CLASSIC ALBUM: MASSIVE ATTACK
In April 1998, Massive Attack released their third classic album, Mezzanine, the follow-up to the era-defining Blue Lines and Protection. But as Rupert Howe reveals in this oral history of its two-year gestation, internal strife meant the record very near
The year is 1998, the album is Mezzanine and the vibe is heavy as trip-hop’s three musketeers struggle with internal strife to pull a classic out of the fire.
When Massive Attack first entered Bristol’s Christchurch Studios in January 1996 to start work on their new album – the follow-up to Blue Lines ( 1991) and Protection ( 1994) – the plan was to have it recorded within six months and out by the summer. As it turned out, Mezzanine’s fraught sessions went on for nearly two years, exposing long-simmering internal tensions and almost splitting the band.
Neil Davidge (co-producer): Mezzanine was a pretty sketchy album in terms of the way we worked, because the band… were not getting on. So I’d be in the studio working with one of the members and someone else would come in, then the person I had been working with would leave and I’d have to change the track I was working on because they didn’t want to work on that track, they wanted to work on something different. Sometimes I’d be working on perhaps four different tracks in one day, which was a pretty messy way to work.
3D (vocalist/producer): I went in there a bit fucking heavy, a bit pig-headed. I was sampling loads of ridiculous things, which were never going to work, like Stiff Little
Fingers and 999. But I was trying to break the mould.
Neil Davidge: They’d had a lot of commercial success… but they were still very much a new band, still learning about how to be a band, what a band is actually about.
Daddy G (vocalist/producer): There weren’t too many occasions where we were all in the studio at the same time. We just got sick of each other. We get on really well outside of the studio, but in the studio… There was a lot of shouting that went on behind closed doors.
Angelo Bruschini (guitarist): Most of the songs were still in a blueprint form six, seven months down the line. Nobody knew how the hell it was going to happen – nobody.
3D: We never had a band meeting and said, “We’ve got to dirty things up.” But, personally, I was on a bit of a mission to get away from the clean sound of Protection and spoke at length to Daddy G about bringing in more guitars.
Daddy G: We] nick from anything and make a nice little collage. The Tarantino method. But you still have to have vision and imagination.
3D: The beats for Inertia Creeps] came from Istanbul. We went to a belly dancer show on our day off in this really tacky tourist club. It was a cabaret thing; this guy did a version of New York, New York with his cane and hat. Then the belly dancers came on and they’d all seen better days. It really was hanging, but the music was wicked. Mush went and got some tapes the next day.
Neil Davidge: We really did take a lot of liberties. Angelo Bruschini] would come into the studio after doing a long session the day before, and say, “Wow, that sounds good – what’s that?” I’d say, “That’s you, mate.”
Mushroom (producer): If I’d had it my way? It would have been more soul-orientated – more like Blue Lines. It would’ve been much more of a black-sounding album with hiphop influences, too. It came out kinda rocky.
3D: I was really keen to get in some of the new wave stuff. I felt we’d really missed out on using that influence. Everybody working in Bristol now has some connection to that period. I remember fucking about with Lunatic Fringe, a punk band in Bristol, performing Anarchy In The UK in Sefton Park youth club where Roni Size was working. There’s a core of that whole punk-reggae connection in Bristol.
Mushroom: I was never down with punk. Punks and psychobillies and skinheads were pretty much the same thing to me. Neil Davidge: Mushroom felt like he had an attachment to Teardrop, because the other guys weren’t around when we were first putting down the essential melodic ideas for that. We got Liz Fraser] to put a vocal down on it; she came up with an early version of what’s there now.
3D: The closest we ever got to working with Jeff Buckley was Teardrop Liz Fraser recorded her vocal the day she heard of her former collaborator’s disappearance]. We were writing that about him, which was very sad because at the time we were circling him like vultures hoping to get in the studio with him.
Liz Fraser (vocalist): That was so weird. I’d got letters out and I was thinking about Jeff Buckley]. That song’s kind of about him – that’s how it feels to me anyway.
3D: Liz is very excitable and quite mad in the best way. She threw a million words into the air and we tried to grab a few and work out what she meant. Me and Mush met her in Sainsbury’s and invited her up to the studio. There was this nerve-wracking moment before she arrived and I said, “It’s really sterile in here, let’s light some candles in here and make it funky for her.”
Neil Davidge: It was great, everyone was loving it, except for Mushroom – he had a very fixed idea of what the vocal should be on that track, and it wasn’t what Liz was doing Mushroom then allegedly sent the
backing track to Madonna]. I got a phone call from management saying, “I’ve just had a phone call from Madonna’s manager, saying there’s a track that she’s been sent that she loves, and she’s wondering what’s the deal?” The shit hit the fan then.
Mushroom: You just hear a piece of music and think, “So-and-so would sound good on this.” It just makes itself apparent to you. It’s like deciding what clothes to wear.
3D: Me and G were obviously really unhappy about the situation. It was at a point where, after a lot of meandering, the album was finally starting to develop. There were seven or eight tracks happening which were really sounding like they made a lot of sense.
Neil Davidge: I think it almost came to blows. From that point onwards, Mushroom and D weren’t in the studio at the same time. If Mushroom was in the studio when D was going to come in, I’d get a phone call saying, “Could you tell Mushroom to leave?”
Daddy G: Things are never really disposed of because you’re at such close quarters all the time. The same stuff crops up over and over again and you think, “Shouldn’t we have got that out in the open a long time ago?”
3D: There was a period where it almost fell to bits. In Bristol we had all fallen out badly about what direction it should be going in and it really was looking likely that it wasn’t going to happen. To move the sessions along, the band hired an extra studio in Cornwall]. Going down to Cornwall – in shifts, I might add – made it work. We went in the winter, which I loved. The water’s clear… it’s great to hear the wind just banging on the window.
Neil Davidge: We were literally re-writing songs while we were mixing… Angel was] plucked out of thin air at a mixing session at London’s Olympic Studios the original idea was to record a cover version of The Clash’s Straight To Hell, but reggae singer Horace Andy wasn’t happy singing the word “hell”]. D and Horace went next door, were kind of throwing vocal ideas around… and we were messing around with the track, chopping things together. Then Horace put the vocal down and it was like, “Wow, shit, that is magic…”
3D: Horace is great, really open-minded. It’s difficult for him in a sense because he’s got such a massive history and there’s people who respect him in London and Jamaica who could be asking, “What happened to your reggae roots, Horace?” He’s not worried about what people think of him even though he’s had people dissing him for it. He’s prepared to experiment with the rest of us.
Horace Andy (vocalist): I respect 3D one million per cent, because he let me sing in a way I never thought I could… I still tease them and say they can’t deejay – get them in a studio and they will do it, but onstage you say, “Come up and deejay something like a Jamaican deejay would”, and they run a mile. I probably shouldn’t let this out on them, but they can’t dance either – Daddy G and 3D will try to move, but I’ve never seen Mushroom take a step.
Mushroom: The record company… said, “Enough’s enough. You’ve got to put the record out now.”
3D: The title Mezzanine was] pretty much a metaphor… We don’t feel like we’re in the same time zone as other people. It’s the feeling of not really fitting in. It’s a bit paranoid and a bit isolated.
“We were writing Teardrop about Jeff Buckley, which was very sad because at the time we were circling him like vultures hoping to get in the studio with him.”
Daddy G: The mezzanine? I think D spends half his life there. I don’t think he knows whether he’s coming or going.
3D: We did toy with the idea of calling it Damaged Goods for a while. It seemed to sum up a lot of the ideas that were going on. But it felt too obvious in the end.
Will Self (writer): Sometimes when I’m with the Massives I feel I’m with three versions of John Lennon, each one of them determined to outdo himself in terms of wit. It’s simultaneously maddening and invigorating. It’s the same kind of interplay that you experience when you hear the three of them merge rapping, toasting, singing and percussion into their music.
Daddy G: We’re not an architectural band. It’s never been that we map something out and play it. Instead, it’s trying to translate something in your head, but to get it from there to paper to tape – there’s always that grey area. That’s where it can be quite exciting, where accidents happen. It also makes it so there’s no restriction to what we do – we got the right to break down and let chaos rule.
3D: For the cover] I wanted to go for something more photographic. I started off with images of spiders. I was really obsessed, having mad dreams about them; I wanted a spider’s abdomen on the back of the album cover and I wanted to develop this idea of making clothes from spider skin. It was all very trippy shit that proved quite difficult to make it into anything, but then photographer] Nick Knight showed me these shots of beetles that he’d taken in the Natural History Museum. They were really beautiful. That kind of settled it. Tom Hingston (designer): A friend of mine is pals with their manager. And he basically said, “Well… they’re finishing off their album, and starting to think about artwork.” Prior to that they’d always worked with much bigger design studios, and I think that what 3D wanted was to have a bit more of a one-to-one relationship.
3D: I was very keen on keeping the album sleeve] in monochrome. Me and Tom wanted a lurid orange disc inside – one piece of colour. At this point we’d given in to the idea that the main format was a CD, so we wanted to make the CD format really striking. I wanted to take a more aggressive approach… with the sleeve, to almost go back to a black and white, fuckedup aesthetic but with brand new materials, which is what we did. There’s also a bit of JG Ballard to it, sexual dark undertones, which was definitely in the record.
Angelo Bruschini: They were very, very nervous before the release of the album’s first single, Risingson]. There was a big sigh of relief when that sold.
Daddy G: About six months before the album came out, D said to me, “If this record doesn’t go to Number 1, we may as well forget it.” He was right, I took that on board the album went straight in at the top of the chart]. If we didn’t get any payback, it would have been a waste of time.
Neil Davidge: Mezzanine has that post-punk thing, has that reggae thing, has a little bit of funk, has almost a bit of jazz at times, a bit of prog-rock… it’s a real mixture of all of the influences from members of the band.
Daddy G: You sometimes hear these blatant rip-offs of our sound] and think, “You fucking bastards!” But at the end of the day we’ve taken inspiration from other things as well… We’ve never tried to sound like anyone else, but we’ve taken inspiration from other bands. The thing is, we’re not in competition with anyone else, we’re just in competition with ourselves.
3D: We’ve not deliberately been in opposition to every trend and scene, but when Blue Lines came out it was like the Summer of fucking Love and we were doing something slow and groovy. Then when Protection came out everyone was doing drum’n’bass, and when Mezzanine came about we went into a more rockoriented place when everyone else was bang into dance music. It’s always by accident with us, really.
Mushroom: There was one journalist cheeky enough to call Mezzanine] “goth hop”. Fuckin’ ridiculous…
Will Self: Massive Attack have never viewed themselves as being anything but entirely sui generis. Which makes it all the stranger the trajectory their music has described… theirs struck me as an essentially subversive sound, vitally connected to the sexual act and the derangement of the senses by any means available.
3D: People say our albums are dark and melancholic, but I say it’s like Radiohead’s OK Computer. It’s quite tragic in places, but you don’t leave the album feeling tragic. You feel enlightened.
On a different level: Massive Attack, Oslo, 1998. Mushroom (far right) would officially quit the band the following year.
With long-time collaborator Horace Andy (second right), Kingston, Jamaica.