'It's always a terrible and crucial time with us ... that's Massive Attack' (The Observer, 11th May 2008)
The Bristol band's sound has helped define British pop for 20 years. Now, they are curating the South Bank's influential Meltdown festival. In an exclusive interview, Miranda Sawyer talks politics, camper vans, and their upcoming album.
Grant and D of Massive Attack always look down in photographs - literally and in mood. It's rare to see a snap of them doing anything but giving it glum. This suits their music, which is intense, rhythm-driven, atmospheric, modern - but it's a shame, because they're upbeat company, even while they're having their picture taken, a process musicians traditionally enjoy as much as high tea with the taxman.
'Have you tried one of these?' grins D, short for 3D, or Delge, real name Robert Del Naja. 'Frozen Jaffa Cakes. Just the normal ones, but you put them in the freezer, they're unbelievable. They taste completely different! The orange really snaps.' He passes them around the company. I can report that frozen Jaffa Cakes are... freezing. Meanwhile, Grant (surname Marshall, aka Daddy G: keep up), is discussing the merits of VW camper vans with Harry the photographer. 'I'm getting a new one,' he announces. 'You can get 'em made, brand new, in Mexico. An authentic Sixties camper van but new, with a Passat engine.'
We are upstairs in Massive Attack's two-storey studio in Bristol. Outside is Grant's current camper: battered, unpretty, furnished with camouflage cushions. Inside the studio, on the ground floor, are the switch banks, dimmed lights, scrawled notes, furry walls of a working studio. Upstairs, the hang-out area is dominated by a twisting installation of silver air-conditioning pipes. 'I'm going to put a Cyberman in the middle of them, just popping his head out,' informs D.
In the corner rest several vast canvases: a couple of D's pieces and one instantly recognisable as the work of Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame. These, and the camper van, hint at the reasons behind Massive Attack's most recent pause between LPs. The band's last release, 100th Window, was in 2003. Since then, D has been doing his painting and working on film scores (four in the last year), plus contemplating the slow process of having his house done up. 'I took the roof off and replaced it with glass - that took a while.' Grant, meanwhile, is ensconced in family life. He and his partner, Sylvia, have three children, aged six, three and one and a half. 'So with work, I'm on a three-day week,' he says.
By their reckoning, he and D have been properly grafting on their fifth, as-yet-untitled album, for 'only' the past two years. It's due out in September. 'But you never know with us,' says D. 'It might be next year.' What point are you at with it? I ask. Are you at a terrible and crucial time? 'It's always a terrible and crucial time with us,' laughs Grant. 'That's Massive Attack.'
Massive Attack have never operated like a 'normal' pop group. No drums-bass-guitar-singer structure, no attention-grabbing frontman, no sense of release schedule urgency. 'We tend to get distracted,' admits Grant. The band have always been a hazy, collaborative collective, with members coming and going as they pleased and vital contributions arriving from guest vocalists, such as Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, Elizabeth Fraser, Horace Andy (Andy, Damon Albarn, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio all feature on the upcoming album). This may sound hippie; over the years, it has proved both pragmatic and fraught. There have been as many falling-outs as joining-ins.
Massive Attack grew, in the late Eighties, out of the Wild Bunch, a Bristolian hip hop sound system that also included Nellee Hooper. In the beginning, there were four permanent band members: D, Grant, Mushroom and Tricky. Tricky left to forge his own career and, for a long time, there were three. Then, 10 years ago, after the release of third LP, Mezzanine, Mushroom left, unhappy with the direction the music was taking (too dark, not hip hop enough) and unhappy, full-stop: none of the three was on good terms by then.
Finally, during the making of 100th Window, Grant left too. Though not officially; the release coincided with the birth of his first child and he and D were sick of each other. They didn't speak for three years.
Not that you'd know it today. The pair are relaxed, with each other and with me. As ever, D does most of the talking, his Bristol burr rapid-fire, his mind churning. Grant is less excitable, his accent just as strong; he tends to let D speak first and then chime in. They make each other laugh, you notice. At the moment, they're chatting about the local beach resort of Weston-super-Mare. D visited the other day: 'In the shops, they were selling golliwogs! Rows of them. Furry ones, metal ones, plastic ones...'
'Ah, negrophilia,' says Grant. 'I actually collect a bit of that. You should try reading Enid Blyton. The new ones are edited, but I got some second-hand ones and it's all golliwogs and bulging eyes.' They both crack up.
But we're not here to talk about racist stereotyping for kids, Massive Attack are this year's curators for the Southbank's Meltdown festival and they've come up with a brilliant selection of artists: Grace Jones, George Clinton, Stiff Little Fingers, Elbow, Gong, Tunng, Gang of Four, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Terry Callier, the Shortwave Set, Horace Andy, plus newer acts like Fleet Foxes, George Pringle and Aloe Blacc.
The artists they've chosen illustrate their musical obsessions: hip hop, punk, funk, reggae, new wave, electronica - sounds that weave throughout Massive's dark musical universe. 'The idea was to try to encapsulate what we always did as a sound system,' says D, 'but put it on as an event.' Characteristically, D and Grant were a bit disappointed that Meltdown doesn't work like an outdoor festival; they thought that the musicians would be able to wander between venues and mix things up. Still, they're very excited: all that music, all that partying. 'Eleven days,' says Grant. 'We'll be meeting and greeting everyone playing, making sure all their needs are taken care of. Drink, drugs...'
'To be honest, the worry is sustaining,' says D. 'We're playing on the first night and then we've got to last through the next 10.' They're performing on the last night, too, and, during the festival, doing a live mix of the Blade Runner soundtrack as it's being played by the Heritage Orchestra.
Massive Attack have always had a strong visual sense (another possible reason why they don't smile in photos); plus, over the years, an increasingly dominant political bent. So there are films and outside events on top of the gigs. A selection of graffiti/ cartoon artists, such as Hewlett, Banksy (who's from Bristol, too, and a friend) and up-and-coming painter Insekt, is due to create works for an exhibition and there are some interesting movies scheduled, such as Shane Meadows's new one, Somers Town and Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about the death of an Afghan taxi driver while in the custody of US troops. Taxi to the Dark Side will be followed by a discussion with Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at Guantánamo Bay who stars in the film, and Clive Stafford Smith, legal director and founder of Reprieve, which works against the death penalty but is increasingly acts against human-rights violations.Stafford Smith has issued more than 100 writs against the US government on behalf of Guantánamo Bay inmates.
Massive Attack have been involved with Reprieve for a few years; it is, says D, almost a relief to be helping a charity that focuses so intensely on individual situations, after the band's anti-Iraq war efforts (D was heavily involved in CND's protest campaign). 'I wasn't naive enough to believe that the war would be stopped, we all knew it was a foregone conclusion,' he says. 'But I thought en masse protesting would create an impression that would be indelible, so the next government would have to think twice - which didn't happen. With Reprieve, it's a more containable objective; you're helping individual people, and you can imagine being in their situation. It's human, it's real, you can engage with it.'
D and Grant are wary of publicly talking politics - they know how pompous pop musicians can sound when they do - but once they get going, they find it hard to hold back. They treat me to an entertaining dissection of local government. Sadly, it's nearly all libellous, so I can't repeat it. Some of the printable stuff includes their question as to why Bristol's new buildings all look like 'big Barratt homes' and why the city still doesn't have a music arena for bands to play. After all, Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky created for Bristol a modern musical reputation to rival Manchester's and Liverpool's - so why no great venue? 'It's pathetic,' grumbles Grant.
They also get stuck into the US elections (they're both Obama supporters). Grant is convinced that Hillary will get the nomination - 'There's no way the people with real power will let a black man run for President' - and that McCain will win: 'The Democratic race is a side-show.' D, naturally more optimistic, is hopeful that Obama will win through.
All very interesting, but talk soon moves on to more domestic affairs: to flowers (D has got into gardening), camping, houses and cars (D is learning to drive and has bought a Prius - he's also had solar panels installed, after inquiring about a wind turbine and learning that the resulting energy would be fed back into the National Grid and he would just get a discounted bill). 'That's not the point, is it?' he trumpets. 'I want my own little system, outside the system.' His house is outside Bristol; Grant's is in the city, in Montpelier. 'He's got a great garden,' informs D. 'An urban oasis.' 'With a load of crack addicts outside,' says Grant.
As they talk, it becomes clear that they don't usually chat about such everyday matters; there's a feeling of catching up. Grant is surprised that D's girlfriend had moved in, for instance. Like many musicians, they only discuss music when they're working, plus, they each tend to tinker on different tracks anyway. In the end, this distance is why Massive Attack have endured. It's clear they have loads in common, but so have most bands when they start. The process of being in pop music strains those bonds and very few bands last. Massive Attack have survived over 20 years because, like a good marriage, each partner has outside interests and they give each other space without actually walking away. And, like a good marriage, they only argue when they really, really have to.It's decided that we'll go out to get some lunch and do some more photos. 'Let's go and get a pint,' says D. The Massive Attack work ethic strikes again. How they ever get anything done is beyond me.
· Meltdown is at the Southbank Centre from Friday 13 June to Sunday 22 June. Information at southbankcentre.co.uk. The Observer is media partner
Trip hop pioneers: Back in the groove
Early years Founders Robert Del Naja (3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) mixed down tempo beats and soulful vocals as the pioneers of trip hop in 1988.
Riding High Blue Lines (1991), the debut album, acclaimed as groundbreaking. Protection (1994) also well received.
Fall-outs and fallow years Mezzanine (1998) and 100th Window (2003) were less popular. Disagreements led to Mushroom leaving in 1998 and Daddy G in 2000.
Back on track After not speaking for three years, 3D and Daddy G have recorded a fifth album and will curate the Meltdown Festival next month.
THE BEST OF MELTDOWN...IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Next week in Observer Music Monthly: Massive Attack's guide to their Meltdown programme, including special artwork from 3D