Massive Attack has never really fit in, or at least that’s how they see it.
For much of their two-decade recording career, the Bristol, England-based “trip-hop” pioneers have been defined in terms of how they are different from those around them, whether in their early-days as recording artists who didn’t play musical instruments and DJs who didn’t spin uptempo dance-tracks, or throughout their time in the public eye as activists who have been generally critical of the governmental policies and political regimes ruling the day.
While remaining members Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Robert “3D” del Naja still find themselves in opposition to much of what they see in the current political landscape, they are at least beginning to find acceptance amongst the musical community that once derided their sample-and-effect based approach to composition. As well as seeing the list of new acts citing them as influences grow each year, the group recently won an Ivor Novella Award, a sort of lifetime achievement prize voted on by British composers and songwriters honoring a writer or act who has “excellence in British music writing.” In an interview with PopMatters.com, given during the promotion of the group’s latest full-length, Heligoland, Marshall — known to fans and friends as “G’ — talked about how strange (and touching) such an honor has been given Massive Attack’s history.
“It was kind of funny for us to get that,” explains G, “because it seemed like we’d been invited into the music fraternity. And it’s kind of ironic because we didn’t come from that background.”
G, along with 3D and former member Andy “Mushroom” Vowles, started out in 1980s Bristol with a sound-system called The Wild Bunch. While other young musicians around them were exploring the wide range of new approaches for traditional garage bands lumped under the “post-punk” moniker, the future Massive Attackers were experimenting with turntables and samplers, which G says was “the antithesis of what was going on in Bristol. So people kind of despised people like us who were the ‘pretend’ musicians, you know.”
Not that Massive Attack, once formed, fit in with their fellow DJs either. Their debut album, Blue Lines blended electronica, hip-hop, soul, and a dozen other genres into a mid-tempo masterpiece, eschewing the frenetic pace of most sample-based, DJ-produced music of the time. Nowadays the idea of dance music you don’t actually have to dance to is common to anyone who has walked into a trendy major clothing retailer in the local mall, but it represented something radically different at the time the album was released. “There was a completely different landscape we were listening to,” remembers G. “It [DJ-produced music] was all kind of uptempo, and Blue Lines was kind of the flipside of that.”
The 1990s saw the rise of many of the underground bands Massive Attack had grown up alongside to the mainstream of the British music scene. While groups like Massive Attack and their geographic and conceptual neighbors, such as Portishead, also found themselves finding even more widespread acclaim (Massive Attack released their other widely-adored “classic” Mezzanine in 1998), that didn’t mean they felt comfortable amongst their rock-n-rolling peers.
“It’s never been the case that we’ve looked at the whole Britpop scene and Massive Attack as being the same really,” says G. “We kind of felt separate from the other British music that was going on.” Music fans were quick to bundle Massive Attack, Portishead, and other British sample-users into the newly coined “trip-hop” category, a term Massive Attack has always said is an overly-simple attempt to define them in contrast to their more traditional peers, ignoring the many stylistic changes seen over the course of their recording career. Mezzanine saw the introduction of many post-punk sounds to their already diverse sonic palette, while Heligoland marks an attempt to make what G calls more of a “raw, song-based album.”
While many of Britpop’s biggest acts eventually flamed-out or dissolved completely, Massive Attack has endured as a recording and touring act, though not without taking some hits along way. Early collaborators like Tricky and Shara Nelson parted ways with the group soon after it reached mainstream success (both were pursuing solo careers, although Nelson also wanted more financial compensation for her vocal work), and the core members also felt the strain of touring and writing together for so many years. Mushroom left the group over creative and personal differences in 1999, and G was largely absent between 2001 and 2005, leaving 3D as the only core member to contribute in a major way to 2003’s 100th Window.
As G puts it “every album we seem to lose a member,” but he is quick to head-off any suggestions that he and 3D are anything less than fully reconciled. “We’re in a happy state of mind, you know. We’re vibing. Positive!” he says in answer to a question about the public reception to Hegiloland, at this point in the promotional cycle clearly used to being asked follow-up questions about tensions within the group. While G has been back in the studio for about five years now, Heglioland is the duo’s first full-length release since G’s departure other than some soundtrack work and their 2006 greatest-hits compilation, Collected. Thus the lead-up to the new album has meant plenty of long-unanswered questions from the media which G laments “we’re busy answering.”
G may not want to dwell to much on the gossip surrounding him and the group, but he is happy to talk about Massive Attack’s political concerns. Physically striking and usually hidden behind dark sunglasses while on stage and during interviews, G is often seen as the “Silent Bob” of Massive Attack, given his preference to let the more talkative 3D handle most of the questions when they meet reporters together. When asked about issues like the decision by the body overseeing the Underground system in London to ban the posters for Heligoland from its properties, however, he has plenty to say.
“Oh God this is the ironic thing about England,” he fumes when discussing the ban, which was based on the argument that the paint-drip featuring cover art of the album to closely resembles graffiti, and posters of it could encourage “vandalism” in the name of unauthorized street-art. “We celebrate someone like [fellow Bristol native and influential graffiti artist] Banksy, you know, someone who was a villain,” responds G. “But they won’t put up the cover of Heglioland, because they say it’s graffiti so they’ve banned it. So it’s quite an ironic situation.”
G and the rest of Massive Attack have lived through several political eras in their homeland, from the Thatcherite 1980s and the rise of Labor under Tony Blair in the 1990s, on to what G and many former Labor supporters see as the failure of that party in the 2000s to avoid the pitfalls of corruption and cronyism, a disastrous decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and an increased focus on security that threatens what they see as the basic human liberties.
“The whole thing about censorship is people’s freedom,” he says, relating the poster-ban to larger issues in his country. “And in England … you just cannot walk around without your image being recorded. In central London your image will get recorded 300 times. So we’re the great protagonists of violating human rights. It just comes under that same umbrella.”
“The government has found so many ways to bring in ID forms that people have to carry a set of ID around with them,” he continues “they really do want to know where everybody is their movements. It’s too Big Brother in England.”
Asked if he thinks the upcoming general elections and the likely loss of power by Gordon Brown’s Labor Party will improve matters, he is pessimistic. “There was a difference before. It’s now just the same,” he explains. “It’s just middle management. On one side you have the Conservatives leaning towards the right and labor were more socialist. But now I think you’ll find the two will just merge into each other. A bit like America, yeah?”
G doesn’t come off as a cynic however, and in fact seems to think that there is a chance that President Barack Obama will answer more of the hopes liberal-minded watchers have placed on him than Blair and Labor did in the United Kingdom. He thinks Obama needs time to live up to his potential, saying “it’s really hard for a new government to come in and really make change. To come in and actually say we’re going to do this. That can actually be detrimental.”
At G’s age (he turned 50 last year) it would be easy to become disillusioned after years of what he sees as continued moves by Western governments in the wrong direction, but G seem to have a college-student-like faith that positive changes can still be affected through activism, and that Massive Attack’s visibility is a useful tool in bringing awareness to issues dear to his heart. Their upcoming tour, which will last most of 2010 and touchdown on several continents, will feature the same twenty five feet-tall backdrop used at previous Massive Attack shows. Says G, “it’s a massive screen, its spectacular you know. There’s a lot of information we carry on it, Massive Attack like to make political statements. There’s a lot of incidental info, political info. Food for thought, you know.”
3D and G seem to like performing live as much as their former bandmates detested it (Mushroom was apparently opposed to the elaborate tours preferred by the remaining two), and G admits “it’s great to be back on tour. Great to be with the fans.” Heligoland features a range of collaborators, including Damon Albarn (a man whose evolution from Blur to Gorillaz shows just how interested many Britpoppers actually were with Massive Attacks experimental approach), Mazzy Star, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Hope Sandoval, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, and longtime guest-vocalist Horace Andy. Many of them will appear at one stop or another of the tour’s long schedule.
Another aspect of the Heligoland venture getting a lot of attention is a series of music videos for various tracks from the album, produced simultaneously but separately by directors commissioned by G and 3D. Massive Attack have always shown a keen interest in their music videos (the groundbreaking video for Mezzanine’s “Teardrop” brought that song additional attention long before that track became famous to primetime audiences as the theme song for House), and the Heligoland videos represent their response to the changes within the music industry and the new opportunities provided by cheaper and more available technology.
“The golden days are over of the record companies having a lot of money,” explains G. “Our old videos cost in excess of $200,000 to make. So we thought this time … we just reached out to a couple of people we really love, and they just came up with a bunch of videos that cost us like a fraction of the price. And in some respects, the less budget people have the more creative they can be. I think here that’s the case. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of something like YouTube.”
As our phone conversation comes to an end, G mentions that the “tube” he was riding when our interview began has dropped him off at the UCLA campus, where the sun is apparently shining and plenty of people are outside enjoying the weather. “It’s a bit distracting and busy,” he apologizes, “feel free to make me sound better.” He doesn’t sound too worried, however. Overall he gives the impression that despite all the problems Massive Attack has been through as a group and the disappoints they’ve faced as political advocates, the band is in one of the better places they’ve been in during their long history. As G says many times during the interview “it’s all good.”