Depth Perception (Xpress 17/03/06)
For Massive Attack's hordes of die-hard fans, their devotion has been repaid with a very slow trickle of releases over the years. Four full-length studio albums over 15 years couldn't be called prolific by anyone's standards. But one way they've never let their fans down is in the unrivalled quality and originality of everything they do. They've never released anything that wasn't well thought-out and painstakingly polished, and their recently released 'best of', Collected, is no exception.
So have you been pretty busy with the press the past couple of days?
Yeah, you know what it's like. It's always a shame, because you want to talk about your stuff but then because you do it in bulk, you end up getting down on it, which is kind of the opposite of the whole point of doing it.
I'm curious, with a release on a scale as this, is it literally just several days spent talking non-stop?
It's been like two weeks, but yeah. You end up hating yourself, you're so sick of talking about yourself, you want to talk about anything but you.
But although it does probably make you more responsive to your girlfriend, when you speak to her afterwards, 'cause you're actually really interested in what she's got to say for a change.
That's just a joke by the way, a misogynistic comment thrown in for fun. Ahh, you gotta love 'em, we're all men here.
So tell me about the new 'best of' CD; is this something you really wanted to do yourself or was it more a label thing?
Well, it was our manager who proposed it. About last year he said 'Look, I've got this idea for a 'best of'' and I looked at him and said 'you're crazy, right?' and he said 'Well if you do it, you buy yourself loads of freedom and time to make the records you want to make next, without the pressure of making a commercial record necessarily, or making a record in a certain amount of time and to give the record company something to work with. It's been about 15 years now, it's probably about as good a time to put a 'best of' out as any.' And I went 'OK'.
And one of the other things was we had a couple of songs finished that weren't necessarily going to feature on the next record. One was Live With Me and another was False Flags. Live With Me was something Neil [Davidge] had done as a film soundtrack score, that had a jazz blues lead to it and we put Terry [Callier] on it. We had done this song and we were sort of sitting on it, it was lying around and I had no real schedule to release it.
And we had another track called False Flags which was more political and, again, quite simple and it was written around the time of the riots around France. Again it was sitting around, we were thinking about maybe putting it online, y'know, do something digital with it, but that was obviously something which was surpassed by the idea of putting a collection out. And with the collection again I wanted to kind of do something with two discs; one with the things that all the people expected - your achievements or whatever - and the other disc being something which is more about demos and sketches and collaborations and things that people might not have heard, but who might have the records already. And obviously there's all the DVDs and all the movies too.
So you know, it became quite a project, it ended up being a labour of love of love for me to put the second disc together. And working with Jon Glazer on Live With Me and Paul Gore on False Flags and the video for that, and then obviously with Tom Hixton and Nick Knight on the sleeve working out a new iconic image to encapsulate what we felt might be a past-present-future situation. And a book full of images, of paintings and drawings and photographs and things which give you an idea of the history of the band. Y'know, it became a real full-on project.
Often 'best of's are seen by musicians as the end of a chapter, that they've finished that now and can put it behind them. Is that the way you're seeing this?
Not really. I know that's one way, it can be seen as closure, but I guess this just feels like something in the middle. To me, I feel closure after every album. After you've toured it, you feel disattached because you move on to something else. You want to make another record, you want to make it differently, especially in our case we've always had that, I've always personally wanted to move away from the last thing I did. So that sense of closure is always in the air really.
And when I compiled this list for the first CD, it wasn't like a taxing or labour-intensive process, it was quite a simple list. I just wrote a list down, moved a few things around which made sense, cut some things out, added a couple of things... everyone disagreed with me, but I went onto our forum and noticed that every single person had a different list in mind anyway, so no-one would ever be happy with one or the other. I just put all this stuff together and adding the new songs felt like it was adding something looking forwards as well and obviously with the second disc and the videos and things. It was something fresh with Jon Glazer and mixing some of these sketches up with films, it was a kind of... an indication of possible futures, you know what I mean? So it wasn't just about closure.
I like that you took it that way. Generally, 'best of's are looked down upon by artists, they're seen as pretty stale. Artists don't want to look back on their music, they want to look forward, so they're seen as a cop out. But I like that you turned it around into something very positive and very new. Like the rarities disc, as a fan, is a real gem, there's a lot of great stuff on there.
Yeah, the second disc I felt was important because disc one is about things that people know or recognise, it's about collecting together your trophies, or whatever. But the second disc felt like it should be the opposite, it should be getting all the loose ends and sketches and demos which have never been heard, and even some of the collaborations for the film stuff that people might not have heard because they haven't got those records, getting it onto one disc and compiling it like an album in itself. I felt it was really important to do that, because it gave the project balance.
And of course the other thing with 'best ofs' is that they're a good starting point for people who have been casually interested in the group, but have never bought an album. Is that something that you're hoping the album will do, expose your music to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have heard it?
I think obviously the record company would love that if that would happen, [laughs] if people go to the supermarket and go 'do you know what, I can get this, this is Massive Attack, I've heard a couple of their tunes, I might as well get this collection, bang.' That would be cool, I guess that's the approach, in a sense of the record company having something that is marketable, because historically we've not always delivered things which have simple singles on them, we've always had interesting albums, we've always tried to make them interesting and to be a piece of work in themselves, but it's not necessarily been easy for the record company to serve it up to people and to collaborate with radio and MTV and all that stuff. So I guess this gives them an opportunity to do that.
Although, saying that, we went out and made two videos which are probably never going to be shown on MTV; one a study on alcoholism and one a study on oppression and alienation. And well those two things aren't exactly great MTV fodder.
Tell me about how they came about.
Well, Jon [director of Live With Me] he loved the track and he really wanted to do something which was a modern blues song, which is what the track is. He wanted to do something that reflected that and we spoke about the themes and alcoholism and the label really baulked, they went 'great, you're going to spend a load of money on a video clip which no-one will ever show.' And I was like, 'No, you don't understand, this will be a work of art. This will truly do the song justice, it will project what the song's about, it's meaning, and we talked about the casting a bit and the way it should be shot, how it should feel.
It was good working with Jon, it was not dissimilar to things that myself and Neil [Davidge] have been doing recently with film scores and it's just an interesting place to work. Also it's quite cool working with a director, because that frees you up from just writing and talking about yourself so much.
I imagine that, working in the music industry, alcoholism is something you've encountered a lot. Have you ever had problems with it yourself?
Ohh, I like a drink like everyone else, but I like to balance everything. I like to spend time off drink and clean myself out, detox and all that kind of stuff. But I think culturally around England there is a massive flood of alcoholism in the young and in the old too. It's nothing new, it's been around for centuries really, but I think now culturally it has become sort of encapsulated, it is something that you see in our city centres, you see in our pubs and on our streets in the UK and a lot of it. And it's not just that group mentaility of people getting hammered together, but I think it's more a study of someone who basically is in a good place; they've got a good job, they're doing pretty good, they've got their own place, but they like a serious drink, they drink themselves into oblivion, they drink to escape. And, obviously, we've only got a short clip, five or six minutes, to show that, so you have to kind of embellish it. Make it more extraordinary than it would be on a daily basis, where it's like a slow, slow burn. This is like 'right, let's do it now, let's drink ourselves into oblivion, to the darkness,' you know. A lot of it is that escapism.
And on the topic of video clips, I'm also interested that ever since your first album your music has always been what you'd call cinematic - it's a word that is constantly used to describe your music - and you've done a decent amount of film-scoring as well. Why is it that you think that your music just naturally tends towards that direction?
I don't know... it's something that we've always been into, as people, always been into movies and always quite interested in how film and music work. Not in a really studious sense, but just as the effect it has on you... I'm also interested in what would be termed 'melancholic music'. Whether it's reggae or soul or funk or new-wave, it was always the more moody, melancholic stuff that we love. And that's what we used to play out and make up mixtapes with, the early compilations. That's really the ideology we took into the studio, which I think really works with pictures, because it reflects the mood and times and it reflects what's going on around you.
The working title, I've read, for the new album you're working on is the Weather Underground, is that right?
Yeah, that's sort of the playful working title.
Have you found yourself inspired by that generation of revolutionaries?
The way I look at it, is that revolution I think is an impossible dream, y'know? In the context of youth and youthful enthusiasm and anti-establishmentarianism, but the way I look at it I do like the politicisation of the youth, I do think it's important that people are connected to what's going on around them. And I think particularly in our modern culture, I do believe in getting people to get out there and vote with their wallets and to make decisions based on their information. With the information age that we're in, we can get information everywhere now. And I think in the same way that the war march was never gonna stop the war, it was a mobilisation of people to have an effect on the future, in the sense that the government would have to consider the population's views when going into a situation like this again. And it also sends the message out to the local community in my street and my city and the global community that this isn't representational of Britain as a nation. What was happening next wasn't what we felt as a nation. It's important to get that message out there. I had hoped the anti-war march would prevent any act of terror happening in the UK, it obviously didn't in the end, but it felt like it was going a long way towards balancing what was happening on the other side, in terms of the violence we were seeing.
I'm a pacifist all the way, I don't agree with violence in any form. I know it's a very idealistic theory, but that's where I'm coming from and the whole Weather Underground reference, was more a... it was the spirit at the time, as opposed to what the movement got up to in their darkest moments.
You've always been very outspoken in your views, do you ever get flack for that? Get painted as the old bleeding heart liberal celeb? And do you get fans who love your music but disagree with you and give you flack for that?
We've always had a healthy level of debate on our forum all the time on that level, people do disagree with me entirely. I'm not opposed to that, I think that the internet's one of the greatest places for that, because it's not sponsored, on the whole at least, it's very much less sponsored than the popular press and people like to use that to exchange information, and our forum's very much that. I mean I personally get a hammering all the time when we release something, it's very brutal. But it's a place I like to visit and read everything because I don't want to be in a position where you're protecting yourself or hiding behind your press officer or your record company. When you do something and you put it out you've got to take responsibility for it.
By Eddie Drury