PopMatters, June 2008
By culture and temperature alone, L.A. is a different world to the weaving urban sprawl of Bristol, the city in the West of England that pokes through Portishead’s sullen sound as much as the stark beats and introspective voice of singer Beth Gibbons. If L.A. is palm trees, Harleys and silicone, then Bristol is closer to the kind of unsettled dimly-lit streets and dark alleys that the Specials drive down in their video for “Ghost Town”.
Geoff Barrow clearly notices the difference. Named after the Bristol satellite town he grew up in, Portishead emerged in the mid-nineties with Dummy, a startling debut that bucked the prevailing trend of outward-looking Britpop with an inward-looking melancholy of scorched-Earth pop. Blending slow-motion hip-hop grooves, old-school scratches, mournful soundtrack samples and Beth Gibbon’s tormented lyrics, Dummy went on to sell four million records worldwide, inadvertently creating the trip-hop sub-genre and providing the soundtrack for countless dinner parties along the way. Their self-titled follow-up went further against the grain, upping the mournful overtones as well as the underlying sense of paranoia, but it still sold healthily.
The subsequent ten years then have been for Portishead their own kind of wilderness, the kind their music often evokes. Burn-out, divorce, and dismay at how their music had been received at times, all played a part, while Barrow even speaks of turning his back on creating music at one point. And then midway through 2007, while many were still doubting another Portishead record, All Tomorrows Parties – the innovative UK festival promoter – announced that Portishead would curate their A Nightmare Before Christmas event. One look at the line-up, a bill that included drone metal, experimental electronica and Balkan folk, suggested that once they did return, maybe it would be worth the wait after all. We could all relax.
Now that Third is released, Geoff Barrow can finally relax himself. He clearly knows the difference between ten years staring at a stubborn tape machine and the glimmer of the Californian sun. “I’m sat by the pool,” he laughs, still coming to terms with his surroundings. “I really don’t know how I got to this point. I’m sat next to some terrible speaker playing trip-hop music in this hotel!”
The relief is evident in his voice. And while Geoff may have vented his frustrations on the Portishead blog in October (“this album has been like watching Lost, a never ending journey with very few answers”) the relief seems to have smoothed away at least some of that hardship. “It wasn’t too traumatic really,” he clarifies now. “It was traumatic at the start of it because we just had enough of the business really and I’d had enough of music generally. It was traumatic at times trying to write some decent music, do you know what I mean. But now it feels absolutely spectacularly good that we’ve finished it.”
“Spectacularly good” could be seen as an understatement. Portishead (the band is completed by guitarist Adrian Utley) have essentially reinvented themselves. Saturated in analogue, classic old-school cut-and-paste production and the varied influences they shared via ATP, Third echoes the wilderness of those lost years while retaining the group’s absolute love for building intriguing soundscapes. You can hear the passion and the frustration battling it out with each other. Drums, loosened from their electronic shackles, chug along with doom-laden chord progressions and eerie olde-tyme folk, while the stirring vocals of Beth Gibbons remains the only true constant, tying the whole thing together (drifting in during the album’s first song, “Silence”, her first words are “Tempted in our minds / Tormented inside mine / Wounded and afraid inside my head / Falling through changes”).
Third sounds like Portishead’s previous two albums suffered a head-on collision and were slowly pieced back together in an old BBC studio, with nothing but analogue wiring and a Doctor Who sound effect kit at hand. It’s beautiful record—possibly their finest—but even die-hards will need a few listens.
Thankfully, Portishead still sound like Portishead, if not a little more bruised and nasty this time out. Throughout Third you can hear the stubborn deconstruction that the band evidently spent aeons tinkering with. It’s a process that Geoff sums up when just talking about battling with one track, “Nylon Smile”, with its tantalising Tom Waits beats. “It was really weird because ‘Nylon Smile’ was an acoustic guitar track that had been around for almost ten years,” he recalls. “It was a demo that Adrian wrote that was just a real simple guitar change for Beth, a major to minor chord thing. And when we first looked at the songs, we looked at doing it and we must have spent at least six months trying to make it work. And it always sounded too … well it didn’t sound like us.
“The song sounded like Beth and the riff was cool, but every time we tried to do something it just sounded not right. It was a gut feeling really. And then me and Beth sat down and we chopped out some parts, we did like a bit of a hatchet job on the song. There was another two parts to it and we just simplified it. And then I got into the studio once and I kind of thought I can’t do this.
“It was this thing about beats. Through the last ten years I’ve not been very interested in beats at all. I actually tried to find another side of my creativity rather than just programming because everything I touched I was not into at all. It just sounded shit. So to kind of get out of that I started fucking around with keyboards and music and a lot more playing drums really, but in a non-traditional kind of way, and still trying to maintain some points of hip-hop and interesting music. So I ended up playing it on the back of an acoustic guitar. I just turned the guitar around, stuck a mike on it and just played that groove. So it’s a live groove from start to finish.”
For the modern day artist, raised on Torrent files and shareware, a click away is all manner of digital trickery designed specifically to avoid those “wasteful” months of toil. In a design studio somewhere a programmer may even be adding a “Portishead” option – “Right-click on your soundtrack sample; then select ‘Geoff Barrow’”. To the real-life Geoff, any thought of this is an abomination. “Everybody’s got a ProTools set up or whatever now, and they’ve got all these drop-down folders on it that have got all these pre-made hip-hop drumbeats and shit and I just think, ‘why the fuck would you want to do that?’”
Click “Geoff Barrow Scratches”, select “Adrian Utley Alien Guitar”, add “Beth Gibbons Deathly-Harrow Vox”. Press “Yes’“to download Dummy II. Frightening.
Yet, while countless Portishead fans, clearly balding after all the hair they’ve pulled out waiting for Third (just imagine all the Guns ‘n’ Roses followers, are they wearing wigs?), will surely thank the band for avoiding the easier option, we must pay a thought to all the dinner parties across the land, still waiting for the next Portishead album to soundtrack their delicious soirée. As Geoff so deliciously put it in his blog last year, “It sounds pretty different from what we have done before. I don’t think the fondue society will be happy.”
That they became so successful from the mainstream buying into their symphony of paranoia is the big Portishead paradox. And it’s not just about the music being so obviously littered with sadness and loneliness. It’s the absurdity of giant advertising companies and dinner parties warming to Beth’s curdling cries of despair, depression and fragility. Geoff agrees. “I’ve just been in this hotel now and they played a track from Dummy, along with a load of other shit, just around the pool. And I’m just thinking, ‘God, if they actually knew what Beth was singing about!’”
Geoff explains that Portishead turned down what would have been some healthy paydays from the advertising industry, even stopping one of the few requests they agreed to after researching the company involved. But the misinterpretation of his music, like any artist, still troubles him. “It’s a massive question that whole thing really,” he says. “That’s all we’ve been singing about, the ridiculousness of human behaviour, and human conditioning and basically pressure of trying to live a life. Just all these things that kind of trouble you, that when you get old you realise they’re so full of shit. It depends what your goal is in life, but working towards just spending money on stuff you can’t real afford, you don’t really need, you know what I mean? And then it’s so ironic that our music was picked up by those exact people, if not an even worse lot. I suppose if we were just making digital noise and [Beth] was singing on it then I can understand, or if she was singing with her acoustic guitar. It was just badly interpreted our music, it was so terribly interpreted.
“But,” and he emphasizes the but, “this wrong interpretation has allowed us to carry on for ten years and have a bit of cash. So I can’t complain, but it was never supposed to be like this.”
Geoff, Adrian, and Beth’s deconstruction of Portishead should do enough to keep the advertisers and the fondue set at arm’s length. But just to make sure they opted for “Machine Gun” as their first single in ten years. An uncompromising, drifting apocalypse of a tune, the desolate, factory churn of dislocated drums is a pretty decent alarm system to deter any trespassers. For anyone else, as soon as you get inside Third there are some wonderfully sublime songs. I keep returning to “The Rip”, a beautiful evocative track that slowly builds from a whisper into a compelling, soaring melody with Beth cooing “Wild Horses / They will take me away / And my tenderness I feel”.
Forever a music fan, Geoff talks passionately about the debt Portishead owe to the artists that Portishead chose to accompany them at last year’s All Tomorrow’s Party event. “We have said that everyone we got to play, everybody, with no exception, has played a part on this record.” Set in a holiday camp idyll in Minehead, England, ATP favours the uncommercial and challenging over the safe and mainstream. For even committed Portishead fans the line-up must have been a shock, taking in drone metal like Sunn 0))), Balkan folk troupe Hawk and a Hacksaw and psychedelic electronic from Silver Apples.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, by miles,” Geoff enthuses. “ATP, as an actual event, suits us down to the ground. It’s the most uncommercial festival you can get in the world, other than if you were to play an acoustic guitar in the middle of your mum’s field. There’s no sponsorship, other than things which are in the right way, and that’s not trying to be super-cool. I don’t think it’s trying to do anything other than appeal to a group who like music, that are really fairly uncatered for on national radio and so on.
“It is so deeply uncommercial and uncorporate, but it’s actually in one of the most corporate places I’ve ever been to in my life. I think it’s just brilliant. And choosing the bands, me and Ade had a dream ticket, just to get all those bands. Everyone was fairly shocked when they saw the line-up but for me it was everyone we listened to.”
For Portishead A Nightmare Before Christmas proved a welcome distraction from the end of a difficult process. If, as Geoff has said, making Third was like watching Lost, than the outcome has been far more satisfactory. To return at all would have been impressive, but to return with arguably their finest record is as satisfying as Hurley whispering in your ear what those damn numbers mean.
As for the future, Geoff insists that their current tour ends at the Primavera Festival in Spain at the end of May, ruling out any other festivals. “Hopefully [we’ll be] back in the studio then,” he assures, a slight element of self-doubt slipping through.
“We seem to do everything in a way to make life difficult for ourselves. We could play the festivals this summer and not have to worry about the mortgage for a while. But we’re not! It’s always the reverse of what we should be doing really. I’m sure our agent is going nuts, and the record company’s going, ‘but how are you going to sell the record through the summer?’ I don’t know, we’ll do what we always do really: take the difficult route.”