AND THEN THERE WAS ONE. WELL, SORT OF. DADDY G'S ON DAD LEAVE AND MUSHROOM HAS MOVED ON, BUT MASSIVE ATTACK IN THE SHAPE OF THE TIRELESS 3D HAVE STILL MANAGED TO FASHION YET ANOTHER MASTERPIECE. PAUL MARDLES COLLARS THE LATTER AND FINDS THE THINKING MAN'S HEDONIST IN A REFLECTIVE MOOD. "WHEN YOU'RE PREPARED TO STAND UP AND SAY THINGS YOU BECOME VULNERABLE" HE NOTES...
Photos: Warren Du Preez
and Nick Thorntofr
The studio's overflowing bin is instructive: last night was a late one. This comes as no surprise. After all, everyone adheres to a routine of sorts and for the last six months 3D's has been punishing, intense. Go out. Drink. Drink some more. Find some pills. Feel restless. Retire to an after-hours haunt. Slowly lose all sense of time. Then two, maybe three days after the revelries commenced return, albeit reluctantly, to said studio and attempt to make some sense of the crumpled scraps of lyrics that recall more lucid times and which now swamp the floor. "I'm getting fucking worse," he grins, shaking his head in horror, his right leg beating out an insistent, nervous beat. "I'm really beginning to think I need a break for a while." This isn't the first time Massive Attack have concluded thus. It's five years since they took a breather following 'Mezzanine' - '98's ingenious, if divisive third album which exhumed goth and passed it an unending chain of spliffs - during which time much has changed in the languorous legends' world. For one, Mushroom is no longer part of the troupe, which isn't surprising given that the in-house friction was such that interviews for 'Mezzanine' were conducted separately. "Every time we talked it was really painful," admits 3D, who is dressed simply, understatedly, in black, his face betraying few signs of his alcohol intake. "We had so many issues within the group that nothing could be discussed." More telling still, as Massive Attack's hip hop champion, Mushroom made little secret of his opposition to 'Mezzanine"s guitar-propelled, post-punk character. "Mushroom's always been into his funk and soul, and that's where he wanted to go," explains 3D. "We talked about twisting it and mixing new wave and R'n'B - which could've worked, in a bizarre fashion - but Mushroom didn't want to do that. Bands outgrow each other in the same way that friends and relationships outgrow each other. You hit critical mass, I suppose."
Do you still see him?
"I haven't seen Mushroom at all." He says this without rancour or, come to that, regret. (Neither has he seen or heard anything of ex-collaborators Tricky and Shara Nelson.) "Apparently he's away DJing a lot, and I've been in London a lot so I haven't seen him. I spoke to someone who knows him the other day, though, and he's been making a lot of music."
He is not alone. Here, in Clifton, Bristol's most exclusive district, whose streets are home to the two flats at the centre of Cheriegate, is where dance music's Radiohead, its fearless trailblazers, created their first album without Mushroom's influence. Like 'Mezzanine', '100th Window' is a dark slow-burner whose abundant qualities reveal themselves in time, the most pronounced of which is its rich, murky ambience. On first listen, to be sure, it sounds leaden, deathly, the spluttering sound of a vintage car that's running low on fuel. Then, imperceptibly, it transmogrifies into the sort of album only Massive Attack could make. Hence the fragile 'Everywhen' (sung by Horace Andy) is an exquisite, otherworldly lullaby; 'Small Time Shot Away' ('It's small talk every time/It's my favourite chloroform') dares to execute the inconceivable by cementing early '80s uber- goths Bauhaus to Tricky at his muttering, kiddie-scaring best; and 'Antistar', all eastern strings and 3D's spectral rap, sees Massive Attack consider relocating to Istanbul.
But just as their underrated second LP, 'Protection', revolved around the unlikely presence of Tracey Thorn so ' 100th Window' has at its core Sinead O'Connor, sometime nun, press punchbag and warbler supreme. Her three unearthly, spine-tingling contributions - 'What Your Soul Sings', 'Special Cases' and 'A Prayer For England', whose lyrics concern, typically, "abducted and murdered children" attest that no one else can rescue misfits quite like Massive and sell them to a hitherto hostile audience.
"She's been so outspoken," says 3D of Sinead, "and when you're prepared to stand up and say things you become vulnerable. You're out there. You're available to be judged and criticised. She has a beautifully healthy anger and bitterness towards institutions - especially corrupt institutions - which I think a lot of people are beginning to feel. They're beginning to feel frustrated by this country, by the world, by the institutions that govern our lives."
If all this - the politics; Sinead O'Connor's presence; the sonic nods to post-punk acts like PiL and Joy Division - implies that' 100th Window' is ex-punk 3D's album that's because, to all intents and purposes, it is. The previous trippy version - crafted with ex-Spritualized psyche-rockers Lupine Howl - was abandoned 18 months into the recording when, as 3D puts it, "it sounded like a more 'Mezzanine' like 'Mezzanine'. Though we had over 80 hours of jams, and some beautiful loops that went on for 15 minutes, it didn't stand up very well to close examination". Whereupon Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G, 3D's partner since their days with The Wild Bunch, left his longtime sidekick to be with his pregnant girlfriend. Interestingly, he's not in any of Massive Attack's press shots.
"He's in some of them," says 3D, who's replaced Grant, temporarily at least, with the bear-like Neil Davidge, a fellow Bristolian who also worked on 'Mezzanine'. "We never do photographs together because I'm 5ft 8in and pale, and he's 7ft and has really nice dark skin. So we always do shots separately and then make collages, being the vain animals that we are."
To 3D's mind, however, this is all irrelevant. It's not about the personnel. They're not a proper band. "No, Massive Attack have never been about individuals. The idea of connecting a band to individuals is one that's doomed to failure. As people get older they change their image. You wanna remember The Stone Roses from 10 years ago; you don't wanna see a shot of them getting back-together. That's the problem if you associate a band with an image. If you're associated with a concept or an idea, it has to be better."
For their part, they will always be synonymous with an album - the astonishing clash of cultures that was '91 's 'Blue Lines' - after which 'dance' music was never quite the same. It reworked hip hop in their own stoned, lethargic image, salvaged soul from those who'd drained it of its very essence and somehow, accidentally, gave birth to the cursed trip hop and untold acts whose records were bloodless duplicates. For 3D, though, it's became a weight upon his shoulders. 'I'm fucking sick of 'Blue Lines' getting voted into the top 50 albums ever', he once moaned.
"All albums are flawed," he says now. "All my favourite albums are flawed. I think about half of the material on our albums is great and the other half could be a lot better. Especially knowing the crises we went through and knowing which tracks happened in a really tricky, mechanical way because we were really suffering."
So which tracks aren't you keen on?
"I'm not telling you that 'cause then everyone will go 'Yeah, you're right - they're shit. What's going on?'"
3D asks himself that question quite a lot these days. Every time the lights go up at the end of the night, in fact. "I've spent more time discussing issues that relate to our country than ever before," he says. Specifically one issue: the looming war with Iraq. Along with Damon Albarn, 3D's old mucker ("We've been hanging out for six or seven years at festivals and gigs"), he has lent his support to the Stop The War campaign, whose logo is the nucleus of Massive Attack's website.
"Myself and Damon both felt that there weren't enough questions being asked about the situation," he says. "Our country seemed willing to go into a war that we knew very little about, which is wrong. We'd talk about stuff like this, as opposed to just getting fucked. We'd talk about it while fucked."
Since when, coming on like the West Country's Bono, he has got involved with politicians like Tony Benn and Ramsey dark, the former US Attorney General, both of whom are quoted on the aforesaid website. And while he fears that war is all but inevitable, he's hopeful that, if nothing else, it will politicise those who previously gave a wide berth to the fractious Middle East.
"I think so, yeah," he says. "People are scared at the moment of coming out against war for fear that they'll be accused of siding with a dictator like Saddam Hussein. But it's not about Saddam Hussein. It's about the people of Iraq and the Middle East, the people in this country and America, and the soldiers who will have to go out there. But if Saddam Hussein were to do something terrible tomorrow we'd have no choice but to blame ourselves for that 'cause we pushed him into the situation. We were fully aware of the atrocities he committed in the '80s and '90s. We almost endorsed them."
The Middle East and Massive Attack have a history. In 1991, when the first Gulf War broke out, they were obliged to condense their name to Massive. Massive Attack, they were informed, was too provocative.
"I thought it was fucking ridiculous but we were forced into it by our manager and record company," says 3D. "It was all very new to us. We had no experience of radio and the policy of the BBC and all that sort of shit. The phrase 'Massive attack on Iraq' seemed to be in every paper's headline, and the issue that was presented to us was if we didn't drop it people would get the wrong impression and we'd appear pro-war."
So there's no chance of history repeating '- itself then?
"Nah," he sneers, gazing at the studio's clutch of candles in a bid, presumably, to relax himself, "no way. Now the media know who we are, so there shouldn't be any need for that kind of Monty Pythonesque hysteria. But I'm sure it'll happen again. I mean, if the Americans have their way they'll be marching into Iraq in = February/March - about the same time our album comes out."
Which makes 3D sound like a conspiracy theorist. Thing is, though, he believes, that's true of anyone who dares to search the internet in search of information rather than relying on print media and TV. "Yes, some of it's a bit crazy and conspiratorial, but a lot of it's fascinating. In contrast, newspapers are becoming increasingly transparent in the way that they present news. And the rhetoric spread by governments is increasingly transparent, as if to say 'If we talk about this in a glib fashion no one will worry about it. And if people really wanna find out about it they can search on the net. But 'cause there's such a contrast between it and what we're saying it will always look ridiculous and conspiratorial'."
3D then, as you might've guessed, is a man who thinks. He thinks about the book from where the album derives its name, which is about internet security and how, no matter how secure your own files may seem, there will always be a hacker capable of breaking in. "And I felt that was a really good metaphor for the way we try to hide our feelings and keep ourselves locked away. We hide ourselves away from ourselves even. As much as we want contact, we always want the safety and security of being able to excape from it".
He thinks about 2004's mooted collaboration with Faith No More's Mike Patton ("He sent me these little tracks which were fucking mental") and the gravel-voiced Tom Waits and what form, exactly, April's live shows will take. "We're gonna do an ambient, stripped down version of the album. There'll be more chances of it fucking up, but you need that risk element to keep it interesting. With 'Protection' we tried to create a soundsystem environment, but it didn't really work because we were hoping that everyone would understand that it was Bristol in the '80s, and they didn't."
He thinks about how many albums Massive have left in them ("Bearing in mind we'd like to move into film soundtracks, I reckon four. Easy. We've got enough ideas"), about his bar, Nocturne, that he fears he has outgrown ("As soon as it was fucking finished, as soon as I'd been there five or six times, I was like, 'Is this it?'"), and about the recent Wild Bunch retrospective on Strut which, good though it was, eschewed their esoteric moments and failed to convey the fact that, essentially, they were just a bunch of blokes letting off some steam.
"That was what was so good about that time," he says. "It didn't aspire to be anything great. In those days you did things for fun rather than commercial gain. Otherwise you'd have fucking Soundsystem Idol. That'll be (Simon) Fuller's next invention."
Right now, though, he is thinking about none of the aforesaid. Rather, he is thinking, this cerebral hedonist, that whoever said that excess beget wisdom was spot-on.
"There's nothing like doing a couple of pills or whatever and getting off it, watching the trails from the candles and listening to some great music or watching 'The Matrix' again or 'Requiem For A Dream', and losing all sense of real time, of the world outside, of what you should be doing. You feel like by spending some time awake when you should be asleep you've stolen back some time."
And if anyone requires more hours in the day, it's this man. It's Tuesday and, for 3D, another long weekend starts here. BSD