As a graffiti artist and painter, Robert Del Naja was the obvious choice to handle the visual direction of the band he co-founded, Massive Attack. As the band’s popularity grew, so did the scale and ambition of their sleeve artwork and live shows, both conceptually and in terms of process and presentation. This month sees the publication, by The Vinyl Factory, of a monograph of Del Naja’s work for the band. He sat down with Vinyl Factory Creative Director Sean Bidder to discuss his influences, ideas and the art of Massive Attack
Where did the idea of Massive Attack’s flame symbol originate?
The flame logo was stolen from and inspired by the Stiff Little Fingers album sleeve Inflammable Material. SLF were the first band I saw play live, in 1979, in the Colston Hall, of all places. That had a big impact on me. I was 14. I fell in love with that album; it’s such a powerful record. The sleeve always stood out. In amongst all my punk records nothing was quite as graphic as that, as simple. The transformation of John Lydon from The Pistols to PiL also had a big impact on me musically and stylistically. Turning the band literally into a brand was brilliantly ironic and inspiring.
How did your background as a graffiti artist affect your approach to making artwork?
With no formal graphic training, my experience was limited to early self-publishing: do-it-yourself flyers, Tippex, Letraset and a scalpel. Back then for me publishing was quite literally hanging out in a photocopying shop. But it gave me confidence as you got direct feedback from your peers. Instant art, homemade, ‘fucked up and photocopied’. The cut and paste approach is very apparent in the artwork for Protection.
How did the emerging aesthetic of hip-hop influence your artwork?
The music I had been influenced by shared an aesthetic. Punk, new wave, dub and hip-hop: alternative and independent. The art taken care of by the bands or the young labels. The labels were like studios and the artists were part of bigger crews, the producers were also curators. The graffiti artists gave the new hip-hop scene something new visually: new forms of calligraphy. One of the most influential sets of sleeves was the Celluloid 12″ series of releases with Futura 2000 and Phase 2, Fab Five Freddy. 2 3 The backs of the sleeves created one large Futura 2000 painting. It was something that we aspired to.
We went to Circa Records with the intention of doing it ourselves. We’d finished the Blue Lines demo, but had no idea of what was coming next. Cameron McVeigh, who was managing us and producing the album, introduced me to [stylist] Judy Blame and Anthony and Stephanie at Michael Nash. I had no experience of that level of artwork and design, we weren’t using powerful computers back then, no Photoshop; it was very analogue.
So I went into their studio and they had all these cameras and scanners, it was very exciting! And considering that the London fashion media and art scene can be quite arsey, they were the opposite, they were really friendly and inclusive. Me and Mushroom used to go to their studio regularly and just talk absolute rubbish to them for days on end.
Judy Blame had a very strong visual identity and he really helped me to develop themes, from the sketchbook to the final product. I became totally hooked on the process.
What was the thinking behind the hand that appeared on Unfinished?
I’d started painting with stencils in the mid-80s, inspired by Warhol repeats and industrial symbols. One of my favourite icons was the ‘medical hand’ – I had used it on various paintings including a series of monkey characters. The hand stencil got me thinking about the cover of Unfinished. When we were shooting the video in LA, it was the build-up to the first Gulf War. We had major issues with the attack on Iraq personally and the press had begun to go loopy. I wanted to create an image using the hand but covered in oil as if in surrender with a bandage on it, mimicking one of the medical hazard symbols. It somehow suited the song. We ended up famously removing the word ‘attack’ from the album sleeve because of the association with the tabloid catchphrase ‘a massive attack on Iraq!’ Which was horrible.
And the first vinyl issue of Blue Lines had a screenprinted cardboard cover…
It fitted with the DIY ethos and was influenced by PiL’s Metal Box album package. We used a more downmarket cardboard box idea! As soon as we’d sourced some boxes with the flame logo on them and laid them all out we decided that no other material was going to be as effective as this. So we tried to use the material in the most authentic way possible.
That was different from what everyone else was doing with record sleeves at the time – which was more polished, more slick…
A notion had built around us at the label Circa that the emphasis remain on us being from Bristol, independent from the mainstream music business: something coming from its own corner of the world. We weren’t being pulled apart by high-end design studios and letting other people manage us or art direct us. The approach crossed over to the videos too.
When we met with [director] Baillie Walsh, we had all decided that everything had to be shot on film, everything done in camera, it didn’t fit with everyone else’s notions of a pop video at the time. It had to feel like authentic movie-making. It all became quite obsessive.
Around this time, an abstract human character began to emerge in your paintings and artwork…
I’d been heavily influenced by Basquiat. I was introduced to his work directly through hip-hop music and the NYC graffiti scene that included Fred Braithwaite and Futura 2000. I’d stopped painting illegally after two arrests and I’d moved into this garage-cum-studio under the Montpelier hotel.
The arrangement with ‘The Mont’ was perfect. I got somewhere to paint in return for decorating the big upstairs pool room: my own evolving gallery! I saw Basquiat’s work in the flesh in Japan and it inspired me to break away from the calligraphy of the traditional graffiti art form. I tried to paint more boldly and spontaneously as opposed to methodically creating layers with aerosol.
Did you go to art galleries as a kid?
To be honest, no. Apart from school trips! Now you can spend a day on the internet and collect visual information on any artist but back then it was very much magazine culture. You were lucky to find anything, or you had to go to an art book shop and stare at the pictures like a camera, trying to memorise them. As a kid I was a mad comic fiend, I was obsessed by artists like Jack Kirby, and John Romita. My school exercise books were literally covered with superhero sketches. The comic shop was my gallery I guess….
The band’s second album, Protection, saw you evolve your artwork into new areas…
The Eurochild character emerged.We wanted to use the artwork and imagery as a starting point for something more bizarre and expansive using computer graphics. And VR. Something that we could use as part of the soundsystem live show. At the same time we didn’t want to polish it. We wanted to keep it quite lo-res. The Eurochild image on the cover became quite omnipresent for a few years. It started as a painting for The Face magazine about new Europe, about the re-emergence of neo-fascists. The character was like a fascist fast food logo, complete with cutlery and swastika. It was a little childish to be honest. I dropped the swastika for obvious reasons.
The packaging of the album was important too…
This was the middle of the CD era, the 90s. I could never get my head around the fact that I wasn’t creating everything on 12×12. The CD format didn’t interest me whatsoever. It was always the vinyl that you aspired to design as the final product; it felt like an object, whether you wrapped it in cardboard or plastic, as opposed to a jewel case CD that would just fall apart. This was an attempt to make the CD into an object. We were also in a battle with the record company back then about product packaging deductions. We were on some pretty poor deals, we had the lowest cut of the cake, including packaging deductions. It felt is if you were penalised for good design, even when we were in effect doing the marketing for them by creating desirable products! But we were like ‘fuck it’, we’re always gonna make it as good as we can. By then I was obsessed by the final product: that was the exciting bit. We continued with cardboard and started using plastic too.
We turned the tour into a multimedia event, built a military set with sculptures and TVs, a futurist sound system which was reflected in the sleeve that Steve Bliss created for the Mad Professor remix.
Massive’s third album, Mezzanine, feels like a clean break with the past, musically and artistically…
Blue Lines had been the sum total of all our cultural history, from the soundsystem to the band. During this transitional process there’d been a lot of conflict in the band. Everything seemed to be changing, especially in the relationship between me and Grant and Mushroom. In a sense, the communal way of working had gone. Me and Mushroom had become more singular, withdrawn very much more into creative spaces. So when it came to the third album this conflict was probably at its most heightened. It meant the artwork had to completely change.
I was introduced to [designer] Tom Hingston and we struck up a new working friendship. I’d taken Tom a load of blown-up photocopies of beetles, Rorschach patterns and images of spiders; I was interested in the patterns on their backs, and the symmetry. The Rorschach thing was influenced by the character of the same name in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel.
That wasn’t quite effective as a sleeve idea but he’d shown me Nick [Knight’s] car crash images which he was doing, and at the same time Nick said he was interested in going to the National History Museum and photographing some of their catalogue of insects. That was much more exciting than the photocopies which were a throw-back to the world of paste-up. The idea of starting from scratch really appealed to me. I was very keen on keeping it in monochrome. Me and Tom wanted a lurid orange disc inside – one piece of colour. At this point we’d given in to the idea that the main format was a CD, so we wanted to make the CD format really striking.
I didn’t have any idea that Mezzanine would be so successful. We’d come out of Protection and there’d been a bit of criticism with the height of expectation: it was time to do something different. I wanted to take a more aggressive approach to music, to go back to the punk approach to making music, instead of looking at American hip-hop, old soul and jazz. And I wanted to do the same with the sleeve, to almost go back to a black and white fucked up aesthetic but with brand new materials, which is what we did. There’s also a bit of JG Ballard to it, sexual dark undertones, which was definitely in the record – this repression, sexuality, passive-aggressive.
At what stage of making your fourth album, 100th Window, did you begin thinking about the artwork?
“We’re two thirds of the way through the album, by this point Mushroom is no longer in the band, G and me weren’t speaking at all because we’d fallen out over something. So making the album had become an almost autocratic process. My relationship with Neil Davidge, who co-produced Mezzanine, became the only solid ground.
I was speaking to Marc Quinn, who was making amazing rainbow sculptures. We talked about working on something, but it never materialised. I began thinking about how we could make sculptures out of crystal and shine a light through them. Tom had shown me some pictures Nick had created shooting ballistics material through frozen flowers and catching their explosions. I started to imagine how the process would work with glass objects, but not on a miniature level. So ‘let’s make life-size glass humans and blow them up’.
Luckily for me at the time Mezzanine had been such a success that the record company were totally cool with that. So we met a glassblower in Brixton and he agreed to make these nine different coloured glass figures and we went to a studio that Nick had set up to photograph with the shutter sychronised with the gun so it would capture the ballistic high points. We spent a day destroying these glass geezers. And it worked for the sleeve. It was the most fractious time in the band’s history.
Touring this album was the first time you worked with UVA, right?
I had felt that although our two-year Mezzanine tour had changed us from DJs and MCs into performers (I use that word only in the loosest sense!) I felt no sense of visual satisfaction and I had hardly painted at all for eight years! In fact it was really James Lavelle of UNKLE/Mo Wax fame and Banksy that kept that candle burning by getting me to collaborate on projects in-between.
I had met Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, who creates brilliant LED artworks. I had hoped to collaborate on the live show, but it soon became apparent that it would be too costly to commission him. I wanted to use LED in its pure form, for data, pixel by pixel.
It would also be an opportunity to transmit information for the first time. To illustrate the songs and confront some of the issues of our times in a provocative way. And so between us we worked out a load of scenes. Matt and Chris from UVA came to me with a presentation and created software specifically for this – and we put a show together.
What was the appeal of data?
It followed on from that idea in the packaging, the idea of keeping it pure. The idea for the show was similar – how do we break down all this technology and present it in its purest form as data, as information, as pixels, as numbers, as binary. And turn that into a visual spectacle. It was the first time that there was an opportunity to take a lot of the idea of sampling, of data storage and sharing, the information age, the internet and modern media being all-pervading, and present all that in one show. And also deal with all the political issues that seemed to be surrounding the band from the beginning – the first Gulf War, which is when we’d burst onto the scene, now the second Gulf War which was manifesting itself around the release of 100th Window, almost to the week. It was like history repeating itself.
This system gave us a great ability to present our feelings about the war and to reflect what was happening in terms of what information was being shared, and published, about the war and geo-politics in general.
We were able to translate the show into local languages and copy stories from the local papers. During three days in Spain the text went from Spanish to Catalan to Basque. It was a massive operation in terms of its ambition.
What was your role in deciding what was presented on these screens?
Once we had decided that it was only going to be data and not video, we made a list of all the issues we wanted to confront – from politics to the environment to commercialism, consumerism. The job was then to apply that list to scenes in the songs. Then we’d look at things we could take from the press, media stories, tabloid stories. Then, in situ, we’d work out which songs they’d work with, in the studio, using backing tracks. And then we’d get to the gigs, do a couple of days production and start to hone it. Then, during the show, we’d change it again – me having watched it on stage, feeling what was working or not. It could be altered and updated everyday, the opposite of an arena rock show. We’d have translators so we could use the local language and be mobile and relevant as we travellled.
Back to Massive, how did the artwork for ‘Collected’ come about?
When we finally agreed to do a ‘best of’, which was against our better nature really but we’d signed a contract to do so, we treated it like a new project. I thought we could go back and look at Nick’s flowers. I remember one of the album’s I nicked off my mum, this Moody Blues album with a gatefold sleeve with these faces in the clouds like a James Bond-esque title sequence collage. I wanted to turn one of these flowers into a collage and this sleeve that I stared at as a kid. We also thought we’d lay out the entire archive in a warehouse, everything we’ve ever done that still existed and photograph it like an autopsy in an aircraft hangar.
By the time you started work on your fourth album, Heligoland, you were back into painting…
I was very aware during the Collected artwork process that I’d taken the digital medium to its max and wanted to go back to my roots a little. A painted cover image would need to depict a symbol of some sort to become iconic. The Heligoland hybrid character came out of that.
It was fucked up enough to represent the contradictions in modern culture, the chaos of cultural identity. It was also referencing Bristol itself. We’d had a load of political rows with the council. The Colston Hall was being updated and it seemed outrageous to us that given Edward Colston’s legacy of slave ship building that if you were going to modernise the building you wouldn’t give it a new name….one that felt more relevant to the present day and acknowledge the exploitation of the Bristol merchants and the origins of the city’s wealth and the ethnic diversity of the citizens. I hoped to present that information in the paintings. The minstrel and the slave plane seemed to get to the nasty heart of our institutions and history. And as Banksy said, it was ‘just the right side of racist’.
Let’s talk about your latest project, the Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis collaboration that premiered at Manchester International Festival in July 2013. What did you set out to achieve from a visual perspective with these shows?
I wanted to try and create a live show, a visually arresting experience that actually had some meaning and wasn’t just eye candy. Every band and DJ show has started to look alike – hyper pyrotechnic visual, but no food for the brain. The question was whether we could create a new type of show that could tell a story cinematically, politically and musically in the form of a gig, while actually remaining coherent! A drive-in movie on acid with issues….
The way we started to make music with samplers was in effect making collages of new songs and melodies over old artefacts from the past. I felt a strong connection to Adam’s films. Like our music, they also used the past to conjure up something new or uncanny. He could cut and paste history to show you the world you thought you understood in a new way. He is also a great DJ, the songs he places in the films are always bang on.
I’d been to Manchester International Festival a couple of times and seen the work Damon Albarn had done with them, which was amazing. In 2011, I met Alex Poots and he suggested creating something for MIF 13. I immediately suggested a collaboration with Adam Curtis. I also wanted to work with UVA on the show as I felt the combination of our visual languages would suit the project.
A lot of the things that I had tried to capture during the past Massive Attack shows over the last decade, the bigger issues and themes, Adam does that in a different way. He tells stories and uses central characters. There’s a tragic and romantic side to his films. That can come across with our music, but never quite with our visuals, which have always been in stark contrast to the songs (which is a strength in itself). The visuals might be based on statistics and information but the music’s telling an emotional story. The contrast works. But I’d felt we’d delivered that and it was time to do something more expansive and adventurous.
I have never seen anything like the new show which, in 2013, is pretty cool.
Up until five minutes before the first show no-one knew if it was going to work. For the first time in my life I had no idea how the audience would react. It was a bizarre feeling but it felt like a natural progression as an artist and for Massive Attack.
It seems to be a continuation of the artistic experimentation that’s at the heart of Massive Attack…
It’s always been a collage, and I reckon it always will be. When I was working with The Wild Bunch people would comment on how strange it was to see a group of such incongruous people. The way we looked, our musical identities, our personal histories, we were a strange collage ourselves. That was what made it interesting. Even though we were effectively a sound system, rooted in ideas from New York and Jamaica, we re-designed it in Bristol. Like Massive, we felt that people understood that it never had to be static, that it could always change. None of us knew what would happen at the beginning and I stll have no idea how the future will turn out.
3D and the art of Massive Attack is published by The Vinyl Factory on October 28. A limited edition box set featuring exclusive screenprinted artwork and a previously unreleased track on 12” vinyl, individually signed and numbered by 3D, is available to pre-order now from vfeditions.com