I caught up with Grant Marshall aka "G" of Massive Attack to talk about their killer new album Heligoland and the band's recent Ivor Novello award. The duo kicks off their (epic) United States tour on May 11 at Terminal 5 in New York.
Heligoland is your first album in seven years. What made you want to get back in the studio?
We went on tour in 2008 and prepared what we thought was going to be the album. It was going to be called Weather Underground. We toured the album for eight months and when we came back we were bored with it. It didn’t really have the cohesion that we wanted. So we went back in the studio in 2009 to re-record it, and that’s when we started working with [Gorillaz lead singer] Damon Albarn.
Are you guys close with Damon?
Yeah, we hang out with Damon all the time. So it was a great thing working on the next incarnation with him; the master steering the ship, you might say.
Let’s jump back to your first album, Blue Lines. Geoff Barrow was an intern at the studio there while you guys were making the album, and you basically helped him jumpstart his career with Portishead. Do you guys still have a close relationship, and are there any plans for collaborating in the future?
Yeah of course we do-- Geoff’s kids go to the same school as mine. I even saw Geoff this morning. So yeah, we’re good friends, and there’s always talk about doing something in the future.
Massive Attack has evolved musically so many times from The Wild Bunch to a hip-hop sound and now with the lo-fi jazz element. What musical influences have driven that evolution?
Being DJs as the Wild Bunch, we sort of made a name of ourselves for the crazy collection we used to have, and we would mash it all together-- jazz, disco, hip-hop, reggae, punk. There’s a heavy reggae influence in Bristol, so we’ve always been drawn to the bass line. A lot of these bands we’re influenced by have that bass like TV on the Radio, Gorillaz, The Specials, Public Image Ltd. You can’t help being influenced by some of the musicians you love when you go back in to the studio.
The experimental element is a defining part of your sound, yet Massive Attack is considered the foundation of the trip-hop as a genre. Do you consider yourself trip-hop?
No, not in the slightest. For us, if you get labeled as something, it means the story’s already been told. And that experimental element that we have, where every album is going to be a different experience is for us-- we don’t like to repeat the same formula. There’s always something new to take to the studio.
Let’s talk about Massive Attack’s artwork. Robert is an amazing graffiti artist—Banksy cites him as one of his influences, and the Heligoland album cover is from his collection.
Yeah, that’s been a great thing for us. The videos we make, the artwork, the visual side that pertains to Massive Attack, has always been provocative and elemental. As far as we’re concerned, the visual side is as good as the music.
Tell us about how American hip-hop has influenced your sound.
Hip-hop was the first thing that encapsulated what we did with The Wild Bunch. What we were doing with the sampler when we first learned it was definitely copying the way American hip-hop artists went into the studio to create beats that worked for them. Those techniques that they used are exactly the same techniques we employed originally, and I still do.
You won the Ivor Novello Award recently, which is sort of like winning a lifetime achievement award in Britain. What was your reaction?
Well it was an achievement, and we laughed our heads off really because of where we come from--a DJ background-- and the fact that none of us are real archetypal musicians you know. So to be inducted into the music club was probably our most prestigious moment because it was voted on by our peers. Our music was always really experimental and we couldn’t play instruments too well, so half the time we were in the studio humming bass lines or tapping on the table to make beats. It was quite primitive the way we originally started making music. So winning was kind of ironic, really. (Laughs)
So do you not consider yourself a musician?
Not in the slightest. You know, I think D probably does (laughs). We love music, you know, and that’s what we do. We make music and over the years there have been some funny incidents in the studio where we actually come out and go “Wow, we’ve done it. We’ve pulled it off at last.” But yeah, to get that award was definitely humbling. Still ironic though. ::