Geoff Barrow of Portishead on Blue Lines, Banksy, Silver Apples and his act's early success
In 1994, when Portishead released its debut album, Dummy, songs like "Sour Times" and "Glory Box" crossed over to mainstream music outlets, and the members of the band found themselves, in a sense, unlikely pop stars. The group's haunting, dark and edgy music struck a chord in the mid '90s when a lot of popular music seemed to be turning fairly derivative.
After releasing what seemed to be its final record, the self-titled 1997 album, Portishead, the act played an occasional gig for the next eleven years, until Third came out in 2008 to great critical praise. This year, Portishead is touring the United States for the first time in over a decade, and we had a chance to talk with Geoff Barrow while he was spending some time in his studio in England.
Westword: You got involved in recording work from a fairly young age. How is it you became involved with Coach House Studios, and is there anything you learned from your experience working on [Massive Attack's] Blue Lines that you've applied to your work since?
Geoff Barrow: Yes, I learned how to make a decent cup of tea and how to make a sandwich. I didn't know the Massive Attack guys before, but they were kind of legends around Bristol. They were The Wild Bunch, at that point, one of the only internationally-known kind of British hip-hop crew through the '80s. They used to go to Japan a lot. They were very serious about what they did, and it was very Bristol-oriented. They kind of liked what I was doing; I was writing my own music at that time and had a manager, and they put me on a retainer to work for them and work for their manager, who was then managing Neneh Cherry and so on.
The main thing that came out of that was I became friends with Johnny Dollar, who was the producer of Blue Lines. Unfortunately, he passed away three years ago. He was kind of my mentor. He was an amazing guy and incredibly talented. He brought a lot of, I suppose, sophistication, really, and he was into David Sylvian. He was really into synthesizers and did the classical thing on them. So he was very much the catalyst of that record. Bringing together the arts, British pop music, very urban Bristol-based, traditional black music. He was the string guy on "Unfinished Sympathy," and he was very much a songwriter.
I suppose seeing him craft loops into song form [influenced me]. I was already doing that, but I was rarely allowed into the main studio room. There was a tiny little recording room and you could maybe squeeze four people in there. It wasn't because they didn't like me; it was because of the spacing. But I worked with Johnny Dollar for a few years after that with Neneh Cherry. But I think regardless of Massive Attack, I would say Johnny Dollar was a key influence on me.
"We Carry On" has kind of a Silver Apples sound to it. What was your introduction to that music, and what did you most want to know about when you interviewed Simeon Coxe III for Clash Music?
I was introduced to Silver Apples by Adrian [Utley] from the band. He found the album at Good Music in New York. When he first bought it, he actually thought it was modern, because it was just extraordinary. It didn't really click with me the first time I heard it. Actually, to be honest, I wasn't really much into music at all when he played it for me. I didn't like any. I found a copy, and it kind of totally clicked.
Speaking to Simeon, I was just hugely influenced by and interested by the way he had an amazing musical but non-musical ability about him. Like tuning and the noises and the lack of "music" proper -- it was outer space music, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of thing Public Enemy would have sampled. They most certainly did at some point, you know what I mean? Bomb Squad. Making literally punk music but with folk and the idea of [meshing] a singer, who is using traditionally-sounding songs, with these extraordinary jazz and electronic sounds. Three stylistically-different pieces of music being shoehorned in such an incredible way -- that's what really interested me.
Talking to him, he's just a brilliant guy. I've spoken to him a few times, and I've met up with him. He's playing I'll Be Your Mirror [festival] with us because he's doing a collaboration with Hans-Joachim Roedelius from Cluster. The idea is they were on the other sides of the country making this really odd music and then bring it together and see what they come up with.
Also, I think they were a massive influence on Jimi Hendrix because they used to play with him. They used to have a noise off between his oscillators and effects and Jimi Hendrix's guitar and effects. They used to jam together with Danny Taylor. I think the noises that they made absolutely told Jimi Hendrix it was alright to make that noise. That alone is what makes Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix. I can't say for a hundred percent that that's the way it went. Simeon's not a boshi kind of guy, do you know what I mean? "Yeah, I taught Jimi everything he knows!" It's not like that. It's like, "Yeah, we used to do these noise-offs."
How did you end up being the music supervisor to Exit Through The Gift Shop? Were you sworn to secrecy about Banksy's identity?
No, I knew him from bumping into each other late night at Bristol bars. He used to have a place around the corner from where my studio is, so we used to see each other in this terrible supermarket that just sells frozen goods. The game of when you go to the supermarket is to find something that is going to be the least harmful for you to eat. They're the purveyors grey meat matter.
Then, I don't know, I think he knew I was alright and could be trusted, so he got in contact. It wasn't like a big deal; we just sat down, and he knew what he wanted, and I tried to help him out on it. And that's how it worked. It was a really stress-free thing. I interpreted the film and hopefully it all went down and that was it.
Portishead started out as just you and Beth Gibbons?
No, it actually started out with myself and a guy called Richard Newell and Marc Bezin, two singers, as well, Beth, as well as [some people] from Earthling. There was a load of us. We worked in London at Neneh Cherry's house, and then we went back to Bristol and everyone went their separate ways, really.
Nothing was really said, unless I'm deluding myself. But it seems like we all parted company, and basically, I carried on working with Beth, and we wrote "Sour Times" together, and that was it. I'm still friends everybody who was involved, but that's where we are. Adrian, like a week after we wrote "Sour Times," I asked him to play guitar on it, and he joined the band.
Adrian is a little bit older than you and Beth. How did you meet him and come to work with him?
Basically, he was a kind of well-known and respected musician in Bristol, who was in very hard bop jazz bands. He kind of had enough of being on the road and doing gigs. Then he discovered Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. He had the knowledge of all this jazz and recording and writing and everything else, and I had all the knowledge of sampling, beat making -- the hip-hop, I suppose -- and electronic music.
And we forged together. But we also had a language that we could understand straight away, and we bonded over being on holiday camps, me, as a kid and being fascinated by bands that played holiday camps and the wrong way they do cover versions of famous bands.
Adrian was the bandleader as a teenager of bands in holiday camps. We kind of had this understanding. So when we got into sampling stuff, we knew when something could be a bit wonky. We could communicate on such a specific level than we were able to with any other musician.
What was your bonding with Beth?
I didn't really have a bond with Beth. I didn't. I think we were very different people, but I was really incredibly inspired by what she did and liked what she did. And she liked the way that I could actually do stuff really, really quickly without being precious about it. Like, she had a gig that she was playing a club in Bath, and she came to me with her guitarist and said, "I haven't got any backing tracks." And within a couple of hours, I had six tracks for her. Do you know what I mean? And they were alright quality.
I suppose we have that communication, as well, without any pretense of "I'm a musician. I'm special. You're going to have to give me time on this." Over time, we've created a bond, and we still, hopefully, still inspire each other with what we can do. And how we struggle with how we write music. We struggle, it's not a natural thing for us. We've got no choice because we just want to sound good.
How did you become interested in turntablism, as that's part of your musical repertoire now?
Yeah, definitely less and less now. I can't bloody stand the stuff. I kind of really fell out of love with turntablisim in 1997. But I still do it because I want to represent the songs that we've done when we play live. I think I've found a way that I've come to terms with what I did with it -- it's not a trick, it's actually part of the song.
Basically, it was just I played the drums as a kid, and I was into hip-hop and the way hip-hop culture worked in England in little towns -- you break dance, you scratch records, you spray graffiti on the wall and listen to hip-hop music. That was altogether. It wasn't separate. It came as one big movement, and it has stuck with millions of kids in Europe all the way through. How punk did with the punks, and you still see some fifty-year-old with a Mohican; hip-hop did the same thing across Europe.
Portishead hasn't toured extensively in many years. What made this the right time for that sort of thing?
It's a really simple thing: We released an album, and we only played Coachella, and we said, "We should play in America." So when Barry from ATP came to us about the one in New York, we just said, "If we're going to do that, let's just play America." Then we got set up to play America and then we had loads of interest from some festivals in Europe, and we said, "Okay, let's play them."
Our first couple of gigs, two months ago, were terrible. They were really awful. They were the worst gigs we've ever played. I don't know why. And now we're up to form and should be alright by the time we get to you. Along the way, as much as it's a struggle to get the right sounds and everything else, it's kind of a bullshit-free way to get music to people. It's just turned into the purest form now to get your music to people and to communicate to the audience.
I never thought of it that way before because I was a record man, really. But now there's so much crap in records -- the radio and corporate alignment, corporate partnerships. I couldn't honestly give a fuck about that stuff. It's my favorite way of getting music to people because I work with the record producers so I always feel very disappointed.
But in between, I've made this little band, Beak, and I broke down my live worries. We went out and toured and played gigs in front two people, and it just didn't matter, and I enjoyed the music, and I'm in that place, really. I know that we still struggle and there are still some issues and the ridiculousness of playing in front of 50,000 people, but I've come to terms with it. But there could be an awful lot worse things to be doing for a job.
Did the early success of the band surprise you and if so in what ways?
I must admit I did punch the air a couple of times when I was younger. Never about the success of it, but just the reception of it. Basically that there were people I really rated, especially in American music, within hip-hop and stuff, that kind of like gave a nod back to us. That, to me, was the most confirming thing I've ever had. The respect of your peers. A lot of people also fucking disliked it.
There was DJ Premier coming to the New York show -- you know, people who were my heroes, really, going, "I dig that, it's alright." That's what I strove for, really. Recognition, rather than success. Success has never been a part of it. But we've been very lucky with how it's gone and we can still continue. The success of Dummy, I didn't have any doubt in it. I don't mean that in any kind of bolshi way. I just mean that if I've done the job right, and we'd done what we think we'd written, then it should be alright.
That doesn't really work anymore in the modern industry. And it never has. Good things aren't always successful. You look at the great records and they struggled to sell five copies.
Like The Velvet Underground.
I was just about to say that!
What do you do these days to stay engaged in new music and does it influence you as heavily as maybe it once did?
I still check it out. But I'm having trouble at the moment. I'm having trouble with the sound of digital distortion. All the exciting band. Bands that are being heavily edited on computers. What it does, the distortion gives it an excitement but it's kind of like fucking crack or something, do you know what I mean? It's an artificial excitement. That's what I'm hearing in a lot of stuff. People go, "Check out this new band!" And I go, "Wow, that's really good it's a mass of sugar here." But it's nothing more than that, really.
So yeah, I should listen to a lot more music. I should listen to Bon Iver's album and all the good records being produced and released now. There are some great ones. I struggle with it, really. Kids. Kids, dogs and broken cars and life.
I was actually trying to think the other day why I still did music. I used to do stuff as a test. I think that's the biggest motivation -- are you good enough still to continue. That's what Third was, really. When you come up with something you like, you have to keep on going somehow.
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