Massive Attack and Adam Curtis create 'new type of gig'
A derelict railway depot in Manchester is the venue for an eerie experiment in combining live music, cinema and journalism by sonic pioneers Massive Attack and film-maker Adam Curtis.
Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja sits on a step in the Mayfield Depot, surveying the vast, rotting, forgotten industrial cavern. Rusting girders support the ceiling and graffiti pocks the flaking brick walls.
"It's a big unused space, which is crazy because it's so beautiful," says Del Naja.
"So that's a good reason to use it."
Built in 1910, Mayfield Depot was first a passenger station, then a freight terminal, but has been empty since 1986.
Massive Attack and Adam Curtis have now installed a stage, 11 giant translucent screens, lighting rigs and, Del Naja says, more bass speakers than their audio hire company has ever supplied for a single show.
Screens will surround the audience on three sides, showing Curtis' restless video collages made using clips culled from archive news footage, TV shows and home movies.
At one end, the band will fade in and out of view. Longtime collaborators Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser will join them to sing a set of cover versions, from Barbra Streisand to Siberian punk.
It is designed to be an immersive and somewhat unsettling experience.
"We've brought in loads of sub-bass," Del Naja says. "[Audio hire company] Wigwam were like, 'You don't need that much.' We said, 'We do.' We've brought in more bass than they'd ever specced at a gig.
"And we've brought in more lights. We've doubled the amount of lights this week. 'Cause when they go, they've got to go. So, you know, it should be full-on."
The show is one of the most anticipated events at this year's Manchester International Festival, which opens on Thursday.
Massive Attack, who created the seminal 1990s trip-hop albums Blue Lines and Protection, have not played live for three years. Del Naja - known in the band as 3D - says they felt the need to "do something new, to step up".
"Creating a new gig experience is a natural urge because we've done the same thing so many times," he says.
When the festival invited the band to take part, they asked to work with Curtis, who created an immersive show for the 2009 festival and made Bafta-winning documentaries including The Power of Nightmares and The Mayfair Set.
What do Massive Attack and Curtis have in common? Both say they have built their careers on chopping up and reassembling elements of sound or film.
"We started off as collage artists," Del Naja says. "Our introduction to music was through records and samplers. Cutting things up, playing music in various orders. Taking bits of the past and making new presents and new futures.
"And that's what Adam does, so there's a strong connection in that language."
In 2009, Curtis worked with theatre company Punchdrunk and musician Damon Albarn to take Manchester visitors on a staged journey through a disused office block. It Felt Like A Kiss ended with ticket-holders being chased by a man with a chainsaw.
"A lot of people did come out whimpering and crying," Curtis says. "I can promise you we're not going to do that. It's not a gig of terror."
What it is, he says, is an attempt to take the typical gig template and "push it emotionally".
"I want to push it so, with the film and theatrical elements, you begin to realise that it's transforming itself into something more complicated, which is making you think and feel a bit differently about the world you're in," he says.
"We live in this society today where we're surrounded by two-dimensional imagery and recorded sound. It's everywhere.
"It's wonderful - we can listen to or watch anything. But possibly, just possibly, that two-dimensional world of those flickering images has become a bit of a thin cocoon which is offering us a very simplified view of the world.
"We're going to try and gently suggest emotionally that there might be something else beyond."
The Manchester event will be much more than a form of entertainment, according to Curtis. He explains he is trying to forge a new type of journalism as an alternative to "boring and dry" mainstream reportage.
"I'm convinced that the future of journalism is a form of reporting that is as emotional as it is factually correct, that actually conveys to you what it's like to experience something," Curtis says.
"Good journalism should do that anyway. But increasingly it needs to be more emotionalised.
"I'm going to tell you a story which will be quite surprising about the world in the last 30 years and some of the characters that have emerged in this rather strange world that we're now living in.
"But I'm going to do it with a famous pop band who are very good at creating mood. I think you can fuse the two."
In the depot, Del Naja tries to describe how the experience might feel.
"Scene by scene, let's make it really dark and disconcerting, let's disorientate ourselves, and then let's open it back up to something we understand, a human narrative," he enthusiastically explains.
"Then at a certain point it's all about the repetition of images, and then it's bang, onto the stage, someone singing, and then you're really focusing on a voice or a person.
"And then it's back to chaos again. And that way, it feels a bit like what it's like to be alive outside our comfort zone."
Massive Attack v Adam Curtis is at Mayfield Depot in Manchester from 4-13 July.