Adrian Ut­ley

A decade on from Portishead’s last al­bum, Gui­tarist drops in to visit Adrian Ut­ley at his home stu­dio in Bris­tol to talk about mak­ing mu­sic in the past, present and fu­ture…

Guitarist - - Contents - Words: Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy: Olly Cur­tis

Prior to team­ing up with Portishead, Adrian Ut­ley was rev­el­ling in play­ing at the top of his game as a ses­sion gui­tarist with Jeff Beck. Other gui­tarists might have been con­tent to rest on those lau­rels. How­ever, his rest­lessly en­quir­ing mind was in­tent on push­ing be­yond the nor­mal realms of the gui­tar and into sub­lime, un­ex­plored and un­de­fin­able new mu­si­cal ar­eas. In­spired by the lib­er­ated ethos of free jazz, along with the fear­less con­vic­tion of DIY punk and hip hop, Adrian’s unique mu­si­cal vi­sion soon found its per­fect set­ting in the in­flu­en­tial Bris­tol trip-hop out­fit Portishead, as they grace­fully un­veiled their game-chang­ing Dummy al­bum in 1994 (fol­lowed by a fur­ther two full-length LPs to date: Portishead in 1997, and Third in 2008).

Adrian’s in­ter­ests also ex­tend be­yond gui­tars into syn­the­siz­ers and pro­duc­tion. This means that he’s typ­i­cally in­volved in a range of col­lab­o­ra­tive projects, both on stage and in the stu­dio. In the best pos­si­ble sense, he re­mains hard to pin a la­bel on – ei­ther as a pro­ducer, com­poser or gui­tarist. Of­ten lean­ing to­wards the retro-fu­tur­is­tic, pre­vi­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions and re­work­ings by Adrian in­clude The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc sound­track (with Will Gre­gory) and Terry Ri­ley’s In C (with Adrian Ut­ley’s Gui­tar Orchestra). Other strands of work have seen him

open­ing new cre­ative doors hand in hand with artists such as Marc Ri­bot, Mar­i­anne Faith­full, Patti Smith, Mark Link­ous, PJ Har­vey, John Par­ish and Anna Calvi, whilst re­main­ing firmly in touch with his roots in the sur­round­ing gui­tar com­mu­nity as both a men­tor and ed­u­ca­tor.

To­day, Adrian is typ­i­cally hard at work in the record­ing stu­dio nested on the top floor of his Bris­tol home. He takes a rare pause with Gui­tarist to re­flect upon his 25-year long multi-plat­inum ca­reer in a band that man­aged to not only break new ground, but also help de­fine an en­tirely new mu­si­cal genre. Few gui­tarists will ever be in a po­si­tion to shrug off such claims as hy­per­bole and, although aware of the band’s ob­vi­ous suc­cess, one gets the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that be­ing type­cast as a pi­o­neer of ‘trip hop’ isn’t high on his agenda. Af­ter all, he’s far too busy im­mers­ing him­self in one of sev­eral projects cur­rently un­der­way out­side of the Portishead sphere. What are you work­ing on to­day? “Right now, I’m writ­ing half an hour of mu­sic for a con­cert in June at the Elbphil­har­monie con­cert hall in Ham­burg with Will Gre­gory [of Gold­frapp] and Mar­tyn Ware [of Hu­man League]. It’s part of an elec­tronic mu­sic fes­ti­val and is a three-part trip­tych called Al­most Hu­man. There are go­ing to be eight synths with a mas­sive sur­round sound sys­tem in this huge con­cert hall. It’s such a lot of work that it seems mad to do it for just one gig, so we’re go­ing to try and do some more with it. We’ll see what hap­pens.” It sounds like things have come a long way since work­ing as a ses­sion gui­tarist. How did the tran­si­tion to Portishead oc­cur? “Back in the early 90s when we were mak­ing the first Portishead record [Dummy] I was play­ing with Jeff Beck – a mas­sive hero, y’know. Clive Deamer [Portishead drum­mer] and I did a Gene Vin­cent and Cliff Gallup trib­ute record with him called Crazy Legs [by Jeff Beck and the Big Town Play­boys]. We made the record and then did a gig in Paris. It was amaz­ing play­ing with Jeff – his dy­namic and power. He was re­ally kind to me and was very into what I was do­ing. I re­mem­ber play­ing him some early Portishead demos. I’m not sure he to­tally got it be­cause it was very early on and was un­prece­dented in terms of sound – I mean it was a pretty odd sound. I was re­ally into hip hop and was start­ing to move away from gui­tar. I was fed up with a lot of the things I was do­ing. We were look­ing back­wards, as well as for­wards, in terms of hip hop and new ways of mak­ing mu­sic.

“I got to play with Jeff at a point in my ca­reer when I’d had enough of play­ing gui­tar and gui­tar play­ing. Jeff’s amaz­ing play­ing and en­ergy helped me, but I was more in­ter­ested in beats and syn­the­siz­ers and pro­duc­tion than gui­tars. I was in­ter­ested in find­ing out about sound and it’s been a mas­sive learn­ing curve ever since I changed from be­ing a low-level ses­sion

“It’s been a mas­sive learn­ing curve ever since I changed from be­ing a low-level ses­sion player in ev­ery shit­hole in Eng­land”

player - play­ing ev­ery blues club in Europe and ev­ery shit­hole in Eng­land - to re­think­ing ev­ery­thing.” How did you go about in­te­grat­ing gui­tar so seam­lessly into elec­tronic mu­sic? “To in­te­grate the gui­tar into elec­tronic mu­sic, I be­came less choosy about my sound. At one time I would never have con­sid­ered us­ing even a tran­sis­tor amp, but some­times the nat­u­ral sound­ing setup – like a black­face Fender amp, a nice ES-335 and no ped­als – just wasn’t ap­pli­ca­ble to the sit­u­a­tion I was in and I was try­ing to force this sound into a sit­u­a­tion that peo­ple didn’t re­ally want on their records.

“I be­gan to re­alise that a lot of the peo­ple that had come be­fore me - all the gui­tar play­ers that I re­ally loved – made their gui­tar sound fit with the track. It’s so im­por­tant to do that, but it’s easy to over­look, es­pe­cially when we’re so ob­sessed with gear. It might be a wicked gui­tar sound, but does it sound right in the track? That was a big re­al­i­sa­tion for me.” Did you have a spe­cific sound in mind with re­gards to Portishead? “I think Ge­off [Bar­row] did early on. I joined them af­ter they’d been work­ing for a year or so. We pretty much dumped all the ma­te­rial they’d been work­ing on, but he had an idea in mind which I be­came in­volved in and so I started writ­ing and cre­at­ing sound as well. We had a col­lec­tive pic­ture of what it would look like, but it was re­ally a gut [feel­ing] thing and we didn’t have much knowl­edge. It de­vel­oped but we hadn’t yet. It’s like all bands: you have a feel­ing about what it is you’re try­ing to do, but it doesn’t al­ways work. I re­mem­ber track­ing up loads of Ebow for the song Roads, but I didn’t know how to use an Ebow then and it drove me ab­so­lutely men­tal! I had this pic­ture in my mind, but I just couldn’t re­alise it. I couldn’t make it work. That can hap­pen when you’re ex­per­i­ment­ing with all sorts of stuff and try­ing things that you think might work.” What did you con­clude gen­er­ally from ex­per­i­ment­ing with gui­tar sounds? “The thin­ner the gui­tar was, the more it fit­ted in, be­cause the drums took up a lot of space. Same with Beth [Gib­bons’] voice – it had to be thin. She’s got a mas­sive voice if she wants it to be, but it wasn’t ap­pli­ca­ble. It’s about pro­duc­tion and see­ing your in­stru­ment in the big pic­ture. In an orchestra, it’s pretty well de­lin­eated how the vi­o­lins will sound to­gether and what space the dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments take up; this was built up over cen­turies of in­stru­ments be­ing added, but with a band you can all crowd into the same fre­quency, be­cause we don’t re­ally know what we’re do­ing some­times. Y’know, some­times you can’t hear a gui­tar be­cause a snare drum is in the same fre­quency – stuff like that. Let go of your de­sire to make the best gui­tar sound on

“I would never have con­sid­ered us­ing even a tran­sis­tor amp, but some­times the nat­u­ral sound­ing setup just wasn’t ap­pli­ca­ble”

its own and make it part of the track. In terms of play­ing on other peo­ple’s records, that’s en­tirely what you need to do. It’s not about so­los. I did do a solo on Glory Box but there weren’t any other so­los par­tic­u­larly.” How did you write the gui­tar parts on Dummy? “They were mostly writ­ten on the spot to loops. Some­thing like Sour Times was pretty much writ­ten any­way be­cause it’s a mas­sive sam­ple of Lalo Schifrin’s Danube In­ci­dent. In those days, we took the sam­ples from live records, so the tempo would not be con­sis­tent. We sam­pled one bit and it would be at a dif­fer­ent tempo in an­other bit. That meant when I played on it, the cho­ruses and verses would be out of tune, so I had to re­tune [the gui­tar] to play both parts. You think your brain can’t de­tect it, but I think it does. Gui­tars aren’t per­fectly in tune any­way. The fret­ting is wrong. But then The Stooges wouldn’t sound like The Stooges if the G string wasn’t sharp. We love that rank sound­ing open E chord, don’t we? We’ve got­ten used to it, I guess.” Is it chal­leng­ing trans­lat­ing Portishead record­ings for the stage? “Yeah, it is. When we first started it was quite a dif­fi­cult thing to do. We had the same aes­thetic and var­i­ous tech­niques that we still use to­day. Ev­ery­thing is live – noth­ing is ever play­back. I don’t think any of us would want to do it if we were us­ing play­back. [Clive Deamer’s] drums on Dummy were recorded in State of Art stu­dios onto ½-inch 16-track tape, sam­pled, mixed, put onto vinyl then fucked up a bit and re­sam­pled off the vinyl. We had to go and get test press­ings done. Same as the gui­tar on tracks like Mys­terons – that went onto vinyl and was re­sam­pled.” That’s an in­cred­i­bly ded­i­cated ex­per­i­ment! What were you try­ing to achieve? “Oh man, it went on! Ge­off comes from a DJ/sam­pling back­ground and would get rare records from Andy Smith, a DJ and col­lec­tor. If any­body had been sam­pling, say a snare drum, on one of those records (as those guys did) it would wear the vinyl out. If you lis­ten to bands like Pub­lic En­emy or A Tribe Called Quest, you can hear in the sam­ples that the snare would some­times go very dull – like on one snare. So, to repli­cate that, we’d record a drum break and Ge­off would get it on vinyl, then he’d chuck it on the floor and kick it around, so it was a bit crackly, get it on his deck and just scratch on the snare drum bit to make it go dull. That’s the sort of at­ten­tion to de­tail that made the record.” What were you aim­ing for us­ing the same lo-fi vinyl tech­niques with re­spect to gui­tar sounds? “You know when you’re sit­ting in a room with a

“When play­ing on other peo­ple’s records let go of your de­sire to make the best gui­tar sound on its own. Make it part of the track”

Fender amp and a Strat or a Tele and it’s just very live sound­ing, whereas it never sounds like that on records? If you lis­ten to Mike Bloom­field or Muddy Wa­ters, none of those things sound like an amp in a room to me. They sound like a record. Axis: Bold As Love is such a bril­liant record­ing, but Hen­drix doesn’t sound like he’s in a room, does he? It’s the same thing – try­ing to find a so­lu­tion to the thing you’re try­ing to make.” How did Jimi Hen­drix’s ap­proach to sound in­form your own sense of aes­thetic? “I don’t think Jimi Hen­drix thought about play­ing gui­tar as a gui­tar player, oth­er­wise he wouldn’t have played like he did. He was think­ing out of the box. He was into gui­tar and could play blues and soul like no­body’s busi­ness – he had all of that down – but Hen­drix tran­scended his in­stru­ment. The StarS­pan­gled Ban­ner is, I think, the pin­na­cle of elec­tric gui­tar play­ing. It’s a mon­strous performance at Wood­stock. I can’t think of any­thing that’s been said that’s more poignant in so many ways po­lit­i­cally, as well as sound-wise. The Viet­nam war was hap­pen­ing at the time and y’know, that sound: it’s like na­palm bombs and ma­chine guns and planes and he­li­copters, and there’s all that, ‘The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner? Fuck you!’ That’s what it was about. It’s like free jazz play­ing. You can hear John Coltrane or Eric Dol­phy or Or­nette Col­man – it’s all in there. He’s got a tune that he’s play­ing and then he’s right off into some­where else and then back to the tune again. It’s not about gui­tar be­ing played in a con­ven­tional way.” Is that some­thing you as­pire to? “That’s one of the joys in play­ing gui­tar, or any in­stru­ment. It’s more dif­fi­cult in an orchestra – play­ing Mahler you can’t cut loose – whereas the world we in­habit doesn’t have boundaries. It’s funny how we tend to re­strict our­selves. Y’know, ‘I want to sound like this’, or, ‘I wish I could be like Muddy Wa­ters’. But those guys were mak­ing it up and mov­ing things on.” Is there any un­charted ter­ri­tory left in the gui­tar world? “You fol­low your heart, don’t you? It’s about mu­si­cal­ity. It’s like The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner – think­ing be­yond what the in­stru­ment is. I think there is lots to be done. For me, play­ing gui­tar in a very typ­i­cal way holds no in­ter­est at all. You could ar­gue that there are very pop­u­lar song­writ­ers out there, but it’s very con­ven­tional in many ways. What I’m do­ing now will prob­a­bly sell about nine copies, but I’m happy with that. It’s all right. Some of it will fil­ter into new Portishead things, be­cause I’ll just use what I’ve got in my head (if it’s rel­e­vant). It’s not wil­ful de­sire, it’s just a kind of look­ing for­wards and look­ing into what could be. Play­ing gui­tar can be so many things. It’s been my sal­va­tion, my way of mak­ing a liv­ing, my self-es­teem, my friend, my ev­ery­thing, through all those years of dark­ness and light. It’s a pri­vate thing as well as a pub­lic thing. You de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with it.”

“Gui­tar has been my sal­va­tion, my liv­ing, my self-es­teem, my friend, my ev­ery­thing, through years of dark­ness and light”

1 A 1948 Gib­son L-12 fit­ted with 1946 DeAr­mond Gui­tar Mike ‘mon­key on a stick’ pickup, used by Adrian for his var­i­ous gui­tar quar­tet and duet projects Adrian says this 1929 Martin 00-21, is “a beau­ti­ful gui­tar. I picked this, and an­other Martin for Beth, up from Tony Werneke at Re­play Acous­tics…” Clock­wise from top left: Mod­i­fied Fuzz Face, PH Ped­als 8 Ball Oc­tave, Z.Vex Fuzz Fac­tory, Elec­tro Har­monix Small Stone, Elec­tro Har­monix The Clone The­ory, MXR Dis­tor­tion+, fOXX Tone Ma­chine, Boss DM-2

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Adrian’s vin­tage amps, from with a 70s Dübreq Sty­lo­phone tran­sis­tor amp in front of an early 60s Vox AC10, 60s Am­peg Re­ver­be­rocket A 1962 Fender Jazzmas­ter: “I’ve got two Jazzmas­ters be­cause it’s a sig­nif­i­cant gui­tar and I needed a spare for live. This one is re-fin­ished and has Mojo pick­ups,” says Adrian Adrian uses this Orange AD30 on stage with Portishead. He adds, “PJ Har­vey and Jimmy Page used them as well. I think they’re bril­liant, but they stopped mak­ing them” “I some­times get the fear about this gui­tar,” says Adrian about his 1963 Gretsch Chet Atkins Ten­nessean with vin­tage Fil­ter’Trons. “I think, ‘What if I hadn’t have bought this?!’ I use it for ev­ery­thing!” 4

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Adrian play­ing his ’39 Gib­son ES-150 with Char­lie Chris­tian blade pickup, flanked by the 1948 Gib­son L-12 (left) and a 1936 Gib­son L-4 with L-5CES re­place­ment tail­piece (right) A 1969 Gib­son South­ern Jumbo with DeAr­mond acous­tic sound­hole pickup. “I use it on loads of ses­sions and live with Portishead. I’ve used it on ev­ery­thing I’ve done, re­ally,” he says“I got this [Roland Space Echo RE-201] from Tony Miln at Sound Gas. It works re­ally well, which is fairly re­mark­able!” ex­plains Adrian. “I got a Moog from them as well. Their stuff just works” Adrian ex­plains that this 1966 Fender Jazzmas­ter has the orig­i­nal pick­ups, adding “It was re­fin­ished at some point and it’s got a shorter whammy bar. It’s eas­ier to re­ally thrash it with a shorter arm” 8

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12. Clock­wise from top left: Space­man Gemini III, Z.Vex Su­per Hard On, Vox Tone Ben­der, Malekko B:ass­mas­ter, Crowther Au­dio Hot Cake, Mae­stro Fuz­zTone, DigiTech XP300 Space Sta­tion, MXR Blue Box13. Adrian used this 1959 Guild T-100D a lot on Portishead’s last al­bum Third. “It’s had flat­wounds on it for the last four or five years and I just had an old Bigsby put on. The pick­ups are like re­ally ra­bid P-90s,” he says14. “It’s one of the last Copi­cat mod­els they made. The ‘vari speed’ con­trol is re­ally use­ful,” Adrian says of this WEM IC400 Vari Speed Copi­cat 12

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Clock­wise from top left: Roland AD-50 Dou­ble Beat Fuzz Wah, ProCo RAT, Ex­per­i­men­tal­ists Anony­mous Par­al­lel Uni­verse, Musitron­ics Mu-Tron Pha­sor II, Elec­tro Har­monix Rus­sian Big Muff, Love­tone Ring StingerAdrian mod­i­fied this 1960s Har­mony H54 Rocket af­ter buy­ing it on eBay “I re­cently had a Bigsby fit­ted. It’s tuned to E flat,” he says. “I use it with Portishead a lot” Circa 1960 Watkins West­min­ster am­pli­fier mic’d up with a Shure SM57 and a Mae­stro Echoplex EP-4. “The EP-4 is my favourite Echoplex. This one has a very sub­tle cho­rus­ing from the tape, which I like,” ex­plains Adrian 15

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