Innerviews, music without borders

Massive Attack
Friendly fire
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1998 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja sits in deep thought on the group’s tour bus prior to a gig in San Francisco. It’s been an endless run of gigs and he wants to get a few things off his mind. "Sometimes, it's cathartic to just sit down in here and tell it like it is after you've been on tour stewing in your own fucking juices for a few too many days," he explains, prior to depicting the drama and trauma involved in creating the British trip-hop group’s 1998 release Mezzanine.

At the time, the group was also comprised of Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles. The fiercely combative arguments, tantrums and personality clashes that occurred during the making of the record represented 15 years of built-up tension finally coming to a head. They’ve been a team since first working together in 1983 with the Wild Bunch sound system—a loosely-connected group of MCs, DJs and graffiti artists known for playing underground clubs throughout its native Bristol. In 1988, the trio reinvented itself as Massive Attack. Over the course of 15 years, they’ve evolved from kids with rudimentary musical skills into distinctive vocalists and masters of samples, sonic collage, and cutting-edge studio production techniques.

The most significant product of this union has been 1991's Blue Lines. The disc is a seamless blend of hip-hop, soul, dub, and pop elements that has influenced countless artists since its release. The follow-up effort, 1994's Protection, extended Blue Line's approach with a more mellow and atmospheric vibe. Mezzanine, in contrast, integrated a darker, heavy rock-based sound that also included worldbeat rhythms. The dramatic shift sowed the seeds of discontent, particularly for Vowles who advocated a return to the group’s roots for the record.

Though the group’s sound has evolved, there are several notable constants throughout Massive Attack’s career. Reggae star Horace Andy's sweet, uplifting vocals grace every record, as does the rap-inspired alternating wordplay that shifts between Del Naja’s hushed whisper and Marshall’s deep rumble. The band’s high-energy live performances have also routinely garnered rave reviews. A unique element of the shows is that the group’s core members are only onstage for half of its duration, while their four-piece band and cast of vocalists carry on in their absence. But for Del Naja and Vowles, the arrangement didn’t make touring any easier during this era.

 

Robert “3D” Del Naja

It’s been six months since Mezzanine came out. You’ve had a lot of time to digest, remix and perform these pieces. How are they holding up?

They feel old. Fucking hell. It feels longer than six months. I'm so fucking bored of them. It’s difficult to play the same things over and over. We've played 75 shows and it's getting more laborious every time.

How do you try to keep the gigs interesting?

By getting drunk. We're onstage almost exactly half the time. I'm onstage every other song, except for two songs in a row during the end. It's cool. It gives me more time to get drunk in between songs.

That's what's going on during every show?

Fucking right! [laughs] I'm not doing hair and make-up, know what I mean? I'm just sitting there cracking a beer and smoking. I'm thinking "Ah, Horace is in tune tonight. Oh lovely, lovely, lovely." and watching everyone else get on with it. It's weird. Maybe that's half the reason it's difficult. I'm listening to the songs so many times, even when I'm not performing them. You forget what it's like to write them and what it's like to be in the studio getting them out of your head. It becomes slightly detached. It feels like someone else's music.

Do you feel like you're almost a spectator at your own show?

Yeah, sometimes it feels like that to a certain extent. But because I'm doing vocals, I get involved. I've done them so many times that I get bored of them too. A lot of bands I've met suffer from the same thing—when they're onstage singing or playing their instrument for 15 songs or whatever. They find it boring too. You go into autopilot sometimes and you come out of it and realize you've lost yourself. It's quite scary when you go "Fuck, where am I in this song? Fuck, where am I anyway?" It's quite weird.

If you wanted to, you could set up the tunes to have improvised elements.

We can to a certain extent, but it's difficult. Most of the improvisation is done between the gigs. We change a lot of the tracks in rehearsals. I told the guys "I'm so fucking bored of 'Karmacoma' that I wanna change it." So we put new parts in it—a new intro, new middle section and a few new lyrics. And it's still fucking boring! But it sort of spices up the boredom a little bit. [laughs]

What about the differences in crowds from night to night? Can that spice it up too?

Not really, because you can always divide the audience into three groups: ecstasy, alcohol and fucking spliff. [laughs] The spliffheads are the ones nodding, the e-heads are fucking losing it and the drunkards like me are wearing silly grins on their faces.

The tension between the three of you during the making of Mezzanine was immense, but you ultimately got your way.

Yeah, it was more my direction on this record. It's difficult for me to say.

How were you able to assert yourself over the other two?

By being stubborn, throwing tantrums—the usual fucking childish behavior. [laughs] I think it's also because I spent a lot of time in the studio stressing myself about things—about tracks, ideas and trying to get off the beaten path a bit. I always said it was for the greater good of the fucking project because if this album was a bit different from the last two, the next one would be even freer to be whatever it wants to be. And after the last album and the other bands that have come out since us in and around Bristol, I didn't want to feel the fucking net closing in on us as if we had to be what we were and be that defined. I don't want people expecting a certain sound from us because we are what we are, or because of where we come from or whatever.

Is that why Mezzanine has fewer hip-hop and soul elements than previous Massive Attack records?

I think if it had been more hip-hop and soul it would have died. I feel Protection was more what Mushroom's into—it’s a bit more hip-hop, soulful, and R&B-oriented in places. I think that was fine because it was a completely different record than Blue Lines. It was about where we were then, but I think we would have fenced ourselves in entirely by doing the same thing again. I think we wouldn’t have been true to ourselves—it wouldn't have been reflective of all of us. That would have been a problem for me and probably a problem for 'G. We took the live music back in the studio and vice-versa. It would have been difficult to go out live and develop ourselves as a band and tour the world if we hadn't done what we did. It would have been something sad like Soul II Soul where you repeat your formula and it uses itself up and you dwindle your resources. I feel we've succeeded in avoiding that because we've turned a few people off and turned a lot of people on who weren't into it before. We've also kept a lot of people interested who sort of waited for it. And to a certain extent, we kept ourselves interested in the studio even though we rowed about a lot.

You appear to have emerged as the de facto leader of the group. Is that the case?

It wasn't my intention. It was just getting into the studio and working on tracks and it was obvious what was working and what wasn't. I think 'G understood that and Mushroom understood it too, but it pissed him off. But Mushroom would bring tracks in that really weren't gonna work with the rest of the album in context and that was difficult. I was the only one at the particular time that had a vision of how this album could sound as a whole. Everyone else had fragmented ideas and that's good sometimes and dangerous other times. We'd been fucking around for a long time and it was about time to finish the album. It wasn't fucking easy. It was painful—the arguments and everything else. But it had to be done, otherwise we'd still be fucking around now discussing what kind of album we're gonna do.

Describe the strengths and weaknesses of Mushroom and Daddy G as collaborators.

The problem is, it's very subjective, especially without going into personalities because we all hate each other's personalities in certain ways because we've lived with each other for fucking years. There are things we've hated about each other which have been there for a long time which is like any relationship. But if I'm going to get very subjective, I have to say that I'm very much into change. I get bored of things very quickly—bored of ideas and bored of doing the same thing. I think Mushroom is into doing the same thing. I think he likes what he does—a particular way of making music, a particular sound and that's the difference between us. I like to keep reinventing it. I don't know if that's a strength or weakness. I think Grant sits on the fence sometimes. He sits on it too much. He'll take the easy way out every time.

Could Massive Attack continue as a duo if one of you left?

I can't answer that question. I dunno. I'll take the fifth on that. It depends on the duo and what was happening at the time. It's not a surreal idea though. It's not an abstract sort of question. But Massive Attack has a pull for all of us. I think it has something that connects us. And even though we've outgrown each other as people in a certain way and our ideas have outgrown each other, there's something in the middle—maybe a comfort zone where we all work together and live together and it supports us at one level as a creative thing. We all have a respect for each other—sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy. There are a lot of repressed issues about where it's going and what it's about and they've got to come out soon. We'll see what happens, but the bottom line is we do have a respect for each other. We have integrity and creativity and respect each other's personalities even through they're difficult and we hate each other for the same reasons. It's such an average fucking situation. It's like any marriage.

Do you believe one has to suffer to create great art?

Mushroom disagrees. He thinks making music should be simple—you do this, you do that and you get what you want out of it. I don’t see it that way. I think if you want to do something different, you have to take yourself out of a comfortable area and feel exposed. Sometimes you're embarrassed or ashamed of the things you've tried out because in your mind they might not have been honest or they might have been for a ridiculous reason or the wrong reason. But when you deal with that, you find the right things. If you work in the same area the same way, then it's gonna be easier all the time. You comfort yourself in your joys. I'd rather use hobbies to comfort myself like football, drinking and sex.

Drinking and sex? You must hang out at some interesting hobby shops.

[laughs] I didn't mean to say sex as a hobby! As I said that I tried to pull it back! You know, it's as opposed to music. I don’t consider music a hobby. Every now and then you get wicked fucking joy and satisfaction out of it. You can even be surprised at something that’s happened. Sometimes you go to the studio one day and come out with a track. You could have gone to the pub instead. But you wake up the next morning and you put on the tape and you go "Fuck me! That was last night and the only reason it exists is because I couldn't be fucked to go out." Other times, you spend three days in the studio and get fucking nothing. You play it back and it's just fucking bollocks and you rip it out of the machine and say "This is shit!" and have a complete fucking bout of self pity and self doubt. I think that’s part of the process. I can't see how it can all be fun. I don’t think it's real if it is.

Can you read music or play a conventional instrument?

Not really, no. That's the beauty of it. Everything I've ever done—painting, music, writing—has always been untrained and uneducated. It's been about finding books, art, images and parts of the world you like by yourself. I don't think it’s a necessity at all for most bands. But for us, it's much more about ideas and imagination—that's why it's not a conventional structure. Massive Attack was always an idea. No matter what happens in the future, we will continue to make music in one shape or another. And it'll be driven by the same thing— what's happening in our heads.

How do you go about planning and structuring a piece without traditional notation?

I think you can write a song on paper, describe the sounds and plan the track out and the arrangement without actually writing music. I do it as a set of images, drawings, arrows and lists—just like shopping lists. A list might go “This is how the track starts. Then it does this. Then it does that.” Then, maybe some sort of sound described in brackets is listed next. Then the sort of bass line I want going through it is described. And then I'll get into the studio eventually and I'll have a loop or I operate a sequencer and write beats, bass lines and music electronically. Then I'll go "Yes" or "No" or "Here's something out of the blue" and then force things into place. It all happens naturally, but more often than not, it's difficult because you lose a lot in the translation along the way—that's the most painful bit. The original idea changes shape. It's a lot like what you do when painting. You start the painting with a clear vision, a sketch and a set of colors and halfway through it becomes something completely different. You think "Well, I'll belligerently go forward and start fucking with the shapes and colors and make it into what it's gonna be because I know it'll become this. Or do I let it be what it is now and leave it? Or do I go off and take it in another direction?" And then you start mixing the track. The possibilities are endless.

In terms of describing it to someone else, it's a completely difficult matter. If I want our guitarist Angelo Bruschini to play a part, I have to sing it to him, and he'll do something completely different. Then I'll go "No, it's like this" and sing it again. I might also play a bit of music which will give him an idea of where I'm trying to go. We get there eventually.

Do you consider yourself a singer?

My range has an eight octave whisper and that's it. That's all I can do! [laughs] I can sing a melody to Angelo, but I wouldn't go out there and sing. I'm a vocalist. I don't like calling it rap either, because I don't think it's relevant.

“Inertia Creeps” from the new album is unlike anything the group has done before, particularly with its world music influences. Tell me how it came together.

It’s about a fucked up relationship I had been going through. It's about being in a situation but knowing you should be out of it, but you're too fucking lazy or weak to leave. And you're dishonest to yourself and dishonest to the other person. You're betraying them everyday and the whole scene feels like it's closing in on you. The idea is a combination of movements propelling yourself forward and pulling yourself back at the same time.

The music came from nights out in Istanbul. There's some mad music there at some belly dancing shows which are pretty embarrassingly tourist-orientated. But the music was really fucking cool. I got some tapes and I was in the studio when we were working on this music. Mushroom came in and I was fucking really bitching and beat as shit and I said "I got this fucking wicked beat I heard from this fucking tape" and we started writing this new beat from it and so it was really cool. It was one of those good days in the studio when everyone was on the same fucking vibe.

Bristol seems to have successfully transcended its flavor-of-the-week status and established itself as a long-term musical hotspot.

It's a family thing and it's all fucking good. Everything is about being hopeful and promising. No-one's got in each other's way. Everyone is being helpful and supportive. But I know A&R people who came down to Bristol after Protection, Portishead's Dummy and Tricky's Maxinquaye—they all came flocking and signed a few bands and said "This is our label's Massive Attack or Radiohead or Verve" and all that shit, even though it's not real. They came down and they fucked up.

The only consistent element in the group beyond the trio is Horace Andy. He's almost the fourth member of Massive Attack.

I think that's safe to say, without a doubt. Horace Andy, sweet like candy. [laughs] It would be hard to imagine us working on an album without him. It would be hard to imagine us going on tour without him too. But then again working with everyone here—the band quote, unquote—I can't imagine doing it with anyone else. We've established such good relationships over the last four years that it would be hard working in any other situation.

Horace is the biggest kid you've ever met and I mean that in the best possible way. That's why he's still very creative and so open-minded as opposed to saying "I only do reggae." He's into experimenting and that's the great thing about keeping your brain alert, young and naïve to a certain extent. You know, one of the reasons we three argue all the time is because we're childish. We're all fucking kids which is probably why we're so dysfunctional at home after going on tour in this fucking playground.

What do you make of the fact that Massive Attack’s audience is predominantly white, despite all of the group’s hip-hop and soul influences?

To be honest, I've never noticed it because it wasn't an issue being in Bristol. When we started, it wasn't an issue. The reggae thing was more black and the white people were on the periphery of it. But the hip-hop thing brought a lot of white and black people together in most of the U.K. cities. It was quite an important part of the process during the early ‘80s. It really did change quite a lot of things like how clubs were laid out and what kind of people went to what places. People started co-mingling in places you wouldn't expect them to. But I think when we did our first sound systems, it was still predominantly white—definitely at the club we used to play in which was The Dugout in Clifton. It was a mixed crowd, but a bit more white. Our crowds have always been a bit more white. Having said that, when we played New York on this tour, I was surprised there were a lot more black people in the audience than had been in any other place in States. It was good—it was really good. I remember thinking "Fuck me! There was a really good mixed crowd there!" as opposed to a white Boston crowd.

Some have suggested that acts like Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky offer a safe version of hip-hop that allows white audiences to buy into the genre without having to identify or understand the charged racial undercurrents of the music. What do you think?

I think the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy did that more. They brought a lot of white people into the rap scene without having to understand the black culture of New York or L.A. or any of the other cities which weren't so obviously televised. I think for us in the U.K. and Europe, we brought in more rock and jazz people and others from outside the world of hip-hop and techno who were slightly too scared to touch it. Portishead definitely crossed over the first into the indie market big time. That was a big surprise for them as well as everyone else. I think the problem isn't so much with hip-hop, but R&B in the States, which is becoming very generic and suburban. It doesn't seem like it's coming from L.A. and New York anymore. All the excitement and chaos seems to have left it. It seems to be very simple and straightforward now—almost churned out to feed the masses. It seems to be entirely targeted at the same audience as white rock and country music and there's not a lot of change at the moment. It's very near MOR. I think that's what put a lot of people off hip-hop in the U.K. and Europe to a certain extent. It suddenly started to look uninteresting and not dangerous.

How do you envision the future unfolding for the group?

The next album will be ready when it's right. We'll go into our process which makes it easier to write as individuals as opposed to trying to sit in a room together and fuck each other's ideas up all day by going in completely different directions. I think we'll write alone and bring all the ideas together and see how they correspond and feel together vibe-wise. We’ll see what story they tell or don't tell. That would be cool and an easier way of writing rather than forcing ourselves on each other in the studio. That's what we tried to do at the beginning of Mezzanine and Protection. Blue Lines was a new experience and we didn’t know each other in that way. But now we know how fucking bad it can be. Things will start to combine or we'll fucking pull apart. Either way we'll get an album out of it. It's better to just be honest and treat the next album in a very straightforward way, even if it’s a self-possessed way—for the group therapy of everyone.

 

Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles

It's been six months since Mezzanine came out. How are its tracks holding up for you?

They're holding up good. It’s been going quite well. We’ve been touring most of the time since it was released. It’s the best way of doing things but we’re getting slightly fed up with it now. But we’ve got to keep doing it until the tour’s over.

Is there any room in the songs to improvise to keep them interesting?

You can’t really keep it interesting, no. You just play the same thing and do your best really. There’s not much room for improvising because there are a lot of samples put into it. Only the bassist and guitarist can improvise over it really. I don’t think we’d want to do that much anyway. We like to keep it tight and smart.

Have you had any kind of life since the album came out?

[laughs] Only this really. But you learn to live your life alongside it.

Mezzanine has sold 170,000 copies in the States since its release. Blue Lines and Protection have each done 140,000 here since they were released years ago. Are you pleased with the progression?

I guess we’re kind of pleased, yeah. It’s good to sort of spread the word around, you know. It don’t really matter though. We just want to make music for ourselves. How far it up the charts it goes doesn’t really matter. The acceptance doesn’t matter at the end of the day.

The disagreements between you three during the making of the record have been well-documented. But if you could have it entirely your way, how would it have sounded?

It would have been more soul-orientated—more like Blue Lines. It would have been much more of a black-sounding album with hip-hop influences too. It came out kinda rocky. That was from 'D who is quite rock and punk-oriented.

Can you be more specific about the soul and hip-hop sounds you would have preferred to hear?

Not your cliched stuff. Pretty advanced stuff. It’s hard to describe music that’s new sounding. You have to hear it really.

Is Mezzanine a new-sounding record?

Yeah. It’s new to us and that’s all that matters.

With these three clashing personalities, how were you able to come to consensus on what the final disc sounded like?

It’s the record company that decided in the end. They said "Enough’s enough. You’ve got to put the record out now." It just got done, really. We just write the music and choose the tracks and certain tracks made it through and some didn’t.

Describe the strengths and weaknesses of 3D and Daddy G as collaborators.

[laughs] I don’t like doing that, really. I’d rather leave that alone. I don’t like to talk about it—about people and stuff. It’s just not a nice thing to do.

Your approach to writing evolved out of DJ culture. But I’m curious if you have any background with traditional instruments?

I've always played a bit of the drums since school and now I program a lot of beats. I also play a bit of keyboards, but DJ-ing is my main thing. It's quite a natural progression to go from being a DJ to being a musician, like Funk Master Flex. If you’re into music as a DJ and a great buyer and listener of music, you’re going to want to make music yourself someday. I guess if you make music, you’re a musician.

You’re onstage less than half the time. You're almost a spectator at your own concert.

I like that. [laughs] I think it’s good to just sit back and watch what’s going on. I kinda think it’s a bit different as well. Everyone’s coming on and off stage. It’s like the sound systems we used to do with MCs and DJs coming on and off all the time.

Do you see yourselves as modern day Duke Ellingtons or Count Basies—acting more as directors than performers?

Yeah, could be. We direct the way it goes.

Do listen to any jazz?

Personally, yeah. Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, Roy Ayers, and a lot of obscure stuff too. A lot of ‘70s stuff like Eric Gales, Passport, Azymuth, and Spyro Gyra. All of it I'm into. When I hear it or see it in the shops, I buy it. All the spin-off bands too, like Isotope.

To me, Massive Attack is predominantly about taking hip-hop and soul in new directions. So, does it surprise you that the band draws a predominantly white audience?

It doesn't surprise me, but I don't like it, you know. Personally, I don't like it at all. But I guess it's just because of the way the record is marketed. Also, the segregation you get in music in this country and various countries—actually, every country, in fact—plays a role. There is white music and there is black music and there are only the odd few songs that will cross over into different worlds.

What do you perceive as the roots of the musical segregation?

It’s a bit of both: marketing and identities. I think in America, people don't venture out of their own world really. You won't get so many black people listening to Mike Oldfield, Cream and The Beatles or something as you maybe would in England. But England is much more white than this country is. It's maybe two-percent black people. And in England there are no black radio stations, which is pretty messed up. But at least in the States, there’s support for each community whether it's white or black. Each community has its own radio stations, its own media and its own magazines. It’s segregated, but at least there’s strong support for identities. There is a good, strong underground scene for black music in England, but no support for it on the surface. It’s a sad country in that way and you get all these shite people like All Saints ripping black people off. This sort of white girl band doing songs like "Booty Call?" It’s fucking pathetic! [laughs] I personally don’t like it, the music business there.

Any thoughts on how turntablism has evolved into high art in the last few years?

I think it’s cool. I know Pogo from England. He and Swift are some of the all-time masters. I grew up with them in the hip-hop scene, when Cash Money first came to England and all that scratching came to the front. I think it’s good, all of that—turntablism, yeah.

The RIAA is now clamping down on DJs that put out mixtapes. They’re treating these DJs as criminals. What do you make of that?

They're coming down on the mixtapes now? That's pretty wild, this publishing stuff. It's sad in a way. It's like samples as well, really. I sample myself and I do think that it's good to sample and make a mixtape. But on the other hand, you are taking someone else’s piece of music. We've been in legal battles with Isaac Hayes, and now John McLaughlin over samples.

John McLaughlin? The jazz guitarist?

Yeah, from Mahavishnu Orchestra. He reckons we infringed on his copyright by taking "Hey, hey, hey" for "Unfinished Sympathy" which I think is really stupid. But if you sample people for a four- or eight-bar section, it's fair to pay up money to the original artist. I guess it's the extent of what you take it to, really. The mixtape thing—you are using a complete record. It’s another artist's piece of music and you’re making money from it. I've got nothing against that though, unless the mixtapes become number one hits.

Massive Attack recently started its own label called Melankolic. What sort of advice do you give new signings like Lewis Parker or Craig Armstrong?

None, really. We tell them we like their music and tell them to get on with it.

Do you shield them from the nonsense of the record industry?

Not really, because the industry is the industry, you know? Melankolic has to deal with Virgin at the end of the day.

How involved does Virgin get in the musical side of things at Melankolic?

They’ll listen to the music and give their advice about what they think about the music, but they’ve put us onboard as glorified A&R men, so I think they just sort of trust us a little bit. They’ve made no major suggestions that really affect the artists, but they tried to shut us down once and said we’re signing too many acts. We wouldn’t have it.

It sounds like Massive Attack has some good leverage with Virgin. Few major label acts can say "we wouldn’t have it" in the face of corporate directives.

We can, yeah. They've never sort of tried to control us. We've always told them to "Shut up, keep your head down and let us do what we've got to do," which makes them a good company. I think that's what Virgin was originally built on—off-the-wall kinds of music, things like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. So, they've always kind of had that easygoing thing. They went a bit off with the Spice Girls though. [laughs]

A lot of people point to Blue Lines as being a pioneering record. Do you think it’s worthy of the praise it's received?

I don't know. We made it for ourselves, not to get praise. It's a bit of an ego thing to say. I guess it's a cool record, but I praise it because it pleases me. I don't ask for any praise from the outside. We don't make any albums for listeners and buyers—they're just for us.

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Massive Attack