ScanS → The Independent Newspaper Interview #2
Publication Date: September 2009
Sitting at the control desk of Massive Attack’s studio, which lurks on an unpre-possessing Bristol industrial V estate, Robert “3D” del Naja lets out a sigh. No, he says, the album isn’t exactly finiished yet. Actually, he can’t exactlysay how finished it is. Six years after Massive Attack last released an album, its followup is“in a kind of state of flux”. It’s nearly done. They’ve had a lot of collaborators in. There was Guy Garvey from Elbow, Damon Albarn. Tunde Adebimpe from TV On the Radio and the California singer Hope Sandoval, the last of whom seems to have left what you might most politely describe as a lasting impression. “You ever seen ‘Hope Sandoval?” asks the other half of Massive Attack, Grant Marshall, in his soft West Country burr, before exhaling heavily. “Fuckin’ ’ell, mate.”
Booming from the speakers, the results sound amazing. “There’s a rumour that we actually make all our albums in the last six months before they’re released and the rest of it is procrastination,” says Del Naja, wearily. “That’s what the manager says. Six months to make an album, the rest of it’s just fucking about.” He looks a bit pained, perhaps remembering the common public perception about Massive Attack, in which a certain marijuana-scented languor figures heavily. “I work really hard,” he protests. “I’m dividing my time between being here, painting in the garage next to my house, trying to finish the sleeve, then we’ve got rehearsals over at Bath. Average day, I work from about 11, 12, ’til about 10 at night.”
The problem, such as it is, he says, is one of perfectionism. They’ve actually recorded “about three” albums in the last six years, then binned two of them. And then there’s the way Massive Attack work: “We don’t have a solid format, a group of people we work with. After touring an album, you have this strange void that follows it. Where you feel slightly displaced, like you’ve just finished with the circus and you’ve got to find a new job. You think, OK, what shall we do next. And you’ve got all these options. You don’t know where to start.”
Marshall mutters something about playing table football, and the two of them dissolve into laughter. Whatever the state of the album (it’s out early next year), at least the duo seem in high spirits, which makes a change. Every time I’ve met them previously, Massive Attack seemed not just to be troubled, but teetering on the verge of total collapse.
The first time was in 1999, just before the release of Mezzanine, when they had a reasonable claim to be called the most influential band in Britain, at least judged on the sheer volume of music you heard on a daily basis that sounded like them: you couldn’t walk into a bar or turn on a television without hearing something audibly in thrall to their 1991 debut Blue Lines tinkling politely in the background. This is not, it has to be said, a state of affairs that brought Massive Attack themselves much joy (“It was never off the telly,” protests Del Naja weakly today. “You’d hear all these records and think, ‘Oh. fucking hell, here we go again’”), but then again, joy was a commodity pretty thin on the ground in the Massive Attack camp.
The Five Man Army, as they bullishly styled themselves on Blue Lines, had already lost two members amid varying degrees of acrimony. Shara Nelson, the vocalist on their first hit, Unfinished Sympathy, had departed in 1993 – after a rumoured row over money – while the brilliant, mercurial, volatile rapper Tricky had left a year later and had taken to being deeply uncomplimentary about his former colleagues in his admittedly gnomic interviews.
During Mezzanine’s torturous gestation, however, relations had soured to such a degree that the remaining three members refused to be interviewed together. Of the trio, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles seemed the most visibly dispirited, openly complaining that the band was moving too far away from its hip-hop roots. Despite the album’s success, he left the band shortly afterwards, an event so laden with bitterness it clearly still haunts Marshall and Del Naja a decade on: “You forget how long we were working together, how intensely we worked together. I have really random dreams where I’m still working with Mushroom,” Del Naja says. The closest they’ve come to contact with their fellow founder member recently, says Marshall, is when their cars passed in Bristol, “and we looked at each other, which was pretty bizarre”.
The next time was in 2003. and I only met Del Naja. Partly because we were there to talk about the way he had become caught up in Operation Ore. The infamous child pornography investigation – a week before, Avon and Somerset police had dropped their investigation into him -and partly because he was now the only member of Massive Attack left to talk to: Marshall had baled out during the recording of their fourth album, 100th Window. Del Naja said he was hopeful that Marshall might return, but in reality, he says today, he was consdering retiring the Massive Attack name entirely. “It got to the point where it was feeling pretty flimsy as a concept. There are times when you think, ‘Fuck it, what is actually left?’ You question the point of it.”
But Marshall did return, joining a tour to promote the album that was, apparently, so technically complex the band lost money. Six years on. the pair laugh together easily, but you can still detect the faintest hint of unease in their relationship. Nowadays, says Marshall, they “try not to argue” in the studio, because “ if we did argue, that would be it, so we try and avoid it. We just know each other too well. We’ve known each other 27 years, and for two males to stay together for 27 years is quite an achievement. Things have come and things have gone, but there’s still a deep sense of bonding that we have. On the other hand, there’s a sense we’re quite opposite poles.”
“When we do row, it’s easy to push each others’ buttons.” nods Del Naja. “And those buttons are attached to some deep old organ. t hey tend to oscillate at a higher rate, you know what I mean?”
He wonders aloud if they’d even be friends had it not been for the weird cultural mix that was Bristol’s music scene in the wake of punk. “Where we came from, that whole bloody Bristol melting-pot of the 70s and 80s. people were very different, but they were hanging together. That was the great thing about that time, everything was changing rapidly in that punk to hip-hop era. Everybody was in everybody’s faces, everyone got a taste of everything, we were thrown together in that world. Without the Wild Bunch thing we weredoing, we probably wouldn’t have ended up in the same band. Because G was coming from a reggae and soundsystem angle, I was from a punk angle, completely different aspects. It was hip-hop that brought us together.”
Certainly, they present strikingly different characters in interview. Both are friendly, but Del Naja is voluble and rather intense. Marshall, who at almost 50 looks eerily unchanged from the figure peering out of a nearby 1986 poster advertising a wnu mini 11 snow 111 japan, him ioiis a joint – “I’ll just have a little one-skinner,” he says to himself then lapses into virtual silence. What responses he does give display a marked tendency to tail off apparently midway through: “When the volume dips away,” he advises, “the answer’s finished”. He is, he says, not a great fan of inter views. When talk turns to the musical genre he apparently labelled the new tracks with, he looks totally baffled. “Phantom funk? Who said that? Me? Did I fuck.” He sighs. “This is why I hate doing interviews, you see. Someone like you comes along and quotes something back to me, which I’ve said after a couple ofspliffs and completely forgotten about.” He tuts. “Phantom funk!”
On a couple of occasions, Del Naja tails off in mid-sentence when he notices Marshall looking at him. “I’m trying to decipher his eye contact.” he smiles. “I can’t work out whether he’s giving me the shut-the-fuck-up eye contact, or the carry-on eye contact.”
A lot of Del Naja’s conversation is consumed with politics. One of the most striking t hings about Massive Attack in recent years is how politically engaged the band who spawned trip hop – not a genre much noted for its man-the-barricades attitude – have become. It began with Del Naja and Damon Albarn’s attempts to mobilise musicians to protest against the invasion of Iraq, which met v/ith surprisingly muted response.
“I thought it might not stopthe war,but it might have an effect on the next possible war. It might cause a debate and change the way the media tackles the issue, which seemed to be slipping towards it being this inevitability. It was quite strange to cast a lot of nets out and realise that very few people were coming back in.”
Nowit seems to have seeped into every area of his life. A question about the uncompromising nature of Bristolian musicians leads him to an impassioned harangue about the city’s architecture: “I was up on Brandon Hill yesterday, looking over the waterfront and it’s a fucking mess – it looks like eastern Europe in the 60s. There’s not a single building on the Bristol skyline that’s been put there in the last 50 years which is of note, which is legacy-building.” He starts out talking about the artwork for the forthcoming album, and ends up complaining that “no one was interested” in his idea to have Bristol’s Colston Hall renamed: “They’ve spent 10mil on it, and our point was, if you’re going to rebrand Colston Hall, don’t you want to think about changing its name so it’s not named after a slave-ship builder? You could just alter it, so it’s called the Colston Hall and the Sierra Leone Centre, or the Freetown Centre. You don’t have to erase Colston, you just add something about West Africa to the equation, so when people come to Bristol, it’s not hidden. We’re just trying to address some of these things, un-Tippex them, so that it changes the way people look at the city.”
Del Naja is articulate and impassioned, well informed and self-deprecating: perhaps uniquely among the firmament of rock stars, when he talks about politics, you don’t immediately wish he’d change the subject. Nevertheless, he concedes, it is not always an easy mix. When Massive Attack curated the South Bank’s Meltdown festival in 2008 they began their own performance with a speech by Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the human lights campaign group Reprieve. This was, as Del Naja notes tactfully, “one of our stranger decisions in terms of crowd atmospherics. There’s an anticipation that we’re going to walk on stage and instead Clive came on and talked about Binyam Mohammed and Guantanamo Bay. Still, in terms of what it set out to achieve, getting the Reprieve message across, it worked.” As the car arrives to take Massive Attack to their rehearsal in Bath, Del Naja and Marshall start pondering the band’s longevity: the fact that, despite the endless upheavals and rows , they’re somehow still here. Marshall thinks it might have something to do with their leisurely approach. “If you get bored, you don’t do anything for a bit,” he says. “I mean, some people say, is that a detrimental thing?’ If we’d packed it all into the first 10 years, maybe it would be over now.”
Besides, says Del Naja, he hasn’t found anything he’d rather do. He tried film scores for a bit, but that wasn’t rewarding. People kept interfering: producers, the distributors. “You put all this effort into it, and then the film comes out and you realise that the interest in the music is so limited, it’s so homogenised. You look at the poster and think, fucking hell, what did we have to do with it?” He rolls his eyes. “You know, it would be easier to make another record.” And Massive Attack dissolve into laughter again.
Written By Alexis Petridis