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There’s a Tesco riot goin’ on: Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge on his debut album

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  • published
    12 Jan 2014
  • words by
    William Skar
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Neil Davidge belongs to the same bracket as, say, Nigel Godrich – the quiet man behind one of the UK’s biggest musical goliaths. 

Since the mid 1990s, Davidge has been a crucial part of the Massive Attack machine: producer and co-writer of 1998′s career-best Mezzanine, and, following Mushroom’s exit and Daddy G’s semi-departure, essentially one-half of the group alongside 3D. If you’re one of the four million gamers who copped Halo 4, you’ll also be (perhaps unwittingly) aware of Davidge’s work – the Bristolian produced the game’s original score, which, having broken the Top 50 on the Billboard charts, remains the highest-charting videogame score of all time. As a composer, he’s also written for a slew of film and TV projects, including Bullet Boy, Trouble The Water and, with Massive Attack, Danny The Dog.

In March, Davidge will release his debut solo release, Slo Light. The sonic detailing and epic sweep of his Halo work is present and correct, but Slo Light is a record of Proper Songs, with guest spots from Neon Neon collaborator Cate Le Bon and the redoubtable Sandie Shaw. Having given us the warts-and-all inside story of Mezzanine‘s recording, Davidge also chatted to us about Tesco riots, channeling Debussy, and stepping into the album game.

“I’ve never really been much of a fan of instrumental music”

How long have you been sitting on the tracks that make up the new record?

There are a couple of tracks that I’d written quite a while ago, maybe four years ago. The idea was virtually to make an album, but then I got the Halo gig, and that took two years of my life, so I had to put the album on hold for two years. But apart from two tracks, the rest of the album was written post-Halo scoring, so probably written in about eight months I’d say. Which for me is really good going! [laughs]

Particularly after that long stint working on Halo 4, were you using a very different part of your brain than when in soundtrack mode?

Yeah, in many ways, the album was a reaction to writing several hours worth of instrumental music, using orchestras, etc. We originally talked about the album maybe being half vocal and half instrumental, but by the time, I’d just forgotten – I’d gotten over all this instrumental music for the game, I didn’t want to write any more. I wanted songs. I wanted to work with singers, and come up with melody ideas for vocals. Because I’ve never really been much of a fan of instrumental music, I don’t listen to a lot of instrumental music. I’ve always been primarily a song-based kind of artist – that’s the kind of music I listen to. It’s only, actually, in more recent years, as I’ve done more soundtrack work, that I’ve started paying attention to instrumental music. And there’s great stuff out there.

Were there any song-based artists who were particular influences on this record? ‘Gallant Foxes’, for example, I hear John Foxx in that…

[laughs] Right, okay!

Who fed into the record for you in that regard?

It’s always unconscious, there’s never any conscious channeling going on. John Foxx, Ultravox…I’d not really thought about that, it does have an element of that. Stuff from everything that I’ve ever listened to comes though. While I’m in the studio, I might hear a sound or a particular melody, and it will just sparkle into my unconscious. [3]D’s always the conceptualiser, and I’m much more about my gut instinct – something would happen, and I’d react to my gut instinct. So the music on that album is pretty much just a reaction to what was actually happening in the studio or in my life at the time. If there was shit going on, I’d, in a very cathartic way, just sit and make some really miserable music – it’s always the way I make music. I don’t tend to spend much time thinking about it unless I hit a brick wall, and that’s when reach for those experiences and that stuff I’ve learned. Otherwise I just react, react, react – keep jamming with myself or with other people, throwing ideas at people and seeing what comes back.

For me, music sounds more real when you’re not spending a lot of time sat there scratching your head, writing things down, trying to work out what you want your album to mean, to say, to feel like, to sound like. I’ve experience many frustrations with D trying to do that in the past – he’d say, “I want the next album to sound like this.” And we’d set ourselves this banner heading – “this album is going to be this” – and we’d spend all our time just banging our heads against it. Influences? There’s bits of Bowie in there, there’s bits of Radiohead in there, there’s bits of Can in there, there’s bits of Debussy in there, there’s bits of Marvin Gaye in there – everything I’ve ever listened to, I think, comes through. Because it’s all sat there in my unconscious, and if I can just turn my conscious brain off, it starts feeding through. It’s like jamming in a room with a band of all these artists you’ve heard over the years.

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