The Odd Couple (The Sunday Times 9th April 2006)
Massive Attack's chilled-out vibe provided the soundtrack to the 1990s. Now music's most dysfunctional duo are getting it together again, says Craig McLean
How to sum up the 1990s? Do you wade through the DVDs of Stephen Poliakoff’s recent dramas, Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon’s Daughter?
Do you wait for the novelist Jonathan Coe to do for the decade what he did for the 1980s with What a Carve Up!? Do you veg out in front of I Love the 1990s? To be honest, it all sounds a bit like hard work — and a bit depressing. Far better to treat yourself to a copy of Massive Attack’s new compilation, Collected. Its 14 tracks perfectly encapsulate the decade when rave-on morphed into chill-out, and the Bristol sound (trip-hop, Portishead, Tricky) meant something innovative and dazzling. This was the era when staying in became the new going out, and designer living became something of value and merit rather than the cop-out of vacuous twits with more money than style.
With their blissful beats and utterly West Country way of doing things (slowly and often in a cloud of marijuana smoke), Massive Attack paved the way for all of that. They provided the soundtrack to our 1990s lives — from Shara Nelson’s Unfinished Sympathy (1991) to Liz Fraser’s Teardrop (1998). Listening to Collected is like reliving all our yesterdays while keeping an eye on tomorrow — and there aren’t many bands you can say that about.
A recent Style music survey found that Massive Attack were, among other things, the ultimate dinner-party music. Does that bug them? “Not really,” says Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. “It’s rare that I find an album I can actually sit down and eat my dinner to. I’ve always said that defines a good album — if it doesn’t upset your food, then you’re all right,” he adds, his tongue nudging his cheek.
“Yeah, it does,” counters Robert “3D” Del Naja, “in the sense that there’s some music you go out and dance to and some you sit around chatting to — well, then you ain’t even listening to it. It becomes wallpaper. I think our records are more dynamic than that.”
This exchange, in a nutshell, sums up why Massive Attack is possibly still Britain’s most vital band: they are contrary to the point of madness. Having lost one of their founder members — hip-hop-loving Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles quit after the Mezzanine album because he didn’t like the new music they were making — and seen countless singers come and go, the scruffily cool fortysomethings, known to friends as D and G, are the last men standing. And they haven’t worked together since 1997.
They may co-own a hip Bristol bar, Nocturne, but they barely ever speak. Daddy G wasn’t involved at all with the last Massive Attack album. He hadn’t liked the fact that his compadre wanted to try new-wave (ie guitar rock) ideas and was distracted by impending fatherhood, although he did join 3D for the ensuing world tour. “It’s not the kind of record that I’d make,” chuckles the jovial, but savvy, father of two (a third is due in September). “I might have f***ed the whole thing up for us.”
“If Massive was a conventional band, it would be f***ed,” concedes 3D, a committed bachelor known for his love of a good party. Their flexibility, he points out, lies in their roots. They formed at the end of the 1980s out of the Wild Bunch, a Bristol sound system whose loose ranks included the producer Nellee Hooper (Madonna, All Saints). “I can’t imagine how most bands survive,” 3D continues, “because personalities, especially male personalities, are always evolving and changing. How the hell do you hold it together? Every band must have so much struggle and turmoil and so much pain inside. With Massive we’ve always had this ability to say, ‘I’ve had enough, see you later.’ But there’s always been this magnet bringing it back together.”
I meet Daddy G in his rented Robot Club studios off College Green in Bristol city centre, and drop in on 3D in his own, rather more salubrious Unit 3 studios in an industrial estate on the other side of town. This is how the dysfunctionally functional men of Massive Attack operate now — separately, and happily. The catalyst for their at-a-distance rapprochement was 3D’s arrest in 2003, when he was accused of downloading child pornography. The charges were quickly dropped through lack of evidence. But in the midst of the resulting media storm, Daddy G stood firmly by his long-standing friend. “That really got us back together. Fundamentally, we’re mates, and whatever differences have gone on between us, you’ve got to support your mates when the shit hits the fan.”
Each is working with his own engineers and singers on new songs for the next Massive Attack album. The reggae artist Horace Andy will reappear, as will the former Cocteau Twin, Liz Fraser. 3D smilingly protests that he can’t play any of the songs he has recorded with Tunde Adebimpe, of the American jazz-rock band TV on the Radio, nor any of the six tracks he has made featuring his own raps and vocals. Daddy G, meanwhile, is hopeful that David Bowie — a big fan — will like the demos he has been sent. He plays me a bit of a new song he recorded in London the previous day with Damon Albarn. It’s called Saturday Comes Slow and is a brilliant example of Albarn’s cracked balladry. Another new song features Yolanda, an unknown Bristol singer.
The album — working title Weather Underground — is due out next year. It will be only their fifth in 16 years (excluding Collected). It is this slow work rate, says Daddy G, that’s behind the appearance of the compilation: it was their manager’s idea, partly as a sop to their label. “We’re not really our record company’s ideal band, financially,” chuckles Daddy G. “Yeah, we’ve sold nine million albums in 15 years, but if you break that down, it’s not very much, is it? But it was also a way of putting in a full stop, collect our thoughts and think about moving forward.”
Like an old married couple, Massive has decided that the best form of cohabitation is separation. Respect is a constant: Daddy G says he loves Live with Me, the new 3D track, sung by soul icon Terry Callier, that is Collected’s lead single; 3D says he can’t wait to hear what Daddy G has done with Albarn. Even though they barely talk on a day-to-day basis, both are looking forward to sharing a stage again: Massive Attack begins a four-month world tour in America next month. After that, they will finish up a dozen or so songs each and compare. If all the songs are good, might they “do an Outkast”, and release a double CD, one under the name Daddy G, one 3D? “Oh God, yeah,” says G. “It’ s a bit too early to say, but that idea sounds quite exciting. I love that.”
“People might go, ‘What on earth is this?’ demurs D. “The fact that it was on two discs might outweigh the value of the music. That would be the problem.”
All hail Massive Attack. Long may they have their creative differences.