Wheeling In The Years (Melody Maker 22nd Febuary 1992)
What have MASSIVE ATTACK been up to since the release of "Blue Lines", last year's landmark debut album? Well, pondering, shooting videos and taking their maverick style to America. Oh, and talking to JIM ARUNDEL
BRITAIN IS CRAP, WE DECIDE OVER lunch in a Bristol restaurant where we're waiting for Massive Attack. The food is cold, the service is virtually non-existent and the waiter just shrugs when we complain. It's like a metaphor for the entire country. Ironically, this is the kind of crapness that makes Britain great, of course. It's the kind of off-hand mixture of amateurism and getting away-with-murder that means we don't kowtow to standards and we're tolerant of people who have a go and don't quite stick to the rules. That's why we innovate what other nations polish. That's why we have Massive Attack, shambling experimentalists who veer aIl over the place and chance upon some great music - and why America has Mariah Carey and Kiss who are shinily precise, locked into rigid genres and incapable of producing anything other than the efficient pop that their country's barmy radio system can programme.
Massive Attack took their un-nameable style salad across the ocean just before Christmas and, predictably, theYanks wer'e completely baffled by the whole thing "Where's the guitar solo? Where's the drummer? Where'd the rapper come from? An orchestra?! Where's the dance troupe in the video? Aargh! Does not compute. Does not compute!" Pfft. Another cultural short-circuit.
FINALLY, into this once-swish Bristol restaurant, roll three parts of Massive Attack: Grant, 3D and Tricky.
Immediately, they're gone again. One's off to use the phone. One's popped across the road to a record shop and one has gone to see what the others are doing. Nice meeting you, guys. After another dizzying round of arrivals and handshakes conducted in the stiff breeze of giant menus being waved about, we finally manage to pin down Grant and Tricky who are dressed for winter in garb that would shame a cossack.'
"Sorry we're late - just trying to play pop stars. Never works," Grant laughs. He's tall, deep-voiced and friendly and he has hands the size of tea-trays. He goes on to explain that he never talks. "Tricky and I are the visual men. 3D
is the visuals' man. In other words, we look good and he just talks about it." He chuckles, throatily. Tricky busts a gut.
"You're getting better at this, man," he says. We fall to talking about their American aunt. "Over there, you get certain places where people know what's going on and places where people just don't a have a clou," says Grant, sizing up the menu.
"Washington was kicking," Tricky reminds him.
"Yeah, Chicago, LA and New York, too. But a lot of the East Coast is really conservative. Go
somewhere like Boston or Minneapolis - bit of a backwater - and they don't know what's going on."
The Massive Attack tour was based on a sound-system concept, and the half performer / half DJ approach sailed over heads in some cities. America, we gather, also considers Primal Scream to be a joke disco troupe. Tricky noted that a lotof the customers coming to the more successful shows were British ex-pats who understood that Massive Aftack tend to blur those categories once the decks are spinning. MASSIVE Attack are not a dance act. Let's make that clear. It's a recurring theme of our conversation; how can they re-educate the parts a the public who take it for granted that they are - because of their loose, anonymous structure - just another rap act or producers' posse when, in fact, they are songsmiths, creators of moods and painters of pictures. "Blue Lines" was rightly regarded as one of 1991's "highlight" albums, as varied and inventive as "Screamadelica" or... well, that's it, really. Hardly anyone else is operating on the same terms and yet Massive Attack aren't really getting the aftention they deserve.
3D - wordsmith, ideas man and spokesguy - reappears as we're taking delivery of raspberry
ripple milkshakes. He's been checking out a Brits Awards display in the record shop opposite. "Blue Lines" has been nominated as Best British Album 1991 along with Simply Red, Beverley Craven, Seal and The KLF, but he's dismayed to learn that they're not on the accompanying album and video. This would be enough to induce rampant paranoia in lesser men. Massive Attack are philosophical about it.
"We're too anonymous for them, I suppose," shrugs 3D.
"They think we're some weirdy-doody band who made some weirdy-doody one-off," offers Grant,
and then wishes he hadn't. (Later, I check with Polygram and discover that "Unfinished Sympathy" is, in fact, included on the album. They didn't make it on to the video, however.) "That's why we don't sell as many records as some bands, I suppose, because we don't stick to a genre or a mood," concludes D. Tell me abaut it. The new EP sounds, once again, like the work of four different bands, moving from the languid groove of "Hymn Of The Big Wheel", sung by Horace Andy with the forlorn moan of a didgeridoo as part of the mix, to the Irish folk melody of "Home Of The Whale", sung by cellist Caroline Lavelle.
I mean, an Irish foIk song!
"Someone said to me, 'As soon as you think you've got Massive Attack sussed they do something like this'," says Grant.
"I'm not sure," says D. "You can get too eccentric for you rown good. Personally, I think 'Home Of The Whale' is predictable because it's unpredictable, because it's us going off at a tangent again, you know what I mean? "I think you've got to be careful. Find some way of doing your own thing and evolving. It's not that easy for us because we bring so many ideas to every track. Each track is a complete work in itself for us.
"When we were The Wild Bunch," Grant interlects, "we got our reputation as a sound- system from the fact that we played all kinds of music - punk, funk, reggae. For us to try and make an album that's all one sound just wouldn't be natural."
Tricky drowns out the next bit by trying to invert his glass with a hefty suck on his straw. I think it was 3D explaining that Caroline Lavelle came to their attention through a friend and brought the song with her. Then they arranged it and gave it their stamp. I ask if this means that Massive Attack is limitless.
"Well, I wouldn't like it to turn into a Paul Simon or Malcolm McLaren thing and just go round the world taking bits and pieces. You just end up with a compilation album of other people's ideas. There's got to be a glue. There's got to be a reason for everything."
"It's more madness than method," adds Grant. "I think we make music that we want to listen to. It's aimed at the head rather than the feet."
"If we can focus a bit more on the next album we will," says D. "At the start, we wanted to be deliberately vague. On 'Blue Lines', we consciously didn't want to focus aftention on one person, one voice."
So what do you each bring to it? "Headaches!" declares Tricky, accurately judging his contribution to the noise pollution on the tape. As far as I can gather, the process is roughly this. 3D and Grant supply musical and lyrical ideas. Tricky helps with the words. They aII contribute to the arrangements. Grant suggests samples. Mushroom (absent because he's busy wooing a woman in America) is the band's technician and musical directorand, together with co-producer Jonny Dollar, constructs the tracks.
Bristol's sleepy buzz perfedly compliments this way of working and they agree that the city's vibe is a major factor in their approach. Nothing is planned, things just evolve when it feels like time to work. The tracks accumuIate like candy floss on a stick. "Unfinished Sympathy", for example, began as a Iate-night jam in the studio - just a keyboard and drum machine with singer Shara Nelson extemporising - and then evolved to the point where arranger Will Malone was called in to score it for a 50-piece orchestra recorded at Abbey Road.I ASK how life has been since the album's release.
"If we were based in London there would have been six months of bullshit, the release and then the kick in the teeth to follow. We would have turned into wankers after all the acclaim, says Grant. "But they don't let you get big-headed here."
"Other people hype us up and tell us we're great," adds D."Left to our own devices we think
nothing of it."
My suggestion that the EP's mellow mood and lyrical concerns hint at a certain "greeness" is
met with a jokey indignation and then grudging nods. "Be Thankful For WhatYou've Got" seems a timely choice of song to cover, too. "It's a sentiment for the Nineties. What's the pont in killing people for their Nikes? We're living in a time where nobody can be satisfied with what they've got because of the media. You're bombarded with stuff to desire all the time."
"From the cradle to the grave," says Tricky.
So is it a political record?
"We've always stated that we're not a statements' band," says 3D, and then realises what he's just said. He laughs. "There you are. We're a mass of contradictions!"