Bristol, UK's Massive Attack have been making music for over a decade now. Starting out five years earlier as a sound system modeled after the ones in Jamaica, they were known as the Wild Bunch and had a club night in Bristol at the Dug Out which drew well with the local music fans. Eventually signed to Virgin in 1990, the core band of Grant Marshal (Daddy Gee), Robert Del Naja (3D) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) unleashed their debut album Blue Lines which became an instant classic. Starting with first single "Unfinished Sympathy" (they changed their name for this single to Massive due to the Gulf War being fought at the time), this brilliant Paul Oakenfold-remixed track was (and still is) regarded as one of the finest dance moment. Blue Lines to this day still stands up as a landmark recording; So much so, that Mixmag UK placed Blue Lines at #1 in thier Top 50 Dance Albums of All-Time last year. If not for anything else though, Blue Lines gave the world a first glimpse of future stars Shara Nelson and Tricky.
By the time Massive Attack came around to recording Protection, their second album, over a million copies of Blue Lines had already passed through stores the world over. But Protection didn't suffer from any sort of sophomore slump. Sans Tricky and Nelson the album had no problems in the creative department -- with tunes like "Sly," "Karmacoma" and the Tracey Thorn-sung title track, the band again turned heads for its intense artistry and depth. With fellow Bristolians Portishead also hitting at the same time, the two bands began to define the "Bristol Sound," also known as "trip hop." But Massive drew from so many music sources, it was hard to hold them to anything other than "brilliant."
Once people were able to grasp onto the second album's genius, the band let dub fiend the Mad Professor loose on the entire disc and released it as No Protection, essentially an 'in-dub' version of Protection. However unclassifiable the band was, they ammassed even more fans with that release and opened the doors for Mad Professor to gain the notariety that had escaped him for so many years prior.
Now back another four years later with Mezzanine, they are again set to turn on musical minds with a more textured, cohesive body of work. Working with former Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Frasier on three songs, the band also re-enlist Horace Andy from Protection and a new singer Sara Jay who sings the sublime, almost alternative-leaning "Dissolved Girl" -- an album highlight. With the stakes even higher now that Bristol has given the world so many more popular artists [Way Out West, Roni Size] Massive have again met the challenge and come up trumps with another amazing work of art.
DMA recently chatted with band memeber Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) about a few things while he was waiting around the Virgin UK offices for a hot dinner date.
DMA: Massive Attack always have a knack for finding interesting voices for its albums. How do you go about finding these people for the records? Do you write tracks around their voices?
3D: Well, every track's different, you know what i mean...we've done so many tracks now that every experience is different. Depends on the person, the song, what the music was like when we contacted the singer, how developed the idea was...It really just depends, there's really no one way of it being done. Like for instance, if I'm working with Liz Frasier or if I'm working with Tracey Thorn, there's gonna be different dynamics every time. it's quite hard to find the process, every track's a different story really.
DMA: Do you write down a list of people you want to work with before you set out to do the album or do things just sort of 'happen'?
3D: We didn't write down a list...we've wanted to work with Liz Frasier for about five years now. We tried to get in touch with her but it didn't really work out the first time. As for Horace Andy...we've got a lot of admiration for him so we just wanted to work with him consistently, so we asked him back.
DMA: Your collaboration with Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn, "Protection" was absolutely brilliant. Did you attempt to bring her back for Mezzanine?
3D: Well, we did a track for Batman Returns soundtrack and we were going to do another film soundtrack thing, not for our album and we also asked her to write something for us maybe to see if it would work out. We never really went through with it though...it was just an idea.
DMA: Was there someone [a vocalist] you wanted to work with on Mezzanine who either refused or couldn't budget the time to the project to do it?
3D: Well we started wrting something for the vocalist from Radiohead but communication was a bit difficult because we were busy and so were they so unfortunately it didn't happen. Maybe on the next record...
DMA: Maybe he'll turn out like Liz Frasier did...With so many different vocalists featured in your songs, how do you play the songs live seeing that it's probably impossible to take all the vocalists out? Do you use DATs of them or do you have someone else sing them?
3D: Sometimes we don't use the vocal at all. It depends. It would really piss off the audience if [they] went to go check out a band and the real lead singer didn't perform. In our case, because the show is the show, and you're getting a full hour and fourty five minutes of music, you're not getting what exactly you heard on the albums. You're getting an experience -- you're getting some of the sounds and some the personality and some of the ideas, but translated into a live setting. A live show is one of those very subjective things where I've seen a gig and I've loved it and the person next to me has hated it. We've learned that you cannot please everyone, so we just do what pleasees us and hope the crowd is with us.
DMA: Opinions are like assholes...
3D: (Laughs)...yeah, you could play a record one day and hate it, and then the next day think it's the greatest thing in the world. But with a record you have the luxury of playing it over and over again. With a gig its a one off, it really depends on how you feel at that particular point and what you drank, what you're having, how hot you are, whether you're hungry, someone's pissed you off that day and then you came to one of our shows expecting to see Shara Neslon sing "Unfinished Sympathy" they might be rather disappointed wheras someone expected something different and go 'wow! I really liked that!' Basically opinions differ and we know that.
DMA: Do think that Americans by and large understand the concept of Massive Attack and it's sound system-like approach to music?
3D: I'm not sure if America understands Massive Attack at all because it's a very mixed bunch of ideas. When we were the Wild Bunch, we used to play all sorts of music be it new wave, reggae, funk, soul, early garage, detroit techno...that's where we came from. I'm not sure if these camps work together in America like they would and do in England. As for aspirations We don't have any idea of how it's gonna go down in America. We know that when we played there we sold out our gigs the last time we toured and it was good fun and we met people who were fans, and also people who came out of curiosity. We do alright in America, but in Canada we do better; more faithful following. If you can't define what the music is directly, then it will never be easy for us to be marketed and sold as a proper band. It seems as though that sort of thing is very important to America by and large.
DMA: You guys hail from Bristol, which has slowly through the years become a musical hotbed. Do you feel like you guys were the pioneers of the scene or did you just 'open the doors' to the outside world to look in on what was going on there?
3D: I dont feel that were responsible for that, but we're not gonna deny that what we did opened the window and a few doors in Bristol. We're all different in our own way -- the only thing that really accociates all the different artists in Bristol is the fact that we all take our time when we work on musical projects. We all grew up listening to punk music and funk stuff and those attitudes sort of snuck into our music. That sort of brought people from different circles together and maybe it wasn't as 'cultural melting pot' as it all sounds but because Bristol is quite a small place, it becomes a lot more focused then.
Ooops, looks like 3D's date is in the waiting room...hope he had fun!!
Dave "The Wave" Dresden