Electric Picnic: Massive Attack
Eamon Sweeney finds Massive Attack’s 3D feeling liberated and ready to shake things up
Robert Del Naja might have an exotic sounding name, yet he speaks in a broad Bristolian accent. The mastermind and founder of the most famous and successful group to emerge from the Bristol trip-hop scene, Del Naja is better known by his stage name 3D.
In 2006, Massive Attack made their first and only visit to Electric Picnic and loved what they saw and heard. "We really enjoyed it," 3D enthuses, "it was a great line-up. Polly Harvey was there and Antony and the Johnsons. I watched lots of other bands and the atmosphere was really fantastic.
"And, from an English perspective, Irish crowds are always better, they'll be an excitable bunch of people. English crowds can be awful, because we're such miserable bastards! You find it in southern Europe too. The Latin and Celtic thing seems to be well connected to the one spirit. I don't suppose you'd normally connect Dublin to Lisbon in any obvious cultural sense, but you've definitely got something going on."
Del Naja promises a completely different show to their previous EP engagement or the more recent appearances in the Olympia last year. "Every time we go out, we completely change the visuals and address different social, political and economic topics," he says. "I was a graffiti artist back in the day, so I'm always coming from a visual angle. It's a great way of freshening things up. You can be playing the same music, but visuals can give it a completely different perspective."
Speaking of visual art, prior to his career in Massive Attack, Del Naja was a highly influential graffiti artist and chief inspiration for the world famous Bristolian painter Banksy.
"Bristol is a small place and we all know each other," he says. "I've often told him how much I like his work and we definitely show mutual appreciation. I think he's an absolute genius. He's younger than me and he saw some stuff I did years ago when everyone was copying American styles and tag graffiti. I started using stencils when everyone thought it was the devil's work. If you used any kind of template, it was heretic. I was working to the derision of the graffiti community, but he saw something going on."
The fifth Massive Attack solo album, Heligoland, is their first in seven years. As far back as their last Electric Picnic appearance, the album had the working title Weather Underground. Hilariously, it was leaked that it would be entitled Hell Ego Land. "I stumbled across the word and fell in love with it," 3D reveals. "As you say, you can have other interpretations and it lends itself to being dismantled and rebuilt to suit different tastes."
Heligoland is dedicated to the memory of the late Jonny Dollar, producer of Massive Attack's seminal debut album Blue Lines, who died last year at the age of 45 after a battle with cancer. Sadly, tragedy also struck after the completion of the album, as drummer Jerry Fuch (!!!, LCD Soundsystem) died in a freak accident. He fell down an elevator shaft while attending a charity fundraiser in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
"It was really, really sad and shocking," 3D says. "It came out of the blue and we'd only properly got acquainted. Tim was a really close friend of his. It's unreal, man. I know everyone says nice things, but we met him a few times and he was always really excited and happy. Not only was he a great player, he was great to be in the room with. Going back to the English miserable thing, sometimes working with people can be a disappointment, whereas he'd light up a place.
"Without Jonny Dollar, there wouldn't have been any Blue Lines album or, indeed, there probably wouldn't have been any Massive Attack," he states. "He was instrumental in getting three dysfunctional blokes to mobilise their ability and exercise all these crazy ideas. We ended up with an album that we never thought we'd finish. It was purely a pitch going into the studio to put down a demo. We somehow ended up with a complete album. None of that would have happened without Jonny."
So if it weren't for Jonny getting three dysfunctional blokes to realise their dreams, what would Del Naja be doing otherwise? "Some people said when I joined Massive Attack that it was good for me, but bad for Bristol city," he answers. "I stopped painting. I'd got bored of it and I didn't touch it for a long time. It's only recently in the last few years that I've got back into it when James Lavelle asked me to do the War Stories sleeve and Banksy got me to contribute to a few things. I fell back in love with it. If I wasn't in Massive Attack, I think I'll be painting."
Del Naja has intriguing plans for future Massive Attack activity. "We're going to build a soundsystem next year and bring it out as a show," he reveals. "It will be completely different to the live show. It'll be completely new and old at the same time."
3D feels the band have never been so free and liberated in their whole career. "We found ourselves in lots of situation where we were doing things we didn't really believe in, like
sending singles to radio stations," he reflects. "I don't think radio or MTV had any real impact on our record sales. Some bands use that interface, but we've always been about people discovering it in a different way outside the mainstream. We always thought some of it was a waste of time and money, but we still followed those paths because people expected it and that's how record companies at the time worked. Now we're in a situation where we've completely turned a corner. We never felt part of a mass market, even though a couple of times things crossed over for us."
In June, Thom Yorke of Radiohead said: "It will only be a matter of time -- months rather than years -- before the music industry completely collapses."
"I've spoken to Thom about it and to a certain degree he's completely right," 3D says. "It's like a balloon that's going down and you can't put a Band-Aid on it because it's deflating so rapidly. At the same time, I think it opens up a million opportunities. If everything collapses, you're going to have a lot of free space on the ground to build new things. I think it's going to be all about building new structures so for the bands it offers an opportunity of independence."
An unexpected Massive Attack piece that has never seen the light of day is a cover of It's All Good by Damien Dempsey. "We haven't revisited it because it's something we did with Sinead [O'Connor]," 3D reveals. "I always felt like I'd defer to her because she brought it to us. If she called and said she'd love to do something with that track for a film or charity, I'd say yes."
O'Connor contributed to the 100th Window album and sings on three of the album's best tracks, What Your Soul Sings, Special Cases and A Prayer for England. "It was one of the scariest experiences of my life working with Sinead," he says. "She is such a powerful person and has such spirit. I always felt slightly in awe of that. But it's good to be scared by things, it adds to the excitement of doing it."
3D doesn't anticipate another seven-year gap before the next new Massive Attack release, although he promises it won't be an album in the conventional sense. "We're in a good situation now and we want to break the endless cycle of tour, album, tour," he says. "I've a couple of ideas and we will be releasing things in a completely different way in the near future."
Stay tuned. The future will be Massive.
Massive Attack play Electric Picnic on