3d from Massive Attack: interview (2003)

This interview was conducted during the build-up to the second Gulf War.

HK: I suppose I'm getting a sense of déjà vu with your new record. My lasting memory of Blue Lines is of staying up late watching the gulf war on TV, all the infrared pictures of bombing Baghdad, listening to Safe From Harm. That was around the time you had to change your name.

3D [laughs] Yeah, we got kind of cornered by our manager, who gave a pretty compelling case, which was that people might misunderstand the name and think we were actually potential supporters of the war. And, you know, it was our first time and we sort of took the bait.

HK: Is that something you regret now?

3D: I did for a while. But the other day I was doing the artwork for Hundredth window and because of the escalation now, again, in the Gulf, I thought, 'Maybe we should drop the "Attack" from the name again as an anti-war statement.' Then I thought 'Well, no, 'cause that buys into the ridiculous idea that it's offensive - when the real offensive issue is the war itself. People use anything to distract themselves from the reality, you know.

HK: Have you been following that business recently where there was a campaign to try and get the name of the new Lord of the Rings film changed because Two Towers was too close to 'twin towers'? It seemed like an absurdity to me, to try to bury any artistic reference which rubs up uncomfortably against people's feelings.

3D: It's difficult because it seems to me now that after the 9/11 thing, everyone is so sensitive to any issue concerning a conflict between the east and the west.

HK: I've noticed that when I'm in America it's hard to talk politics because it's so easy to offend people. They take any type of criticism as disrespect for the people who died.

3D: Yeah.

HK: And especially if you're speaking as somebody who's not an American citizen. It's difficult for people sometimes to pick out what is valid criticism - after all, they get a lot of bullshit anti-Americanism from Europeans as well, which muddies the waters.

3D: Yeah, exactly. That's the thing: when we started to oppose the war in Iraq, a lot of emails came through and a lot of messages were put up on the board that were really kind of vitriolic, saying 'I'm never going to buy your records again,' you know, that 'you guys have more sort of intelligence, this anti-American thing is bollocks' and some even more basic than that, much more spite and hate. - But it was never an anti-American thing at all. It was much more about a policy issue, and about the British policy as well as the American policy.

HK: Blair seems to be as gung-ho as Bush.

3D: Exactly, It's weird now because a lot more American artists are standing up against it now, and it seems to be this complete change-there's a lot less British artists, particularly in the music industry. They don't seem to want to do anything about it, which I really don't understand. There's an issue of bands having causes and it feels a lot of time like a branding exercise. Someone someone picks up a cause, whether it's anti-globalization, Greenpeace or fair-trade-it becomes their pet cause which they identify themselves with and the fans identify them with. And when this whole issue about the war came up, and myself and Damon Albarn starting speaking up against it, everyone seemed to be worried to come through, as if it meant losing their brand identity because we had presented it.

HK: The war isn't the only issue you're interested in. You seem like you're interested in civil rights and privacy issues, given that you've named your new album after a book on electronic surveillance.

3D: Sure, I'd want to put a nod towards Charles Jennings but it's not meant to be taken too literally. It's not a straightforward kind of thing. I came across the title in another book and I read the title, loved the title, the idea that you can't secure yourself, you know what I mean? There's always a way in, there's always one thing you'll leave and locks are undone, and something you've forgotten. It's a great analogy to the human psyche and the soul, and the way we're voyeuristic, we like to look at and see everything we can get our hands on, have that power and be able to look at other people and look into thoughts while closing ourselves off and keeping ourselves as private as possible.

HK All this business about watching and being watched, voyeurism and so on. It fits in with the edgy tone that's always there in Massive Attack music. Mezzanine was quite a paranoid record. Do you feel this one is the same? I mean, it's quite a bleak album.

3D: I think it's warmer. With Mezzanine because of the struggle we were going through to even get it finished. With this, it was more lonely - being sort of isolated with Neil doing it, and with the guys in the studio and not spending any time with Mushroom any more, and not seeing G much. It was kind of - you're out there on your own, in your own space, and in quite a separate space. But it brought out a very honest response - you know, asking questions about yourself? A bit of soul searching. Obviously working with Sinead was part of that. She's a very honest singer and very honest as writer and in the way she presents herself.

HK: She's very full-on, isn't she, with everything she does.

3D: And to me that delivers a warmth. Even though a lot of the subject matter can be quite paranoid - because we did it in this quick way, it gave it warmth. When we worked with Sinead the first track we gave her was the baseline for A Prayer for England. It was the most difficult track to work with. In terms of what we had. We were writing this song that was very difficult to hang a melody to. For the second one we gave her the exact opposite, the one with the most melody on it. I like that kind of push-pull motion.

HK: you get good work out of your female vocalists. Last time round Liz Frazer [from the Cocteau Twins] sounded fantastic. So what's the key? How is it that you work with vocalists and get such interesting stuff out of them?

3D: I think it's partly a really healthy respect for it. And in terms of being very male up here in the studio working with femaels is refreshing and mysterious, you know what I mean? It's a different headspace and a different sort of sexuality, different tension. What we try to do is take everything away, strip everything back. Rather than going into the big studio or into a big space, keeping it as simple and intimate as possible. There are no props and no distractions. I'm trying to do it really directly, and keep everything really clear into the mike, and then mess around with it afterwards. There have been times in the past when I've been sort of producing it before it even starts, know what I mean? A lot of people do that when they work with people they haven't worked with before - they go straight into their production head and it becomes all about production, as opposed to the relationship, even if the relationship is just between the track and someone's voice.

HK: On Blue Lines you used some classic jazz and funk samples, even covering tunes. On Hundredth Window I'd be hard-pressed to name anything like that.

3D: It's the first album we've done with no samples on it - well, beyond individual sounds, drum sounds, individual instruments, stuff we've played ourselves. Some people sort of lament the days of Blue Lines and I remember it was a great time, but it was a different era and if you did it again now you'd destroy the memory, wouldn't you.

HK: I suppose in the era of peer-to-peer networks, napster and so on, everyone has access to much more music. It's much easier to find. I remember you'd hear a sample and go looking for the original and if you didn't have fifty quid to buy the original record you'd have to wait for someone to press a bootleg and then leg it down to the record shop before the copies went. Now someone in Japan has got an mp3 sitting on their hard-drive. Just pull it down…

3D: I think the whole file-sharing thing is kind of a hot potato, and also as much as it makes it exciting it maybe cheapens it as well, you know, because availability takes away the exoticism, it takes away the sex. And it's like in the chase as well, the whole emotional charge. You have to go through a set of obstacles to get there. Without it, it doesn't feel like as much fun.

HK: Making studio music is by definition a process that involves a lot of technology. Do you find a lot of your time is taken up by learning to handle different pieces of kit?

3D: It is. I've bought so many things over the years. And there's only a few things which I really love and use You know, at the moment you are constantly bombarded with new ways of doing the same thing, and everything becomes a process of just ignoring things. If you engaged in everything you would get nothing done whatsoever. The problem with finishing a record is that the possibilities are endless and you can get everything done in a variety of ways. With music there's no logical conclusion, know what I mean?

A version of this conversation appeared in Interview magazine.