Neil Davidge on producing Massive Attack’s Teardrop: “It was that final nail in the coffin”

English record producer, songwriter, film score composer, musician, and occasional backing vocalist, Neil Davidge has worked with David Bowie, Snoop Dogg, Unkle, Damon Albarn, Elizabeth Fraser, Mos Def, has composed the soundtrack to the video game Halo 4, but he is perhaps best known as the long-term co-writer and producer for the music production outfit, Massive Attack. He reflects on how he helped shape their sound over the years and the in-fighting that went on behind the scenes of their most commercially successful album, Mezzanine, including almost having Madonna featured as the vocalist on the iconic track, Teardrop.

You first worked with Massive Attack in the ‘90s, and notably you produced and co-wrote their seminal albums Mezzanine, 100th Window and Heligoland, helping to sculpt and define their critically acclaimed cinematic sound. Tell us about first meeting them...

It was already kicking off for them when we met. After they released Protection, their second album, they were working with a couple of guys in Bristol called The Insects. They do a lot of scoring as well, and they were working on a track for the Batman Forever album with Massive Attack, with Tracey Thorn singing on it, and they just didn't have the time to finish [the Massive Attack] project off.

I got the phone call from their manager saying, ‘would I be up for helping out and finishing off the track – essentially co producing?’ I jumped at the chance! That was when 3D [Robert Del Naja] and I really bonded, which probably informed the decision for me to then go on and work with him on Mezzanine. We shared a lot of musical histories, we've been to many of the same gigs together, and we had a love for the same music.

That really suited his ambitions for Mezzanine, to follow a different path to the previous albums. He wanted to pull in more of that post punk influence that greatly informed his young life, mixed with hip hop and other influences. I think he saw me as an opportunity to fully grasp that side of his love of music.

Part of my job was to protect the band and to be as authentic as we possibly could. Neil Davidge

Where did it go from there?

Initially they called me their programmer, and then they called me their engineer. I was introduced to people by their manager almost all of the time as, ‘This is Neil, Massive Attack's engineer’. This is funny because it's actually really so far from the truth – I am not an engineer, I really just make it up as I go along! I find out the information that I need, when I need it. 

I've learned a lot of things over the years through trial and error and necessity, but I wouldn't call myself an engineer, I always prefer to get someone else to do that so that I can just focus on the music, the performance and on the emotion.

How did their signature sound evolve, and how were you a part of shaping that?

The guys are very talented, but they're not traditional musicians. I think Mushroom [Andrew Lee Isaac Vowles] could play a little bit, but neither 3D or Grant [Daddy G] can play an instrument. So they're quite an unconventional band, and I don't even know if the term ‘band’ really suits them. Massive Attack goes beyond just the music, there's something else going on, which I don't really know how to describe.

I was pretty much the sole musical person in the setup. I got to do everything from programming, to engineering, and recording, playing, producing, writing, and even at times, some aspects of managing the band. So from the point of view that, there wasn't one thing that happened in the studio that I wasn't present for, so it meant that I had a pretty big influence on things.

Often the guys would come in and do their thing, listen to what I'd been working on and tell me what they thought, and we'd sit and work on things together. Then I would be left to make that stuff come together to fully realise those ideas, and often that would happen when I was actually working on my own.

The very fact that I was there so much meant that I had a big influence on what was going on, and I'm very passionate about what I do. Once I've got an idea, I really do follow it to the ends of the earth to capture it. And that doesn't necessarily mean that that I'm not listening to what everyone else is looking for; I think I am very good at finding the collective idea of what a piece of music should be, internalising that, and then following that path. 

So it's not just, ‘This is the way I want it to be, and bugger the band’, it would always be in conversation with everyone. Over the years, we would come up with a collective idea of what we were trying to achieve, and then I would be the person to track that down and make it happen.

A lot went into making that album... there was a lot of in-fighting. Neil Davidge

Working in close collaboration with Del Naja, you shaped the sound of the group’s third album, Mezzanine, including the single Teardrop, (which charted at number 10 in the UK, becoming the group's highest-charting single and only top-10 hit in the their native country). It also went on to become the theme song for medical drama House. What are your memories of working on this song, and did you sense its potential for future use in distressing scenes in films and television?

[On TV] it’s normally used for something like someone taking’s never for particularly pleasant things! I don't really think about the music I'm making in those terms. Probably a lot of musicians would would say the same, that it's important not to think about it in those terms. Just think about what it means to you, and really focus on that.

My opinion is, if it moves me (and that's not necessarily it moves me because it's beautifully sad or because it's aggressive and energetic); if it moves me then then there's a chance it will move other people. Over the years I've managed to have faith that it will move other people, and I think that's been played out by how successful certain things like, like Teardrop.

What’s in favour in popular music changes fast; have you ever succumbed to external pressure as to how the group’s music should sound?

We have had record companies or or managers having conversations with radio, and this literally happened: the manager said, ‘I've been talking to Radio One, and they would really love to support Massive Attack, but they're asking, ‘Could we make the music a bit faster?’” And I was like, ‘Oh no, we can't. This is the music we're making’. 

Part of my job as a producer was to protect the band from all that bullshit, and for us to be as authentic as we possibly could. If that means making slow music that no one wants to buy, then so be it. Imagine taking Teardrop to 10 beats per minute – it just wouldn't work!

It's more important to be authentic than it is to try and fit all these round pegs into square holes – it just doesn't work. I think an audience is perceptive enough to know when it's not honest, and I think that's one of the reasons why that album in particular was so successful – it was really honest.

There was an unconventional workflow for this album, with differences in opinions from the group’s members causing friction. How did that affect the recording process?

There was a lot that went into making that album... it took several years; there was a lot of band in-fighting, and a lot of working very, very long hours trying to pull that together and to make it happen. There was also a lot of protecting people's integrity.

With Liz, [Teardrop vocalist Elizabeth Fraser] I used to set her up to sing, and she's very nervous of performing in front of other people, which might seem ridiculous because of how successful she's been as a vocalist and how accomplished she is as a singer, but that's the simple truth – she’s really nervous of singing in front of other people. 

I used to set her up so that she could be in the room on her own and work around her ideas, and then she would call me when she was ready to commit something. It's a part of the job of producing that I don't really compromise on: I allow people their space to be as much themselves as they possibly can be.

Fraser sang Teardrop’s vocal, however without the other group member’s knowing, Vowles (Mushroom) sent the demo to Madonna, wanting her to do it. How did this play out, and ultimately end with him being overruled?

Mezzanine was the beginning of the end to some degree; Mushroom eventually left the band before we started 100th Window. I don't know why, but he just wasn't into Lizzie's vocal. He wasn't into the song. I don't know how he made the contact, but he had spoken to Madonna's manager about the track and actually sent it over to her. She'd got back in contact saying, ‘I love this; this is fantastic. Is this for real?’ 

So her manager called Massive Attack's manager, and I was working on a Sunday when I got the call from Mark (the manager) saying, ‘I've spoken to Madonna's manager, and he's got this track called Teardrop, and he wants to know whether it's for real’. This was the first I or any of the other members of the band had heard about it.

When I heard that, my first thought was, ‘Okay, so if Mushroom’s going to give that particular version to Madonna, I'm going to pull together a different version of the track’ – which is what I did. So literally that Sunday, I'm like, ‘Okay, so if we don't have the elements that Mushroom brought to the track, what are we left with?’ 

We had the harpsichord part that I'd written, and Liz's vocals. I said, ‘Let's just just get rid of everything else, pretty much’. We did the piano stuff, pulled in some different beats and basically put together a whole new version of the track that day, which is the basis of what we finally released. There was a fair amount more work that we did on it, but that was the foundation of the album version that we hear today.

So it was pretty controversial and caused a lot of arguments within the band. And it was already a bit fractious there. I love all the guys, but they have personality traits where they can very easily piss each other off and piss other people off. I’ve certainly had more than a few times when I've felt pissed off with one or more of them!

And they're quite unconventional. It led to a situation where I would be in the studio and Mushroom would come in for a couple of hours, and then I'd get a call from the manager saying, ‘3D wants to come into the studio, can you let Mushroom know so that he can leave?’ It was probably like that for the last year of working on the project, where I would only ever have one member of the band in the studio at a time.

I think to some degree, that was what was happening before anyway, because they all have very different styles: Mushroom used to turn up early in the day, around lunchtime, and 3D always felt creative in the evening and at night, so he would always turn up later. 

So to some degree that was already going on because of their different styles. But [Teardrop] really was that final nail in the coffin. Not long after we finished Mezzanine. I think there was a tour that was booked, and Mushroom went out on that, but by the time that tour finished, I think he'd left the band.

Mushroom wasn't into Lizzie's [Teardrop] vocal... he actually sent it to Madonna's manager. Neil Davidge

When you listen back to Mezzanine, can you hear how this affected the music?

Actually, I do hear it within the album. Every so often I get to hear a track from the album, and it's probably because of all of that stuff that happened, I can I sense it within the music. But I think it was a good thing. I think it actually helped give the album some energy and some momentum – because of all of the arguments that were happening at the time. I definitely used that as energy as fuel for getting things done.

All of that stuff does inform the music that you're making – it's life, you know? If you have an argument with your partner in the morning, you go into the studio, some of that energy is going to go into the music you make. 

It's part of what makes music really connect with other people – the fact that it's inspired by life. We're creating music that connects to those emotions that we feel in life. That's the real magic of it.

When it comes to the studio, you’re a Genelec fan. You’ve got three systems and have had your trusty pair of 1030As since your days of working with Massive Attack from the late ‘90s onwards, which are now in your home studio. Why have you stuck with them all this time?

There's just something about them that feels like they're part of the family. I know it's the sound as well that's important, but I think that they're not particularly hyped, which is really nice. They're not particularly bassy speakers, but I know I can hear what I need to hear on them. 

The low end is clear and the top end isn't too bright and fuzzy, but it's there and it's clear. I always know where I am with them whenever I play something through those speakers.

Especially with the 1030s, they feel like real life, in a bizarre way. They feel like that's the music without any sort of hyping, which is really nice to know. They're not tiring speakers as well – I can listen to them for hours and hours and days and days, and months and months. 

And especially when we actually finally mix something, I can get a lot of pleasure out of listening to the music. But they're also great at telling me what's wrong with a piece as well.

My speakers are fundamental to the process; I’ve spent my life listening to music through those speakers, whether it's just music for pleasure or for work, so they really are my touchstone monitors, and as far as making music to really know where I'm at with whatever I'm working on.

Listen to the interview in full at the link below: