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Interview: Massive Attack

2010-02-18 13:57
Massive Attack (photo: Warren du Preez & Nick Thor

What's it been like working together on this new album?
Grant: It has been a case of maybe initiating tracks, and taking a track through to fruition, and if and when we need each others input we'll ask; whether it be through a vocal or even just for an opinion. So the way that we made the album was the fact that we started it in November and we’ve worked together, but it was a case that we were actually in the same studio working. So there was a spiritual awareness of what was going on, but not necessarily a physical awareness because tracks were started and initiated and maybe finished by each one of us. But the actual atmosphere is great, we’ve had our ups and downs, but it was an amicable procedure.

Robert: We work in different ways don’t we? Historically, going back to Blue Lines - being a different thing all together because it was our first record - and that was probably the record where we were all in each other’s faces in the studio in Cameron McVey’s house, and on top of each other with Johnny Dollar, who sadly passed away this year. It helped us to co-exist and coordinate with each other in a very new manner, because it was really a speculative demo, that album. But from that period onwards, I think we found our own paths. Historically, G has more of a DJ orientated attitude to things, and is sometimes quite aloof in that sense because he is not going to be in the studio hour by hour, minute by minute in the same way I might be or Mush (Mushroom ex-band member) was, or Neil (Davidge, co-producer) has been. Where we would sit there for weeks on end, but G would sort of come in with ideas and leave again, he’ll offer an opinion and visa versa. And in a sense, we'll offer the same for the tracks he has brought to us, and help those tracks to evolve. But I think the interesting thing about this record, as opposed to the last two in particular; there has not been a central conflict which has maybe defined the relationships in the studio, or the nature of the album and it’s mood.

What is the mood of this album like?
Robert: It's more upbeat. It is...I'm loathed to say the word because we've been using it a lot in the past few weeks, but it is more communal. There is more people involved, more personalities. That brings a different energy to the studio, or to the various studios we have worked in on this record. I think the change of location from Bristol, New York, London has given it a different feel as well. 100th Window was very much a Bristol album, and it was in one studio, and people came to it – Sinead, Horace – it’s a different experience.

Each track has historically been a moment. You don't sort of sit down with a set of backing tracks and strategise an album and work out how you’re going to finish it. It is one track at a time, and how you work on that track is dependant on who you are collaborating with or what your feeling for it is. It might be shelved for a year, picked back up again. It might be deconstructed and rebuilt. There is never really a central strategy, and I think that comes into play in the production side of it – when you are about to finish it, when you feel there is a record, what approach you take. In the sense that 100th Window was a strong reaction to anti-Mezzanine, because to me that record was still about loops and big bass lines and heavy beats. 100th Window was about intricacies and layers, and very much was probably the most Pro Tools record we made, which was governed by the machinery and the computers in terms of everything being crafted in that world.

This record, in terms of its production, the sound was more of getting away from that, simplifying everything and stripping it back – making the instruments very evident. So when we were doing drums, if they were drums recorded in New York they were very dry, very small drum booth, very simple. If they are electronic, they are very electronic. The contrast between the tracks and the moments within the tracks being made to be very evident. 100th Window was about a lot of crafting, and lots of layers which were possibly interlacing, and you weren't sure what was what. The idea of this record was to make it very apparent and very immediate what was what. So whether it was an analogue or an electric keyboard, you would recognise those sounds and the differences between them.

Why the title Heligoland?
Robert: The record was about a lot of different personalities and it seems nice to represent the title of the album as a place, as opposed to just a thing or a phrase or a word. It felt more accurate to describe a place where everyone might co-exist, or not. That was more interesting than just a very cool phrase you could dig out, you know. To be honest, the history of the island was something that came more apparent later, after really getting into the idea, or falling in love with the word. Which in itself sounds like an anagram of lots of other words, which is why it is such a nice word. But the history of the place is absolutely intriguing, and also the fact that one of the earliest spellings 'Helgoland' also means Holy Land, which is obviously very poetic. I think the history, the quantum physics thing, the British Military, the occupation of the island, the detonating of that bomb The Big Bang, the biggest sub-nuclear explosion…all those different parts of it's history… its sixties utopian paradise concept. It has got too much history really!

Working with Damon Albarn...
Robert: Going to Damon's studio was a decision which helped persuade the people who we had just informed that we were going to inform that we were basically going to shelve the album we had at the end of last year. That idea was met with, as you can imagine, a deafening silence which went on for a couple of weeks, and then it was followed by a big round of applause when we said 'yeah but we're going to Damon's studio'.

We're talking about the record company yeah?

Ha ha, and the management yeah, and everyone around us who couldn't understand why we were shelving and album which they had heard live which they seemed to be enjoying all the summer previously, from Meltdown onwards. Damon agreed to work with us after saying that he wouldn’t get sucked into a two year Bristolian vortex, and would only do it over a period of two weeks in the hours of 10am-6pm and everything would be in a major key, no minor keys whatsoever! Of course all that changed when we got there – apart from the vortex bit.

Grant: It was a great impetus actually, because like D was saying, we came back and we had what we though was an album, and we shelved it and were at a bit of a loss as to where to begin…where the starting point was going to be, the start of Heligoland. We asked Damon if we could come to his studio, and he agreed, and it was a great starting point, a great springboard to work from. Working with Damon, he is a complete genius and once we’d started those sessions with Damon there was no looking back really. It became so fruitful that it seemed if we slowed down the process of work or the work rate it would be a fruitless exercise. Also we had Damon in the background saying 'when are my tracks going to be finished then?' so that was a bit of Carry On really. We went to New York and to Williamsburg to work with Tunde and Tim Goldsworthy, and also did some recording here in Bristol.

Working with TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe....
Robert: I think with Tunde he sort of knows when he's doing his vocal, how many different takes he wants to attempt and knows how many different types of vocal he wants to attempt. When he starts he starts to build up layers and layers and knows he wants to do another layer, and he’ll move away from the mic and do something a little bit more course, then back to the mic for something a bit more soft. You can tell in his head he is creating a collage himself. You add that to the fact that we are looking at an arrangement and thinking 'right, this is going to work by moving this around' and you’re trying to build it in your mind as he is putting a vocal in. It is really great to be around him doing that because he is someone who…some vocalists need a lot of instruction you know, they need to be guided, Tunde gets in there and has a million ideas, and it’s really great to sit back and listen to it unfold.

Working with Martina Topley-Bird....
Robert: From the moment Tricky played me the first demo he’d done with Martina when me and Tricky were living together, I still remember him putting the cassette into the machine and me being totally overwhelmed with jealousy and not being able to accept the fact he’d found her in Bristol just round the corner. She ended up making a great album with him and then going on to making more amazing music herself, and collaborating with some different people. We’ve been in similar orbits for a long time at gigs, festivals and she’s done shows with us, and it was inevitable that we would eventually get her in to the studio. But there is always kind of that fear in the background that you want something so much that it might go wrong…that maybe the chemistry wouldn’t be right…but it was lovely.

Working with Hope Sandoval....
Grant: Unfortunately that is the only track that was done by the powers of electronics. Initially had a couple of tracks for Hope that we wanted her to do – sent them to her and she sent them back, that’s how it was done really, back and fourth. Unfortunately we haven’t met her but we’re hoping to have her come on tour with us for a couple of gigs in the States. I was made aware of her by the guys that I was working with at the time, guys called The Robots. I’ve probably been asleep for all these years because I hadn’t been aware of Hope to be honest until then which was a couple of years ago. She has the most amazing angst, and emotional voice…what more could you say about her but she is just amazing.

What was the process of working remotely with Hope?
Grant: So simple, it was unbelievable. Thinking that you’d have this really complicated back and fourth, it was really literally absolutely amazing. When we got it back it was like hit it on the nail straight away.

Working with Horace Andy....
Grant: We're all surprised with Horace in the fact that he is from a traditional Reggae background and the fact that he is really open-minded. It's funny really because we work with him, and when he goes back to Jamaica and he must really have the piss taken out of him for working with us because I don’t think anyone in Jamaica understands our music at all, and they can’t understand what Horace is doing with us!

Album artwork...
Robert: The artwork is something that has been around us from the beginning, when we were The Wild Bunch taking a space, getting into a warehouse and painting graffiti and drawing the flyers on that very old school level, was the fun of what we were doing. It has been with us all the way and I think after Protection I got a bit bored with doing paintings and wanted to work more photographically, and had the chance to work with Tom Hingston and Nick Knight. We threw ourselves right into a strange world of combinations of images on Mezzanine, collages of images. And then 100th Window took it to a more extreme level with blowing up the glass figures and then rebuilding them as composites. And again on Collected it was again a very photographic graphic image. James Lavelle got me back into painting on War Stories and I painted the sleeve for him – I haven't painted a sleeve in that intense way for quite a while so it was a little bit of a shock to the system, and I had a deadline to work to which was good. I gave myself a little bit of a deadline on this record to try and do some paintings which would give a sense of space and belonging for the record. You know, something that you understood in us historically and something that made sense now of what the record is about, what it sounds like, who's involved in it.

I don't know if it is always successful, my favourite format is the one with the book where he put a book full of images which is really exciting because you get a chance to work like you would...if it is the difference between a film and a box set of The Wire or Sopranos where you can work over a long form period as opposed to trying to tell a story in 90mins, with the book you get lots of pages of things which give you an image of the band in a much more full way. As opposed to the old CD jewel case which is cut and run. And digitally, I think with the website it offers the opportunity to present the artwork in so many different ways over a long period of time. With the website now the ability to put on downloads and tracks and stream things, put up photos from the tour, it is much more of an evolving space, as opposed to a finite point of sale or some really dull space where you find out the tour dates. It is kind of an evolutionary thing which I think for the first time we have almost got right, I can only hope that other people agree with that.

Did your work on film scores influence the making of this record?
Robert: If it did, it was probably interesting because it was that I didn't want to use any of the same processes involved in film score work on this record. I think I was getting slightly despondent with the work on film in the last year because I find it slightly unrewarding because it tends to end up becoming generic, no matter how you start. I think there is a fear of silence in movies which directors, producers, distributors cannot take, and every film has to have the same device to help the plot evolve or to help the audience interface with the characters and give them permission to laugh, cry etc. After a while it really does become a bore and working in Pro Tools a lot of the time on film stuff, you tend to be doing lots of tones and layering, and again on this record it was about stripping away all that and keeping it very sharp, very Spartan almost in places. Lots of space, which was really one of the intentions of the sound of this record, and ironically Gomorrah was one of my happiest most favourite moment in recent years on film scoring and that’s a film with no music in it at all – which goes to say a lot about the process. When Matteo Garrone came to Bristol and I saw the film I was like 'you don't need music in this' because it is so intense and beautiful that you are thrown straight into it, that it would destroy that moment if you were to put music between you and the film. We tried a few things, and it didn’t work, and eventually we agreed on the naturalistic way that film is and sound design and did something for the end.

Making films not videos....
Robert: The industry has changed, and to give you a long form answer, we are in a space that we feel comfortable with in terms of how the industry is now from where we were coming from, the DJ perspective of taking music and sampling it, and play listing it…this is the way people accept music now and share it, and we totally get that. That whole peer to peer is something we have been around from our very beginning and we really dig that. In the sense that everything is presented in a totally different way, it doesn’t have to go through reformed channels you had to go through – had to make a video for £100,000, it had to get onto MTV, it had to have a marquee presentation night. Now you can put films together and you can transmit them in so many different ways. For us, even going on tour last year, YouTube meant that all our songs that were possibly going to be on the album that we shelved were all out there anyway…with videos! In a way you think what is the point in making a pop video now because people make their own videos. If I want to get the football highlights, someone has already edited it together and added music and put their own title sequence up nowadays. We want to give the directors we work with a different space for it, so if we give you a small budget as opposed to a big budget and you make the film you want to the track you choose, and you can pull the track apart, we’ll give you the stems, you can do what you want…it’s just more interesting now. We’ve done the other thing, and this is the way it was always heading and I think it has got there at last to a certain degree. So the films we got are the directors personal visions, done on a very tight budget in a very lo-fi and intriguing way – possibly never to be seen outside of the internet.

Playing live....
Grant: Yeah, there is still a great excitement, and you know, the fact that we're in a position where it feels good to be doing this. It's great to have an interface with the crowd after being in the studio for such a long time, and it was quite an intense period being in the studio and sometimes getting out, myself and D, it’s good that we can hang out for a little bit.
Robert: With the visual, without using clichés like 'cinematic' or 'journey' we try and make it a little difficult at the beginning to challenge everyone's notions of what we’re about or just to draw people in in a different way. As opposed to going in with what you know, and then working backwards. Sometimes we have done what a few other bands have done, where you put a couple of big hits right at the front to get them out of the way because you are slightly annoyed about that, and then you make it difficult. But on the whole we try and make it a bit more intriguing and draw people in.

British trip-hop pioneers, Robert '3D' Del Naja and Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall discuss their new album, 'Heligoland'.
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