Massive Attack's curation of the Southbank Meltdown season is a tantalising prospect

Between the rows and break-ups, Massive Attack have always worked with their friends and heroes. So, as Robert Del Naja tells Phil Johnson, curating the Southbank Meltdown season is business as usual

As portfolios go, it is a rather slim one. Since their first, independently produced single "Any Love" in 1988, Massive Attack – whose Southbank Meltdown season begins on Saturday, when they play the first of two performances at the Royal Festival Hall – have released only four albums of original material. A fifth is promised later this year, but, given the glacial pace at which the band work, "later" can mean a very long time.

Calling the two remaining members a band might also be misleading, for Massive Attack has never been a calloused-fingered collective of co-instrumentalists. "You're meant to perform and we don't," Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) told me for my 1996 book on the Bristol sound, Straight Outa Bristol. Instead, Massive Attack operated as a loosely defined production base, using various collaborators to help them complete their ideas. As the three founding members recalled around the time of their second album Protection (1994), they might get the recording engineer to fine-tune a synth sound by telling him: "Like, a bit more phwaah, please."

Del Naja, now 43 and the group's principal presence, also surprised fans by referring to Massive Attack at the time of the last album, 100th Window (2003), not as a band, but as a brand. By then, he was the only working member, Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles having left shortly after Mezzanine (1998) and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, 48, taking extended paternity leave.

But while Massive Attack's portfolio may be slim and the exact contributions of the group-members difficult to pinpoint, their work remains impressive, with two all-time classic albums in Blue Lines (1991) and Protection and a visual identity that has always looked the part: the group were photographed by the fashion photographers Juergen Teller and Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and filmed by director Baillie Walsh (who was behind the video for "Unfinished Sympathy"). The differing ethnicities of the three original members also helped to fulfil a multicultural fantasy of cool dudes walking tall. As it turned out, they could barely stand to be in the same room, at least when it came to recording.

Yet, if Massive Attack once lacked muso-credibility, who now cares? In a world of "virtual" bands such as Gorillaz, co-founded by Del Naja's friend Damon Albarn, Massive's moody mix of music and visuals fits in as perfectly postmodern. Although they confronted the difficulties of appearing live years ago, and their Meltdown appearances form part of a long European tour of major venues, it's perhaps useful to regard Massive Attack as curators first and creators second. This, of course, makes their new role particularly appropriate. With Meltdown, they get the chance to curate on a scale previously undreamed of. Their wide-ranging programme (they're the festival's 15th incumbents) also hangs together unusually well.

"Yeah, it's every boy's treat but it comes with a price," Del Naja says. "You're following up a lot of really great curators and you don't want to be the first to fuck it up."

He also agrees that the world has started to come round to Massive's way of doing things. "We're in funny times," he says. "When we started, we were music fans swapping C90s and C60s [cassette tapes], chopping and changing tracks and distorting them, and the whole culture is like that now. But we were also a contradiction because, despite being like that, with our first album we wanted everyone to experience the purity of an unbroken sequence of tracks. So we've moved with the times and the times have moved with us. It was never just four or five people on stage."

As to whether they are a band or a brand, he's ambivalent. "The Massive Attack concept wasn't a fully formed thing, right from the beginning, and it's never really changed since then, never been a solid situation," he says. "There's an insecurity there, but also a freedom and you can switch them off and on. The obvious examples are Radiohead and Blur with Damon. As they've moved forward they've explored every possibility, politically as well as musically, and we've always been slightly ambiguous. It's like when the Sex Pistols changed to PiL, that was a big change, you know?"

Massive's Meltdown season reflects their roots and often disparate influences very effectively, from punk rock, reggae and the rebel chic of Detroit's MC5, to black music stars from past and present (including Terry Callier, Grace Jones, George Clinton, the new hip-hop and dub-step generations), and fellow pop aristocrats Primal Scream and Elbow.

The band's radical and anti-war credentials ("I've always been a bit of a red," Del Naja says) are honoured in a number of films and events, while the season also includes a screening of Shane Meadows' new movie Somers Town, a concert performance of Vangelis's score for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (there are also two showings of the film at the BFI's IMAX cinema), and screenings of Massive Attack's often innovative pop videos.

Indeed, Massive Attack, and the group from which they emerged in 1987, Bristol's The Wild Bunch, were always about more than just music; they represented the new hip-hop culture's effect on everything from graffiti art (3D was an influence on his friend and fellow artist Banksy) to computer games and film. With The Wild Bunch (named, of course, after Peckinpah's ultraviolent western), the way they looked was probably more important than how they sounded.

The Wild Bunch members (Miles Johnson, Nellee Hooper and Claude Williams as well as Massive Attack's three founders) were obsessed with gangster movies and splatter flicks. They revered Scorsese's Taxi Driver, called each other "Jack" like the characters of a Mean Streets street gang, and screen-printed their own Robert De NiroT-shirts (the Mohican, gun-to-head image, naturally). When Del Naja was arrested in 1984 for spray-painting illegally, he was still holding the paper pattern for the Taxi Driver mural he was working on.

Later he would describe his method of writing lyrics as, "like travelling through a crowded bar and stopping for a few moments at each conversation and listening to bits and pieces." In other words, not unlike Ray Liotta entering the mob's club in Goodfellas.

As a lecturer at a local college, I at one point found myself teaching odd bits of film and video to Del Naja and Vowles. Ever since, I've thought Del Naja might become a director. "It's true I was really excited about it, wanted to go to art college and film school," he says. "Then I got diverted by graffiti and the Wild Bunch thing. But I know how obsessive it becomes. On the whole, my experience with films hasn't been a positive one. More the opposite: you're entirely at the mercy of the producer and director."

He gives the example of a track he wrote with Liam Howlett of The Prodigy for Danny Boyle's The Beach, which he's glad was never used. "If we'd seen every scene of every film Massive Attack's music is used in, we would have said no to all of it," he says. "I've spent 20 years relinquishing that desire [to work with film]."

Yet, to look at it another way, maybe he didn't really relinquish the desire to be a filmmaker at all, but merely reapplied it to music, directing Massive Attack's albums in the same way an auteur directs a film: choosing suitable collaborators, casting each role and spending very long periods in post-production. Seen like this, four major projects in 20 years, with a fifth yet to wrap, doesn't seem too bad a record at all.

Meltdown runs from Saturday to 22 June at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (tel: 0871 663 2520, www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

That's Massive: Meltdown must-sees at the Royal Festival Hall

Yellow Magic Orchestra

The first UK performance since 1980 for the legendary Japanese techno trio from the Tokyo cultural scene that was a big influence on Massive Attack in the early days. 15 June

Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack

Performed live by the Heritage Orchestra and mixed by Massive. The sci-fi film is a key text for the band, which adapted its broken aesthetic to create similarly scratched and fissured music. 17 June

Stiff Little Fingers, Mark Stewart & the Maffia, Adrian Sherwood

Massive honour their punk and reggae roots, with Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers joined by Adrian Sherwood and Mark Stewart, a Godfather of the Bristol scene. 18 June

Grace Jones

The stroppy disco queen's early 1980s albums, with a reggae rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, helped to define the confluence of styles Massive later worked with. 19 June

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine