Music View Men (Hari
Kunzru 1st March 2003)
It would have been easy for Massive Attack to live large as the pioneers of early '90s trip-hop. Instead they decided to push themselves and each other to new levels of experimentation--their disagreements while making 1998's Mezzanine resulted in Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles's leaving the band. Their fourth album, the just released 100th Window (Virgin) is largely the work of Massive's ever adventurous Robert "3-D" Del Naja (along with co-writer/co-producer Neil Davidge; Grant "Daddy G" Marshall took a sabbatical during recording but will return for the band's upcoming world tour). Here, 3-D speaks to author Han Kunzru.
HARI KUNZRU: I'm getting
a sense of deja vu with your new record. My lasting memory of Blue Lines (1991)
is of staying up late watching the Gulf War on TV, all the infrared pictures
of bombing Baghdad, listening to "Safe from Harm." That was around
the time you had to drop "Attack" from your name.
3-D: [laughs] Yeah, we got kind of cornered by our manager, who gave a pretty compelling case, which was that people might misunderstand the name and think we were actually potential supporters of the war. And, you know, it was our first time and we sort of took the bait.
HK: Is that something you regret now?
3-D: I did for a while. But the other day I was doing the artwork for 100th Window, and because of the escalation now, again, in the Gulf, I thought maybe we should drop the "Attack" from the name again as an antiwar statement. Then I thought, Well, no, 'cause that buys into the ridiculous idea that it's offensive--when the real offensive issue is the war itself.
HK: I've noticed that when I'm in America it's hard to talk politics because it's so easy to offend people. Especially if you're speaking as somebody who's not an American citizen. It's difficult for people sometimes to pick out what is valid criticism. After all, they get a lot of bullshit anti-Americanism from Europeans as well, which muddies the waters.
3-D: Yeah, exactly. That's the thing: When we started to oppose the war in Iraq, a lot of e-mails came through that were really kind of vitriolic, saying, "I'm never going to buy your records again," you know, that "You guys have more intelligence, this anti-American thing is bollocks." But it was never an anti-American thing at all. It was much more about policy, and about the British policy as well as the American policy.
HE: Blair seems to be as gung-ho as Bush.
3-D: Exactly. It's weird now, because a lot more American artists are standing up against the war, and it seems to be this complete change--there are a lot fewer British artists, particularly in the music industry. They don't seem to want to do anything about it, which I really don't understand. A lot of the time, with bands having causes, it feels like a branding exercise. And when this whole issue about the war came up, and myself and Damon Albarn [of Blur] started speaking up against it, everyone seemed to be worried to come through--as if it meant losing their brand identity because we had presented it.
HE: The war isn't the only issue you're interested in. You seem to be interested in civil rights and privacy issues, given that you've named your new album after a book on electronic surveillance.
3-D: Sure, I want to give Charles Jennings [one of the authors of The Hundredth Window] a nod, but it's not meant to be taken too literally. I came across the title in another book and loved it--the idea that you can't secure yourself. There's always a way in, and always something you've forgotten. It's a great analogy to the human psyche and the soul, and the way we're voyeuristic. We like to look at other people and look into thoughts--while keeping ourselves as private as possible.
HE: All this business about voyeurism fits in with the edgy tone that's always in Massive Attack music. Mezzanine was quite a paranoid record. Do you feel this one is the same? I mean, it's quite a bleak album.
3.0: I think it's warmer. With Mezzanine there was the struggle we were going through to even get it finished. With this, it was more lonely--being sort of isolated with Neil [Davidge] doing it, and not spending any time with Mushroom anymore, and not seeing [Daddy] G much. But it brought out a very honest response-you know, asking questions about yourself, a bit of soul-searching. Obviously, working with Sinead [O'Connor] was part of that. She's a very honest singer and very honest as a writer and in the way she presents herself.
HK: She's very full-on with everything she does, isn't she?
3-D: Yeah, and to me that delivers a warmth. Even though a lot of the subject matter can be quite paranoid, because we did it in this quick way, it gave it warmth.
HE: You get good work out of your female vocalists. Last time around Liz Fraser [from the Cocteau Twins] sounded fantastic. So what's the key?
3-D: I think it's partly a really healthy respect for them. And, in terms of being very male, isolated up here in the studio, working with females is refreshing and mysterious. It's a different headspace and a different sort of sexuality and tension. We try to take everything away, strip everything back. We keep it as simple and intimate as possible. No props or distractions.
HE: On Blue Lines you used some classic jazz and funk samples, even covering tunes. On 100th Window I'd be hard pressed to name anything like that.
3-D: It's the first album we've done with no samples on it. Well, beyond individual sounds: drum sounds, individual instruments, stuff we've played ourselves. But sampling was something that Mushroom was really keen on doing. I think he's still on the mission--looking for the purity in it, which I think I admire, because of that obsessive nature. It's the obsessive nature between us that ended up hitting critical mass after we'd worked with each other for 13 years. We said, "All right, that's enough." Some people sort of lament the days of Blue Lines; I remember it was a great time, but it was a different era and if you did it again now you'd destroy the memory.
HE: Making studio music is by definition a process that involves a lot of technology. Does it take up a lot of your time?
3-D: It does. I've bought so many things over the years. And there are only a few things that I really love and use. The problem with finishing a record is that the possibilities are endless. With music there's no logical conclusion, know what I mean?
Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist (Dutton), is at work on a second novel