Massive Attack - Out Of The Comfort Zone The Story Of A Sound, A City And A Group Of Revolutionary Artists
This is a conversation I had with Melissa Chemam, the author of Massive Attack Out Of The Comfort Zone... The Story Of A Sound, A City And A Group Of Revolutionary Artists - The Book Is Released in March - The Subject, well - I Think We Know That Is Special! As for the Author, the writer, the incredibly inspiring Parisian Journalist behind this.... Well Judge For Yourself! - pauliepaul
Melissa Chemam In Conversation
Hi Melissa, can I start from the beginning - How/Where did you get the idea for this? Can you think back to that moment when you first had the brainwave for the book?
Hi paulie, Yes, of course. It was just an idea that I thought ‘it’ll never happen, but I’d love to do that!’ and this notion lasted for weeks and weeks before I seriously tackled how to approach it. So, what happened was, I’m a foreign news journalist and I spent three months working with a UN agency as a spokesperson, meeting journalists, taking photos and interviewing them in order for the UN to be able to broadcast what’s been going on in a country. After returning from an assignment in Africa to the newsroom in Paris during the summer, I pondered a lot on what’s useful in news, what’s inspiring people – because we always seem to be commenting on what’s going wrong and what needs to be changed, but we’re not bringing any options on how things can be changed. I’ve always worked in the Arts and Music sectors because that’s where my interests are, where my niche is, so in the summer of 2014 I was back from central Africa, reporting on events in the Middle East, what was happening in Israel and Palestine and it was really, really grim. I started thinking, ‘well, I’ve been a journalist for twelve, nearly thirteen years and I want to do something that brings more inspiration to people’. I was listening to a lot of music, as summer in Paris can be quite slow. I was listening to Mezzanine a lot and at this point I read an article in The Independent about this very same band, Massive Attack! They were touring the world but were actually going to be performing in The Lebanon for two nights at the Baalbeck International Festival, and then they were to be coming to Paris to perform at a humanitarian festival called La Fête de l'Humanité. I read the interview with them and they had been to a small village near Beirut with a small charity they had been supporting for more than ten years, helping Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Lebanon is a one of the countries that has the highest ratio of refugees - there are four million people there and one million refugees on top. It is a little known fact that Massive Attack have donated funds and equipment to enable the local people to be able to make music, so the band went there publicly, knowing that journalists would be forced to go and take photos, because ‘Oh, there’s a famous band in the area’ and it brought attention to what the children need, how the international community can help them and to show the reality of how unfair the situation can be. I was very moved, because I’ve always loved their music and I knew that they were not just political like some bands can be, but always had a sense of discourse about their own world. They seemed to dig deep into what kind of world we live in and, from my perspective, each album said something different about that. At that particular moment it seemed they had shied away from publicity for some time – I had not read an interview from them for three or four years, but suddenly they were giving time and speaking out about something that was obviously very important to them and I felt the same, because I had just been away for three months in a country, spending all my days with displaced people.
So it was very interesting for me because it was as if they were answering the question I had been pondering about how to bring positivity to the news and change what is reported in the press.
So how did you manage to transform this idea into something you could work with?
Well, it all seemed to come together that September. I had lunch with one of my best friends, who was my very first editor. He’s a music journalist and he said ‘Yeah, you’re right, you should write more about music, be more optimistic! You can work with me – we can do something together’ He told me he had an idea for a book about a village in France in the seventies where there used to be a club and it would be fun to retell that, but I told him that although I would love to work with him, that story was not for me! (laughs)…… I don’t drive… I cannot work in a village… I never work in Paris… let me think of something else! All this time I was still listening to Mezzanine so a few months later I spoke to him and said ‘Look, this might sound crazy. I’m not British and this is a big band…. They don’t give interviews, but maybe I could try to have an interview with Massive Attack about their relationship with Bristol and how it made them become so special – because there is obviously a link?’ And my friend said “Yeah! Go ahead! You’ve done crazier things – you’ve been to Mogadishu, you’ve been to Haiti…. Go to Bristol and see what you can find out there.’ He told me that if I brought something interesting back he would introduce me to a publisher but I was just doing it with an open heart to see what may happen, you know.
This is what amazes me, so you went to Bristol with this idea..
Well, I knew I could probably get to meet people like Tricky, because he was touring a lot and often played gigs in Paris – in fact he used to live in France. I thought if I could just get to meet people in Bristol who knew the band I could maybe just recreate the story that way. So…. I went to Bristol and my first two weeks there were just so awesome I nearly moved there permanently! I met so many people and interviewed all the people I wanted to speak to. I visited the venues from their early days, explored the city, which was at the time the ‘European City for Environmental Protection’ or ‘The Green Capital’ so I interviewed people about these issues too.
Did you have a rough idea though, a plan on how you could move forward - practically?
Yes, I really wanted to meet 3D, because in my research about the band, he seemed to be the most instrumental in articulating about the issues they are concerned about. He’s the one who writes the lyrics AND who creates the visuals for their shows, so he’s the one I really wanted to talk with. It wasn’t easy getting to meet him. I sent a LOT of emails! I felt like I was launching a bottle into the sea… but eventually it happened and he actually sent me a message saying ‘If you’re in Bristol, come to our studio.’
Can you remember that moment? How did it feel?
It felt amazing – and right. I’m not the kind of journalist who hangs around at the stage door. I can’t do that. An interview has to be agreed and prearranged. I’ve seen situations where journalists have been pushy and in some cases they have achieved great success, but in some it has been really damaging so I have always been determined not to be like that.
It seems to me that you had a connection with the band because of the charity work that they were doing, very unsung I may add. Do you think this connection as well as inspiring you, might have in someway opened a door -
Well music and charities have a long history together. There’s been Band-Aid, U2, Coldplay and Fair Trade… but what I liked about Massive Attack was that there was nothing like ‘we’re super-billionaires, we’re married to a famous actress, we have a face on every magazine, but we give a cheque at the end of the year’. It was something completely different to that. Their concerns are really coming from their own travelling, their own experiences…. They’d been to Israel, for instance, supporting David Bowie in ’96, and that really stayed with them because they were like ‘Well we’re British, we know the history, so why can’t we go to Palestine?’ They asked a lot of embarrassing questions and got no answers. So they decided not to go again. Being forced to play only in one area and not in another two streets away was horrible. This was wayyyy before the boycott and they were never about boycotting the Israeli people, Mezzanine was a No.1 album there, they respect the Israeli people; but they said ‘We want to play Tel Aviv, but we want to find someone who will organise a show in Ramia as well.’ Obviously that is very difficult to do, so nobody has ever managed to do that.
Did you have any idea of how deep you were going to go into the band’s dynamic?
Oh no – I didn’t think I’d have an opportunity to talk deeply about anything. They might see me for twenty minutes and then forget about me completely! (laughs) When we started talking it was not like an interview – it was more a discussion. Because I had already met some people in Bristol, I wanted to arrange a meet with some of those who were not so famous… people who had maybe played guitar with them, or been in the same studios, to recreate the reality of the time for those like me who were not there, to get a feel for what was happening. That was what was important to me. I chose Massive Attack because their message resonated with me and I wanted to find out about what made them who they are.
How do you make that work practically though?
Well it was impossible to get all the members together at the same time. Massive Attack are not really a band as such, different members come together at different points. We had to do things in a way that was more in the spirit of the band. We talked about how to write and compile things and at some point we talked about what would be in the book. It was a weird dynamic. I asked a load of people if I could meet Mushroom – but Mushroom is the last person who would give an interview about Massive Attack! He left the band twenty years ago, he’s not in England much and the band are about so much more than the people who have been involved. The book for me was going back further, looking back at Bristol, its part in the slave trade, to explain what has become NOW, why Massive Attack are more relevant NOW than any other musicians… yet they are not just musicians, they are more than that. They are artists, creators, representing our world as it is NOW. What can any past member tell us about that? All past members have played their part but this book is about NOW.
Your book touches on some other subjects too, Street Art, for instance. I’m a big fan of Blek le Rat, do you remember him in Paris? I know he's mentioned for inspiring, dare I say it, Banksy…?
Oh yes of course. You know that ‘RAT’ is an anagram of ‘ART’? The official line is that a lot of people had the same idea at the same time… but maybe that’s also Banksy being… cheeky….!
I think it’s more about being inspired by somebody – or a movement…being apart of a movement and carrying it forward?
Well yes. The thing is that 3D is an artist, and was an artist before he was a DJ. He was a punk, then a street artists, then a rapper, then a member of The Wild Bunch, then a founding member of Massive Attack, and now one of the most political musicians of an entire generation, you know…
You could probably write a book on him alone!
Yes you could… except that he would not like that at all, because everything he has ever done – and he has stated this to me on more than one occasion – everything he’s done has been about being communal. I have asked him ‘Why don’t you do YOUR album? You are the one writing everything, it’s your lyrics, your vision, why not do YOUR album>’ and he always says ‘It’s the last thing on my mind, it would break my heart to do that. We started when I was eighteen years old, in a cave, with twenty guys. My goal was never to be ‘hey look at me’, it’s about collective creativity’.
That is completely in contrast to today’s general ‘Want to be famous’ attitude, isn’t it?
Yes, the book talks about that a lot. Especially with regards to their fourth album. It all became about behind the scenes… ‘You won’t see us’….’We won’t give interviews anymore’…it’s almost like a brand, a name. It doesn’t matter who’s in Massive Attack. It wasn’t easy for 3D. He had to do an album and he missed the other guys terribly and was afraid that maybe the band was finished and he would not have the heart to carry on without them or just invite other people to join in, because they had this history together – they grew up together and were very young when they started. You cannot get over this by just changing your guitarist.
I really feel that this book is a special event. It’s more than just a biography. I feel that you are part of this story too, because of the way the events unfolded and how they accepted you into their fold, you have actually felt this.
I’m so happy you feel that way. I have done interviews with other people and many of them were like ‘Who is this girl?’ “Why isn’t it a guy from the Guardian calling me?’ Obviously they never said that but I could feel that sentiment behind their words. I was like ‘Fine. If you’d rather talk to another middle class, middle age British man, then that’s your thing’. But obviously, I have a different perspective – I do what I do and I don’t mind if I don’t sell the book, it’s about integrity.
Can I ask about you? I look at your C.V. and it’s amazing. Did you have a really formal academic education?
Yes, the thing is that my parents didn’t. They couldn’t go to high school because of the political situation and the war etc. When I was very young we lived above a kindergarten and I really wanted to go to school. I was lucky because I had a really good memory so I was like, the brainy child in the family. It was a weird situation because my grandparents could not read or write in any language and war stopped my parent’s education so they were really focused on my sister and I having a solid education.
One last question: How did you know when the book was finished?
Oh gosh. I wrote it in French first, and edited it myself, then I had to write it entirely again in English! It was difficult finding a publisher in England because people didn’t know me there, and people don’t like to buy books written by foreign writers they don’t know. I guess they didn’t trust that I could do something special. I am glad that I have proved them wrong!
I can’t wait to read it, I wanted to talk to you purposely before I read it.. Is it true that you are speaking at an event at the British Library soon? Are you comfortable speaking in public?
Well actually I wrote the book so I could speak about the book! I am not comfortable being filmed but am very much a radio person so I am happy talking into a microphone! This story is important. It is about young guys – none of whom did any A-Levels, who turned their lives around with their creativity. Massive Attack are outside the box of their contemporaries and that has enabled them to have a very critical position, where they can comment freely on art, society and politics.
Thank you so much Melissa. It has been a real pleasure chatting to you.