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Composer reads the reviews but tries to follow his muse (Guide Live, 15th September 2006)
Massive Attack forged a new kind of sound and won a dedicated fan base. Figuring out what to do next has been tough.
Formed in the late 1980s, the U.K. band gave hip-hop a dreamy, moody twist, slowing down the beats and adding dark, ominous noise to the background.
Some people called it "trip-hop," which was never a very good name. Massive Attack's style has never been particularly druggy or woozy; the feeling it inspires is very sharp and poignant. You could call it "melancholy-hop," but that's not a very good name, either.
The group produced three fantastic 1990s albums, each a collection of shadowy beats, whispers and torch-song vocals from female collaborators. But after the peak of the 1998 masterpiece Mezzanine, the reviews for 100th Window, the band's 2003 record, were mixed.
Spin magazine called it a "masterpiece of haunted sonics," while Billboard found it "emotionless and soulless." Massive Attack's music has always had a hard, steely exterior, but critics seemed to think the band was losing its hint of human warmth.
Typically, artists facing negative reviews say they follow their own muse and don't read the critics. But Robert Del Naja, who composes Massive Attack's music with Grant Marshall, can't ignore what people say about his work.
"No one wants to, but everyone does" read their reviews, he says in a phone interview. "It's the same thing as when a friend calls on their mobile phone from their pocket. They're walking and talking, and sometimes the messages are two to three minutes long, and you listen out of morbid curiosity. With a review, if you see it, you're going to read it."
Mr. Del Naja is proud of 100th Window. But some writers had legitimate criticisms of the album, he says.
"I read bad reviews and good reviews. I'm not going to take one over the other," he says. "I may even laugh with them."
A brush with the law in 2003 steeled Mr. Del Naja against the whims of public perception. He was arrested in the U.K. on suspicion of downloading child pornography. He vehemently denied the charge, and police dropped the case soon after.
It was a horrible ordeal, but something interesting happened.
Normally, people act with a certain formality when they know they're around a famous person, he says. But the legal entanglement changed how everyday people treated him.
"At the time, when I was going out and about meeting people, there was definitely an element of people talking in a direct and honest way, people speaking their mind," he says. "People often aren't honest with you. It takes something severe for people to be real honest and say what they mean."
Mr. Del Naja has been working this summer on Massive Attack's next record, tentatively titled Weather Underground. As he composes and produces, he's mindful of what people will think of the music, he says. But he tries to go with his gut.
"There's a subtle consciousness about it," he says. "You know whether something is interesting or exciting. You have to have this feeling that it's titillating you, that it's turning you on."
How will the new record sound?
"We've got a lot of things we want to do, a lot of interesting tracks," he says. "There's a moment when you're recording when you find an angle for a record. We're still working for the angle on this one."
by Crayton Harrison