Massive Attack Take A Stand (Rock's Backpages, 3rd February 2003)
3D talks to Stephen Dalton about war, melancholia and the duo's new 100th Window.
ROBERT DEL Naja turned 37 two weeks ago. Like any self-respecting British pop star, the spiky-haired creative dynamo behind Massive Attack spent the night getting wasted in overpriced London dives with celebrity friends like Damon Albarn and Kate Moss. Except this was hardly a typical birthday party for the man who rejoices in the minimalist stage alias of 3D.
Just hours earlier, del Naja had marched on Westminster at the head of anti-war campaigners trying to prevent military carnage in Iraq. He and Albarn had lobbied parliament, lending a dash of pop glamour to a deadly serious business. Even later, mid-festivities, when an invitation call came through to discuss the march on Newsnight, the Blur frontman was all for storming the studio with del Naja in his highly refreshed state.
Thankfully, 3D's voice of reason prevailed. Two pissed-up celebrities arguing their corner on national television would only confirm most people's suspicions about pop stars dabbling in politics, he argued. And Del Naja acknowledges that most musicians are self-absorbed prima donnas more concerned with midweek chart positions than Middle East conflict. The more image-conscious will pay lip service to fashionable causes like anti-globalisation or the environment, but he does not want Massive's anti-war efforts to look like some kind of "branding exercise". Especially now they have a new album to promote.
"Going on the march was really interesting because you suddenly realised how many different types of people were against this," says del Naja, a soft-spoken and unassuming figure sipping beer in a deserted Bristol pub. "It wasn't just left-wing people or what the papers will try and give out as a typical anti-war campaigner. It was the exact opposite, every type of person: teachers, academics, people of every race and every age group."
Massive's high-profile anti-war stance is no dilettante pose. They have already spent 22 grand oftheir own money on huge "Wrong War" adverts in NME, with more to come. They have been methodical in joining forces with CND and Stop The War, and even helped fund a legal challenge to military intervention in the international courts. Funny how it took a band so often caricatured as lethargic stoners to kick-start rock's sleeping conscience in 2003.
Recent music press tributes to Joe Strummer, a personal hero, spoke volumes to del Naja about generational alienation. "They were almost embarrassed by his politics," he scowls. "Then you think, well, what happened to all that? The wheel's moved into a different place now. I was chatting to Paul Weller about it, because he's a mutual friend of a close friend of mine, and he said when he got involved in all that stuff it did become about ego politics. That's why he got out of the whole thing."
Del Naja's opposition to military intervention sprung from a disgust he shared with Albarn about apathy among their pop peers - but also from a growing global awareness found while touring the world.
"It comes from getting older, getting more and more frustrated by the transparency of everything," he shrugs. "We came out of a period where conspiracies were mysterious and exotic, the truth behind the shadows. But some of the things that are happening politically, globally, are just so fucking transparent I find it amazing. It's like daylight robbery – it's so blatant nobody can believe it. Being on tour, you meet people from so many countries, you get a real global feel about what people
really believe about Britain and America, about our imperial history, and our imperial nature now."
"It seems like a long time since the British Empire, but it's only a fucking hundred years ago," del Naja says. "Gandhi said that one small island, Great Britain, is holding the whole world in chains. That was 50 years ago, and we're still doing it now with corporate fucking imperialism. There's no change but the boundaries have now bled, you can't see right from wrong anymore, because we're all consumers."
In the past, 3D admits, Massive Attack might have shrugged their shoulders and carried on living in their pop bubble. During the last Gulf War, they were even persuaded by a paranoid Radio One to drop the second half of their name lest it be misconstrued. But age and experience have hardened them.
"Ten years ago Saddam Hussein was a clear enemy," he argues. "He'd invaded Kuwait, so everyone was fighting for freedom and justice, even though I don't think anyone was sure about the way they bombed Baghdad. It was very confusing. Obviously there were much greater politics involved in the whole region with Israel, Palestine and all the other gulf countries. But no, I didn't get involved then. We decided to drop the 'Attack' from our name, under a great amount of duress, but also because a convincing argument was put forward that if people don't know who you are, you could be seen as making a pro-war statement. We went along with it, but it became apparent later that it was bullshit. I even thought about dropping it again for this album as an anti-war statement, but then I'd be buying into the whole notion that music and words and opinions are offensive. And they're not. Bombs and bullets are."
MASSIVE ATTACK have always thrived on friction and unease. But even by tense standards of Bristol's most dysfunctional pop superstars, the evolution of their fourth studio album has been fraught with drama. 100th Window is their first effort as a duo, in theory at least, following the acrimonious departure of founder member Mushroom before 1998's Mezzanine album. But two years of experimental dead ends, creative friction and outside forces drove a wedge between these veteran maestros of the bittersweet symphony.
Del Naja's conversation is calm and articulate, but with the underlying edge of a man keeping a sinking ship afloat single-handedly. The album's title, he explains, came from computer jargon, but del Naja seesit as a "celestial" metaphor with overtones of media voyeurism, creeping paranoia and emotional breakdown. Very twisted. Very dysfunctional. Very Massive Attack.
The exquisitely textured moodscapes of 100th Window went through several painstaking stages, from all-out psychedelic rock to shimmering sci-fi lullabies, via long periods of creative stasis and communication breakdown. A key element in this evolutionary shift was Sinead O'Connor, who features heavily on the album, a blast of warm future-folk humanity after the chilled isolation of Mezzanine. Sinead, del Naja says, brought "total honestly, total personality" to the album.
Del Naja composed most of the album with a team of programmers and engineers. Massive have always used collaborators, but significantly absent from the studio this time was Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G, 3D'slongtime friend and sole remaining original Massive member. Distracted by the birth of his daughter in late 2001, Grant had no musical input on the new album- a first in the band's 15-year history.
"G became a father, and then obviously he stopped coming to the studio, more and more, until he stopped coming at all," says del Naja. "His priorities changed and everyone understood that. But my priority last January was: fuck it, we've been making this record too long, it's getting on my fucking nerves now. So we started writing some new tracks."
Now there is talk of Grant not even touring with Massive, but del Naja insists this is unlikely. "It's up to G," he admits. "Obviously because he's a father now it's a more difficult situation. But I'm sure he's going to. If he decides he doesn't want to go to the Far East, for instance, then maybe he won't do that. Maybe he'll tour with the band in England or in Europe where it's more accessible to home, you know''
Of course, Massive Attack would not exist without friction – tension has been the lifeblood of their music since their 1991 debut Blue Lines, after all. But rumours of the band's imminent demise, del Naja insists, have been exaggerated.
"Every year we have a Massive Attack moment, where it's all over," he shrugs. "The idea for me to keep it together is just that it's the creative outlet we need. The thing with Massive Attack as a project is it's meant to be ambiguous. The whole point was the ability it had to develop and evolve and change without being firmly attached to the faces or personalities within the group. And that still is a key factor in the survival of the band. That's what's going to keep it together, because it's not about two people being in the same place at the same time operating on the same level."
So Grant definitely has a future as part of Massive?
"Of course he has. The future's what you fucking make it, what you put in. But the thing with bands – it's just like, three men, fucking egos, vanity, selfishness, magnified tenfold by fucking being in a band and earning money. Fucking hell, how does it work, you know?"
Ah, but it does work. And when the chemistry comes together, it works magnificently.
MASSIVE ATTACK are arguably the most famous Bristolians since Cary Grant, and certainly the city's most influential cultural ambassadors of the last 20years. They have sold millions of albums, played arenas worldwide, graced countless magazine covers. And yet they remain the most unlikely rock celebrities in the world, walking a bizarre highwire between fame and facelessness.
"It's a balance, obviously," del Naja shrugs. 'You could go out to all the parties in London, all the openings and the shows, get photographed outside clubs, all that shit. Get a famous girlfriend, make the gossip pages, but I couldn't do all that. There's just something so rotten about it all. When I look at celeb mags, everyone just looks like they're trying so hard. They look so desperate."
It's no secret that del Naja has superstar friends, and has had A-list romances in the past. But still he manages to shun the limelight. "I think you can have famous friends and you can have famous flings," he argues. "Keep it to yourself and it becomes part of your history and that's it, you know' I can live my life as normal and then still go on tour next week. You can separate the two lives, rather than becoming the sum total of your celebrity like a lot of people do. Then you're totally fucked, because where do you go from there? It's all downhill."
Seeing his old graffiti partner Goldie on Celebrity Big Brother only confirmed this to del Naja. He likens the excruciating experience to watching The Office. "But that's fucking London for you, isn't it? Because you suddenly realise the competition..."
Living in Bristol, says del Naja, has always given Massive "a slightly misguided sense of independence". Misguided or not, they have kept a prying media at arm's length and forged their own musical path.
"Some people say Bristol's the graveyard of ambition," del Naja shrugs. "But I love the fact that if you don't want to fucking do anything, don't do it. G's parents are from the Caribbean, my father's from Naples, and both places have a very relaxed attitude to life. They're very passionate about life and death, but not passionate about companies and corporations. Which is something I think we've all forgotten, you know.''
Even when the dubious delights of London call, it's always a fling, never a full-blown romance.
"Every year I go and see estate agents and look at London property and just laugh at what's on offer for the prices," del Naja grins. "This year I started looking at ridiculous places that I wouldn't even dream of buying - penthouse suites opposite Westminster which are, like, three and half million pounds apiece – just looking and thinking, fuck, what's the point?"
Speaking of Bristol, one recent addition the Massive empire is their Nocturne bar in the city centre. A natural development for a publican's son like del Naja, perhaps, but yet another source of angst too. "Fucking hell, it's an expensive venture," he frowns. "My mum and dad have been in pubs all their lives, and I never worked behind a bar - they couldn't get me out of bed to do the bottling up."
Some wag [er, that would be Frank Zappa, lad - RBP ed.] once remarked that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But the sumptuous, subterranean cocoon of Nocturne almost seems deigned to reflect Massive's music in bricks and mortar.
"The idea was trying to make somewhere really comfortable, dark and safe," nods 3D. "I don't know if people associate that with the music or not. Everyone says we're dark, but I think our music's a safer place to be than pop music. Pop's fucking cold, mechanical and scary – that really terrifies me. I find most sad music warmer, because it's an outlet, isn't it? Emotional music is cathartic. Sad music is the true spirit of the people, melancholic music, whereas pop is just a transient thing to keep your mind off the shit."
That's always been the key to Massive Attack's 21st century blues: melancholy unease as a shared catharsis, sadness as celebration and liberation. Del Naja calls himself a "dysfunctional fucker" and admits that "happy people make me suspicious".
So is 3D's glass half full or half empty? "Definitely half empty," he says glumly. "I've started hoarding things, know what I mean?"
What, in case the balloon goes up?
"Exactly. The only problem with that is, holding illegal substances in great quantity you become a fucking risk."
Honestly, officer, it's for my own personal use.
"Exactly," grins 3D. "Sounds very dysfunctional, doesn't it?" Very dysfunctional. But very Massive Attack.
© Stephen Dalton 2003