After three albums and a world tour which nearly put paid to them, the members of Portishead are resting up. In Bristol, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley discuss the workings of the decade's most unlikely global pop phenomenon with Rob Young. This article was originally published in The Wire 178 (December 1998).
Portishead is a quiet village. A location in my memory that demands a special return: boating ponds for Saturday afternoon self-propulsion. Voyages to the island of sleepy birds. Rough winds of an English spring. Booths for hot dogs and ice cream. Daytrips free of incident, apart from that bloke walking a sheep on a lead. Satellite town requiring healthy fantasy life. The park: unmonitored wilderness suitable &emdash; in retrospect &emdash; for agents, double agents, ministers, crime bosses and hitmen to meet, cut deals, double and triple cross. On the other side of the dyke: the Bristol Channel, for a seaborne getaway.
Portishead is a satellite. A little rock orbiting the city of Bristol, in whose streets a taxi's radio is at this moment flooding the driver's thoughts with youthful memories, courtesy of a rock 'n' roll medley on Classic Gold. I'm dropped in the rain outside a small terraced house in the city's Redland area. Round the corner is the house where I spent the first seven years of my life. Me and the taxi driver - shuttling back towards the railway station, Shirley Bassey blaring - abandon each other to our respective timeloops.
Portishead is a group. Represented this time by two people, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. No Beth, not today. She's just the singer, the final stage in the process, and finds interviews' demands for revelation "too painful". We're not here to hurt anybody. In fact, we don't need to talk to Beth Gibbons. When it comes to getting a grip on Portishead, she's a giant red herring. Because she's ostensibly the group's 'front', interviewers naturally demand her presence; look to her to articulate the group's motivations, then sit helpless as their Walkmans grind to a halt. She's one of those Great Voices - swooping from wheel-broken butterfly to mewing Billie Holiday - which find it impossible to reduce to a soundbite the hurricane of passion blowing through them. Nick Drake, Mark Hollis, Janis Joplin, Sandy Denny - all lousy interviewees; their personal heavens and hells etched in the grain of the voice, not the thrust and parry of argument. The originators, powerhouse and engine room of the group's sound, are the two men sitting opposite me at this kitchen table in Bristol.
The files: Geoff Barrow, 27, tired, been-in-the-wars demeanour. Programmer, turntablist, knocks it about on drums occasionally. Slipped into Bristol's underground HipHop scene in the late 80s, made one track with Tricky, worked on Neneh Cherry's Homebrew with various mates ("We've got the boys from Portishead in," her manager Cameron McVey used to say during those sessions, and the name stuck). Produced Carleen Anderson and fellow Bristolian HipHopper Earthling; remixed Depeche Mode, Primal Scream, Gravediggaz. Portishead photos usually get cropped down to his and Beth's faces alone. Gets depressed that the group is perceived as depressive.
Adrian Utley, older, confident speaker flashing occasional streaks of bitterness. Plays guitar, bass, organ, theremin. Previously worked in local jazz organ trios; once accompanied Big John Patton on tour. Cheesed it for a holiday camp season, where boredom made necessity the mother of minimal invention: "I always perversely liked it, even though we had to play absolute crap, I loved thefact that you had to play some big heavy tune, and you only had an organ and bass pedals, and guitar and drums. You didn't have horns, you didn't have a bass player - and it made this other sound." Fascinated with musique concrète, electronic rock à la United States Of America. Plans to unscrew his Minimoog's wooden scratchplate and take it across the Atlantic for Bob Moog to autograph.
Portishead have just reached the ragged end of one particular
loop in their lives, and they're going to have to get tattoos done.
"They mark the end of a phase in your life," says Geoff, "for when
you want to say goodbye to that part, and move on." They're
counting the emotional cost following a world tour of nearly 90
dates, the close of a cycle that started back in 1995, when their
first album Dummy attained the dubious honour of a Mercury Music
Prize, and sold more than a million copies worldwide. To mark the
end of this "ten months of cabin fever", they've released a live
album, PNYC, recorded mostly on one night in July 1998 at New
York's Roseland Ballroom. This specially arranged in-the-round
recording and video shoot with a 28 piece string orchestra is one
of the more successful attempts to marry pop group and orchestra.
Indeed, it breaks a duck going back 40 years, when the complex
hornweb of Miles Davis and Gil Evans's big band - Miles Ahead-era -
was deconstructed by the weaving CBS TV cameras on The Robert
"There was never a disastrous gig," remembers Geoff, "never one where the audience weren't into it." But all the while, the spectres of divorce, separation and family suicide have been circling overhead. "We always grumpily approach touring anyway," says Adrian, "but when I think of what havoc it's wreaked in our lives for the last year, especially me and Geoff. . . it's not worth it. I wouldn't do it again if I had the choice. It was very grim, especially the European end of it. We had a lot of tragedy within the band - personal things that were going on that affected our tour."
He goes on to describe the upside. "We did start to sound really good, I think. We were happy about what we did. "Sour Times" is an example of that, on this live album. It's difficult to capture a gig. In jazz, it works better live: a lot of albums, like Coltrane's Village Vanguard, have got the spirit. But there's something about playing a gig, there's more to it. You can often listen to a DAT after a gig - I'm really cautious about doing this - you think, that's a wicked show, and you listen to it, and it sounds fucking terrible. It's been brutally taken away from the emotional moment, even if it's well recorded. That means a gig is a much bigger experience than what you're playing."
Arranged with orchestrator Nick Ingman at the same time as they were finishing Portishead, their second studio album, PNYC had to be rehearsed in three days prior to the Roseland show. How did they overcome orchestral players' notorious clicktrack resistance? "We never wanted it to sound like 'Portishead and strings'," says Geoff. "It had to be arrangements that really worked. Things that were proper, that weren't just them playing the chords. So it tested them, and they were really happy to get tested as well. They came out of rehearsals saying, 'These are really quite heavy, these parts, we're going to have to think about this'."
"We did it from a genuinely enthusiastic point of view," adds Adrian. "I've never worked with strings, but realising the project was a buzz. On "Strangers", there's this whole thing that's supposed to sound like The Shining, Penderecki, and this is like collage, grabbing a lump of what someone else does, but not without respect. And talking to the string players about it. All the string players have got a chord, on paper, with 'out of tune' written over the top of it. But that's not going to make it happen, so you have to talk. And they'll say: 'Like this?', and they'll play it, and you say, 'No, a bit wider vibrato'. So now you start to get involved, it's not like the rock band on one side. It's an integration of them and us together, and I think it worked."
Geoff says, "We've got to tie it down to these tunes that are based around samples, but then play with" - ironicising the word - "fee-wing."
Does this experience remove the need to sample in future?
"We're always cautious about it turning into something we don't like," says Geoff. "As long as there's always the experimental, real mad and noisy side of stuff, that's what we always strive for: that it doesn't pull itself into a pleasant area."
""Half Day Closing", on the second album, was a live track," comments Adrian. "We started off with Geoff and me playing just drums and bass. After two years of playing together, with empathy, we could get a groove together - the song was written, but not what was going to go on top of it. And Beth came along and sang it on a buzz. Although we do work that way, with samplers and stuff, it is like having one foot in a bucket of concrete, and you're just stomping around a lot of the time."
Portishead are heaviosity incarnate. Seriousness, melodrama and a relentless anchoring drag hamper the music's forward motion, like a bad dream of stumbling through fudge. Album credits point towards hardships and stress in the nods they give to circles of support and counsel. "Beth thanks: Jane & Stanley for travelling the distance and your support. John & Clive for remaining when I was failing on stage. Niks for being my North, South, East and West (especially when I've lost my compass). . . Geoff thanks: everyone who has been there in desperate times. For putting up with three years of Mr Barrow and his relentless dithering and ranting. . . Portishead thank: Everyone who saw us through sour times."
"For some reason, we have just been unfortunate on a personal level," says Geoff.
Adrian: "When we say thanks to our friends, we genuinely mean thanks to our friends. I don't want to thank Gibson guitars, because they never helped me! It's been brought on by the intensity of the thing you do - it could be painting, it could be music. It's the intensity of the life."
Geoff: "And being in a situation where you're that fucked
creatively, that other things go out the window. We have been
really unlucky with that. And it's weird, because it's all come to
its absolute point now, for some reason, after we've worked so hard
to get our lives sorted. We're saying, 'Wow, we're done!' And then
this fucking huge Monty Python boot comes and slices the shit out
of us. And it's happened, it's reality, and that's why we genuinely
mean thanks to people for getting us through breakdowns, because it
has been that close."
"The early 90s were like a rebirth for me," muses Adrian, "I was ready for it, and I just dived in off the top board." Conflicting agendas crisscross between HipHop and jazz, the two strands central to Portishead's sound: HipHop, with its phantasmagoric collages in pursuit of 'the real'; jazz laying its materialist cards on the table as it struggles to get 'out there'. The two are brought snarling in each other's faces when Barrow and Utley come together to lay down the base tracks for their electric torch songs.
When they first met in 1993, Barrow and Utley each had something the other wanted. Adrian Utley was playing with his jazz group in Bristol's Coach House studios, and "Geoff heard it through the wall. I was playing those sounds, Geoff was interested in those sounds. Geoff knew about HipHop, I didn't know about HipHop, and I wanted to know. We were giving each other something for the future."
Geoff: "When I heard Ade and the band playing through that wall, it was like music played as music should be played, you know?"
Listening back to "Mysterons", Dummy's tentative, flickering opening track, a "White Rabbit" for the 90s' cancerous psychotropics, it's a shock to be reminded how little is actually there: a brief trailing loop of tremolo guitar, theremin, the purring slippage of a breakbeat, vinyl scratches, and finally Beth Gibbons's voice, sidling reluctantly up to the mic. On "Strangers", before the limping beat heaves into view, a demo vocal Gibbons originally sang as a dummy run at her West Country home is laid over a dawdling Astrud Gilberto guitar skank. Then there's "Sour Times", with its Lalo Schifrin "More Mission Impossible" sample. It's easy to forget at this distance, but the way Portishead deployed Schifrin, and the symphonic soul of Isaac Hayes and War, introduced a new sampling/aesthetic palette to subsequent mixers from labels such as Pussyfoot, Mo' Wax and the rest, and ushered in almost at a stroke the 90s' reappropriation of the 'invisible soundtrack', the acoustic screen for projecting the B-movie of your life.
Portishead's inner cinema is the kind that's all but been refurbished out of British experience: red velvet chairs worn to a mossy patina; projectors clanking through the window; hair on the lens, ash in the carpet and gum on the seat. To Kill A Dead Man, the short film (don't call it a promo) they made to accompany the launch of Dummy, pastiched the grimy criminal netherworlds portrayed in Wilson-era classics like Get Carter. Barrow and Utley chop and shuffle their sounds like a modern video editor juggles different angles and film stocks. The tapes modulate in and out of focus with patches of different recording stock, from the powdergrain of magnetic tape, to digital laserknife.
Portishead's abstracted soundtracks are the conceptual vessel on which their music floats. "You put yourself into a cinema situation when you put a Walkman on," says Adrian. "I think that's an interesting way of listening to music. You can alter that space you're in by the music you're listening to. I remember seeing a documentary, years ago, about a cafe near Cambridge, which was on the A1, an all-night truckstop. I've been there in bands over the years. It's a stinky, grotty truckstop, with crusty pictures of bands on the walls and everything. I saw it on the telly, and it had a soundtrack over it, and it was filmed at night, and I thought, 'This looks wicked'. You could hear a lorry go past, and there was this Ambient music on, and the whole space was changed because of it. It actually stinks of lard, and it's horrible. You only ever get there at three o'clock in the morning when you're knackered and you want to get home, and then they're miserable and don'twant to serve you! There is nowhere else, otherwise you'd bloody be there. That's cinema, isn't it?"
They also admire the cut 'n' paste inventiveness that informs low budget, time-tied soundtrack recordings. Adrian: "Some of the cheaper film soundtracks are dearer to our hearts than the big ones. Obviously we like Planet Of The Apes, which was a big-budget Jerry Goldsmith production, great orchestra, recorded in Hollywood. But we also like Psychomania, which was done for threepence ha'penny, in a studio one afternoon, quickly, because he had to do it. Someone in the film falls in the water, and they need a sound: 'Oh, let's have the percussion stop on a Hammond, put it through a massive reverb. That'll do - next!' Our sounds are inspired by those people having to be inventive. It's a direct emotional response to picture; you're dealing with emotion. Somebody gets killed, you've got to make a sound that's going to make you feel like somebody's got killed."
"We'd still love to find that soundtrack album," sniggers Geoff.
Ask them about their own practical handling of the studio, and they'll happily scroll through the hoops they jump through to achieve the deadweight of their catatones. "We slow ourselves down, because we analyse every little sound," concedes Geoff. "We could never just throw something down. Music to me is yourlife, it's what you do, so we take it seriously, even though you enjoy what you do and you have fun doing it."
"We always have a fight as well, to make music," adds Adrian. "It's not easy. Some people are very quick at writing and producing music, but we never are. It is a tortuous event."
How, in practice, do they crack their sources out of that nostalgic loop?
"It's about making something new out of something old," begins Geoff. "Some of the things we play are so cheesy emotionally, aren't they? They're massively over the top. But when we grab hold of it and do what we do to it, it doesn't sound like that. Because we're making our own samples, we have to go into thatworld of complete cheesiness, before we get to the point where we want to be."
The basis for their tracks are original musical ideas, played and recorded in real-time and then cut to vinyl masters to be manipulated, effected and turned into the seed of a song. Can they put their finger on that moment of revelation in seeking out an appropriate sample to flesh out the original construction?
"It's a whole thing that stems from HipHop," explains Geoff, "whether it be Afrika Bambaataa and "Planet Rock", or the whole sampling thing. . . It's weird, because on Dummy, we used lots of different samples from Isaac Hayes, Lalo Schifrin, Weather Report, War, but on most of the stuff it was us playing. I've always been into original samples, things that haven't been used before, or very rarely. . . If you just take a beat from "Impeach The President" or "Funky Drummer", that's not very inspirational. Loads of these CDs and European bootlegs came out with hundreds and hundreds of breaks, so the whole sample thing had lost its special side. Everyone had everything."
"We could make our own samples," continues Adrian, "and we've always been interested in how you record stuff, and techniques of recording, and making things sound the way they do. Getting the original instruments. . . So, why don't we do it ourselves? We spent a lot of time experimenting with sound, how to make loops. Because it's a natural step for us; there's no point in sampling records now. You can do it without. [To Geoff] Although you could sample records and make some dangerous things out of it, still, that nobody else would, I think. They wouldn't pick the kind of samples that you pick.
"There's also that thing about the "Funky Drummer", that certain American bands, like Public Enemy, have that authority to sample "Funky Drummer" again. . . and it's going to be heavy as hell, and they've got a big stamp of identity, and nobody could criticise them for that. Because it's bigger than that."
Geoff: "If you really want to get anal about this, you put on a record and you can hear a break, and if it doesn't have a certain air about it - what we call air. . ." He looks to Adrian for clarification.
"Yeah, it's the air around the thing. What we are trying to do is create this air, this atmosphere: it's the stuff that's in between the hi-hat and the snare that you can't hear, but if it wasn't there you would notice it, it would be wrong. It would be like programming a beat up on a beatbox. So that's what we're looking for, and I suppose that two years was also a questing for that feeling. . ."
By now, they're practically talking to each other.
Geoff: "Also that dangerousness, when you put on an old record,
whether a soundtrack, a soul record, and it's got an orchestral
build-up, and then you hear the beat drop on it - for me, there's
nothing like it. That gives me shivers: that is the absolute right
thing that should be on the record. And creating that atmosphere is
what we're all about."
How, exactly does this 'ungroup' assemble the music in the studio?
Geoff explains: "Physically the way we do it is, me and Ade go in there, and we experiment, I'll play the drums for a bit, Ade plays bass guitar, or synths - whatever we need to play, really. Dave McDonald engineers it. And then we track-lay it like a song. Then we literally put it down on 24 track tape, and mix it like it's finished. Then obviously there's loads of things that we do with it, putting it through bits of gear, and tape, and then that goes into the sampler as a whole chunk. Usually through a mono headphone output. And that's where things start getting chopped around, maybe with extra drums. . ."
Adrian: "Because that's what we're looking for - that is the moment, stage two if you like. As soon as it goes into the sampler, then it becomes something else, because you can re-trigger it. You can slow it down, speed it up, instead of playing. And it suddenly becomes this other thing that's always been in our head."
Geoff: "And that's when it starts to sound like a Portishead tune, doesn't it? Eventually when it's right, we put it onto vinyl, with loads of different ideas - beats, guitar sounds, organ sounds, from loads of other tunes. Pretty much the album of ideas. And then that's fucked around with on decks, and stretched, so you get distortion. And then that goes back into the sampler. And by that time we've got an arrangement for a song, and that will be sent to Beth, or she'll come and pick it up. She works separately from us. . ."
"When we're making the samples up," Adrian picks up, "we are thinking completely retro. We can't think about sub-bass, can't think about any of those things, because we know that's going to come later. So it's a perverted form of retro band, in a way. We are incredibly anal in lots of ways, because when you sample stuff, we want sounds that were from before, like you want the reverb from a voice, hanging over. . ."
Geoff continues: "So you just get the 'blopphh'. . . Whatever's happening with the kit, at the start, you always get that sound. . ."
Adrian: "We get into that sort of thing, and that is an important issue."
Geoff: "[Stage three is when we] move it totally around, and make beat drops on simple things like words - when you want that word to come out at you, you drop the beat, and put in an air pocket."
Adrian: "It's still the same loop running underneath it, but you can always make it sound interesting, by taking the beat out. You're not adding things, like, second verse, add a tambourine to pick it up a bit. You literally drop it completely to get a sense of air."
Portishead arrived fully formed with their peculiar combination of sounds - elements that now form the hip baggage of any two-bit sample-collagist. Do they consider themselves primarily stylists or musicians? Adrian's reply is immediate and firm. "Musicians and composers, and definitely not stylists. Anybody in any style of music, if there's a band that does something and it's from the heart, there are going to be other people who are copying it. Because anything with power and conviction is going to be inspirational, I would have thought. But they don't get to the root of why that style is there in the first place."
"We're not into modern beat records," says Geoff. "That whole thing about pre-sampled CDs, with 1000 funky breaks on it that have been chopped around, they have no interest to us at all. What we do, we have this obsession with old sound, and that's what we love about making a record. We are also cautious of being a retro band. There is a very fine line; you really have to be careful. I can understand why people say, 'It's not future music, it's not the music of the millennium' [laughs]. I mean, we don't care - we'll do it anyway; but the other side of it is, I can see why they say it, because a lot of the stuff we do is based in the past."
"You could say that drum 'n' bass is music for the millennium," adds Adrian, "and I know that [fellow Bristolian] Roni Size actually says, 'Roll on the millennium, because that's where our music's heading'. But I think all music's for the future if it's made with an honest point of view."
"I'm sorry to remind you, but I'm scared of what we're creating" - "It Could Be Sweet" from Dummy
From Mahler (a Portishead tour coach favourite) to Leonard Cohen, Nico and Nick Drake, the black dog has always had the best tunes. Does their own music scare them? Geoff jumps in: "Beth does, definitely."
"Anyone who writes needs the rest of the world," writes Ulf Poschardt in his turntablist history of the century, DJ Culture, "or else their text remains impoverished and autistic. The DJ is similarly alone when he sits at home by his turntables spending days with his records. But more than the writer by his text, the DJ is freed from loneliness by the music."
"Personally," says Geoff, "I've been really cold, for fucking years, because my head's been into music. I've never cared for an awful lot but the music. I think I've come to this point in my life now where you find out what are the really important things in life, and what you've missed, and what you should have done in the past, evaluating your whole attitude and the way you are. I don't think I would have got where I was, where we are, if I wasn't like that." To the tattoo parlour, then. And put your foot down.