A rare interview with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja on creating the most subversive live show of 2019

The Massive Attack member speaks on Mezzaninexxi and his band’s legacy.

September 25, 2019
A rare interview with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja on creating the most subversive live show of 2019

In the 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog insists that a lack of what he calls “adequate images” is a global threat to the world on par with climate change. To illustrate this point, glossy magazine ads are intercut with Herzog’s face as he speaks. Massive Attack’s latest tour Mezzaninexxi is an attempt to create the “new grammar” Herzog advocated, using old material. The show combines a reimagined version of their landmark 1998 album Mezzanine, full covers of songs sampled on the record, and films created by British documentarian Adam Curtis. These collage-like clips create a more pleasant Ludovico Technique-esque trance using archival footage, and occasionally, the kind of “inadequate images” Herzog pushed against — war and assassinations devoid of context, Britney Spears stalked by paparazzi, a crudely deepfaked Donald Trump.

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It makes sense, considering Massive Attack are a band built on sample-based alchemy. Mezzanine is a near-timeless album of defragmented dub, a definitive work of the ‘90s that still sounds like an echo from the future. For that reason, it’s more than qualified to be a soundtrack to our terminally distracted modern era. Speaking over the phone from Philadelphia, Massive Attack’s cofounder Robert Del Naja says the new tour is Massive Attack’s “most complete show.” That’s thanks in part to Mezzanine guest vocalists Elizabeth Fraser (“Teardrop,” “Black Milk”) and Horace Andy (“Man Next Door,” “Angel”), who have joined the tour to reprise their contributions. “[The tour] covers how we feel about now, and at the same time it resurrects everything. It resurrects all the ghosts and it frames them in the present,” Del Naja says.

Mezzaninexxiis an extension of “Massive Attack V Adam Curtis,” a 2013 art project on the surveillance state that captured the pervasive global unease ignited by Edward Snowden’s revelations. The new show further explores systems of control and power, and how nostalgia for, say, a “trip-hop” band could into feed them. The result is a spectacle both contemporary and delicious: for one set of visuals, Del Naja plugged Instagram data into a Generative Adversarial Network developed by “a really brilliant German A.I. artist” named Mario Klingemann, creating new and unsettling images. Onstage, the band is framed by an LED show that looks like the guts of an alien computer. This kind of technology helps keep Del Naja inspired: “It’s good to understand the technology that lies behind these platforms and technologies in order to try and do something unique with it, because otherwise everything would become more and more predictable.”

Heady stuff — But that doesn’t mean Mezzaninexxi doesn’t showcase Massive Attack's sense of humor. I saw the show on a cool September night in Toronto, arriving 30 mins prior to showtime, and as attendees bought drinks and chatted, the illuminated concert hall was misted with fog, as distorted versions of 1998’s biggest pop hits played through the house system. People loved it, but can we imagine a better future with Chumbawumba still stuck in our heads? Over the phone, Robert Del Naja told me about Mezzaninexxi’s message, how it fits into Massive Attack’s career, and his hopes for the future.

Why revisit Mezzanine in 2019?

As much as I like to explore all things new, there’s something quite fun with playing with that ritual as well. Nostalgia is a strange and powerful emotion. As much we try and fight it and fight ourselves, it’s very hard not to. It’s the way our brains our wired. It’s what you do with that emotion — how you can play with it — that's interesting. When you’re on tour. there’s a contract between you and the audience: do what you want, as long as you do what we want. You’re having to play with the past at every gig.

How did you find the balance between remixing the album onstage and giving the audience what they expect?

There’s not much room for improvisation because it’s more of a defined idea. When I broke it down for Adam and [Massive Attack co-founder] G, I said, “The way to do this is to pull the album apart, reveal its DNA, and extrapolate from that” — to take ideas that may have been two-bar loops or phrases from songs and turn them into something complete.

Now that all the bones and organs have been laid bare, I can never feel the same way about [Mezzanine]. It’d be hard to imagine playing these tracks again without their mirrored cousins in the mix. I was also aware that if we did a Mezzanine show, a percent of the audience would come purely for nostalgia and wouldn’t want any of the shit that we’re throwing at them. I’ve always felt that it’s the point of the artist to try and challenge themselves and the audience at the same time.

It definitely felt more like an art object than a gig.

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One of the things I worked with Adam on in 2013 at New York's Park Avenue Armory — when we finished that, there was a sense of, “That was a really interesting experiment and art show, but how many people have we got to play it to?” It’s a very exclusive audience, and there was a sense of dissatisfaction at the end of it. It was a shame that that’s the way this stuff goes. I said to Adam, “We should take some of the ideas and arguments he created in the original show to a much bigger audience.” Let’s face it: politically and socially, things in 2013 got even more complicated and complex, so a lot of things we touched upon then [are] even more relevant now.

Were you wary of the show itself becoming complicit in the nostalgia that you’re trying to expose?

Absolutely. In 2013, [Adam and I] felt that by putting the show on, we were absolutely complicit in all this behavior and arguments we were presenting. We were also a big part of that feedback loop. There’s self-awareness in all the arguments [we’re] presenting and all the ideas [we’re] playing with. We’ve dealt with issues over the years — the flow, importance, and control of information. We’ve always been aware of the fact that we’ve become editors in the process. We’ve become complicit in the sense that we’re affecting and changing the information we’re handing out. We’re creating and rewriting new sound bites. There’s no escape from that idea.

How do you personally determine reality in the era of companies like Cambridge Analytica using data to control behaviour and create facades?

You can quite happily exist in your own version of the world built around you, which you can build for yourself. As human beings, we create belief systems that make us feel happy with the choices we make. You’d have a lot of unhappy people regretting everything if they didn’t create the belief system in which they could explain all their choices and feel like they’ve done the right thing.

It’s very easy to exist in your own bubble as [has been] well reported — the reinforcement of the idea that you surround yourself with information that you believe in, whether it’s conspiratorial, sexual, or filtered political information. What we’re trying to do with the show is challenge a bit of that and challenge ourselves at the same time, because we have the ability to pick and choose which bits of information we want to believe in. Does it impair us? Does it give us the alternate conspiracies and unlock secrets we need to find out about, the same way journalism does? Or does it distract and disempower us from the truth that’s really around us? Is it another form of control?

The show presents these questions in a very open way.

To be honest, the centrifugal force of the show is irony. Irony can be that moment where everybody just goes, “Oh. Of course. How could I be so foolish not to see the big picture?” The big picture gets revealed, and that can be a moment of great irony because you start questioning everything you thought. Irony is a powerful, sincere force. Being able to reveal yourself without irony can be very pretentious. We’ve never been a band that likes to take itself too seriously, and sometimes when it comes across too seriously, I try to keep it theatrical. You're playing a gig — you’re not behaving the way you do on Tuesday.

A rare interview with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja on creating the most subversive live show of 2019
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What’s the difference between what Massive Attack initially set out to achieve and what you have?

We made some really bizarre choices around Mezzanine — we turned down a lot of movies. “Teardrop” was gonna be the central track in American Beauty, which became probably the biggest movie that year, so a lot of our choices would seem slightly bizarre looking back at them, but we had solid reasons at the time.

I don’t know if there were any clear intentions around Mezzanine. For me, at the time, trying to recall, and reading back the shit I said at the time, it was really about trying to reboot the band and its perception, and to mine a part of our musical history that hadn’t been from for the previous two albums. The process of making this live show has been the completion of that kind of feeling.

Do you think it’s harder for the youth today to rebel in this era, where data is mined and eventually regurgitated into these controlling mechanisms?

It’s a very different time. Me and Adam always talked about punk rock and what was the next punk, and he'd always tell me that punk was just another form of conservatism — that generation helped to end any hope of socialist values entering the mainstream. I always disagreed, but when I look back at it, I think he’s right. Now, you look at movements like the Extinction Rebellion — it’s very tactical and well thought-out. It’s a movement that understands how the instruments of law work, and how to push at the right places in order to get the point across. You see in Hong Kong all the electronic digital platforms and communication methods that have to change and constantly be updated and evolve to stay ahead [of authorities]. Add to that the idea of school strikes, which also promote an emotional response in adults. There’s hope for some kind of change.

A rare interview with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja on creating the most subversive live show of 2019