Separate but Equal
A lot of groups would love to be given credit for having started an entire genre of music, but Bristol, England's Massive Attack has neither the time nor the inclination to bask in its status as the "Godfathers of Trip-Hop." As the British and American press heap praise on them, and bands such as the Sneaker Pimps and Portishead cash in using Massive Attack's formula -- a combination of slowed hip-hop beats, dub reggae space effects, and spooky electronic sounds -- the originators have been the ones to define and redefine trip-hop on their three albums, not to mention the remix work they've done for artists such as Peter Gabriel, U2, and Garbage.
Taking a quick breather in the studio while doing yet another remix ("Rabbit in Your Headlights," a song from Mo' Wax records owner James Lavelle and turntablist DJ Shadow's UNKLE project that features Radiohead's Thom Yorke), Robert del Naja, (a.k.a. "3D") admits that while Massive Attack may be influential, he and the rest of the group haven't really paid too much attention to what critics say about them. "It's quite an abstract thought to see how influential we are. A lot of people tell us what they think about us, and we just say, 'That's cool.' We get on with our lives, really," he nonchalantly remarks.
Getting on with their lives includes coming to the conclusion that all members of the band work better on their own than together. According to del Naja, the next album with the Massive Attack name won't sound as unified as their latest release, Mezzanine, out since April. "It will be more like compiling an album made by different people," he says. "We want it to be different again, so we just take the ideas that come from each individual."
And though Rolling Stone recently tagged Mezzanine "Hot Muzak" because so many stores, salons, fashion photographers, and restaurants use it as hip background music, Massive Attack has been complementing its dark mix with sultry vocals since forming in 1987. Unaware of the recent writeup, del Naja agrees with the assessment that his group's April release is the ubiquitous album of 1998. Which might not be such a great thing. "The problem," he says, "is that any time you put an album out that is given the tag 'cool,' then what's going to happen to it? The same would happen, I would have thought, with [Radiohead's] OK Computer, or Portishead. It's kind of difficult to get away from."
One thing that is also hard to escape is the question of Bristol's apparent status -- it's also home to Roni Size and Portishead -- as the trip-hop equivalent of the grunge capital, Seattle. He laughs at the comparison, "I went to Seattle and I thought it was boring. I didn't see any music at all, just a fish market. Bristol's pretty dull. When you go to Bristol, unless you sort of start knocking on doors, it's quite difficult to find anything that's going on. Our label [Melankolic is run by the band] plans to put out two or three new acts we've signed from Bristol, and they are very different. One's a rock act and one is more of a hip-hop thing. We're not interested in trip-hop. We meet so many people and we're surrounded by so many talented people that we thought it would be a really good idea to put a label together and try to make better use of those circumstances and those opportunities."
As dull as del Naja makes Bristol out to be, it was that city's party scene where the other two future members of Massive Attack, "Mushroom" Vowles and "Daddy G" Marshall, started working together in 1983 as DJs in the Wild Bunch. Among the top "Sound Systems" (or collective of like-minded DJs) in England, the Wild Bunch was known for constructing performances from punk, reggae, and R&B records and throwing must-attend parties. After the group folded, Vowles and Marshall joined up with graffiti artist del Naja and future Bjsrk producer Nellee Hooper, who divided his time between Massive Attack and Soul II Soul. Their first release was the 1990 single "Daydreaming," which featured rapping from another former Wild Buncher, on-again, off-again Massive Attack collaborator Tricky. A year later the full-length Blue Lines was released and the accolades from the British press began.
A three-year hiatus (which was the result of a disastrous American tour) stalled work on their next record, 1995's Protection, which included the vocals of Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn. The group had previously relied on a host of lesser-known female vocalists; this marked the first time they used such a high-profile guest. (They would later work with Madonna on "I Want You" for Motown's 1995 Marvin Gaye tribute album, Inner City Blues, and former Cocteau Twins' singer Liz Fraser on Mezzanine.) Always looking for a fresh perspective on their work, eight songs from Protection were given to dub legend the Mad Professor, who remixed them with the results released as No Protection.
One of the reasons for the delay between Protection and Mezzanine was that the trio spent more time fighting about the music than actually working on it. Consequently, Hooper is no longer in the group. The remaining members decided to work independently and then bring the mostly finished songs back to the rest of the group. "I just think we have very different ideas about what we want. I was definitely more belligerent [on Mezzanine]," explains del Naja. "I wanted to do something very different from the previous two albums, so I probably got a lot more of my way in terms of taking it in a different direction. I think on the next record we'll probably do the same, but it will be more of a separate thing."
The obvious tension between the members leads inevitably to questions about the future. While del Naja claims that the group will continue to operate as Massive Attack, the band's declared truce sounds closer in theory to solo records. Given that each member seems to have different ideas about the band's sound, future releases will most likely have distinctly individual songs. "I'm sure we'll make another Massive Attack record in a different way. I think we've realized that we are all very different and there is no point in trying to blur the edges any more," he muses. "It's better to let people have the edges and exploit them musically. I think the fact that I was belligerent on this album will encourage everyone else to do the same on the next album."
The next album isn't even in the planning stages, as the band gets set to open its American tour in Miami. Massive Attack was originally scheduled to tour with the Verve (another band with a questionable future), a bill that promised to make it the essential show of the summer. But after sluggish ticket sales caused some concerts to be moved to smaller venues, and tension in both bands became impossible to ignore, Massive Attack went its own way. "It seems that [the Verve] has a lot of things they've got to sort out in their band, and we've got a lot of personal issues we've got to sort out in our band," del Naja admits. "It just seemed like a bad combination of too many sparks."
Sparks are sure to fly when Massive Attack uses the show to reinvent its songs. "We get bored with the tracks, so we rearrange them, play different parts, change the lyrics," explains del Naja. "We've done almost 60 shows already this year. I came off [the European leg of the] tour and I was so bored. I wanted to [record] a B-side for the new single just to make things interesting. One, because I wanted to record some new material because I was writing things while we were touring, and two, because it means we've got a new song to play live for the rest of the year."
While the remainder of 1998 is pretty much planned out for the group (tour dates are already scheduled until Christmas), each nightly performance will find them experimenting with the music and set lists. Changing the songs includes cranking the volume and speeding up the tempos onstage, both of which stem from the group's original plan for the album. Unlike a lot of the somnambulistic shows provided by trip-hoppers, the Massive show is -- well, massive. "My vision was that you could play Mezzanine quietly, to just take in some of the moods and take in some of the textures. But then if you played it loud it would be kind of hard. I think by playing it loud over a big system, we get to show both sides of the story; that's really good fun. One of the reasons we're touring is that we get to present it in a different manner. We've got a more live approach, and I think it does the record justice when you listen to it at home and you hear us play it live. The experiences are different and you get the idea of why the album works on different levels. You get to exploit the energy more."
Massive Attack and opening act DJ Lewis Parker perform Thursday, September 3, at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-532-0922. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20.
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