'There was no other way but up'
They didn't speak to each other for three years. Now Massive Attack are back recording - and playing live. In their first UK interview for a decade, the duo talk to Dorian Lynskey
Tuesday February 6, 2007
The other day Grant Marshall, the Massive Attack member better known as Daddy G, was collecting his daughter from school when he fell into conversation with another parent, an Israeli woman. She asked when Massive Attack were next playing live. Marshall told her there would be three shows this month in aid of the Hoping Foundation. She asked what that was. He told her it was a charity that funds community projects for Palestinian refugee children.
"And she actually stepped back and said, 'Oh, I don't feel comfortable with that because I'm pro-Israeli,'" says Marshall. "So we had this conversation and, er," he grins apologetically, "she's not coming." You can sympathise with the woman's surprise. To those who still think of Massive Attack as the architects of modern soul classics such as Unfinished Sympathy, reluctant pioneers of trip-hop and the soundtrack to countless late nights, their current status as one of the most politically active bands in Britain is somewhat unexpected. But this curious development is not an overnight one; it began in the autumn of 2002, when Massive's Robert "3D" Del Naja, along with his friend Damon Albarn, began vocally opposing the invasion of Iraq, back when most bands maintained a sheepish silence.
The seeds were always there. In 1990s songs such as Safe From Harm and Spying Glass, you can hear concerns about security, surveillance and the creeping anxiety of urban living - a prophetic soundtrack for what Del Naja calls the "fear factory" of modern Britain. And even before they found politics, politics found them. During the first Gulf war, under pressure from their record label, they shortened their name to Massive. (The curse continues. Today, if you Google Massive Attack + Palestine, the first hit is a Guardian news story: "Israelis launch massive attack".)
"We're not putting a flag up saying we believe in one side or another," says Del Naja. "We're saying we have to solve these problems, and they're manifold and complex, but let's start somewhere, please. Even if it is musicians acting like a bunch of idiots nobody's going to take seriously." "Someone's going to take us seriously," Marshall says with a teasing chuckle. "A few people. My mum and dad."
They run at different speeds, these two. Perched on a sofa in his Bristol studio, Del Naja is small and sharp- featured, talking quickly and intensely about the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the creation of Israel, and the perils of the two-state solution. Beside him, Marshall is sleepy-eyed and sprawling, his speech as relaxed as his posture. "I let D do most of the talking. I've got views, but they're more pub views. Give me a couple of drinks and you'll hear about Palestine and Israel and Robert Mugabe and all that stuff."
Del Naja met the Hoping Foundation's Karma Nabulsi three years ago, when he DJed at a benefit concert headlined by Primal Scream. In 2005, he almost accompanied graffiti artist Banksy on a trip to the West Bank. "I figured that he was drawing attention to the barrier in the right way, but for me to go there would have looked like a cheap publicity stunt," he says. "It's not about adding celebrity to a cause. I'm wary of that because people rely on celebrity media figures to tell them when to get their money out of their pockets and then switch off pretty quickly."
He's aware of having to tread carefully. At the 2005 Glastonbury festival, organiser Emily Eavis asked performers to sign a poster to be auctioned in aid of Make Poverty History. Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, demonstrating his customary delicacy in geopolitical matters, adapted the slogan to read: "Make Israel History."
"Gillespie writing something like that is a reaction to the fact that we tiptoe around the subject and nobody wants to say anything harsh," says Del Naja, who is a friend of the Primal Scream frontman. "So people end up bottling stuff up and saying, 'Oh fuck it, it's all Israel's fault.' People say that to me, and it's ridiculous. That's the danger when nobody deals with it on a proper discussion level. Unless people speak their minds openly about religion and politics and territory and economics, it's fucked." When musicians wade into political waters, even the most well-intentioned often seem inarticulate, ill-informed, simplistic or sanctimonious, but Del Naja may be the first musician I've met who is actually cleverer than he thinks he is.
For anyone acquainted with the band's volatile personal chemistry, another heartening revelation is the way he and Marshall interact. They have the cheerful, bantering intimacy of men who have spent around half their lives working together (Del Naja is 42, Marshall 47) and have weathered the worst storms. This is the first British interview the pair have conducted together in more than a decade. When they were promoting 1998's Mezzanine album, Del Naja, Marshall and Adrian "Mushroom" Vowles were all interviewed separately, a symptom of how toxic their relationship had become - three stubborn characters with very different musical tastes, they couldn't agree on anything. Shortly afterwards, Vowles left. During sessions for their fourth record, Marshall also dropped out, though never formally. They barely spoke for the next three years.
"We weren't getting on, and it was convenient for me to leave because I had my first baby," says Marshall.
Leaning against the studio wall, there's a framed poster advertising a 1986 Japanese show ("All Star Tokyo Night Clubbing") by Bristol sound system the Wild Bunch. Del Naja ("The Cool Breeze, Graffiti Outlaw Supreme") and Marshall ("Papa Gee, The Soul Daddy") gaze out of the frame, nonchalantly cool even then, alongside future Björk and Madonna producer Nellee Hooper and less enduring members DJ Milo and MC Willie Wee.
Massive Attack evolved out of the Wild Bunch: less a band than an amorphous concept, adapting their shape to the needs of each record. Their album sleeves featured abstract images, as if to declare that no individual mattered as much as the group. Collaborators including Tricky, Tracey Thorn, Elizabeth Fraser and composer Craig Armstrong came and went. "It was always vague," says Del Naja. "It's never been a formula. It's always been a series of accidents."
Even so, there was an aura of loneliness surrounding 2003's insular, opaque 100th Window album. Its muted reception was coloured not only by the absence of Vowles and Marshall, but by Del Naja's arrest as part of Operation Ore's crackdown on internet child pornography. Though the investigation was quickly dropped, it contributed to the impression of the band as a depleted, embattled force.
If Marshall hadn't returned to the fold, Del Naja says that he would have called time on Massive Attack. Fortunately, the 100th Window tour reunited them. "When you get to the stage we got to, there's no other way but up," says Marshall. "I've been in a relationship with Massive Attack for 20 years. It's not a very easy thing to say goodbye to. I love Massive Attack. It's as simple as that."
So, it seems, do a lot of people. Last year's greatest hits record, Collected, sold close to 500,000 copies in Britain: almost as much as Gnarls Barkley and Lily Allen. A new album, which Del Naja has loosely billed as "gothic soul", is under way but, as with previous records, release dates have come and gone. Haste has never been one of Massive Attack's vices. "You get heavily distracted in Bristol," is Marshall's vague explanation.
"One thing that's kept us together is that we're always distracted and we get bored of things," says Del Naja. "I think if we'd crammed all we'd done into the first 10 years, we'd be done and dusted by now. Maybe some people might say, 'Well you should have finished by now! Get out of our faces! Ten years was enough!'" So far, they have recorded tracks with long-time vocalist Horace Andy, Damon Albarn, Elizabeth Fraser, Hope Sandoval and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. Marshall thinks they might have enough material to release two albums in 12 months. "Which could be a shock for everybody," he adds drily.
One thing he knows for sure: it will sound very different from 100th Window. "I'm here to put the black back into Massive Attack," he booms. They both laugh so hard at this that he says it again. But Del Naja thinks we're getting off the point. When he talks about the Middle East, he leans forward, all abuzz. When the subject returns to Massive Attack's tortured history, he slumps back, his bubbles popped. You get the feeling that, in political campaigning, Del Naja has found a new and productive outlet for his obsessive attention to detail and his determination to fight his corner. For a band that once almost came to blows over the merits of Puff Daddy, a broader perspective is surely just what was needed. Del Naja nods, smiling. "Talking about how difficult it is to make a record is so trivial, isn't it?"