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MASSIVE SUMMER On Stage: Playing 100th Window. (Sound Control Summer 2003)

On April 8th 2003, Yours Truly was lucky enough to be invited along to one of the first gigs take place at Glasgow’s brand new Carling Academy. As it happened, it wasn’t just to check out the venue, it was to see a musical performance that exceeded any previous experience, and from a band that to be honest, I wouldn’t have expected quite so much from. The band was Massive Attack. The gig was frankly mind-blowing.
It must be said, I am as much a fan of Massive Attack as the next person who called themselves a student for a while anytime during the ‘90s. That is to say I own Blue Lines and have regularly enjoyed the delights of Protection and Mezzanine – without calling myself a ‘real’ fan, or owning a tee-shirt with ‘MA’ emblazoned across my chest. So when I say that the performance was ‘mind-blowing’, you can be sure I’m not bleating like an old-timer part of the Massive collective. I’m talking about not only the music, or the visuals (which are part of the story) but the sound and the musicianship that this band produced and exhibited. I say ‘band’, but in reality Massive Attack are and always have been, a ‘collective sound system’ – a group of musicians, producers, creatives, artists, or whatever else you care to describe. None of the "members" of the band play any instruments, but rely on professional musicians when recording and playing live. They also prefer working with different people for each album to give each album a more distinctive sound, Horace Andy being an exception. Making something new has always been the main focus for MA, and they always take their time making the records. They've never given much attention to what's happening music-wise at the moment, they always come up with their own sound. This is something that their music reflects, and this is why MA is appreciated by music-lovers and music-critiques around the world. MA has always been looked upon as eccentric and pretentious, but what most people don't know is that none of the "official band members" are classically trained, they can't sing and they don't know how to read notes. But they do love different kinds of music. Massive Attack is essentially the musical product of Robert Del Naja (better known as 3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andy Vowles (Mushroom). Today however, and with the current and 4th album, 100th Window, only 3D remains (Mushroom quit after the 3rd album and Daddy G took a ‘sabbatical’ on the current album). Of course, that brings us neatly to the musicians that make Massive Attack the complete article. The guys that help to bring Del Naja’s vision to reality, on stage and in-studio. Guys very much like Angelo Bruschini and Winston Blissett, in fact… Angelo and Winston are the men responsible for guitar and bass duty respectively, and play a huge part in the overall sound of 100th Window, as well as making the live show such a spectacle. I caught up with the guys a month after the Glasgow gig, on their return from the Spanish leg of the continuing tour – in yet another SC Mag exclusive.
SC: The first question has to be, where did you guys actually get onboard with the Massive Attack bandwagon?
Angelo: I've now been with MA for eight years on and off, it started when a friend of mine rang and said that massive were in the studio and needed a guitarist for the protection album, and could I get there right now, which I did. After that I didn't hear from them for some time, then a year later Dee rang me and said "Ange we're going on tour in two weeks can you make it?" I packed my guitars and I haven't looked back.
Winston: I did my first show in mid 1995 when I was asked to cover for then bass player, Steve Lewinson. I was then asked to play on their 1996 festival tour as Steve was busy. This was about the time Angelo joined the band. MA have asked me to perform with them since.
SC: How easy (or difficult) has it been to integrate yourselves into such a diverse entity as Massive Attack, and how do you interpret the ideas of 3D, when he doesn’t write or play music in the conventional style that you would normally require to work with?
Angelo: Well for me it was quite easy because I wrote the guitar parts and then played them to MA, I got a thumbs up or thumbs down, each time getting more information from the guys like "not dark enough or too busy keep it simple" from that you develop an understanding and a working relationship with the rest of MA and finally you're able to put a bit of your own mark on the track.
SC: How did you guys get involved in the studio production of 100th Window, and were you involved in Mezzanine at all?
Angelo: Well I had already done the work on Protection so they must of liked what I had done and so asked me if I wanted to work on Mezzanine, which of course I jumped at. As far as 100th Window goes I recorded most of the guitars at home with frequent creativity breaks in the Cambridge Arms, my local in Bristol! After that I'd take the tracks into the studio for feedback from Neil Davidge (the producer) and 3D as far as what they wanted to hear.
SC: What have been the highlights of the tour so far, and any disaster stories to speak of?
Angelo: Shaking hands with Ronaldo at a party in Barcelona has got to be a personal highlight so far. As far as disasters go at one gig we did in Scotland the whole monitoring system broke down. Basically we use an in-ear system with no floor monitors for a cleaner vocal sound so you get no spill from bass and guitars speakers. But the big problem is if it goes down you can't hear yourself, or anybody else except the drummer, so you have to guess the whole song, and hope no one notices. Luckily it was the last song and we got away with it. Afterwards it turned out it was just a simple bloody fuse had blown.
SC: I noticed at the Glasgow gig, that Sinead O’Conner was absent on vocals, and Dot Allison had been drafted in. As well as Liz Fraser having been on vocal duty, how did you guys accommodate different vocalists?
Angelo: Well when you're working with people like Sinead and Dot and Liz it’s relatively easy. The sad thing was that Sinead she was going to do the vast majority of the gigs, but she has had to quit music for a while because of family and things. With Dot she's a fantastic singer, very versatile, and had already been earmarked for the next album. Fortunately for us she was free at the time and able to take over from Sinead and Liz. As far as Liz goes I'm not sure what she's up to currently, she's obviously got her own stuff to do.
Winston: As diverse as the music is, the one important ingredient through most or all of the styles of music played is the “vibe” or atmospheric element, a lot of which is partly felt through the subtle Reggae influences in the tracks. For me to maintain (and I hope add to) this wasn't too great a challenge as I’d spent many of my early playing years in Reggae & Calypso bands. 3D & G explain themselves plainly when they require certain ideas to be played. Besides, it’s normal to work with people who are not formally trained in music when performing or creating contemporary or popular music.
SC: Both of you have very established pedigree as musicians, and most readers may recognise you from earlier bands such as ‘Blue Aeroplanes’ in Angelo’s case, and the likes of ‘Protect The Beat’ in Winston’s. What were your first bands, and earliest musical experiences?
Angelo: I've Been playing the guitar since I was eight, I first picked it up from my older brother watching him and playing chords that bloody hurt your fingers when you're eight. My first band was a punk band called The Numbers when I was sixteen, we put out our first published record and at that time I walked at least six inches above the ground, but bugger, I still could not get a shag!!
Winston: I had no musical experiences from my family other than listening to Bluebeat, Ska & Reggae music at home and at “Blues” parties in the ‘70s. As mentioned earlier, my first bands were local Calypso & Reggae bands when I started playing from the age of 15 yrs old. I actually picked up the bass guitar for the first time at a friends gospel church to fit in with other young teens that played instruments or sung. I spent a few years playing in bands until later deciding to become a session musician, which I’ve been for the past 15 years or so.
SC: Angelo, what was the first guitar you ever owned, and do you still have it? Also, what are your playing these days – specifically on the live tour?
Angelo: The first one was an antoria Les Paul, a black one that I used to plug into dad’s valve stereogram, jeez that brings back memories, at dinner times me and my mates used to bunk dinner, run home and put on Led Zepplin and play along, god I was crap widdle-widdle-widdle, but my mates went Woh! Do I own it now? No, one of my mates thought one day it would be worth money so I gave it to him, thanks mate! I have got a few guitars that I use when I'm in the studio. I use a 1967 telecaster or a hand-made Kinkade 175 that plays fantastic. Though I find I’m getting out the PRS more and more these days, especially for live performance because they're brilliant to play, really well made and the company are really forward thinking and easy to get on with. By the way for you readers, I'm not sponsored by any company, I'm proud to buy my own guitars!
SC: Likewise, Winston, have you always played Bass, and what was your first choice?
Winston: Bass guitar has always been my main instrument. I can also play six string guitar, but not to Angelo’s standard. My very first instrument was a short scale beginner’s instrument, a “Jedson “ bass, which I had for a couple of years. I then picked up a beaten up old Fender Precision (I had it for 6 months playing Jams & gigs before getting a case for it. Never thought it needed one!). Unfortunately I don’t possess these guitars any more.
SC: From the gig (even up in the gallery) it was obvious that both of you have a fair bit of Mesa/Boogie gear in your setup…both guitar and bass heads and cabs. What makes up your respective set-ups in terms of Boogie gear, and why the choice, as opposed to other backline?
Angelo: I got introduced to boogie gear by my guitar tech Aidey, he borrowed some amps from them for me to try, they were good. I use a lot of pre amps and studio gear live, as much valve as possible and through the ninety-ninety power amps it did sound good, plus the company's artist relations guys are second to none, for example on this tour in Portugal one of the amps got dropped from a cargo hold of a plane it was smashed to bits, Aidey rang boogie and next day a brand new amp was waiting for us at the next gig. Brilliant!
Winston: I have two Boogie heads in my rack (one on standby). The main amp I use is a 600 watt head and the spare is a 350 head. The speakers are one 4x10 and a 1x15 cab. I also use the footswitch controller, which is handy for bringing in effects when needed or routing to a tuner. I found the sound of the rig to be very tight or compact at the same time not compromising the bass frequencies. Kinda like bass without the boom. I personally find this quality attractive as bass notes are more defined. Basically punters can hear what I’m playing.
SC: I noticed a load of effects processors, including some Line 6 studio modellers and possibly a Boss GT-5 up there with you, but my gear-spotting talents aren’t to good! What effects and bits of gear do each of you consider ‘essential’ to your live setup?
Angelo: Well with massive you don't get those sounds from plugging a guitar into an amp. It take's a lot more equipment than that. For example in "Future Proof" I have a forward echo running parallel with a line six reverse echo then into the GT5 for a bit of a kick. The GT5 I've used one since the day they came out, at first it was a revelation in the studio, I used it loads but after a bit I thought the sounds it came with weren't up to much, so I read the manual and started programming it myself. That’s when it really came alive. The fact that I can put any effect in any order really opened the door to fucking with my head. The fact that when you put your foot on the same program again it starts again, imagine a fat flanger that starts it's sweep at your beck and call, wicked!
SC: It has been commented that the new flavour of Massive Attack, particularly 100th Window, has been shaped by the new guitar-heavy riffing and very subtle bass-lines that seem to have replaced the old sampler cuts and loops that gave them the ‘trip-hop’ tag a decade ago. Were you guys brought onboard to provide this, or has this sound evolved as a result of you guys being involved?
Angelo: As I said before I've been with them for some time so I think that has all evolved together into what it is now, the thing about Massive is it's not contrived in any way. It is what it is at the time, the way music should be…Truthful.
SC: So, looking forward, what are the plans for the next year? When does the tour finish, and is there another album left in MA – if so, any ideas on what involvement that might bring for either of you?
Angelo: The tour finishes pretty much at the end of the year, then work starts on the next album and the direction we're taking, which we're already talking about. Hopefully 2005 will see it's conclusion but with massive who knows. Although I have other commitments that are very exciting who wouldn't find the time for working with a group like MA.
SC: As musicians, what have you each gained from your experience with MA so far, and how does that experience compare to gigs that you’ve been involved with in the past?
Angelo: It's very easy to be jaded in this business, especially listening to the production line stuff that is being churned out, so working with MA is a pleasure. What I think I have gained is patience; it took three years to make this album. I've also realised that you don't have to work with people who are musically trained. MA have found a way of expressing their ideas and beliefs through technology. The point is musicians should look for the emotion and not the perfect note!
SC: SC Mag wishes you the best of luck on the rest of the tour, and thanks for both the time, and an amazing show!
Angelo: Thanks to all the guys in the Bristol shop for listening to my rants, and to DF for editing this whole thing!