Sheer art Attack
31 January 2010 By Nadine O’Regan
Flaming rows, band member departures and years-long silences: over their 23 years in existence, Massive Attack have become almost as well known for their intense, public and vociferous arguments as they have for their seminal brand of soulful, broody and deeply affecting music.
So it’s a pleasant surprise, then, on a misty Bristol morning, to find Massive Attack founder members Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall and Robert ‘3D’Del Naja strolling through the foyer of a plush Bristol hotel, smiling and chatting, looking like they’ve not a care in the world.
They’re here to conduct interviews for their first album in seven years, Heligoland, which will, upon its release early next month, take its place as a long-awaited addition to a discography whose legendary stature few bands could hope to emulate. Blue Lines, Protection,Mezzanine,100th Window – if you’re any kind of music fan, you probably own at least one of these records.
For many fans, Massive Attack have acted as the soundtrack to their entire lives. In 2009, the band deservedly picked up the Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. Not that they’re keen to make a big deal of it, mind.
‘‘It’s quite embarrassing, all that stuff,” says the likeable, extremely down-to-earth Del Naja, as he nestles in an armchair in a private suite. ‘‘I said to Damon [Albarn] who was presenting, ‘What do I wear?’ He said: ‘Wear a fucking suit. This is serious.’
And [it was important] to remember onstage all the people who contributed. We’re only as strong as our contributors.”
You could hardly blame Del Naja for sweating it on the name front: Tricky, Neneh Cherry, Tracey Thorn, Shara Nelson, Liz Fraser, Sinead O’Connor and Horace Andy are just some of the vocalists who have played significant parts in the career of Massive Attack.
Then there’s Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, a founding member of the formerly three-strong group who left after the recording of 1998’smore guitar-orientated Mezzanine, amid inter-band fights about their creative direction – Vowles wanted to stick to the Blue Lines template of hip-hop/soul, while Del Naja wanted to push the band forward into new genres.
Although Marshall and Del Naja now operate as a duo, Del Naja is – and, one strongly suspects, always has been – the driving force of the group. Today, he’s a little more lined, but still looking pretty good for his 45 years, in a white t-shirt, baggy jeans and oversize coat.
Despite nursing a red wine hangover (from a family night out the evening before) and feeling ‘‘a little self-conscious’’ as a result, he’s pretty sharp for a man whose band name has been endlessly associated with languor, hedonism and the omnipresent fug of weed.
Back in the 1990s, MassiveAttack were everywhere you went, with mesmerisingly vivid tracks such as Teardrop, Unfinished Sympathy and Karmacoma on endless rotation in shops, restaurants and clubs. Ego boosting as it must have been, I wonder if it was also. . . ‘‘Sickening?” Del Naja butts in, and laughs.
‘‘It was one of those things, where the music appears all over trailers and in shops. It has that coffee-shop quality to it. You start to despise it a little. But, at the same time, there’s a part of you that recognises that if it wasn’t there, you would feel disappointed.
“So you live between those sensations.”
While their new record doesn’t contain as obvious a slice of pop perfection as Teardrop or Unfinished Sympathy – and a few tracks are a little too close to aural wallpaper for comfort – there are several excellent songs on the album that are up there with the best of what Massive Attack have accomplished.
Girl I Love You, featuring their long-time collaborator Horace Andy, is brooding, dark and immense; Saturday Come Slow contains gorgeous, tender, exhausted-sounding vocals from Damon Albarn and a surprisingly addictive guitar hook; and the minimalist Paradise City, featuring Hope Sandoval, has a sensual, hushed kind of charm (although, note to YouTube fans: I wouldn’t recommend watching the extremely hardcore video for it at work).
While Guy Garvey (Elbow),Martina Topley-Bird and Tunde Adebimpe (TV On The Radio) also feature, the album maintains a disciplined, cohesive feel, with superb production and elegantly unsettling textures. ‘‘You don’t want it to sound like a compilation album,” says Del Naja. ‘‘But I think the production is sparse and present in the record. I wanted this record to be held together by the production.”
Although the record is manifestly primarily a Del Naja work – his brooding minimalism and orchestral sweep are strongly in evidence – the solipsistic feel that fuelled his virtually solo effort on 2003’s 100thWindow is gone. This is a far less miserable record, despite a torturous gestation that might have killed off another band completely.
Massive Attack essentially recorded ‘‘about three’’ albums over the course of six years to get to this point. After their appearance at 2008’s Meltdown tour in London, which they also curated, most industry folk and fans presumed the songs they were playing would form the backbone of the new record. Not so.
‘‘We announced we would start again after Meltdown, and that was met with howls of approval obviously,” chuckles Del Naja. ‘‘I’ve got a low satisfaction threshold for things. I can spend weeks working on something and hate it, and the same goes for other people’s work. I can take us all on a journey and then go, ‘It’s not working’. Which for everyone is really frustrating.”
But he didn’t allow record company pressure to get to him. ‘‘We’ve been touring so much since Mezzanine,” he says. ‘‘We’ve always been out there, doing things. I think that probably gives you a sense of communication with the audience. I think if I wasn’t touring, and I’d been in the studio concentrating solely on Massive Attack, then I would be freaked. I know bands who have disappeared into a studio for five years and then come out with what they hope is their masterpiece, and the world has turned and shifted and no one gets it.”
Unlike a lot of bands, Massive Attack see some positive effects in the way the recording industry has changed in recent years.
‘‘The great thing about the climate we’re in now is that it feels a lot more like how it was when we started as DJs. We were a bunch of guys using samplers as our prime instruments to steal other people’s music. It was a DIY operation. Take what you want. And that’s how it feels like the music industry is now anyway.”
Growing up in Bristol, Robert Del Naja was ‘‘very unacademic and hated working for anyone else.” A huge art fan – Del Naja does the cover art for the records and spends much of his time painting – at the age of 16, to please his parents, he did a part-time art course at college, but failed because he presented his examiners with a graffiti work instead of what they considered to be a proper art project.
At 18, Del Naja became part of the Wild Bunch sound system, a loose collective of MCs, graffiti artists and vocalists who showcased their skills at clubs in Bristol and eventually morphed into the band known as Massive Attack.
Over the course of their first three albums, 1991’s Blue Lines,1994’s Protection and Mezzanine in 1998, their distinctive sound – gloomy, a little weird, somewhat futuristic, certainly chemical-infused, a little bit kitchen sink-drama, a little otherworldly – earned them endless kudos. In the 1990s, they were often called the most influential band in Britain, quite plausibly so.
But their inner-band conflict, from the Wild Bunch onwards, also became the stuff of legend. Del Naja maintains that the clash of personalities was what had made them interesting in the first place.
‘‘The Wild Bunch – you couldn’t imagine five more different people [including Tricky and Nellee Hooper],who looked different, had different backgrounds, ethnicities, musical tastes. That was what made it intriguing.
We’re very different, very selfish and single-minded people. There were always fights – Tricky ,Mushroom, you couldn’t have had more different people.
‘‘After we split from Mushroom after Mezzanine, it was really tough. The three way dynamic was over. There were only two of us, and we had to completely change our way of working if we were going to do something intriguing.”
But on 100th Window,Del Naja became unhappy with Grant Marshall’s contribution.
As he explains it: ‘‘I spend a lot of time in the studio working on things. G is more of a DJ, coming in and out. And sometimes I think he has a great overview, and sometimes I feel frustrated because I’m putting a lot of time in. ‘‘On 100th Window, I felt disappointed by his contribution and he felt embittered by my attitude to him. So we had a proper squabble, a real family feud for a year. No more Christmas cards for starters.”
Marshall left the band midway through the recording, leaving Del Naja as the sole member of Massive Attack. In 2003, much worse was to come: two weeks after 100th Window’s release, the police raided Del Naja’s home in Bristol, removing all his video and computer equipment. They found zero questionable content – Del Naja was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing and had his belongings returned. But the media glare made it a horrendous time for him.
‘‘In terms of its existence in my life, it was a few weeks,” he says, looking depressed even at the memory. ‘‘But in the media, it leaves an indelible mark because it’s news, so therefore you can always find it.”
The silver lining was that it did serve to bring Marshall and Del Naja back together, however, as Del Naja’s friends and family rallied around him.
These days, the two veteran members of Massive Attack seem to be more at peace; older, wiser and more settled in life. At 45, Del Naja lives with his music-mad girlfriend (‘‘We’ve got an amazing music collection now, which I’ve been paying for,” he laughs) and has been known to cook a good Christmas dinner – his parents, nieces, nephews and sister went to his house for the festive holiday last year.
Much of Del Naja’s time is spent working alongside his frequent collaborator, Neil Davidge, on soundtracks – their score for Trouble The Water, the Hurricane Katrina documentary, was nominated for an Oscar.
He has also worked on music for In Prison My Whole Life, Battle In Seattle, Gomorra and 44 Inch Chest.
Although Del Naja doesn’t discuss Mushroom much, his tone is extremely warm when he speaks about Tricky, a former Wild Bunch member who ceased contributing to Massive Attack after Protection. ‘‘I saw Tricky in Paris recently. It was great to see him. All the years, all the tension and silence disintegrated. We made a vow to work together next year in Paris.”
Although Del Naja spends much of his time abroad, his home is very much in Bristol – he even has a club there, Nocturne, which, in time-honoured rock star style, he has made a mess of running. ‘‘My dad’s a publican. He’s like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”
Del Naja feels that the Bristol scene that Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky helped to create is no longer the same.
‘‘Bristol has a new scene. The Afro-Caribbean influence is not so present. In Bristol, I feel it’s someone else’s scene now.”
Asked if people come up to him in the street often, Del Naja shakes his head. ‘‘In Bristol, nobody gives a fuck. They treat you like you’re one of the lads. At the end of the day, the impact of the band is probably felt more keenly overseas. When you go to Paris or Lisbon, you’re bringing something to them, and it has a different meaning.”
You’d have to reckon that Del Naja looks content with his lot in life: writing, recording, painting. Already he’s tinkering away on tracks for another album. Will it take as long the next time?
‘‘I don’t think so,” he says. But if it does take several years longer than anticipated, you get the feeling that Del Naja won’t mind in the slightest. After all, that’s the Massive Attack way.
Heligoland will be released on Virgin on February 5