Behind the band's new visual retrospective...

Massive Attack isn’t a ‘band’ – not in any narrow, drums-and-bass-and-guitars-and-vocals definition of the word. Owing their origins to the Wild Bunch soundsystem, the crew grabbed samplers and computers, taking the hip-hop approach into new areas as the 1980s became the 1990s. At each step, the Bristol group was aware of its visual output, using cover art, videos and installations to match each musical sidestep.

For Massive Attach founder 3D, aka Robert Del Naja, each element – both visual and musical – contributes to the whole.

“I think my fascination with art and music has been about exploring every aspect of being able to take an idea, like an album, and illustrate it and package into something that you want to hold and feel, I suppose,” he explains. “I think it might have started with comics to be honest, I was a real comics fan. I used to love comics, I would covet them; just really, really live for them. When I got into music I kind of approached it the same way. Everything, every detail I could absorb was part of it: the sleeve notes, the design, the art, photos of the band, everything. It’s all a part of the whole thing.”

Learning his trade as part of Bristol’s astonishingly vibrant graffiti art scene, 3D continually advanced. Later hooking up with a full print studio, the artist is fuelled by a desire to move forward, to absorb ideas and express them in a fresh manner.

“I guess there’s a sense of completing something and then trying something different,” he says. “I did spend a lot of time back in the day painting and then drawing and then creating stencils and doing all that stuff, and it was really engaging. You just lose yourself to it. I guess, becoming more communal and working in a studio with the guys and having everyone else around you, collaborating suddenly took on more energy. I guess I didn’t feel so inclined to go back to that insular space, which is kind of on your own.”

“I think it’s a learning curve,” he continues. “Coming out of Bristol, being very naive and then getting into an arts studio to work on record sleeves was a giant leap forwards. Then the people that I met at the time were so instrumental in helping me to even understand the language of that. Then getting into that world... I think that changed the way I look at design, in a sense. It was quick and very sophisticated compared to what I was doing and I saw the benefit of collaborating with lots of people, taking ideas and then being able to use other people to interface. Especially when it came to packaging and stuff – what can we do here? Can we use this material? Who can we get who can source that and how can we print with this? It becomes a very explorative process, whereas I think when you’re painting on your own you surround yourself with familiar materials.”

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'Unfinished Sympathy', from the album 'Blue Lines'

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Stamping a British – uniquely Bristolian – identity onto the hip-hop template, Massive Attack continually moved forward. Whereas their first two albums, ‘Blue Lines’ (1991) and ‘Protection’ (1998) owed their roots to soundsystem culture, 1998’s ‘Mezzanine’ was a sharp, dark, re-tour – one which was matched in its visual appropriation.

“I was coming out of a particular time where the first two albums were still very much based on the past, musically, in terms of where we’d come from as a group. The artwork has been constructed in a similar way: with ‘Blue Lines’ and ‘Protection’ it had been almost like a scrapbook of the past. ‘Mezzanine’ was the chance to start something new.”

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'Teardrop', from the album 'Mezzanine'

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With its identity stamped on the cover via the image of a metallic, alien-looking beetle, ‘Mezzanine’ remains a thrilling, futuristic, at times unsettling document.

“That particular idea was about 'hybrid',” 3D explains. “I was very aware at the time that there was a lot of change happening within the band, and I was very aware that this album was going to be very different than the other two in terms of its sound and also its source material. Looking back at the past, cutting things up but cutting more punk and new wave into it. Looking at different areas. So trying to create an image which was a hybrid of something that we were, and something we were going to become, was kind of the idea with the image, I guess.”

Invited to leaf through Massive Attack’s visual history for a new exhibition and lavish coffee-table book, 3D seized the task with relish.

“I kind of somehow became the unofficial archiver of the band over the years, just in the sense that I keep everything,” he laughs. “Because I was interested in the art I’d keep the process of making the record sleeves, I’d keep all the rough artwork pieces. I started to build up a collection which eventually just ended up in boxes. I decided that it was time to digitise everything, and as I began scanning everything it became a book in the process, really.”

A deeply personal portrait of the group, 3D And The Art Of Massive Attack is a comprehensive overview of the iconic Bristol outfit. Matching the artistic process to never-before-seen shots of the group, it intersperses graphic design with intimate snapshots.

“I guess once I started putting old pictures in from the Wild Bunch days, it seemed obvious then that I had to include images of what we were doing at the time in a live capacity, whilst I was making the artwork in more recent years,” he states. “The whole thing started to dictate itself really, and I became sort of a passenger.”

Viewing a lifetime’s work in one document, the project seemed to crystallize 3D’s thoughts on his own output and career. “It’s laid bare: that’s how it started, what I have achieved, what I haven’t achieved yet,” he muses. “One thing it’s taught me is that I’ve done very little, and I’ve got a lot to do if I really consider myself to be an artist. It’s only scratching at the sides.”

Looking back over 20 years of imagery, 3D admits that the resulting task was daunting – yet it inspired some strange emotions, as he explains. “It was really odd, it didn’t feel like time had passed actually. It didn’t have that sense of gravity at all, it felt pretty underwhelming.”

He continues: “One of the things that occurred to me, was that wouldn’t it be good to finally do this and then move on? I think that became a bit of a theme for me. I thought: if I could capture it all then, a) if all this lot goes up in flames I won’t be gutted, and b) it means that it’s quite scary to just start again tomorrow, and actually start on a new picture or something with no kind of sense of not having already gotten rid of the past. So hopefully that’s a challenge, that I’ll do something different. If I realise I can’t then I’ll know I’m f*cked, you know what I mean? Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”

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Words: Robin Murray

3D And The Art Of Massive Attack is out now - purchase link

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