Robert: Hi, nice to meet you.
Molly: The album, 'Mezzanine', a great album.
Robert: Yeah, do you like it?
Molly: Very much.
Molly: Can you just paint the picture, back 11 years ago in 1987 when you were getting together in Bristol. What was the scene like? What brought you together?
Robert: Well, it was kinda before then we got together cos there were only a few places if you wanted to listen to alternative music. There was a couple of clubs, a couple of bars where you'd find people who were into new wave or reggae or soul music and it wasn't mainstream clubbing. So, that's where everyone was kind of converging in those areas, which is where we all met in a club called The Dugout. We didn't really plan to become a band. We were just a bunch of guys DJing and messing around. Then when the hiphop thing happened for us, we started getting into that and it was second-hand to the American stuff we were doing as kids. As we started to develop our own personalities, we started going the way we do now. That influence of new wave to hip hop over '78 to '82, four years - a lot of things went on. In the UK it was quite a big deal.
Molly: Bristol seems away from London enough to have its own scene, which it definitely does. Even with the crowds, they are definitely different from the London crowds. They seem to have their own space, their own ideas.
Robert: It's always been that way. There's always been a bit of travelling between Bristol and London. A lot of people have gone there to find their fortune or whatever but it is far enough away. I think people got time to develop their ideas before they are ever exposed. What you are getting now in Bristol, like the combination of things - whether you are talking about us, or Portishead or Ronnie Size - that is a direct result of what was happening back in the late seventies, early eighties but it's had time to develop without interference from the outside world and it's coming into fruition now. Even now there's a lot more music coming out of Bristol. There's a lot of bands we are hoping to sign to our label, Melancolic, even as we're speaking.
Molly: 'Teardrop', tell us about this track from 'Mezzanine'.
Robert: It's a moment of light relief from some of the other moments of the album really. It was quite a simple track musically to create and we weren't sure what to do with it. We got Liz into the studio and said ....
Molly: Elizabeth Fraser?
Robert: Yeah. Sorry, I'm being a bit vague there. We didn't have an idea of how we wanted to work with Elizabeth but we knew something she was doing and what we were doing kinda worked. So we left her to it and she put some sketches down. We kind of went over and over 'em, moved things around and chopped things up and finally came up with the track as it stands.
Molly: With the different vocals you use, do you work from their vocal sounds to the song or do you write it specifically for them or what?
Robert: To be honest, we've been writing quite a lot of music and there's been a lot of things lying around. So when we met Liz we played her loads of things and got her to choose what she was into. I think she was unsure of where she wanted to go next and we were trying to go somewhere different ourselves so it was a bit of an exploratory thing for all of us. We didn't have anything in mind for Elizabeth in particular but we knew that whatever she went with, her voice would be a really good contrast for some of the darker and edgier sounds we were putting together.
Molly: The video, I love the video of this. Your idea?
Robert: No, this was actually Walter Stone's idea, our director. I think it was important for us cos we wanted to do something different. We've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of good directors and he did previous the video 'Rising Son' for us. It was one of those ideas that is so simple but it was a bit scary, because being men we don't know anything about being pregnant. Elizabeth was pregnant at the time of the video so we asked her to give it the yes or no because we didn't want to have the full responsibility of it. Obviously it's a lot more close than what she's feeling than what we were.
For us, the simpler the better. It's such a simple but direct idea and we wanted it to be beautiful. When we spoke to Walter, we said we didn't want it to be dark and 'Rosemary's Baby'-ish. We wanted it to be optimistic and a celebration of life. That kind of moment before you were born; what would it be like if you knew it was going to happen. It would be a scary moment, know what I mean?
Molly: You were just saying a moment ago that you guys always look for something different. Is that hard?
Robert: It can be. Musically it's not that difficult because we're very different from each other. What we tend to do is go into the studio alone, do our own thing and meet up later, maybe a week later, a day later or whatever and play what we've been working on. Sometimes it's quite a shock to each other what we're actually dealing with because we don't know where we're all coming from half the time. I think the diversity in our own opinions is what keeps us moving in that direction, but we're not deliberately going out to be different. When you do a video though, you want to do something new for yourself and everyone else, so it's a bit of a different process.
Molly: If you go back into the eighties, certainly when Massive Attack started there was that separation for a long time between techno dance and pure rock - that fusion, you were part of that. Was it hard to gain that fusion?
Robert: Not for us I think, because in my past I was into punk and new wave. I got into reggae music and dance music via bands like The Clash and Public Image Limited. I went in that way. For Gee [Grant Marshall], being a bit older than me, he was into more into the reggae thing and then got into the New Wave thing the other way round. There was always this cross thing in Bristol, especially with a lot of bands like The Pop Group and Rip Rig and Panic. It was slightly rock/dance crossover then. It was quite funky stuff. It was always a bit jazz and a bit of soul in there. So in Bristol that's always been going on. There always been a strong mix of like dub and reggae and rock, so for us it's a natural state of affairs.
Molly: With your album 'Protection' - I'm going backwards and forwards here - an extraordinary thing happened with remixes and god knows what. How did that happen?
Robert: What with the Mad Professor?
Robert: It's kind of something we always wanted to do because it was all the tunes you used to like buy when you were a kid, they had remixes on them. You know like a 12" would have four versions and it was always over the same baseline and a different person doing the same song or whatever. We were always into that and we're big fan of the Professor, so we just got in touch with him and started feeding him tracks. We were doing the same with this album as well, although we might not put out a mix album because we've done it and it might seem a bit like going backwards. It was just a bit of a laugh really and we felt that being in the studio sometimes you get obsessed with getting it right and you want someone else to take it all apart again and have a laugh with it.
Molly: Are you all in the studio with him, or do you let him do his own thing and come back?
Robert: We'd sort of send him tracks and then comment on them afterward and let him get on with it cos he's got a different way of working from us anyway, totally different. It would have been chaotic I think altogether.
Molly: That's pretty cool because sometimes I find artists who are not so much into the production side get very fussy and then insist they must go to every mix that's on, whereas a group or artist that are very much involved in the production side as well tend to say "no, let them have it".
Robert: It's cool because you come out of the studio - I was in particular - so sick of it, the whole thing, by the time I finished the album, before we finished mixing. Certain tracks took so long and we kept reconstructing and taking it apart, that it's a good laugh, it's a good vibe to let someone else mess with it entirely. On this album particularly, the mixes have been quite extreme and different. I mean, Primal Scream did a completely different mix of 'Teardrop' and Blur have just done a mix of 'Angel' which was pretty cool. So, we're trying to get bands to mix the tracks rather than mixers to do them.
Molly: Blur was one of the bands you went down to see in Bristol in this club. They were raving about you way back then. What is your opinion of Blur and Oasis and all that?
Robert: All the bands are different. Blur, I mean I really like their latest album. It's really cool. I might put in my favourite album of all of those. There's so many good bands and so many average bands. I mean, Oasis are a very energetic band. Watching them live and meeting them you see a different energy than what you get from the press hype, so it's difficult to quantify what you think of them after a while, but I think there's too much emphasis on being safe and staying within a certain area to work in.
The bands that I more admire are bands like Radiohead who are prepared to rip up the rules and redefine themselves a bit and take a few risks. We've never been into doing the same thing twice, and even though we've carried certain traits with us that are always going to be on our records, if it's the pace or the baselines or our own voices or whatever, I think we're always trying to do something to keep it interesting for ourselves. I think Oasis' big mistake was just putting out too much too quick and not thinking about it.
Molly: What about the American side? The influences on yourself of American music of any kind?
Robert: After hip hop, after Eric B and Public Enemy, I got a bit bored of American music full stop. There hasn't been much that has come out of America which has turned me on. A few bands here and there.
Molly: I quite like the new Public Enemy stuff though.
Robert: Yeah, it's pretty cool isn't it. But apart from hip hop stuff I haven't really gotten into it. It all seems quite retro, the rock stuff there. The R&B stuff is very generic and this current trend of digging out 70s & 80s funk tunes and putting them back down with a rap over the top bores me senseless.
Molly: Let's go the very first album, 'The Blue Line'. Take us back to that time when you did that album.
Robert: It was kind of weird because we didn't really have a plan at the time. We were just sort of messing around with different tracks. We'd met a few people - Nellee was working with Soul II Soul. and we got to know Neneh Cherry really well and did some work for her on her first album 'Alright Sushi' Then her boyfriend/ manager got us into the studio and sort of locked us into a room and said "Get on with it". We had a reputation of being lazy and distracted so we didn't know what to expect when we made the record. We didn't really appreciate what we were doing at the time. It was only later on that we look back and think it's a pretty cool record.
Molly: When it was released and it started having an effect, did you think "Wow, this is really having an effect"?
Robert: When 'Blue Lines' was out everyone was banging into techno. So, we'd be going out to clubs and everyone would be playing really fast music and I'd be at the bar getting drunk, nodding my head slowly half-timing it. So, we didn't really appreciate what was going on. It was only when people would come up to you and say this album is something really something special, or whatever, then you've got the media interest and the nominations. It was all a bit of a shock to us because we were just coming out of Bristol and it was our first ever project we actually finished. We were kind of just pleased with ourselves for actually finishing a record, 10 tracks or whatever done, we finished it. You'd go home and have a word to your mum and say "Mum, I actually finished my job", which made a change really.
Molly: Your parents must have been relieved.
Robert: Yeah, it was the first thing I ever finished I think.
Molly: All these wonderful people you have worked with ... Tricky, tell us about Tricky.
Robert: Well, I lived with Tricky for about a year so it's hard for me to be that positive 'cos we're both Aquarians.
Molly: I'm an Aquarian too.
Robert: You know what it's like hanging out with Aquarians. It's a bit difficult isn't it? We were pretty much at loggerheads all the time but when we did get acquainted it was good fun. We used to really bounce off each other and spark and that. It was good working with Tricks. He's a crazy dude really. I admire what he does.
Molly: I do indeed as well. Madonna, she's one of my favourites. I love her, you know. 'I Want You' - tell us about that.
Robert: We were asked to do it because of this Marvin Gaye project originally and we thought 'yeah', obviously being fans of Marvin Gaye and admirers of his work. Nellee was working with Madonna on the previous album and it just came up. She was up for it and we sent her the music first. Then when she got her head round it, I went up there to New York with Nellee and spent two days in the studio putting the vocal down. I think the really cool thing about it was the fact that she sang it so beautifully. There was no special effects, no messing around - it was just in there singing it with a lot of passion and soul. That's the main thing that made the track work 'cause any other way it would have been a disaster. People were quite skeptical but we were like 'No! It's gonna work".
Molly: She's a very close friend of mine but I'm always justifying Madonna to a lot people who have this illusion that she really is not a singer, but in fact she IS a singer.
Robert: There's no doubt. It was quite freaky for me because I'm just a Bristol boy. She was singing in my ear as we were playing the music down, giving me her version of it. I wasn't taking any notice at all really. I was just thinking about how mad it is. She is such an icon it takes you a while to adjust. When she was in the vocal room, it was amazing. We did a few takes just to cover it, but she sung it so well we could have done it in one take. It was that beautiful.
Molly: She's very responsible as an artist. She's hands-on but allows the people like yourselves to work your own creative thing and not be overpowering.
Robert: She was really into what she was doing and she knew what she wanted out of it, but at the same time she wanted to go somewhere else, otherwise there would be no point getting us involved. That was the cool thing. Some people, they won't leave you alone and it's no good. If you're gonna work with someone then you want to give them the freedom to do their own thing.
Molly: Now Robert, do you get much chance to listen to a lot of music? Do you buy much music?
Robert: We go to a lot of second-hand record shops and buy things there to sample later. I've got a CD walkman and I've bought a few things. The only thing I've bought that's new is the Radiohead mini-album.
Molly: Do you like playing live?
Robert: It's a complete remedy for the studio life really. It's the opposite - all momentum, all movement. For this album, we wanted this album to be ... if you played it quietly, it could be something you could listen to and if you play it loudly, it could be quite abrasive. Being able to play it out on through a big PA and get the sound across that way is really cool, and that's what it's all about. Playing live now we're putting more emotion into it. There's more feeling coming from the songs. It's more real than it ever was.
Molly: When you were saying before of how you're always looking for something new, going out with a band and playing live - does that give you a whole new perspective of the way you'll go back into the studios and the approach to a new project?
Robert: Definitely. It helped shape 'Mezzanine' initially cos we toured some before the album came out and we played five new tracks to people who had never heard them. So we got the vibe on the tracks, re-arranged them because of it live, took everyone in the studio with us, played a lot of live music and chopped it up afterwards. It really works for us. Before when we started, we didn't have a concept of it. It wasn't a plan in mind and now we're almost like a traditional rock'n'roll band now; it's bizarre, putting an album out and touring it.
Molly: Listen, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much and I can't wait to see you tomorrow night.