Portishead's Geoff Barrow
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If there’s anything that’s been said enough times about Portishead, it’s that the band works on its own timeframe: The English trip-hop trio took 11 years to finish off Third, then waited another three years before launching its first proper American tour to support the album. The record-buying public’s been remarkably patient with the band, but why shouldn’t it be? Forming in 1991 in Bristol, England, when producer Geoff Barrow teamed with guitarist Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons, Portishead blended mysterious, late-night ambiance, hip-hop beats, and custom-made instrumental samples. The sound would help launch the trip-hop renaissance alongside other Bristol-based acts Massive Attack and Tricky.
Since breaking into the mainstream in 1994 with “Sour Times” from Dummy, Portishead became the face of the burgeoning Bristol scene. Its follow-up, 1997’s Portishead, ditched some of the pop accessibility of its predecessor, which also ditched some of the band’s more mainstream fans. Falling off the radar in a six-year hiatus shortly after releasing Portishead, the trio finally emerged from enjoying day-to-day family life to record a follow-up and to go on tour. Before the band plays 1stBank Center Thursday, Oct. 27, Barrow spoke with The A.V. Club about working, waiting, and enjoying life outside the spotlight.
The A.V. Club: Is it surreal to jump between long stretches of relatively normal life to major tours?
Geoff Barrow: It’s fucking massively weird. You’re at home with your kids—I’ve got a studio in Bristol and mates and stuff—and then you’ve got a load of lights on you and you’re playing up to 40,000 people. Unless you’re really into the whole colored lights, the fame game, and all that pulling shapes and all that stuff, it’s really going to be fucking weird, you know what I mean? It feels really strange.
AVC: Throughout your career, Portishead seems to have shied away from the fame game.
GB: It’s never been important to us. A lot of bands say, “Oh, we’re just into the music,” but, to be honest, we wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t a personal challenge to ourselves, to try and write the best songs. Ade [Utley] is a seasoned traveler when it comes to music. He’s played gigs when there was no one there, and I think that he’s basically a guy who’s in the middle stage of his life, and is just massively into the world of music. I think that’s what drives him. For me, it’s a challenge. I’m pretty shit at everything else. It’s the one thing I’m actually good at, so I’m going to keep on doing it as long as I can.
AVC: Does it keep being a challenge because you approach it as such and avoid falling into repetition?
GB: No, it’s a challenge because you’re only as good as your last piece of work. I’ve always craved respect from my peers for some bizarre reason. So that, what I keep on trying to do, get people to like or rate or whatever, or make music that’s an achievement. Like I said, I’m not particularly good at other stuff. It’s a challenge. Third was a challenge; basically, can we do it? Can we be not relevant—I know that sounds wrong—but can we do it for ourselves? Can we look each other in the eye as three people and say, “Actually, this is fucking all right.”
AVC: It’s pretty easy for established acts to fall into a routine and coast out the last half of their careers. How has Portishead avoided that?
GB: There’s no formula. If you see us work in the daytime, you’ll see Beth totally shit herself about playing live to an audience. That could be two people or 2,000 people. Or, you see Ade trying to struggle, trying to get his sounds, like, or me, front of house doing live drum sounds, just feeling like we’re going to sound shit. That’s basically every show. The idea of putting your foot on the monitor and getting someone to pour you a Jack Daniels and Coke is not really us.
AVC: Do you feel like there’s a lot more pressure on you to perform because you don’t tour very often?
GB: No, I feel we’re fairly confident, even though we’re shitting ourselves most gigs, that we can actually avoid a, um, something interesting, because we know how hard we worked on the music, and we’re very lucky with our audience. A lot of younger bands are just posh pricks doing it for a hobby. They’re going to get a proper job at daddy’s job at some point, or daddy’s church.
Live [music], I think it’s the last pure channel to people. I used to believe you could make a record and put it on a vinyl thing and people would go, “Fuck me, listen to that high hat! That’s fucking weird!” Now, music’s so full of fucking bullshit, corporate sponsorships and everything else, YouTube hit counts, that playing live is the purest form of getting your message across, even though I don’t like it because I’m a studio bod. Just based on the last couple of shows we’ve done, there’s a bloke there digging our music, and there’s no fucking plug or nothing in the way. There’s no age issues. He’s either digging it or he ain’t.
AVC: At the same time, the music industry is so entrenched with technology and promotion. Can a band really escape that?
GB: It doesn’t really mean shit, does it? You get some stupid fucking bloke from wherever the fuck he is that does something and it gets how many hits. I don’t know. I don’t know where music’s on the agenda of people’s mind now. I’m sure there’s a few. I’m not going to hearken back to the old days, because they were just as shit. At the same time, there’s something about when you’d hear a track on the radio and you’d find the name of the band, you’d have to go into your local record shop with the name of the band scribbled down. You usually spelled it wrong, and the man behind the counter was a right indie cunt as well and go, “No, I’ve never heard of that band.” Because you spelled it wrong. Then he would go, “You mean Can,” or “You mean Nirvana,” or whatever it is. Then he’d go, “This is their first album; it’s their best album. And this is the second album, and it’s really commercial as shit. You shouldn’t buy it.” Or it’s on a label out of Sweden, and you had this one track you heard once, or you might have been lucky enough to have on cassette, so you wait a fortnight for this cassette or vinyl to turn up, and you’d put it on. There’d be this huge expectancy of analyzation of whether you wasted two months of your life. Now you just get that one name, and you type it into, like, The Feeder, and you have it. Then you can instantly decide that you don’t like it because there are another five names. I don’t know where we are.
AVC: Does that make it difficult for Portishead? Your music needs to be mulled over and considered more than instantly absorbed.
GB: No. We’ve got a lot of old fuckers and young weirdos who dig us, who are—kind of—are intentionally people who just sit and listen to stuff intently. In that sense, we’re very, very, very lucky that we can put some tickets on sale and people want to come see us. New bands, it’s a real struggle. You’re dealing with the devil. Unless you’re Adele, and that’s pretty mad. I heard she sold 10 million albums. I’m not a fan of it, really, and that’s on the par of Lady Gaga. You put them together, and Adele hardly does any live shows, and nobody knows that much about her. Then Lady Gaga, she just needs to give birth on YouTube or play a gig where some surgeons turned her body inside out. Hopefully this may mean that there may be more investment in things that sound all right that don’t have to suck cock.
AVC: Didn’t Dummy bounce around in the underground with music freaks absorbing it before it blew up?
GB: In the States it did. It was taken on by people coming down off pills and supermodels. I never got to meet any of them, and I never did a pill, so I wouldn’t know. It took a while in America because it’s a massive place. I think the cool places took it, and it developed strangely through people who were into hip-hop as well, which was a massive bonus for me as a fan of American hip-hop, that people like Q-Tip and DJ Premier and RZA and Dr. Dre were kind of digging it. It was just like, “Fuck!” Fucking hell it’s cool. I recorded it in my mum’s bedroom. It was a weird thing.
I’ve got an American friend, and we were trying to analyze why it was doing well in America. It was European white music that used a lot of American hip-hop stuff.
AVC: Sort of like an Elvis Presley kind of thing?
GB: [Laughs.] Fucking hell, that’s a random one.
AVC: He was known for being the white guy who played black R&B.
GB: We weren’t trying to rap. That was the other thing. We weren’t actually trying to be like Dre. I tried to be like RZA a couple times, and it was like, “Oops.”
AVC: It still seems like trip-hop is a primarily British style.
GB: No, it’s just a shit word! [Laughs.]
AVC: It never really took off over here.
GB: Thank fuck for that. Any music that was sold as trip-hop was shit. That’s why. You have Massive Attack, which was British street soul music, which was very Bristol based. And then Tricky, which was the punk, a real true Bristol poet, and who continues to be a real Bristol poet. All the other stuff was kind of made by record companies that thought Bristol was cool. Terrible, terrible. A lot of record deals. In America it was called “electronica.” I remember people who couldn’t get arrested in England getting massive label deals because they were just full of shit. They were talking electronica to American labels.
AVC: Bands like the Sneaker Pimps and Morcheeba were presented as an American answer to Bristol bands.
GB: They were kind of like products of the media. The Sneaker Pimps were stylistically based on trip-hop, and Morcheeba were just these two brothers who were really into hip-hop who dug the Bristol sound and copied that kind of thing. I think it was more people like The Prodigy were cool electronica in America, and Fatboy Slim—that kind of layered stuff. That was kind of like jock music, wasn’t it?
AVC: When Portishead got started, you were in your early 20s, and Adrian was in his mid-30s. Did that big age gap have an impact on your music?
GB: Basically, our level of communication was brilliant. He wanted to learn about hip-hop and programming, and I wanted to learn about the way that real instruments can be, not recorded so much, but played in a traditional sense that wasn’t like bullshit rock session player. Basically, all the breaks that American hip-hop producers were sampling, that was the kind of music that Adrian was making, like rare groove stuff. It came together really well. Adrian was a bandleader and worked in British holiday camps playing cheesy cover versions of stuff. As a kid, that’s where I went on holiday. We had this massive understanding of kind of wrong-but-right cover versions of stuff. We were able to communicate that when it came down to the recording sessions. We’ve never had any problem communicating in any kind of musical aspect of what we meant. That just made it incredibly easy just to slot in with our parts. Those parts became a lot more crossed over with our parts. That’s where we started: This guy can make the samples, and I can make the samples into the tunes. Beth was the person who could sing them. Me and Adrian have always got on in that way.
AVC: So Portishead was founded on the idea that you and Adrian both wanted to expand your horizons and explore different musical ideas?
GB: Yeah, massively. Like I said, he was incredibly educated in playing, but not like fucking anal kind of absorbed by technique. Absorbed by feel. All the best things sampled by hip-hop DJs had an amazing feel. They all had a really fucking weird feel to them. So basically, we just worked together really well. I was working with Beth when we wrote “Sour Times,” and I needed some guitar in it. I knew Adrian from before, and I phoned him up and said, “Look, you come down and play.” That was it. He never left.
AVC: Was it randomly stumbling across that chemistry?
GB: No. I was working as a tape op in a studio, and he came in with his band. Basically, he was writing tunes, rare groove tunes, and he didn’t know what to do with them. The idea was that he was going to play these sessions, and make some loops. He bought a sampler, [an Akai S-950], to put them in, but he didn’t quite know how to it, how to make them sound. That’s where I could help him and he could help me. Around that time as well, it was 1992 or ’93, people weren’t doing that. I’m not saying we were ahead of the game; I’m just saying they weren’t doing it.
AVC: In contrast to that, on Third, you were working to get away from traditional beats and loops and make it a more organic sound, right?
GB: Oh, fuck yeah. I wanted to kill [traditional looping and sampling]. I wanted to dynamite it. That’s the reason I couldn’t make music for eight years, or whatever. I just couldn’t go anywhere near that stuff. It was just formulaic crap. I was just over all that stuff.
AVC: Had you taken sampling and making music that way as far as you could take it?
GB: No, not at all. I just kept on hearing the same loop. What happens is, “Here’s the start of the beat, here’s the end of the beat, and now you’re going to hear the start of it again. Here’s the end of the beat again. Here’s the start of the beat again.” There’s nothing progressive about that at all. Our music was kind of absorbed by the middle-class cheesy brigade and turned in music to sell ice cream or whatever the fuck it was. It’s just like, “Oh man. I’m not going to get into that shit.” I needed to not [be] coming back half-hearted. I needed to be full of the right reasons to make music again. It took a long time. I set up Invada Records in Australia and I set up Invada Records over here [in the U.K.], and signed bands and played with bands and just discovered stuff and went, “Right, I’m ready to do it again.” And we did it, and it was kind of okay. I listen to Third now, and I think it’s okay, but that’s not the end of it. There’s still enough energy and stuff to move forward.
AVC: After breaking out of that rut you were in for years, are you going to be able to make records more frequently now?
GB: No. Not at all! No, because basically, when you loop something up, you go through a thousand records before you find a loop that you like, and then you find a chorus you like, and you put them together and you have something to sing on. When you’re happy, that world, it can take a very short amount of time. When you start creating and writing, properly doing music, and you get older and more fucking weird about the whole thing, and you want to do it right, and there’s no reason to release a record unless you do it right. It’s not like we’re perfectionists. We just want to do it right. I’m going to go back into the studio in January to start writing. Hopefully, it will be done in three months, but more likely it’ll be three years, and more likely it’ll be five. That doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to release a shit record. I don’t mind releasing a wrong record, one that almost gets there but doesn’t. I just don’t want to release a shit one.
AVC: Does your prior success provide you the luxury with taking the time between records that you need?
GB: No. I think I’m just there. I know people who have no success and not even a review doing what they do. Financially, it’s made it easier. I don’t live in a mansion. Basically, when I got the money from Dummy, I bought a house, and I’m still in it. I haven’t got a mortgage. That’s really, really good, compared to most people in the world. At the same time, your question is, does it give it that thing? But what’s the point of doing something that’s not right? What’s the point of releasing a record you don’t feel good about? It’s impossible. You can’t do it. Regardless of your success, you’re just going to go, “No, it ain’t fucking right.” Unless someone has just put up a load of money and basically gives you a deadline, you have to be brave and say, “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to support this record because I don’t like it.” Or, you can go get a job delivering vegetables like everybody else has.