Shipshape & Bristol Fashion: Massive Attack Interviewed
, February 10th, 2010 12:21
Forget Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture. Massive Attack are the true heirs of post-punk says John Robb
Operating way, way beyond the conventions and constrictions of normal bands, Massive Attack have just released their fifth album Heligoland. It’s another great example of their highly original musical landscape - a truly experimental record that utilises the best ideas to come from post-punk, hip-hop and dub to create a whole new soundscape that they endlessly re-edit and push further, yet still manages to get to number one.
The album sees them in a darker, stripped-down place that takes you on a melancholic, very British journey with an imaginative utilisation of studio technology and inspired choices of guest vocalists. It sounds like it was made by people steeped in maverick musical history, who cut and paste the past to create a future.
Where does this stuff come from? How did we end up with such a unque outfit?
Tony Wilson once famously claimed that Manchester had the best record collections. It was a truism, but maybe he hadn’t considered Massive Attack and the Bristol crews. The city has an incredibly diverse music tradition, a perfect fusion of black and white music that was too neatly filed under the lamest of terms, ‘trip hop’ - a clumsy handle that went nowhere near capturing the diversity of the music that came out of the city.
It’s a tradition that arguably starts with The Pop Group, who mashed up James Brown and the fury of punk into some astonishing releases, but it also had a mental punk scene of cider punk bands that Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja was very much part of in his youth.
Robert, along with Grantley "Grant" Marshall (a.k.a. Daddy G or "G"), forms the heart and soul of Massive Attack - an amorphous blob of a band who grew out of one of the early UK sound systems and whose shape shifting is the key to their sound as Robert explains.
"When we stared doing the Wild Bunch sound system the power moved from gigs to warehouse party scenarios. I guess there was so much music and bands in the late 70s that people may have wanted something different. So we put on whole nights, it was like a social event with great music," he says.
Wild Bunch made their name with their eclectic tunes that went from punk to soul to reggae. The crew was augmented by Nellee Hooper, DJ Millo and occasionally Tricky. Slowing the beats down, they were the grounding for the whole Massive Attack ethos.
Initially 3D was one of the cider punks knocking around in Bristol who would quickly find himself equally at home in the punk scene, the reggae blues clubs and the funk nights that were dotted around the city centre - a very British eighties city centre youth experience that has flavoured the band’s multi musical approach since then.
Massive Attack are somehow a combination of all this and more, filtered through hip-hop, the music that really turned Robert’s head after punk. The band have become perennials in the UK, releasing highly polished tracks that are challenging without being in your face and somehow never repeating themselves in a 20 year career that has seen arguments, fallouts, and great music.
Heligoland sees them even more far out than ever. This is boundary music as original as any weirdly named outside genre, and as challenging as any noisenik and yet subversively commercial. They manage that rare trick of taking the abrasive and disconcerting, and turning it into something that sells millions and makes musical sense to most people.
The Quietus caught up with Robert whilst he was in Newport working on the LED light screen that the band use so effectively for their live show.
"I’ve been here a couple of days working on ideas for the LED screen," he says. "It's a great message board for slogans and also for picking stuff up from newspapers playing it back to people. When you scan the news everything jungled. Watch Sky news for half an hour - there is so much information blasted into your head. Our heads are so bombarded with that stuff, our opinions and decisions are informed by this stuff. A lot of the time we never get to the end of the puzzle. The LED screens are a way of dismantling the puzzle in front of your eyes."
This multi-media approach was something people toyed with in the post punk period, whether it was The Clash with their banks of TVs on the stage or Cabaret Voltaire hiding behind a mashed up multi media firestorm. It's another example of Massive Attack fulfilling the promise of a long lost experimental time.
Even if huge LED screens and stark soundscapes seem a long way from the skinny kid into cider punk in Bristol, it somehow all joins together.
"Punk evolved in so many different ways but I always keep in touch with the original punk scene in Bristol and bands like Chaos UK because I knew them back in the day. In the punk days we would spend Saturday afternoons hanging round Virgin Records in Bristol and a few pubs in town like the Crown or the Old Market. Then there was the Dugout club. That was where punks would congregate and get into scraps and get chased by skinheads, mods and Chelsea footy fans who were raiding the town that afternoon. I remember the Sid Vicious anniversary march where we were legging it through Debenhams!
"There was also a big glue scene in Bristol that was my first experimentation with mind-altering substances. Evo stick - not as glamorous as the acid in the 60s!
"We used to go to Bixies cider mill on Hopewell road, which was like a proper old barn that would sell this stuff called Old Cripple Crock Cider which was like scrumpy and we would buy it in big plastic gallons and take that back to Castle Green and plough into all afternoon. I was done in by eight or nine after that stuff and would have to go to bed."
The scrumpy nights didn’t kill all his brain cells though. He was still alert enough to move from punk into post-punk and into the multi varied forms of new music that were taking advantage of a tear in the musical fabric.
Massive Attack have taken that spirit of post-punk and run with it. The period was fascinating in that it was a reconstruction of music in a new framework after the deconstruction of punk. Out of the ashes of punk there were new ideas competing with fragments of old musics. Robert was thrilled by these times.
"For me this was a crucial period and also for G. That whole post punk period was an amazing time to be a music fan growing up. Music was in a transitional stage from 1978 to ‘82 and you had a mental amount of music from both sides of the Atlantic. My record collection was so schizophrenic. It went from post-punk to reggae music.
"PiL were a major influence on me with what they went for on Metal Box, and The Clash were really important as well. Electronic music seeped into everything as well and there was the German groups like Cluster and Kraftwerk, but it was only when hip-hop come from over from the Atlantic that it really defined that sort of music for me."
This was the spirit of the time. This searching. An endless hunt for ideas with an open mind that contrasted so much with the general idea of the negativity of the period. The punk generation were on an endless quest for new sounds and ideas that were still fused with the spirit of adventure that they had been sparked with punk. As long as the music wasn’t boring old rock music it was worth a listen. Saturday afternoons were spent dredging record shops for long lost crackling vinyl or tracking down the latest post-punk release. The debate was intense and the soundtrack thrilling.
Already alternative, it didn’t take long for Robert to find sanctuary in the various black music clubs on the other side of town.
"In St Pauls there were great clubs. There was already a strong reggae and punk scene in town, and in places like the Western Star Domino club and the Granary there was a strong mix of punk and reggae. The Dugout club was open every night of the week with a different DJ playing different styles of music like funk and soul on a Wednesday and then reggae on Thursday. I would go every night and hear all styles of music. Then people would go onto blues clubs like the Ajax which were in these really hard to find cellars and went on all night. They're are all gone now. They were Speakeasy style places - little doors on the side street. If you didn’t know it was there you would never find it, this place I remember was next door to the Sea Shepherd recruiting agency."
The blues clubs were in all the British city centres. Reggae as the backdrop, strong weed in the air, a mix of sharp West Indians, white renegades, prostitutes and criminals rocking through the night in dank cellars or boarded up houses. They were still around in the early 90s but have gradually disappeared over the years.
The people that really got punk were also getting Krautrock, were deeply into dub and were seeking out all the great music from the past that exists beyond the mainstream. The attitude to creating music was adventurous and the DIY attitude was inspiring, but it took hip-hop to really focus Robert.
The idea that the non-musician could create incredibly complex pieces of music by cutting and pasting past musics was thrilling. It was also something that the collage culture of punk had hinted at.
Only this time you didn’t have to bother with guitars.
Hip-hop in the UK was a crooked revolution. Instead of one massive obvious wave it infiltrated in fits and starts. From break dancing to graffiti to clothes, it gradually took over but in the mid 80s it was a cultish scene and its energy, like punk, could be utilised in so many different ways.
"I think the main thing about hip-hop was that it was so underground when it came out. You only found out about it in specialist magazines. There was no internet, just hip-hop sections in magazines," says Rob.
"I remember hearing the Clash’s ‘Radio Clash’ with Futura 5000 and all the breakdancing in the video and thinking what the fuck is going on? And from that I started my search.
"The Pistols said the subculture of punk was dead after 6 months and that it had became a uniform, but for me that uniform was important as it separated me from the parts of society that didn’t really understand. Hip-hop came and merged with that and took over. The idea of the sound system was around as well - build your event, your own show - that was the same kind of attitude. None of us had money or were musicians or had any instruments, so we couldn’t put on concerts but we could put on sound systems and get some booze and lights and put on events in a very DIY fashion."
Massive Attack were born out of the Sound System. The multi- media show, the various vocalists, their seamless mashing of musical styles: it's all from those sound system days. The booming PA’s cranked to bass heavy overload were born out of the Jamaican DJ battles and parties of the seventies and had been transported over to the UK and were now being mixed up with a hip-hop sensibility. Massive Attack were bang in the centre of the multi-racial melting pot of inner city Bristol.
And you can still hear that fusion on Heligoland which is a further distillation of Massive Attacks’ fusion of black and white musics in a very English way. The band have become the perfect synthesis of these great waves of music that have affected the UK in the past two decades. Bristol was the perfect city for this synthesis - big enough to have the right communities to create the space for the underground musics and small enough for the scenes to overlap.
"Bristol is a small city, and most of the city centre was out of bounds. Go down town on a Saturday night and you would be taking life into your own hands because it was a battleground. The fashion then on the street was the floppy fringe and baggy trousers boys with the kung fu slippers look. Everyone was into karate and kung fu cinema at the time and they had nunchucks and shit like that and when you went into town it was a proper scrap. Bristol was rough on a Saturday night. If you looked at all alternative you would get your head kicked in! In those days you wore everything on your sleeve - walking home from school with dyed hair and a skinny tie was running the gauntlet. You might not have got attacked but there was lots of banter. I remember walking into Bristol one afternoon at the time and all these lads were chanting ‘Channel 4’ over and over at me in a menacing manner!"
Bristol, though, already had a history of musical mavericks, people out there on the frontiers of all the scenes, searching and colliding different musical attitudes. The mainman was Pop Group frontman Mark Stewart, a firebrand ball of wide boy energy who had hitched back and forth to London in early 1976 getting hip to the nascent punk scene before setting out on the punk- funk-dub trip before nearly anyone else. Stewart is a key figure in this history and it was quite fitting that he would be around for the sessions of the new Masive album. Like Massive Attack, has never stopped moving - a restless musical figure whose quest for new sounds matches his fellow Bristolian’s hunger.
"Mark came down the studio and brought Keith Levene to meet us. Both of them were great. It was typical of Mark to bring Keith down. Mark likes getting different people in the room. He’s very much an octopus figure - a connector - he’s altruistic like that. It’s not for his own benefit or to get a percentage. He's fascinated by people’s energy. Mark was on a mission! I didn’t know Mark from back in the day. I had met him briefly through Nellee Hooper and bands like Mouth and Rip Rig And Panic. It was all very much a Bristol thing. Anyway we got Keith to play and he was great, timeless. His stories were great as well.
"Keith Levene sounded like Keith Levene. I’ve got brilliant footage of him playing. Serious. His body language, his attitude - it’s absolutely timeless. He’s been doing lot of own tunes. He's another one like Mark, he’s into everything new and electronic. He’s very underground, similar to Mark; both of them are not about their history, they were talking about new stuff, about kids programming stuff in their bedrooms. That was what was really driving them instead of having both feet in their past."
Massive Attack’s creative process is, of course, very different from normal bands. Their method of construction underlines their frontiership. It’s a method they have honed down perfectly on Heligoland - the cut ups, the collages of sound, the loops, the breakbeats.
"We were never conventional musicians. We never had roles to play. We always collaborated with different people picking up the mic like in the reggae and the hip-hop sense. All those reggae records with four different versions and four different vocalists was the model for us. People may cynically think that because we did it once and had a hit that it’s become a recipe for success, but to be honest we do it because it’s the only way we know how to work. When we write songs we are not sat round the piano and writing songs like a band. The creative process is much more random than that. Writing might be reprogramming, it might be a loop, it maybe an idea in your head. It could be a bass line or our drummer may work up a beat. A lot of it you pick up and put it down. Some days you will try and finish it but it’s rare to get them finished that day. There’s lots of messing around having a laugh and after a while you notice you’ve got something that works and then it starts to really work."
Their trump card is the use of idiosyncratic vocalists. The cleverly thought out choice of singers add distinct flavours to the grooves. Guests on Heligoland include Horace Andy Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, Hope Sandoval of Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Guy Garvey of Elbow and Martina Topley-Bird.
The singers could either be the obvious person suggested by the feel of the track or the least likely, jarring the track into another place.
"It’s a bit of both to be honest. Sometimes we think that the track could be great with that voice or maybe with Horace Andy who we have worked with on every album, the stuff we give him takes him to bizarre places musically. When Guy Garvey came down we played him loads of things. At first we played him some stuff that was more conventional thinking he might like the chord structure and rhythm of it. When we played him ‘Flat f The Blade’ with its ricocheting drums he really liked the sound of it. It’s pretty arrhythmic, really unmusical and he said he liked it! which was really bizarre, we never expected another artist would want to work with that but it obviously touched a nerve with him.
"Sometimes the guests are people we are lucky enough to bump into or we get introduced to or people get in touch like Mike Patton did and we did some stuff a few years ago which we have not finished yet. Aaron Neville we’ve not had the chance to work with yet but want to and there are people we would love to work with. Tom Waits I spoke to on the phone. We had that heard he was quite interested in what we were doing. We were half way though at that point and it didn’t quite work out. He’s got a great voice and, like all the vocalists we work with, it’s the personality that works for me.
"Sometimes we have lost faith in a track and someone comes in and says I like that and it works again. We have discarded a lot of stuff over the years. Ultimately it’s the chemistry of people. Damon Albarn works in an impulsive, spontaneous way. When the moment's passed, the moment's passed. With him it's not trawling through ideas to make them work. When we got to his studio we put ourselves in his headspace, which was good for us because it was a different way of working. It was not our normal Bristolian vortex."
The loose confederacy of talent built around the creative nucleus is a way of working that the crew took from hip-hop or the Jamaican studio system, and tempered it for the post acid house British mindset. It’s also become a way of working that many smarter musicians have adopted in the last few years breaking down the stifling and ultimately flawed group system. The aforementioned Gorillaz look to have adopted this way of working.
"Lots of bands we met over the years would say, 'Fuck this, we want to do what you do with this format'. When I met Damon with Tricky back in 1994 what you expected of him and Blur was the Britpop thing. But there was something different going on. He had a big interest in reggae, ska, hip-hop and African music and everyone knows that now with his current projects like the Gorillaz.
"But this is the way we have always worked. I would say that he was influenced by that maybe but that was kind of the hip-hop model as well. We looked at what hip-hop represented and how it operated and how you could build tracks and loops and build whole songs out of them - the anarchy of it and the DIY way of making music. The world of making a record when we started was quite difficult. It was an expensive and mysterious place with studios, mixing - the whole thing was different. Now you can do it all on your laptop at home. You don’t need a manager or a lawyer. You can put your music on a website and get people to come to it. The way it is now is like how we started making music with turntables cutting up tunes, extending breaks and putting ideas into samplers and creating whole instrumental passages from parts of records and putting lyrics on top. The stark minimal groove and putting an old beautiful song on top like ‘Look Of Love’, the Bacharach tune - inspired us and everyone else."
In 2010 Massive Attack have taken this idea and honed it down. Heligoland is the sound of a band moving way beyond the conventional and to soundscapes of their own.
Robert laughs and says: "There are a couple of conventional songs on it but we never wrote proper song with choruses. Our most successful song, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was written after we took the chorus out of it and put the orchestral parts in. I think what works is that the people’s voices and personalities are more important than the choruses with the person putting something even more intriguing into it."
And what Massive Attack create is a filmic place - a 3D workout of sounds and ideas.
"I did lot of film work in the last few years. Ironically it’s a very different process from writing songs. In film you write music to fill the scenes up to give the scenes a dynamic quality to create tension in the scenes whilst in music it was about taking stuff out to make it seem filmic. Soundtrack was interesting at first but it got harder because silence was the enemy of the distributors."
The stripped bare Massive Attack sound is perhaps an attempt to focus on reality. It’s almost the sound of the real world without all the bullshit and static.
"It’s the overload of sound I don’t like. The subtlety has been lost. Everything has multi layers in case the audience gets bored. There might be astounding, devastating news in the world but it still has a news bar underneath in case people get bored! It’s the same with cinema, it’s like the audience is too thick and they need permission to cry or laugh and the music is there to tell them when, it’s bizarre how its become like this and no one reacts against that..."
And this reaction is the crux to what makes Massive Attack so effective.