PRESUMED GUILTY (The
Guardian 11th April 2003)
2003 was looking good for Massive Attack's Robert del Naja: a new album in at number one, a world tour about to start. Then the police came knocking. In his first interview since being arrested after child porn allegations, he talks to Alexis Petridis
It has, says Robert del
Naja, been a "fucking horrendous" year. In these days of tabloid confessionals
and celebrity magazines, the sound of rock stars complaining about their lot
has become a familiar one.
Yet it's hard not to agree with Massive Attack's vocalist. For him, 2003 has been horrendous. On February 25, two weeks after the release of their fourth album, 100th Window, and on the eve of their first world tour for four years, Del Naja was arrested in his home town of Bristol as part of Operation Ore, a crackdown on child pornography on the internet. As is usual in these cases, the police raided his home, removing videos and computer equipment. A month later, on March 25, his property was returned: Avon and Somerset police had dropped the investigation.
As Del Naja walks into a suite at London's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it is difficult to draw conclusions about how recent events have affected him. You could say that he seems nervous - he talks in a low, rapid mumble and dispatches three bottles of lager in an hour. Then again, he talked that way and drank that way when I met him five years ago, and the only problems in his life then were the perpetual upheavals and power struggles within Massive Attack. He looks exhausted - unshaven, dark-eyed, sallow-skinned. But Del Naja always looks a bit like that: he is famous for partying hard. "Didn't go to bed last night," he says. "Out and about in Bristol."
Nevertheless, every time the conversation drifts on to other topics - the lukewarm critical reception of 100th Window; the departure in 2000 of the band's founder member Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles; his role as celebrity cheerleader for the Stop the War coalition - it inevitably ends up back where we began. He has, he says, "started to notice weird coincidences... everything seems connected to something". The cover of 100th Window featured life-size human figures made of glass being shot by ball bearings: "That's perfect right now, the whole notion of human fragility, watching my whole life get shattered in the same way this year - set up, then shot down."
The video for the forthcoming single, Butterfly Caught, features Del Naja turning into a moth: "It's not deliberate, it's the director's vision, but it's another self-fulfilling prophecy isn't it?" he says, laughing grimly. "I'm not going to martyr myself with what's happened this year, but I will turn into a moth. I will become uglier and darker and lonelier and more undesirable, because that's the way it's got to be this year."
Perhaps this sort of thing is further evidence that Del Naja is, as he claims, "quite a paranoid person". Or perhaps that's just what happens when you make an album obsessed with voyeurism and the invasion of privacy, featuring a title that refers to computers' vulnerability to surveillance and a song about child abuse called A Prayer for England.
You find yourself facing allegations of internet child porn offences two weeks after its release. "I thought I was being subjective at the time of writing the record," he says. "It all came back to me, as if to test me, as if people were saying, 'Right, you've set this up, let's analyse it properly with you as the subject.'"
Del Naja says he was "caught in the sweep" of Operation Ore, the investigation into internet paedophilia founded on a list of 7,300 UK-based credit card numbers passed on to the national crime squad by the FBI. Del Naja's credit card number was among them. In 1999, his card had been charged $3 by a website - he doesn't remember which one, he says, but probably some porn site.
"The company that it's attributed to owns hundreds of websites, all different, some of which are absolutely vile, hideous. I was away in London and somebody phoned up and told me they'd been let into my house by a mate of mine. They took everything, every video, every memory stick, every hard drive, spent a month analysing it and found absolutely nothing."
Always one of rock's most disarmingly frank interviewees, Del Naja has never denied being an enthusiastic consumer of pornography: "I love having sex and I love watching people have sex," he told one interviewer in the mid-1990s. In 1999, he even collaborated with The Prodigy's Liam Howlett on the soundtrack to the hilariously titled Uranus Experiment, an American porn film that featured "the world's first zero-gravity cum-shot".
"I've always been open about porn," he says. "Some people's careers, if you mention they've been involved in porn, their respectability could be on the line, but I've got nothing to hide. My views are on public record. When the police were interviewing me, it was funny, I was answering the generic questions that they ask people in cases like this, but I kept interjecting with my opinions about what I felt about abuse in society and my views on pornography as well. I kept telling them, look, I've done the music for a porn film. I've got nothing to hide. And no, I've never seen anything as vile as that. I said to them, this is absurd, gave them access to every part of my life, no problem: have my life, get on with it."
He claims that despite the fact that no charges had been brought against him, the police informed the Sun newspaper about his arrest. "The whole thing became this kind of publicity joke. Someone in the police force called the Sun directly, said we've arrested so and so, we haven't charged him. The police shouldn't be giving that information to newspapers. They've got this campaign going on, [Sun editor] Rebekah Wade's taken it on as her mission."
Has he considered suing the police? "We've talked about what I can do about it, but it would be a long-drawn-out, expensive scenario. I don't want to get involved in it because I don't want to spend my life focusing on it. I don't want to spend my money on it."
Del Naja was bailed and made a brief statement, confirming his "total faith in the justice system" and asking observers "not to judge me prematurely". He admits that, at this stage, he considered "just going away. I already felt odd about putting a record out and touring with the whole war situation going on, then this on top, it just made me feel like, 'What is the point?'"
However, he continued planning the Antipodean tour. On March 5, the Sun followed its initial story with the news that Massive Attack's projected dates in New Zealand had been postponed.
Del Naja claims that the Sun called the New Zealand and Australian embassies: "They spoke to them, told them about the allegations - which were only allegations, there weren't any actual facts - and they cancelled all our visas," he says. "We thought, 'Fucking hell, this is getting really heavy.' We had to rearrange our tour dates, which cost a lot of money, caused a lot of heartache and disappointed a lot of people out there. There was no reason for them to do that, other than the fact that there wasn't actually a story there. Nobody believed the allegations, basically there was never a case. We got letters back from the consulate apologising, saying we've been misinformed, we never should have cancelled your visas, but the damage is done."
Eventually, the tour went ahead. "It was the hardest time in my life. I had to go on tour with those allegations in the air, which was horrendous. I didn't want to wallow in self-pity or martyr myself on stage. I decided not to get involved with making comments in the press, so I made a statement to the audience each night - 'If everyone's here, I guess you don't believe these ridiculous charges' - which got a big cheer. That's how it went down."
Back in England, the gossip internet site Popbitch - not, it must be said, the most reliable source of information - reported that Del Naja had been taunted by "a group of English lads" in the audience at Massive Attack's Sydney show, who allegedly waved an oversized baby's bottle at the stage and chanted "nonce". Del Naja refutes this.
"No. I'd know about that. If I'd been at a gig, the first gigs that I'd played for four years, and there were people taunting me, I think I'd remember it. If there were selected people shouting abuse, then maybe I didn't hear it, but I don't really care about them. They're going to find some excuse to shout stuff whatever, they're going to be in the audience for that purpose. It was hard, but it was amazing how many people rallied around me. The music industry on this occasion was really honourable. Obviously, I'm not party to the conversations that went on behind closed doors, in bars or in gentlemen's toilet cubicles, you know what I mean? But, on the whole, what we were getting back was really positive. Then, when we were in Melbourne, the war started and my problems seemed even more insignificant."
Ah, the war. Alongside Blur's Damon Albarn, Del Naja was the most vocal and high-profile musician to back the Stop the War coalition. Undaunted by the lack of support from other musicians - "we stepped out into the light, looked back and there was no one else behind us" - the duo financed and designed anti-war adverts in the NME and lobbied Parliament.
For some conspiracy theorists, who took to the music press's letters pages, the timing of his arrest was almost too perfect. Del Naja isn't so sure. "I'd say that wouldn't come from the police, although the tabloid thing, the cynicism of it, could be somehow connected," he says. "Because my opinions are considered anti-establishment, it would be a great way to knock me off my perch. No one likes anything more than to see a hypocrite toppled, which makes it all the more ironic if the Sun thinks it's the one to do the toppling."
The longer-term effects of the allegations on his career remain to be seen. On the one hand, Massive Attack are about to play five consecutive shows at London's Brixton Academy: evidence that, more than a decade after their debut album Blue Lines unwittingly gave birth to the chill-out movement, their popularity and influence shows little sign of abating.
On the other, sales of 100th Window dropped 57% in the weeks after it debuted at number one, although whether that's connected to Del Naja's arrest or the album's relentless uncommerciality is a moot point.
For his part, Del Naja notes that the allegations have had a positive effect on the volatile personal relationships within Massive Attack - "Me and G [rapper and producer Grant Marshall, who did not contribute to 100th Window] have really bonded, we've spoken more in the last couple of months than in the last three years" - but is perceptive enough to realise that he has become another victim of what journalist Mark Lawson calls the "nudge-nudge culture".
"It makes your general existence much more difficult in a way I've never really experienced," he sighs. "Now I walk into a shop or a pub and I can't really be myself. I have to look at everyone twice in the eye. I have to confront almost everyone: if you've got something to fucking say to me, come out and say it, let me fucking hear it. I'm quite a paranoid person anyway. I walked from my house to the studio today and it felt like there was a huge arrow bobbing above my head. Considering that the allegations were false and there was never a case, it doesn't make any difference. I've still been pointed at that way. You can say that it's a load of bollocks, but once it's written down, it's written down. It could come up in my obituary. All the things I've done in my life and that might come up. What's that all about?
"I feel shattered, but you learn from it. When I wake up in the morning I get that sinking feeling, you know? But you have to deal with it, you have to go forward. It's given me a lot more resolve to do what I want to do."
· Butterfly Caught is out on June 2 on Virgin.