A shot from Massive Attack V Adam Curtis.
This is a story about a BBC filmmaker and a trip-hop veteran who decided that the country needed to grow up. Adam Curtis and Robert Del Naja saw Britain in 2013 as a repetitive, twee playpen which infantilised its subjects. So they decided to do something about it. In a disused factory in Manchester, they built an enormous, three-dimensional cinema within which Del Naja and his band Massive Attack could perform, while Curtis built a film around their performance. This combination of film and gig ("gilm", apparently) would shock people into realising that the world was not as they saw it. That the cycle of fashions, music and a culture of "entertainment" were not the empowering agents of individualism they pertained to be, but were in fact tools of a deeply conservative philosophy which, by urging us to obsess about the past, leaves us unable to imagine a future which could be in any way different.
Last time I met Adam he was mulling over the same idea and since then it’s stuck with me. Curtis sums this problem up as a culture of “If you like that, then you’ll like this.” A culture he believes goes beyond iTunes or Spotify recommendations, and permeates every part of life.
Lifestyle journalism, the Rolling Stones, Glastonbury, the return of Egypt into military hands, the revolving generation of kids with guitars transfixed by psych-rock, acid and three-chord punk – these are all things that support Adam’s view of the world. He believes technocrats – managers who believe everything is as it should be and who are terrified of change – have replaced the radicals and the ideologues. In his view, we’re trapped within their management theory because we’ve forgotten how to imagine a different world. It’s all a bit heavy but I swear I’m starting to understand it.
Last week I went to Manchester to meet Adam and Robert to talk about their new collaboration for the Manchester International Festival, which is simply called Massive Attack V Adam Curtis. While I was there I met Horace Andy, which was cool; but I had to wear a high-vis jacket, which was not.
VICE: How do you begin the process of putting together something like this? Am I right in thinking it was Robert’s idea?
Robert: I’ve come to a couple of the Manchester festivals and I’m a big fan of it because I think what they do is really intriguing. I saw Damon Albarn’s Doctor Dee and within five minutes I sort of drunkenly said to Alex [Poots, the festival’s creative director], "I’d love to work with Adam Curtis." I’d watched Adam’s films, like All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Alex was showing off so he got Adam’s number on his mobile, like: “I’ll text him now.”
Adam: Were you drunk?
Robert: Yeah, I was drunk.
Adam: So was I, so I said yes.
And then what?
Well, I’ll tell you what I worked out: Really what Robert had been doing for years is quite similar to what I have been doing for years, which is cutting up stuff. That’s the thing that began in the 90s, which was to look back, cut up stuff and reform it into something new.
Robert: It's exactly the same process for his films and for my hip-hop.
Adam: I thought, why don’t we try and do a piece which is not only about the things I’m obsessed about – which is how power works in the present day – but how in a way modern culture’s images, and recorded sounds, have been sort of cut up – used by us both in radical ways but also used by others in more conservative ways.
Adam Curtis and Robert Del Naja.
You mean in a hypnotic way?
Yes. The thing that actually brought me and Robert together is the belief that modern culture is a little bit more than the nice, enchanting entertainment it pretends to be. That it actually might be part of the power structure of our time. We decided to do a show which was not only entertaining, but reflects on how power works in the modern world.
Robert: Not only that, but in my point of view there was desire to have more of a narrative in our gigs instead of just playing songs. A lot of people do visuals but mostly it’s eye candy. I felt that I’d done a lot of work with UVA to build a political communication device into our shows, which was working to a certain extent. I really yearned to do something that had a meaning and what really fascinated me was the way Adam can make a really brilliant story but it be based on all real things, so it’s not fictional.
Massive Attack have always been a band with a political agenda, but politics in music tends to be quite abstract unless you’re literally singing slogans. I assume that it’s been very liberating that, with this project, you’re able to bring your art and your politics together in a really solid way.
Robert: And Adam does that really brilliantly; he’s got a great ear for music, he’s got a brilliant music collection. This film’s a brilliant opportunity to go somewhere else, it's more exciting on another level, there’s a lot more depth to it. My knowledge of history and politics is pretty good but working with Adam means I can actually shut up for a change and let Adam create something which is a lot more meaningful.
The singer Liz Fraser (centre) is visible during a performance of the new "gilm" Adam Curtis made with Robert Del Naja.
Another thing that dawned on me that the areas you are both used to (the BBC for Adam, the music industry for Robert) are prime examples of the bland management systems this show is railing against. So, in a way, your union itself is a gesture of rebellion.
Adam: Robert was absolutely right when he said about most things you go to now being eye candy, there’s absolutely no meaning to it. What we’re trying to get at is that, actually, there is a meaning to all that. That modern contemporary culture is not passive, and that art shows and rock shows might not really be radical and free. They might actually be the complete opposite. Actually the images that you see and the recorded sounds that are endlessly played back to you often are actually quite repressive. They’re a sort of way of keeping us trapped in the past, replaying the past.
Those in charge have a very conservative agenda at this present moment in time, so it suits them. Not that it’s a conspiracy, or even on purpose, but that’s what makes it so powerful. This modern world is enchanting, but maybe it’s an enchanting prison. A sort of sarcophagus of images of a two-dimensional world. So what we decided to do was actually pull what we do together, music and images, and build a three-dimensional world which we will take you into and reveal to you the two-dimensional cocoon half of us live in. It’s going to get a bit tough towards the end because it’s about time people began to realise there’s something beyond that unsubstantial two-dimensional cocoon. It’s very nice and it’s lovely to be in, but if that’s all there is it plays into the hands of those who want to keep us where we are.
Robert, do you feel like the music industry has become a tool for control?
Robert: It’s kind of always been like that; the industry has never really changed. Even though we have the internet and the opportunities that offers to communicate and sell things directly without having to use more conventional channels, we’re still governed. Everyone tries to break out of it, Radiohead famously did it, but on the whole everyone just ends up slipping back into the old groove. I find that quite remarkable and depressing, so this is an opportunity to do something totally different. In terms of festivals and making resources available for us to do it, it is really great because we wouldn’t be able to go out and do this.
Adam: The guiding ideology of our time is: “If you like this, then you will love that”. That basically means, “If you like yesterday we are going to give you more of yesterday so you never get a tomorrow”.
Massive Attack V Adam Curtis.
With this philosophy, you never imagine something that isn’t based on the past. I think one of the things we are trying to say in the show is, if everything is based on the past – music from the past, films from the past – and marketers are saying “Mr Miller, what you like in the past we’re going to give you more of,” you get stuck there and you can never imagine a world that hasn’t existed before. All you’ve got is endless Kurt Cobain and the laughter of the dead on old comedy shows played to us again and again. That’s what haunts us.
But you guys both use old material in your work. Adam with his archive, and Robert with your sampling.
Robert: Yeah, that’s why we’re interested in it. The whole point of the hip-hop ideology was to go into record groups and to find the rarest old groups and those old pieces of music that you can then build new music on.
Another photograph taken during Massive Attack V Adam Curtis.
Do you think your show is prescriptive; do you want people to leave feeling a certain way?
Adam: No, it’s provocative entertainment. We’re trying to do something a little bit tough, because our country is so twee. It’s all Willy Wonka and the bloody Chocolate Factory, and all that stuff is limiting, conservative. It’s almost like they keep you childish in your playpen. And we’ve decided it’s time we moved on and did a little bit of stuff that’s a little bit tougher. We’re just trying to say: Look beyond the barriers of your time. Because those barriers have been built not to please you necessarily but maybe to hold you where you are. It’s a system of power and we want to make you realise that. Willy Wonka and Wes Anderson are not going to make the world a better place.
How’s the creative process been? Has it been two egos clashing or have you got along?
Adam: Basically, it’s two inner DJs who quite like each other. I played my music and he played his music and we quite liked it. In the show we’ve managed to include bits of Messiaen, how pretentious is that? It’s mixed in with Barbara Streisand, Siberian punk, Grazhdanskaya Oborona...
Robert: We’ve had a few little discussions and a few little barneys about where we put Adam and where we put the music and how to balance it but that's good, I enjoy those times. It’s been fun.
Massive Attack V Adam Curtis
You’re obviously trying to make a point with this project, and I know you’re doing it in Germany and New York as well, but essentially it’s un-replicable. It’s huge and fucking expensive, so how does one continue and try to learn from this lesson?
Adam: Well, we could turn this into a film, and it could be like provocative musical entertainment.
Robert: Also, one would like to think that since we can take it to Germany, we could make it international. Paris, Tokyo, we could go on tour. If Adam agreed to do his voiceover live we’d all be out on the tour bus together, it would be a right laugh.
I’ll come along and make the rockumentary.
The Manchester International Festival runs until 21st July. Massive Attack V Adam Curtis runs until Saturday 13th July.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @terriblesoup