Though Geoff Barrow is familiar to most people as the mastermind of visionary trip-hop outfit Portishead, he has crafted a varied career for himself as a producer and composer, a founder of Invada Records, and as a member of the band BEAK> and hip-hop collective Quakers. Barrow took time from this busy schedule, which incudes a thriving family that prompted a timing shift, to discuss his upcoming album with BEAK>, Invada’s vinyl release of the Drive soundtrack, and every English comic fan’s dream come true: the opportunity to write a personalized soundtrack to Judge Dredd. And lest this be the only interview of the new millennium without a reference to Portishead, Barrow does speak about the fabled next album. Don’t skip to the end, though; it’s all pretty good.
Your record company is releasing the Drive soundtrack. What made you want to get involved with this project?
It was a series of wonderful coincidences, basically. We were on tour, and Adrian from Portishead went and saw the film, and said that it was good. He mentioned the soundtrack specifically, that it was a really good use of synths and that there were a couple of good bands. I hadn’t seen the film. Without me being involved, Reg Weeks, who runs Invada and is a massive Cliff Martinez fan, phoned Lakeshore [Records] and asked if they had plans for vinyl. They didn’t, and he asked if we could do it. They said yeah, and in the meantime I’d seen the film coming back from Australia. Then I heard from Reg that there was a possibility of doing it, and I was like “Wow.” That’s how it came around. It’s been amazing, and very good for the label.
Despite the coincidence in this case, do you find yourself paying super close attention to music in movies?
I don’t really. I’m constantly, horrendously only into music. I don’t read. I just concentrate on music. I’ve got that, and my family and I play soccer. That’s my life. It’s not that I don’t love to watch films. I read a magazine on the way back from Paris yesterday, and I think that was the first time I’d read a magazine in almost two years. I’m bad. I would like to see more to keep up. I was talking to a company the other day about some soundtrack work, and I feel like I need to be aware. I did see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I will try to see something if it’s recommended. I don’t actually get a lot of people saying that I’ve really got to see something because it’s just mentally good. They usually say that it’s all right, and I end up just writing another record.
Another of your projects is DROKK, a soundtrack of another sort that you’re putting together with composer Ben Salisbury.
Yeah, drokk. It means “fuck” in the future in Mega-City One, which is the home of Judge Dredd.
Did this start out as a soundtrack for the upcoming Dredd film?
Yeah it did; Ben and I have always been promising to work on something. I’d always really liked Ben’s work and we played football together, and then we were approached by DNA Films and Alex Garland, and we started working on it. It didn’t end up on the film. Usually that’s because of negative reasons, but it was a brilliant relationship, and it didn’t work out for whatever reasons it didn’t work out. I’m still friendly with Alex, and he came to see Drokk when we played it live at a comic shop the other day. Ben and I just kept on writing, even after the original project was “over.” It became like a side thing, and we got in contact with 2000 A.D. who liked it and wanted to get involved. Then we released it, and that’s where we are now.
Explain the Judge Dredd phenomenon for American readers, most of whom are only familiar with the Stallone film.
Judge Dredd is a futuristic lawman in a time after a nuclear war, where the more together parts of the country are put together into these huge cities. Mega-City One basically covers the whole eastern seaboard. It’s a domed area, and on the outside is an irradiated area. There’s no government, just martial law. The police are called judges because they have the power to sentence, and sometimes execute, criminals on the spot. It’s thirty-five years old now and it was mainly popular, even though it’s still very popular now, for its run through the Thatcher period in the 1980s. It reflected what Thatcher and Reagan were up to, much like Star Trek dealt with issues like racism in its day.
Is this something primarily for fans of the Judge Dredd universe, or is it accessible to most music fans?
I think if you’re an electronic or dance music fan, and you’re in to ripping dance music, I don’t know whether you would dig it. It’s more of a traditional soundtrack in the vein of Eamonn Dawe or John Carpenter. You could say Vangelis, but without the cheesy Eightiesness of it. I’m not sure I want to say that Vangelis is Eighties or cheesy, just that this doesn’t have that Bladerunner saxophone in it. It’s really Ben and I’s feelings about what Mega-City One would sound like. People have lots of ideas- Anthrax and Public Enemy, the Chemical Brothers- whilst they read the comic. It’s just our particular view of it.
Salisbury has his own musical point of view. How does that collaboration work?
It went really well. Ben’s a great writer, and he has this great ability to create scenes and atmospheres. It worked out I had an edge in the darker, more sinister side of the world, even though Ben has shown he could do that with his previous work. There were times when he suggested adding strings to accentuate something, and I was hell bent against it because I wanted to keep everything as bleak and electronic as possible. We had a lot of discussions like that, but they were never really disagreements.
Are you aspiring to work in films now?
Absolutely. I feel like I’ve found a really good writing partner. I would never pretend to be a degreed musician who understands all the bits of composing, but Ben comes from that world. I’m also in a very lucky position with Portishead and the label that I can be very specific about the film that I want to do. I’ve seen cases where musicians are brought in, and then it turns into almost a hatchet job. I want to be in control, and I know that’s very difficult in the film world, especially when you’re dealing with lots of money. Given that, I’ll have to choose my project very wisely.
Finally, and perhaps most exciting, you’ve decided to go back to BEAK>. What made this the right time to do it?
I never really left BEAK>. We played lots of gigs- in the States, festivals in Europe, and then pretty much went straight back to the studio. I suppose we thought that we’d be able to replicate the same kind of feeling again, but something had changed when we got into the studio. I don’t know if it was that we knew each other better or that we had played live and been louder- I don’t really know what it was, but we went into the studio, and it had been two years, and it didn’t really work. We did it in the exact situation; we didn’t sit down and write a song and then try and play it. We were in the same room, set up the mics, pushed go, and whatever happens, happens. It was great that way, but for some reason it didn’t really work. There were a couple of things that came through that made us think that we had a lot more to offer, but there was a down period- we weren’t in the studio every day for two years; we went off and toured and wrote other records and stuff- and we got back together and things started clicking again. We ended up with this record. We’ve got one record that’s ten tracks, and a special edition that had eleven additional tracks. We’ve just started playing some of the promo dates, and it’s been a lot of fun and also quite inspiring.
Is it difficult to translate BEAK> to a live setting?
BEAK> is incredibly easy to translate, because most of the original songs come from jams that are created in the studio. Once we play live, we actually learn the tracks. There’s very little- what’s the word I’m looking for? When you’re a band and- it’s not jamming.
Improvisation. There’s very little improv live. The record comes from improv, but we never go back to it. We only do that when we really start knowing it well, and then can take it some places. We’ve found that if we improv in a live setting we’re not that keen on it. We like the tunes that we’ve written, so it’s pretty easy to translate. The three of us try to play as close as we can to what we’ve done in the studio.
That’s the opposite of what I hear from a lot of musicians. They tout the album and the live show as very different things.
Yeah. It’s really strange, but that’s what we do. Usually bands improvise off of a track that was quite solid on a record. We actually learn the improvisations.
And you’ll be touring on this new album, correct?
Yeah. I’m trying to get it together now, but it’s three different people who all have other bands. The thing is, though, I don’t see BEAK> as a project. I see it as another band. When you’re on the road together in a van, you’re in a band. If you start thinking about it as a side project, you somehow put a little bit less effort in it. We’re committed to getting on the road and coming to the States. We loved it the last time we were there.
Final question: Do you ever get tired of people asking you when the next Portishead album is coming out?
I don’t really. I maybe used to get a little bent out of shape when my only outlet was Portishead, but now that I’ve got so many other things going on I’m totally up for talking about it whenever anybody wants. I’m moving studios, but hopefully it will be as soon as possible. I’ll be writing through the summer and then get going on it. I can’t ever really say when it’s going to come out, but I’d like to get on with it.