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Who Needs Harmony in the Studio?

Pop Beat: Despite differing opinions and separate recording sessions, Massive Attack releases a distinct, vivid album.

September 19, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Creative differences.

You hear that term used all the time as a reason for the breakup of a successful group. But when was the last time you heard it used to explain why an act stayed together?

That's the case with Massive Attack, the influential English ensemble whose dark-hued blends of techno, hip-hop, funk and experimental ambience spurred the fertile scene in its hometown, Bristol, and ranks among the essential music in '90s British pop. The band plays the Hollywood Palladium on Sept. 27.

In fact, the group's three members--Grant Marshall (who performs under the name Daddy G), Robert del Naja (known as 3-D) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom)--hardly ever saw one another during the making of the third Massive album, "Mezzanine," but rather worked separately on the tracks.

"Funny thing is we don't get along well inside the studio," says Marshall, 38. "I think we've all kind of grown away from each other in terms of musical interests."

Del Naja, 32, seconds that sentiment.

"We grate on each other a bit, have our own ways, distinct personalities, idiosyncratic things we want out of life," he says. "When you're younger, you can afford to bend to other people's shape, sway a bit to suit each other's demands. But as you get older, you outgrow each other."

Yet somehow with "Mezzanine" they managed to fulfill the experiments of their first two albums, 1991's "Blue Lines" and 1994's "Protection"--works that got the group the tag as the founders of trip-hop, a term they consider frivolous and ill-fitting. Using vocals from such regular guests as the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser and English reggae artist Horace Andy, the third album is a stunningly distinctive and vividly moody work that weaves an array of elements--reggae dub, hip-hop funk, dark electronic explorations--into a seamless, rich melange.

And they believe that the strained, estranged working conditions made it possible.

Says Del Naja: "In 'Mezzanine,' I felt we needed to go in different directions or I wasn't interested. So I felt pressure that if it went wrong, I'd be the one to blame. And we did have three completely separate ideas. Not one person was steering it."

Differences, though, were central to Massive Attack from the beginning.

"We're a multicultural band and we draw from different things," Marshall explains, noting the group's beginnings in a hip-hip collective known as the Wild Bunch in the late '80s.

"With the last two albums it was more of a conceptual thing from all of us," he says. "Now we're being more true to ourselves. Remember when the Clash and bands like that started incorporating other elements--ska and reggae and funk--into their music? That was from things they were personally into. And that's where we're coming from now."

As the group's internal tension grew during the nearly four years between "Protection" and "Mezzanine," so did its status as an important influence, with such fellow Bristol artists as Portishead and Tricky (an auxiliary member of Massive on the first two albums) also achieving international prominence.

Marshall is happy to take credit.

"I'm not trying to sound big-headed or anything, but I think Massive since 'Blue Lines' has influenced a lot of British bands," he says. "Some of the ideas were so straightforward and simple that people were blown away. It influenced a lot of people to stop being so anal with the music and get some direct point across with its stripped-down beats. Even some of the things Madonna has been doing, and many other acts, have sort of taken our lead."

Continuing that leadership, they've also pooled their resources to form Melankolic Records, an avenue for cultivating new sounds and artists, with albums released so far by Andy, composer-arranger Craig Armstrong and deejays Lewis Parker and Alpha.

The trick now has been to make the Massive music work live, where the three--supplemented by other musicians--have no choice but to make music together.

"Live is different," Del Naja says. "Surrounded by people and traveling, there are so many distractions. It's a different space. On the road it's like being a band again."

* Massive Attack, with deejay Lewis Parker, plays Sept. 27 at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., doors open at 6:30 p.m. $20. (323) 962-7600.

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