How Massive Attack learned to cover Barbra Streisand and Siberian punk.
Gauzy scrims line the cavernous space inside the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan's genteel Upper East Side. Somewhere out of sight the UK sound system-turned-"trip-hop" crew-turned-rock band Massive Attack are making the sort of tense, atmopheric soundtrack they're known for while a crowd of people are assaulted by a barrage of nightmarish images—Chernobyl, Jane Fonda, Donald Trump juxtaposed with provocative text that would warm the heart of Marshall McLuhan or Barbara Kruger. Suddenly the oversized head of reggae legend Horace Andy appears on one panel of scrim and he begins singing "Baby It's You" in perfect ironic counterpoint to the dystopian visions surrounding him. Some of the crowd cheers him, other recoil in horror.
Welcome to Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis, an immersive, enlightening and slightly disturbing live music and film experience that had critics raving in the UK and that's currently having its American debut. (Two more shows are left—tonight and tomorrow.) Broadly stated MA vs. ACis an impressionistic history of mankind for the past half century or so, as told through the life stories of people you may never have heard about before and who you will never forget afterward. The film also addresses such diverse topics as surveillance society, nuclear war, terrorism, cable news, the internet, and cool dance tunes. We caught up with the man called 3D to see how this latest project stretched his creative muscles. He also told us whether we can expect another Massive Attack album any time soon.
It kind of takes you back to that warehouse thing. It's dirty and dank, and slightly dubious in terms of hanging out there in the evenings, which is what we used to do when we were putting on the sound system.
This project is Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis. What’s the “versus” part about?
Well, I was approached by the Manchester Festival a few years ago to create a new project, and I suggested working with Adam because I figured we could try a completely different show out. And therefore, a clash of ideas, somewhere between a gig, a movie, something political but romantic, something bombastic but subtle, something completely visually stunning but have something to take away with it—you know, something for the brain as well as the eyes. So, with Adam’s way of working, you know telling a story coherently versus my more abstract approach to a gig, in which I try a lot of different ideas out visually as well as sonically, there was always going to be a clash of sensibilities, which is where the “versus” comes in. But of course, during the process we’ve had to find common ground to make it feel like a working show.
Definitely. I guess it’s sort of a media clash, if you will. Like going back to your Wild Bunch origins?
Yeah, yeah totally. And we’ve done it in big old—you know, we spent the whole beautiful European summer in dark industrial post-Victorian depots—and it kind of takes you back to that warehouse thing, you know what I mean? It's dirty and dank, and slightly dubious in terms of hanging out there in the evenings, which is what we used to do when we were putting on the sound system.
Exactly. So how did you first encounter Adam’s work?
I’ve watched Adam’s films over the last few years and I was really taken with The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, and then in that year in which I met Alex Poots of the Manchester Festival—because I’ve been up there to see a lot of Damon Albarn’s work over the last six or seven years. You know, he’s done the Gorillaz show, the Monkey show, the Dr. Dee show—you know, he's made some great pieces of work. And that year, Adam’s film All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace aired in the UK on television and I thought it was a brilliant study of systems of human behavior and all the rest of it. Yeah, I was really taken at that. And I felt, watching that—I'd finished touring in 2010 and felt like taking the visual part of the Massive Attack show to its furthest point at that particular time, in terms of displaying data and visual ideas and being quite provocative with it. I thought working with with Adam would step it up a few notches, you know what I mean?
The trailers that I’ve seen are actually a little scary.
It’s not only a political statement—it seems almost like an existential one. This idea of dead people calling us to join them forever. It’s almost like a horror movie.
It is cheeky in that way. It’s not as scary at the gig. But there is sort of a touch of the existentialist about it. There is an idea that the past comes to haunt you, whether it’s past political decisions or the algorithms by which we are sort of governed in the digital world today in the sense that everything we do is sold back to us to do again tomorrow or repackaged for us tomorrow. And the idea of can you escape the past if you base everything in your future on the past? And therfore will you ever do anything new? Does looking back at the past to safeguard the future by looking at previous mistakes and then trying to preempt them actually work? The fact that everything is unpredictable when you try to control it and manage it, it often comes back to bite you. And I think we all know as part of our recent—or in my lifetime—political history. The U.S., Middle East and Europe—we all know how that one works out, you know what I mean? Often the very thing you sought to stop happening is the very thing that does happen.
When you were putting the music together for this, what were your goals? You have some covers, you have some reinterpretations of familiar Massive Attack songs. What were you thinking about when you put this music together?
When I was approached I made it very clear that I didn’t want to do a Massive Attack show musically—especially not visually, but musically I wanted it to be very different too. For me it was a chance to liberate myself a little bit from it. To do something which wasn’t part of the official history or timeline of the band. And it felt that I wouldn’t be responsible for our back catalog or to create a show that met expectations, but to do something completely different. Adam’s got a very eclectic musical taste, as you know from his films and the music he spots for his own films. And I felt a connection to that. Obviously working a lot of movie scores myself I felt that together we could put together a pretty interesting run of tracks. I fought hard to remove as much Massive Attack as possible even though people kept pestering me to try and make it more "accessible." And I said we can make the show accessible in a different way. We don’t have to pander to expectations. We chose a lot of interesting covers between us from all sorts of times and places. And the only bit of Massive you get is there is a Portishead interpretation of "Karmacoma" and we sort of like jam a bit of "Safe From Harm" into the Sugababes toward the end of the show which is quite odd—all slowed down and murky and quite bizarre. And the rest of it just jumps around from Siberian punk to Bauhaus to Sonic Youth. There’s a couple of '60s pop numbers in there like "Sugar Sugar" and "Baby It’s You." There’s a Barbra Streisand piece in there. There’s Bauhaus "Bela Lugosi’s Dead." There’s all kinds of bits and pieces in there. There’s even a bit of Avicii in there too. I mean there’s all sorts of kind of dance pop stuff. It veers from that back to vintage tracks like "Let’s Twist Again"—so it’s pretty bizarre.
I fought hard to remove as much Massive Attack as possible even though people kept pestering me to try and make it more 'accessible.'
Well The Wailers covered "Sugar Sugar" too, so that wasn’t so far afield.
And Horace [Andy] loved that... when I got into the studio and sent him the files and said these two tracks, can you believe it? Because normally he expects me to send him something really bizarre and abstract. Like on the last few albums he’s like, "How do I start with this?" But with those tracks he knew exactly where to go.
Since you mentioned Horace Andy, he will be performing as part of this show, correct?
Yeah, Horace and Elizabeth Fraser.
One of the great voices of our time.
Yeah I call them the royal family. So when people say 'Who’s with you?' I say we got the royal family.
And which other vocalists will be taking part in New York?
Well to be honest, I’m doing a lot of vocals and I’m messing with my voice a lot on the Vocoder as well, so I can pitch it to do things that I wouldn’t normally do. There's strange covers of Suicide, Jesus and Mary Chain. I go super low into Bela Lugosi, which is fun because I've been practicing that in the bath for probably 30 years. And without a shower curtain or a hairbrush in sight I just go for it. And me and Sean [Cook] and Elizabeth had to learn some Russian for the Siberian punk songs, which are really good fun. There was a bit of a learning curve to get that but that’s kind of fun and good. And then Daddy G comes on and does "Karmacoma" with me of course, and we’ve got Sean Cook who’s playing bass on that, he used to be the bass player in Spiritualized who lives in Bristol and he’s sharing some vocal duties with me on the punk and Mary Chain tracks.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really hyper-aware of Siberian punk. I knew there was a big Russian punk scene, but the groups in question, Adam introduced me to.
How do you go about interpreting that music?
What you don’t do (and what we tried to do) is speak to a Russian interpreter and get him to teach you Russian—that doesn’t work. The way you do it is you actually listen to the songs and you sort of work out phonetically how it should be. You write a load of stuff down which is nowhere near anything and has nothing in common with Russian at all. And then when you've made that sound, thenyou speak to the interpreter and say look this is what we’re doing. We’ve got the sounds right, we’ve got the flow right, are we saying the right words? Does it have meaning? And then work out if you’re on the right path. We didn't have the time to learn the language, so we have to sort of get in there somehow in a more unorthodox way.
As a band, we appear and disappear in and out of the film as if we’re part of it. It’s a very strange way to perform because you don’t really have eye contact with the audience. You’re not sure if the audience is watching you or the film.
When I’ve seen Massive Attack live there was always a visual element to the performance. How does this gig feel different? Just being on stage, what has the response been like from the live audiences?
It’s strange, man. As I said earlier, in 2010 I thought the work that I’d been doing with U.V.A. (United Visual Artists) the LED work which we’ve been developing for a decade now, trying to keep it really pure and sensibility of doing data and alphanumeric and trying to keep it really really a sort of purist artform or whatever—that kind of reached its pinnacle really. And with this show it’s a chance to do something I haven’t done before. And working with projectors, because we’re using film, we decided to actually perform from behind this gauze, which can be turned transparent when you like or become opaque when you project onto it.
So as a band, we appear and disappear in and out of the film as if we’re part of it. It’s very successful and it’s a really interesting way of doing it. It’s a very strange way to perform because you don’t really have eye contact with the audience. You’re not sure if the audience is watching you or the film. And the funniest thing is that you don’t get a round of applause at the end of each song, which is quite right because it would interrupt the film and the flow. Because some of the songs we cut off in their prime or right towards the end. We don’t let them end elegantly, they get cut as if you were just changing the channel on a TV or something’s happened in the film to completely destroy that last song to go into a new place. It’s quite jagged and harsh like that, which means the audience is getting pulled around. So there’s not really a lot of time to think about what’s happening and going "Oh that was nice. I enjoyed that," and sort of interact with it. You're on to the next part of the film. It sort of rushes around a bit like that. It’s cool, it’s quite chaotic, and for us it’s strange because you don’t get a response. You know, you finish a song, you get the big change into the next scene, and I look over to the guys and we all look at each other and go "Yeah, nice one." Thumbs up, and move on to the next one. You know what I mean? It’s bizarre.
It must be like being the orchestra for a Broadway show or something like that.
Exactly. And we had debated about being in front of the screen but I’ve seen a few shows like that recently, which some worked. You know, Damon did Dr. Dee like that where the band were up on a platform, so you looked at the play, the musical as such. You watched the actors but you could look up and watch them perform, which is a nice way of doing it. We obviously didn’t want to do that, we wanted to do something different because it was a film. Sometimes we take control of the stage and other times we become just a supporting part of it. And a lot of the underscore, which I created with Euan Dickinson in the studio, was sort of looking at a lot of classical pieces, reinterpreting them on analog keyboards and stuff, on Jupiter-8, Prophet-5s, you know and kind of having that to come as a sort of underpinning piece in the film. It’s sort of another layer against live music.
Is there anything different for the American presentation of this? Other than the venue of course, have you changed it up at all?
It’s been evolving. We keep adding more music, and we’ve changed it from the first show in Manchester. We came out of Germany we changed a few things, we translated it to German there. Normally what we do in our shows—we translate to the local language but of course we share the use of English with the Brits and the Americans so we don’t need to change that part of it. So we just changed up part of the music and obviously the venue does define some of the changes we want to make because it’s quite a tall building you know.
My experience when visiting England is that there’s a general perception that Americans are a little less clued in politically and less aware of global events. Do you feel like this project is going to hit the audience in the States differently than in Europe?
I know there is that perception, it’s a very Eurocentric view of America, isn’t it? But I’ve spent enough time in America and traveling generally to know that in every population you’re going to get a cross section of people who do have an understanding, are interested, and a mass of people who don’t care, or they seem like they don’t. I think that’s very much a global, human situation. I’ve never felt that way about Americans, not understanding or engaging politically with the rest of the world. Because I suppose visiting the key cities on the coast you tend to meet people who are very clued up. I think our awareness of this show is as much as it is provocative, there is a connection between all the historic moments we’re presenting between the British, Americans, Russia and Afghanistan take a big part of this as well. And it’s part of our collective recent history. So I think it’s very inclusive as well as being provocative? Of course there’s challenges and arguments in regards to the institutions and political history that we’ve all been a part of. It’s a diagnosis, it’s questioned, it’s analyzed. So, in that sense you keep the lid on things, but I don’t think that will be surprising to the American audience anymore than it would be to an English audience really.
Will there be another Massive Attack album?
Yeah. Yeah, we’ve been recording new tunes. There’s quite a few different things. Got a new label called Battle Box, which we've been putting out some twelves. We’ve got some Massive Attack material already kind of recorded. And we’ve sort of got a lot of unfinished tracks we’re working on. Of course this project has been taking up a lot of my time this year, but yeah, there’s loads of stuff going on.
You said Battle Box is the name of the label?
Yeah that’s the label which just kind of launched this year really, just with a few twelves—which has been fun as well. We've been putting on some performances in Bristol, which is kind of cool as well, keeping it sort of local.
Back where it all began.
That's the intent anyway. I don't know whether the new generation of clubbers will accept these older dudes coming back into town. [Laughs] I’m not sure but we’ll see.