One quick note: Massive Attack is kicking off its North American tour with Thievery Corporation this weekend. Aloha...
A Conversation with Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja
Mike Ragogna: Usually your projects are almost like a song cycle. What was the approach while making your new album Heligoland?
Robert Del Naja: This album started off, as usual, being somewhat of a sonic exercise, and then I realized halfway through that there were quite a lot of fights to be had between myself and Grant (Marshall) and myself and Neil Davidge in terms of what I wanted to do sonically and what they probably didn't want to do sonically. So, I kind of made a U-turn halfway through, and decided to strip it all back and make it very acoustic, and very much expose all the instruments, and even make the music slave to the songs. So, it was more about the songs than the music, in a sense.
MR: Would it be right to call Heligoland an "organic" project?
RDN: Yeah, possibly. I think I was trying to just simplify things, take a lot of the layers away, and make it more about the relationship between the songs and the necessary amount of sounds as opposed to creating a more complex arrangement. It became more organic during the process.
MR: What went into choosing guest artists for this project?
RDN: A lot of it was--again, I'm going to use the word "organic" because it had that approach. Hooking up with Damon Albarn...in one sense, there's obviously a history there; hooking up with Tim Goldsworthy, there's a history there as well; and hooking up with Martina Topley-Bird the same thing. Guy Garvey is a kind of a friend of mine in recent times. The exception was Hope Sandoval who we've never worked with before. G sent her the track almost anonymously in the post, you know? Everything else was very much a process of working with people we knew and have relationships with.
MR: When most artists record their albums, there are usually a couple of songs that pop out and make you go, "Wow, that turned out fantastic." Did you have any of those moments with this record?
RDN: It's hard to say. The funny thing is that some of this is the bones of another album, which we sort of scrapped. The original album was Weather Underground, which was meant to be finished in '08, but it got discarded. We took some of the skeletal remains with us, and some stuff was written brand new on the spot. I think those moments of writing on the spot were good because going over Damon Albarn's place, working with Damon and doing things very spontaneously--compulsively even--that was good fun. Especially after coming out of the crisis of scrapping an album and feeling a little bit out of sorts, that would be the closest I can think of to an "ah ha" moment. (laughs)
MR: That's exactly what I meant, yeah. Please, say more.
RDN: It's probably in the sense of the approach. I think we probably got bogged down in the studio over the years in Bristol with various personalities, and personality issues and approaches, finding a way to work. Going to a new environment and doing things very spontaneously again was almost like going back in time to when you just did things quickly, had less equipment, didn't have infinite computing power, and you had to make things work with very few tools.
MR: Can you tell me why the album was scrapped?
RDN: A couple of things--I'd been working in one place and G was working in another. Neil, my co-writer and co-producer at the time, had been working with me on a lot of films at the time, and I think we kind of got sick of each other. There was no real cohesion to it, and we'd taken it on the road for a good four months. We did a lot of gigs, and it was good fun. But I think at the end of that, I felt that it almost had served its time and done its thing, and it had no reason to really exist anymore--the moment had passed. So, it was starting again, going to Damon, going to see Tim in New York, that made things feel slightly different. You know, G and I don't sit in the studio together often, so there's going to be an amount of the guys and I in the studio just pushing it together to make a shape out of it, which is the point that I realized all the sonic battles that I'd been having in the past, trying to get ideas across, were pointless. So, I decided to simplify things and start again.
MR: You've worked with a lot of artists at this point, as this is your fifth studio album, right?
MR: So, you're veterans.
RDN: I guess so, definitely.
MR: As a music vet, what is your advice for new artists that are trying to come into the field at this point?
RDN: Well, I guess everything is falling apart in the music industry, in a certain sense, and deflating and declining, and I'm thinking it's going to leave a lot of space in the background where the original structures used to stand, where people can start to create their own movements, their own music. I think there's a lot of impulse with today's day and age to go get deals still, and I think things have changed to where you don't have to sign to a record company anymore--you can sign to a fizzy drink company or to a supermarket. I think there's as much opportunity out there, more than ever, to do things a lot more independently than there ever was. We don't have to follow the traditional channels anymore because a lot of that system is way in decline and dying every day, and it means that there's a lot more space for people to do things in their own way. I'd encourage people to look at all the alternatives. Now, you can make it in the industry on very little equipment, and you can transmit it instantly as well as share it instantly. There's a lot more opportunity to develop your ideas without interference, you know?
MR: Right, and to play live.
RDN: Well, playing live, again, there is an amazing amount of opportunity to play live. People seem to be going to gigs a lot more these days. Maybe that's a consequence of the age of unlimited internet. We're people. Even though you can share everything electronically or anonymously, in a sense, everything is packaged into naughts and ones as opposed to being little boxes. You kind of tend to want to feel the human touch by going to a gig, being involved, and engaging on a physical level.
MR: Yeah, that does seem to be what the missing element is when you're living and dying with internet promotion, marketing, and presence. Really, despite "live" blogging, etc., you can't get the live element.
RDN: Exactly. Ironically, Massive Attack started off in its infancy as an electronic outfit. We didn't really go big on promotion and we didn't promote ourselves as personalities. It was all about the art and the music, and it was only after Mezzanine that we really started hitting the touring and started to head into the more physical world of presenting out music and communicating it.
MR: You're going to be on a North American tour soon with Thievery Corporation, right?
MR: Where is it taking you?
RDN: It's taking us, I guess, to a lot of the cities we've been to before, and a lot of the ones we haven't. It's always exciting, you know? It's very demographically and geographically different from the U.K. and Europe, so it's always an eye-opener for us Europeans.
MR: When you perform live, what can people expect to be seeing and hearing?
RDN: I think, for me, it's always about the opportunity to engage in everything that's happening around us. Musically, I try to present what is happening presently. Even if you're playing some stuff from the past or you're playing something no one's heard before, you're playing it for the moment, and you try an create a set that feels like it's about now, whether or not there's a history attached to it at all. So, we rearrange tracks and replay them with different instruments and different sounds. At the same time, visually, for me, it's always been very exciting because I came to it as a visual artist. In the information and communication age, I think the saturation or bombardment of information creates contradictions to where you're surrounded by information and what you can and cannot do. Trying to present that on stage, dealing with issues locally and internationally until you're completely surrounded by it--because that's how we take information now, tons of it at once--how we process it is very strange and different. I guess our brains have been rewired. I think it's great to be able to present that as a part of the show.
MR: Wow, beautifully said.
RDN: Thank you, I've been practicing that all of five minutes.
MR: (laughs) Is there any song on Heligoland that sort of sums up its major ideas and pulls them into one song?
RDN: Not really. Can I just say that when I start a statement like that, normally, it's sort of just like putting a little boat out into a lake and hoping I get to the other side. I start off chucking words at you, and I'm not quite sure if it's actually going to make any sense, but in the end, if I succeed, then it's an absolute miracle.
MR: (laughs) That's beautiful. What do you foresee, as far as the future, for Massive Attack?
RDN: I think it's interesting. What I'm trying to do next year is deconstruct the whole band, deconstruct the live show, and send it back into almost an experimental sound system, playing everything live, and building the next record from the point of view of playing it live and then, taking it back to the studio and finish building it as an album.
MR: That's an agenda.
RDN: Well, I don't know how many more Mondays I can turn up at the studio and go, "Alright, sit down. I'm going to try this." I'm still in the same room, and it's still raining outside. Do you know what I mean?
MR: Yeah, it seems like the challenge for artists these days is not only to come up with something fresh, but now you've got to do it from a new perspective.
RDN: Yeah, I think so. I think the responsibility you have, being privileged to play music, record, and have people listen to you for a long time, is to repay that attention by doing your utmost to make yourself interested in music, so you can share that with other people.
1. Pray For Rain
3. Splitting The Atom
4. Girl I Love You
6. Flat Of The Blade
7. Paradise Circus
8. Rush Minute
9. Saturday Come Slow
10. Atlas Air
A Conversation with The Hundred In The Hands' Jason Friedman and Eleanore Everdell
Mike Ragogna: Jason and Eleanore, what the story behind your group's name?
Jason Friedman: It's the name of a battle that Crazy Horse fought in, a Lakota battle. The legend behind the battle is that the night before it, a shaman rode in and out of the Lakota camp saying. "I've got too many in the hands. I've got a hundred in the hands." Then, the next day they killed nearly one-hundred U.S. soldiers, so it's The Battle of The Hundred in the Hands.
Eleanore Everdell: It was a victory for the Native Americans.
MR: Yeah, score one for them, and what, a gillion for the other guys.
EE: Exactly. That's part of why we liked it--the whole tragedy and romance of the story.
MR: Is there any kind of social issue out there or is there anything in the paper that has your attention?
EE: I would say we try to stay away from being political with the music that we make. Sure, we've got opinions about the state of things.
JF: There are a lot of things that sort of feed in historically to where we can kind of make comparisons, but it's more the politics of the every day than any kind of over-arching theme.
MR: How did the two of you meet?
EE: Jason had another band before this one called The Boggs, and he was releasing his third record with that band and needed to put a live line-up together, so I joined just for a tour.
JF: Yeah, we met and were on the road together about a month later. Then, we were on the road for two months, and that's how we got to know each other. We were just driving around listening to music, and we realized we had a lot of common interests. So, when we got back from that tour we were given a couple days in the studio, and we banged out what ended up being our first song, "Dressed In Dresden." That's how it started.
MR: Did you find yourselves writing material together as you toured?
EE: Writing on the road is...I'm always impressed when people can do that. I think it's the hardest thing ever because you don't really have that much privacy, and when you do, you kind of just want to zone out. It was more that we were on input mode. So just listening to a lot of music and talking a lot about ideas, that led to a creative period when we got back from touring.
JF: The way we write is, we both kind of write on our own in short bursts. We both write lyric sketches and music sketches, then we get together and start recording and writing at the same time. So, the songs slowly come together as kind of a combination of us.
MR: Who are your influences?
JF: It's a really long and ridiculous list. It kind of feels a little bit silly because a lot of it doesn't necessarily sound like us; but we were listening to a lot of different things, like a lot of early ska and dub, and a lot of house music. Post punk is just kind of in the blood, so that comes out all the time.
MR: Do I also hear a little bit of Eurodance and Siouxsie And The Banshees?
EE: You know, people say that all the time. That's not necessarily what we listen to, it's just that maybe we're coming to some of the same conclusions as they did by listening to similar music. I don't know, we don't listen to Siouxsie that much, but I do love her voice, and I think she's amazing.
MR: This is an album that you recorded at home, right?
JF: Most of it.
EE: Half and half, kind of.
JF: Maybe like seventy percent or above was at home. We would record and write together, and we ended up with a whole stack of what we were calling demos, then we split that up and decided to make an EP and an album. We went and worked with some really amazing producers to kind of take our tracks the rest of the way. So, they used what we had recorded as the basis, and then we replaced those things that needed replacing.
MR: You worked with Jacque Renault, and Richard X, of course. How did you hook up with these guys?
JF: Well, Jacque is just an old friend of mine, and we've always been talking about working together, So, when Eleanore and I started this band, it just seemed like a really great opportunity. For a while, we were going over to his home studio almost on a weekly basis, just trying out tracks. That's how "Young Aren't Young" slowly came together--it started off as a kind of afro-beat Young Marble Giants, and with Jacque, it became more house-y.
MR: It does have that layer on there, and it really is a nice amalgam of many things.
EE: Then there's Richard X who we worked with, and he was more someone that we got in touch with through our label and our manager because he's quite sought after and he does really crazy things with English pop music. It was really fun for us to work with him because he had a lot of tools that we were interested in trying to apply to our crazy, weirdo songs that we'd written.
JF: We kind of always had this idea that we wanted to work with people who knew the tricks for making bigger tracks, but kind of meeting in some kind of other place. For Richard, I think he was let off the hook--he didn't have to make a big chart topper. He's got some pretty weirdo tastes himself, so I think it was a good mix.
MR: You guys are New Yorkers, right?
EE: We are, yeah. I can't call myself that yet because I've only been here for eight years, but Jason, I think...
JF: ...yeah, I've lived in New York longer than anywhere else.
MR: I'm an ex-New Yorker too. What borough?
JF: We're in Brooklyn at the moment.
MR: Do you guys frequent the clubs, and do you find any inspiration in what's going on in the club scene right now?
JF: I think it's more the stuff that we had been getting really into. This whole last year, we just locked ourselves away and were writing and recording.
EE: It's interesting because we have a lot of friends that are DJ's, like Jacque, and I would say that we're inspired by the music that they make. So, in some sense, we are, but we haven't, in the past year at least, had the time to go out and just hang out at clubs because we've been working so hard. It's more like listening to stuff in our apartment instead of in clubs.
MR: You have a new single. Can you tell us a little about it?
JF: Yeah, it's called "Pigeons," and it kind of went through a lot of different changes. The lyrics are kind of dark--it's kind of a story about someone who's not in the right place giving into hedonistic things like having parties on the weekend, but not really being that happy about it. It's got this payoff chorus that, if you just listen to it, sounds like it's a party anthem.
MR: In your press release it goes further, framing it in words like "Teenage angst, boredom, heartache."
EE: (laughs) There you go.
MR: Let's talk about the instrumentation on the album. Jason, you play guitar, bass, and you program, right?
JF: Yeah, it's kind of hard to figure out exactly what we each did. But generally, that's my role, and Eleanore does the singing and plays synths.
MR: When you guys are writing a song now, especially since you have an eye on going to producers to make the tracks a little more polished, do you find yourself aiming at that end result during the creative process?
JF: Yeah, part of the inspiration, and what we were excited about in this band, was looking at a lot of R&B and hip-hop, and really being excited by that production. So, in our heads, we were kind of thinking of it as being in the lineage of avant pop. The music itself is not necessarily breaking the rules--it's basically verses and choruses. But going back to Phil Spector and all the way through Timbaland, there are really interesting ways in which you're framing those textures, and that's always been something we were interested in playing with.
MR: I feel like the vocals seem to be evoking Brill Building girl groups.
EE: Thanks, I love all that stuff. I think that, generally, I like girls who sing where there's kind of a desperation in the way that they sound. It's hard for any singer to describe what they're doing, I think.
JF: The first record that we bonded over was...I gave Eleanore a stack of girl groups recordings.
MR: You can really hear that. It's like you took the cream of a lot of genres, and claim the amalgam as your own.
EE: Well, thank you.
MR: There's another single on this album, "Dressed In Dresden." It's like a post-punk rave up.
JF: Yeah, it was the first song that we had made as a band. We stuck it up online and that's what started everything for us. It got us over to Europe to play a handful of shows, and Warp came to one of those shows. Just on that one single, it all happened.
MR: What was the discovery process like? Did they reach out to you?
JF: Yeah. (laughs) It was really funny because they were at the top of our dream wish list of labels we would want to talk to, then three months later, two of the guys that came from Warp were among the seven people who came to see us, but they liked it enough.
MR: Will you be going on tour?
JF: Yeah, it's a U.S. tour with these bands Temper Trap and Delphic. We're, unfortunately, not going to be in Iowa, but we're going to be in Illinois and Wisconsin.
MR: Well, we'll get you next time. I love that you came to visit Fairfield, Iowa by phone, that counts. Thanks so much for stopping by, and all the best.
EE: Thanks so much for having us.
1. Young Aren't Young
2. Lovesick (Once Again)
3. Killing It
6. This Day Is Made
7. Dead Ending
8. Gold Blood
9. Dressed In Dresden
10. Last City
11. The Beach
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)