Massive Attack: into the light

With the fifth Massive Attack album finally out in the world, Grant Marshall has good reason to sound contented. The man otherwise known as Daddy G speaks in a languid Bristol drawl, occasionally trailing off or fading into a soft murmur. Fittingly given the seven year gestation of Heligoland, this does not seem like someone in a hurry. “There’s been a lot, man,” Marshall confirms when inthemix asks about his back-to-back interview schedule. “But I’m happy to talk…”

Despite his cosmic mood, it has been an often tumultuous decade for Massive Attack. Unlike many musical partnerships, Marshall and Robert ‘3D’ del Naja are refreshingly frank about those dreaded ‘artistic differences’. Heligoland’s predecessor 100th Window embodied the fraught state-of-affairs within the group, with Andy ‘Mushroom’ Vowles gone and Daddy G refusing to be involved. As a result, it was wholly 3D’s album, and its glacial and brooding atmosphere alienated many fans. Del Naja summed up the Massive Attack of 2003 in his interview with ITM that year: “I think the slow and inevitable break-up of the band is the saddest thing in my life.”

It was the tour to promote 100th Window that brought the pair back together as friends. Playing live remains vital. “Touring is what we’re about,” Marshall agrees. “For us, the visual aspect of Massive Attack is as important as the aural side. Our live show is quite spectacular, and it’s great and fortunate that we can pull it off.”

Australia was the first stop on that 2003 world circuit, and del Naja was, by his own admission, in a “horrendous” place. Just weeks before, he had been arrested in Bristol as part of Operation Ore, a police crackdown on child pornography on the internet. The charges were later dropped and his name cleared, but the shows here suffered (not least as UK bottom-feeders The Sun tried to have their visas cancelled). This time, the mood will be very different.

“Things have changed since then,” Marshall laughs. “To be honest, the last couple of tours we’ve dropped some of the songs we used to play. It is hard to make a live set; to get the balance right. But with us we thought, well, fuck it really, to a certain extent.”

Spectacle is still as important as the set-list. “We work with a company called UVA [United Visual Artists]. We’ve got this big LED screen behind us that comes with lots of different components. About 30-foot high, 30-foot wide, you know? They scroll with a lot of information and footage; some of it political, some of it trivial, satirical, funny, silly. We’ve redesigned the light show too. It’s all working well.”

Upon hearing Heligoland, it’s clear all has been working well in the studio, too. While Marshall isn’t the most forthcoming about the new dynamics within Massive Attack – in the pair’s shared interviews, he seems happy to let del Naja lead – he’s perceptibly satisfied with the results. The two longtime collaborators have found a balance between the DJ ethos of Daddy G and the more classically-minded 3D.

“I love DJing, man; I tried to become the world’s number-one DJ but failed miserably,” Marshall chuckles (trying to remember his DJ tour for Parklife in 2005, though, takes some prompting). “From the first time we went into the studio, I’ve taken it from the DJ angle. 3D looks at it more from a musical side; while he’s fiddling on keyboards I’m looking at layering and stuff. It’s quite a simplistic way of looking at music actually, but it gets me there.

“The thing that got us into the studio was sampling records. We cleverly – or as we say in some respects, uncleverly – make something out of other people’s music. We progressed from there really. That’s how I’ve always looked at it; D is of course completely different. He’s the artist; I’m the DJ – with an exclamation mark.” Halfway through the next question, a nebulous thought occurs to Marshall. “Well, you know, there’s DJing and there’s mixing. I’m not a great DJ.”

Self-deprecation has long been part of the Massive Attack modus operandi, but Heligoland is not an album that sounds unsure. Marshall and del Naja know how to stage often startling vocal performances, and this album has several. From Guy Garvey’s spectral Flat Of The Blade (“things I’ve seen will chase me to the grave”) to the wavering lament of longtime foil Horace Andy on Girl I Love You, Marshall says it’s all about drawing something new out of familiar voices.

“These collaborators all added their own personality,” he muses. “Guy Garvey, Hope Sandoval, Horace Andy, Damon Albarn. They’re great artists in their own right. We knew going in that they would bring something really special to the table. We can’t help but be moved by a vocal like Damon’s on Saturday Comes Slow; it’s quite raw and heartfelt, you know? We hoped to get ideas meeting in the middle, rather than leaning towards what the vocalist is comfortable doing. Horace had to sing in a different range to what he’s used to, and it gave his songs a weird kind of mystique.”

The mystique of Massive Attack has always been heightened by a powerful visual aesthetic. As the group’s blog entry from January proves, much consideration went into the artwork for Heligoland.

“It’s really important how we look,” Marshall confirms. “Our whole thing is driven by that. Working with D; he’s this amazing graffiti artist. Back in the days of DJing as The Wild Bunch, there was the whole lifestyle of hip hop: the music, the backdrop, the back in ‘83 thing.” In a bizarre confirmation of del Naja’s distrust for authority, the promotional posters for Heligoland were recently banned from the London Underground for too closely resembling graffiti.

As important as album artwork for Massive Attack is the art of music videos. Having set the bar high with Baillie Walsh’s mini-masterpiece for Unfinished Sympathy back in 1991, the group has continued to handpick filmmakers as they do guest vocalists. For the recent Paradise Circus, they went to Toby Dye, who set the reminiscences (and ‘career highs’) of ‘70s porn starlet Georgina Spelvin to the sultry tones of Hope Sandoval.

“Years ago, we were spending like a quarter million pounds on videos. Them days are gone now, you know?” Marshall explains. “With Paradise Circus, it was a case of needing to make a video with a tenth of that budget. So Toby Dye came back with this amazing video.

“I think artists now are working on videos with people like Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer, who made Sexy Beast, which is one of my favourite films. People like Walter Stern [director of Massive Attack’s Teardrop ]; they make great films. These days, people are using the opportunity to use great filmmakers, which I think is why the standard is up. It has become more competitive and people want to go to the next level.”

This tour will see the band playing a few shows in the open air, a prospect Marshall considers with vague amusement. “Well, I hope the outdoor shows are going to be at night,” he laughs. “There’s a certain mystique about playing outdoors. We come from the festival arena really. Where we live in the west country of England is where Glastonbury is. Glastonbury is the festival that Bristol people celebrate the most – we take it as a rite of passage that we should get in for free and hop the fence.”

And with that deviation into the west country of England, it is announced our time is up. “Shiiiiiit,” Marshall drawls, his mind no doubt turning to the next interviewer poised to interrogate the enigma of Massive Attack. “You get enough, man? Just make it up.”

Heligoland is out now on Virgin Records/EMI. Massive Attack arrives here this week; check out the What’s On links below.