Sep 08, 2009
Massive Attack's DJ's Robert "3D" Del Naja ("D") and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall ("G") made such a name for themselves early on in their careers that when they started work on their not-quite-titled fifth album they didn't have to scrounge around for guest spots and remixers. They came to them in droves.
Though they couldn't use all of the artists they worked with, the trip hop progenitors have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. In preparation for the album in February, they're releasing their first new material in three years, in the form of a preview remix EP called Splitting the Atom (out October 6th on EMI/Virgin). Lyrically, the title track echoes the former trio's schism shortly after 1998's Mezzanine and during the 100th Window sessions. Splitting the Atom features longtime collaborator Horace Andy, TV on the Radio leader Tunde Adebimpe, Tricky muse Martina Topley-Bird, Elbow's Guy Garvey, and hot remixers, Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid and Christoff Berg.
Speaking from outside of the moody twosome's newly revamped Bristol studio, Marshall had this to say about the theme of the new EP: "Basically it is about looking at things in black and white and the way that we approach things in life, whether it's an argument, something we construct or a conversation; there's always a split in the moment. These are the sorts of things that make up our lives." That's in step with Del Naja's X-Ray-esque cover artwork on Spliting the Atom. (Many may remember his depictions of war artwork from his recent U.K. gallery or his cover for War Stores, the 2007 full-length by fellow U.K. trip hoppers UNKLE).
Over the course of our conversation with the Massive Attack artist we sift through their decision to largely abandon their long love with sampling, politics as usual in England, their tentative plans for releasing "stems" of their tracks, and the fluid meanings behind the words Tunde Adebimpe sings on "Pray For Rain."
So you're in the studio now?
Marshall: Yes, we've been rehearsing for this next record and tour this last month or so. From September onward we'll be touring quite a lot.
It's been reading some of the interviews since 2003's 100th Window and even though it's been seven years you've only had time to work on the fifth album during the last two years. What have you been up to since then?
Well, 2003 doesn't really count and then in 2004 and 2005 we were touring the world. In 2007 we hosted a charity benefit for the Hoping Foundation, a charity for Palestinian children. Then there was the Meltdown Festival last year. We've kept ourselves fairly busy doing artwork, soundtracks and taking care of family. We had the whole album finished a while ago but when we came back from touring we had a change of heart. We just looked at the tracks we had and decided to have another go at it. If you add all that up, yeah, it's been about seven years. We've been working on new material [LP5 and Splitting the Atom EP] for the last six to eight months.
Splitting the Atom EP has many high-profile collaborators attached to it. It's quite an impressive but something we've come to expect from a Massive Attack release. Aside from Guy Garvey and Damon Albarn, how did get together this new group? Did you contact them or did they reach out to you?
We've been in the fortunate position to work with some really great people, like Sinead O'Connor, Sarah Jay, Liz Fraser, and Horace Andy. For these two releases they all approached us while we DJ or at random events. It's been great to have Tunde Adebimpe on board. We love TV on the Radio's stuff. We got him by sending some demos back and forth. Garvey we got because he's just been with us for many years.
In the instance of Guy Garvey did he actually co-write six tracks on the upcoming album?
He's working on four tracks on that one. Martina Topley-Bird's worked with us on two tracks and Damon Albarn worked on at least one. We'll see how it all comes out.
For this upcoming U.K. tour or even your slot at the Bestival this weekend, what visual accompaniment do you have planned? That's always been a big part of the Massive Attack live experience.
We don't want to give that information away right now because information's king, you know? Thanks to D and his crew that gets done. There's not much to say except for there are some fantastic visual effects we have planned. This might be the first time some of these people will experience Massive Attack so we've been looking at tons of possible album covers and videos. It's all about MySpace now. We all have a multimedia psyche now.
Just for clarification's sake, is the name of the forthcoming album really Weather Underground?
[Laughs] No, no. It's always a good thing for people to have names. You need a goal to work towards. It's crazy. There's always an end result. It'll come though.
At what stage is the fifth album at right now? Are you mixing it at this point?
Yeah, we have about 10 tracks we've mixed or are mixing right now. When we have time we work on some more. An album is a big concept to take in and now people want more than the playlist you give them, they want to make their own playlist. People expect more than 45 minutes of music. So, maybe we'll give them away and they can make their own compilation of the tracks that we have.
So, are you saying you might release stems of your recordings from the studio and then fans can screw around with them on their own?
That was the thing that we're talking about. We're working with about 22 tracks from the studio and we'd love for people to remix them. I think more bands should do that with their fans.
I've only spent a little time with Splitting the Atom but did you continue to move away from sample-based songs like you did 100th Window? It seems to sound like this more of a live-in-the-studio looping experiment
It's sort of hard to use that sort of method anymore because so many people have gone and done it. For us, we just get inspired by certain sounds and we take that back into the studio. We're trying to move away from sampling though. Instead of thinking about the different parts of a track it becomes a full piece. I think it's a great art that's sometimes crass and sometimes good. It's great to take a neat riff from some record or that drum break and then it becomes its own thing. I think most bands do that without even "sampling."
As always with a Massive Attack release, I was really struck by the artwork. What did you want that image to convey in regards to the remixes of the forthcoming album tracks?
Basically it is about looking at things in black and white and the way that we approach things, whether it's an argument, something we construct or a conversation; there's always a split in the moment. These are the sorts of things that make up our lives.
Speaking of conversations, when Rob was talking about the Conservative Party stepping in but the conservatives not being drastically different. What are your thoughts on that struggle? Do you see any hope?
Well, it all started in 1981 with Margaret Thatcher. We had all of these strikes and cutbacks of many social programs. Racism was on the rise too. It was really the dark ages for us. Over the years it's gotten better but now it seems like it's all starting again. The Labour Party is in power now and that is basically the same middle-to-right stance we've had in politics, where we thought we would have a more middle-to-left. War's on the rise and racism is on the rise again in England. It's just not a pretty picture anymore. To us it seems like all our hard work was for nothing. In America they've got Obama but it's still getting dark out there.
I'm sure some of that seeped into the new releases. I know you're often pigeonholed as a dark band but sometime it's just a natural reflection of the world.
Sometimes you can't help but do it. Often we veil the political darkness with a beautiful love song. It's more metaphorical than anything else.
Have there been any new additions to the revamped studio in Bristol?
Well, when we toured we used to have two drummers [Neil Davage and Damon Reece] but we now have just one one. His name is Julien Brown [drums for Kylie Minogue, Lyndon David Hall, Mica Paris, Mariah Carey]. We also got some new keyboards and old, authentic analog synthesizers and recording equipment.
I definitely wanted to ask about was the Tunde Adebimpe cut, "Pray For Rain." As far as the lyrics are concerned it seemed like a plea for absolution or cleansing. What thoughts are you trying to wash away?
Yeah, it's also a conversation on war as well. There are a lot of interpretations on it though. We never write anything that about a specific thing.
Some of the collaborations that you've set up for the fifth album or in the past, haven't always translated to a track on a release. I'm thinking of songs with Jhelisa Anderson, Stephanie Dosen, Phantom Limb's Yolanda Quarty, Aku and Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh of Dragons of Zynth, Elizabeth Fraser, Dot Allison, Debbie Clare, Mike Patton, Fredo Viola and Beth Orton. Do collaborators know going in that they have an equal chance of being included or excluded? Do you have any plans to release a rarities compilation?
That's a good question because we have every intention of using everything and making it work somehow. There are a lot of tracks that we really do want to eventually release because if we didn't it would be a waste of time and talent. We may find a a way to get them out there on the Internet.