Crack goes one-on-one with the Massive Attack mainstay.
Setting foot in Robert Del Naja’s studio space is, in itself, enough to take you aback. Located in Bristol’s Bedminster area, a passer by wouldn’t begin to imagine the significance of the processes taking place in the midst of this unassuming setting.
As we’re shown to the open plan loft area on the top floor, we’re surrounded by artwork and memorabilia. Notable are a 1986 Wild Bunch poster and a Hail To The Thief-era Stanley Donwood piece. The building is buzzing with activity, with the likes of collaborator Tim Goldsworthy milling around freely.
As an individual, Del Naja is accommodating and energetic. Art – his own, and that of others – is perhaps the topic which sparks most vividly, and at one point he darts off mid-interview to show us a piece which had been run off the printer the previous night. For a man who’s been at it for nigh on 30 years, there’s no dearth of creative passion on show here.
It would seem inappropriate to meet the man known as 3D in any city other than Bristol. His multi-faceted output has come to represent the city to a wider world, becoming synonymous with its expanding and diverse musical heritage. First finding his way in the early 80s, he became part of The Wild Bunch, a collective of graffiti artists, musicians and enthusiasts that included the core of what would come to be Massive Attack. Informed by the sense of emancipation and self-expression innate to punk music, he quickly became engrossed in the rapidly expanding phenomenon of soundsystems, one which blurred lines of race and cultural grounding.
From the embryo of The Wild Bunch, Massive Attack blossomed. Working with a stark clash of seemingly disparate musical ideologies, by 1991 the group had crafted the era-defining, game-changing Blue Lines. It’s an album referenced freely to this day, and indeed, one of the first things to catch our eye as we entered 3D’s studio space is a newly packaged, 12” copy.
This benchmark record has recently been scheduled for a remastered rerelease. Given a dynamic retouching from the original tapes, the version presented sparkles with life. Not one to dwell on nostalgia, there is certainly no lack of pride on his part concerning the album itself, or it’s shiny new rebirth. Yet ever the reluctant figurehead, there are far more immediate issues to address above something which happened over two decades ago. That’s not to mention the four albums which came in its wake: 1994’s sublime Protection, the masterpiece which was 1998’s Mezzanine, 2003’s turbulently-realised and oft underrated 100th Window, and the flurry of creative energy and diversity which was the band’s last release, Heligoland, in 2010.
But as much as this surge to international prominence continued, Del Naja has always called Bristol home. While never reluctant to engage with politics on a national level, notably in his involvement with the Occupy movement, his focus on more local affairs was recently thrust into the spotlight with an open letter to mayoral candidate George Ferguson. Publicly questioning Ferguson’s involvement with the Merchant Venturers, a resolutely private entrepreneurial organisation in Bristol which has existed since the 13th century, Del Naja cast doubt over a figure regarded to have Bristol’s cultural and historical wellbeing at the very core of his belief system. Having received a prompt and sympathetic response, which Del Naja stresses he “appreciates”, there still seems an element of doubt in his mind. “I still find it slightly strange why he’d want to be in an organisation that has been so non-transparent about their dealings, and haven’t seemed willing to reconcile their negative history with the Afro- Caribbean community”, he says. (Del Naja later gave Ferguson his full backing, and he went on to win the election and become Bristol Mayor).
3D’s actions are endlessly entwined in a system of self-referentiality. His latest project, a series of events in Bristol’s abandoned Old Crown Courts and Prison Cells at the heart of the city, speaks in every way to that tendency. Describing it as “a way to reengage” with Bristol – musically, politically, artistically – the significance of the space is of prime importance. Beginning life on 12/12/12 and titled the Battle Box, the opening event will be based around a three-day soundclash between a deconstructed version of Massive Attack alongside two other, as yet unnamed but significant acts. From these will spring a series of debates and political discussions, at some point planned to include hugely respected Human Rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and his not-for-profit Revive organisation. The prison cells themselves will be co-curated by Del Naja and London’s Lazarides Gallery, brimming with a range of thought-provoking artwork. Exclusive Battle Box releases are also to be expected, 12”s including collaborations with Guy Garvey and Tim Goldsworthy, as well as the physical release of the Massive Attack vs. Nas 12”, available exclusively from Bristol record shops, to be bought with the Bristol pound. With this initial burst of life sure to cause an eruption of interest and discourse within the city, and six events scheduled over an 18 month period, the mutual influence of Robert Del Naja on Bristol, and vice versa, is as powerful as ever.
Holding this project in the courtrooms, can that be attributed to your inner rebel?
It has massive appeal. We’re doing something in a space you would never normally enter unless you were there for all the wrong reasons, or the right reasons. We’re also creating an opportunity to work in a space where the economic factors aren’t key, where you’re not trying to put a festival on for 10,000 people, with tickets at 50 quid to cover it, and then hope to sell 1000 gallons of cheap lager to make profit. In the era of austerity, we thought it would be more fun to go into a smaller space, more contained and be able to make decisions based on quality as opposed to quantity.
From a musical point of view, what exactly have you got planned?
When myself and Jules [Smith, a respected Bristol promoter who is partnering Del Naja in the organisation and curation of the event] went in there, one thing we originally agreed on was, let’s not try to just install a conventional stage, let’s work with the space we’ve got. Straight away, you’ve got to change a lot of stuff, which is cool. I thought that a great way to deconstruct the live show would be to have the central part as more of a DJ studio, keyboards and a bit of instrumentation and then start there, as opposed to basing it around a full live performance.
Obviously, the nature of your live sets are quite large scale compared to that, it’ll surely be one of the smallest, most intimate things you’ve done in a long time?
Also we’ll only put a bit of rehearsal into it because of time anyway, and we haven’t got a giant budget. It’s good because we’ve got so many limitations in terms of what kit we can put in there, what lighting, what PA, how many people can perform and how much time they’ve got to rehearse. All those parameters are going to make it completely different.
It’s fair to say that over the years, you’ve been a symbol of left- leaning common sense.
Or scattergun leftyism! [laughs]
Where does that side of you come from?
It probably comes from the pub, and if you see me sat alone in the corner it’s probably because everyone’s sick and tired of hearing it [laughs]. I think it’s informed by the music of my era, that sort of punk, hip-hop era. It was very much a background to all the issues of the day throughout my upbringing.
And the Bristol riots?
And the Bristol riots, yeah. I think when the riots last year happened, it just became apparent that it solved nothing, that romanticising of rioting seemed to be over. All it’s doing is getting kids put in jail, it’s destroying people’s businesses, it’s terrifying people, it’s nearly killed people and yet, the next day, no bankers had been locked up, nothing’s changed, it’s the exact opposite. In fact, it’s quite mad how justice was delivered to the rioters. If you look at that kid who attacked the Sheffield Wednesday keeper the other day, he was jailed within two minutes. Yet a lot of these perpetrators, whether it’s media crimes or banking crimes, are gonna drag this shit through the courts for the next decade. You see the lack of balance between everyone’s civil and legal rights quite blatantly.
Surely it just comes down to who can afford a good lawyer?
Exactly. You’ve seen on a local level the same things you’ll see on a national level, all the people who can’t afford representation go down and people who can afford it stay out of jail. And if we’re talking about democracy, something which the British like to export to the world militarily, then we have to stand by it. Look at the presidential election, we’re talking about both candidates trying to make America the most powerful and greatest democracy on the planet. But how can you stand by that if you’ve got Guantanamo Bay open? You’ve actually rendered prisoners to another country in order to break your own laws; how can you stand by an idea of democracy when that completely negates it? While we’re in this situation, it’s very difficult to really stand up to the next generation and say “this is how it works, this is the law you should believe in, this is democracy, it really is gonna work for you”. There are so many holes in it.
You were quite influential in pushing the Occupy movement. There’s a video of you and Thom Yorke, obviously you felt compelled to go down and put some weight behind that.
Direct action has always been something of interest to me and I think, coming from Bristol in the 80s as a youth, and the Bristol riots in 1980, I was only young and it was like this mythological moment. Growing up in punk and White Riot and The Clash, the idea of chucking bricks and breaking things seemed to be the way forward.
That was something you related to?
It seemed to be the only way to create change. It had to be through some violent act. To create a change, you had to come up against authority in such a violent way that you could somehow force change. I think, over the years, you realise that isn’t the case, and the better way to do it is to engage politically with different, smaller groups. The Occupy movement started to represent a very rational way of discussing the problem with the global economy and local economy. But the Bristol Occupy movement, as much as its presence needed to be felt, the idea of having a permanent camp didn’t seem to be any point to me.
Once people saw one of the most picturesque parts of the city being trashed a lot of the initial good will kind of petered out.
Exactly, it evaporated. And the problem is that direct action is meant to be a moment which is thoughtful and poignant and has a purpose that you can talk about and debate and you can stand by as a point. When it’s just placing a camp outside the council houses without any idea of engagement, I couldn’t see the point. Where’s the engagement? The longer it went on, the less effective it was. Whereas, occupying the UBS bank was a coherent idea which I understood, because the banking crisis created joblessness, it created house repossessions, thousands of people have been put out of work and lost their homes, yet this bank stands empty. So let’s take this bank over and try, as a point, to squat this bank to try to hammer this point home. Whether it’s the ‘99%’, or it’s more like the people who couldn’t afford their mortgage, or got kicked out of work. The ‘99%’ as a global ideology is neat, but this is the reality.
In terms of Bristol as a musical inspiration, most people feel that the city has had a real musical resurgence of late, with a huge deal of predominantly electronic music coming to the fore. How do you see the landscape right now?
What I think is interesting is that it’s developed, there’s been a total sense of progression, but at the same time it’s very much still about doing it yourself, about not trying to compete in a curve but doing your own thing. Bristol’s always had this sense of independence. After the punk era and the new-wave era ebbed away we had the reggae soundsystem, which was really informative for us. It all became about the soundsystem/DJ culture, the studio/ bedroom culture, and that’s stayed and really has continued to be the primary musical thing in Bristol.
Surely you guys must have set a blueprint for that. The whole culture which continues to exist today, that’s your legacy.
You can say there’s a legacy attached to that without a doubt, but to be totally honest, all the individual musical moments, particularly in the last five years, have been nothing to do with us. That’s been an independent scene which has just grown out of its own creativity, it has its own momentum. I think we have a place in the story of music in Bristol, but everyone else has got their own place now and no matter how we look at the dateline and go ‘well yeah, we did it first, we were there’, it’s just good to be a part of it as opposed to feeling we were a benchmark or catalyst. When we came out with our first album, then three years later with Protection and Portishead had made their record, and Tricky made his record, there was suddenly a group of artists, not just us three. There were other bands on the periphery too, and there was this big Bristol ‘scene’ and the A+R men were flooding to Bristol every day, they were really mining this scene. We didn’t want to be part of a scene, we wanted to be recognised as being ourselves and being absolutely unique in our own identity. So when I look at bands now, that’s what they want as well, y’know? Having an identity and being completely unique.
In terms of the sense of identity, one thing that’s incredibly striking about The Wild Bunch and Blue Lines is this supreme representation of Bristol’s multiculturalism. You had the black guy, the mixed race guy, yourself.
The white guy. Someone’s got to be the fucking white guy [laughs].
Do you think you did your bit for the multiculturalism of Bristol, almost by accident?
As much as we represented that part of Bristol, which I guess was mostly a minority back then, we were given that opportunity because of the places we went out, such as the legendary Dug Out club. You had that multicultural mix where people would go and listen to each other’s music. You went in there and it was a complete mix of people from throughout the whole class/race/gender spectrum, you never knew what to expect. Some nights were more hip-hop, more soul, more reggae. It had the first video bar, maybe, in the country, that showed the first music videos: Sunsplash from Jamaica, hip-hop from New York and old punk videos, that was just mental. People would go down to Dug Out at nine o’clock at night to watch videos, and then by midnight they’d be on the dancefloor. It was a really crazily unique time, you’d never get that again. You’ve now got all that shit piped into your house 24/7. At that time, you had to go there to meet people that shared your tastes, so the social network was a more physical one
Was Blue Lines essentially a musical representation of everything you’d sucked up as The Wild Bunch at that point?
Yeah, but only a small part of what we’d been listening to and absorbed. And ‘absorbed’ is the right word, because that’s what people who are into music do, you absorb it, don’t you? You take it into yourself, whether you’re DJing or whether you’re just listening at home on your headphones. What was interesting about it was, all the elements that it was made up of worked seamlessly together even though there was a conflict of ideas.
It wasn’t all plain sailing at that point, there was conflict and tension?
Yeah, there was always conflict. The thing with The Wild Bunch was, it was made of a bunch of people who were all … not selfish, but … stubborn. They came together and jammed, literally jammed their music into one night. Everyone had their own way they wanted to do it and the result was quite an eclectic flow of music. Even though we didn’t make Blue Lines with the idea to try and create a party record, by any stretch, there was an element of trying to draw on our influences through the samples, through the ideas, and to try and encapsulate that on vinyl.
Why now, over two decades on, did you decide to revisit it and retouch it?
Initially we didn’t want to do it, to be honest. We missed the 20th anniversary deliberately, because everyone does that 20 years thing, landmark nostalgia. But we have this really great mix engineer, Bruno Ellingham, who suggested “well, it’d be worth getting those tapes up, all those stems and putting them on the board again”. Rather than tweaking a master, actually rebalancing it back on the desk so that it was rebuilt. Even when we were doing it, we said to EMI, ‘look, this isn’t a guarantee this is going to go out’. But when it started to sound good we thought, why not put it out there? We’re not doing any promo, we’re not touring it. We’re just putting it back out there, out into the world in a more dynamic fashion. With added volume! The fact that we’re a year late is quite Bristol anyway [laughs]. It was also an opportunity to reach back out to Mushroom, who I coincidentally met at Love Saves the Day [Bristol festival held this June]. We hadn’t spoken for over 10 years, and that was a constant sadness in me. Life is too short to lose good friends and brothers, it’s been like a happy dream communicating with Mush again.
There was a far more pronounced hip-hop element to that first record, in the overall sound and also in your vocal delivery. Do you still listen to hip-hop?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in more recent years Flying Lotus, Odd Future, Death Grips – and that’s a brilliant record, because it brings back all the best of punk and hip-hop in a complete package, totally mad. As well as Gonjasufi and The Weeknd. It’s got interesting again, and the world needs that.
There’s always been tension at the heart of the band’s dynamic. Do you need conflict, be it personal or political, to make music?
I think the conflict mostly comes because you end up being insecure about what you’re doing. There’s always a sense of insecurity about it: is it good? Is it running out? Is that moment passed, can you recapture it? What am I doing now? What the fuck’s happening next? There’s a million insecurities, and I think that’s where the tension comes from. There’s also lots of limitations. Limitations have to be overcome on every new record, and imagination becomes the antidote for insecurity.
The visual element has always been key to Massive Attack, be it in terms of artwork, videos, live shows.
Some people have said to me, if you stop fucking around with music you’d be a better artist. You know, it’s true, and sometimes I think I end up slightly underachieving on both levels [laughs]. Y’know, not concentrating on one or the other and just fucking flicking between the two and then not actually doing a great job of either.
How is your working relationship with G now? Obviously its changed a lot over the years, how does it work when you start work on a new Massive Attack record?
It’s very different. On Blue Lines we were thrust into a studio by Cameron McVey, Neneh Cherry’s husband. We were sleeping on the floor of his house and were making a record with Johnny Dollar, who sadly died last year.
The reissue of Blue Lines is dedicated to him.
He was a really lovely guy who died, tragically young. He was the glue between us. But then when it came to Protection, we were left to our own devices and that fell apart again. Mushroom was in his studio, me and Tricky were living together and working. We started a collection, between Mushroom and myself, in separate spaces and together built up a collection of tracks, then G got involved at that point. On Mezzanine, we had a similar issue in terms of dynamic, because at that point Mushroom had a very different set of opinions about music and we weren’t seeing eye- to-eye. A lot of the time it was me and Mushroom up at Christchurch with Neil Davidge trying to mediate between us. Me and Mush jamming things together that were complete opposites, which is what made Mezzanine interesting, a million battles about what we fundamentally disagreed with each other on. Through a lot of that, G didn’t want to be around. G got involved later on when we had a bit of a blueprint. Cause also, G’s always been kind of an elder statesman. And I say that cause he’s an ageless man, do you know what I mean? He’s always had this attitude of ‘let them fight it out and I’ll come in and tell them what I think afterwards’. That’s the relationship we’ve built up over the years. I mean, it didn’t work for 100th Window because, after the really sad falling out with Mushroom and everything that followed that, it wasn’t a fun time.
But that’s made for some amazing music.
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The three-night Battle Box event at Bristol Court Rooms has been delayed until January. Keep an eye on crackmagazine.net for details and updates. Blue Lines: 2012 Remix/Remaster is out now via EMI.
Words: Thomas Frost / Scott James / Geraint Davies
Photos: Charles Emerson