Two Man Army: Massive Attack return with Heligoland

Stepping back into the limelight with their much anticipated fifth full-length album this month, Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall discuss the careful resurrection of Massive Attack

Feature by Dave Kerr | 02 Feb 2010

Known more for film scores and political activism than Massive Attack albums in recent years, it’s a wonder Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja found the time to record any new material under the moniker since the release of the revered Bristolian outfit’s sublime Live with Me single in 2006. With a wealth of material left on the cutting room floor, 3D formally reunites with the formerly estranged Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall to present their long-anticipated fifth LP – Heligoland – this February.

Having dominated the electronic music landscape throughout the 90s, the collective countered the public’s falling-out with trip-hop with the seminal post-rock inflected Mezzanine before public spats separated them at the turn of the millennium, with founder member Mushroom’s departure preceding Marshall’s temporary sabbatical prior to the release of 2003's 100th Window.

It’s been seven years to the day from record to record, but with two successful major tours (they’re in the middle of their third) and an Ivor Novello award for their Outstanding Contribution to British Music recently tucked under the belt, it seems they’re finally ready to leave a fractious past behind.

In conversation the duo are warm, disarming and frank enough to reveal that they’ll be following up their double whammy of Glasgow dates last year with a visit North come summer (“A festival in Scotland goes without saying!” - G). But that’s not why we’re here; there’s the small matter of a ‘gothic soul’ classic in the making. Like Daddy G says: “It goes deep.”

Grant, you've been back playing with the live band for a few years now, but how is it to be working with Robert in the studio again?
G: “Everybody knows about 100th Window and how we fell out, so it’s nice to be recording. It’s not as though we haven’t been seeing each other, we’ve done three tours since 100th Window so I think we’re back being mates again. But the thing is, we’re like brothers – I’ve known this guy 27 years – we’ve been working together for all this time. We have our brotherly loves and our brotherly hates; it’s just like any old manly relationship.”

It’s well-documented that Heligoland was five years in the making, when was the most productive period?
G: “The most productive, concentrated period has been in these last 10 months. It became a case where we were hiving with the album; there were two or three rough sketches of what it could have been over the last couple of years. We focused on one, toured it and were literally ready to rock, then we realised this just isn’t what we’re trying to achieve here. Those ideas just didn’t seem as though they were coming from the same stable. So we went back into D’s studio in Bristol and stripped quite a lot of the tracks back to ground zero to build them back up again. At first it was quite a funny thing actually, you can imagine what a delight it was for Virgin after they thought they’d already got one in the can, y’know? Then we told them we were going back in the studio with Damon [Albarn] and that made them quite happy [laughs] to think that we finally had a bit of direction with Damon at the helm.“
D: “That was intriguing because it was the first time in a long time we’ve probably sat in the studio together, with Damon chucking ideas at us and vice versa. Me and G would normally be in separate rooms, and G by admission hates the studio, he tries to spend the least amount of time in there as possible. If you sit him in the studio too long he’ll eventually fall asleep.”

Does the album carry any particular defining sense of purpose, a message to put out there?
G: “We needed this to be a bit more direct, a bit more live. 100th Window was quite a cold, electronic animal with a lot of layers; this is more immediate I’d say.”
D: “It’s about all the personalities involved, and the inevitable contradictions that throws up. My experience of working with people in the studio over the years is how, even though you share a lot of cultural history, there are so many massive contradictions between us and our personalities. There’re also a lot of very predictable human traits as well, no matter who you meet and what they represent to you in terms of distance, when you meet them in the flesh up close you see the humanity pour out.”

You've rounded up an intimidating calibre of vocalists and musicians on the finished album, but conjecture about who exactly was involved has dogged the album throughout its production. For example, Mike Patton and Tom Waits were attached at one point; did any of those collaborations come about? Is there a lot of material left over?
G: “We’ve got over 20 tracks left that we might bring down to a workable amount. There’s some more Hope Sandoval tracks, some material that Damon’s done for us, Guy Garvey stuff and Martina’s done a bit. There’s loads of stuff in the vaults really and hopefully we’ll be releasing another EP further down the line, around June or July.”
D: “We did some pretty cool work with Patton, got some tracks in the can. He’s a friend of Martina’s as well and I’m hoping we can put something really interesting together in the near future. The man is, to me, the transatlantic equivalent of Damon, he just chucks himself at so many amazing projects and they’re all pretty astounding. Tom Waits, I spoke to on the phone...I think something died in translation between my Bristol accent and his drawl. He kept calling me Steve, and I kept going ‘no, it’s D’. He’d say ‘what Steve?' And in the end it just didn’t work out, we didn’t even get beyond the fucking introductions. With Elizabeth [Fraser], obviously Damon – her man – drums for us, so I’m always saying ‘when’s Liz coming down, when’s Liz coming down, when’s Liz coming down to the studio?’ And she’ll always smile sweetly and say ‘sometime soon, maybe’. You live in hope, because anytime Liz comes to the studio I’m going to be there in a shot, man.”

Who is still on your wishlist?
D: “Me and Tricky are hoping to get together in Paris this year, do some work, that’ll be good fun. We’ll just see how it goes. I guess the closest we ever got to working with Jeff Buckley was Teardrop with Elizabeth. We were writing that about him, which was very sad because at the time we were circling him like vultures hoping to get in the studio with him. There’s been a few near misses with various people over the years which would’ve been beautiful. But I’m still holding out for a bit of Aaron Neville...and a bit of Polly Harvey would be nice.”

It’s been said that Burial might remix Heligoland as a companion album. Does that look lightly to happen?
G: “I think I might have had too many drinks the night I made that statement. I started a fire, didn’t I? It was our total admiration for Burial, that’s what it was; it sort of spilled into enthusiasm about him doing something for us.”
D: “It’s a happy day to [G] and I hope we haven’t jinxed it by announcing it way too early. Those two albums Burial’s done are great, I really dig ‘em, and there’s a definite connection between the music he’s done and the music we’ve done over the years, going back to that dub scene which was a big part of Bristol’s history so I really get his music. I get the way he positions it, you get some quite extreme dubstep stuff, which is quite anarchic production-wise, but the Burial stuff is a lot more controlled and soulful I think.”

Dr Dre recently said that he’s been hanging around Ibiza clubs to get a sense of what people are listening to, which might explain why Detox is taking so long. Have you done similar?
“I check plenty of stuff on the net. If your ambition is to get people dancing in a big sweaty club then I guess you want to go to that club and really absorb what’s making them go. We’ve not deliberately been in opposition to every trend and scene, but when Blue Lines came out it was like the Summer of fucking Love and we were doing something slow and groovy. Then when Protection came out everyone was doing drum'n'bass, and when Mezzanine came about we went into a more rock oriented place when everyone else was bang into dance music. It’s always by accident with us, really.”

Are there any particular contemporary acts you do turn to for inspiration? I hear shades of Flying Lotus on Babel...
D: “Yeah, there’s plenty. I remember when someone said that on 100th Window Small Time Shot Away sounded like Boards of Canada and I’d never heard a Boards of Canada album in my life. They just didn’t believe me and said ‘no, you fucking must have.’ Flying Lotus is great, we had him at Meltdown, but the comparisons are purely coincidental, as they say in the movies. The last really enjoyable thing I listened to and the only thing I can remember right now while we’re talking are the Black Angels, which I really dig.”

Various periods of Massive Attack's history are loosely defined by the vocalists who have come and gone, but then one of the few common threads to run through the group over the last 20 years is Horace Andy. Is he still very much a vital element?
D: “Absafuckinglutely, Horace connects us to that bigger part of our history with the Afro-Caribbean scene, which is a big part of Bristol’s history. We still owe a massive amount of our cultural debt to the city. The blues clubs and the reggae scene made us what we are really. Horace connects us to that all the time – he's a man with such an amazing reggae history, in America, the UK and Jamaica, it’s just a privilege to work with him. It wouldn’t be the same touring without Horace, he’s absolutely hilarious.”

Heligoland becomes a loaded title as you learn more about its origins, whether interpreted as a symbol of multiculturalism or the struggle that comes with it. What does it mean to you personally?
G:Heligoland was something that D proposed to me actually, something he saw in a book... he was drawn to it artistically in the way that it looked and also that it was more like an anagram, you can make loads of different words out of it. It was just a real simple thing, but on investigation we found that it has quite a history this place, this little North Sea Island.”
D: “Another interpretation of the word is ‘Holyland’, going way back in its history, which I think is super relevant for right now. The island’s mad struggle in history is its very definition. Also, the image on the sleeve, the painting is of a culturally disorientated character or collage of things we’re being forced to look at by superimposition. Instead of being able to make our own minds up, the idea is projected into us.”

Splitting The Atom put me in mind of the timeless sentiments you’d associate with The Message by Grandmaster Flash or Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen, was there a relation to those songs there when you were writing it?
G: “Not a direct relation, but don’t forget, man, nothing’s really moved on politically…the way we are now, it’s almost the same sort of political and social climate as it was when we first released a record. There’s the Gulf War, which was going on when we first released Blue Lines. There’s the economic depression which was going on then and – touch wood – dragged us through the shit over the years. Unemployment was at a high, which is where it’s at now. There was a rise of the fascist racism that is going on now, the fact that those people have seats in the European Parliament… the landscape is almost the same.”

Are you still writing music for these times?
D: “I think our music has always been a debate of what’s around us, in a conversational sense. Only every now and again have we done something deliberately political. I think, in terms of the idea of what politics means to us, in terms of what we do live and the fact we can take... to me, being an ex-graffiti artist, the idea of taking things from the papers and the net in the form of information, statistics, news, gossip – whatever – and sloganeering it by putting it all over the screen and juxtaposing it into different songs, with different places and with contrary information, that’s what politics is to me at the moment. It’s about trying to work out the truth from all the bullshit. It’s about looking at the news today and seeing the guy pulled out of the rubble after 12 days in Haiti, the news about the Brad and Angelina split and last night’s football results and trying to work out what the grain of truth I get from that is. How does that make me feel? What does that make me? What have I absorbed there? What am I going to do with that?”

Is it important to you that Massive Attack still speaks to the people who were buying your records 10 or 20 years ago?
G: “Most definitely. It’s funny you say that, though; I was telling somebody the other day that I keep seeing all these young kids at the gigs right now. I say to these kids sometimes – because most gigs we get a group of people to come back and have a drink with us afterwards – ‘well, come on then, you’re only 17, 18, what are you doin’ ‘ere?’ One of them said to me ‘Well, my parents are here as well but we were actually made to this music.’"

So you’re a bit like the new Barry White?
D: [laughs] “That’s fucking right, isn’t it. It’s funny, I can think of three people who’ve come up to me and said ‘during the delivery of my baby, I had your music playing.’ How nutty is that?”

Besides the bespoke work Robert has done [with composer Neil Davidge, as the other half of 100 Suns] on scores for film [like the award-winning Gomorrah and more recently 44 Inch Chest] Massive Attack's music has increasingly become the montage music of choice for tv, cinema and documentary producers ever since Blue Lines. What do you make of that phenomenon?
D: “Put it this way, it’s weird how sheep-like a lot of production companies are. Everyone wanted to use Angel on every fucking trailer. And you think: ‘Christ almighty, man, once it’s been used once in one film, doesn’t it look like the other film when you do it again? Why do you want your trailer to look like that film from last year? That’s bizarre.’ But that’s not the way people think. Occasionally you’ll get one film that comes along – almost by accident – which does something different, but then another motherfucking sucker in Hollywood will go and copy it. That approach gets on my tits, really."

The last time you were really in the public eye was when Robert [alongside Albarn and Brian Eno] petitioned against the western allies’ invasion of Iraq. Massive Attack weren't particularly known as agitators in 2003 and that stance has undoubtedly changed the way the world looks at the band. How did you feel about that, Grant?
G: “When Damon and Robert took that ad in the NME it was quite a daring thing, the NME didn’t even want to support it… they’d paid for that ad out of their own money. But it was funny to see certain people come out of the woodwork as soon as the coast was clear, suddenly you had your Chris Martins and your Bonos sticking their ‘ead above the waters and condemning the war. Sometimes you can freeze and get yourself shocked about these things, but it just takes guts to stand up and say ‘this is wrong and we believe that so strongly that we’re going to be martyrs to the cause.’ You’ve got to appreciate that in people.”

Was it an impulsive response?
D: “It was very impulsive, but to that point we’d been involved with various organisations over the years – particularly with Greenpeace and Amnesty – doing different things, and also the Red Cross when various disasters have sprung up. But that was the first thing which had a very political challenge attached to it. Any response to a disaster is often non-political and humane, but once you start dealing with something where it’s a question of yes or no, politically you’re making a statement. That’s why people shy away from being involved in political choices. But that was purely impulsive because I felt really strong about it.

"I guess it’s interesting that this new record is coming out now with the backdrop of the Iraq War Inquiry; one of the things I find quite poignant about that is when you looked at it pre-invasion and were thinking about the carnage to follow, you'd wonder: ‘well, how many deaths justify a forcible regime change situation?’ None of us bought the WMD reasons for the invasion anyway. Secondly, when Saddam was then caught and tried in an Iraqi kangaroo court and then executed in a really barbaric fashion, were the British fully complicit in knowing that if he were to be tried by the Iraqis then that’s what would happen to him? Knowing now that we’re looking at an inquiry to question the legality of the invasion in the first place, you think 'well, what would happen to all our leaders that went into this war? Will they also suffer a similar fate? Even in the British justice system, would they face imprisonment even?' No, I doubt it very much. So how can we then go to a country and export our legal system and our sense of fairness and democracy if we’re not even going to treat our leaders in the same way we’re prepared to treat the sovereign leader of Iraq, who we’d previously done many political deals with in the first place? I find the whole thing, that part beyond the horror of the war, particularly disturbing and hard to accept. Watching somebody being executed like that, with our major coercion and cooperation, I found very distasteful.

"This whole inquiry brings that back to me and throws up the question: 'so what about this inquiry?' If anyone is found to be culpable or is held to account, will they be held to account or will we once again make a mockery of the legal system we’re trying to export to the rest of the world?”

What positive outcome do you hope might come about in the aftermath of the inquiry?
D: “The only thing I could see happening that would be of any value is if, in the next stage of the democratic evolution of the western world, instead of wasting our time on voting for parties and them wasting their time campaigning and electioneering, we create a system of governance where we vote on serious issues and referendums and put the bureaucratic waste of money into that area, where people get a chance to vote, especially in a world where we can all vote online. It’d have to be heavily regulated but we could have a vote on whether we should go to war, whether we should spend money on nuclear power stations or on wind farming, or vote on whether we should spend money on education, health or if we should we bail the banks out, as opposed to just being forced into these situations. I don’t see any point now in imprisoning the government or taking legal action against anyone of that time, because it’s not going to bring back any dead bodies. But, I can see that what we can learn from this is a different way of guiding the country in these times, things are different now. We’re in the age of information, we can share that and use it, but I’m being an idealist. I feel like I’ve had about five pints! I’m fucking sober and I’ve said all that, can you believe it?"

Not so long ago, The Guardian referred to you as “one of the most politically active bands in Britain." Do you feel some sense of responsibility to help try and keep your crowds aware?
G: “Not in the slightest, it’s not up to us to keep the public aware; it’s up to you, the individual. I’m not the most political person in the world, I know D’s quite heavily driven and that’s the reason I’ve been drawn into it as well, because of D’s passion and awareness of what’s going on in this world and how we’re all being used as pawns and the way our sense of privacy has been invaded and diminished. It goes deep. And, you know, I’ve got three kids, so it’s up to me to make myself politically aware for their sake. I owe them a duty to be on the case. Everybody should be on the case, you should know what’s happening and have that general sense of what’s really going on and how, if we don’t watch it, we’re all gonna get played.”

You’re donating a chunk of the proceeds from your forthcoming gigs to the HOPING foundation. Can you tell me a bit about your involvement there?
D: “After being to [the Gaza Strip] a couple of times, meeting the Hoping Foundation and doing some gigs for them – we were talking about trying to do gigs in Palestine in the past and we’d played in Israel – it ultimately became apparent that, well, what difference does that make to a Palestinian kid? Our music has no relevance to their situation whatsoever, it would be no better than doing the Live 8 gig to try and change the world’s attitude to the global debt – absolutely pointless exercise. So why not try and raise some money to build some studios in the refugee camps and then enable the kids to make music and express themselves, because that’ll have more relevance to all of us.”

Finally, Massive Attack took home an Ivor Novello award for your contribution to British music last year, what does an accolade like that mean to the band?
G: “Apart from the blag? [laughs] Well, I’ll tell you what; the funny thing is that me and D looked at one another and pissed ourselves laughing when we heard. It’s probably one of the greatest accolades we could ever receive. Massive Attack has never been about being this conventional band. I remember when we first started as the Wild Bunch back in the 80s, it was all about the Jamaican sound system thing which was quite prevalent in England then; DJs would go around with big speakers, heavy amps and have their own mobile soundsystems that would blow fish out of the water, the bass was so heavy. We were part of that; our weapon of choice was a sampler before we progressed through to where we are now, which is the live act. Hip-hop came along and put us in the right direction to make records… we’ve been in the studio ever since.“

Heligoland is released via Virgin on 8 Feb.

Massive Attack's collection of short films commissioned for the album can be viewed here.