Trip-hop hooray

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

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

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