‘Rip it up and start again’ may have worked back in the devil-may-care ’80s – at least, Edwyn Collins reckoned it was good advice – but in the cautious, credit-crunched 21st century it sounds like a very reckless exhortation. With increasingly conservative record companies being squeezed until their pips pop and pressure being piled on major-label artists to deliver more of the anodyne, market-pleasing same rather than take creative risks, it would be a bold band that dumped their new album – having decided it no longer represented them – and started all over again.
Robert Del Naja (aka 3D, pictured above left) and Grant Marshall (Daddy G) had the nerve to do just that. As Massive Attack (a trio until 1999), they’ve proved themselves to be made of stern, centred stuff, whether transforming the landscape of British music in the early ’90s with their darkly luminous Blue Lines LP, aligning themselves with the likes of Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Red Cross for their 2003 world tour or playing a gig in aid of a charity for Palestinian children.
It’s been a long time between drinks for Massive Attack. Their last studio album was 2003’s 100th Window and for months the internet has been buzzing with speculation about their fifth LP, regarding guest players (numerous), title (still to be confirmed) and – crucially – the release date. Mixed save for a couple of tracks, it is due out (fingers crossed) in February 2010. So, aside from variously scoring soundtracks, painting, curating Meltdown (London’s annual riverside music festival) in 2008 and collecting Ivor Novello gongs, what on earth have the pair been doing since they started work on the thing in 2005?
‘We’ve written this album a few times,’ 3D admits. ‘I particularly have a pretty short satisfaction span. We’ll start something and if it doesn’t have the magic, I’ll turn away from it quite quickly and want to do something else.’
3D ticks off numerous stops and starts in the album’s progress, which include working in Brooklyn with David Sitek of TV On The Radio, writing with Terry Callier and putting together a compilation LP, Collected. He says the pair found that the material from 2005-2006 sounded ‘a bit old and tired’ in 2007, so they began again. They toured fresh material last year (included in their own sets at Meltdown), but found that ‘by the time we’d got back, we felt like we’d played it and lived it, so suddenly we didn’t have the enthusiasm to mix it’. Small wonder, then, that ‘there was a lot of head-scratching – especially from our manager and record company – as to what was going on with the LP’.
Some of the tracks from the 2007 session were rescued (with help from Tim Goldsworthy of DFA) and have just been released as a four-track EP, Splitting The Atom. It features guests Guy Garvey, Tunde Adebimpe (also of TV On The Radio) and Martina Topley Bird, plus esteemed Massive Attack veteran Horace Andy. Decidedly song-based and a lot lighter on the dread than most Massive Attack records, is it a reliable indicator of the new album?
‘It’s a good mixture of optimism and reality,’ declares 3D. ‘It has the production value of Blue Lines, but the graphic nature of Mezzanine – but it’s nothing like either. It’s different from 100th Window, which was very complex and layered and a nightmare to mix. That became a f*****g horror of heartbreak and frustration, because it never, ever sounded right.’
Does the new album ‘sound right’, then? 3D laughs. ‘There are two contradictions here. One is that this bunch of guys DJing and making playlist tracks in the ’80s are now a concept-album band in an era when people are making playlists and not albums. The other is that I’m the most over-analytical person known to man, and if I’m listening to someone else’s music I’ll dissect it. But I don’t want anyone to do that to our music!’ Splitting the Atom is out now at music.nokia.ae and other online stores.