Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
AI remixes, DNA archiving, AR concerts. It’s been 20 years since Mezzanine and Massive Attack’s experiment is still running.
On a warm July evening in 2013, an excited crowd gathered in the derelict Mayfield train depot in Manchester, surrounded on three sides of the vast Edwardian station by huge translucent screens flickering with images of Helmand, teenage Siberian gangs, bleak 70s New York, Putin, Bambi and Jane Fonda. As the images strobed then slowed, bass-shaking cover versions of Barbra Streisand songs, bubblegum pop, Nirvana and Russian punk classics rumbled through the speakers.
The show – a chopped up riff on a post 9/11 world – was a joint venture between Bristol-based band Massive Attack and Adam Curtis, the film-maker behind provocative documentary series like the Power of Nightmares and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
“It was a strange gig to play live – we were working to a timecode set by the video and because the audience were surrounded by screens they often had their backs to us,” Massive Attack’s co-founder Robert Del Naja – aka 3D – recalls. “I’m not sure we got it right until the end.”
When the gig finished, Del Naja headed for his dressing room, where he bumped into an old friend waiting backstage – Ray Cooper, who had signed Massive Attack to their first label in 1988.
Cooper had brought along a colleague, Andrew Melchior. Melchior had been one of the first in the music industry to recognise how technology could help artists. Working at EMI and Virgin in the late 90s, he set up the equivalent of an in-house startup which developed artists’ digital streaming, blogging, ringtones and artwork. In 1998 he helped David Bowie set up a fully-fledged e-commerce driven ISP, BowieNet, and a website, davidbowie.com - a precursor to virtual worlds like Second Life. Users would sign in, chose from a range of avatars and join text-based chatrooms. Bowie himself often assumed a rabbit avatar and joined in the conversations.
“He understood how music was going to become like water – available everywhere for free,” Melchior explains. “He created and sold Bowie bonds – securitised rights to future royalties based on past sales. He was cashing out for tens of millions before everyone caught on – he knew the music would be worth less over time. Davidbowie.com became Ultrastar – the first artist-owned online merchandising company creating T-shirts and posters for acts like U2, the Rolling Stones and Sting. It was like an Amazon for artists well before Radiohead and it meant when people bought Rolling Stones merchandise, Bowie also got a royalty.”
Melchior and Cooper were advising US-based augmented reality startup Magic Leap. Watching Massive Attack’s show, Melchior sensed an opportunity. “The creative energy and innovation of that show was perfectly suited to the brave new world of mixed reality spectacle,” Melchior explains.
The three men chatted for hours. For Massive Attack’s recent tours, Del Naja had been trying to include locally sampled headlines, images and stories in the band’s newsfeed style light show, flashing text across screens dotted around the stage. He wondered how he could adapt the onscreen narrative each night based on audience reaction.
Melchior and Del Naja also found out they shared an obsession with The Sims computer game. Melchior knew its creator, the legendary game designer Will Wright. He suggested Del Naja take a trip to California, first to see how Magic Leap was using music in its AR headset, and then to talk to Wright.
In September 2013, they met him at the HQ of his startup, Stupid Fun Club. For the past few years Wright had been working on social media app Thread, which combined Instagram, Spotify and Draw Something – allowing users to use sound, music, images and text in their posts – and on ways to tag and share music to generate the audio in games, creating musical mind maps for computers to compose on the fly.
“They were taking the AI tools of the utopian tech companies and using them to make art,” Del Naja explains. “He had these mind maps on the wall – some were diagrams of the human brain labelled with the brain parts we use to tag smells or process emotion and retrieve things. Some were metabrains – maps of the way people connected. He was using them to see how content and understanding worked in the human brain – we access data, click on anything we have then rearrange it and change it into another idea.
“For me, everything was in a box before that – your phone and your internet had their limits set. I could see everything spread out in front of me and saw there wasn’t anything we couldn’t organise then reorganise then rediscover and redistribute.
“Anyone in the creative industry who didn’t do that would lose control to labels and tech giants who were stitching things up.”
Massive Attack’s music has always relied on collaborators – while tracks were built entirely from samples, the musicians always inspired different things for the band. Tracey Thorn’s haunting vocals added a mournful longing to “Protection”; Shara Nelson’s deep warm range made “Unfinished Sympathy” feel like an old soul tune over the top of grinding samples.
“Each time you find the muse you see things in a new way,” Del Naja explains. “If you don’t keep changing that muse you end up doing things again and again – building comfortable routines where there’s no tension and everyone knows how to behave. When you get to that point of comfort there’s not a lot more to explore.”
Now, as Wright demoed his software, Del Naja found himself becoming fascinated by the AI’s relentless attempts to generate or perfect images, responses or behaviours – trying, failing and repeating without any flashes of temper or sullen degrading of performance.
“I thought the tension between competing AIs or the tension between human and AI could be equally creative,” he says. “To work in a world where movie trailers are created by AI we needed to be creating the algorithms ourselves - employing technology rather than have it make us unemployed.” The question was – could AI help him create something entirely new? Could AI become his collaborator and muse?
Pindar Van Amen / Robert Del Naja / Antony Micallef
Massive Attack’s studio stretches across two floors of a building on an industrial unit estate near Bristol Temple Meads station. The ground floor has music studios and a virtual reality studio equipped with motion capture cameras. The upper floor has an assembly line robotic arms alongside old Wurlitzer organs.
Del Naja is slim, unshaven, with a loose mass of hair that looks like he’s growing out a crop. Languid and mellow, he smiles a lot, especially when talking about robots and AI. He says it feels like a natural extension to the way he’s been creating art ever since he was a teenage graffiti artist working with spray cans and chopped up stencils on the streets of Bristol back in the 80s.
Del Naja was born in St Andrews, a Victorian suburb nestling next to Bristol’s cultural melting pot district St Pauls. The riots of the early 80s meant that there was still a measure of tension between the police and the community. Del Naja wasn’t a troublemaker, but he wasn’t hugely academic, either. “I enjoyed art more than anything,” he remembers. “I was obsessed with comics, so I used to draw images of Spider-Man, superheroes and villains all over my exercise books.”
In the 80s he fell in love with the burgeoning street art/graffiti scene in New York. One night in 1983 – after leaving school with one art A-level – he went out with a stencil of a breakdancer and started painting walls himself. Nothing he put up survived 24 hours. “That made me think of art as ephemeral. When you’ve done something, you move on and then it’s gone,” Del Naja muses.
He started hanging round in the Dug Out, a tiny basement bar playing an eclectic mix of dub reggae, punk, soul, jazz and early hip hop, providing a magnet for the late-night party crowd. There he got to know the Wild Bunch, key players in Bristol’s lively sound system scene, where unlicensed parties were held in borrowed spaces. This renegade approach meant the systems had to be infinitely adaptable – with every member able to fulfil the roles of selecter (who picked the right records to keep everyone dancing), mixer (who put the records on and mixed the sound live), DJ (who fulfilled the role of MC, rapping or singing new lyrics over instrumentals) and box man (in charge of setting up and maintaining the huge speakers and bass bins).
The Wild Bunch recruited Del Naja to spread the outfit’s name using his graffiti skills, as well as decorating venues, selling beer out of the boot of a car, crewing the speaker stack and performing as an MC, often all on the same night.
“Everyone wanted volume turned up to the top,” Del Naja gives a quiet smile. “You had to be the loudest. Carnival day outside Grant’s house on Campbell Street, there would be a whole bunch of sound systems at the end of each road, so you had to make sure yours was the loudest. You had to push the technology to its limit.”
In 1986 the Wild Bunch signed to a major label, releasing a few singles and an album before leading light and producer Nellee Hooper left to join rival London sound system Soul II Soul (eventually producing and remixing for artists including Madonna and Björk), and Miles Johnson – DJ Milo - moved to New York. Besides Del Naja, the two remaining members were Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, a hip-hop fanatic with mixed Dominican-British ancestry, and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, whose love of music began with the reggae parties his parents used to throw when he was a kid. They recruited local rapper Adrian “Tricky” Thaws and founded Massive Attack.
Robert Del Naja in his studio, wearing his paint spray respirator
Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
When recording with the Wild Bunch they’d been inspired by their encounters in the studio with cheap, easy-to-understand samplers like the Akai S9000, which was mounted in an effects rack in studios, and the Akai MPC60, a compact and intuitive device that could sample and playback using a series of buttons arranged in a telephone-style keypad. The MPC60 allowed kids from Bristol to create tracks on a single machine without knowing how to play an instrument.
“Sampling made absolute sense to us,” Del Naja explains. “It was collage, segments joined together. You could tap out beats on the MPC, then design crazy pitch and duration. You’d use and abuse that technology, but what makes the album interesting is that the music written on top of those samples had merit as really nice songs.”
The band recorded their debut album in 1991 using just the Akai S9000 and the MPC60. Called Blue Lines, its fusion of electronica, dub reggae, soul and hip hop spawned a new genre – trip hop. The band pulled together a collective of guest singers including Shara Nelson, reggae legend Horace Andy, French funk performer Wally Badarou and pop star Neneh Cherry. The album’s lush, melancholy single “Unfinished Sympathy” was described in 2012 by The Guardian as “the greatest British soul record ever made”.
The group used the same technology for its 1994 follow-up, Protection, although the sprawling mass of collaborators was in constant flux. Nelson left, to be replaced by Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn, Nellee Hooper returned to produce and Scottish classical pianist Craig Armstrong played keyboards.
For 1998’s Mezzanine, things became complicated. Del Naja – who hated critics calling Protection “dinner party music” – wanted a harder sound and started using live guitars and drums, sampling post-punk and new wave tracks. Hip-hop loving Vowles was pushing in the opposite direction – bringing in clattering drums and deep bass loops. At one point, Vowles thought of offering “Teardrop”, the strongest single on the album, to Madonna, while Del Naja pushed for Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. The tensions sometimes spilled out in public. During one press interview, Vowles and Del Naja had a stand-up row about the merits of Puff Daddy in front of a stunned journalist.
From then on, the two were never in the studio at the same time, avoiding each other entirely with Del Naja spending hours alone with producer Neil Davidge. Davidge would find himself working on four different tracks in a single day, swapping between samples from Isaac Hayes, The Cure and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – a process he describes as “messy”.
This adversarial environment proved astonishingly fruitful musically – Mezzanine sold four million copies and remains the band’s most successful album – but it was disastrous for the band. Shortly after its release the group split. Del Naja and Davidge produced a fourth, less successful album called 100th Window in 2003, the year coalition forces invaded Iraq – a war Del Naja to which was passionately opposed.
As Massive Attack were preparing to tour, he started collaborating on visuals with United Visual Artists, a London-based collective comprising artist Matt Clark, director Chris Bird and developer Ash Nehru. Nehru developed software that could sample data and headlines lifted from local and international media then play them in the local language across a giant video screen – from the Iraq war, through socio-political crises and on to trashy headlines from celebrity gossip magazines. The visuals impressed Alex Poots, head of the Manchester International Festival, who invited the band to create a show. Del Naja, of course, asked for a collaborator and chose Adam Curtis.
“The contradictions and manipulation of information leading up to the war was the first moment in my life I felt convinced that power and news sources had to be questioned,” he recalls. “I wanted our stage show to harvest information from the web, chop it up and translate it into local language mixing political and tabloid news from international and local sources.” His problem was that he had always drawn energy from creative tension and, at that point he had no musical collaborators.
Del Naja and ABB IRB1200, a robot arm. It has used convolutional neural networks to draw its own interpretation of the Blue Lines album art
Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
Shortly after their trip to Silicon Valley in 2013, Del Naja appointed Andrew Melchior as the band’s chief technical officer. His job would be to discover, and introduce Del Naja to, new forms of technology, in the process turning Massive Attack into the first band to collaborate with AI.
Del Naja wanted to create and play music that changed as the listener moved through space – the way he’d heard it while moving through Magic Leap’s augmented rooms, and the sharing and machine remixing he’d seen in Will Wright’s work. “If artists didn’t take control of this future of music, we’d be powerless again,” says Del Naja.
Wright introduced Melchior and Del Naja to producer and composer Robert Thomas, chief creative officer at music app company RjDj. Thomas had just created an iOS app for the movie Inception, which mimicked the film’s surreal dream worlds. Thomas had adapted the widely used open source software Pure Data – which can take any kind of input and use it to control any kind of output, generating 3D graphics and video from music or even controlling external hardware like stage lighting or robotics. In the Inception app, Pure Data took inputs from the iPhone’s mic, camera and global position and used them to modify the movie’s soundtrack.
With Thomas, Massive Attack launched its first platform in 2016. Christened Fantom, it uses Pure Data live mix patches – algorithms that sample changes in time of day, speed of movement, social media notifications, how the phone is carried and GPS position, and use them to effectively remix the track in real time. The platform came with an EP of new material called Ritual Spirit.
“Instead of going to the Mad Professor to make a dub version we could put this app in someone’s pocket and create mixes using the sensors on the phone,” Del Naja explains. “I’ve had years of procrastination, never being able to decide on the finished product. Suddenly that was no longer a problem. Ironically by using tightly programmed algorithms we were breaking patterns, creating the most flexible, constantly changing music.”
The problem the band faced was copyright. Massive Attack relied heavily on samples, which meant ensuring hundreds of publishers, labels and artists got a credit and a share of royalties for songs their tunes were sampled to. The band secured a special agreement from all of them to allow Ritual Spirit to be released for free, thus earning them no money. But for Fantom to work, Del Naja realised he needed to ensure the original artists were recognised.
“YouTube’s protection software doesn’t recognise the source of a piece of music if it’s changed – heavily distorted or played backways,” Melchior explains. “The risk with Fantom was tracks stitched together from different bits of music needed to provide proper rights attribution.”
Melchior approached London-based startup Blokur to guarantee that Massive Attack’s sample-heavy music could be remixed and distorted beyond recognition by algorithms in Fantom, but ensure the original copyright holders could get paid.
Spray and play: the can containing the "DNA" of album Mezzanine
Blokur had been founded in 2017 by music industry veterans Andrés Martin-Lopez and Phil Barry, who lead the team that released Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s 2014 solo album on BitTorrent. The app used technology that samples audio signatures by identifying the unique blend of pitch, tone, volume, tune, voice, instruments and all the other elements that make up a song’s fingerprint. It then leaves a copy of the fingerprint, along with the names of the rights holders from the performer to the songwriter, the publishing company and the record label, on the Ethereum blockchain. The blockchain is like a vast irrevocable ledger, a record of ownership that can’t be altered. Algorithms can use this fingerprint to automatically reconcile rights. If there’s any dispute, the fingerprint is there – proof of who should get paid.
“We’ve been working with music companies and musicians to ensure rights information is as accurate as possible, but Massive Attack wanted something slightly different,” explains Barry. “The point about Fantom is that it remixes songs largely based on samples. Before the rights holders of the sample allowed the band to use their material on an app that remixes, distorts and even adds elements, they needed to be sure each time their sample was played they’d get paid.”
Blokur devised a system that assigns a signature to a track’s stems – the individual channels such as vocal or bassline – tagging every sample and recording it on the blockchain. This stem signature means that no matter what effects have been applied – no matter how distorted, or mashed up it becomes as the AI remixes it – the stem can be identified.
With this resolved, the band hoped to store the song stems in the cloud – to be played by the Fantom app in real time. Melchior recruited Mick Grierson, a computer scientist at Goldsmiths College in London. Grierson specialises in neural networks, which attempt to mimic the human brain. Neural networks solve problems in a similar way to the human brain. They process inputs (“that’s a lion”); examine them against patterns we already know (“lions are creatures that kill”); and generate outputs (“run away”). Like human beings, they can recognise patterns – but only from the data sets they are trained on.
Intrigued by the remixing possibilities of neural nets, Grierson’s team developed one in Massive Attack’s Bristol studio to build a generative synthesiser: a neural network with AIs that have only been trained on Mezzanine. The networks can take any input and process it as some version of some part of the album. This synthesiser allows anyone to modify any part of the album but can also be left on its own to remix and adapt the songs in real time.
“The most interesting parts were the mistakes the AI made,” Del Naja explains. “You don’t want a perfect version of the original audio to come out the other end. You want it to combine the bass and the harpsichord somehow, or the drums and the vocal, to become one new sound, and that’s all about the mistakes.”
Del Naja's studio setup, includes (l-r) a Moog System 55, a DAW/Ableton Live (plus cup of tea), and a Neve Genesys
Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
In 2018, Mezzanine was 20 years old. Now the band – Daddy G, Del Naja and various collaborators – are heading out on an anniversary tour with some of the original singers, including Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and stalwart Horace Andy. “It’s mainly because we messed up the anniversary of Blue Lines,” Del Naja explains. “We didn’t engage, refused to get behind promoting, didn’t do any live dates. That was 2011 and the world was very different then. We’d lost all control of our back catalogue in deals by labels with streaming services – we’d all been sold off. So what do we do now? How do we keep control?”
He decided to take a different approach to Mezzanine – he would repurpose the band’s own material, altering the catalogue as he went. He also started to think of new ways of sampling and recording – including the use of synthetic DNA. “Repurpose your own material into DNA and putting that into a spray paint can – that’s making it into something new then distributing in a whole new way,” Del Naja explains. “If you store something on a different medium you change it. You’re resampling on a molecular level, and repurposing into something different.”
Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
To achieve this, Melchior contacted Swiss scientist Robert Grass, professor at Zurich’s Functional Materials Laboratory, who had been working on a technique for coding books and music using strands of DNA. Grass took the four building blocks of DNA - adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine – and converted binary digital signals into a quaternary code, using adenine as 00, cytosine as 01, guanine as 10 and thymine as 11 and coding the whole album into strands of DNA.
Towards the end of 2018, the band used this process to synthesise and store thousands of copies of Mezzanine, encoding them in tiny silicon beads, which were then inserted into a limited-edition spray paint can. The beads are strong enough to survive for thousands of years, meaning graffiti artists could create street art with paint that contains millions of DNA versions of Mezzanine. Currently, it would take a portable real-time genetic sequencer roughly a week to play the album.
“One could imagine that you could use a sequencer to read the information in real-time and generate a code that automatically reverts to music,” says Grass. “That would also mean we didn’t need to use huge server farms to store and share music. We could use much less energy to store information.”
Melchior expects a future synthetic DNA culture bank along the lines of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. “The advantage with DNA is that our civilisation could crash into dust and rebuild itself using entirely different technology, meaning they couldn’t access our computers or disks,” Melchior explains. “Since every human has DNA, any future civilisation will probably try to work out how to sequence DNA. If they can sequence DNA, they can listen to Mezzanine. The first thing a future civilisation would learn about us might be Massive Attack.”