It’s taken more than a decade, but Portishead have finally come out with a new album. Kevin Courtney goes beyond the press release to discover what took these slow-groovers so long, and wonders if this is the beginning of a rebirth for Bristol’s trip-hop
IT’S ALWAYS the way: you’re about to interview some band or pop star, when a twitchy record company executive jumps in front of you and says: “Don’t ask about the divorce/dead rock star husband/child molestation charge/plastic surgery/Johnny Marr/gerbil.”
There’s always one question you’re not allowed to ask, and the obvious one for Geoff Barrow of trip-hop legends Portishead is, simply, why so long? It’s been 10 years since their last album, twice the time it took for The Stone Roses to engineer their second coming. But this is the one question I’m barred from asking. Have Portishead gone all Courtney Love on us?
Nah, there’s a simple reason that the monumentally slow-grooving trio are in a hurry to skirt the subject: it might take up too much precious interview time when they could be talking about music and stuff. So they’ve prepared a handy press release that addresses the thorny issue of the band’s decade-long hiatus.
It says that following a hectic four years between the release of the Mercury Music Prize-winning Dummyin 1994 and the mixing of the Live at the Roseland NYC album in 1997, beatmaster Geoff Barrow, singer Beth Gibbons and guitarist Adrian Utley “went home, emotionally and physically exhausted”.
Geoff, the intense music-obsessive whose dense beats and brooding samples gave Portishead their signature style, took a complete break from music to “try and rebuild some semblance of a home life”. No abstinence for the other two, though: Adrian, the veteran session man whose r’n’b/jazz/rock guitar style brought a hipster aesthetic to the mix, kept busy with production, soundtrack and live work.
Beth, the chain-smoking diva with the voice of a gracefully fallen angel, recorded her own album ( Out of Season) and wrote a French film soundtrack. At no point did the trio ever consider breaking up, says the press release; they “knew they would write another record”.
Ten years gone, and Portishead have finally written that other record. “Proper work” on Third began in 2004, although Geoff and Adrian did record a session in Sydney in 2001 that sounded “okay”. But when you’re talking about a band that’s held up as a trip-hop totem, and who have influenced a raft of downbeat dance acts, sounding just okay was clearly not going to cut it.
Their dense, eerie music has been decanted into the mainstream via TV adverts, This Life and a raft of dinner party compilations – “They turned our sounds into a fondue set!” Barrow recently lamented in an interview for the Observer Music Magazine. So Portishead were going to have to come back with something startling, scary and uncompromising, something that would not only clear the dinner table but smash up the crockery.
A decade on from their last sighting, and Barrow has the current crop of young soul pretenders in his sights. He’s unimpressed by the current obsession with Amy Winehouse, labelling her “the Shakin’ Stevens of soul”, and he’s bemused that the likes of Adele and Duffy are so lauded when, to him, they just sound like the grandkids of Cilla Black and Lulu. “Nowadays, it seems that if you just tell someone it’s soul, then that’s enough. If it says it on the tin, then people will buy it.”
Portishead have never traded in coffeetable soul, even though Dummy ended up on the coffee tables of the world. One listen to Silence, the opening track of Third,
should floor you enough to realise that Beth Gibbons is still singing from her crushed, broken and ruined heart, and the earthshaking beats of Barrow, combined with the ear-scraping guitars of Adrian Utley, should ensure that Third is left safely in its jewel case during dinner parties. It’s a big, heavy mutha of an album, carrying the weight of the world in its grooves.
It’s no surprise to learn that the famously finicky trio took the guts of three years to painstakingly piece it together.
“We could have thrown everything into it,” says Barrow. “We find it so difficult to write, that it’s an agonising process just to get to that point. The idea of going back into that self-pressure, not pressure from the industry or anything, was difficult. It was also about us having something to say.
“A lot of the stuff that was written by us originally was about frustration. Whether it’s with relationships or human conditioning, or just the government, it’s always borne out of frustration. But the frustration that we’re rubbish at coming up with albums very quickly is much bigger.”
Portishead may not be the most prolific of outfits, but they are one of the few around who care deeply about the music they make, and refuse to just cobble together a bunch of easy beats, loop a theremin around it, and toss a few fashionably angsty lyrics on top.
“I’m really proud and joyful that we have it actually finished,” Barrow says. “The hardest part for us is the point of musical creation. We can’t just pick up a guitar and start writing. We’d love to be four people in a band with funny haircuts, and he plays the bass and she’s the singer . . . It would be great, wouldn’t it? You could bang ’em out, but it just so happens that we’re not that, so when it actually comes to it, yeah, it’s a very long-winded process, so there is a sense of relief.”
But there’s no rest for the wicked, because now Portishead have reawakened the beast, they have to get out there and promote the album. They curated the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Butlins in Minehead last December, where they premiered five tracks from Now they will tour Europe (no Irish date as yet) and do a headliner at Coachella in the US. Through it all, they will continue to live and work in Bristol.
“We like the idea of supporting our city,” says Barrow. “Everything’s so London-centric that the idea of working in your own town and creating something really individual is really appealing.”
Bristol was bombed in the 1940s when the Luftwaffe reduced the port city to near-rubble. It was bombed again in the 1990s, when a Panzer division of dance producers and DJs blitzed the city’s clubs, warehouses and basements with a hip, savvy brew of house, soul and r’n’b, leaving a distinct Jamaican aroma floating in the air. This was the breathing space for Barrow, an aspiring young producer who got a job as tape-op and tea-boy at the Coach House Studio at 21, twiddling knobs and stirring the hash tea on Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines album.
He met Gibbons, six years his senior, while both were on a government job creation scheme, and, follow- ing some fruitless sessions in the London studio owned by Blue Lines producer Cameron McVey and his wife Neneh Cherry, the pair hooked up with the even older Utley and dropped the song Sour Times. They named themselves after the Avon town Barrow lived in as a teenager after his parents separated.
Portishead’s debut – mixing old soul, hip-hop, jazz and blues samples with cinematic themes such as Lalo Schifrin’s More Mission Impossible – may be considered a stone classic, but Dummy was initially met with, at best, bemusement and, at worst, indifference. Some record buyers, puzzled by the crackles and scratchy sounds, brought it back to the record shop, assuming it was a faulty CD.
“I do feel also that our first record, when it first came out, was fairly odd,” Barrow says. “It took a while to be accepted. We released our first track in 1994, but it wasn’t until a year later that we were having any kind of chart success.”
These days, the so-called Bristol scene seems so 20th century, but the city is bracing itself for a third wave: not only are Portishead about to drop their latest bomb, but both Tricky and Massive Attack also have new records ready to launch. Once again, the planets seem to have aligned, and Bristol may well reappear on the musical radar.
“Lots of good music coming out of Bristol these days, but in a different sense,” asserts Geoff. “But it’s still kind of hardcore – Bristol’s always had a sense of being kind of uncommercially aware. So there’s a lot of people making a lot of racket here.”
Portishead: chain-smoker Beth Gibbons, music-obsessive Geoff Barrow and hipster Adrian Utley