With only four studio albums in 19 years, Massive Attack has hardly been prolific. They haven't been roadhogs either the pioneering UK trip-hop outfit hasn't done a proper U.S. tour in more than eight years. But the group's elusive nature makes sense when you consider their shadowy, often claustrophobic sound. From the early singles and 1991's Blue Lines all the way through to 1998's Mezzanine and "Teardrop," one of the decade's most enduring songs, Massive Attack was fully formed and threatening, an enormous convection oven that played love, lust and paranoia off hip hop, dub and electronic music. Never mind that, post-Massive Attack, trip-hop was often too rote and plastic, lifestyle music that mimicked the manufactured curves and smooth surfaces of portable digital music players. Massive Attack was always threatening, and we liked that.
After Mezzanine, co-founder Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles departed the group acrimoniously, and since then Massive Attack has been somewhat quiet. And then Grant "Daddy G" Marshall went sabbatical, leaving remaining anchor Robert "3D" Del Naja to issue 2003's 100th Window on his own, and, beyond some soundtrack work, that was all we heard from the group. But the group's current tour in support of the recent hits and rarities set Collected is selling out all over the place, and by all accounts their performances in Europe and at this year's Coachella Festival have been nothing short of stunning. Daddy G and 3D are working together again, and there are hives of Massive Attack info all over the Internet, each of them buzzing about the group's fifth official album, Weather Underground. We caught up with an amiable Daddy G by phone, who filled us in on the tour as well as how things are progressing with the new record.
Metro Times: How's the touring been going so far?
Daddy G: It's been really, really good. Live, it's a lot more hard-edged and a bit more experimental. Now that we've got the live band playin', we kinda reinterpret quite a lot of the songs, y'know, extend 'em, remix 'em, sometimes radically change them. And it's great because you can look out and see your audience and make a real connection with them. It's quite amazing. It really does spur you on.
MT: You must really enjoy that kind of direct interaction with fans since it seems like you guys are these intense studio-heads that never see the light of day.
G: Yeah, that's right. There is a lot of meticulous planning and work that goes into our stuff because we're not the archetypical sort of musicians who sit down together, y'know, get the guitar out and go, "Right, I've got the chords for this track let's just strum it and see what we've got." We don't really do that. Me and D, we hole up separately and experiment with sounds until we get something we like, then get together later.
MT: Is it true you guys have always had trouble seeing eye-to-eye creatively
G: Yeah, there's definitely always been tension there, whether it was Mushroom, me and D, or just me and D. Y'know, you're passionate about a track and you don't want to compromise your ideas at the start, so sometimes it's best to see your vision through, then get to a certain point and go, "Right, I'm ready to get people on board to help me now."
MT: So where are you at with the next album?
G: Well, we have the rough ideas and a few vocal demos, so what we're gonna do when we come off the tour is pool everything together and review everything and go, "This doesn't quite work with this, and I have some ideas for this, and this is where I'd like to take this." So right now we have some rough songs but they're nowhere near finished. We're aiming to have it out around this time next year.
MT: How long have you been working on it?
G: Since the beginning of last year. We've been receiving vocal demos as we've been farming stuff out to people, and slowly but surely we're getting stuff back. Hope Sandoval's done one for us, and Alice Russell too.
MT: I've heard all kinds of rumors about who's attached to this project ...
G: Well, there's always dozens of people we'd like to work with, but you've got to be realistic with the people you choose. Who've you heard, then?
MT: Mike Patton, David Bowie, Mos Def, PJ Harvey ...
G: Right, well ... Bowie ...we reached out to David. Mike Patton ... D's been working with Mike ... who else?
MT: PJ Harvey?
MT: Mos Def?
G: No. We reached out to him because we did the "I Against I" thing, but he never got back to us, and it was a bit weird actually because we were rarin' to work with him and he never returned our calls. It was really bizarre. We love the guy. It's a shame that the hookup wasn't there.
MT: Who else might be involved?
G: We've done some tracks with Damon Albarn ... ummm, we're hoping to do something with DJ Shadow. We sent some stuff to Patti Smith. She's interested but she hasn't come through with anything yet. I sent her about four or five tracks that I thought she could take somewhere, so I'm just waiting on that.
MT: Can you give a hint as to what the new stuff sounds like?
G: Well, it's maybe a bit simpler, maybe not quite as dark and intense. It's definitely the case that we've never tried to repeat the same formula, and if people stick with you on the journey, it's great. Sometimes you lose people, sometimes you make new friends, so it's an interesting journey that you embark on when you release an album, because sometimes you can alienate people.
MT: Do you think about that kind of stuff when you're in the process of making an album?
G: Yeah, sometimes it's in the back of your mind. Sometimes you make a track and you go, "I'll tell you what: People aren't gonna like this one!" But then you think, "Hold on a minute if they're true fans they should go with you on your journey, stick with you and see what you're trying to do." But no worries, man, the next one's gonna be good.
Sept. 12, at State Theatre, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-645-6666.Michael Alan Goldberg writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]