State of Independence
(Exclaim 30th January 2003)
And then there was one. Well, not exactly. When Massive Attack was last in the public eye there were three key players, Daddy G (Grant Marshall), Mushroom (Adrian Vowles), and 3D (Robert Del Naja). The trio can lay claim to making some of the most influential music of the '90s, and are responsible for putting Bristol, England, on the musical map. But nearly five years after their last full-length effort, 3D is the only one of the three original core members to work on their fourth album 100th Window, something that's sure to raise quizzical eyebrows. When I ask if he's been Massive Attack's de facto creative force for some time now, he shifts uncomfortably on the couch, smiling and then laughing nervously. "I'm kinda paranoid," he says after a brief pause. "I know this isn't what's been intimated, but it's this terrible thing. Everybody's going to think I'm this control freak."
While he's obviously uneasy with the creative focus being solely on him - the conspicuous absence of two of the group's original members makes it unavoidable - his reaction is in some ways is understandable. The group has always sourced collaborations from different artists to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Even as Massive Attack has undergone changes in its core and associated personnel, and ultimately its sound, underlying principles continue to link them to their impressive and distinctive past.
Blue Lines, Massive Attack's 1991 debut, was a stunningly seamless and genre-defying amalgam of dub, soul and hip-hop. It represented the logical extension of Bristol's Wild Bunch soundsystem, to which all three members of Massive Attack once belonged. The album's assured, languid rhythms coalesced the different musical forms into a soothing cerebral experience; it made the group's name change to Massive because of the hoopla surrounding the Gulf War all the more ludicrous. By the time they issued the refined electronic soul sheen of follow-up Protection, the group found themselves being lumped in with fellow Bristolians Portishead and Tricky, who both contributed to Blue Lines, as part of a new style of music. Trip-hop, a much-maligned term that makes 3D cackle when I mention it, was the most popular catch-all description for it. Soon these groups were the arbiters of cool. 1998's Mezzanine found Massive Attack expanding their sonic repertoire; abrasive guitar work and samples literally copped from Turkish tourist resorts were grafted onto the group's dub foundation to create a tense, brooding effort. It could have been interpreted as a rude retort to the slew of imitators raiding their early work by cranking out languid hip-hop beats with female vocals, but the sound of this record actually reflected simmering tensions in the group and set in motion the context in which the group exists today.
During Mezzanine's pre-production phase, 3D was anxious to return to the punk and new wave roots of his youth. Daddy G and Mushroom on the other hand were creating loops modelled around hip-hop and soul. While 3D and Daddy G had overlapping tastes in punk and new wave, Mushroom wasn't too thrilled with this new sonic direction and the tension sparked a creative stand-off. The situation escalated to the point where much of the album was recorded separately and the tour that followed was particularly strife-ridden. The trio refused to do interviews together and 3D and Daddy G in particular were fairly candid about the acrimonious state of the group. In performance, the three members were rarely on stage at the same time and by the end of the tour they had decided to work separately from then on. Evidently, the differences couldn't be reconciled and by late 1999 Mushroom was no longer in the group.
"It got to the point where Mush, he's a purist, in terms of what he wants to do with soul and funk and R&B," says 3D. "And he was getting more and more purist. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to do and I think myself particularly and G to a certain extent wanted to experiment. I like the purity of certain things but I like to see them all put together in one place to see what happens in an alchemist sense. And it was impossible because I was trying to get Mushroom to commit pure ideas to the general melting pot and he didn't want to. It meant that it was his thing only or my thing. It was never a joint thing, so ultimately it was obvious we were going to part ways."
It may have been a foregone conclusion to 3D, but it wasn't Mushroom's decision to leave the band. "Well to be honest me and G kinda made [the decision] for him. I think we were like, 'Look mate, you're not happy here, we're not happy here. Something's gotta give, you know what I mean? We want to continue doing Massive Attack and experimenting, you want to do your thing. What's the point of us working together?' It was either that or dissolve the band altogether which would have been a shame because there's still more to be had out of a project like this."
While Mushroom began work on a solo album, Massive Attack continued as a duo, doing remixes and contributing to soundtracks. When it came time to start work on the group's fourth album, Daddy G was still very much in the picture. But Daddy G, who reportedly termed the Mezzanine recording sessions - where he was often the mediator - as the most stressful of his life, became less involved as time wore on. According to 3D, at one point he didn't see Daddy G in the studio for six months. Consequently, on 100th Window Daddy G is noticeably absent; certainly his deep rumbling vocals, a staple of past Massive Attack records, are nowhere to be found. Apparently, he's still a member of the group who will tour and will work on the group's fifth album, which is already in production, but he is taking time off to look after his new child and focus on his family "My motivation right now is to be in the studio and that's that," says 3D. "G's motivation is to be a father, so there's no point in us forcing it. It would be conflict, it'd be silly. I just kinda got on with what I had to do making records, 'cos I would've been unhappy if I hadn't. I couldn't wait around. I had to do something."
On a dour, overcast day in London, 3D appears to be quite happy. Despite the rumpled look his days-old stubble gives him, he's cheerful and animated, kitted out entirely in black with a T-shirt that reveals a tattoo on his left arm: the flammable sign that appears on the cover of Blue Lines. Recalling those early years, 3D contends that a harmonious working environment never really existed between himself, Daddy G and Mushroom. "The project was always ambiguous because it was rare that we were alone in one room," he says, referring as he often does to the group as a project. "It would be one or two of us with someone else, whether it was Nellee Hooper, Neil Davidge or way back with [Blue Lines producer] Johnny Dollar. It was never all three of us sitting around the melting pot cooking by proxy. It never happened. In the old days, we'd end up fighting for the element we put in, whether it was a hi-hat or a bass line and we'd never look at the whole thing, just the element that we contributed." For this album, 3D's studio cohort was Neil Davidge, who worked extensively on Mezzanine as a co-writer and co-producer.
The undeniable change in creative dynamic impacted the recording. "I think it was much more isolated and therefore I was a bit more exposed, more frightened and wanting answers," admits 3D. It's evident this vulnerability has informed the concept of the album itself. The title refers to The Hundredth Window, a book by Charles Jennings and Lori Fena that explores issues surrounding security and privacy on the internet. The idea is if you put bars across 99 of your windows but leave the hundredth window open, invaders can still get in and access personal information. "I took it as an analogy for the window to the soul," 3D explains. "No man is an island. You can't expect to live your life in dislocation and isolation and expect to only communicate when you want to. There's always a way in and a way out of your head and the contact is a communal thing, it's a give and take. It takes other people to highlight your flaws and your bad side and your weaknesses because you're never gonna see them yourself."
Initially, 3D and Davidge spent a long time in the studio with rock band Lupine Howl, comprised of ex-members of Spiritualized. After 18 months of arduous effort, they scrapped those sessions and started from scratch, eschewing the usual approach of starting with samples. "It wasn't all about the rhythm and I felt with this album I wanted to make a record that didn't rely on a rhythm going steadily right through it. It felt that the rhythm was responding to the music and vice versa, so it would react to that." 3D contends it's Massive Attack's most intricate and affecting record to date. "Rather than like being like Mezzanine where everything is cold and dark, there's warmth where you can make contact with people, there's more to be had out of this," he says.
With its resonant ambience and thematic need for security, 100th Window bears the hallmarks of previous recordings. But where Mezzanine was expansive, this plumbs sonic depths and presents a subtle deconstruction of what the group has previously done. The change is most noticeable in the treatment of voices on the record. Legendary reggae singer Horace Andy is the only artist outside the original trio to appear on every Massive Attack record, and he contributes vocals on two Window tracks. But 3D experimented with how he wanted to hear Andy's voice.
"It was mad, trying to get Horace to sound like he wasn't a reggae singer for the first time," says 3D. "I felt we've done a lot of things with Horace that were a throwback to his history. He's got such a great voice you don't need to do that. I wanted to write some new stuff for him like I did on 'Hymn of the Big Wheel' [from Blue Lines]."
This experimentation wasn't limited to Andy. 3D too has changed his vocal stylings. This record finds him favouring plaintive vocals more heavily than in the past and his distinctive whispery raps are completely absent. "Two things. One, there are people out there who can rap a million times better than me," he says self-deprecatingly. "Second, I think I got a little despondent and bored of having to use so many words to say a few things."
The use of voice as an instrument is pushed to the point where the sound itself is given primacy. The male vocals on the record are often smoothed out to the point where the lyrics are inaudible, ironically bringing a more intimate feeling to the proceedings. Although 3D was fruitless in his attempts to corral jazz singer Nina Simone for 100th Window, the emotional quotient of the record is heightened by three hauntingly beautiful vocal performances from Sinead O' Connor, an artist with whom 3D had been wanting to work for some time. "The thing about working with Sinead is that the one thing I wanted to get out of it was the anger. She always conveys proper emotion and personality. She's one of the few singers that has a real personality. She's been a spokesperson on various issues and she's been expressing her views, and I think she carries that with her. You hear an innocence and a beauty and a hope; you also know there's been a lot of experience there. She's seen a lot of things and she commands respect that way."
Sinead O'Connor's heartfelt presence on 100th Window is just the latest example of Massive Attack choosing distinctive voices to front their music, a pattern dating back to their origins even within the Wild Bunch soundsystem.
"In an age where music is much more generic, the emphasis is on commerce," says 3D. "No one really wants to hear someone with personality, it's much easier to deal with the generic voice that everyone can relate to. So if an artist is passed by another similar artist then it's not a problem for the average person to go out and buy into both concepts, perhaps because they're not being challenged. It's just easy, there's no thought process. In a world where everyone's got so little time, that's what you want."
Another primary musical aspect of Massive Attack that can also be traced back to their soundsystem origins is their use of bass. 100th Window ends with a throbbing 13-minute bass line that extends its length to the 74-minute mark. "Reggae and soul-hip-hop was always bass-driven, rhythm-based music," he says. "For me, coming out of the punk thing, it was like Public Image Limited, the Clash - the bass emphasis in those bands was very influential." This merging of divergent elements has fostered the principled independent spirit that embraces amorphous roles and one-off collaborations, allowing the music to exist on its own terms, independent of the people involved. For Massive Attack fans, the music and the mood it creates, not the band members, are what come to mind. Maybe that's why 3D was so uneasy.
"One thing I always tried to do was to not associate ourselves too directly with the project itself, in the sense where you say that's the band, that's Massive Attack, those are the guys in the band," 3D says. "It always seemed to be quite destructive - it's mostly vanity and ego and there's plenty of that floating around anyway. There's a healthy amount of ego in any project, whether it's music or business or a workplace. I thought let's not do that. If we're not totally connected to our faces and the way the band operates, then the project can speak for itself. As a fan, Massive Attack can be anything. As long as the album comes out and it says Massive Attack and it's something of interest to anyone, got some quality to it, then it don't matter what happened behind the scenes."
By Del F. Cowie