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Panic Attack (The Big Issue 10th February 2003)

War, politics and making music - Massive Attack's Robert 3D' Del Naja has a lot to worry about. Dorian Lynskey met the man behind Britain's most mysterious band.

Robert '3D' Del Naja has a lot on his mind. Yesterday was the first day of rehearsals for Massive Attack's forthcoming world tour and the
band frontman's pained expression suggests it did not go well. "It's a complete shambles," he frets. "I came out of it thinking 'Oh my fucking life!' I was just thinking of getting on a plane to fucking Peru or somewhere - anything but going on tour. I'm trying to remember if that's the way I always felt at the beginning."
We're sitting in the bar of a London hotel and for the first time Del Naja is promoting a Massive Attack record, 100th Window, single-handedly. Ever since their 1991 debut, Blue Lines, one of the best-loved and most influential records of the 1990s, Massive Attack were a fluid set-up. Collaborators (among them Tricky, Tracey Thorn and Shara Nelson) came and went. On their fourth album, how-ever, even the central trio has dis- solved. Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles left and Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall is taking time out to bring up his new baby. That must be hard for Del Naja, I suggest.
He nods. "You do sit back and think, has it been reduced to this? Is this what's left in the bottom of the cup? Is that it? There were moments when it was like, fucking hell, it's a lonely place this studio. There's not many people here anymore."
Previous Massive Attack albums, 1994's Protection and 1998's Mezzanine, divided opinion, but neither was quite as confounding as 100th Window. Where once there were several voices and styles criss-crossing, now there's a consistent, eerily beautiful ambience populated by only three vocalists: Del Naja, old friend Horace Andy and Sinead O'Connor. Haunting and elusive, it sounds the way music does when you're half-asleep.
Del Naja often reads comments posted by fans on Massive Attack's website and he's bothered that some people are calling 100th Window his solo record. He protests that if that were the case then he'd put his face on the CD cover and posters. "You could make yourself famous overnight. Bingo. And that would be horrendous." In fact, attention makes him wriggle. He enjoys seeing if he can walk from the door of a Massive Attack gig to the stage without being recognised.
"I always liked the idea the band could be constantly re-presented and redesigned," he says. "We didn't want to be that band people associated with 1991. If we'd been there on the cover with our thumbs up, that's not mysterious or exciting. It's just boring. I've done interviews on television and always regretted them because all I've done is make myself look ordinary and crap. Because I am."
The strategy obviously worked. I expected Del Naja to be intimidatingly fashionable and aloof, but he's the opposite: friendly and nervy and not quite comfortable in his skin. While he raps and sings in a dry murmur, he speaks quickly and intensely in a West Country accent.
In the early days, Massive Attack's mystique helped conceal their internal tensions. They emerged from The Wild Bunch, the 1980s collective of Bristol musicians that combined reggae, punk and hip hop to revolutionary effect, but that creativity was often fuelled by intense rivalry and volatile personal chemistry, even between the closest friends. Massive Attack's core trio would rarely be in the studio at the same time. "There was never a romantic moment of us all sitting around the piano drinking brandy and writing lyrics."
But by the time they made Mezzanine, they were at breaking point. "You'd go to the studio and if you couldn't deal with each other you could always deal with the track," says Del Naja. "We could use it as a get-out clause talk about the track, don't talk about each other. So the tracks became quite divisive and cynical in a way."
After the ensuing tour, the strict schedule that held them together was gone and the members went back to their respective lives.
Del Naja seems genuinely sad that he hasn't spoken to Vowles since. He says he lost a friend as well as a bandmate and hopes they'll work together again some day.
"It's very hard to keep a friendship together for 20 years considering all the changes in our lives. To be in a band you have all those changes, times by 10, with a smattering of vanity and ego as well, so it's quite destructive. It's amazing how some bands manage to stay together for years."
I ask what making 100th Window would have been like if Marshall's sabbatical had been permanent and he looks horrified. "I would have felt probably really paranoid, really lonely, really regretful. It wouldn't have been about the music. It would have been about the history of the band."
As it was, 100th Window was arduous enough. Del Naja and his studio partner Neil Davidge spent months in 2001 working with psychedelic rock band Lupine Howl, only to scrap everything because it sounded too similar to Mezzanine. They had to wipe the slate clean and approach it entirely differently.
The album title comes from a phrase describing a loophole in computer security. "The 100th Window is the one you don't close. It's the one you've got no real control over. It sounded celestial to me, almost Buddhist. It's a window in your head where people can look in and you can see out without fear."
It's a much calmer philosophy than the soul-sick morbidity and paranoia of Mezzanine. Has Del Naja cheered up since then? "I think I'm still as morbid as I was. I've always had a curiosity with death. I go cold thinking about it. What will it be like? The moment of death? But I've got a girlfriend who's really relaxed and really gentle and she's helped me find some peace."
I wonder aloud if he has fewer late nights now that he's 37. Apparently not. "I used to give myself such a hard time if I'd partied really hard, and the next couple of days I felt like I was on the edge of total emotional and physical collapse. But now I've got used to the feeling, so I get on with it. Which is not a particularly healthy way of living." He smiles self-consciously. "It worries me sometimes. I think of maybe one day getting out of the routine and disappearing for a year and finding other ways of fulfilling myself."
It's funny how seriously he takes hedonism, insisting that it's important to get out of your head in order to see things differently. He's tough on himself, too. When we talk about the Wild Bunch days, and the competition to have the freshest records, the latest gadgets and the most exclusive trainers, he's surprisingly stern towards his younger self. "It was funny at the time, but looking back it was fucking dysfunctional," he frowns. "I don't want to sit here condoning that whole consumerist attitude."
Back then Del Naja wasn't particularly interested in politics, but over the past year, along with his friend Damon Albarn, he has become one of the most outspoken opponents of plans for war in Iraq. He tried to rally other musicians to the cause but came away disappointed. "We were getting managers of other bands saying, 'Does that mean you support Saddam Hussein's regime?' That's just ridiculous!"
Why does he think politics have crept up on him? "I think it's creeping up on everyone. It's hitting critical mass, where we can no longer ignore glaring injustices and imbalances of power. The next 10 years will be very interesting - how people react to environmental issues orglobalisation issues."
This brings him back to all the ideas running through 100th Window: the shrinking world, globalisation, voyeurism, disconnection, etc. His thoughts are constantly mixing and multiplying.
Del Naja says that Marshall will be back in the fold for the tour and, hopefully, the subsequent album, Before then there'll be a low-key release with loops and live tracks from 100th Window and hopefully a collaboration with Tom Waits.
The hardest part is surely behind him now. His lowest ebb came at the end of 2001. "I was saying to my manager, 'Fuck it. I'm sick of this album. I'm sick of Massive Attack. I want to do a soundtrack.' We went away at Christmas like that and came back thinking, let's make some new music. I booked a studio in London to mix it and that's not something you can back out of. Well, you could." He smiles mischievously. "You could always disappear to Peru, couldn't you?"

• 100th Window is out now on Virgin. There is a Stop The War demo in London on 15th February. Details at www.stopwar.org.uk