Montreal Under Attack (Hour, 7th September 2006)
Trip-hop originators Massive Attack about to leave their mark on our city
Massive Attack, Sept. 11: Few phrases could have an impact that better reflects the band. Eighteen years ago, the Bristol-born duo of Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja fathered what came to be called trip-hop, birthing a British scene that has since taken over the world and created a unique brand of epic, melancholic, dub-based, prog-rock urban blues that has been challenging to define. With a slew of different collaborators and vocalists - from Tricky to Madonna to Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn and reggae legend Horace Andy - they have transposed their reflections on the sorry state of the world into sounds of unparalleled infectiousness and incomparable, palpable dread. It's only fitting, then, that Massive Attack play Montreal on that most infamous of dates, September 11.
"You're calling from Montreal? That's fantastic - we love Canada. You guys think just like us," exclaims Grant Marshall, a.k.a. Daddy G, on the phone from a recording studio in Paris. "Americans are supposed to be the peacekeepers, but look at what the peacekeepers have done. They've made more war than ever. It's bad to know that Tony Blair has aligned himself with George Bush, to know that these two political forces that are actually polar opposites have jumped into bed together. Because we looked at Tony Blair as more of a socialist democrat, and really, what he actually is, is centre right. Tony Blair is actually more right wing than Margaret Thatcher was.
"To know that we've gotten ourselves in this mess without even thinking, you know, it's terrible."
Massive Attack have been very vocal about their objections to the war in Iraq, which to some - perhaps those who know their music from the soundtracks of The Matrix or 24, or from their BFF's celly ring - might seem surprising. But you have only to listen to Collected, the best-of released this summer in celebration of their lengthy career, to clearly see what fans already know: Massive Attack are creators with a conscience.
They have addressed political strife either directly (False Flags) or indirectly (Karmacoma) since day one. Even their name was informed by war: "Because of the Gulf War, they were banning any bands that had names that had any connotations to war," explains Daddy G. In order not to alienate radio play in their establishing years, the band was forced to temporarily change their name to Massive, tout court, a fact Del Naja still regrets. Since then he has been vocal against what he sees as U.S. aggression against the Third World in the name of democracy.
"Every time we've released something there's been some war on," sighs Daddy G. "The first thing we released, Blue Lines, there was the Gulf War. The last time we released something, there was the Gulf War again! It's gone full circle."
COMING IN WITH A BANG
The first threads that knotted together into a circular shape to form Massive Attack date back to the late '70s, when Del Naja, Marshall and original Massive co-founder Andrew Vowles (a.k.a. Mushroom) sprouted out of a Bristol art community called The Wild Bunch. Any description of those days makes them sound like a crazy cultural golden age.
"Basically, we sort of came out of the punk thing," Daddy G explains. "It was beautiful living in England around the late '70s, early '80s because we had all different kinds of music hitting us. We had '77, which was just a brilliant explosive thing for a youngster to be into, and from that we went off into new wave, two-tone music, all kinds of stuff. We were always really into reggae, the bug of hip-hop came along, and we moved into that and formed a DJ collective of five kids from totally different backgrounds - totally different cultural backgrounds, totally different social backgrounds. We were DJing perhaps until the early '90s, when we went to Japan, and then one of the members went off to form Soul II Soul. Then Neneh Cherry took us into the studio and recorded our first album, Blue Lines.
"Over that period it was really great to be a musical fan. I was DJing in a club called the Dug Out, in Bristol, which was an amazing club from the early '80s where you had everybody from different walks of life under one roof. I think if you look back in retrospect, trying to have those different factions of people in one club drinking, you couldn't do it now. It was punks, rastas, soul kids - an amazing club. We've maintained our diverse taste in music since then."
The unmistakable Massive Attack sound that magically permeates every tune on Collected - despite the tracks spanning more than a decade and adhering to various phases in the band's continual experimentation - is interesting for the challenge it presents pigeonholers. Its roots rest in dub, no doubt about it (especially in the Protection days when Tricky's signature vocals lay across much of it), but that's pretty much the only possible reference. The rest is new, and before the band knew it, that newness was coined "trip-hop."
"We used to hate that terminology so bad," laughs G. "You know, as far we were concerned, Massive Attack music was unique, so to put it in a box was to pigeonhole it and to say, 'Right, we know where you guys are coming from.' And we didn't know where we were coming from half the time, you know what I mean? It was a resistance, but then slowly but surely you come and realize that people need some direction, and some pointers as to where to go for this music. We made this slow, ambient music that was meant for the head, not for the feet, you know, to dance to. There was nothing like it. There was nothing slow or intelligent."
LIVING BEYOND THE GOOD OLD DAZE
With two young kids and a third on the way, due Sept. 17, Grant Marshall can't spend his time reminiscing about the Bristol of yesteryear or wallowing in the world's lost ways.
"You've gotta be optimistic about things because you've got kids, but some of the things that are happening, living in a city... there are a lot of corrupt things going on," he sighs. "Where we live is kind of near a high immigration area, and unfortunately there's a lot of crime there. It's worrying times. There's so much violence in England."
When asked if it's more a matter of perspective, and that maybe the late '70s in Bristol seemed just as rough to his parents as today's Bristol seems to him, Marshall disagrees. He sees the world in crisis, and his country as drastically misled.
"They make these policies and I don't think they consider the real demographic of a country. You know, for instance, Jesus Christ man, you go so blindly into war, and you start going off on Muslims and terrorism and shit like that, and what you're doing is alienating a certain population. That's what's happening in England. The government is deliberately alienating the Muslims, saying that they're the ones to watch. Ten, 15 years ago, it was maybe Indians and Pakistanis. Twenty years ago, it was black people. Even everyday laws, they're just not reflecting the England that we have. It's a multiracial society that we have."
Will the upcoming release, Weather Underground, expected out in February 2007, reflect some of those thoughts?
"From the release of Blue Lines, 15 years ago, till now, there's been complete conflict in the world as we know it, and all these major disasters. So at the end of the day you can't help but take some of it in. We're quite politically motivated, in a way."