the past darkly (The Age
7th Match 2003)
Andrew Drever finds out why Massive Attack is a leaner brand name these days.
Is it still Massive Attack, though?
Well, let's get this out of the way first. Although 100th Window is Massive Attack's first new album in five years, the fact is, Robert "3-D" Del Naja is the only original member of the Bristol "group" to actually work on the record.
This, of course, calls into question whether 100th Window should be released as a Massive Attack record in the first place. Don't think for a moment, though, that this line of thought holds any weight with a forthright Del Naja."
Ask yourself the opposite question," he says determinedly. "What makes it not a Massive Attack album? Massive Attack has always been a project and has always been ambiguous, and we very rarely worked in the same room at the same time, anyway."
Obviously, Mushroom (former member Andrew Vowles) was never going to be involved in this project from the start because he left the band. Grant's (Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, still a member but not involved in the recording of 100th Window) not the biggest lover of studios. So for the last five or six years, I'm very used to working alone with (producer) Neil Davidge. It's never really been an issue."
Before last week's child pornography and drug possession allegations (Del Naja's Bristol home was raided by police, who allegedly seized drugs and his computer; he was questioned for six hours but not charged), before the empowering February 15 anti-war demonstration in London that he had been actively involved in organising, and before the world had heard the first notes of 100th Window, an affable Del Naja was only too happy to field whatever questions I could throw at him about the dense, difficult new album.
Although the 35-year-old is at pains to assure that it is business as usual for Massive Attack, things are very different in 2003, and 100th Window is a very different Massive Attack album.
Their previous album, 1998's Mezzanine, sharply twisted their original hip-hop and dub sound system roots with razor-sharp shards and sprays of guitar, but 100th Window swirls with Middle Eastern strings and claustrophobic layers of bass. Like 100th Window, Mezzanine was complex and dark, but fragility, beauty and colour successfully tempered its menace.
Where Mezzanine had moments of light, such as the gorgeous Teardrop and the sublime, spaced-out trippiness of Exchange, 100th Window baffles with its dense introspection and dark, moody undertones.
The bleak, oppressive soundscapes have few hooks and melodies, and the album noticeably lacks a radio-friendly single in the vein of Teardrop or 1994's Protection.
I risk having the interview terminated when I put it to Del Naja that this album does not appear to have many "tunes"."
Hmmm," he says calmly. "That's weird. I think there's more melody and more key changes than what was on Mezzanine, actually. Most of the tracks on Mezzanine remained in one key from start to finish and would be driven entirely by a single sonic idea, whether it was guitar or bass. The bass and the guitars drove that album entirely."
There were very few other instruments on that album, but on this album there's an enormous range - pianos, guitars, synths, keyboards, violins, strings, harps."
The album's title comes from Charles Jennings' cult book about electronic security, which explored the idea that no matter how secure a computer system appears to be, there is always a way in.
For Del Naja, this concept is more relevant when applied to humans rather than machines."
To me," he says, "the 100th window is the window you don't guard, where people can see into you and you can see out into them. It's where you don't hide in the trappings or the debris of your normal personality, where you let your guard down and so do other people."
That's a bit more of a real communication, and the album is really about communication on every level. It's about examination of relationships; people and the relationships of the self with the world."
For an album about communication, though, it is difficult at times to fathom what is actually being communicated."
I don't think any of our records are meant to communicate clearly," Del Naja says with a sniff. "Every single one of our records are an attempt to mix ideas, to be a form of hybrid - bringing people together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes incongruously, deliberately. There's never been a clear message for communicating."
Musically, you absorb everything around you. The things that have been happening in the world are definitely all over this record. I particularly wanted to get kind of an east-west feel with the Arabic strings, something that would work harmoniously and not in opposition to the sounds I already had. I also wanted to do stuff that was multi-layered, that had intricacies."
Massive Attack's origins stretch back to the early 1980s, to Bristol sound system and hip-hop crew the Wild Bunch. The collective included future Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper and Massive Attack members Marshall, Vowles and Del Naja, and gleaned inspiration from the first wave of United States hip-hop, as well as seizing on local electro, reggae and punk.
The group would host raucous house parties, block off the end of Marshall's street with speaker stacks at the annual St Paul's Carnival, hold a three-year residency at the infamous Dug Out Club, and even perform gigs in New York and Japan.
They split in 1987, with Del Naja, Vowles and Marshall reconvening as Massive Attack. Releasing their landmark debut album, Blue Lines, in 1991, the collective aesthetic was in full swing with the album featuring guest turns from singers Shara Nelson and Horace Andy (along with Del Naja, the only common thread through Massive Attack's four albums), and a fledgling rapper, Tricky.
The seminal album blended hip-hop, reggae, pop and soul, irrevocably changing the musical landscape and providing a blueprint for British dance music.
Although hip-hop inspired the band at the time, Del Naja agrees that subsequent albums - 1994's Protection, 1998's Mezzanine and now 100th Window - have seen the group progressively less interested and influenced by those roots.
The early turntable scratching and rapping are long gone from their records, and although hip-hop inspired the birth of the band, Del Naja says it is no longer as relevant."
It was really important then," he agrees. "To us, hip-hop was what punk was when we were really young kids. It was an instant garage mentality of doing things for yourself straightaway, but especially after Mezzanine, I wanted to sample some new-wave stuff and take it away from just using hip-hop as a reference."
Del Naja recently confessed in an interview that the "slow and inevitable" dissolution of Massive Attack has been the saddest thing in his musical career.
Although Marshall was on paternity leave from 100th Window recording sessions, he will be on the upcoming world tour and will take part in future recording sessions. Vowles, however, left the band permanently after the troubled Mezzanine tour."
It (the split with Vowles) wasn't just a split with a band member," Del Naja explains. "It was a split in friendship with someone you've known for a long time. Can you imagine having to put your friendship through one of the strongest, hardest imaginable challenges and tests that you could put a friendship under?
"You're adding a magnifying glass to the worst traits of three men - ego, stubbornness, vanity, greed, whatever - and you're trying to hold a friendship together! And then you go on tour."
I mean, imagine taking your best friend camping in a tent for eight years. If you come out of that tent, you don't want to see each other again. Full stop."
Although Del Naja did find himself at a more peaceful place when Vowles departed in 1999, that mindset did not last long.
Reconvening to work on new material in 2000, Del Naja, Marshall and Davidge recorded more than 80 hours of material with Lupine Howl, featuring former Spiritualized members Mike Mooney, Sean Cook and Damon Reece. Then they spent 18 months sitting in a dark recording studio trying to distil and make sense of the marathon sessions.
The end result was to ditch the lot, which induced heavy soul-searching for Del Naja."
At the end of 2001, I was quite ready not to do another thing," he admits. "G (Marshall) wouldn't come into the studio at all, obviously Mushroom wasn't around, and I was just thinking, 'I'm just bored with this. It's not inspiring me any more. I don't feel like doing anything.' "My manager was horrified. He said, 'What's going to happen to Massive Attack?' I'm like, 'I don't give a f-what happens to Massive Attack any more'."
However, Christmas recharged the creative batteries and Del Naja came out of the break with a resolve to start afresh and write some new material. Singer Sinead O'Connor came down to the studio to work on some songs, as did Massive stalwart Horace Andy, and within a few months Del Naja and Davidge had a collection of tracks to mix down.
The inclusion of O'Connor on three tracks - the rumbling What Your Soul Sings, the unsettling string-drenched single Special Cases and the emotive A Prayer for England - brought a raw, caustic presence to Massive Attack. She particularly goes for the jugular on A Prayer for England, tackling the weighty topics of child abuse, murder and the threat to children in war zones."
We wanted Sinead to bring the passion, the fire and the message that she has with her," Del Naja says. "There's only a few people who have the ability to write about such serious things but present them in such a beautiful way."
It's a tightrope when you deal with such serious issues and you're making them into a song because sometimes it can seem a bit frivolous if it's not done right. It's never your intention to make light of a serious subject, but the fact that you're applying it to music can seem a bit silly. It's always a difficult one."
Del Naja has also lately stepped out of his comfort zone. With Blur singer Damon Albarn, he has lobbied against British involvement in a US-led attack on Iraq. The duo have been working with the Stop the War coalition and designed and financed anti-war advertisements in British music weekly NME."
The world is a much smaller place now," Del Naja says of his motivations for becoming a political spokesperson."
Certain things that once seemed a million miles away and disconnected to us now don't. The issues of globalisation and war are really relevant to all of us, but some people choose to ignore it because they don't want to deal with it, and that's a worse situation than it ever was to me."
Mine and Damon's view on disarming Saddam is to disarm Saddam. If that is the issue, if the fear is that Saddam has and is going to use weapons of mass destruction, which I very much doubt, then they should disarm him, and if it takes 10 years, then they should do that for 10 years."
Bombing Baghdad and its people is just not the answer. It's fundamentally wrong. There are other ways around this, and I don't believe what our leaders are doing and I don't believe their motives."
In London's Time Out in January, Del Naja outraged many of the group's fans in Britain when he referred to Massive Attack as a "brand". When it transpired that he alone had worked on 100th Window, the comment suddenly didn't seem so glib."
I think the idea of me calling Massive Attack a brand was just being very, very honest," Del Naja explains, "because that's exactly how the music business treats every band and every artist."
The only thing that keeps them investing in any project is the power of the brand, unfortunately. All the value of Massive Attack is in the name, and if I went to a record company without the name, they would devalue us drastically as artists."
To my record company, I'm part of Massive Attack, the brand, and no matter how creative I felt like being, how much imagination I had, how many good ideas I wanted to convey, without that, I'd mean nothing to them. I'm trying to be painfully honest, and if people take that comment as a sellout thing, then that's mad, because you've just got to be honest with yourself in this day and age."