Posted on Jul 15th 2008 11:14 pm

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Over ten years after their last studio was released, fourteen since the seminal Dummy, Portishead have produced one of the most spellbinding records of decade with the soberly entitled Third. Sobriety is very much the line with this new album, as the spacious and haunting soundtracks of the past have been replaced with much darker and arid soundscapes infused with elements of krautrock, psychedelic rock and hypnotic electronics, all combined to back up Beth Gibbons’s pure voice and harrowing lyrics. Having just put the finishing touch to a full European tour, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley talked to themilkman about the long process, doubts and countless steps back leading to the release of the album, the joy of touring, how leaking roofs and illegal downloads are intimately linked, and much more.

The new album has been a while in the making and seems to have been shrouded in doubts and a lot of toeing and froing, going back to tracks… Was it as painful as what’s been said in the press, and were there times when you thought you’d never get it out of the door?

Adrian Utley: All our records are difficult to make. Well, we’ve only made three. The first one was quite easy to make, the second was really difficult to make because of the first one. This one was difficult to make because there was such a long gap in between. When we started, we didn’t really have an entirely formed view of where it was we wanted to be, what we were and where we were going to be. The creativity between us is sometimes hard to get.

It’s funny to talk about it now. When we were doing press earlier in the year, just before the album was released, we had more or a relationship with being in the studio. Now, we have more of a relationship playing live. We’ve just been touring for eight weeks. I have totally different feelings about it because it’s been very joyous playing live, even with these kinds of difficulties of travelling and being tired a lot of the time. And I was ill as well, which was very uncharacteristic of me and had a weird bearing on it all, so that made it quite hard. But even with all that, it was a joyous experience, compared to making the record, so I feel different about it now than if you’d talked to me two months ago. [The album] was difficult to make, but it feels like it’s gone now. I guess all our records will be difficult to make. I don’t know, I’d like to think they wouldn’t, but they will, probably.

Geoff Barrow: We were always concerned about how long it was taking and how much energy we actually had, how many knock backs… For some reason, with the way we write music, there are very little positives; the negatives outweigh the positives…

In what way?

GB: Well, because you write stuff that’s crap, or you feel crap because you’re not writing. The downs outweigh the ups… not at the end when we finish it, because that’s all good, and when we perform it, it’s cool, but it’s getting there.

So, now that it’s been released, how do you look at it? Are you pleased with the finished product?

GB: I’m just incredibly pleased that it’s out, that we’ve finished it. Anything from the day it was released, or actually not even released, just finished, is a bonus. The day we walked out of the mastering and went ‘that’s finally it’, it was a massive weight off our shoulders, so any person’s perception or review or whatever, we do care obviously, it’s nice if people like it, but the emphasis is purely on the fact that we’d finished it.

Were you concerned that because of your previous records being so significant of their time, you wouldn’t be relevant today?

GB: Not at all, because we’re here as people. If we didn’t have any influences, if we were not buzzing off of tunes and making music with other people, then you would have to be concerned, but not the way that we are. I mean, we don’t live in some weird kind of castle, and kinda let’s wheel it out again when we’ve run out of money and make something relevant to 1994… We’re actively involved in all kind of modern music, so it was always going to be good.

Did the huge success of Dummy, both critically and commercially, put a lot of pressure on the band?

AU: It did, yes, and that’s why our second record was difficult to make, because there was that pressure, that expectation. When we first met, nobody knew who we were at all. In Bristol, there was Massive Attack, and they would be around, and they’d already had a brilliant record out. For us, we just were in the studio making the record, and there were no expectations. And it took a while, it took about a year for Dummy to become as we know it if you like. By the time we came to record the next record, there were huge expectations on us, not from the record company or anything… I’m sure there was, but that didn’t affect me anyway, I didn’t think about that, but from the public, from the way we were going to be perceived, it was a great pressure.

Was it similar with the new record, or was it, as you said, because it had been such a long time?

AU: I think we bypassed all that, I think the pressure that we had was purely from us, internal pressure. It wasn’t the record company either, they were very good about everything. We used to drop tracks, and it’d take ages, and we never had anything to do with Island Records, we’d done nothing. We met Nick (Gatfield), who was the MD of the company at the time, and we played him seven tracks, we were kind of nearly there, and then a year later, we played him six tracks, we’d lost one in a year, and they were really good about it, they were really supportive, which is great. So there was no pressure from them, it was purely from ourselves.

Geoff, I read recently that you said once that you didn’t quite get the whole trip-hop thing at the time…

GB: We just were a band and basically, it so happened that there was this genre named in and around us that we were never really into at all. If any record was coming out with the name trip hop on it, it usually went out of the window as quick as it came in. I don’t consider Tricky as trip hop, I don’t consider Massive Attack as trip hop. It was something that meant two things; it meant something in England, and it meant something else abroad. Abroad, it wasn’t seen as a bad thing. It was just a cool thing. In America, it was the British and European cool sound of hip-hop. In Spain and Italy, it was seen as cool alternative music, emotionally charged, heavy kinda of music. In England, for me, it was kind of weird background music that I was never into. You had people who actually called themselves trip hop, and that was enough for me to go ‘I don’t care’.  We were listening to Public Enemy, Adrian was listening to Sonic Youth… My music tastes have changed because I’ve gone out of hip-hop and gone into rock, avant-garde, krautrock… We’ve never been soft in what we do. Over time, tracks like It Could Be Sweet could be perceived as soft, but it actually comes from a tradition of British soul music more than anything else.

You were also quoted, in the Observer I think, that at one point during the recording of Third, you’d ended up listening to hip hop drum machines…

GB: Yeah… sampling has always been part of what we do, but not sampling to be on the album, it’s more sampling to create a vibe, and then we’d recreate it. With Third, we approached it a different way. It was like taking atmospheres from records that we could never create or we’d never be in a position to create. Like when you hear a record, it’s like someone giving you a key to open up a door, you go ‘ah, what a beautiful atmosphere’. It’s almost like seeing a painting and being inspired as a painter… you go ‘fuck, I didn’t realise this could exist like that’ and that’s what we get from sampling. It’s not so much notes, it’s more that really.

The drum machine reference, is that where Machine Gun stems from?

GB: Oh no, that comes from a keyboard that Adrian was going to buy. It was a £50 old home organ that had a drum machine on it. We sampled it, and I took it home and made the beat. That was sampling a drum machine rather than sampling a record.

You’ve been touring for a while now. I saw you play about a week before the album came out in Brixton. A lot of people didn’t seem to know what to expect, or perhaps expected the new tracks to be like the old ones. Did you feel a bit out of step with the audience?

AU: No. not at all really. The album had been out on the internet for eight weeks before release, which is a total fucking drag. Also, because we played All Tomorrow’s Parties, we played five new songs there, and all of them ended up on YouTube that night, so people had heard stuff, or at least I sensed that they had, you know. It felt fantastic really. I must say that this tour has been a joyous experience, not just in the playing of it, and that’s been great fun, but in the response from the audience as well. When we played in Berlin, it had that kind of cool, held back kind of feeling, but it felt like people were really into it.

GB: I’m glad the tracks had leaked, because English radio is so boring… I don’t want to sound like a bitter person who can’t get on the radio, but I don’t know another band who can get chart positions anywhere in the world like we’ve had, play the gigs like we have done, be as rated in the media and online and not get any radio at all. I fucking love radio, I think it’s an amazing thing, but everyone is so worried about their audience demographics… there are some good radios around; Radio 6 I really enjoy, but in general, the people in charge of the playlists are fucking idiots. Why do we want to hear fucking Coldplay on Radio 6, they’re going to be everywhere. Can’t you leave one station that’s not going to hammer them twenty four hours a day?

How do you look back at the tour now that it’s over?

GB: We’ve just finished last Saturday, and I’ve got two young kids, two young girls, and I still haven’t had any sleep, We’re going on holiday next Saturday, so that’s when I’ll go ‘pfew’, and I’ll be like ‘thank God for that’. It’s a shame because everybody on tour, the band, the crew, were a really good group of friends, so it is sad because of that. Usually, you always end up with a couple of wankers that you take on tour by accident, but this time, everybody was just amazing. People we’ve work with for years, people we know from Bristol, friends of ours selling merchandising, John Minton making our films, just fucking excellent people. We might come out and play next year, and if we do, we can hopefully get the same people. The reaction to it has been brilliant. We couldn’t have asked for better audiences, more interest, it all been fucking amazing really.

You just mentioned that the tracks had leaked out and that there were tracks on YouTube. How do you feel about that?

AU: I don’t mind YouTube, I think YouTube is cool… I don’t know…You know, we had to put out watermarked CDs to give to journalists, and people had to go to a room to listen to the album, we were really careful about it, you know… if that goes out eight weeks before we’re going to release a record, it really fucks me off, because we can’t afford to live. If we don’t sell music we can’t make music. You know, my roof is leaking since we came back, and there’s water pissing down in my studio, down the wall, so I’ve got to get it fixed, so if I can give my music away, then can I get someone to fix my roof for nothing? It’s not gonna happen, is it, but I still need to fix my roof, and I’m not going to get up there on my own, so, you know, for us to continue, I don’t think music should be free. I doesn’t give you any value. When I was a kid, saving up and getting a single or an album, it was like, yes, I’ve got it. I think that if you can just load your iPod with thousands of tracks, you don’t even fucking know what they are half of them… When we used to do cassette recording, which is bootlegging as well, you had to sit there and do it; downloading, you can just go to bed and get up in the morning and you’ve got five thousand tracks…

But at the same time, doesn’t it allow some people who would never have heard your music to hear it and go and buy the records?

AU: Yeah… I don’t know whether people do that though, I’d just rather not give it away. I know what you mean, but I’d rather somebody say ‘check this band’ and made a CD for somebody, actually physically did something, you know. It’s more the expectation, I’m not going to pay for this, I’m going to download it. We didn’t have that years ago. Sometimes you’d be really skint and you’d say ‘come on, make me a cassette of that’, or ‘can I borrow it or record it of you’, but it wasn’t on such a global scale.

Music has become a bit of a convenience now…

AU: Yeah it has, it’s like it’s the people’s music, but it’s not. It’s a big subject and I could go on for hours… I want people to buy the record because it keeps everything rolling… it gives a value to what we’re doing really.

When I saw you play live, I was quite surprised to hear people singing along to some of the old songs…

AU: I think that it’s what people like to do. Sometimes I feel squirmingly embarrassed… I don’t mean that in a bad way to anyone, it’s just my own crap relationship with predictable human nature… I don’t know what it is… I just think people like to do that. I find it surprising at times, but in a way, isn’t it a fantastic thing that somebody knows the lyrics. I’ve seen people watching Beth, women at the front who just know the lyrics and are so fucking into it, that’s amazing.

Talking of the lyrics…

AU: It’s difficult for me to talk about the lyrics, because they’re Beth’s thing.

Well, sometimes her lyrics feel very personal, and even as a listener, it sometimes a bit uncomfortable, like you’re intruding into her life… How do you deal as a band and personally with that? Is it something that you kinda blank out, she does her stuff and you do yours kind of thing…

AU: No no, not at all…  (pauses). It’s very difficult to talk about it because Beth’s lyrics are very much her thing. It’s not like we don’t want to talk about it, but she has her lyrics and they’re for you to interpret, they’re out there, you listen to them, they might make you feel like you shouldn’t be listening to them, and other people will have a different experience with that, and that’s what it’s all about really. I have my own take on her lyrics, and how I feel about them. That’s probably based on conversations I’ve had with her, or seeing her in situations or whatever, fifteen years of working with her and knowing her… My relationship with it is entirely different I think, but it’s not a world we really intrude into very much, Geoff or I.

You’re originally a jazz guitarist I believe…

AU: Not originally, I think that’s what has been said…

The legend…

AU: Yes, the Portishead mythology. It’s part of what people make stories about bands, this person did this and this person did that. I was interested in jazz, intensely, like my whole life depended on it for ten years of my life, and I disciplined myself to learn how to play jazz as we know it, but my interest has always been wider and more far out than that. It was a period in my life of learning and experimentation in that world, and obsession, but before it, I played all sorts of different music, I was into Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker and electronic music, Tangerine Dream and many things, and then afterward, through jazz, I got into hip-hop, Public Enemy, I got into many other areas of electronic music. Now my room is a wall of synthesizers

Geoff, you said on your blog recently, after doing some interviews in LA I think, that you always feel like you’ve been ranting about someone, or you’ve been slagging someone off… is there anyone you fancy slagging off?

GB: (Laughs) er… oh God, who would it be today?… It’d have to be… I don’t know, I’d have to think about it…

Interview 6 June 2008

Portishead | Island Records

Filed in Interviews | Tags: ,
Comments (3)

3 Responses to “INTERVIEW: PORTISHEAD The Wild West”

  1. mapsadaisicalon 16 Jul 2008 at 7:39 am

    As usual, you didn’t use ANY of my questions. Even the one about whether “Machine Gun” glamourises gun crime.

  2. themilkmanon 17 Jul 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Just didn’t get the time. It was like ra-ta-ta-ta-ta.

  3. David Abravanelon 21 Jul 2008 at 8:13 am

    It’s bizarre to think about Portishead having a “joyous” experience playing some of the most flat-out depressing (but brilliant) songs I’ve ever heard.