Neil Davidge

Massive Attack producer and Halo 4 composer Neil Davidge bares all on the creative process ahead of the release of his debut album Slo Light…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 10 Feb 2014
  • min read
You may not be overly familiar with the name, but producer and songwriter Neil Davidge has been a key figure in the work of one of the UK’s most loved bands, Massive Attack.

As a close confidant of Massive’s Robert Del Naja (3D) he had a key hand in shaping the sound of the band’s third album, the much-loved Mezzanine. Massive Attack’s fourth album 100th Window was also largely driven by Davidge and Robert Del Naja.

When he’s hasn’t been collaborating with Bristol’s finest, then Neil has been throwing himself into a huge variety of musical projects. He scored one of the best loved video games of recent years, Halo 4 while also working with a host of artists including Snoop Dog, Damon Albarn, Primal Scream, Elizabeth Fraser and Mos Def as producer and studio whiz.

2014 is the start of a new chapter for the songwriter, with the release of Slo Light, the first album in his own name featuring collaborations with Sandie Shaw, Cate Le Bon, Karima Francis, Stephonik Youth. We quizzed him about the creative process and why he thinks a good collaboration should be the musical equivalent of a slap in the face…

Can you remember the first songs which turned you onto music?

My uncle is a songwriter so I had a family member making music. It brought music into our home and made it real. Then I discovered artists like Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye – these are the people I was listening to as a kid. The final piece of the puzzle was punk and realising I didn’t have to be a virtuoso to make a good noise.

How did your Bristol upbringing impact your music?

There’s always been a lot of different music going on in Bristol. I became aware of it in the eighties when I started going to gigs and watching bands like the Pop Group.

One of the key Bristol things is how we’re an hour and a half from London. So if you’re serious about success, you don’t hang around in Bristol. You head to London. If you stay here, it’s because you want to be creative and not necessarily make something your mum is going to listen to.

The people who stayed here were very much like-minded. We didn’t give a shit whether people liked our music or if people in London could sell it. It’s just the music we wanted to make.

Have you known Massive Attack for a long time?

I met D (Robert Del Naja) at a session for a band in Bristol. I was producing demos back in ‘94 or ‘95 and we just got chatting about music and nights. At that point, Massive Attack had started venturing into becoming a ‘real band’ and were trying to shake off the ‘DJ collective’ banner. We got chatting about how we’d seen Stiff Little Fingers and Gang of Four at the same gigs without knowing each other. We’ve since worked with each other for 20 years.

Why now for an album in your own name?

I always felt creatively pretty fulfilled with Massive Attack and as a solo artist. It was only when I noticed that D and I were beginning to predict the other that I thought we needed to do something different. We were stifling each other and the energy was beginning to leave the studio. So it was a good time to do our own thing. That’s when I started having conversations about a solo album. I’d just started working on it when the Halo 4 score came in. I had to put the LP on hold while I did that and went back to it as soon as the score was done.

There’s a great list of collaborators on the record - was that ethos at the heart of the album?

Every collaboration with an artist has pushed me. Whether it was with Stephonik or Cate, I’m always looking for people to challenge me and vice versa. I want to throw stuff at them which makes them do something they wouldn’t normally do. That was the fun of working with D. He’d be infuriating but he’d always push me into places where I wouldn’t necessarily go.

This project was different because the buck stopped with me. I had to be the one to say ‘hang on – let’s do this’.

Working with Sandie Shaw was great. She’s possibly old enough to be my mum but you couldn’t wish to work with someone with more energy. Essentially I wanted the collaborator to give me a big old slap round the face and say ‘deal with that.’ The constant surprises, the accidents, the criticism and the failures - they inspire me to move forward musically.

How did Halo 4 happen?

My management company were in LA doing meetings and bumped into the Sony guys about a Playstation game and a music supervisor from Microsoft. He was a Massive Attack fan and was interested in my film work. They eventually called and, after some negotiations behind the scenes, I was offered the gig.

I’d played Halo a lot while working with Massive Attack so I was a big fan. It’s probably the only time I’ve been star struck, turning up at Microsoft in Seattle and being faced by a life size Master Chief and thinking – I’ve made it.

How did you find the creative process?

It was a shock. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I’d worked on film scores and thought it would be a natural progression from that but working on a video game is much tougher. After a period of struggling, I eventually decided to create the world I was intending to score in my head. So I spent time researching the characters and fleshing out the story. I had to close myself away and imagine the scene, the taste, the smells and emotions and write very quickly, doing five or six theme ideas a day until we ended up with seven hours of music – four of which were used in the game. That’s a lot of music making.

What’s next for you? Is there another Massive attack LP in the works?

The guys are already working on a new record with various people. I did have a chat with Robert a few weeks ago and he was asking whether I wanted to get involved again. It would be cool but I’m also enjoying what I’m doing. I’m not in a hurry to work on another album right now.

Have you any advice for aspiring producers?  

Music has to be a passion and the only thing you want to do with your life. It’s hard to make a living out of it so that passion is going to have to sustain you for a long time as the money won’t. Work with everyone you can and make sure you’re out there, so that you’re the person people think of when they need help because a – you’ve got your shit together and b. you’re a nice guy.

Davidge's Slo Light is released on 24 March.