An Interview with Robert “3D” Del Naja
Words: Margo Fortuny
Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D, is an award-winning musician and artist. Del Naja is famous for cofounding the seminal band Massive Attack and for his colourful, subversive artwork. Before Massive Attack, he was a graffiti artist in the art/hip hop collective The Wild Bunch. As 3D, he created all of UNKLE’s album art. Del Naja has also contributed to soundtracks including Lost Highway, Hackers, The Matrix, Snatch, and The Simpsons. Collaborating with Neil Davidge, their score for the Hurricane Katrina documentary Trouble the Water was nominated for an Oscar. This summer, Massive Attack is staging a “collective hallucination” with filmmaker Adam Curtis as part of the Manchester International Festival. EXIT phoned up the amiable Del Naja to talk about the link between music and art, conquering doubt, and his new exhibition in London.
Who inspired you as a young artist?
When I was young I didn’t have a formal art education. Instead I would draw, paint, sketch… and from the world of music I was introduced to the world of art. A lot of the graffiti I saw at the time, including Basquiat, was influential. Then I saw Basquiat’s collaboration with Andy Warhol. I was aware of Warhol but never really studied his work. After Warhol’s retrospective I thought about the work differently. Those artists had an impact on me as a designer when it came to record sleeves and working with the idea of repetition of image.
How did punk and hip-hop shape your work?
For us, punk was a very strong, visual, anarchic, exciting, anti-establishment movement. It gave everyone an outlet to the angst and rebellion that was hormonally happening inside, and regardless of whether it had any real political meaning it gave us an opportunity to fight against what we wanted to fight against. Then hip-hop came right after that, again it was something that had its own sort of energy, which wasn’t passed down from the media, television and radio. It came from vinyl; it came from clubs, parties. It was created by the people. It had its own sense of social network without having to be informed by conventional mass media. You know, following punk, hip-hop was very exciting. It had the same cut-and-paste/ do-it-yourself in the garage, on record decks, on the microphone, and with graffiti art, as punk did in the art school garage band sense. They’re very connected. I was excited by bands like The Clash with Futura and the Sex Pistols with Jamie Reid, Malcolm McLaren and Westwood. That was fucking super visual.
How does punk and hip-hop relate to what you’re doing now?
It’s the cutting and pasting. Despite computers having the ability to manipulate everything easily, there’s still a place for cutting things up with scissors and moving them about. Using icons, imagery and words, and taking them out of context, that’s the way we make music, using samplers, cutting things up, looping things, turning small sections of songs into big songs that have never existed with a vocal like that, and it’s the same with art. In the studio we’ve got loads of computers and keyboards but having the decks and being able to loop things around is still a central part of the process.
How much does your art affect your music and vice versa?
They’re locked in together as a marriage of convenience. The art thing is good fun and it helps you get away from the music, so you don’t get stuck in a rut. Then you go back to music when you realise what your limitations are as an artist. I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be able to still work in both areas. The art is equally informed (as music) by other things that you take on board to stimulate you.
What else inspires you?
Films have always been a massive influence. Hearing and seeing great things are inspirational. Being excited by people’s work is part of the whole creative process.
I’ve always been one of those people who daydreams and likes walking and looking around at anything incidental, like a bit of rusty metal or broken glass. I find myself fascinated by patterns and the perceptions of colours.
Current affairs around the world are stimulating, not always in a positive sense, just that it moves me to take action. 38 degrees and Avid are both great websites. Though, those things aren’t artistic stimulation. That’s more about personal responsibility as a citizen in any country.
Which contemporary artists do you admire?
The Chapman Brothers: they have an anarchic and beautiful sense of humour; they have a great way of describing the past, present and future, and the mass production of art and culture, and the cynical commercialisation of everything. They’re brilliant. There’s another artist named Alastair Mackie; he’s a great British sculptor. There’s an unbelievable amount of talent in the urban art world now. Maybe it’s because graffiti art wasn’t as exposed pre-internet, people couldn’t share things so globally. Now there are so many brilliant artists out there. The scene has developed and gotten so creative and clever.
What are you listening to these days?
Today I listened to the new Primal Scream album; I really enjoyed it. Great songs, great David Holmes production. It’s got a sense of the psychedelic in a natural way. The new Knife album is good too. My favourite song ever would be Poptones by Public Image Ltd. That’s the tune of the week. Primal Scream is the album of the day.
How did your upcoming exhibition at Lazarides Gallery come about?
Steve Lazarides (the director of the gallery) has always been a big supporter of my work. Steve and Banksy both encouraged me when I was just getting into music and they’re the guys who pushed me to do more painting, and group shows, and James from UNKLE asked me to do a record sleeve. When I was concentrating on music Steve always said, “You should do a show” and I’ve always backed away and been a bit shy about it. I did a lot of work during the Heligoland period. Many of the paintings I originally created for the album I’ve painted over because I have a small studio so I tend to recycle the canvases rather than keeping them all. I decided to use the archive of work from the last 19 years or so, everything I’ve done since Massive Attack started. I went through all these boxes of images from back in the day before we even used computers, just cut and paste sleeve ideas. We started scanning and printing them out. I thought they’d be good as a series, which is what I started doing for Blue Lines, in a kind of Pop Art sensibility, taking an image and repeating it in different colours and turning it into something else.
A lot of album sleeves were made with metal and bits of materials, like grass and found objects. I find that an interesting part of the process: recycling things that have been left for dead. Combined with the paintings, the work felt more like a show, something more complete than an album, a new way of archiving old work. In my own way, it’s a low-fi, low-key retrospective.
How do you deal with self-doubt and the equivalent of writer's block?
Look, this show is spanning nineteen years…this is the first time I’ve done it. Nineteen years of self-doubt all in one show.
But you overcame it!
(Laughing) I’ve finally sorted it out: my fear of flying, my fear of spiders, and my fear of my own one-man show.
So how do you conquer the doubt?
I don’t think you can. There’s always artistic doubt. Even recently, I’ve experienced it putting together this music show for Manchester International Festival, the project that I’m doing with Adam Curtis. It’s an operatic musical journey with film. I’m really excited about that. Still, it can be difficult, scary, and there’s lots of doubt in the process of creating. You have to believe that at the end it’s interesting and exciting to people, because you know you’re going to put everything into it.
For the Lazarides exhibition, having Steve offer me his resources, the gallery and the print room to create this show has made it possible. I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. In the studio, if you work with great people you have to believe what you’re doing and how it’s going to turn out. Massive Attack has always been about collaborating with great people and when you get it right it really rubs off on each other. But there’s always doubt in everything you do, every tour, every record, every time I get back to painting…
This exhibition closes a chapter because I’ve finally managed to archive everything and put it all in a box so I can put it away. Lately I’ve been thinking about getting back to work and drawing with a pencil. When I was a kid I was a really good draftsman. I gave that up to be a graffiti artist and a designer and a musician. I feel like I didn’t really develop the skills that I should have developed. I want to get back to the drawing board.
Exit Magazine, Spring/Summer 2013
Robert Del Naja and Thom Yorke have just released their score for the film The UK Gold. You can listen to it here.
Massive Attack are currently collaborating with Run the Jewels.
You can see more of Del Naja’s art here.