Archive: Massive Attack
An interview from the back pages with Massive Attack
Massive Attack are coming back to town. They play Dublin’s Olympia on January 19th and there’s even talk about new music and some sort of follow-up to 2010′s “Heligoland”. In terms of keeping you waiting for new music, this Bristol crew are in a world of their own. I’ve interviewed the band a couple of times in the past and here’s one from June 1997. They were due to play Dublin’s RDS supporting Radiohead and I caught up with them in a London studio as they worked on the album that would eventually become “Mezzanine”.
Massive Attack are in the house. It’s October 1995 and the Point is full to capacity. Thousands of limbs moving in slow motion delight. Dub floating from one speaker and then the other. The deepest bassline in the world shuddering. Some warped and wicked samples courtesy of a shadowy figure at the back of the stage. Two other figures chattering into mics frontstage before Horace Andy reveals the sweetest voice in the world. It’s “Hymn Of The Big Wheel”. For one night only, Dublin and the Massive Attack sound system are at one.
Massive Attack are in the house. It’s June 1997 and it’s oh so quiet in this chilled studio. In one room, someone is tweaking some drum loops. In another room, the Massive Attack trio are taking a break. Daddy G is striding around with a bowl of strawberries, Mushroom is glued to his PC, making out with Sim-City (“I’ve just built the Bronx – do you think I need a police station?”), and 3D is suggesting that we head to the pub on the corner. “You want to know what’s been going on? We may be some time.”
That Massive Attack performance at the Point was supposed to be one of the shows marking the end of their monster tour to promote “Protection”. But they kept going for another nine months, making a return Irish trip to Cork last summer, before bringing it to a close at last July’s Phoenix Festival. It was something of a triumph for Massive Attack, a tour which took them far from their sound system roots. Then, it was time to start work on the next album.
There were, of course, certain standards to maintain. “Blue Lines” and “Protection” are two of the albums which define this decade in musical terms, two albums which catapulted the Wild Bunch from DJs and slackers to creators of a new genre and sound. Not only that, but who would come on board to emulate Tracey Thorn, Shara Nelson, Nicolette? Naturally, many rumours circulated before white smoke was spotted over Bristol.
However, this smoke doesn’t indicate that the album is finished, as 3D explains with a grin. “We are in the middle of recording the album but now, we’re heading off on a tour, breaking the whole momentum of what we’re doing. In some people’s eyes, it’s madness but we had planned this tour last year because we thought we’d have the album finished and ready to go in September. Now, it’s gonna be early next year. In some ways, it’s a blessing because you’ve so many other albums coming out that we would have been swamped.”
With their own studio to work from, Massive Attack have been as unorthodox as ever this time around. “As we’ve been going along recording this album, we’ve been reinventing the tracks over and over again. Because you listen to the tracks a lot, you get bored with them and mess around with them and do this and that to them. You get better ideas and try a few things out, change the track completely. Then you hear the original again and think, yeah that was great, why did we change it?”
In many interviews during the course of the “Protection” tour, the talk was of a punk rock album to come. “That was a tease that some people took literally. What we meant was tha some of the samples we would be using would be new wave. And we’ve used The Cure Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Jam, all sorts of stuff.
“With us, it’s about going through eras. When we did “Blue Lines”, it was about the stuff we would play on our sound system, hiphop, reggae, soul. With “Protection”, it became a bit ethereal, very electronic and more sublime. Now, it’s let’s throw this in and let’s throw that in and see what happens. It has gelled by accident or by force. It’s very raw.”
So where does he see the new album sitting? “It’s difficult to predict. When we dropped “Blue Lines”, that whole Happy Mondays and Stone Roses thing was going on and it was just pure techno in the clubs. Then we came alone with this really slow, dubby album. When “Protection” came out, the whole Britpop thing was going on. Now there’s a huge rock/pop theme in the charts and drum’n'bass taking off and techno splintering into a million and one different sounds. It will drop somewhere in the middle – another difficult bugger album from us.” He laughs. “It’s not obvious.
There have been also been two new arrivals at the Massive school for divas. “A new vocalist called Sarah has been working with us on a couple of tracks. She’ll be playing live with us. She’s on a track called “Wire” which won’t be on the album but will be on a sound track to a film called Welcome To Sarajevo. The title of the track sums up the whole communication thing between a wartorn country and safe European homes. We’ve also hooked up with Liz Fraser from The Cocteau Twins and we’ve Horace Andy on board again. As always, mad bits and pieces going on.”
Many cite the timelessness of the Massive Attack catalogue as one of their most alluring qualities. 3D agrees. “The here and now doesn’t have that much of an effect on us. You get echoes of various times but it doesn’t sit wholly in one or the other. What’s important to us is the pace, the weight of the bass and the mood. That’s what we’re about so that’s what you will get.”
One area 3D sees as ripe for some Massive Attack style is that of soundtracks. “There are two film things we’re involved in at the moment. One is a Kevin Reynolds film with Samuel L. Jackson about a school teacher and the whole film was edited to “Spying Glass”. The other thing we are meant to be getting involved with is The Day Of The Jackal with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere.
“We gets tons of offers and it does lead to rows with the record company when tracks are put into really dreadful films. You’re watching something on Sky and suddenly, you hear “Protection” and you’re sitting there going `what? How did that happen?’ Or when “Spying Glass” turned up on an album of music inspired by the film Mission: Impossible. We were like ‘what do you mean, surely it should be the other way around?’”
Of course, there are other things on the agenda besides soundtracks: playing with Radiohead (a collaboration which may see some future Massive Attack remixes of The Tourist from the OK Computer album) and signing acts for their Melankolic label.
Yet there are priorities. “We have to get this album finished and go out to promote it.” That will be something 3D relishes, though not for the usual reasons.
“Touring is great because it makes you sheep like. All you have to do is to turn up at the turnstile and get let in. You don’t have to make decisions. Once you’re sure someone is feeding the cat and that the burglar alarm is on, you’re ready to go off and do it. You step out of line, you get a hangover, you get a slap, you get back in line and you just do it all over again. After a while, it is really hard to deprogramme yourself. And you do get post tour blues when you wake up in the morning and there’s no one there to tell you what to do and you have to make your own mind up.”
Heading back towards the studio, the request from The Irish Times to hear some new tracks gets the nod. The four tunes which are played back are intense and full on, basslines battling with guitars while, the trademark slo-mo beats create the perfect, backdrop for 3D and Daddy G’s dark and eerie raps. Horace Andy, meanwhile, has never sounded so alien. It’s sounding good.