Collected Friction (Venue 24th March 2006)
There's a new tour, a new compilation, and a 'proper' new album on the way from Massive Attack. Founder members Robert '3D' Del Naj'a and Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall tell Stephen Dalton about their extraordinary working methods and how they thrive on the creative tension at the heart of the band.
Some bands thrive on creative tension, but very few make it work for them across almost two decades of strife and struggle. And yet, somehow, Massive Attack have outlasted Britpop and trip-hop, rave and grunge, UK garage and electroclash. During that time, they have lost founder members, been banned from the airwaves, fallen out bitterly, faced trial by tabloid and raids by the police. Meanwhile, they have released groundbreaking albums, made consistently stunning videos, inspired everyone from Madonna to Gorillaz, and patented a Bristol-bom sound that changed the global vocabulary of pop.
There was never a serious game plan. The original Wild Bunch sound system could hardly have predicted how their fusion of reggae, punk, hip-hop and graffiti art would blossom years later. It all began with warehouse parties, dub plates and hand-drawn posters in the late 1980s. Then it grew into a label, a studio, a bar, an extended family of collaborators and associated artists - but still, as its beating heart, one of the most dysfunctional bands in Britain.
"It was never really a planned career," shrugs Massive co-founder Robert '3D' Del Naja. "Everything happened accidentally, bit by bit. Even after 'Blue Lines' was a relatively successful first album, we didn't have plans even to make a second album. We didn't know what we were going to do. It was all a bit of an education, and that continues to this day."
Before Massive Attack, before the Wild Bunch, there was the much-fabled Dug Out club in Park Row, a legendary melting pot of people, sounds and subcultures. Now Massive have revamped their downtown bar Nocturne as The Tube in a kind of homage to the Dug Out. A dancefloor has been installed while the speakers are now plastered with artwork by 3D, stencil guru Banksy, Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame, Radiohead sleeve designer Stanley Donwood and others.
"The Dug Out was fundamental in bringing people together in the Bristol music scene," 3D recalls. "Bringing people who were into new wave and punk closer towards what reggae and dub music was about, all at the same time as Pil were putting records out and The Clash were moving into different areas. It was real education, being exposed to all these different types of music. There was something happening every night of the week. And I used to live there, I was there every night. I don't know how Bristol would have developed without it, because nothing was ever like the Dug Out after it closed."
Reaching back to the Dug Out days, Massive's new career-spanning album 'Collected' is a welcome reminder that Bristol's veteran innovators still sound as moody, majestic and musically adventurous as they did 15 years ago. Working back through the archives, remastering the band's early albums for the digital age, 3D realised just how far the world has changed. "It's weird because we spend so long between albums, so the technologies change dramatically from record to record," he says. "It was all smoke and mirrors and | steam, now it's all gone digital. So it was quite weird, but I quite like the textural changes between tracks from the past and the present."
The last time Massive were interviewed by Venue, tension was almost tangible. 3D was barely communicating with his long time musical partner, Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall. He was also reeling from a raid on his Bristol home by Avon and Somerset police in February 2003. As part of a national crackdown on child pornography, he was questioned over allegations of drug possession and Internet porn offences. The story was broken by The Sun, fuelling dark speculation that the Massive star was being targeted for his highly public stance against the war in Iraq. At the time 3D was livid and sought legal advice. But looking back, he shrugs off the whole affair. "The porn thing came and went as quick as the newspapers did," he says. "It was such an absurdity, it existed within the tabloids but that's not something we're about as a band. We've never been about celebrity, so it was never really going to touch us. The timing of the arrest was very cynical. I spoke to the police and there was lot of to-ing and fro-ing with lawyers, but I chose not to follow things up because I just felt it was going to go nowhere. It was pretty much a flash in the pan in the tabloids. It didn't affect my life or the people around me."
Although all pom charges were dropped within weeks, 3D was cautioned for ecstasy possession. Having recently witnessed his friend Kate Moss being crucified in the tabloids for her cocaine habit, he believes the British media's love-hate obsession with sex, drugs and celebrity reeks of prurient double standards. "It's amazing that the police want to arrest Kate on the way into London but they're not going around to David Cameron's house," 3D argues. "Has it got to be a photograph that means you get questioned by the police? Or the fact that you admit doing it? When they talk about sending messages out to fucking kids or whatever, it's so incontinent it's ridiculous. When it comes to sex and drugs, Britain has always been hypocritical."
Massive are currently in rehearsals for a major world tour to promote 'Collected'. Although the gigantic digital information screen from their last live incarnation will return in revamped form, their hi-tech sound will be stripped down into more organic, unplugged arrangements. In July, the tour will pass close to home with open-air shows at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire and the Wireless festival at Hyde Park in London. For both events, Massive plan to fill the stage with friends and like-minded artists. "We've got Westonbirt, which we're going to programme with local acts," says 3D. "We'd really like The Flies to do it, Sean Cook's band. We've got to see how much time we've got and how many bands we can get on the stage, but we definitely want to keep it local."
Speaking of local acts, 3D and Daddy G still keep one eye on the Bristol scene. But not as closely as when they were running their short-lived Melacholik label to showcase local talent. "Virgin didn't really have the money to back us,"
Daddy G says. "You know what these labels are like, they expect other people to do their dirty work for them. If they've got a good band, they really encourage them to go out and sign their mates - it's the rap ethos. But they don't ever give you the money to back that up."
Although tensions have always existed within Massive Attack, 3D traces the serious faultlines back to the release of 'Mezzanine' in 1998. Signalling a shift towards a harder, rockier sound, the band's third album arrived during a fraught period that culminated in the departure of founder member Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles. "He left a void," says 3D. "The dynamic in the band changed quite a lot after that."
Speaking of Mushroom, 3D dismisses rumours from the Bristol grapevine that he has been working with Massive again:
"Not at the moment, no." So it could happen? "I'd always like to think we could work together again, just like with Tricky," he nods. "That was a difficult split for everyone and I know it hit Mushroom hard. But he's been working on his own thing and I'm looking forward to hearing his record because Mushroom's a genius. We've kind of always missed him. I like to think in the future there'd be some chance of redemption between us."
But whatever the tribulations of making 'Mezzanine', friction inside Massive reached crisis point around their next album, '100th Window', in 2003. Distracted by his newborn daughter, Daddy G stayed out of the studio altogether while 3D and new recruit Neil Davidge moved the band deeper into dark, avant-rock territory. There was even talk of them dissolving altogether. "The reason why I didn't do the last album was because my priorities were more towards my kids," Daddy G admits, "and I wasn't really getting on with D. But there's always tension with Massive Attack, that's the nature of the game. We don't really live out of each other's pockets. There's always musical tension, social tension. We don't really get on or see each other that much." Really? "Not if I can help it, no."
3D is more diplomatic about his current relationship with Daddy G. "We patched it up," he says. "But Grant's very different. His way of working is more of a producer way. He'll leave you with things or suggest things, then let you get on with it. Then he'll come back and tell you what he thinks of it, whereas myself and Neil are kind of heads down in the studio. Grant has more of a DJ mentality."
However strained relations may be inside Massive, Daddy G seems genuinely enthused about working on tracks for the band's new album, due for 2007 release and provisionally titled 'Weather Underground'. His mission, he says, is to "get some soul back in the Massive Attack sound". To that end, he and 3D are currently recording in separate studios with different collaborators. "We're working separately on the album, myself and D," says Daddy G. "I'm working with some guys called the Robot Club, Bristol boys. He's working with Neil, and we're going to reconvene at the end of the sessions and hopefully get some continuity going."
3D confirms the new record will be a schizophrenic affair, likening it to Outkast's split double album from Speakerboxx/The Love Below. It seems Massive may well be the first band in rock history to stay together due to musical differences. "Yeah, but we're working for the same cause," says Daddy G, "which is Massive Attack."
"As you know, we're a totally dysfunctional bunch," 3D laughs. "We never sit in the same room together and write music. Me and Mushroom did it occasionally, and me and Tricky used to write together. But beyond that it's mostly been individuals working with different collaborators. Me and G haven't written anything together in the same room since '97."
Working separately for a common cause may sound unusual, but it has clearly re-energised Daddy G. "I'm starting to enjoy it now that I've got out of the restraints of working with Rob and Neil Davidge," he says. "I felt like I was being dictated to by those two. They've got their own little set- up and I kind of felt I'm not part of it. I'm a lot more comfortable with my side of things, and really pleased to be making music again. I had lost my enthusiasm, but that was just because I wasn't working with like-minded people."
'Weather Underground' is already shaping up as a feast of collaborations, with veteran mellow soulman Terry Callier, turntable maestro Gnariz Barkley and David Sitek of Brooklyn art-rockers TV On The Radio joining 3D, Daddy G and longtime Massive vocalist Horace Andy. "It's all looking good," says G. "The fact is if you pick up the phone and ask somebody to help with the album, invariably they all say yes. It's nice to have that kind of sway. We make them sound good, they make us sound good."
Some bands are ruined by creative friction. But some, like Massive Attack, can barely survive without it. "Well, this is the height of friction with Massive Attack," nods G, "so we'll probably come up with the best album we've ever done." '.^.
Does G see a long-term future for Massive? "Of course I do," he says. "There's no point doing it unless it's for the long duration. The whole point about Massive is it's a big project, it's not going anywhere. We're still going to be here in another 10 years, hopefully. As they say, the best is yet to come."