Massive Attack interview (State, 3rd February 2010)
After seven years of supposed break ups, rumoured releases, and generally lying low, Massive Attack released their fifth studio album, and after fearing the worst, State can confirm it’s an early runner for album of the year. There’s collaborations with Damon Albarn (whose home studio they also recorded in), Martina Topley Bird, Guy Garvey and, of course, Horace Andy. It’s called Heligoland and it’s a beautiful, surprisingly simple record that can sit happily alongside any of the output from one of the most important bands of the last two decades.
Robert del Naja, aka 3D, is the only member of the group to have his fingerprints over each of those five records with 2003’s 100th Window – so horribly overlooked in some quarters – supposedly singling the end for the band as co-founder of the group Daddy G (Grant Marshall) decided to briefly leave Del Naja to his own devices.
Any rift though is long since healed and when State finds the pair overlooking the Bristol skyline in one of the larger rooms of the city’s Hilton Hotel, they’re laughing away at a joke from the frankly, eh… massive Grant. Both greet me with warm handshakes and questions about the flight over (they’re not huge Ryanair fans) and within a few moments Marshall’s off to be interrogated down the hall in a separate room, while Del Naja turns on a very loud coffee machine and begins to chat about how his morning plan of watching a few goals from a midweek Napoli game were ruined by an over-zealous fellow supporter.
“It always happens. If I want to see the Napoli game from the day before and I go on to YouTube to check out the goals some fucker’s already put something up, edited it and put his own soundtrack to it, a really shit Italian dance tune usually with a whistle as the main instrument. They’ve already put their titles on it, they’ve lots of effects on it and all I want to see are the fucking goals.”
Focused rage upon some poor Italian aside though, Del Naja proves to be in a great mood, incredibly talkative and delighted to talk about delays, collaborations that go right and the ones that horribly wrong as well as much, much more. With the coffee machine finally serving its purpose, he pours us a cup each and sits down to be questioned.
State: There have been plenty of reports over the past few years that a new album was done and dusted but there was always a new delay. It is that it’s just hard to settle on 10 ten tracks, or 50 minutes of music, that you’re happy to let go and let represent your work over the past few years?
3D: Yeah it is to be honest. For instance, there was one track called ‘Invade Me’ with Martina (Topley Bird) and we cut it with it on and with it off. It’s difficult to know if it was one track too many, not in terms of the length of album but in terms of mood. Because we’ve a split set of moods on this record that feel like they can co-exist with each other in a comfortable but interesting way, so then you can overdo it by going too far, going too dark, too happy, too small, too big y’know what I mean?
There’s some quite simple arrangements on the album with that it comes across as a very instant record, more instant than say, Mezzanine was.
I think it’s definitely more instant. The production ideology for me was to bring everything back to basics, to record everything in a very specific way. With this record, it was much more about recording the parts that are needed – the melodic structure, the rhythms and we’re going to arrange it, keep it simple nothing that needs to be there has to be there. The sound we wanted to be very clear, very present, vocals very dry. If it’s electronic or analogue or if it’s acoustic or rhythmic you want to hear it in the room so the approach in terms of the sound, it was very important for me to keep it like that and it felt with that way that using different voice, as opposed to compilation-sounding record, everything had a sort of a sense of belonging. There’s echoes of some tracks and rhythms when they follow one to another, there might be something similar about the pattern or the signature but in a different speed.
Was the more simple approach an off-shoot of working with Damon Albarn in his studio for part of the recording process?
I think it’s when we went to Damon’s studio, that was good fun as it was a different environment but it also served a purpose because we had been doing a live tour and people had heard what they thought was an album and were expecting us to go back and mix it. So when we announced that actually no, we’re not really feeling this record we’re going to start again, you can imagine from the managerial end there was a very long silence. But the moment of genius that I’ll sort of put my hand up for… this sleight of hand/Derren Brown manner thing, is that we’re not going to release that album but we are going to go to Damon Albarn’s studio and start a new one. It was kind of a counterbalance from everyone going fucking hell what are we on about to ‘god that’s a good idea’. It worked because if you’re going to start again what a good place to do so and Damon was up for it. I mean he could have said ‘fuck off I’m busy’ but he was cool. He said he wasn’t going to get sucked into a Bristolian time warp and we working from the hours of 10 to 6 every day and we’re only working with major chords.
Horace came then and it was quite instantaneous, we chucked some things into the room immediately. ‘Play that keyboard, I’ll play that, try this, try that, get some lyrics down’. It was very much let’s just do it and see what happens. Out of it we got some things we’ve used, some things we didn’t but for Damon I think it’s a case of him always trying stuff so the bits you’ve discarded aren’t really important as you’re always going to be trying something else. I think maybe what we can be guilty of, particularly me, is playing too much, investing too much in a particular idea until you have to see it through with saying ‘you know what if it’s not working just move on’. Damon’s process is really instant, it’s like ‘got an idea, try it, okay next’ that kind of thing.
Is there ever a moment with a collaboration where you just know you’re not going down the right road? It has to be difficult to call that.
Yeah absolutely. Our entire fucking history in the studio has been littered with moments of awkwardness where you realise that even though you’ve been planning something for a great amount of time, the energy in the room ain’t right, the chemistry ain’t right and the combination of things just isn’t going to work and then you just have to extricate yourself from a really awkward situation.
It sounds more like a relationship break up.
Well yeah, you just realise it sometimes you’re with people and you realise it just ain’t gonna work. You realise that as soon as you’re in the same space, the wavelengths are just never going to be fucking compatible.
Do you got through the whole ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech?
(Chuckles) You go through the process yeah. I think with some of the people we work with, there might be some disappointment but some of the people we worked with in the last year who might not have anything on the record, equally they’re talented people and have their own things going on and also I think they do know that we put ourselves through that as well. It’s never a dismissive, light process either. I mean I invest a lot of my heart and time into it so if it doesn’t work it’s a failure to me.
With Guy Garvey’s vocal, it’s quite different to how we’d usually hear him on an Elbow record, is it that you hear someone’s voice and think ‘I can do something different with that’.
Well we never want it to be like hip hop where you ask someone to come in and do the chorus or middle eight and all they do is exactly what you’d expect, so the collaboration is mixing two colours and you know exactly what you’ll be left with. Generally though we do things two ways, if we’re sending people stuff we can sometimes sit down and think – ‘what can we send to this person that they’re really going to get’ as you might be concerned that they get it straight away or ‘what can we send them that has a little bit more flexibility that gives them something they wouldn’t expect ‘and then when you get to the studio you play things through.
I approached Elbow because I knew they did the version of ‘Teardrop’ so I knew there was some mutual respect and it was worth approaching Guy and what I know about them I thought they were lovely. We got to know each other in a very kind of like ‘nice meet you, come to the studio and get pissed’ sort of way. We had a drink and talked about life in general for the first day before we actually listened to anything, then you listen to stuff and at that point you’re trying to steer someone’s head into a space where they’ll want to try something else to try to give tracks that might stimulate them in a different way.
Is that the reason you keep working with Horace Andy? That he’s willing to go down plenty of different avenues?
We’ve put him in some very strange places in the last 15 years, places he’d never expect to be for a man of his history and it’s been exciting. For him he’s really open minded, there are people who… well, when we worked with Sinead (O’Connor) on 100th Window for instance, we were kind of working on the tracks and me and Neil (Davidge)… I remember we were sitting there and trying to work out what it is about Sinead’s voice… cos y’know every time she opens her mouth it’s beautiful but we were trying to work out how producers had worked with her before, trying to see how we could make it different and it became very apparent, when she double tracked something, we realised that the process of double tracking her voice was what a lot of producers had done and gave it that Sinead sound and we were very sort of… like at that point we knew we weren’t going to that, we were going to go down a completely different route, we’re going to make sure we don’t get that sound and y’know you sort get to recognise that in people.
I mean Terry Callier came and did ‘Live With Me’. We’d never met him and this was a bloke with a great history, with some amazing stories to tell and you’re in awe so it’s quite a nervous experience, but when he came and sang, he put the song down in one take. It’s Terry and his voice, you don’t want to subvert it or distort it ‘cos it’s perfect as it is. It was just, let’s get some food then… well I think we went through the process of a second take because it seemed like a long way to come and do one but it was pointless.
The album ends in a reasonably upbeat way too on ‘Atlas Air’? There’s a sense of a band who can’t wait to record again.
Well we had a version that was twice as long, we loved it that much and I was like ‘fuck I don’t care’ it all has to go on. There’s loads of really great movement, lots of random analogue accidental stuff going on as opposed to programmed stuff so it’s a question of where do you cut it, there’s loads of great chords and notes that are sort of hanging from the reverbs on the organ and there were all these parts that were repeated but quite different if you get me? The ending went on for five minutes and I thought it was a 12-inch dance tune but when it came down to listening to the record it started to feel slightly indulgent and it didn’t really show respect to the other tracks. We wanted more of a song-type structure so that it fits, when you get to the end of it you haven’t forgotten the rest of album.
You’ve done several soundtracks over the past few years as well, how different is working on something like that to making an album?
It’s very different, you’re being guided visually and guided by the script as well so that’s always very present in your mind. Obviously you’re subjected to so many requirements and conditions as to what you can do so it’s a very different process on that level. Initially when we came out of doing 100th Window and we were offered Danny the Dog, it wasn’t the film you’ve been waiting all your life to do, it was just ‘right that’s a great a whole fucking film score, let’s do it’, get away from the Massive Attack thing and do something different. From that point on, going to do other scores I found it increasingly less rewarding as you realise that after the initial conversation with the director where you might show all your references – favourite films, favourite bands whatever – and put all these ideas down you end up writing the same score over and over again because everyone wants the same score and films scores have become very generic.
So, in same sense that screenplays have a defined structure then, you think soundtracks do to?
Definitely, there’s a story; a beginning middle and end and the music has to follow those patterns and that mood and also I think also people are scared of silence which I find really fucking annoying. Some of the best films have great intervals of silence and a lot of the films of the ‘70s were ultra real because of that and I love that. That ended at some point, it’s like television now where you can’t have a show without its own trailers at the beginning and the end, sometimes at the ad break too. That kind of culture leads on to that fucker ruining the Napoli highlights too, it’s a vicious circle.
By John Joe Worrall