Massive Attack interview (Daily Telegrraph, 27th January 2010)
Robert del Naja and Grant Marshall discuss splits, reconciliation and the rebirth of their band.
Despite being one of the most revered British bands in recent times, Massive Attack have spent a good deal of their 21-year career falling out with each other. “Even before we actually became Massive Attack, in 1986, when we were in Japan as The Wild Bunch Soundsystem, there was nearly a parting of the ways then,” says Grant Marshall, known better as 'Daddy G’. Robert '3D’ Del Naja, the other half of the band, picks up the thread: “We had a period in the middle of Blue Lines [Massive Attack’s 1991 debut] when we all stopped talking, and on Protection [the 1994 follow-up] the band fell apart for a month.” Conflict is in Massive Attack’s blood, but by the end of the nineties it was getting serious. “Oh yes, we were definitely on the edge of imploding,” says Marshall. “ There didn’t seem any point remaining friends.”
Happily, there’s no sign of friction today. Marshall and Del Naja are having lunch at a private members club in Notting Hill, London. They’ve worked through their problems and are releasing a new album, Heligoland, at the beginning of February. They are an odd couple. Marshall, 50, is well over six foot and combines an avuncular personality with a don’t-speak-unless-spoken-to attitude to conversation. By contrast, Del Naja, 44, is slight and talkative. They retain their West Country accents — Bristol, where they still live, is pronounced 'Brizzle’. They are both warm and resolutely un-starry. After asking if the chef can pick out the brown meat from his roast chicken salad, Del Naja apologises to waiter for being difficult. “You wouldn’t get away with that back home,” he says, with a sheepish grin.
It’s been seven years since they released an album. They are notoriously slow workers, and the long gaps in their output make it easy to forget how influential they have been. Del Naja co-wrote Neneh Cherry’s 1989 Number 5 single Manchild. Blue Lines laid the groundwork for trip hop, the fusion of hip hop and electronica that dominated dinner party stereos in the mid-nineties – and precipitated a trio of classic albums from the Bristol underground that included Maxinquaye by Tricky, Dummy by Portishead and, of course Massive Attack’s own Protection. As the scene’s leaders, they attracted the attention of Madonna. Together they covered I Want You by Marvin Gaye, the standout track on the compilation, Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye, released in 1995. If trip hop later became a byword for blandness, not least because it spawned chill out, Massive Attack’s early work still remains powerfully originally.
Their rise climaxed with Mezzanine, the record that turned them into a household name. It was the moment the band broke with their hip hop/soul roots and embraced a darker, more electronic sound. It went on to become one of the defining records of the Nineties. It reached Number 1 in the UK and was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 1998 (they lost out to Gomez in one of the worst decisions in the award’s history). If the US record sales didn’t match those at home, they later achieved a certain Stateside immortality when Teardrops was used as the theme for the TV series House.
Yet for all Mezzanine’s success, there was negative fallout. It still affects the band now. Founding member Andrew 'Mushroom’ Vowles didn’t like the albums’s new direction and left shortly after it was released in acrimonious circumstances. He hasn’t spoken to Marshall and Del Naja since.
“There was a lot of friction,” explains Del Naja, “and that made it difficult for me and G as well.” Marshall says that he was “a spectator” during the making of their fourth album, 2003’s 100th Window, in part because he was a new father, but also because he “wasn’t happy” with the songs. For his part, Del Naja felt that Marshall wasn’t contributing enough, that he’d been “abandoned”. They both admit to feeling “alienated” from each other.
“But luckily, we came through it because it turned out that the bond was stronger than that moment in time,” says Marshall, who clearly doesn’t like talking about the band’s problems for fear of opening old wounds. Lucky indeed, because Heligoland is a stunning record that fuses bleak electronics, spooked vocals and an pervasive sense of dread into something darkly beautiful.
Ironically, for a band built on conflict, much of the power of their sound has been derived from their alliances with other vocalists, often angelic sounding women, from Everything But The Girls’ Tracy Thorn to the Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser. On Heligoland, the line-up of collaborators is no less impressive, including Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, fellow Bristolian Martina Topley-Bird, Damon Albarn, and long-term vocalist Horace Andy. The result is tracks such as the haunted dancehall rhythms of Splitting The Atom and the skillfully understated Flat Of The Blade, on which Garvey floats his grey Mancunian vowels over stark electronics. No one else makes records like this.
The reason Marshall and Del Naja reconciled is simple enough — they were bored. However, when they did start making music again, it wasn’t easy. They discarded “one and a half albums” during the making of Heligoland. “We wrote some new songs before we went on tour in 2008,” explains Del Naja. “ It was just a case of coming back and mixing them. But we became victims of leaks on YouTube. Everyone had heard everything before it was released. It just seemed slightly tired.” So they started again.
At the beginning of 2009, they went to work with Damon Albarn for a week. The result was Saturday Come Slow, a weather-beaten lament. “It changed everything up,” says Del Naja. “It was a different energy and a different environment. We started to strip everything back and build it back up again. That feels like the start of what the album is now.” Both think that collaborators played an crucial part in the rebirth of the band. “This record has a very communal feel,” says Del Naja. “The first incarnation didn’t have that. After we went into Damon’s studio it started to feel rounded. This record is a series of events — working with Damon, Guy Garvey, Martina, and so on — where chemistry came right.”
Lunch over, Marshall orders a coffee. “Can you put a little something in it?” he asks. “Caramel, hazelnut?” suggests the waiter. “No, something a little stronger.” A large espresso fortified with an even larger shot of brandy appears. “I need something to get me going,” Marshall explains. “Why? Because I’m getting old, that’s why.” Too old for the band. “I don’t think so. Massive Attack is in my blood. Without it things just seem empty.”
He turns to Del Naja, who nods in agreement. “We’re family,” he says. “We’ve had some moments, but we got over them.”
And in some considerable style.
By Chris Cottingham