Massive Attack Rebuilds Its Own Sound For the past two decades, a slouching, tripping beat has defined certain stylish neighborhoods in Miami, Paris and Berlin. Massive Attack helped make that widely imitated sound. On the band's upcoming album, its members have stopped sampling others and begun reworking themselves.
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Massive Attack Rebuilds Its Own Sound

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Massive Attack Rebuilds Its Own Sound

Massive Attack Rebuilds Its Own Sound

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For the last two decades, a slouching tripping beats has defined certain stylish neighborhoods in Miami, Paris and Berlin.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Today, this is an international sound that's widely imitated. But you can trace the origin of trip hop music back to Bristol, England, and the band, Massive Attack.

(Soundbite of song, �Unfinished Sympathy�)

MASSIVE ATTACK (Group): (Singer) I know that I've been mad in love before and how it could be with you�

SHAPIRO: This was a single from the band's recording debut in 1991. Now Massive Attack is about to release its first album in seven years, called �Heligoland.� As in previous recordings, "Heligoland" is full of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, but the band itself has shrunk from a trio to a duo. Robert Del Naja, who goes by D, and Grant Marshall, or G, spoke with me from their studios in Bristol. Del Naja told me the band's approach to music today is very different from the early years, when they co-opted everything they heard around them.

Mr. ROBERT DEL NAJA (Frontman, Massive Attack): We were, you know, the kings of thieves in our neighborhood. We took some of the best, sort of like, bits of other people's music and build them, or rebuild them into new songs. And that was the fun part of it that kind of - the anarchy of taking and sort of remodeling, remaking, you know, dismantling and rebuilding. And we work in a very different way now.

SHAPIRO: Is there any sampling at all in this album?

Mr. NAJA: We sampled ourselves. In the sense, you know, you would get a drummer to play something, you might instruct him to play in certain way and then he takes loops of that. So you edit in same way by using small loops of a part, as opposed to sampling, say something, from an obscure 70's funk tune, for instance.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAJA: I think all the tracks, even the very acoustic drum tracks on the record are being very loops. If you listen to �Pray for Rain,� the toms on that have a very loop - looping feel. Obviously, that was a session we did in the studio.

(Soundbite of song, �Pray for Rain�)

MASSIVE ATTACK: (Singing) A system failure you left behind, and their necks crane. As they turn to pray for rain, and their necks crane.

SHAPIRO: Do you often start with the drums or where does a song begin to take shape?

Mr. GRANT MARSHALL (Member, Massive Attack): Some can start from, you know, a multitude of places, you know, with the words, with the vocal, with the - sort of a simple riff on guitar, for instance, drums and base are very essential theme, or a very essential theme, you know, music. Historically, Bristol is a very bass-heavy city, you know, very influenced by the reggae music of its past.

SHAPIRO: You say, Bristol is a very base heavy city. So much of your music is tied to a scene in Bristol that you've largely helped to create. For American radio listeners, describe what the music scene is like in Bristol and how that informs the music you make?

Mr. MARSHALL: Yeah. We - you know, Bristol is the setting for us, it's the -where our history lies, but we've traveled everywhere. I think our music has always been about collision of cultural ideas, we've never, sort of, trolled through the same space to find music.

SHAPIRO: Why have you stayed in Bristol? You know, a lot of people in your fields take route in Berlin, Paris, London?

Mr. MARSHALL: Bristol is a lovely place, you know. And to be honest, it's never case of us, you know, wanting to, you know, leave our friends and family to go in search of something that we already had in Bristol. So, as far as we're concerned, you know, Bristol was the center of the world.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the fourth track on this album, �Girl I Love You.� It sounds like they're almost a Middle-Eastern influences in that number there.

Mr. NAJA: I think we've always been very intrigued with Middle-Eastern influence. I mean, it's clear, for music comes from the region and it's very immersive.

(Soundbite of song, �Girl I Love You�)

MASSIVE ATTACK: (Singing) It's hard to tell that your love exists but I know this one is for real.

SHAPIRO: Not being a musician, I'm sure I misidentifying this, but it almost sound like Indian ragas, like there are horns. What exactly is going on in this song?

Mr. MARSHALL: It's like they're all in the same family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAJA: It's a song of cultural confusion and disorientation, which is always great if you capture that. That's for we've always been about, you know, a collision of our days and cultures.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You, on all of your albums, have collaborated with a wide range of musicians, why not just find one vocalist you love and stick with them, as many bands have done over the years?

Mr. MARSHALL: Why? Why do that? You know, we've been, historically, I mean, backed from the Beatles, as kids, listening to them, and to the Clash, and bands like the Clash who worked with different vocalists. We've never felt the need to stick with one set of voices.

SIMON: What different things, aside from the voice itself, did the collaborators bring to the album? Do they help you craft a particular track or do you sort of give them the line and just ask them to do it?

Mr. MARSHALL: It depends. Tracks - historically, from track to track, sometimes it's as simple as sending another artist a complete a piece of music, almost, and they also have come back with a song, which has been crafted over that piece of music, obviously with this melodic patterns and chord changes. Other times it's something which is built up from scratch, you know, it could be something which might - that was just with the rhythm which you then build together.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: In �Paradise Circus,� there are these handclaps which, you know, I've always associated handclaps in music with sort of effusive joy and here you've got these hand claps over this very moody, mellow instrumental. How did the song come together?

Mr. MARSHALL: It's a song of many stages. G had initially sent Hope a backing track of a beautiful and simple track which she�

SHAPIRO: Hope as the vocalists on the track.

Mr. MARSHALL: Exactly, Hope Sandoval. And she set back a very lovely song which we then took it apart and rebuilt it. We've added various rhythmic elements to it. The hand claps give a very nice conspiratal(ph) sense of being in the room with the person and the song is very evocative and it conjures up spirits.

(Soundbite of song, �Paradise Circus�)

MASSIVE ATTACK: (Singing) Love is like a sin my love. For the one that feels it the most. Look at her with a smile like a flame. She will love you like I will never love you again�

SHAPIRO: I intend this is a compliment and I hope to take it that way. I think of your music have sort of quintessential winter listening music, kind of ghostly and intimate and evocative�

Mr. MARSHAL: Oh, I don't like the sound of that. Don't like the sound of that at all.

SHAPIRO: You don't like the sound of that? Why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARSHALL: No. I can - the property belongs to you now, the listener. So if that's what you - evokes in yourself then that's great, that's nice.


Mr. NAJA: Funny though, 'cause we - you know, I think people have always found a festival sound in Massive Attack. You know, we do a lot of festivals every year, in - all over Europe, particularly. In a festival setting it completely changes, you know. It's sort of as the sun goes down, it comes something else, that kind of - that crowded, warm, heat, that sticky summer night, you know, I think it works for that as well, in my head.

SHAPIRO: In the last few years, you've worked on some film soundtracks, and I wonder how that experience is different from creating a Massive Attack album.

Mr. NAJA: Absolutely. When you, you know - I think film soundtracks are fun at the beginning, but after a while they starts to become pretty predictable. That seems to be a very unhealthy fear of silence in film, where every scene has to be filled with musical tone and some sound. In our music, we try to look for space so you can hear everything. Everything's very present in the room, very graphic. And very much the opposite working in a film, really, where everything has to be led and textual. You know, as much I enjoyed working in film. I feel, so far, the crowning glory in all my film work was probably "Gomorrah" which is the one with no music in it at all. G, what are you thinking, mate?

Mr. MARSHALL: I was going to say something, that is the whole - no, that was a whole ethos of what we were trying to do, was to create space on this album, you know. And, yeah, that's it.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Thanks so much for talking with me guys.

Mr. MARSHALL: Thanks a lot.

Mr. NAJA: Thank you.

Mr. MARSHALL: Thanks for having us.

Mr. NAJA: See you later, man.

Mr. MARSHALL: Bye, bye.

SHAPIRO: That's Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. Their new album called, �Heligoland,� comes out next month.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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