely,” agrees D. “As kids, we thought of hip-hop as being like punk – it was very raw and it didn’t need to be an occasion, because the creation was the occasion. But once you take it into a new environment, you have to obey different rules. All bands have to understand the theatrics of what they do, and you have to succumb to it, because you’re dealing with the perception and expectation of an audience. But, yes, the whole thing is a grand illusion.”
The piece will be staged at the Mayfield Depot, a giant Edwardian building that started life as a overspill for Piccadilly Station around 1910. It closed in the 1960s and was later converted into a parcel sorting office, but it’s been closed – and abandoned – for nearly 30 years. “It’s big and dark and damp,” enthuses D. “It’s atmospheric, to say the least.” After its Manchester run, the show will move on to partner venues at Germany’s Ruhrtriennale arts festival in August, and New York’s Park Avenue Armory arts centre – a vast former barracks -the following month. In each case, the venue itself is a crucial element of the show.
When they started out in the late 80s, Massive Attack were just a bunch of West Country DJs looking for connections between the funk, hip-hop, reggae, punk and soul records they all loved. A quarter of a century later, slimmed to a duo of 3D and Grant Marshall, AKA Daddy G, they are one of the most globally recognisable names in British music, respected for their political convictions as much as their famously moody sound. Crucially, though, there was never any grand plan – and there still isn’t. “That’s the great thing about being in this current situation,” says D. “There’s no clear objective, no idea at all where we will go. Every time I stop touring or get out of the studio, I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. So I really don’t know how the next record’s going to sound. Meeting with Adam and working together was an unknown, a chance moment.” Now it’s happening, though, D sees it as a crucial staging post in the Massive journey. “This show feels to me like a part of Massive Attack’s timeline, a part of our history. The strange thing is that I have this sense of nostalgia, as if I’m already looking back at it, even while I’m doing it.”
A welcome side-effect of the project is that it has sparked a burst of serious Massive Attack-tivity. D reckons they’ve done more recording so far in 2013 than in the previous two years combined. “There’ll be a new record next year,” says D, confidently. “We might put out a series of EPs, but we always say that and then eventually we just package it as an album anyway, with our tail between our legs!” Freshly enthused by the idea of working with new collaborators, he adds: “I think artists need to wise up and get in the fucking market, because everyone would get a better deal if we were more honest about what we want to do. We all hide behind our managers and A&R people, which just creates this false veneer of creative freedom and that ends up choking us.”
D says that in the three years since the last Massive tour, he’s completed five or six different mix projects and hasn’t been paid for any of them. “You have to give it away now. It’s part of your participation in the culture. And it’s fun, you know? The days when you used to get 25 grand a remix? Man, they’re fully in the past.”
For D, this creative sharing is an intrinsic part of a wider peer-to-peer attitude within the current music and art scenes that puts him in mind of Massive Attack’s earliest days. “I’m often reminded of how it used to be when we were starting out, when we made it up as we went along, when we still blanked out our record labels so no one could see what we were playing. I think that’s really what this show is for, in whatever shape it will take. It’s a way for us and Adam to share all our ideas without having to follow anyone else’s rules or agenda.”
Written By Rob Fitzpatrick
Emily Mackay profiles Massive Attack’s Mayfield collaborators
ADAM CURTIS – A second MIF outing for this intellectually rigorous, visually lyrical documentary film-maker, best known for The Century Of The Self, which examined the effect Freud and his theory of the unconscious had on PR and advertising. His work is akin to being on a socio-historical waltzer, as seemingly disparate concepts and historical incidents are dazzlingly threaded together by portentous archive clips.
UNITED VISUAL ARTISTS – London-based design collective who initially came together working on live performances by the likes of Leftfield, Massive Attack and Chemical Brothers. Comprising experts in the fields of architecture, design, production and computer programming, they’ve now diversified into work such as 2011’s Origin, a giant cube of reactive lighting wedged between Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to reflect New York City back at itself.
ES DEVLIN – Stage and costume designer whose award-winning work spans theatre, fashion, music, opera, dance, TV and film. She’s acted as creative director on tours for Lady Gaga, the Pet Shop Boys and Kanye West – for whom she’s created sets based on eruptions of gold polygons, and, for the Watch The Throne shows, two colossal ego-sized cubes.
FELIX BARRETT – Artistic director and founder of Punchdrunk, the adventurous theatre company known for pioneering the idea of “immersive theatre”, leading audiences on interactive romps through intricately constructed physical worlds, such as The Crash Of The Elysium, a save-your-own-world Doctor Who experience that ran at MIF 2011. Barrett has also directed a world tour for Shakira.