Massive Attack are an enigma. Having only produced four albums in 15 years, it seems surprising that their record label have stayed with them. And yet all four albums have become genre-defying moments, from 1991's Blue Lines, which set the blueprint for Bristol's trip-hop sound, to 100th Window which marked indie-rock's final integration into dance music.
Both founding members, Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) and Grant Marshall (Daddy G), would probably argue that they aren't in fact "a dance music collective" at all. But, whatever description you want to give them, they remain one of the most fascinating and original bands of recent times, introducing the talents of artists such as Tricky, Shara Nelson, and Nicolette, and helping reinvent the personas of Horace Andy, Tracy Thorne, Elizabeth Fraser and Sinead O'Connor.
As Marshall sits opposite me on a worn leather sofa in a central Bristol studio, Pioneer decks and a mixer separating us like a flashing electronic defence, it becomes gradually apparent that Massive Attack don't work in the same way as most bands. In fact Marshall and Del Naja barely see each other, let alone record in the same studio. "I haven't worked with 3D for six or seven years now," Marshall says. "We don't like each other very much. It's always been quite tempestuous for us in the studio - we always seem to lose a member after every album."
Although their last album, 100th Window, was marketed as a Massive Attack album, Marshall had nothing to do with it. Mushroom (Andrew Vowles), the other member of the original trio, left after the release of Mezzanine in 1998, because he wasn't happy with the increased use of guitars - an idea that Del Naja was keen on exploring.
"We weren't really getting on at the time, and my priorities had changed," Marshall said. "I wanted to stay at home and get to know my kid rather than staying in the studio."
This could have marked the beginning of the end for the band, but recently Marshall felt an obligation to his fans to return for what will be the band's fifth album, Weather Underground.
"I DJ quite a bit, and a lot of people were coming up to me and asking me where the soul of Massive Attack had gone. I felt I needed to come back and redress the balance of what Massive Attack stood for. I'm trying to put a bit more 'black' into it again," he said.
Both Del Naja and Marshall are willing to talk so freely about their past glories because the band are due to release their greatest hits package, Collected. It's a stop-gap, buying time before the release of their new album next year, and includes classics such as "Unfinished Sympathy", "Teardrop", and "Karmacoma", plus a second CD of out-takes and rarities, and a DVD of their videos.
It also includes a haunting new track, "Live With Me" which bares trademark luscious strings, heavily compressed slow-mo beats, and silky blues vocals courtesy of Terry Callier - a return to the band's soulful beginnings.
"I was never arsed about putting out something like this," Del Naja says of Collected when we catch up later. "But I suppose it's like a punctuation mark to round off our previous efforts. But I was very conscious that I didn't want to present a package that anyone could put together on iTunes." Instead, he became involved with the artwork (as he always has done), videos, and new tracks.
"It occurred to me that we could use things that had been sitting on the shelf with no hope of getting released, such as 'Live With Me' which was for a film that might never get made, and 'False Flags', which is a commentary on the state of the European Union."
The band's origins began in the early Eighties. "It probably started with Nellee (Hooper) and DJ Milo (Johnson) going to London and setting up the Wild Bunch," says Del Naja. "Then Nellee worked with Shara Nelson on a track called 'The Look Of Love', which was a stripped-back hip-hop track with a soul vocal on top. It paved the way for the likes of Smith & Mighty's 'Walk On By' and their work with Daddy G on 'Any Love'.
"They were a by-product of what had gone before, and I think the ethic of everyone doing separate things to create a collective whole has been a part of Massive Attack ever since.
"We've never sat in a room working together. There may have been collaborations between two of us, but never three. We've never been equipped to cope with that situation," Del Naja says.
Marshall believes that the disparate sound of the Wild Bunch, the original sound system that begot Massive Attack, was a product of four of the original members' roots.
"We were made up of a load of immigrant kids really," he says. "3D's folks are from Italy, mine were from Barbados, Milo's family was originally from Jamaica, and Mushroom's were from South America." At the beginning, Bristol's established music scene eyed them with a degree of suspicion.
"When we started we went to Smith & Mighty and told them that we wanted to start up a thing called Massive Attack which would be an umbrella organisation looking after the welfare of several bands. It was like the American ethos of getting your mates involved and making sure that everyone gets a deal. But I think they couldn't work out what was in it for us. They didn't really believe that we were just trying to get something going. So we went off and did it ourselves."
Inspired by soul, reggae, hip-hop, and punk, Massive Attack forged a unique path amidst the debris of Eighties house and rave culture.
"When Blue Lines came out it seemed like the only bit of light relief," says Marshall. "It was one of the few albums you could go home to after a night's clubbing and be able to listen to it from head to toe. There wasn't anything else that had the kind of space and atmosphere, that you could chill to."
"We managed to make something that captured our influences," said Del Naja, "and that should probably have been the end of it. From that point on we didn't know what the hell to do. We'd never been a bunch of guys who auditioned to be in a band together. We never had the ambition to make hit singles and top album charts. The group thing seems to be about hanging out together and probably burning out pretty quickly. We never actually had to endure each others personalities in that way."
As neither Marshall nor Del Naja are musicians, they have to bring in additional players to help augment their ideas. Del Naja hints at the frustrations of working in such a slow, unorthodox way.
"Between every album there's been a moment of absolute silence and confusion, where we have no clue where we are going to go next. For Protection, Mushroom had built a studio in his house to work on tracks that we could send to Tracy Thorn. Myself and Tricky were working together and were starting to create what we thought would be a second album, but it was a struggle because it wasn't about the history of the Wild Bunch anymore. It became a bit of an odd job, and that continued into Mezzanine."
Del Naja mainly works with long time co-producer Neil Davidge and is currently getting into the idea of "sampling new wave tunes" and flirting with the concept of reinventing soul with "messed up Joy Division beats, Public Image Ltd guitars, and old soul gospel vocals". He divides time between London and Bristol, and is currently recording tracks with New York new-wave rockers TV On The Radio.
Marshall is working with new Bristol-based vocalist Yolanda, Alice Russell, and Sharon Jones, while Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) will also be brought back into the fray. There is also talk of a new collaboration with Tricky, and possibly with David Bowie.
"I've always found it amazing that you can exist within your own town or city meeting amazing people and making music," says Del Naja. "You can go on stage and do brilliant things, and still be able to come back down to earth with your family and friends and be a real person and not worry about the fame thing. We've flirted with it, but the bottom line is that you're only as good as your next record."
'Collected, the Compilation' is released 27 March on Virgin