Cool, Calm And Collected (Illinois Entertainer, 29th August 2006)
Having spearheaded an entire musical genre doesn’t mean too much to Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja. The band’s critical record is virtually unblemished and even in the marginalized realm of electronic music in America, their very name commands respect. Yet 15 years in the trenches — 23 if you include the prototype Wild Bunch — and Del Naja, aka 3D, knows the pressure won’t cease.
“It always is a bit of a battle between doing things on your own time and then people going, ‘When is the album out? When are you gonna finish?’ I think,” he pauses, “almost every time we do a new record, after touring and you have a little bit of a gap, it really is like being back to square one. It’s not like you’ve done four albums, have them under your belt. It’s like, ‘Right. We’ve got to make an album.’”
The last time they had to make an album, there almost wasn’t a band to do it. After 1998’s stunning Mezzanine, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles left the trio in a disagreement over Massive Attack’s direction, and almost took Grant “Daddy G” Marshall with him. Via the sublime Blue Lines in 1991, they had unintentionally unleashed downtempo and trip-hop upon the world from unlikely Bristol, England. Now a group well versed in providing sonic solar eclipses were about to allow personal problems eclipse the band.
“When Andy left, the problem was he took an element with him which was very much looping up hip-hop things, looking at soul stuff and messing with it,” Del Naja says. “What I kind of wanted to do with him, was trying to take the new wave angle and twist it into the soul thing and make some new shapes. But it didn’t work out. That’s not what he wanted. We didn’t see eye-to-eye and obviously when Andy left, he took that element away and what I found happening on [Mezzanine followup] 100th Window initially, the first recordings, [was] sounding too much like the followup to Mezzanine. And I was really aware of that. Mezzanine had been the sort of thing that I put together and been my responsibility and took a lot of razzing in the band about what direction we were taking. But I felt it was the right move. Without Grant leaving as well — I could see he was kind of stroking with ideas — I was really aware of not trying to make the same album twice with lots of guitars and big beats. We thought we’d do the exact opposite and take all the guitars and big beats away and do stuff a lot more intricately and build things up from very small parts.”
From an external vantage today, the halcyon days seem to have been renewed for Massive Attack. A new album, Weather Underground, is in the offing, a worldwide tour is underway, and an anthology, Collected, has crisply encapsulated the first 15 years with a jaw-dropping disc of b-sides and remixes. But, as was sung on Mezzanine, “Inertia creeps/moving up slowly.” Stillness is death.
“We were lucky to have found a sound which is our own,” he says. “Even though we evolve and change, I think people always automatically get it’s a Massive Attack record. But at the same time, there is a pressure because other people pick up what you do and they start to emulate stuff and things creep into other peoples’ music, and into the sort of production world in general. A lot of people start using similar ideas to you, so you tend to rebel against that and want to do something different.
“Each time you do it, it gets harder because you’re narrowing — rather than making your palette wider — you’re narrowing your options. I think a lot of bands get to that stage where they start off with complete, like selfish individuality, find out everything they’re doing is similar to everyone else’s — other people are doing what they do — and as soon as they make a splash with their record, go off experimentally and then eventually come back ’round. But I don’t feel like we’re one of those bands, where we’re just gonna do what we do best. It’s always going to be a fight against that attitude.”
Weather Underground’s secrets are being tightly held and don’t expect to be unveiled until early 2007, although in press earlier in the year Del Naja admitted TV On The Radio, Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, and staple Horace Andy have roles. By waiting so long between albums, aren’t they in constant peril of using dated sounds or being beaten to the punch by a rival?