Robert del Naja is in no mood to talk about the past. Which is tricky, because as the force behind Massive Attack’s current live spectacle (a reconfigured outing for their 1998 album Mezzanine), a degree of unpicking old memories might seem unavoidable. Still, sitting backstage in the clinical dressing room of an Amsterdam concert hall, each of us angled at either end of a sofa an hour before he’s due on stage, Del Naja considers his unease with historical rehashing.
“I don’t think I’ve got a problem with nostalgia, because a lot of the time things are self-referential. When you’re working in the way we do, taking things from the past and making them new, making collages…” He pauses. “I stopped feeling nostalgia for the moment because I imagine myself looking back on it from the future, which really freaks me out. I get this vertigo where I’m not thinking about the past, I’m thinking about how I’m going to feel in 10 years’ time.” Nostalgia isn’t as good as it used to be, I joke. Del Naja rubs a hand forwards through his hair.
Mezzanine was supposed to spell the end of Massive Attack. By the time it was finally released, months late, in the spring of 98, the group – Del Naja (aka 3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) – had been fighting for a year and were barely speaking to one another. They recorded individually, gave interviews separately. The album, their third and moodiest, was a distinct, post-punk swerve away from the hip-hop and breakbeat culture they had championed in Bristol. It came slickly packaged in a Nick Knight sleeve with an acid orange disc, and was released to mixed reviews, but, in true Massive fashion, it came to be belatedly revered as a masterpiece by critics everywhere from Pitchfork to the Paris Review.
It also became their biggest commercial success, gifting the singles charts (and countless film and TV directors) Teardrop, Angel and Inertia Creeps. Despite their ubiquity, the songs still very much stand up. Live, they’re menacing, resonant, moving. Nonetheless, after multiple furious rows about the new direction, soon after the album’s release, Mushroom left the band.
Does it still feel raw? Marshall has entered the dressing room and leans against the wall, languid and softly spoken. “Raw. Yeah, it is to a certain extent. [Mezzanine] was the end of our trio but… it projected us to greater things, I suppose. We’ve been through different things which have made us a bit raw, but we’ve managed to patch it up.”
What is Marshall’s abiding memory of making the album? “It’s fraught with bad memories, but it was a departure from what we were used to and so, yeah, that’s kind of where all the heartaches came in.” Del Naja’s main memory “is probably the fight really. It wasn’t as simple as it used to be, because Blue Lines [their debut] was based on our collective history. Culturally and musically it was a big jam together. And then the second album [Protection] we’d become something, so we had a kind of routine and procedure. I felt that [with] Mezzanine, the procedure had to be ripped up, the rulebook had to be changed.”
The fight was about Teardrop, still their biggest-selling single; Del Naja and Marshall wanted former Cocteau Twins frontwoman Liz Fraser on vocals. Mushroom secretly sent the track to Madonna, who loved it and called, keen to record it. Having already worked with her in 1995 on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You – at the time, to Mushroom’s fury – Del Naja was incandescent and turned her down. He won’t comment on it now. “It was hard,” he shrugs. “I guess that is what I remember of Mezzanine: it was a proper struggle.”
On stage earlier, tension is redirected into the technicalities. Soundchecks are, in my experience, routinely boring. A band stops, starts, stops, repeats the same riff over and over while someone is asked to check the lights and a sound engineer perfects the levels of a hi-hat. Naturally, Massive Attack do things a little differently: the venue in which they are due to play two sold-out shows is bathed in red light and, as their PR and I creep towards the stalls for a seat, they deliver a full, seemingly note-perfect run-through of Teardrop. A life-affirming, butterflies-in-stomach exclusive for an audience of two.
Films by acclaimed documentary-maker Adam Curtis, collaboratively made with Del Naja for what seems to be Massive Attack’s most ambitious show yet, are projected on giant screens. It’s a mind melt. Curtis’s signature aesthetic reels through a potted history of the past two decades – from trash pop culture to devastating scenes of war. They play out against a deconstructed Mezzanine 21st anniversary set that later often stuns the Dutch audience into reverent silence. It’s not how album shows – usually rowdy, indulgent, faithful playbacks – generally work. But then, Massive Attack’s 2016 tour was devoted to the urgency of the refugee crisis; shows in 2010 brought political consciousness via LED screens made by United Visual Artists. Now Bauhaus, Gang of Four and the Cure covers slip in alongside Avicii, while a YouTube mashup of fan videos is both wry and moving.
The whole performance is meticulous; the band never say a word. It’s a stunning statement, a live visual art experience designed to provoke rather than straightforwardly please.
The next night, backstage at the venue, both Curtis (who has flown over specially) and Del Naja cautiously wonder whether it worked. Was it heavy-handed? Did the audience get what they were trying to achieve? Did it make them curious or really think about war, data, control, feedback loops, political idealism and the rest?
The short answer, from watching the audience shush each other and vox-popping fans afterwards, is yes. Johanna is gutted that she “was not stoned to appreciate it on a bigger level”. One woman, wearing red lipstick and bovver boots, says she is overwhelmed. “It was really good, they took you along on their story.”
“I’m happy for it to be unpredictable,” says Del Naja. “That’s the point. There’s no sort of bants, no chatting because you kind of felt… Well, you wouldn’t go to a play and the actors turn around and say: ‘Are you all right?’ And there has to be some personal creative risk attached where you don’t know what’s going to happen. It should be disorienting for us and the audience otherwise…” It’s boring? He grins.
“Gigs have become very formulaic these days,” adds Curtis. “Not just gigs but all of culture – and that’s the challenge. The way you make people look again is by finding a different sort of image. And so the overall aim is to show how over the past 20 years, we’ve gone into a very static, repetitive world that surrounds us with the same images that keep us from really looking.”
The two, who first worked together on a one-off commission for Manchester international festival in 2013, make an outwardly unlikely pairing. Del Naja retains a resolutely boyish energy and is dressed in black, off-duty streetwear; Curtis, just landed from London, is in a jacket and crisp white shirt. I ask how they considered some of the more sensitive, emotional material shown – a dead body, grieving relatives – and Curtis becomes exasperated.
“We were very careful about which images we used. They had to be powerful.
“Everything is not only cliched, it’s knowing these days. It’s about time idealism came back. Really, I’m being serious about that.” He explains how he tried to make an idealistic film to go with Massive’s cover of anti-war folk song Where Have All the Flowers Gone? “Because that’s the way you connect with people, pull them out of their bubble and make them realise what’s happening in their name. Which I don’t think we have quite realised yet. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know.”
“I’m not accusing you. I just get quite shocked by how insulated we have become in the face of these big wars which we’re really involved in. Rant over. Sorry.”
Del Naja starts giggling, Curtis gives him a sideways Laurel and Hardy-esque sigh. The show is very much a product of their particular push and pull. It’s a long way from the romantic spirit of Massive Attack’s early days, when as part of the Wild Bunch, the collective operated a collaborative process.
“We’ve found our own sort of niches now, in a creative sense, which is a lot more comfortable, working together, because we can express ourselves the way we want to,” explains Marshall, the evening before. “Back then, we were trying to pretend that we were in this big pot, all drinking soup out of the same pot when that wasn’t really the case. We really all had our own little bowls and–” he mimics stirring a tiny bowl – “and were trying to take it away and do something.” He stops, deadpan. “You like that analogy?”
“I think you can forget the soup analogy,” says Del Naja, meaning it. I laugh. I like the soup analogy. I ask what their worst row has been over, then apologise for asking such a horrible question. Del Naja jumps in.
“We don’t. We have the kind of insidious things that just get under your skin over time, as opposed to big flare-ups. You know what I mean?”
“I think we’ve remedied that,” adds Marshall, “by the fact that we don’t really work together as such any more. We’ve known each other like brothers this whole time. So you know, you get this brotherly thing when you go: ‘Right, slightly sick of you now.’”
“What I find scary,” chips in Del Naja, “is that everyone remembers everything differently, everyone has selective memory, and when you realise that [when] the brain has to remember something, it has to recreate the whole thought to remember it, and does that multiple times in its life, it’s so unreliable.”
This is a very Del Naja sentence: he is a master of the sort of 3am chat – the post-party and pre-dawn mezzanine – where at least one brilliant point gets made. Thoughts bounce together at speed; he uses algorithms to explain the studio dynamic of making music, and politics to make sense of art.
“That’s why this gig is as much ‘an album moment’ as an album was,” he says. “Because everything has changed – the way we present ourselves, the way we share everything we do, the social experiment, the social experience. All that stuff is very different from when we put Mezzanine out. [Now,] you put a record out to justify a tour and that’s what a lot of people do. So the album just seems irrelevant as a foremost product.”
“I still do like the concept of an album,” says Marshall. “You know, in a communal fashion...”
“They’re two different things now for artists and consumers,” says Del Naja. What was the last one he bought? “I mean, I love buying albums, I’m obsessed, but now you just click ‘add’, don’t you? And when do you actually listen to anything? You know, unless you’re in the car or you’ve got time to do that, it’s just not the same world any more in terms of concentration. Attention span’s the biggest commodity of all now. Data is the new oil. It’s inside your head. That’s where the value is and so is the tension. I mean, trying to get anyone to concentrate on anything when people get excited if the audience swipes down a page. If you actually stop and click, fuck me, that’s gold.”
“It’s true,” agrees Marshall. “I haven’t listened to a record, a whole album, in five years.” He makes a move to leave. “I only like about three tracks on this album, anyway,” he says, by way of goodbye.
I’m not sure if he was ribbing Del Naja, or whether he really would like to make an album together in the old fashioned-way. I ask if he’s off for a pre-show ritual. “Yeah, get pissed. That’s what I’m going to do now.”
Freed from rose-tinting the band’s history, Del Naja chats warmly and intensely – about physics, artificial intelligence, the robot in his studio that he’s training to paint. “I have total faith in the next generation. Looking at their response to climate change is really interesting and, again, that’s the power of social media at its best, to mobilise people. I think that’s a real positive. I think the negative is our generation and the generation above us that are still the problem because they don’t want to change.
“We haven’t evolved that much as human beings,” he adds. “We still fall into the same patterns and traps and it’s easy to turn ourselves against each other tribally. It seems too easy and it’s scary.”
We chat some more, about pilates vs Bikram yoga, Brexit – “predictable and sad” – and his tongue-in-cheek preparation for the apocalypse. “I got a breadmaker, because everyone’s going to ramp up the hysteria before Leave. Everyone will be going, “Oh right, everything’s fucked, medicine and food, and you’re not going to get bread anywhere, right? Or water or petrol. That’s the first things.”
Del Naja doesn’t think he’s changed much in the last 20 years. “You never do think you’re going to grow up, because your brain stays the same and your personality hasn’t really changed. It’s your physical self that tells you.” For what it’s worth, Del Naja and Marshall still look, dress and sound as they ever did. It’s an utter shock to learn later, looking it up on my phone, that they are 54 and 59. “You cannot actually physically manage to be that hedonistic any more,” says Del Naja. “There’s been a major slow down. If I have a big night out, that’s my week gone. It’s like, you know what? Forget it, I’m done.”
At the aftershow, in a small room of a dozen people backstage, Dave, the band’s weary tour manager of 20 years, mixes up rounds of dark and stormys. A huddle of friends linger by the table football. Curtis describes his friend as “a very smart boy” and admits that the only “battle” they had in creating the show was that “Robert, being an artist, always wants to be slightly enigmatic, whereas I’m a journalist and believe in clarity.”
Buoyed by the show, both are amped and giddy. Del Naja talks me through some of the more bonkers Massive Attack trivia. Like the time they said no to signing Air. Or to working with Amy Winehouse. He remembers that they also turned down Sam Mendes when he asked to use Teardrop for the title song of American Beauty – “We would have been No 1 in America, haha” – and a plea from Radiohead to remix OK Computer. “We were just too busy for it at the time.”
A superfan, Richard Coffey from Ireland, graciously referred to as the band’s unofficial historian, joins the party and spends some time analysing the current arrangements of Teardrop, which he explains to Del Naja “are probably at their best at the moment”. Coffey’s obsession translates to an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the interviews Massive Attack have ever given. How did he discover them? “I heard them on The Matrix,” he says, earnestly. “Dissolved Girl [from Mezzanine] was on the soundtrack.” Del Naja starts giggling again.
Given how long they’ve been at it and how embedded they have become in the fabric of British culture, it’s easy to forget just how good and visionary Massive Attack are. How influential they’ve been. How they pioneered a sound that managed to glide between teenage bedrooms, parties and fuzzy Sunday evenings. One which, even now, despite the more low-key impact of 100th Window (2003) and Heligoland (2010), you could draw a contemporary line through the evolution of British pop, through dubstep, to The Weeknd, Lana Del Ray and beyond.
“Most people just look at me like I’m fucking mad,” laughs Del Naja. To be fair, he’s spent 10 minutes talking to me about the complexities of internet-alternative the mesh, a conversation about tech that will no doubt soon become mainstream. “What are you talking about, they’ll say. You’re off your head!” He grins again. “I’ve become a prophet of doom, but I’m an optimist, really.”
• Massive Attack Mezzanine XX1 is at O2, London, 22 Feb; Dublin’s 3Arena, 24 Feb; Bristol Steel Yard, 1 & 2 March. A Mezzanine special edition box set will be released in April.