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Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja discusses Banksy, Burial and the Bristol collective's enduring vitality

May 18, 2010 | 12:53 pm

L_18f35086a9264dde987e6ae95bf5c9c6While Billy Corgan, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell, and the rest of the American “Alternative Nation,” alumni form super-groups and chase reunion money, their British peers have sustained a chemical longevity.

From Radiohead, Damon Albarn to Portishead, the chief exports from the era of Labor ascendancy continue to enjoy a commercial and critical acclaim that their domestic contemporaries lack.

And none of the aforementioned can rival the endurance of Massive Attack, the Bristol collective whose lineage can be traced back to the Wild Bunch, the seminal mid-'80s sound system that revolutionized dance music with their eclectic conflagrations of reggae, punk, R&B and electronic. The band kicks off a three-night stint at the Wiltern tonight.

With the press coining the term “trip-hop” to describe their bleary-eyed and baleful alchemies, Massive Attack became standard-bearers for syncretism, dropping an instant-classic debut in 1991’s “Blue Lines,” featuring Horace Andy, Tricky and Neneh Cherry, and tabbing Mad Professor to remix their sophomore album, “Protection.” Further forays into the fringes of sound included collaborations with Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, Sinead O’ Connor, Mos Def and Snoop Dogg, but more important than sheer eclecticism was the artfulness with which they incorporated each into their aesthetic: a sinuous, smoke-stained morphine drip of blunted beats, wraith-like vocals and faint paranoia.

“Creative differences” led founding member Daddy G to take a hiatus for much of the first half of the last decade, but he returned to the fold on the recently released “Heligoland,” the band’s first studio album in seven years and his first with the group since 1998’s “Mezzanine.” Hailed by The Times for its “impeccable atmospherics implacably [winding] its way into something panoramic and exhilarating,” the album named after a German archipelago in the North Sea found the crew working with the usual suspects (Horace Andy, Martina Topley-Bird), but also Albarn, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star and Tim Goldsworthy (DFA, UNKLE).

Perennially committed to collaborations with emerging talents, the band enlisted Brazilian minimal techno master Gui Boratto and dubstep artist Breakage to remix tracks from “Heligoland.” And if the rumors are to be believed, Burial may give the record the “No Protection” treatment. Accordingly, the band had the highest first-week Billboard position (No. 46) of its career, cracked top 10 charts all across continental Europe and Australia, and re-ignited the unflagging interest of their rabid Stateside fan base. In advance of their three-night stand at the Wiltern, Robert Del Naja (3D) spoke to Pop & Hiss about staying artistically vital, the Burial remix rumors, getting inspired to paint again by Banksy and their new album.

Sustaining vitality for 20 years in the world of music is an almost impossible feat, but Massive Attack has managed to endure beyond trends and reductive trip-hop labels. What do you attribute that to?

For most people, 20 years can fly by, but I don’t feel that way. Certainly, the Internet has changed everything, politically, culturally, the way people interface with each other. In a social sense, the Internet might mean that people tend to stay home and reach out less, and certainly it puts artists at a disadvantage in terms of record sales. But for me, what’s encouraging about it is that it has made music a truly democratic art form again. What’s important at this point is that we don’t let the online retailers completely take over, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to make sure doesn’t happen.

The Internet has placed the impetus on live music, which is why there are so many more festivals now. We’re a communal people, a migratory race; music is what keeps us going. One of the things that we’ve always strived to do is communicate with our fans via a visual performance onstage capable of matching the music. Sometimes, it takes us longer to do our stage show than it does for the music itself. Of course, artists don’t live in a vacuum un-impacted by life and politics, so we talk about the Arizona immigration law, the BP oil spill, the Greek riots.

As an artist with strong political stances and one of the more vocal opponents of the Iraq war, is it difficult to reconcile a political outspokenness with the fact that it’s practically impossible in the modern era to write a song with the impact of say a “Masters of War.”

Things have certainly changed, but I think that we’re going through a substantial period of change at the moment where people are seeing the effects of capitalism failing people on a catastrophic sense. I think people are waking up to the way we’ve been living. Change doesn’t necessarily need to start at a federal or state level, but it can start at groups on Facebook and Twitter -- they can have a very large influence and it’s important. For us, it’s not about sloganeering or waving your arms trying to get everyone to agree with you, but about an end game. During our time here in Los Angeles, we’re been interfacing with Howard Zinn’s the People Speak organization to help engender a social and political influence.

“Heligoland” is the band’s first studio record in seven years and the first with Daddy G in a dozen. What led to the reconciliation and decision to get back in the studio together?

It came from the annihilation of the previous album that we’d been working on called “Weather Underground.” We decided to scrap it and brought in Damon Albarn, who we’d worked with in the past, and Daddy G and I went to a different studio and shared concepts in a different way. It was the first time we’d worked communally in a very long time. Then we brought in Tim Goldsworthy, who has been living in New York for a long time but is originally a West Country boy. There were lots of different aspects coming together that put us in a different place and head space.

You guys have already started working a new record, correct?

We started the new record back home. [Goldsworthy] has been in the studio in Bristol starting on the new material. I don’t know if it’s been this last year traveling, or a new political climate, or the energy of being back in the studio working with [Daddy G] and [Topley Bird], but it’s been really fun and there’s a lot of creative energy at the moment.

I’ve really enjoyed painting again -- I’d stopped for a while but Banksy coerced me to start up again. He actually turned up at our show in Toronto and left us a painting as a gig postcard. Its something to be thankful for, you can get bored and jaded, and its great to feel that inspiration again. And as Geoff Barrow recently said, 'Maybe the Conservatives coming to power in England will inspire a new protest music.’

What of the rumors that Burial is going to remix “Heligoland"?

It’s very possible, but I don’t want to say anything more about it. The worst thing to have is loose lips that sink ships.

Massive Attack’s sound is ingrained in the DNA of the Bristol sound and has also had a salient impact on dubstep. Are you a fan of what’s going on with guys like Joker and Guido?

Dubstep is interesting because I was never much into drum and bass -- it was just basically sped up breakbeats, but dubstep has the time and space trippiness that we always wanted to with dub and psychedelic music. I love Zomby and Joker, who are doing some nutty, off-the-wall stuff right now. There’s so much good music right now, even guitar bands like the Black Angels and the Black Keys are excellent. It’s a good time, the doors have been kicked wide open.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Massive Attack; Credit: Massive Attack Myspace

Massive Attack at the Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. Tuesday through Thursday,  $43.50-$48.50, 8 p.m.

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