By Joe Gorecki, Deputy Music Editor
Massive Attack's trip-hop defining album Mezzanine came out 21 years ago today and the band are still the biggest group to have come out of Bristol. Epigram Music sat down with the group's biographer Melissa Chemam to talk about their origins and her new book Massive Attack: Out of the Comfort Zone
Bristol has been returning to its recent musical past twice recently. First Massive Attack, the biggest band of the ‘Bristol sound’, brought their ‘Mezzanine XXI’ tour to Filton Airfield to celebrate the 21st anniversary of their band-breaking trip-hop masterpiece Mezzanine.
At the same time as these homecoming shows, a new biography of the group and of the wider ‘Bristol sound’ was released. Massive Attack: Out of the Comfort Zone by Melissa Chemam which charts the history of the ‘Bristol sound’: bands like Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky who all emerged from the south-west to worldwide acclaim during the 1990s. The book, she says, was only supposed to take six months but four years later, it has finally been published in English by local publishers Tangent Books after the French edition came out last year.
I caught up with Melissa, a French journalist and African affairs expert at the BBC World Service currently based in London, before the packed launch of her book at Rough Trade. We met the afternoon after Massive Attack’s first Bristol date at the ‘Steel Yard’, the temporary arena erected just for them on Filton Airfield. About the gig, she says it was a good performance but for her was surpassed by their sold-out appearance at Paris’ Le Zenith the month before, where the atmosphere, she says, was even better.
The book, however, is an intricate historical panorama of Bristol’s music scene from punk and reggae in the 1970s to hip-hop in the 1980s and trip-hop and drum and bass in the 1980s so I wanted to ask her why it was that it was Bristol that produced so much talent in such a short span of time.
‘Everyone I interviewed mentioned the size. Bristol is quite small and was always too close to London so for a long time nothing was happening, all in the same venue, all the hills, all gathered in Park Row a bit of the magic happening the melting pot all the migration, and that’s what I cover [as a journalist.
‘I lived near the Carribean [in Miami], I lived in Africa and my parents are from North Africa so I thought it was an interesting very modern story because the migrants are the heroes and this relationship changed the city and made it better. Usually we talk about migrants when they are unemployed or when there are riots but in that situation it’s the other way around.’
What drew Melissa to wanting to write about Massive Attack and their Bristol origins was the same thing that has given the band a renewed sense of purpose: their social conscience.
Massive Attack use their light shows to make political statements with their Mezzanine XXI making use of graphic footage to raise awareness of the ongoing Syrian civil war and refugee crisis.
‘Before my book was out,’ Melissa says, ‘I was mainly focussed on the refugee crisis. I went to Calais, to northern Iraq, Sicily and the border between France and Italy and then I came here as well. Massive Attack travelled to Lebanon five years ago and visited refugee camps there, they took a journalist from the Independent with them so that they would focus on what was happening there instead of focussing on their shows. [It showed] what kind of band they were, not promoting anything, no new album. I started my research around that point.’
Over the course of writing the book Melissa managed to interview most of the key players of the Bristol scene and trip-hop movement but I was keen to ask what it was like meeting the band, duo Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall, seeing as they prefer to remain elusive and only rarely give interviews. ‘[It was] surprisingly casual, I came to the studio and they were really cool’.
The bizarrest thing about it, she says was that ‘we couldn’t stop talking – I thought they would be grilling me with “what do you want?” [but] 3D has an amazing memory though and his main worry about representing [the whole scene] and everyone.’
‘At the time the Wild Bunch [Massive Attack’s precursor collective] were being completely revolutionary in the Dug Out and the graffiti scene was so big and it seemed to be happening by magic, so I was trying to find out how it was possible. I wanted to ask them ‘how did that happen?’ but obviously when you’re the ones doing it, it sounds so normal to you.
‘Also, how Banksy and the band work together. I was very surprised how people are still writing about the rumour that they’re the same person.’
I ask her if she’s not convinced by the rumours that 3D is actually Banksy which was seemingly confirmed by Goldie in 2017. ‘It’s not that I’m not convinced,’ she responds incredulously. ‘It’s obviously not possible. When Banksy was starting out, he left Bristol for East London and hardly anyone knew him and he was graffitiing intensely.
‘[At that time] Massive Attack were touring the world – they were super famous and best mates with Blur and Kate Moss and were in Japan and America for months, definitely not living in a dump in Hackney’.
At the book launch, Melissa confirmed that she had not knowingly met Banksy personally but that she couldn’t be sure. Before letting her go and begin signing books as the buzz for her book launch builds at Rough Trade, I wanted to ask of all Massive Attack’s diverse output, which album was her favourite?
Many would go for their first 1990’s Blue Lines an astonishing genre-defining album which somehow still sounds fresh or Mezzanine and it’s industrial rock-imbued darkness.
‘It’s really hard, I love them all but I have a special love for 100th Window which is funny as it’s not really appreciated here. I think it’s their most experimental and daring, but also their most gentle.
‘It’s also their post 9/11 album and inspired by all the changes [brought by] the internet in politics and society but it’s the redemption album: you dig down and then find yourself again, it’s something really deep.'
'Massive Attack: Out of the Comfort Zone' is out now from Tangent Books