It's not easy being Massive Attack. Just ask Daddy G (known to his mum and the taxman as Grant Marshall).
"It can be a painful process. At a certain point there are just too many human beings involved," he says with a sigh, sitting in a hotel room in Paris. "But that's the rub that works. Without all the tension and ego and argument, there might be nothing at all.
"For example, years ago, while we were making 'Teardrop,' there was a major disagreement with Neil [Davidge], who was our producer at the time, and by one point we had stripped the track completely off, leaving just this beautiful a cappella vocal by Liz Fraser [of the Cocteau Twins]. And in the end we wound up pasting an entirely different backing track on there which had been intended for some other use completely. And of course, it became one of the biggest tracks we ever made." Not to mention one of the most profitable: "Teardrop" now earns money hand over fist as the theme song for Fox TV's hit misanthropic medical drama House, M.D. Massive Attack is no stranger to movie soundtracks either; they recently scored the Wachowski brothers' controversial V for Vendetta film as well as the Jet Li/Morgan Freeman vehicle Unleashed.
It's been a long, circuitous voyage for a group of blokes who formed their eclectic sensibility spinning records as the Wild Bunch in their UK hometown of Bristol.
"We were four guys from different ethnic, musical and cultural backgrounds, and Bristol was great," says Marshall. "We had all the best punk bands and...well...not the best hip-hop, obviously. But we used to play weird DJ sets in the clubs back then, just mixing together anything we happened to be into. We'd go from punk to hip-hop to maybe a little UB40, then some techno like Kraftwerk and follow that up with some country and western." It was this tendency to disregard musical boundaries that would wind up as the hallmark of the band.
If "band" has ever really been the right word to describe Massive Attack. Early gigs weren't all that dissimilar from Wild Bunch shows, but following the example of contemporaneous British hip-hoppers/remixers Stereo MCs, by the time the group toured for 1998's dark, critically lauded CD Mezzanine, the banks of turntables were augmented by full, lush instrumentation and stage setups replete with huge projection screens. Actual, physical membership in MA has always been a little fuzzy as well. Lead vocals on their recordings largely have been handled by guests along the lines of the aforementioned Fraser, Tracey Thorne (from Everything But the Girl), Sinead O'Connor, Madonna and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, not to mention reggae vocalist Horace Andy, who is as close to a consistent front man as the collective has.
There's also been something of a revolving-door policy within the group. One early defector was vocalist-lyricist Tricky, a Wild Bunch member who ended his participation in Massive Attack after the release of the 1994 Blue Lines disc to begin his equally enigmatic and erratic solo career. Even more significant was the departure of founding member Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles, who balked at the increasingly malevolent and cinematic sound that began to supplant the group's earlier, more funk-R&B-style leanings. Vowles left during the making of Mezzanine. Marshall was absent from the 2003 release 100th Window.
"Things happen, people come and go," he says. "We always consciously made it so that our image was never, like, four guys staring out from an album cover -- it was always about the sound and the idea rather than our individual identities."
Indeed, Massive Attack's image has tended to be more about imagery than, say, cool clothes or hip haircuts. CD covers have been heavy on graphic design and the use of evocative, sometimes ambiguous photography. Similarly, their videos tend to be more like short, arty films than anything else. One 1992 video, for their cover of the classic soul tune "Be Thankful for What You've Got" (you remember: "Diggin' the scene with the gangster lean"), consists entirely of an obviously jaded stripper plying her matter-of-factly lascivious trade while lip-synching the words, anticipating the Black Eyed Peas' marketing coup by more than a decade.
The X-rated "Thankful" video and 15 others are collected on the "DVD layer" of the brand-new Massive Attack Collected anthology, the release of which is the raison d'etre for the current international tour, which lands the blokes in Houston this Friday.
Despite the meandering, somewhat amorphous nature of their career (or perhaps because of it), things are certainly looking bright for Massive Attack in 2006. Daddy G and Robert "3D" Del Naja are taking a break from constructing their next CD, provisionally titled Weather Underground. "We've put together some tracks already," he says, "but it's so early in the process there's no real way to tell how it'll end up. We're really at the front end of things right now."
Fans hungry for new attacks of a Massive variety can whet their appetite with the generous amount of previously unreleased material on Collected, including the new single "Live with Me" (which is not a Rolling Stones cover, as it turns out). "It's definitely more like a stopgap or a snack between meals than a full course," says Marshall. "Hopefully it'll be enough to tide people over for now."
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