Cheer Up It's Christmas
Each to his or her own, we say. Germany has decided (with good reason) that it
makes the world's best cars. Italy has embraced its role as chef to the planet
with, er, relish while Liverpool seems to have decided that it's a bespoke provider
of comedy to the masses. But Bristol, on the other hand, has slouched onto the
worldwide map of recognition for just one reason. It isn't our proud manufacturing
heritage, gag prowess or culinary excellence, and it's certainly nothing to do
with football. Mention Bristol in almost any comer of the English speaking world
and the reply "Aah, Bristol. Massive Attack" will invariably come back.
It's brand recognition of the highest order.
Massive Attack are indeed Massive. Their supposedly 'uncommercial' third album,
'Mezzanine', has shifted some 1.7 million units worldwide, launching the band
into the rarefied stratosphere of arena-filling high-achievers. During a gruelling
autumn they've sold out venues across America, Canada, South America, South Africa
and Europe (see side panel for the full horrific schedule) while a ten date UK
tour including shows at 14,000 capacity venues like Docklands Arena and NEC sold
out with ease.
And yet it's sometimes hard to equate musical world conquerors Massive Attack
with the band on their native turf. Robert cruising the retail outlets of Gloucester
Road in search of sustenance and Italian sports newspapers, Grant playing occasional
sets down the Thekia or propping up the Mud Dock bar and Mushroom bombing around
in his lush red motor just doesn't seem to add up to the outside world's perception
of Massive Attack: the genre-gelling, sound-collage creating, Fergie-baiting Sound
of the '90s (TM) and all-round Coolest Band on the Planet.
But their studiously uncool real life personas are, of course, the reason why
Massive maintain such a special place in Bristol's collective bosom. Bristol might
occasionally suffocate them but it also keeps any signs of pop star egomania firmly
in check. For their part, Massive Attack have built a studio here, employ Bristol-based
technicians and musicians wherever they can and even started their own label to
sign the best of the city's talent.
It's been a busy old year for Massive's Robert del Naja. Since his last encounter
with Venue in March, he's been to the World Cup final, was asked to appear on
a 'South Bank Show' special on Massive Attack (he declined), was quoted as saying
the band had split, caused a rumpus-ette with his comments (exclusively revealed
on these pages, natch) on why the Colston Hall should be renamed, and created
a full-scale rumpus with his right royal dissing ofFergie at the MTV awards.
And in just the last few months, Massive have played with Kraftwerk in South America
(the elusive Tectonics even partied with them at Dusseldorf later in the year),
lost a drummer in South America and picked up the kind of rave notices which make
you think the press would only label them uncool if they did a season of panto
in Milton Keynes. Some year. As we speak, Robert's on the set of ]ools Holland's
'Later' show, the fourth time the band have appeared. So is it seven times as
scary playing to 14,000 people as it is to 2,000?
"No, it doesn't get more scary when there's more people. In fact, we're already
terrified of doing the Anson Rooms," he chuckles. "All those people
will be right in our faces; it'll be a right hecklefest, 1 can tell you. People
shouting 'Ere, I went to school with you. Oo do you think you are?' Seriously,
we're confident we can do a really good show and make it real and honest. It'll
be good to see our mates and to finish the year in Bristol, almost too perfect.
But it'll be scary and difficult for all those reasons.
"It's strange, doing arenas now. It means you meet less people than when
you're doing small places. It
doesn't make you feel like a star or special. You actually feel more like the
clown who takes his make-up off in the trailer afterwards. You come off stage,
sit down and have a ]D and coke, get in the bus and drive off. There's been a
couple of parties so far but nothing excessive."
Massive's March interview in Venue showed the band at their bleakest, not on speaking
terms at any level and unsure how the year would unfold. A recent 'Q' feature
detailing the making of 'Mezzanine' exposed the agonies the band went through
at that time still further, laying the rifts bare in graphic detail. Put simply,
'Mezzanine"s gnarly, guitar-addled darkness is the joint brainchild of Robert
and band guitarist Angelo Bruschini. Mushroom, on the other hand, wanted the album
to stay closer to the band's soul and hip hop roots, and Grant mediated between
the two fiery factions. Things are alleged to have reached such a state of meltdown
inside their Christchurch studio that Mushroom at one point exploded: "Are
we a fucking punk band now?"
"It'll be good to see our mates and to finish the year in Bristol. It seems
almost too perfect."
With such a daunting tour schedule pencilled in to promote 'Mezzanine', it seemed
difficult to imagine how a creative unit under such internal strain could possibly
survive. But, explains Robert, the reverse happened. "The tours are a great
distraction," he says. "It's momentum and experience. But, of course,
we've put a lot of shit aside to get on with the year which will have to be dealt
with. So even though it's been a good year and not as painful as we thought it
might be, there's still quite a few difficulties we've got to go through. When
we get into new year, we're gonna have to dig a few skeletons out of the closet."
So might 1999 be a year of more diverse recording methods for Massive Attack?
"It might be. 1 had a really good time doing the Manics mix and the Thorn
Yorke track. It was just me and Neil (Davidge), Johnny (Dollar) and Angelo (Bruschini).
There were no debates, it was refreshing and quick. 1 think the recording might
go more like people going their own way and bringing things back in. You can probably
do a lot more in separate places and bring it back in later."
But, of course, Massive Attack's increasingly 'White Album'-esque recording methods
are hardly the reason the band have been at the forefront of the public mind over
the last month or so. It was their very public dissing of Fergie at the MTV Awards
which provoked the acres of tabloid backlash. Not to mention a public tongue-lashing
from Robert's mum, who wondered what had happened to the nice, polite boy she
had raised. So, Massive Attack: fervent republicans using their position to make
a statement on the essential redundancy of the English monarchy or three piss-heads
having a giggle? What'll it be? Seems like a bit of both.
"My grievance is that awards ceremonies are completely bizarre events anyway
and they teeter on the edge of being completely pointless," says Robert.
"You go there for a laugh and you just feel a bit stupid. We were told it
would be Ronaldo or Damon Albam or someone like that; someone in the music business
or the film business. And we only found out by accident just before we went up.
1 just made up my mind to do what I did because I
felt we'd had the piss royally taken out of us. I just
felt so angry and that was my response. She's a ridiculous character, a ridiculous
person and I've got no personal respect for her and the way she just seeks publicity
at the expense of others. What the fuck has Fergie got to do with us; Nothing.
What" the fuck have we got to do with her; Nothing."
There was a genuine sense of surprise about the impact the incident had back home
and equally genuine relief that they could escape back into touring mode. "1
went to the party afterwards and got completely trashed and then ended up in France
the next day doing a gig. Then suddenly all these articles came in from all over
the place, the tabloids and the broadsheets, and it was just ridiculous."
But today's scoop is tomorrow's chip paper and Fergie is now firmly history. Robert's
back on speaking terms with his mum and there's more important things to think
about, like making sure these Anson Rooms shows are the best Massive Attack have
ever played and ensuring these three eminently likeable souls don't end up as
just another bunch of pop star victims. "We're never going to turn ourselves
into celebs," Robert asserts. "We're quite happy to have that freedom
to remain semi-anonymous and just get on with our lives. Otherwise it all just
gets out of control. There's so many people in bands we've met where they've got
more famous and then just lost the plot. Eventually they've come back down to
earth and realised they don't
need to be that way.'