Interview: Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack

The trip-hop pioneers deliver a celluloid broadside at the Park Avenue Armory

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Massive Attack V Adam Curtis

Massive Attack V Adam Curtis Photograph: Paul Leclaire


Inspired by a Damon Albarn opera at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, Robert Del Naja, of trip-hop progenitors Massive Attack, hatched the notion of a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. The result, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, arrives in New York City this week, so TONY grilled Del Naja about the show: part cover-versions concert, part film and wholly political.  

What was the biggest challenge for this collaboration?
How the hell are we going to do it?—was the first year of discussions, because there were so many possibilities and so many problems. How do you make a film that tells a coherent story, play a gig, interrupt it, fuck it up, make it sonically challenging and visually challenging, but still have a point? I childishly described it as a sort of drive-in on acid. Adam decided what sort of story he wanted to tell, and when it came to the music, we would look at each scene to see what point we were making and go from there.

Almost none of the people in the film were given their own voice. Were you trying to avoid the documentary vibe?
We had a choice of having something with Pauline Boty singing but we chose not to use it. We thought it would be better to let the songs we chose to go with the characters lives create their sound and their voice. We give voice to the characters.

I’ve read in other interviews that you are a natural pessimist. Is the central message from the show that the world is going to hell in a handbasket?
I’m not a total pessimist; I’m excited by the future as well. I think the film has that message, too. It uses history to explain where we are now, but then says that you don’t have to follow that path. This pattern doesn’t own you. Our positivity might be done in sort of more muted tones, but it’s been positive nonetheless.

That’s good to know. We'd hate to find out that you’re all secretly emos.
No, not at all. I’m really excited by science and technology and the whole social media thing. I think it’s fascinating. But at the same time I’m wary of bureaucratic systems and managers.

There’s a part in the film that says politicians are not looking out for our best interests. Were they ever?
I think there was a time when parties stood for a sort of belief, whether it was left or right or communist or whatever. Now it seems that belief is gone and it’s more like, how can we keep this from fucking up? People that get voted in just have to manage the problem, and have no energy left to create something new.

It’s hard to get anything done in a four-year term. You spend half of it getting ready for the next election.
It’s such a waste of resources and time and effort, really.

But the alternative is some sort of…
Dictatorship? [Laughs]  That’s what we’re trying to get rid of Syria.

Yes. Your film came too early. Now we have the NSA and Syria and all sorts of crazy stuff happening.
I fail to understand what we are trying to achieve in the region by destabilizing it, or helping it destabilize itself. There’s no goodies and baddies. It’s a myth, that.

Massive Attack v Adam Curtis is at the Park Avenue Armory Sept 28–Oct 4.

Follow Marcia Adair on Twitter: @missmussel


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