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Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja
Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

Robert Del Naja on the technological world of Massive Attack

The Bristol band’s co-founder discusses using technology to create a nostalgia-free retrospective of their classic album Mezzanine

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine was always ahead of its time, and not just musically. When the landmark album was first released in 1998, long before the advent of Spotify and Apple Music, the Bristol band made the record available to stream in full, for free, via the then-cutting edge RealAudio Player. “We were barely getting to grips with the idea of music file sharing and downloading,” the band’s co-founder, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, recalls today. “The Winamp MP3 player had been around for about a year, but we obviously had no idea that streaming would totally transform the way we discover and share music. I remember being given a demo of the ‘World Wide Web’ at Peter Gabriel’s studio in the early 90s, and I had zero comprehension that I was staring into the future. I was just happy with my pager and teletext on the TV.”

Today, 21 years after its release, Massive Attack are still using technology to bring Mezzanine to life in unusual ways. They encoded the album into DNA, which was then loaded into a can of spray paint and displayed at the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition. Elsewhere in the exhibition, they also turned Mezzanine inside out, training a neural network, MAGNet, on the album’s individual track stems (that is, the isolated elements of a track, like a guitar line or a vocal, that make up the entirety of a song when combined), creating a unique new version of the album that remixed itself in real-time in response to whatever movements its audience made. And then of course there was their recent Mezzanine live tour, designed by Del Naja, and a collaboration with essayist Adam Curtis that interrogates the past two decades of politics and power in an enormous LED spectacle. It’s a long way from the teletext days.

An embrace of new technology has been part of the Massive Attack project for years, whether that’s using software to incorporate headlines from local news feeds into their live tour visuals, or launching Fantom, an app that creates live remixes of their songs depending on a variety of environmental factors, like the user’s speed of movement or their GPS position. Often, their ideas have been more ambitious than the existing technology of the time allowed – when they released their 1994 album Protection, they commissioned a “Eurochild” build in VR that they’d they planned to install at their shows, but the headsets and computers proved too cumbersome and unreliable to work with. As far back as 1994, The Face were predicting that these ideas could, if they came to fruition, “place Massive Attack at the cutting edge of audio-visual club culture”.

In 2013, Massive Attack appointed Andrew Melchior as Massive Attack’s ‘chief technical officer’. Del Naja says that the job title is basically “just a laugh – we have a good time throwing ideas around”, but it nevertheless reflects the changing shape of the Massive Attack project over the years. “Massive Attack has always been more of an experiment than a band or even a collective,” Del Naja adds. “When we set out, we had no idea we’d even finish our first album and I was still painting with stencils in a pub garage. For me, each subsequent release has presented the opportunity to experiment with new art and emergent technology.”

Earlier this month, Massive Attack kickstarted a series of Mezzanine tour dates in North America, an updated and refined version of the tour exhibited in the UK earlier this year. It’s set to wrap up in New York City on September 27, a few days after they finally release the long-lost Mad Professor dub version of the 1998 album. Against the backdrop of this Mezzanine retrospective, we spoke to Robert Del Naja about Massive Attack’s interest in technology, nostalgia, and power in a series of phone calls and email conversations. Read an edited and condensed version of these interviews below.

You’ve been working with Adam Curtis again on your US tour. What have you been doing differently with it compared to the UK shows?

Robert Del Naja: We’ve had a chance to elaborate on the themes we originally presented. The core idea was to challenge the power of nostalgia – you know, false romantic visions of the past that can be seductive and doom us to repeat historical patterns.

We’re experiencing this now with the normalisation of fringe far-right groups and the regressive spike in hate crime and racism on social media after three years of nationalistic rhetoric in the mainstream. Certain public figures have presented themselves as anti-establishment and are profiting from the social division for their own political ambitions. At first they come across as pantomime villains, it all seems so daft and ridiculous – and, then suddenly, it’s dangerous again, just like it was before. Then there’s the notion that our compulsive behaviour is fed back to us through new, predictive applications, stopping us from imagining anything new.

Ultimately, the show is a ghost story. We resurrect Mezzanine with a promise that we can break free from the data of the past and escape the feedback loops.

You’ve been interested in new technology for years. Did you ever have that techno-utopian belief in its potential to liberate us, or did you always hold a scepticism about it?

Robert Del Naja: (Laughs) It was scepticism, bordering on cynicism. I was obviously always aware that information was powerful, but was never really sure how it was going to play out. In the same way you wouldn’t expect locations in the world which were widely known for their beauty to suddenly be swamped by people wanting to take photos of themselves for Instagram, destroying the very nature of the place they went to in the first place.

Funny you should mention that, I was just reading about this very thing before we got on the phone.

Robert Del Naja: My missus went out to the river yesterday. This place had suddenly become an Instagram hotspot for wild swimming and it was packed full of people. Like, “Oh, right, OK...”

The thing I saw about was about a temple in Bali with this beautiful, shimmering lake underneath it that’s become a very Instagrammable destination. Only it turned out there is no lake, it’s just locals putting a piece of glass under an iPhone camera to make it look like a perfect reflection, and selling it back to tourists. People are still going for photo, even knowing that it’s not real.

Robert Del Naja: Yeah, like Narcissus in the reflecting pool. It’s been well documented how we start to believe in our virtual or digital selves more than our real selves, but it’s strange to think that human behaviour hasn’t really changed at all since that legend was created.

You were recently part of the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition, where there was an installation created using MAGNet, a neural network that had only been trained on Mezzanine. In the installation, the system responds to the audience’s movements. How did that idea first develop? 

Robert Del Naja: I started working with Andrew Melchior and a procedural remix artist called Robert Thomas on an app we called Fantom. I was intrigued by the concept of our tracks remixing themselves in real-time. Robert created patches in Pure Data from track stems that were triggered by the phone sensors to create dynamic audio mixes. We discussed the possibility of automating this process in real-time using a neural net model via the cloud. Andrew set up a meeting with Mick Grierson at Goldsmiths, who suggested that I work with his graduate students to build a new computer and set up a Python/TensorFlow system at my studio. I soon became aware of how intense and time-consuming the training procedure actually was and handed it back to Mick.

Do you think a lot of this stems from your early interest in remix and sampling culture?

Robert Del Naja: For sure. Samplers defined Massive Attack and are still somewhat central to our methodology. Machine learning feels like an evolutionary step – and, just like sampling, the quality of the output is determined by the eccentricity of the artist.

What comes first with these things – do you have an idea, and then you look for the technology to make that into a reality? Or does the tech come first, and then you come up with a creative idea afterwards?

Robert Del Naja: Often the tech comes first. You discover a new piece of technology, and it then defines the way you think about the next piece of work. If you’re trying to escape the repetition of your own behaviour, the way you do the same thing in the studio each day, it’s great to think, “Oh wow, if we worked with this generative audio system, we could load everything into it, and it would spit out something we’d never imagine.” That’s a nice idea, but ultimately it’s not true. The process can throw up surprises, in the same way that your mistakes can often be some of the best parts of a record – especially when you’re working with a group of people, because ideas are thrown in unexpectedly that can completely change the course of a track.

What first gave you the idea to encode your record into DNA? And what are some of the implications for the technology involved?

Robert Del Naja: I was obsessing about Mezzanine in order to deconstruct it for the live show. Andrew suggested we get the album synthesised as DNA as he knew about the TurboBeads project, and contacted Robert Grass at the lab. It sort of meant we could finally scatter the ashes of the album like digital particles. In practical terms, it takes about a week for a genetic sequencer to read and play back the data, but in the near future, real-time read and playback applications will be commonplace. On a more practical level, DNA as storage also has massive environmental implications because of the vast amount of information you can store and archive without the need for power-hungry server farms.

“Ultimately, the show is a ghost story. We resurrect Mezzanine with a promise that we can break free from the data of the past and escape the feedback loops” – Robert Del Naja, Massive Attack

The DNA lasts pretty much forever, which makes Mezzanine a ‘timeless’ record in a very literal sense.

Robert Del Naja: ‘Timeless’ is a massive compliment for a band that takes an eternity to finish anything.

Some artists feel threatened by AI. What would you tell them?

Robert Del Naja: There is obviously a lot of hype and mythology around robots and AI. I work with a doctor of robotics at the studio. We’ve been designing a painting system using a robot arm that has been modified and engineered to paint. I see it as a progressive step, just like using stencils and hacking into printers and cutters. I approached an AI artist a few years ago and sent him images of my paintings to experiment with using GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) and style transfer. The result was quite interesting, but very obscure. We agreed he would sell a few privately, but I wondered, how would I ever recognise my original artwork now it had been totally remixed by his GANs? I’d been permanently sampled. But looking at it another way, that’s how the brain creates original ideas, by absorbing other ideas. Great artists can now steal with algorithms. 

If Massive Attack were starting out today, do you think you’d embrace all of these new technological ideas?

Robert Del Naja: New technology would definitely be the catalyst, although culturally, I’m not sure we would have survived this long. Social media has changed everything so that artists have become a product of the platforms they publish on. 

Back in the day, it was very uncool to be so commercially incentivised – you were a ‘sell-out’ if you did ads, for instance. I guess we live in a more vulgar but honest time. Product placement and advertising has become the core business approach; the artist is a brand and a means for collecting revenue. It’s very apparent at festivals, too. They can feel like Instagram hallucinations – artists adapt their shows to the expectations of the audience and the media, as opposed to challenging convention. Festivals used to be a step into the unknown, but they’ve become an industrialised cabaret of singalong guest appearances and mass social media posting opportunities.

We’re all becoming part of a global content subscription ecosystem that feeds back on itself, commercially and creatively. We’re all loyal subscribers and shareholders, exchanging consent for convenience. It’s a powerful system, as it tricks us into thinking that we are behaving as individuals, but in reality, we’re all doing the same thing.

How do your other Massive Attack collaborators feel about the role of technology in the band? Do they share this interest?

Robert Del Naja: Grant is more like, “I’ll let you get on with it,” because I’ve always been wildly curious about this sort of stuff. Ultimately, a lot of the technology that we’re encountering ends up having a positive impact on the design of the shows. During the design of the Mezzanine show, I would often defend the creative potential of neural networks as legitimate artistic editing tools. I asked Mario Klingemann if he would contribute by creating GANs for the show based on data sets that we supplied. He also trained networks to create deepfake videos of Trump and Putin, which I felt was going to be a relevant this year. Adam was sceptical, but our conversations have kept my feet on the ground, and I stopped believing AI to be magic.

Has being immersed in the tech world for the past few years opened your mind to the possibilities of what technology can do any more than usual? Or has learning that AI isn’t magic actually limited your ideas for its uses?

Robert Del Naja: When I was first exposed to it, I bought into some of the hype of the threat of AI – but we’re a long way off from autonomous intelligent machines. It’s been a valuable experience being exposed to the tools via some talented coders, as it’s a costly and time-consuming process. It’s good to demystify things, because you don’t want to be afraid of it. The idea is to be in control of the technology, not the other way around. 

Is there any new technology you’ve seen that you feel could have massive implications on music and art?

Robert Del Naja: I have been messing around with Mixed Reality since being introduced to it at Magic Leap six years ago. It’s been frustrating, because you can easily visualise and imagine trippy future applications, but are stuck with in the present with the technological limitations. Whether everyone will actually want to wear glasses or contact lenses, or we ever split into two separate tribes – who knows. But It does present some mind-bending possibilities where art and music can be shared in a new mirrored multiverse. It will most probably turn into a horrific Keiichi Matsuda advertising and content saturation nightmare, with no escape without disconnecting entirely. It will definitely be a new battleground for IP and ownership of the human gaze and a deeper commodification of our attention. Peak surveillance capital. I think it was Mark Getty who said that data is the new oil.

What other new tech-related projects are Massive Attack working on?

Robert Del Naja: It’s not actually a Massive Attack project, but I have been developing a version of Strauss’s Elektra with Daniel Kramer. Me and Andrew have commissioned an Elektra personality model with neural networks trained on revenge, murder, and obsession – It's a good old-fashioned family drama, and another ghost story. It’s also a continuation of the themes we have been exploring in the Massive Attack live shows, around the information and truth dilemma in an era where we no longer trust or rely on conventional recognised news sources. We’ve been training the models on classical Greek metaphysical superstitions and psychosexual scientific theories plus soap opera scripts. Fate, chance, and the gods, versus free will and choice – a bit like the whole Brexit thing, I suppose.

I have to ask this, while I have you here – is there new Massive Attack music on the horizon? 

Robert Del Naja: Totally. Back in the studio when we get back from the US, new EPs, and more anti-social algorithms.

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine tour runs in North America until September 27