ScanS → The Times Newspaper Interview #2

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Publication Date: March 2010

“If there’s one thing better than playing Sydney Opera House,” Grant Marshall says, “it’s doing a show on the steps outside.” It’s dusk in Sydney and from his hotel window, the half of Massive Attack known as Daddy G can see the bridge across the harbour, the backdrop for a pair of recent shows by the Bristol outfit If fans of their dubby, downtempo pop noir detect a paradox between such an idyllic setting and the group playing there, it doesn’t need pointing out.

People aren’t always like the music they make, but it’s still a surprise to discover just how prone Massive Attack can be to bursts of whimsy. Marshall, 50, asks if I’ve heard the news about Stevie Nicks marrying William Shatner. Really? “Really. And now she’s changed her name to Stevie Shatner-Nlcksl” Boom boom.

It’s probably for the best that Massive Attack didn’t give up the day job. But in the 19 years that separate their era-defining debut Blue Lines from last month’s triumphant Heligoland, Marshall and the group’s mainstay, Robert del Naja, have come perilously close. To chart their upheavals without mentioning trip-hop, the sub-genre coined to describe their sound, can take on the form of a surreal parlour game. Now 45, Del Naja, who once answered to the name 3D. says he sometimes felt hemmed in by such labels. As singles such as Unfinished Sympathy and Safe from Harm scaled the charts, he was no clearer about what Massive Attack were supposed to be. Del Naja recalls their infancy as part of the Wild Bunch, a collective of DJs, musicians and graffiti artists, who also featured Mushroom (their third member until his departure in 1999), Neneh Cherry and Tricky. “I almost knew about Massive Attack before I was in Massive Attack.” Marshall adds, “because the name was everywhere. People called Blue Lines ‘eclectic’, but it was just an extension of that mix-tape ethos where you threw different sounds together.” Del Naja agrees: “We were stealing sounds.
Daydreaming [their first single] was just me and Tricky improvising around a Wally Badarou sample.”

Had Blue Lines languished in the shallows of cult acclaim, Del Naja says they might never have followed it with Protection, the 1995 LP featuring Tracey Thorn and Nicolette. By then, trip-hop was no longer their exclusive domain (Tricky and Portishead also released albums that came from the same gene pool) but heaven help any record company bod who dared suggest they consolidate their position as the godfathers of trip-hop. Mezzanine (1998) was a riposte to the idea that they could coexist in a sub-genre with any other group. They couldn’t even coexist in a room with each other. Del Naja was channeling the spirit of Public Image Ltd and the Pop Group, while Mushroom’s safe place was always hip-hop. Coupled with the latter’s dislike of touring, that was enough to hasten Mushroom’s departure. Whether Marshall also left depends on how one defines leaving. Del Naja began writing with fellow Bristolian Neil Davidge.and Marshall, experiencing fatherhood for the first time, deemed himself surplus to requirements. His absence from 100th Window (2003) meant that critics treated it as a Del Naja solo album in all but name.

Ironically for a group so wedded to their hometown, the reparation of Massive Attack took place in in London. Marshall and Del Naja, who had been working separately on a fifth album, were reunited by an offer to curate the Meltdown Festival in 2008. Having enticed heroes such as Grace Jones. George Clinton and Gang of Four to the South Bank, they decided to trash almost everything they had recorded. “It was missing that ‘together’ vibe,” Marshall says. Fearing that a return to Bristol may herald a return to old tensions, they headed for the neutral ground of Damon Albarn’s 13 studios in West London. “It was the first time we had worked together since Mezzanine,” Marshall says. “Damon said that we’d all do a song together. We didn’t know if he expected us to have any lyrics ready, so we gave him some and he looked at us. as if to say. ‘What are you doing? I shit lyrics.’ He wrote his part for Saturday Come Slow on the way into work.”

Even by Massive Attack’s standards, the tally of guests — Guy Garvey, TV on the Radio’s T unde Adebimpe. Hope Sandoval – was high. But some of the most hair-raising turns came from old allies: Martina Topley-Bird, Horace Andy. “Horace is the spirit of Massive Attack,” Marshall says, “an old-school reggae singer who understands that great things happen when you leave your comfort zone.”
Andy once admitted to me that his liaisons had yielded 18 children. Was the voice that sang, “I believe in one love,” (One Love) stringing me along? “Horace likes to spread his seed.” Marshall laughs. “How long ago was that. 15 years? I would add another ten to that list” Del Naja has yet to open his account, but “me and my girlfriend have been talking about it I’m running out of excuses”. Which reminds him that he had promised to Skype her: “Is it alright If we leave it there? I just need to check I’m still actually in a relationship.”

Written By Pete Paphides