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.