There are three different characters behind Britain’s coolest, most influential dance act. One hip hop obsessed b-boy. One DJ who admits they used to judge each others’ trainers as harshly as their music. And the third? He’s been up all night again, which is why their new album ‘Mezzanine’ is set in the paranoid hours between night and morning. Is this Massive Attack’s most revealing interview ever?
Massive’s 3D takes an exploratory sip from his glass of Martini and crushed strawberries – “Oh man, that’s just ridiculous,” he enthuses-and begins to explain the , the title. “It’s that particular point of the day when the night-before feeling turns into the morning-after feeling,” he says, “and you’re up and you’re with someone and it’s just you two against the World. That idea reflects me, my kind of lifestyle.”
Back home from a club in the grey light of dawn. Too much of everything, so you’re never goingto sleep. And there’s nothing to do but sit around, staring at nothing. Watch the air move. Try to ignore that slow, creeping, nameless fear.
In a London hotel room, Grant Marshall, Massive’s Daddy G, laughs. “The mezzanine? I think D spends half his life there. I don’t think he knows whether he’s coming or going. ”
On the Mezzanine, when you’re too fucked to talk and too wired to make any sense, the only thing to do is to step to tunes, and wait for the World to slip away.
These days, the three members of Massive Attack are interviewed separately. Mushroom claims it saves time. 3D says that last time they tried a group interview, they nearly came to blows over the relative merits of Puff Daddy. Massive Attack can agree on everything, he explains in a speedy West Country accent that sounds nothing like his rapping voice. Everything except music.
“We have fun. We experience the world together. We get on really well together, as long as we don’t talk about music. As soon as we talk about music, vye argue.”
It usually comes to;a head in the studio. Massive Attack’s recor.ds may glide out the speakers, the sound of spliffed-up, laid-back contentment, but the making of the classic ‘Blue Lines’ and its follow-up, ‘Protection’ were fraught with disagreements.
“I’m a perfectionist,” says 3D, “so each album’s a bit of a struggle. I listen to all three albums and I think four or five tracks are fucking crap. I intrinsically hate them, but the others like them.” ;
On ‘Mezzanine’, the three worked separately. “Individually recorded because we’re individually minded,” he explains.
The results are bleaker and heavier than anything Massive have recorded before. Horace Andy’s plaintive voice against a wall of distorted guitars. Breaks that shudder and collapse into scraping noise. Songs about comedowns and boredom and falling out of love. Its workingtitle was ‘Damaged Goods’ because “it felt that way, it felt flawed, itdidn’t fit”. And 3D’s whispersounds more chilling than chilled. On the remarkable ‘Group 4’, his voice is positively evil, whereas before he sounded… “… more like a kid?’; he grins. “I’ve just got older, that’s all. My voice has finally broken. Or maybe now I’m just a’depressing bastard.”
The guitars have spilled over from their live shows. The grinding loops are 3D and Grant’s new wave influences, samples pinched from arty punks like Wire and Bristol’s own Pop Group. But there’s something darker at the heart of ‘Mezzanine’ than just playing with sound. For the first time, Massive Attack sound menacing. 3D dismisses the idea of “pop stars locked in studios, shadowboxing with the Devil” as a cliche, but you sense ‘Mezzanine’ was made against a sombre background. He talks about having “morbid thoughts” and dysfunctional relationships inside and out of the group.
“There’s less stability now. You never know what you’re going to be doing in a month, how you’re going to fit into things, how your mood’s going to be affected by what happens in the studio. Relationships are suffering because of that. In the studio it’s too intense, it’s too difficult, it’s dysfunctional. But that’s the beauty of it. It gives us something in our music. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Really? He considers for a second, then laughs.
“Actually, that’s a rash statement…”
“I can remember leaving school one day and some guy had the window of his car down, playing the most diverse music I’d ever heard. I was like, ‘What is this?’ I caught a bus straight down to a shop called Revolver where this big, intimidating sort of guy worked behind the counter. I went up to him, going, ‘Serve me up some of this mad music I’ve just heard!’ I didn’t even know what it was called. I was going, ‘It’s got mad beats! Mad beats!’ The guy behind the counter’s yelling around the shop, ‘What can we sell this kid?’ and he served me up a couple of electro albums.
“There were stickers all over, saying THE WILD BUNCH’. I was like, The Wild Bunch? Are they connected with this mad music? Who are The Wild Bunch?’ The bloke behind the counter turns round and goes, ‘I am The Wild Bunch.’”
Andrew Vowles – the name Mushroom came later, when he worked as a pizza chef – had just been simultaneously introduced to hip hop and Grant Marshall. He was 15, and hooked: “It was just a case of what side of the culture I was going to apply myself to. A bit of spraying? A bit of breaking or DJing?”
The next night, Grant sneaked him into The Dug Out, the Clifton club where the Wild Bunch were early 80s residents. He was adopted as the crew’s junior member. In early photos of the Wild Bunch, he looks impossiblyyoung, intently watching Grant select records, like a kid watching his dad. He’s anxious about what the others said in their interviews – “you’ve talked to the other two and they’ve said something different, haven’t they?”-and his voice, normally so soft it barely registers on tape, puffs up with pride when he takes a step back and begins to talk about their early days.
“When we rolled into a party or a club, there was six of us, all totally mad looking,” he remembers. “We were into extreme dressing. Miles was like a space-age dread, he’d been to Japan and had the maddest clothes. Grant was this seven foot tall zoot-suited guy with a big hat on. D was like something out of a 70s Coppola movie, white shirts and braces and his hair slicked back. Claude was another mad dread, Nellee had the latest designer gear and I had all the stuff from New York at the time.”
If 3D’s the voice and Grant’s the elder statesman, Mushroom is Massive Attack’s silent, shadowy force: lurking behind his decks on stage, reclining behind designer shades on the cover of ‘Blue Lines’. He never says much in interviews because “I always get asked the same bag of questions they’ve pulled out of the journalists’ vending machine.” And he particularly hates the phrase ‘trip hop’.
“When the Wild Bunch started, we called it lover’s hip hop. Forget all that trip hop bullshit. There’s no difference between what Puffy or Mary J Blige or Common Sense is doing now and what we were doing on ‘Blue Lines’, but no one has the cheek to call them trip hop,” he bristles with indignance. “There was one journalist cheeky enough to call our new album ‘goth hop’. Fuckin’ ridiculous…”
Instead, he thinks ‘Mezzanine’ is a step back from the “electronic studio minefield” that made ‘Protection’ so slick. He claims to be unaware of Massive’s influence on 90s dance culture-“big beat? What’s that?” – because he never reads the press and because Bristol is so isolated from the rest of England. It’s that isolation, he says, that’s shaped the fierce local scene.
“We’re not affected by the latest cultures or trends; when you go out, nobody’s pattingyou on the back saying, ‘Well done, what are you going to do next?’ Like, Portishead is one of the most diverse styles of music that’s ever come out of this country. Geoff Barrow’s a bit of an anorak, right? He enjoys 60s soundtracks, he doesn’t give a fuck really, he wants to do what’s in his mind. Being isolated helped him to develop that. Or Krust. That guy should go down as one of the all-time great pioneer geniuses, like Larry Heard was for house. The music he’s doing is different because he’s isolated in Bristol.”
Ten years on, he’s still obsessed with hip hop: “It’s a pretty obsessive culture, buying the freshest trainers and keeping them fresh, always wanting the freshest, most bumping bit of music.” Talk about guest vocalists and he admits he’d like to work with D’Angelo or Erykah Badu – “but I don’t think the others would be down with that”. And Massive Attack’s greatest achievement?