Collected Thoughts (Metro, Tuesday 14th March 2006)
Robert '3-D' Del Naja reflects on Massive Attack's defining moments as they release a best of... album.
In an age of iPods and MP3s, Robert Del Naja, aka 3-D, asks a pertinent question regarding best of... compilations. 'Aren't they redundant? Doesn't everyone just make their own?' Which begs another question: why are Massive Attack releasing the forthcoming Collected album, then? 'We felt we could buy ourselves some credit from the record company,' says Del Naja, 'but we're making sure we give away a CD of rare material with DVD videos. It's not a complete compromise.'
These days, Massive Attack is basically Del Naja - following the departure of Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles and the ever-more casual role of Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall. While their peerless quality has rarely been in doubt, the disintegration of Bristol's pioneering scene means they're overshadowed by circumstances. Where, exactly, do Massive Attack fit in the post-club world? It's partly why their last LP, 100th Window, sounded strangely rudderless. At the very least, Collected rejoins those landmark dots.
'In many ways, 100th Window continued the approach we've always had,' argues Del Naja. 'And that's to confound our audiences. We decided not to have big beats and went for delicate electronics instead. It's no different with the new track for the compilation. Live With Me features Terry Callier and is deliberately a soul track. It shuts those up who believe we can't replicate our first album.'
Ah yes, Blue Lines. Few albums have defined a generation of music lovers or become as timeless as their 1991 debut. Set against punk-reggae aesthetics and infused by hip hop decknology, it steered soul-drenched influences into edgy and existential areas. Del Naja sums it up as an LP 'made by non-musician musicians'.
'We had no idea how to make a record in the traditional sense,' he recalls. 'What it did was capture everything around us, not just with music, but the personalities involved. A friend said we'd captured a moment so specifically, there was almost no point in making another record.'
Indeed, follow-up Protection took three years to make. Today Del Naja, 41, sounds mildly indifferent about the results, yet the emotionally windswept title track and the puppet-string shuffle of Karmacoma sound immeasurably great on Collected. Protection is overlooked in one other aspect, too - it mapped out the blueprint for downbeat chillout.
'We reassess every record we make,' says Del Naja. 'It's a mix of personal experience and education; an unorthodox approach with a curiosity about where we can go next.'
Nowhere was this truer than 1998's hugely successful third album, Mezzanine. Introducing a studio band alongside the samples, Massive Attack alighted on rarefied territory. A dank record that morphed grainy art-rock with cavernous dub, it furnished weightless electronics with an oppressive sense of drama.
Performing Teardrops with Liz Frazer or Horace Andy singing Angel are my favourite Massive tracks', he says. 'I think we've been good at communicating our best tracks in a different setting live, too. We've been a conscious reaction against how one dimensional and frustrating hip hop and dance gigs were in the 1980s.
In the meantime, Del Naja is studio-bound. Massive Attack's fifth album for next year, Weather Underground is apparently wavering between commercial and uncompromising. 'We don't want to be forced into a decision,' he says, 'but we do have to keep our heads above water. We're poised between an old and new digital age. Compilations like ours are almost the last of their kind.'
by Neil Davenport