Fans of Massive Attack tend to share at least two distinct characteristics: good taste and patience.
The cutting-edge British group have been a watchword in innovation throughout their near-20 year recording career, and as they return to the frontline with their fifth studio album Heligoland, they do so with the usual credo that if it’s good, it’s worth waiting for.
‘There’ve been quite a few attempts to make it,’ says the band’s Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G. ‘It’s had two prototypes, which we binned them and started again. We’ve been making it constantly over the last three to four years.’
But it’s been worth the wait. From the opening notes of Pray For Rain until the close of Atlas Air 53 minutes later, Heligoland is one of those rare pieces of work that could only be one group, yet paradoxically remains quite unpredictable.
The effect, as ever, is cumulative. ‘With Massive Attack stuff,’ smiles Daddy G, ‘you’ve got to listen to it about ten times to get the picture. Even I have to listen to it ten times.’
Despite their carefully-maintained mystique and impregnable artistic sovereignty, the group clearly keep a healthy sense of perspective. I asked Mashall if the delays in completing Heligoland were to do with the side projects undertaken by his fellow band mainstay Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, and he stops you short. ‘Not really,’ he laughs. ‘It’s just that we’re lazy bastards, if the truth be known.’
He goes on: ‘D does a lot of soundtrack stuff, but that wasn’t really a distraction as such. Me, I’m still struggling to be the world’s No.1 DJ. That’s always something that runs alongside.’
‘I was working on some tracks in the studio that I was working in, D was in his studio working, we got these tracks together for the album and when we got back we realised they weren’t bonding that well. Also touring them, other ideas came into play.
So we went back and stripped quite a lot of stuff back, re-recorded some new things and started working with [British producer] Tim Goldsworthy. When we went to work with Damon Albarn, that was what fashioned a lot of the tracks.’
Described by Marshall as nothing less than a ‘complete genius,’ Albarn now takes his place in the kind of A-list collaborators we’re used to hearing on each Massive Attack project. From the day we heard Shara Nelson’s soulful wail on the timeless Unfinished Sympathy in 1991, the band have worked with a faultlessly cultivated guest list, including Tracey Thorn, Liz Fraser and Horace Andy.
The latest members of the extended collective also include Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio, ex-Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval and Martina Topley-Bird, former intimate of another Bristol trip-hop graduate, Tricky.
But what about the aborted work for Heligoland – that won’t really be completely binned, will it?
Daddy G smiles: ‘No, of course not. That’ll be on the next album. We’re in the age of recycling now, aren’t we?’