ScanS → Word Magazine Interview
Publication Date: October 2003
We’ve got cocaine, a little bit of MDMA powder, three-quarters of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the contents of the mini bar.” Robert Del Naja, Massive Attack’s indomitable front man is taking stock, laying the carefully horded contents of a battered record bag onto the table of his Tokyo hotel suite as if he does this every morning at 6am. “That ought to see us through.” Dividing the small quantities of class A’s into equal sized party piles he takes a good long lick at the MDMA and pours himself another JD and coke. ‘And someone get some porn. I’m not having you lot pass out and leave me on my own.”
Ten hours previously Del Naja – aka 3D, but usually just D – had publicly sworn off rock and roll’s most infamous elixir for being “too dark, too sticky and too dangerous”, but that was before a four-hour bus journey back from the Mount Fuji rock festival dissolved into an open season of sake and vodka cocktails. And D likes a drink. But while the rest of Massive Attack have slipped off gratefully to their beds to recover from last night’s show stopping performance, D still isn’t ready to call it a day. Maybe it’s the residual adrenalin of a gig well done but, to be honest, he’s been like this since we met 72 hours ago.
On the floor of the hotel room a selection of road crew and hangers-on loll pathetically around, more than a little worse for wear. One has fallen asleep where he sits and is snoring insistently, his head rolling limply around his shoulders like something from The Exorcist. Then suddenly, as if driven by some primordial instinct, or perhaps just responding to D’s demands for pornography, the roadie wakes up and grabs the nearest available girl before collapsing back to the floor, snogging loudly. D steps over the writhing couple and hands me a rolled up 1,000 Yen note. “If you’re not drinking, take some drugs,” he orders. I weakly protest that I have to leave for the airport and my flight home. “Bollocks,” D insists. “Change your flight. You’re on Massive Attack time now. No-one’s going anywhere.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. When I arrived in Tokyo two days ago to travel with Massive Attack to Japan’s biggest open-air music event, we found a much less lively band sitting around the hotel bar, jetlagged and grumpy after a four day break from the punishing international schedule of their first tour in four years. Then, the Bristol-based inventors of trip hop had been glued to their bar stools with an inertia born of sheer boredom. “Is it really worth coming all the way out here for one gig to prove we’re still big in Japan?” D’s creative partner and long time musical adversary, Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall, had grumbled as he slipped away for a medicinal spliff. Quite how we’ve managed to descend to the seventh level of tour hell so quickly is anyone’s guess.
“Beer before wine, you’ll feel fine. Wine before beer, have no fear, drink more wine to return to fine.” D raps the personal mantra wearily, as he decants himself another glass of red and examines the menu in the only Tokyo noodlebar that will agree to serve us after iopm on a Friday night. The recipe seems to be doing the trick. Now braced against the trans-Pacific jetlag by a couple of bottles of Japanese plonk, D is rolling like a wagon train. He raises his glass in a toast. “Here’s hoping we actually get to play the Mount Fuji festival tomorrow,” he says. “Last time we tried there was a fucking typhoon.”
Few would describe D as a pessimist, but on any yardstick the diminutive leader of the Radiohead of dance music has reason enough to see his cup half-empty after this past year. Back in February they were still widely celebrated as the trail-blazers for a new wave of R&B-infused British chill-out that included Morcheeba, Portishead and even So Solid Crew, but Massive Attack’s fourth studio album, iooth Window, was released to the first muted reviews of the band’s career. Effectively a solo project after tensions in the studio led Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall to walk out during the early sessions, to most observers it seemed the volatile Bristol mood unit, famed for their internal squabbles and inability to conduct a band interview from the same room had finally collapsed under the weight of their own spectacular musical differences. Then just as things could hardly get worse, The Sun announced that D had been arrested as part of Operation Ore in a sweep against internet child pornography As is usual in such cases, police swooped on D’s Bristol home, removing every shred of digital memory that he possessed, only to return it three months later with only a $3 credit card bill from a fairly innocuous porn site to show for their troubles. The story broke just as the band was packing to go on tour and by the time the eventual retractions and apologies appeared, the damage had been done.
Even without the tribulations of the past year, Japan has always been the bad penny in Massive Attack’s international revenue stream. Back in 1986 when D and G first paid an ill-starred visit to Tokyo in their pre-Massive Attack incarnation as The Wild Bunch, D ended up getting fired from the band after a breakdown induced by a diet of pizza and complimentary party canapes convinced him to run away back to Bristol to earn an honest living washing pots, leaving only a note to his band-mates attached to the fridge byway of explanation.
Then in 1998, in an inspired moment of natural pathetic fallacy, came the Mount Fuji typhoon. As the festival was cancelled and legions of refugees were airlifted to safety, Massive Attack were left stranded for two days in a deserted hotel with only the apocalyptic ramblings of fellow inmate Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to distract them from their own stormy dysfunction. By the time they were rescued, they’d been reduced to shooting it out among themselves with an artillery of soft pellet machine guns. Core member and beats architect, Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, never really recovered from the ordeal and when they returned to England he quit the band and disappeared off to America.
Tonight however there is no sign of discord between Massive Attack’s pugilistic front men. Unless you knew better it would be impossible to guess they hadn’t spoken for nearly two years prior to this tour. Surrounded by long-term floating members like reggae legend Horace Andy, Debbie Miller and Dot Allison, the tensions and musical rivalries which define Massive Attack’s studio career are temporarily subsumed by the daily rituals of long haul travel, most of which come in liquid form. “That’s the thing about being on tour,” D tells me in mock despair. “No matter what time zone you’re in, it’s always time for a drink.”
D, guitarist Angelo Buschini and violinist Lucy Wilkins have formed a daily Lunch Club for the express purpose of getting as drunk as humanly possible in the best restaurants of Europe. Their crowning moment came at a poolside restaurant in Cannes where a damp and dishevelled Buschini passed out dressed only in a white bath robe. This evening, the time zone-challenged Lunch Club make short work of our noodle bar, covering the table first in red wine and then, following a G-inspired attempt to repair the damage, salt. As we leave, giggling and bowing clumsy apologies to the ever-polite waiting staff, D grins at me and says “Well that’s the jet lag dealt with. Now let’s get drunk.”
Four hours later in the hotel bar D has added vodka, Jack Daniels and Caipirinha’s to the list of drinks that ‘you’ll be fine’ on if you drink wine afterwards and is idly chatting up a photographer. The rest of the Lunch Club has dissolved into drunken conspiracy theorising about D’s arrest and the insidious spread of internet surveillance. Among the Massive Attack family it’s a given that D was set up because of the public anti-war stance he took with Damon Albarn, but, like all good conspiracies the exact details remain muddy. Especially at 3am. In just under 17 hours all of these people will be walking out in front of 40,000 Japanese festival-goers to close the country’s biggest annual music event. “You know I wish we could knock the booze on the head sometimes,” G confides. “It does affect us. But on tour,” he shrugs, “what can you do?”
Next morning D and G finally emerge together around midday in far better shape than either has any right to. G turned in relatively early, but the party finally broke up around four, and D swears there were still people in his room when he passed out. He’s just not sure who. We partake of D’s patented hangover cure (two cold beers and a banana) and are about to head off for the three hour drive to Mount Fuji when Macy Gray’s band turn up in the foyer. There’s a brief exchange about how “the rain was coming down in sheets” and D and G exchange weary looks. The ‘Tokyo Curse’ is hanging heavy in the air.
We arrive at Niigata just as the sun is starting to dip behind the mountain and the festival site is bathed in a soft mist, punctuated by the sparks of a thousand paper lanterns that mark the perimeter of the five main fields. In the changing-rooms behind the main stage Elvis Costello is quietly waiting to go on, and the backstage area is cleared so he can take the stage undisturbed by Massive Attack’s stage crew who are bitching about their ambitious 60-foot LED stage show The equipment alone requires three container trucks to transport it round the world and the constant maintenance required to keep the system streaming live internet feed and emails to the crowd, in real time and local language, has kept its operator, Chris, up for the last 48 hours.
Amazingly, the previous day’s rain has passed and in the last of the evening sun, groups of roadies stand smoking and moaning about the food. If the back stage scuttlebutt is to be believed Coldplay have antagonised everyone by picking a fight with The Orb, Iggy Pop disappointed everyone by going to bed early and the only place to buy drugs on site is from a mad Dutchman locked in the onsite ski hotel’s Room 101 with a medicine cabinet that would make Keith Richards wince.
Front of stage, Mount Fuji resembles Glastonbury in the same way that sake resembles white wine. For one thing it’s so clean, crowd included, all of whom appear to have spent the last 48 hours somehow levitating above the mud in their spotless white trainers. Bins have been divided in separate sections for plastics, paper and food and nowhere has the system shown any sign of breaking down. Despite barely bothering with a perimeter fence, everyone sports their visitor’s pass with pride and when someone drops their chicken and rice onto one of the designated roadways, I watch in astonishment as complete strangers stop to help them clear up the mess.
Over in the unambiguously named Love Field, The Thrills provide the perfect accompaniment for a shiatsu massage or a plate of spam wasaabi. While the crowd take time out to boost their mobiles at the banks of coin operated phone chargers, in the nearby dance tent, The Orb have attracted a huge crowd of pristine club heads, keen to show off their manoeuvres in a sea of precision, Sega-inspired line dancing rarely seen outside Leicester Square’s Trocadero.
As Costello’s electric set ends to ripples of polite Japanese applause I head backstage to catch up with the band before they finally go on. By now the changing-rooms are deserted and G is sitting alone, rolling a stream of endless bifters while, endearingly, trying to cover the heavy skunk scent under a cloud of joss stick smoke. D has disappeared off in search of the mythical Room 101, so we sit down to chat about G’s decision to quit Massive Attack.
When G walked out of the sessions for 100th Window 18 months ago it was by no means certain that he would be coming back for this tour. At the time, the official line was he had taken a sabbatical for the birth of his daughter, Ava. But in reality G had just had enough.
“D and I weren’t getting on that well, musically or personally. So I just decided to walk out,” he admits now. “I never really had it in my mind that I would leave the band for good, but it’s really hard working with D sometimes. He’s so headstrong and has to have things his own way. That can build confrontation. He likes to have total control of everything he does.”
“100th Window is just a Massive Attack album made by 3D,” he says, diplomatically “It has a Massive Attack feel, but I think it’s an album that sounds the way D thinks Massive Attack should sound. Maybe if I was involved it would sound quite different. You know, I haven’t been in the studio for a year and a half. It will be interesting when we go back in to find out if our differences were creative or personality-based. I am quite nervous about it.” Tonight he will only perform on three tracks during the whole 90-minute set and with his absence from 100th Window he now appears on fewer Massive Attack albums than Horace Andy What he’d really like to do, he says, is record a great reggae album. If that’s the case, I tell him, it seems an odd decision to leave his new family at home, to put himself through the inevitable hangovers, jet lag and perennial rows that go with another Massive Attack tour. Mount Fuji is, after all, an awfully long way to come just to perform Karmacoma.
G pushes his glasses back up onto his head and looks at me with barely disguised exasperation like I really haven’t understood anything I’ve seen over the last two days.
“When the charges were brought against D, it brought us back together in away that music wouldn’t have.” He tells me softly “I’ve known D for 20 years and I love him. 100th Window is the stupidest thing we have ever fallen out over but friendship always prevails at the end of the day This has been a really terrible year for D, I just couldn’t turn my back on him. I wanted to be around to help him out. Now, no more questions. I want to get stoned.” And having said this he fires up another joss stick. ‘And when you’re talking to D,” he adds darkly, “remind him that he owes all this to me. If it wasn’t for me convincing the Wild Bunch to take him back after he ditched us in Tokyo, none of this would be happening.”
Later D returns, grinning like a Cheshire cat and chatting aimlessly to a posse of tour buddies and dealers who have joined the backstage entourage. The subject quickly turns to porn as Chris the roadie has procured a new DVD called Straight To The A. Despite his troubles, D remains unrepentant about his appetite for the stuff. One of his proudest claims to fame is that he recorded the soundtrack to Liam Howlett’s Uranus Experiment in 1999 which boasts the world’s first zero gravity orgasm.
“Being accused of something you haven’t done, when it’s up there with rape and murder as a social taboo, was awful.” He says now, still angry “I was suddenly living in a Kafka novel. I went back to the police station and asked why they leaked the story They denied it of course, but I’m sure it was them. Everyone looks at porn these days. You can’t avoid it. It turns up in your inbox every morning and has become part of our daily lives. Besides, when you’re in the studio at three in the morning it’s a laugh. Amazingly though, if they were trying to discredit me they failed. People from my past have gone out of their way to get in touch and let me know they didn’t believe it. People were coming up to me in pubs. And the gigs have been the same. Fucking amazing, over the world. It was a big deal to me, but no-one else cared. Every night we are printing emails being sent in to us at the show and we haven’t had to censor a thing.”
Back behind the main stage it’s five minutes to showtime and D and G are completing their pre-stage rituals (another last beer for D and a final bifter for G). Neither looks even remotely like a rock star as they fit their earpieces and take a last look over the crowd from the wings. G hasn’t even bothered to change his clothes since yesterday Even so, when they amble onto the stage, the roar from the crowd suddenly transforms both into the epitome of swaggering cool. It’s amazing how much better they look at a distance. By the time they reach the encore the polite applause has been replaced with ecstatic screaming and pogoing. A few even throw their towels at the stage. As the band walk off, the mountainside still ringing, D grabs a beer and asks innocently “was that alright?” and it falls to oldest band member and reggae falsetto Horace Andy to reassure that it was.
The bus ride back to Tokyo soon becomes a long and drunken affair with regular roadside stops built in for fresh supplies. The constant consumption has made D bolshy and you wonder if he ever thinks that booze may have had anything to do with the band’s inner tensions.
“I used to think that staying up all night, boozing was away of stealing time to do more.” He says. “Now I realise that it just makes you go back over stuff you’ve already done. But, yes, I am an alcoholic. But a very functional one. We got here didn’t we?”
That’s when I remind him that he owes all this to G for getting him rehired in ‘86. D laughs and glances affectionately at his snoozing band-mate. “That maybe true,” he concedes, “but I got to bring him back this time. And for once nothing went wrong. ”
Written By Steve Hobbs