This is part one of two.
Part two of this interview can be read HERE.
Portishead’s recent period of hibernation lasted longer than they ever expected; fans of the Mercury Prize-winning debut Dummy (1994) and its acclaimed self-titled follow-up (1997), understandably, harboured little hope of a third long-player to join the studio brace and their accompanying live recording, Roseland NYC Live (1998), given the eleven-year gulf. But a third has emerged, and will reach stores at the end of the month. It is titled, simply and effectively, Third (preview).
The band – Beth Gibbons (vocals), Adrian Utley (guitars) and Geoff Barrow (programming, percussion, et cetera) – previewed a number of new tracks at last December’s Nightmare Before Christmas weekender in Minehead, not far from their Bristol base. Among them was ‘Machine Gun’, a stripped-raw pulsation of electronic marching drums topped by typically ethereal vocals from Gibbons. As a sign of things to come, it was striking to hear – primitive but startlingly progressive, a distillation of facets experienced before but focused into a potency unexpected. Portishead had changed, period.
The band has had to change, though – such a significant time between albums must indicate stylistic shifts, displeasure with established norms, and so it proves to be as Barrow explains to DiS at a London hotel. We sit at a table, tall mugs of tea (which he made) before us; Barrow calls to the departing online PR: “Make sure I don’t say anything rude!”
DiS: Well Geoff, if you want to say anything rude you might as well say it now…
“Okay. Motherfucking cunt flaps.”
Good, good. And away we go…
This is part one of two.
Part two of this interview can be read HERE.
Video: new single 'Machine Gun'
Right, well done for getting an album done – and I mean that sincerely. We’ve got to open with the gap between records – I’m guessing it probably wasn’t meant to be quite so long?
No, not really. I wasn’t too busy with other things – I kinda quit music for a bit. There was the label (Invada, co-run by Barrow), but that didn’t come along ‘til much later. In ’98 I just quit for about three years. I set up a little label in Australia too, with a mate – which is also called Invada, but it’s more of a weird dance music label, but it’s good. Yeah, I quit when we finished a tour, and I couldn’t find anything I liked musically in anybody, in anything. I think it was a weird time, the late ‘90s, anyway.
** You felt things were getting pretty stagnant?**
Yeah yeah, it’d just become all Eastpak chin-stroker…
The rise of anticon hip-hop? That sort of thing?
Yeah, maybe, but I don’t really know anticon that well. I’m actually a massive fan of Stones Throw, too, but there were things coming through that just sounded like sub-decent New York hip-hop, from Denver or wherever it was from. Anyway, that was just a small part of it; I felt that there was nothing burning my brain off, and that’s what I get into music for really, that feeling of “What the fuck is that!?” Then I was knackered, and I got divorced, and I hadn’t stopped since I was 19. Now I was 24, or slightly older, so I just stopped. I went to Australia to bum around, really – I’d earned money from Dummy but I hadn’t spent any, because I was on tour all the time! So I went to Australia, and Ade came over to do some work with me, but it didn’t really work out. It was okay…
So attempts were made to get on with new material?
Yeah. Then in 2003 I wrote a track called ‘Magic Doors’ and Beth sang on it. That was an opening, and it was okay. Then we ended up going back and forth, hating everything and then liking everything, and we had to decide whether to carry on. Then we – Ade and I – produced The Coral’s The Invisible Invasion (review).
Did that stoke the creative fires at all?
A little bit, yeah. They’re an amazing band, really. I always get this feeling – not from you – that some people are a bit wary, or odd about The Coral. But they are literally… I see them play music that’s never been released that’s just the most unbelievable stuff.
They strike me as guys who rarely switch off, y’know; they’re always thinking about music, their music.
The way they can just jam… And it’s not music like ‘In The Morning’, that’s just a single. There’s nothing wrong with having hit singles and being a pop band, if you’re a good one. But the other side of their music is just immense… One day I think they’ll be given the retrospective treatment and you’ll see just how inventive they can be. For us, it was amazing and frustrating working with them – here’s me and Ade, these older dudes, too scared to even play a note because we we’re scared we’d hate it, and there’s them, just being able to write a soundtrack in an afternoon.
You write in very different ways – them jamming songs out and you working in perhaps a more calculated fashion – but seeing them must’ve been a catalyst, kicking your own songwriting into gear?
Yeah. We did that, and in 2006 we’d got six or seven tunes together. Our A&R guy – who’d been with us since Go! Discs – left to run Virgin. We were already signed to Universal, a continuation of our deal; we’ve ended up on Island, which is cool. We played (Island Records MD) Nick Gatfield these tunes and said we’d see him in two months with nine tunes; but a year later we had six tunes. So we kinda went, “This is not particularly good!” Then there was this spurt in 2007, at the end of 2007, where we wrote the record.
So the ATP Nightmare… set was the culmination of that process – you arrived with these fresh songs?
Yeah – we had the whole album by then. ATP was the most perfect festival for us to play. Obviously we’re considered more ‘poppy’ by people who go, compared to a lot of other bands that’ve played it.
Well, only ‘poppy’ in terms of being more popular, I’d say. You did win the Mercury.
Exactly. The thing is, by that time we’d already set up Invada, me and (co-founder) Fat Paul in Bristol, putting out odd bits and bods. Meeting people like Fuzz Against Junk, and Gonga… these people give a shit, and are just into music, and the music they make. I’d kind of forgotten this, and all of a sudden…
You found the ‘fan’ side to music again?
Yeah, Fat Paul runs Invada but is a promoter too, so he’d be putting on bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man, and we were getting to know other people and labels because of licensing deals, so we were working at this really small end of things. I’ve always been interested in the business, but not the big end of the business, ‘cause they’re all… Well, they’re not all wankers, but the focus shifts. At the bottom level, if you get a play on Radio 6 it’s like_ “YES WE GOT A PLAY ON RADIO SIX”_ (shakes fists, mock celebratory). Y’know, at four in the morning.
Those 18 people listening really loved it.
(Laughs) Yeah…! There wasn’t much of a peak, a demographic peak.
Portishead (l-r): Geoff, Adrian, Beth
Did you see them at ATP? They were really good. They’ve always had this thing – they’re not really heavy, but they’ve the background. A lot of people see them and just think they’re odd. They’re just doing their second album now, and have signed to Domino Publishing. But anyway… Ade’s always been into fairly obscure music, like Silver Apples and early electronic music. I’ve always been into early electronic music too, but from the perspective of a hip-hop kid, looking at the sampling whereas Ade’s is a more traditional fandom, and he’s a collector of oddities. That was the other thing about The Coral – they’re mad collectors of music. Ian (Skelly) still sends me these compilations that are just inspiring beyond belief, made up of these odd rock and roll records. Hearing interesting sounds… you hear so little that’s interesting on the radio, so to hear something that’s distinct and interesting is just… I’m not a big drug person – I’ve never done a pill in my life – but hearing this music feels like what doing a pill must be like, to me. Hearing a guitar, or an echo, that can generate a whole track, or a direction for Portishead to go down. We’re magpies to some extent, and I think that comes across in Third.
Talk preceding this record has certainly suggested it’s more of a ‘rock’ affair.
It’s our most electronic record as well, though. I think it’s darker, in a way, than what’s come before because it’s less contained within a sonic structure, or a writing structure – on the last record things were very sample based and there was only one live track, ‘Half Day Closing’. But because it goes really quite wide – even though it’s stripped down – on this record, I think that’s the reason it seems darker. It comes at you from different places, but always retains its oddness, or darkness. Darkness? Maybe frustration more than darkness.
The gestation does seem to have been an awkward shuffle for a long time, then a sprint at the end.
(Laughs) Yeah, that is exactly true, so true.
Doing that is going to lead to an album that’s quite erratic I suppose in terms of techniques and approaches – the past two seemed cohesive mood pieces, with the debut, of course, and through no fault of its own, becoming this ‘coffee table’ classic.
Absolutely. It was still an odd record when we released it, sonically.
Video: 'Glory Box', from Roseland NYC Live
It got rather unfortunately lumped in with the trip-hop scene, or movement, but it didn’t really seem to stick for me.
I’m glad you say that, but for a lot of people it really did. In the UK we’ve got really good at understanding stuff. I’m not saying people are stupid abroad, but if you came with us to Spain or Italy and tried to denounce trip-hop, it’s almost an arrestable offence, because it was a massive movement for them. It spawned millions of Spanish, Italian and German trip-hop bands, who were all really proud to be trip-hop, like it was not a dirty word. When you’re there with four journalists all saying either, “This is wonderful trip-hop”, or “What have you done?! You’ve broken trip-hop…” (Laughs) You’ve broken trip-hop?!
But don’t worry, we’ve five more bands to replace you…
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. It was the same in the States with electronica. It used to be an open cheque for British bands to go out there and get a label – everyone felt they had to do this electronica thing.
I suppose Roni Size winning the Mercury was the peak of that.
I suppose it was, yeah. Also, it’s ‘alternative’ – people into electronica and the demon that is trip-hop in America are alternative kids. So you can’t ever forget that – we know it’s a shitty term, but out there these people are using it to fight artists like Celine Dion. So you’ve got to be careful not to call some people idiots for calling your music trip-hop, because really they’re bang into their music, and these are the people you want to connect with. But it can be difficult – sometimes you do want to say, “Oh shut up about it”.
*One nice thing about trip-hop is that it’s strongly associated with a place, geographically – that’s not something that happens often these days, with the spread of the internet. *
Well, I’d say the trip-hop thing didn’t have anything to do with Bristol itself. I’d never denounce a ‘Bristol sound’, because I think there is one, but we’ve never been part of that. The sound to me is where punk meets hip-hop and reggae, like The Pop Group and early Massive Attack, and Smith & Mighty. Tricky was absolutely that – he was more a punk than a rapper.
I think that came through on his debut, Maxinquaye.
Yeah it did, and I think that was the point. I worked with him very briefly when I was much younger – I’m a bit younger than him – and he was brilliant. There was this sense of… It was like Public Enemy and PiL, never the lighter things in life. In that sense Portishead was always lighter! So in Bristol, I think this ‘sound’ continues, but in some places it has become this affluent student town. It’s very difficult to see the development of the ‘sound’ as lots of local bars and clubs are geared to getting the Sloane-y pound in. It’s less about doing interesting stuff, although there are a few select venues – The Croft for example.
** Do you still live in the area?**
Yeah. Fat Paul owns The Croft, and I just live up the road.
My fiancée’s brother used to be bar manager at Lakota, up that way.
Oh really? I’ve probably bumped into him at some point. I saw Gonga and Earth play there quite recently, which was really weird because there was nobody there, just me and Paul. And Paul must’ve put it on! It was really strange.
The new Earth record’s been getting great press (review).
I’ve still not heard it. Doing these things – the interviews and whatnot – I’ve not been listening to much music other than our own. We just finished doing a Channel 4 special at 2.30 in the morning, this morning – editing and stuff. The thing about us… I was thinking about this earlier as we were moaning about being tired in a previous interview, but we’re such control freaks – well, I am – that we’re part of everything we do, and manage ourselves. We mix all our stuff, record with our mates – we’re the opposite of bands who plug in and play and then go home. When we have our gigs, I might go in with a crew and do all the drums; at the same time Ade’s on the phone organising artwork. It’s really strange as it’s exactly how acts on Invada tend to work, as they can’t afford to get other people in, or they simply don’t trust others to work on particular things.
Is this something you’ve been stung by before then, when you’ve loosened your grip and found your music used in ways you didn’t want it to be?
Yeah, we’ve ended up on adverts without being told, due to mess-ups in the office. It’s not been an on-purpose thing, but you become aware that you’ve got to be ‘on’ everything. If you end up doing a McDonald’s ad or something, what would people think?
Well, I dunno – I quite like the idea of some fat guy sucking up a milkshake to the sound of ‘Sour Times’.
(Laughs) Well, maybe. But you know what the internet is like.
A blessing and a curse.
That’s something that’s really changed since the self-titled. Sure, the internet was there when you last released a studio album, but it was nowhere near as important to the music industry as it is today. You certainly wouldn’t have had an online press officer; you’d be talking to Select, and Vox.
(Laughs) There was always one bloke who’d have made up some site, you’d talk to him too. He’d have these ideas, and be ahead of the pack, but they’d never quite come together. It is completely different now – I mean, our album’s been leaked this week.
I heard. Well, I saw it mentioned on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is really weird. We used to use it as our biography – we thought we’d write it, and that’d be it…
** But it can be edited by anyone, can’t it?**
Of course. You look at it now and it says something like:_ “A trip-hop band from the south-west that loves jazz music.” (Laughs)_ So someone’s got hold of that, then…
Video: 'Sour Times'
** This is part one of two.**
Part two of this interview can be read HERE.
Further information: MySpace. Third is released via Island on April 28. Click here for 'Machine Gun' video/viral.