Massive Attack: Through the Looking Glass

Sometimes you find yourself asking someone a question before you really even know what has just slipped out of your mouth. Halfway through speaking with the beating heart of Massive Attack, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, I stopped him in mid sentence and blurted out a question that I would not normally ask. “Do you like being alone?” I asked Robert. He paused, took a deep breath and answered me honestly. “No, I don’t. Not at all,” said Robert. “During the day I don’t mind it so much, but during the night I don’t like being alone.”

Robert has been alone a lot for the past eighteen months. Massive Attack, one of the most influential musical acts to emerge from England in the past decade, started as a collective of three talented, nicknamed individuals – Del Naja, Daddy Gee and Mushroom – in the late Eighties in Bristol. Over a period of almost fifteen years, Massive Attack have produced only four albums, beginning with the seminal Blue Lines and finishing with the momentous 100th Window. Throughout it all, Del Naja was always the engine, spending the most time in the studio, fine-tuning the trademarked layered Massive Attack sound. Since their last tour in 1999, Massive Attack has slowly dissolved, leaving Del Naja, with varying degrees of success, to try to hold on to the remains of the group.

Despite many critics praising Blue Lines as one of the greatest albums ever made, Robert is typically downbeat in his shunning of his work, having made a decision early in his career to never listen to old material. “Once you finish it, it is almost like it doesn’t belong to you anymore. I’ve slowly watched Blue Lines fall out of Q Magazine’s top five, then top ten, then top fifty. The world of music is so list obsessed. Lists like that say more about the list makers than anything on it.”

The last we heard of Massive Attack was 1998’s Mezzanine. “We toured Mezzanine for most of ninety eight and ninety nine, and when we came out of that period no one wanted to spend any time together in the studio, understandably because we were sick of each other. At the same time, we wanted to pursue some other interests.”

Other interests for Mushroom was to leave the band, a decision that has sadly meant Robert hasn’t spoken to him since he quit. Similarly, Gee quickly moved his focus away from making music to starting a family, and although he did not have a hand in the making of the latest album, he is reuniting with Robert for the forthcoming tour.

Instead Robert teamed up with Neal Davidge, a co-producer on Mezzanine, in a studio in Bristol for almost two years. “We recorded about eighty hours of music with (ex-Spiritualized outfit) Lupine Howl, then spent about eighteen months searching through it, trying to distil it and make something out of it.” Neal and Robert literally sat in the dark of the recording studio for all of 2001 and half of 2002, trying desperately to make it work. “It was the opposite way that we normally work, which is doing a few tracks and expanding. It was a really weird place to be and it took about eighteen months to realise it was wrong and it wasn’t going to work. We took off Christmas, came back in January and Neal and I decided we simply had to start again. We took A Prayer for England with us, a small instrumental piece and the rest of the album was brand new. So we essentially started the new album in January and started mixing in June, so it actually was a long process, but it wasn’t, know what I mean?”

Scrapping all the material after a year and a half of hard work meant a lot of soul searching for Robert. “We were so sick of the process, because we had been through this strange place of exploring hours and hours of audio. There was lots of lying in bed at night and staring at the ceiling and thinking ‘what the fuck is going on?’ It is quite a difficult place to be. It took us a long time to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t where we wanted to be.” The lack of support from the rest of the group only seemed to add to Robert’s troubles. “At the same time, Gee’s girlfriend was about to have a baby, so he was in a completely different space and not around. So me and Neal were soul searching a bit, a bit confused and frustrated.”

The frustration and inner turmoil led to 100th Window – a brooding, intense album in which you can hear Robert’s depression and insecurity in each note. What did the other members say when they heard the completed album? “Gee said he really liked it. But he has no other choice does he? He is going to be playing it for the next twelve months. I don’t know if Mushroom has heard it at all. We don’t speak anymore.”

It has been almost four years since Massive Attack last performed in public, and as with any performer, the nerves and insecurity have been playing on Robert’s mind. “I love and hate performing,” says Robert. “As much as I love the communication and amplification side of it, I also feel slightly absurd. What the fuck am I doing up here? I find it a little bit odd. I’m terrified about it. Australia will be the first to hear it and I was hoping to do something a little bit more low key first. The approach we are taking will be slightly more risky, the stage won’t be so controlled in a sequenced way. The songs will have the ability to travel a bit, to get a bit crazy, but also to fuck up.”

Most tellingly, it is Robert’s answers to typically pedestrian questions that reveal more about Robert’s deep depression than anything else. What is your proudest Massive Attack moment? “I don’t actually think I have a proudest moment. I am a perfectionist and as such there have been a lot of disappointing times in making music, where something doesn’t turn out as you would hope.” Ok then, what is your greatest disappointment? “I think the slow and inevitable break up of the band is the saddest thing in my life. The human condition is inevitable that relationships only last for a certain amount of time and then break up. I think that is so sad. I haven’t spoken with Mushroom in ages, and I don’t see Gee nearly as much as I used to. That really gets to me.”

It is clear that Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja is slowly emerging from a very difficult period in his life. But perhaps what is even clearer after listening to the new album over and over again is that by reaching into these depths of depression and insecurity, Del Naja alone has created one of Massive Attack’s richest albums to date.

100th Window is out February 10th on Virgin/EMI. Massive Attack tour Australia in March. Check out the ITM mini site for exclusive track downloads.