Craig Armstrong

Revered Scottish composer Craig Armstrong recalls the excitement of working with Massive Attack on their influential second album, ‘Protection’, and releasing his own work on their Melankolic label

Photo: Renzo Mazzolini

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Craig Armstrong is sitting in his studio in Glasgow, surrounded by vintage synths, a double bass and a grand piano, wearing a thick coat as his boiler has broken down. He is reflecting on his time working as a pianist and arranger with Massive Attack on their 1994 album, ‘Protection’.

“It did have that slight collective mentality,” he remembers. “It’s a wee bit like the way U2 worked around that time – while you were in their gang, they gave you a lot of space to do what you did best.”

Armstrong had been playing piano since his early childhood, having been taught by his blind aunt who’d studied at the Royal Academy Of Music. He himself went on to study there between 1977 and 1981, and one of his teachers was avant-garde luminary Cornelius Cardew.

“This was the period at the Academy where, if you wrote a tune, you were sent home,” laughs Armstrong.

He spent a lot of his time at the Royal Academy’s electronics studio, and graduated with interests in experimental composition and jazz. After playing in a few bands and touring with Midge Ure, Armstrong began writing music for the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. While there, he met the actor and director Peter Mullan who commissioned him to write his first feature-length film soundtrack for ‘Orphans’. That in turn led Armstrong to sign with Interscope Records for his debut solo album (which was never released). Interscope suggested the up-and-coming Nellee Hooper as producer.

“I met Nellee in Los Angeles,” recalls Armstrong. “I was hiring arrangers to do all the orchestral stuff on my album, but I ran out of money to do the last two songs, so I said to Nellee, ‘Look, don’t worry – I can just do it myself’. He looked at me like I was crazy until I told him I’d studied arranging. I did the last two, and we recorded them at Abbey Road.”

Impressed by his skills with an orchestra, Hooper struck up a creative partnership with Armstrong and programmer/engineer Marius De Vries, and they went on to work together on tracks like Tina Turner’s theme to ‘GoldenEye’, Madonna’s ‘Take A Bow’ and U2’s ‘Miss Sarajevo’. With Hooper and De Vries installed as producers of ‘Protection’ alongside Massive Attack’s core trio of Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, it was inevitable that Armstrong would be asked to join the collective (which still included Adrian “Tricky” Thaws at this point) for the sessions.

“I was a big Massive Attack fan,” he says. “I really loved the ‘Blue Lines’ album, and I’d met them a few times. I used to go down to Bristol to work with Nellee a bit – Massive Attack had a club there. You’d meet a lot of really fascinating people. I’d be working during the day with Nellee and then later, at his house, amazing people like Björk, Goldie and Tricky would turn up and hang out. It was great fun.”

Hooper invited Armstrong to Olympic Studios in London to work on a track called ‘Weather Storm’, which became the first of three collaborations he would complete for ‘Protection’.

“I remember the day we did ‘Weather Storm’ really, really well,” says Armstrong. “Massive Attack had taken over the whole of Olympic. The idea of that these days is a fantasy. I went into the biggest of the Olympic rooms and I remember Robert, Grant and Andrew sitting there surrounded by hundreds of records, and they were literally going through them all to find samples. Then we went down to the small studio, and there was a grand piano there. I did three improvisations on it, and Nellee liked one of them – that was ‘Weather Storm’.”

Armstrong also contributed piano to another track, ‘Heat Miser’, before Hooper spotted an opportunity to use the arranging skills that had so often embellished their work together.

“They asked me to do the string arrangements for ‘Sly’,” says Armstrong. “I think the string section consisted of 40 musicians for that track. A lot of people might look back on it and go, ‘That’s ridiculous to hire an entire studio for months, getting that many musicians in’. It was definitely expensive, but cutting corners really affects the quality. ‘Protection’ sounds a lot better because of that.”

Armstrong found recording with Massive Attack a very positive experience too.

“It was a very democratic band,” he recalls. “They worked with older people, younger people and all nationalities. In that period, when you were in the group it felt like you were doing something really special.

Nothing sounded like this. It was an amazing group of people, and it was good fun. I had been in a lot of bands before and they were all a bit serious and angsty, but Nellee brought this humour and a real lightness of spirit to everything. Art is best when there’s an element of play in it.”

Armstrong stayed in the Massive Attack gang after ‘Protection’ but didn’t record with them again. Instead, he was offered the chance to make an album for their Melankolic label.

“It was just stuff that they loved, really,” he says. “They signed people whose records they thought they’d like.”

Following his work with Hooper and De Vries on Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’, Armstrong’s debut for Melankolic, ‘The Space Between Us’, arrived in 1997, with reworked versions of ‘Weather Storm’ and ‘Sly’ (‘Sly II’) from ‘Protection’.

A second album for the label, ‘As If To Nothing’, was released in 2002. Very much in the spirit of his time with Massive Attack, ‘As If To Nothing’ was like a collective, featuring the diverse talents of Bono, The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, Mogwai and Photek, among others.

“I could put a little bit of everything into those albums,” he reflects. “They were honest representations of myself, without really being concerned about all these influences.”

Armstrong is now best-known as the Grammy-winning composer for ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and ‘Ray’, and his music has soundtracked everything from ‘Love Actually’ to ‘The Incredible Hulk’. But despite his enduring success, he still has the fondest memories of his time working with Massive Attack.

“The best thing about it was that the guys in the band – Robert, Grant and Andrew – were really nice,” he says. “Sometimes you can work with a brilliant artist who is an absolute pain in the ass, but you’ve got to think, ‘OK, they’re still great, so it doesn’t really matter’. Massive Attack were fantastic people as well, and that makes such a difference.”

A deluxe reissue of ‘As If To Nothing’ is released by Hydrogen Dukebox

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