“I’m starting to become a survivalist,” Massive Attack’s D tells me over the phone. He’s in a studio where his band have just finished rehearsing, and we’re on the subject of burning ambitions. “I’d be a lot happier if I had a little cottage in Cornwall somewhere and filled the cellar full of long life batteries and wind-up devices and tins and packets. Loads of bottled water. And then I can wait for the storm to come.” So, what, when legendary trip-hop pioneers aren’t recording, they’re preparing for the apocalypse? “Not yet, but I want to be. As soon as I finish the tour I’ll start on that one, I think.”
Safe to say that the people behind the Southbank’s annual Meltdown Festival have once again picked a curator who’s not just ahead of the pack, they’re on their own planet. The eleven-day extravaganza, which focuses on music but stretches to political talks, virtual reality gaming, art installations and “silent clubbing”, has been presided over in the past by left-field trailblazers like John Peel, Patti Smith and David Bowie. So it’s reassuring to hear that D and his (less talkative) co-curator and bandmate Grant are not only buzzing with enthusiasm about this year’s event, they’re also unafraid of doing things their own way.
And putting on parties is something they know a thing or two about. “It’s like an extension of when we put together the old warehouse parties back in the day,” D says. “We’re even trying to get barrels of cider every night. It reminds me of when we used to go out to Cash and Carry and fill up the boot with loads of tins and sell them to pay for the PA.”
“Back in the day” would be twenty or so years ago, when sound system The Wild Bunch (including Grant, D and Tricky) started experimenting with beats on Bristol’s club scene. Since then, Tricky went solo, and the remaining Wild Bunch members and a shifting line-up of guests and members became Massive Attack, inventing a hypnotic new fusion of hip hop, soul and dub. “Being a sound system is about absorbing other people’s music and re-transmitting it,” D explains. “This [Meltdown] is the same sort of thing.”
The sprawling line-up paints an interesting portrait of the band’s preoccupations. Artists like Grace Jones, Gang of Four and MC5 show Massive Attack’s diverse influences, ranging from disco to punk. “It’s meant to be a week-long mash-up of ideas,” D explains, but it’s also meant to be something that had a connection to our heritage and history as well.” There are events showcasing rising stars in hip hop and dubstep, there’s folk and indie from Elbow and Tunng, and a series of talks and screenings on the human rights of prisoners on Death Row and in Guantánamo Bay, in association with legal action charity Reprieve.
“It’s really refreshing,” D says of working with the charity after being involved with anti-war campaigning. “This is on a much more manageable level. You can understand the individual who’s incarcerated and stripped of rights more than the abstract notion of an invasion. You can relate to it more.”
Keeping things personal and keeping control over them is a bit of a recurring theme for D, who admits that he’s become obsessive over every detail of Meltdown, from the installations to the festival booklet. It’s also why he’s uncomfortable at a major label. “We signed to Virgin Records, which has been swallowed by EMI, which is now being swallowed by Terra Firma,” he says. “We don’t know anyone in our record company any more. We’ve become part of that machine. We’re not even sure if it’s the right place to release a record but at the moment we have no choice. It’s a strange time, man.”
Ten new songs have been written for the band’s long-awaited fifth album ‘Weather Underground’ – some of which will be given an airing at the two Massive Attack gigs bookending Meltdown – but D and Grant are in no hurry to get it finished. “It’s like bullet time in Bristol,” D explains. “You can avoid things very easily.” He describes the new material, which will be performed live with guest vocalists Stephanie Dosen, Yolanda Quartey and Horace Andy, as “a bit cinematic, with different voices, and different moods.” Beyond that, the duo won’t say. “You’ll have to come along and see,” Grant says, “won’t you?”