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Massive Metaporphosis (Bulb, April 2006)

ROBERT DEL NAJA, lynchpin of trip-hoppers MASSIVE ATTACK, talks to MATT KENNARD about being boxed and daring to be different.
According to Robert Del Naja, Massive Attack are "the most famous thing to come out of Bristol since fucking Isambard Kingdom Brunel." Most of you probably haven't heard of Kingdom Brunel (he's a feted architect), so by my reasoning that makes Massive Attack the most famous thing to come out of Bristol ever – a rather grandiose claim to fame, but, strangely, entirely fair.
Bristol's finest export realised their last album three years ago, in early 2003. It was called 100th Window and had mixed reviews in the music press, many feeling it had failed to raise the bar higher than the beautifully crafted and critically acclaimed Mezzanine, which was released five years previously.
Before that the band had established themselves as an innovative and groundbreaking act through their most famous offerings of Blue Lines , released in 1991, and Protection, which flew onto the shelves in 1994 and reached #4 in the UK charts. These albums ushered into existence their own musical genre, which has since taken flight across the world. Superficially it is called "trip-hop", but more deeply it combines elements of hip-hop and trippy psychadelia.
I catch up with Robert Del Naja – the mainstay of this "musical collective" – in the studio, where he tells me Massive Attack are "currently writing a fifth album," prematurely titled Weather Underground and scheduled Weather Underground and scheduled Weather Underground for release in far-off 2007, but they've also just finished a collection album due out later this month. "I suppose you could call it a greatest hits – but with loads of new material, sketches, unreleased stuff, and artwork and videos and the kind of circus that comes with it. It's pretty fucking mental..."
Seasoned fans of Massive Attack will be aware of their penchant for shifting their musical centre of gravity with every new offering. Del Naja says this is conscious: "The new tracks on the collective album are a reaction to what we did in 100th Window because we wanted to do something different again. 100th Window was a deliberate decision to get away from what we did in the past – not to use samples, not to choose big beats or guitars like we did on Mezzanine – but to intricately craft everything electronically. We used a lot of live instruments as well, manipulating the sounds.
"This time it's the opposite – we've gone more organic. We want every track to be two minutes with a few parts, maybe three or four instruments and not to be necessarily reliant on drums – drums haven't got to be the key thing, it could be about the vocal, it could be about the strings or the piano. The tracks are more simple, more direct, whereas 100th Window was more about layers and textures so we've shifted our ideas again. And by the time we've got through the fifth album we'll probably have moved on a bit more again."
This constant chopping and changing of styles and sounds makes Massive Attack's music nebulous and extremely hard to categorise. Does Del Naja mind the genre "trip-hop" being used to describe his work? "We used to get upset about it when it was coined as a phrase because it was us and Portishead and Tricky and the other Bristol guys – Smith and Marty and Roni Size," he says in his Bristol, expletive-heavy lilt. "Everyone comes with their own baggage and egos and everyone knows each other, and I think everyone wanted to survive in their own way and be seen to be an individual and possibly to be better than the other group in that very selfish male way. And when we were all labelled we resented it because it kind of bagged us all together. In hindsight I know why Jamie coined it – he's a mate of mine – because it is what it says on the tin: hip- hop done in a really fucking cerebral, trippy, psychedelic way, which was what we set out to do, so it was quite a good way to describe it.
"I think the problem is that it created a bit of a scene internationally. Like many scenes it sets like a jelly and everyone does the same sort of thing and you get some repetition, which is something we never wanted – each album we wanted to do something new and different and challenge ourselves a bit, so therefore any kind of musical scene or genre is going to counter that."
The membership of Massive Attack has changed as regularly and abruptly as their musical style – when Blue Lines and Protection were written, Del Naja was flanked by Grant Marshall ("Daddy G") and Andrew Vowles ("Mushroom"). "Mushroom's off – he went to do other things," Del Naja explains. "Grant has been quite active in terms of the studio. Grant's thing has always been that he's a DJ stroke co-producer. He'll throw ideas in the air, pick up beat samples and scratches and stuff, leave me to do stuff then come back and listen and give you a vibe. And I suppose when Mushroom left the band and we were doing less sampling and scratching and moving into more writing from scratch without using samples, it obviously became a different dynamic. He hasn't worked on the new stuff on this Best Of yet – it's stuff me and Neil [Davidge] have been working on for a while. The fifth album has got collaborative stuff on it."
In addition to his musical commitments, Del Naja has always been extremely political. During the run-up to the Iraq war he took out a full-page advert with Thom Yorke from Radiohead in NME denouncing military action, all out of his own pocket. But though Massive Attack's music has always been angst-ridden and melancholic, it has never been overtly political. "I probably have been the most political in the sense that I react most strongly to things I hear and read and want to do something about them more that the others. But in the end I am part of a group, so you can't always impose it. It was very serious that I wanted to use the band any way I could – the band's reputation or fan-base or influence – and try to get involved fan-base or influence – and try to get involved in the anti-war effort."
What does Del Naja say to those who think that musicians should stay out of politics? "There is always going to be a natural mix between the individual and the environment you exist within. Most of our cities like Bristol are within. Most of our cities like Bristol are very mixed politically, socially and racially. very mixed politically, socially and racially. very This surrounds every decision we make." He This surrounds every decision we make." He pauses. "Politics governs our very existence and we absorb culture all the time through music, film and art. I think the main issue is really how we get fed politics and culture through the media – how we get our culture, through the media – how we get our culture, how we get our politics spelt out to us, how the news is read to us, how our choices are laid out, through the media. These are the things that people should be more concerned with."
Why is this barrier between culture and politics erected, then? "It suits a lot of peoples' business and political interests to try to separate the two when actually they are joined at the hip," Del Naja says astutely. are joined at the hip," Del Naja says astutely. "I think sometimes when you're trying to present music for music's sake, you don't want it to be politically charged because you want it to be about a simple music experience, want it to be about a simple music experience, an escape. Other times politics is a very integral part of it, definitely."
With the new collection album released later this month and their fifth album released next this month and their fifth album released next year, Massive Attack's the legions of fans will year, Massive Attack's the legions of fans will be waiting with baited breath. If Del Naja is true to his word, we could well be seeing the progression of possibly the most innovative band in the last 20 years into still more uncharted territory.