Robert del Naja turned 37 two weeks ago. Like any selfrespecting British pop star, the spiky-haired creative dynamo behind Massive Attack spent the night getting wasted in overpriced London dives with celebrity friends like Kate Moss and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Except that this was hardly a typical birthday party.
Just hours earlier, Del Naja had marched on Westminster at the head of a demonstration against war in Iraq. He and Albarn had lobbied parliament, lending a dash of pop glamour to a deadly serious business. Later, mid-festivities, when an invitation call came through to discuss the march on Newsnight, the Blur frontman was all for storming the studio with Del Naja in his highly refreshed state. Thankfully, Del Naja’s voice of reason prevailed - two drunk celebrities arguing their corner on national television would only confirm most people’s suspicions about pop stars dabbling in politics, he argued. And with a new album about to be released, he was reluctant to let his anti-war efforts look like a "branding exercise".
"Going on the march was really interesting because you suddenly realised how many different types of people were against this," says Del Naja, sipping beer in a deserted Bristol pub. "It wasn’t just left-wing people or what the papers will try and give out as a typical anti-war campaigner. It was the exact opposite, every type of person: teachers, academics, people of every race and every age group."
Massive Attack’s high-profile anti-war stance is no dilettante pose. They have already spent 22,000 of their own money on huge "Wrong War" adverts in the music press, with more to come. They have been methodical in joining forces with CND and Stop the War and even helped fund a legal challenge to military intervention in the international courts. Funny how it took a band so often caricatured as lethargic stoners to kickstart rock’s sleeping conscience in 2003.
Recent music press tributes to Joe Strummer, a personal hero, spoke volumes to Del Naja about generational alienation, he says. "They were almost embarrassed by his politics," he scowls. "Then you think, well, what happened to all that? The wheel’s moved into a different place now. I was chatting to Paul Weller about it and he said when he got involved in all that stuff it did become about ego politics. That’s why he got out of the whole thing."
Del Naja’s opposition to military intervention sprung from a disgust he shared with Albarn about apathy among their pop peers - but also from a growing global awareness gleaned while touring the world. "It comes from getting older, getting more and more frustrated by the transparency of everything," he shrugs. "We came out of a period where conspiracies were mysterious and exotic, the truth behind the shadows. But some of the things that are happening politically, globally, are just so transparent I find it amazing. It’s like daylight robbery - it’s so blatant nobody can believe it. Being on tour, you meet people from so many countries, you get a real global feel about what people really believe about Britain and America, about our imperial history and our imperial nature now.
"It seems like a long time since the British Empire, but it’s only 100 years ago. Gandhi said that one small island, Great Britain, is holding the whole world in chains. That was 50 years ago and we’re still doing it now with corporate f***ing imperialism. There’s no change, but the boundaries have now bled, you can’t see right from wrong anymore, because we’re all consumers."
In the past, he admits, Massive Attack might have shrugged their shoulders and carried on living in their pop bubble. During the last Gulf War, they were even persuaded by a paranoid Radio1 to drop the second half of their name lest it be misconstrued. But age and experience have hardened them.
"Ten years ago Saddam Hussein was a clear enemy," he argues. "He’d invaded Kuwait, so everyone was fighting for freedom and justice, even though I don’t think anyone was sure about the way they bombed Baghdad. It was very confusing. Obviously there were much greater politics involved in the whole region with Israel, Palestine and all the other Gulf states. But no, I didn’t get involved then. We decided to drop the ‘Attack’ from our name, under a great amount of duress, but also because a convincing argument was put forward that if people don’t know who you are, you could be seen as making a pro-war statement. We went along with it, but it became apparent later that it was bullshit. I even thought about dropping it again for this album as an anti-war statement, but then I’d be buying into the whole notion that music and words and opinions are offensive. And they’re not. Bombs and bullets are."
Massive Attack have always thrived on friction and unease. But even by the standards of Bristol’s most dysfunctional pop superstars, the evolution of their fourth studio album has been fraught with drama. 100th Window is their first effort as a duo, following the acrimonious departure of founder member Mushroom before 1998’s Mezzanine album. But two years of experimental dead ends, creative friction and outside forces drove a wedge between these veteran maestros of the bittersweet symphony.
Del Naja’s conversation is calm and articulate, but with the underlying edge of a man keeping a sinking ship afloat single-handedly. The album’s title, he explains, came from computer jargon, but Del Naja sees it as a "celestial" metaphor with overtones of media voyeurism, creeping paranoia and emotional breakdown. Very twisted. Very dysfunctional. Very Massive Attack.
The exquisitely textured moodscapes of 100th Window went through several painstaking stages, from all-out psychedelic rock to shimmering sci-fi lullabies, via long periods of creative stasis and communication breakdown. A key element in this evolutionary shift was Sinead O’Connor, who features heavily on the album, a blast of warm future-folk humanity after the chilled isolation of Mezzanine. O’Connor, Del Naja says, brought "total honestly and total personality" to the album.
Del Naja composed most of the album with a team of programmers and engineers. Massive Attack have always used collaborators, but significantly absent from the studio this time was Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G, Del Naja’s longtime friend and sole remaining original Massive Attack member. Distracted by the birth of his daughter in late 2001, Marshall had no musical input on the new album - a first in the band’s 15-year history.
"G became a father, and then obviously he stopped coming to the studio more and more, until he stopped coming at all," says Del Naja. "His priorities changed and everyone understood that. But my priority last January was: f*** it, we’ve been making this record too long, it’s getting on my f***ing nerves now. So we started writing some new tracks."
Now there is talk of Marshall not even touring with Massive Attack, but Del Naja insists this is unlikely. "It’s up to G," he admits. "Obviously because he’s a father now it’s a more difficult situation. But I'm sure he’s going to. If he decides he doesn’t want to go to the Far East, for instance, then maybe he won’t do that. Maybe he’ll tour with the band in England or in Europe where it’s more accessible to home, you know?"
Of course, Massive Attack would not exist without friction - tension has been the lifeblood of their music since their 1991 debut Blue Lines, after all. But rumours of the band’s imminent demise, Del Naja insists, have been exaggerated. "Every year we have a moment where it’s all over," he shrugs. "The idea for me to keep it together is just that it’s the creative outlet we need. The thing with Massive Attack as a project is it’s meant to be ambiguous. The whole point was the ability it had to develop and evolve and change without being firmly attached to the faces or personalities within the group. And that still is a key factor in the survival of the band. That’s what’s going to keep it together, because it’s not about two people being in the same place at the same time operating on the same level." So Grant definitely has a future as part of Massive Attack?
"Of course he has. The future’s what you f***ing make it."
Massive Attack are arguably the most famous Bristolians since Cary Grant, and certainly the city’s most influential cultural ambassadors of the last 20 years. They have sold millions of albums and played arenas worldwide, graced countless magazine covers. And yet they remain the most unlikely rock celebrities in the world, walking a bizarre highwire between fame and facelessness.
"It’s a balance, obviously," Del Naja shrugs. "You could go out to all the parties in London, all the openings and the shows, get photographed outside clubs, all that shit. Get a famous girlfriend, make the gossip pages, but I couldn’t do all that. There’s just something so rotten about it all. When I look at celeb mags, everyone just looks like they’re trying so hard. They look so desperate."
It’s no secret that Del Naja has superstar friends and has had A-list romances in the past. But still he manages to shun the limelight. "I think you can have famous friends and you can have famous flings," he argues. "Keep it to yourself and it becomes part of your history and that’s it, you know? I can live my life as normal and then still go on tour next week. You can separate the two lives, rather than becoming the sum total of your celebrity like a lot of people do. Then you’re totally f***ed, because where do you go from there? It’s all downhill."
Seeing his old graffiti partner Goldie on Celebrity Big Brother only confirmed this; he likens the excruciating experience to watching The Office. "But that’s f***ing London for you, isn’t it? Because you suddenly realise the competition ..."
Living in Bristol, he says, has always given Massive Attack "a slightly misguided sense of independence". Misguided or not, they have kept a prying media at arm’s length and forged their own musical path. Even when the dubious delights of London call, it’s always a fling, never a full-blown romance.
"Every year I go and see estate agents and look at London property and just laugh at what’s on offer for the prices," Del Naja grins. "This year I started looking at ridiculous places that I wouldn’t even dream of buying - penthouse suites opposite Westminster which are, like, three and half million pounds apiece - just looking and thinking, ‘what’s the point?’
"Some people say Bristol’s the graveyard of ambition. But I love the fact that if you don’t want to f***ing do anything, don’t do it. G’s parents are from the Caribbean, my father’s from Naples and both places have a very relaxed attitude to life. They’re very passionate about life and death, but not passionate about companies and corporations. Which is something I think we’ve all forgotten, you know?"
The key to Massive Attack’s music has always been the idea of unease as a shared catharsis, sadness as celebration and liberation. Del Naja calls himself a "dysfunctional f***er" and admits that "happy people make me suspicious". So is his glass half full or half empty? "Definitely half empty", he says glumly. "I've started hoarding things, know what I mean?"
100th Window is released by Wildbunch/Virgin on 10 February