by Corey duBrowa
For a group punk enough to have been founded on the dole line during the Thatcher era, yet hip hop enough to trace its roots back to the old school from its days trading under the Wild Bunch moniker, Bristolian trip-hop unit Massive Attack has become strangely indescribable.
The core membership troika of RObert "3D" del Nja, Grant "Daddy Gee" Marshall and Adrian "Mushroom" Vowles consistently surround themselves with contributors like Tricky, reggae legend Horace Andy, Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn and Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser to add emotional heft to their chilly, emotionally loaded grooves. But after releasing instant classics such as 1991's soulful, sorrowful 'Blue Lines' and 1998's aggressive, guitar-oriented 'Mezzanine,' Massive Attack appeared to be going down for the last time.
The difficult recording process of 'Mezzanine' strained the group's long-standing relationships; the subsequent tour resulted in Vowles' departure and left many unanswered questions regarding the act's future. When sessions for its latest release, the superb '100th Window' (Virgin), became so tense that Marshall failed to turn up at the studio ltogether, it appeared that Massive might've served out its useful life as a recording project. But this conclusion discounts the sheer will and determination of del Naja, who has essentially shouldered all reponsibility for the group and moved forward.
Magnet spoke to del Naja between rehearsals for Massive's upcoming European tour and found him keen to discuss the band, the new record and global politics.
GIVEN WHAT TRANSPIRED BETWEEN MEZZANINE AND NOW, DID 100TH WINDOW ESSENTIALLY BECOME A 3D SOLO RECORD?
-Circumstances demanded it. Gee wasn't around and Mushroom's out of the band, so when people read that sort of thing, there's accusations of megalomania and self-indulgence. I've dealt with all of that. When things weren't working out in the studio in 2001 - Gee stopped coming, basically - it was very frustrating. I felt quite lonely and isolated and became angry with him. But then we talked about the fact that his priorities had changed. He's become a father, and I've tried to defend his position. But by doing that, it makes it sound like I'm quite happy doing this project on my own, and at time, I've actually been quite bitter about it. Going forward, I've always felt like Massive Attack was a project as opposed to a band, and therefore it should evolve and change and be re-presented in a new way every time. People have asked me, "Can you imagine a time when there's a Massive Attack record without you on it?" And I've thought, "Yeah, maybe after this experience... I might want to take some time out." [Laughs] My publisher might not agree with me on that, though.
FOR THOSE WHO'VE FORGOTTEN WHAT A COMPELLING SINGER SHE CAN BE, 100TH WINDOW SHOULD REMIND EVERYONE JUST HOW GREAT SINÉAD O'CONNOR REALLY IS. WHAT INSPIRED THIS PARTICULAR UNION?
-We sent her something that was ridiculously raw - just the bass line for 'A Prayer For England." Which was nothing more than a grungy bass line with the guitars and a few drum-beats, nothing to hook a vocal to, nothing to hang a melody on. And she really enjoyed the challenge of doing that track. It was exactly what we'd hoped for. She brings a lot of spirit, raw emotion and honesty to what she does, and I felt that was important, particularly now, because I've been struggling to get excited by what I hear from other singers. Very rarely am I electrified by something different. I want more of what Sinéad brings.
I HEARD YOU HAD RECORDED WITH (former Spiritualized members) LUPINE HOWL BUT DECIDED TO SCRAP THE TRACKS AND START OVER AGAIN. COULD IT BE THAT THIS IS MASSIVE ATTACK'S 'BLACK ALBUM' IN WAITING?
-It might appear in some format. They're amazing players, they can send you into a bit of a trance. But the problem was, the way we work is cut-and-paste deconstrucion, and it didn't really do the music justice. After 'Mezzanine,' I felt we'd [used] guitars as a sonic tool to get a point across quite extensively. We're actually talking about doing a 1.5 version of '100th Window,' deconstructing it and rebuilding it, enhancing layers that can't be heard, putting some of the things that were missing back in. If it works out, I'd like to bookend the year and release it online instead of in the shops.
YOU DROPPED THE WORD "ATTACK" FROM YOUR NAMEPLATE AS A FORM OF PROTEST BACK IN THE EARLY '90'S WHEN THE U.S.WAS AT WAR WITH IRAQ. HERE WE ARE AGAIN A DECADE LATER. WHAT'S CHANGED? WHAT HASN'T?
-We live in a very different world now. It's a lot smaller due to travel and communications. Things that used to feel a long way away and disconnected - whether terrible famines, civil wars, disasters - now feel a lot closer to home and a lot more relevant. I think after the terrible events of 9/11 and the subsequent terrible events in Afghanistan and the ongoing crisis between Israel and Palenstine and the crisis in Kashmir and civil wars in Africa, there things are all there. There's so much information at your disposal that you can feel surrounded by mroe bad news than good news and more morried for the future. This stuff gets absorbed and manifests itself in the music. We've always had a penchant for melancholic music because it felt more warm and human. I was really into the idea of this record using Arabic strings, to bring East and West together sympathetically as opposed to in opposition, which is how we always see it politically.
YOUR NEW RECORD'S NAME IS DRAWN FROM A RATHER OBSCURE POINT OF REFERENCE IN A CHARLES JENNINGS BOOK. THE 100TH WINDOW MAY REPRESENT THE WEAK LINK IN THE CHAIN FROM A TECHNOLOGY PERSPECTIVE, BUT IS THERE ALSO A MORE FUNDAMENAL POINT YOU'RE MAKING ABOUT HUMAN NATURE?
-It has a much more celestial meaning: a window to the soul, a space where people can comunicate without the trappings of being human, the contradiction of being alive now where we're all so voyeuristic and defensive. The spiritual reference you speak of, that's exactly where I was coming from. The artwork for the album is a series of human-shaped glass figures; we filmed them being destroyed with high-velocity ball bearing, caught by flash. You catch this amazing moment that seems so destructive but is actually quite amazingly beautiful and sad. It could be glass, metal or pixels. There's actually something quite universal about it.