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Against the Grain: An Interview With Portishead

Portishead

Portishead

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!”
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