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Small Attack

Seven Years Of Plenty (1998)

'When one person has to force things through, you get a tension that is never resolved'

A stately harpsichord looms up out of a gently tapping drumbeat. A piano escorts an exquisite female voice through a bass guitar archway with the courtly formality of a father giving away a bride in a BBC costume drama. Of all the lovely records to be released under Massive Attack's name, their 1998 single Teardrop' is, well, at least one of the loveliest. Hearing it for the first time is like holding a fine piece of filigree glasswork on the tip of your tongue and then recklessly biting into it, only to find out that it is actually made of sugar.

You might say that Massive Attack were important (if saying that a pop group is important isn't the best way of robbing being in a pop group of its point and the word important of its dignity). With the help of an elite squad of collaborators, 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom have taken dance music of the dancefloor and put it into people's heads. They have redefined the relationship of the song to the human voice in an age where machines seemed to be taking over. They have established an ideal of multicultural British cool from which no one need (or would want to) feel excluded. And they have done all this without ever seeming to break sweat.

Ever since they first came to public prominence, the deceptive ease of Massive Attack's accomplishments has been the nearest they have come to a public relations problem. The slow ethereal grooves of Blue Lines combined the sonic depth of dub reggae, the cut and paste creativity of the sampler, and the urgent lyricism of rap, so that you couldn't hear the joins. 'The world spins on its axis,' sang Horace Andy over the electronically reconstituted didgeridoo sound 'Hymn Of The Big Wheel', 'One man struggles while another relaxes,' and the man who was relaxing always seemed to be in Massive Attack.

If it had achieved nothing else, Mezzanine righted this misapprehension. The ominous, surging basslines and general air of brooding menace could hardly have been better calculated to dispel the misguided notion of Massive Attack as some kind of glorified dinner party soundtrack. 'It wasn't deliberate,' says 3D, 'it's just that that was how things turned out between us.' The picture which gradually emerges from conversations with the three members of the group (and the fact that their interviews are now conducted separately formalizes the sense of fragmentation) is one of fraught personal relations and painstaking perfectionism. It is an image far more in tune with the way their music actually sounds than the popular myth of laid-back West Countrymen who never get up before lunchtime.

What Daddy G calmly describes as 'the problems within the group' are, he insists, 'nothing to do with cultural differences, they're to do with the fact that we don't necessarily get on as people'. If this sounds somewhat drastic, 3D's half-smiling reminiscence of individual group members heading off in shifts to record alone in a Cornish hideaway gives you some idea of the levels of personal alienation enshrined within Mezzanine's sulphurous rumble.

'When one person has to force things through, you get a tension that is never resolved,' 3D continues, deftly putting to the sword the idea of Massive Attack's work as some kind of ego-free collective endeavour in which each member mysteriously and effortlessly found their own place. 'Things are never really disposed of,' says Marshall, 'because you're at such close quarters all the time. The same stuff crops up over and over again and you think, 'Shouldn't we have got that out in the open a long time ago?'

Happily, this is not one of those dreary sagas of innocence lost and friendships ruined. It's the story of how tensions inherent in the construction of a new form of music can ripple away from their source and then circle back to their point of origin with the thrilling precision of a well-trained border collie on One Man And His Dog. In Massive Attack's case, the collie in question is punk rock, which has stepped from background to foreground on Mezzanine, courtesy of 3D's determination to re-examine the abrasive sounds which challenged the predominance of reggae in the Bristol ether of the late 1970s.

Mushroom was never a particularly big fan of punk rock, being more of a hip-hop and soul man himself, but it's this kind of friction that gives Massive Attack's music its spark, and enables them to make music that can speak with several different voices at once without ever losing its clarity. As 3D points out, there was nothing particularly new about this, even in 1991. The interesting thing about all the music that we'd liked - from The Beatles to The Clash with Mikey Dread and Futura 2000, as well as Strummer, Jones and Simonon - was that there was never one voice that predominated.'

So what 3D calls 'all that collective rubbish' - the setting up of Massive Attack's co-operative endeavours as an ideological alternative to the old- fashioned egotism of the band ideal - was a complete waste of time, really? 'We went along with it more than we should have done,' 3D admits, 'because it made things simpler.'

I remember meeting Massive Attack for the first time in a Bristol restaurant in 1991, shortly after the release of Blue Lines. They are laughing at each other's publicity pictures. The table is dominated by the imposing frame of the jovial but serious-minded Daddy G (later on, opening the sun-roof of his sensible estate car on the drive to the station, his head almost poked out). 3D talks not just the hind leg but also the ears off a donkey. And Mushroom, even then the spaciest of the three, benignly gets on the others' nerves by insisting on buying a spaghetti western soundtrack from the record shop across the road. His insistence that if Massive Attack's music must be categorized, it should be in the jazz section, sparks off anguished cries of 'Mush ... shut up'.

Daddy G: What we're trying to do is build the picture up slowly. It's not like we've got all the pieces already in a box and we're just taking our time arranging them - we don't know what the picture is going to be yet 3D: We just write as we think, which is with fragments of ideas and the images they conjour up. You end up with raps that are almost like streams of consciousness - cut up and put back together like William Burroughs, or something. It doesn't have to have a point, so long as there's information in there which people can retrieve if they want to.'

Seven years later, things have moved on apace from the old hip-hop methodology of finding breaks and then making songs out of them. 'We're making music differently now,' confirms Mushroom, in a rare moment of engagement. 'Instead of sampling and looping sections of old records, we get people to play bits of music that weve written and then we sample those instead.' Do the musicians mind being treated as suppliers of raw material? 'I don't know,' Mushroom laughs. 'I haven't really asked them.'

Once the tapes are assembled. Massive Attack spend hours scouring the tapes, 'looking for identities', in 3D's phrase. Or sometimes they go to the pub and leave their co-producer to do it. 'Sometimes you can get to close to it,' Daddy G smiles, 'and become your own worse enemy.'

Just as Massive Attack remain rather enigmatic figures to the people who love what they do, their day-to-day lives almost seem to have become ghosts of their musical identity. 'We go one way as a group,' 3D explains 'and the rest of our lives stop and go in the opposite direction. After a while, your personal life seems to ... not disintegrate exactly, but its diffi- cult to understand where you fit into it. You go off on tour, come back with a bag of new toys, and everyone else has got two children ... suddenly you have to relate to people on a different level - it's like being an eternal kid.'

As if to compensate for an absence of reproductive involvement. Massive Attack have nurtured an extended family of singing talent. From Shara Nelson on Blue Lines, to Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn on 1994's pristine if somewhat studio-bound Protection (which did for her career what Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta's), and reggae veteran Horace Andy on all three of their records, Massive Attack's relationships with their guest vocalists seem to open up new doors for all parties: never more so than with Elizabeth Fraser on Mezzanine.

Formerly a purveyor of (admittedly delicious) ethereal candyfloss with student perennials The Cocteau Twins, Fraser found herself transformed into the voice of urban paranoia on the remarkable 'Group 4.' 'We wouldn't want to work with someone who's already got a very well-defined image of themselves,' 3D explains. 'There'd be no mystery left, there'd be nothing to explore.'

In a last-ditch bid to shed light on the evolution of Massive Attack's exploratory aesthetic, the court calls their longest-serving vocal foil. Perhaps Horace Andy, the man with the golden larynx and father of, at the last count, sixteen children, will identify some enduring bone of contention between Bristol and Jamaica? 'I still tease then and say they can't DJ - get them into a studio and thy will do it, but on stage you say, "Come up and DJ something like a Jamaican DJ would," and they run a mile.' Andy laughs. 'I probablt shouldn't let this out on them, but they can't dance either - Daddy and 3D will try to move, but I've never seen Mushroom take a step.'

Ben Thompson