Portishead was one of the most influential bands to come out of the ‘90s, inspiring the entire trip-hop movement right out of the box. But after releasing just two studio albums (1994’s Dummy and 1997’s Portishead) and a live album (1998’s Roseland NYC Live), they seemed to disappear. Scant and periodic musical offerings were the only indication they were still alive.
Then, as quickly as they’d vanished, Portishead were back. This year saw not only the release of Third, an album more experimental, more innovative, and less immediate than their previous efforts, but also several extremely well-received live performances — only one of which was in the United States, at this year’s Coachella festival.
Here, producer/instrumentalist Geoff Barrow talks about why Portishead aren’t touring the U.S., why they’re obsessed with Chuck D and RVs, what makes the group’s chemistry work and, of course, what they’ve been up to over the last 10 years.
Let’s start off with the question on everyone’s minds: Why so long to release a new album?
We’d kind of ended up … not disliking what we’d done in the past, but almost. It became music that was used by marketing and advertising executives to sell things that we don’t really care for. When we came to make another record, we felt embarrassed by ourselves a little bit, or embarrassed by the music that we made, because it didn’t sound like us anymore — it sounded like a fucking ice cream advert. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, but we wanted to sound like ourselves, and that took a long time. We’d finished [making music] in 1998, and, just to be honest, we made enough money to live on for awhile. Unless we had something to say, we didn’t really want to say it.
How did you keep busy over the last 10 years? I know there were a few other music projects in there.
Beth [Gibbons] did her own album [2002’s Out of Season] with Paul Webb [formerly of Talk Talk], which did really well. Adrian [Utley] worked on some soundtracks for some fairly weird kind of films and records — produced stuff. I quit music for about three years and moved to Australia, just got the hell out of the industry.
Before we quit, we went on tour for a long time, and it was a fairly uninspiring 18 months of our lives to have ended up with a breakdown of relationships, inside the band and outside. So, we were quite lucky people that we ended up with this chunk of money and just kind of went, “I don’t really want to write a record until we’ve got something to say.” It’s taken that long to get where we are now.
Were the three of you in touch the entire time?
Yeah, absolutely. We worked together on different stuff. I worked on Ad’s soundtracks; Beth, we used to talk a lot and stuff. It’s all good. Adrian’s 52, Beth’s 42, and I’m 37, so we come from a slightly different vibe of life. Our connection is music, so really we went and kind of ran our lives.
Were you concerned about how your longtime fans would receive Third?
[The fanbase] didn’t really exist by the time we started writing. Our fanbase is just kind of normal people [who] dig cool tunes. They’re not the coolest people in the world, they’re just people who dig stuff. For a while, for some reason, we became quite cool, and as a band, I appreciate that, because we’ve done well out of it. But we were kind of forgotten about, and when we were forgotten about, it was kind of nice. Nobody used to really talk about us — we were just able to go around and do what we wanted to do and concentrate on trying to make an interesting record. We really cared about trying to make interesting records, not commercial records or successful records — things that float our boat, you know? We don’t really come from a really heavy marketing base. We manage ourselves, we A&R ourselves, we don’t really come from that vibe of success hitting record sales. To us, success is writing a record that you enjoy.
In making this record, how were you affected by changes that have taken place in the music industry over the last 10 years?
The music industry became more defined about demographics and marketing and budgets. As it shrank, it became more uptight about what it signed. The music became more uptight, then it became less experimental and less exciting to young people to go and buy it. So it’s kind of turned itself into … as people would say, it’s ended up in its own arsehole, possibly.
For us, it was just a clear indication that we should just do what we want and not worry about the industry. Our album got leaked by some American music executive before we released [it]. We thought, “Oh dear, there’s gonna be loads of people and they’re just gonna get it for nothing.” But in fact, our album leaking by this A&R dude has actually made it more popular, because more people have heard it and just thought, “They’re a band that I like.”
Does this mean you aren’t against people downloading music for free?
I’m not into giving music away for free, because I wouldn’t expect someone to fix my car for nothing. I don’t think music in that sense should be free. I don’t think it should be expensive, I don’t think it should be unreasonable, but I think that if you know the band that you’re into and you know what they’re about and you know the reasons that they do their music, then paying five or 10 bucks for a record is nothing. I think that’s a fair exchange for however many years of trying to write something to make people think.
A lot of bands make a good percentage of their income by touring. From how well-received your Coachella performance was and the buzz that went around, I’m sure you’d sell out a tour of the U.S. Why aren’t you touring here?
There is a reason, but unfortunately I can’t really go into it at this point. I’m sure it will all become apparent at some point. We’re without a publishing deal now and without a record deal, and we value touring as an important part of our income and also an important part of communication. We will be touring at some point. We’re going to come to America and play some proper shows.
Coachella, in reflection, was an amazing experience, because it felt so kind of isolated. It seemed like such a strange kind of festival, in a sense that it’s fairly clinical, or it felt like that to me. It seems like our performance went down really well and people value what we do, and it’s a really nice thing to know. People dig it, and regardless of any bullshit of the industry or anything like that, we can come to the States and play some shows and people want to see us. For us, it was kind of like, “Wow, [Coachella] is gonna be our only American gig and it’s just such a massive audience.” We played a little place down in L.A. [the Mayan Theater] as a warm-up, just to a load of our fans.
I think possibly for a couple of years we’re not gonna come back, [but] we will come back. It will be as soon as we actually can, but there are other things going on in our lives that stop it from happening. Hopefully we will be out there as soon as we can. Especially now: the whole thing with not being out there for so long and just being weird about playing again. I dunno. We played in Europe, and that was really good, and in theory we should really come to the States.
Just to be clear, you’re not touring anywhere right now — it’s nothing in particular against America?
No, no, not at all. To be honest, regardless of politics, it’s pretty much the same all over the world. It’s just the people who run us are just wrong. That sounds like a real childish kind of answer, but it’s really the truth, I think.
I’ve heard that Chuck D freestyled over “Machine Gun” at the Primavera Sound Festival you played this year in Barcelona. How did that come about?
Public Enemy were playing on the same bill as us. Public Enemy is a ginormous reason I make the music I make. We kind of asked him to come and just choke down a live rap on top of “Machine Gun.” He came onstage, and it was amazing. We’ve never done anything with anybody ever — we haven’t had guests on our album, we don’t collaborate with anyone — but Chuck D is something else. Chuck D is such an important person when it comes down to the 20th century, as a spokesperson for so many things. For him to be part of what we do is just a real honor. We approached him and just went, “Look, excuse me, Mr. Chuck. If you possibly could join us on stage …”
I went to see Public Enemy play in Bristol [recently], and they were more relevant than any crew I’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s just what they’re saying. But because the way the industry works, because they’re over 25, it just makes them not really relevant. They were the movement, in a sense of talking about things outside of women and drugs.
Portishead seem to have this very serious, kind of mysterious image. Is that something you do consciously because your privacy is important to you, or is it more of a stylistic choice?
We are serious about our music. We’re musicians [who] aren’t really interested in pushing our personalities or our image or things that kind of go along with the music industry or media as it stands. I think because we don’t do that, people take some kind of extreme version of ourselves. We’re kind of older people that, I dunno, kind of write music about things like the inability of human beings to communicate, whether it be on a personal level or on a social level or a race level. We’re not spokesmen in that kind of way, we’re not trying to do some big “unite the world” shit, but generally that’s kind of how we are.
As you get older and have kids, you dig music but you’re not blown away by MGMT or these cool hip bands. Your brain goes elsewhere. That’s part of life really. People associate us with this kind of movement of noir films and moody shit. We are that, but we’re just slightly more unstylized than we were. People saw us as this kind of European hip-hop, trip-hop kind of movement. We’re always gonna be different from American music, and maybe it’s that that makes us slightly exotic [laughs]. Was that making any sense at all?
What is it about the chemistry the three of you have that works so well? Is it more that you share a similar vision, or do you think it’s because you’re all bringing something different to the table?
I think it’s all about differences — we’re definitely not similar. We’re different generations. We’re all from different decades, but in that decade we actually agree. So when Ad was into Hawkwind and [Black] Sabbath and Hendrix, Beth was into the Cocteau Twins and Talk Talk, and I was into Public Enemy and Gangstarr. We all kind of attach ourselves to each other, even though we’re all from different eras. That’s what makes us, but it also makes us different.
Not being funny, but if you’ve worked with someone for six months on a tour, and then four years on a record, when you’re finished, do you call them up to go for a drink? We know each other better than we know our best friends, but you just have to have a break. [laughs] We’re all cool.
Do you think there will definitely be a fourth Portishead album?
There definitely will be a fourth album. At the end of October, I’m going to write another album. Now that we’ve kind of broken the mold of writing the kind of record that we want to write, it in theory should be easier, but it won’t be. But it won’t be 10 years. If I can get a record out [in], let’s have a think, 2010, that would be brilliant. That’s what I’m gonna be aiming for.
At the moment, we’re unpublished, and we don’t have a record deal either. It’s great — we’ve got lots of people offering deals to us, from little deals to big deals to kind of like joint ventures to kind of “we-will-own-your-life” deals. It’s a really good position to be in, because we kind of made a record that quietly goes along undiscovered — it doesn’t get played on radio, but we sell an inordinate amount of records. Also, people want to see us live, which is a great thing for us. It’s cool because there are so many options. We know that we could keep hold of things like Internet rights, we could do it all ourselves if we want to, because the percentage is a lot larger than you would get from a record company, you kind of think, “Why bother?” But there are so many other things.
Record companies are brilliant, because they introduce you to brilliant artists all the time, whether it be a ginormous record company or a little record company. It doesn’t really matter; they’re all selling music and music is good. They’re not some massive pharmaceutical company or Gap. They’re selling records, so they’re the patrons of the arts, really.
Although now you’ve got people making music in their bedroom and putting it out on MySpace, so it’s cool that people are discovering stuff that way, too.
Oh yeah, that whole thing really works, but I think you find the best people rise to the top. If they don’t rise to the top, they rise to a mini-major underneath it. If you’re really that good, people will give you a record deal and will release your record and will promote you and put money into you playing live. Whether it be XL or Domino or Universal or EMI, they’re out to sell records, but people who work there love music. They’re not the evil people that everyone makes out.
Are there any other projects you’re working on?
I’m working on a project called Quakers, which is a hip-hop project based on MySpace. It’s in really early stages. It’s me and a couple of other dudes putting beats onto MySpace: MCs can download them and rap over them or do whatever they want to do to them and send them back to us, and we’re gonna release them as a record.
It’s one of those things I promised throughout these years — that I would write a hip-hop record. It’s really weird: Over the years, I’ve been approached by Jay-Z and Dre’s camp and all this kind of stuff, and I’ve never really gone for it. I really just want to go do something that makes good music, and if it doesn’t make money it doesn’t really matter — it’s just about writing good music. There are so many talented MCs out there, they just aren’t rapping about stuff that sells on spring break. [laughs] It’s just proper good hip-hop.
At the moment, I’m producing the Horrors album. I run my own label in Bristol [Invada Records UK]. I’ve just come out of the studio from mixing a track from the Crippled Black Phoenix, a collective including Dominic Aitchison from Mogwai and Justin Greaves from Iron Monkey album — some really good music. Just get involved in writing with people who are into good music, keep it going.
Are there any up-and-coming artists that really wow you right now?
The music industry’s in this fairly weird state at the moment — everyone’s really kind of desperate to get radio play so they can sell 20,000 albums in the U.K. That affects the way that people are writing music in the mainstream.
My own label puts out fairly weird music. I deal with these “young people” [laughs] — sounds really funny when I say that now. There’s this band called Rosy Red Rash that I’ve signed to my label, a group of 17-year-old girls [who] just play music that really excites me. We’ve got Nick Blake, who’s 21 from Bristol and possibly the most interesting musical spirit I’ve met or heard of in 10 years. There [are] some amazing, exciting young people doing stuff, but most haven’t even released records yet.
They’re really kind of the opposite of [mainstream]. The stuff that becomes mainstream is so psychoanalyzed and market-specific, that unless they’re a pure, amazing talent that everybody knows, I can’t really say this person’s gonna be huge. Lil’ Wayne or Rihanna, these people are ginormous: They’re coming from the right place, they’re edgy, they’re cool, they’re young, suit a demographic. I’m aware of them, but it’s not where my brain is musically.
We’ve been very unlucky or slow in developing artists that are interesting in England. If they are interesting, the major industry doesn’t want to know about them because they’re too weird, because it’s the middle classes who buy music in England: Coldplay and Keane and James Morrison and James Blunt — all these kind of things that edge toward being less middle class, but really they are. I don’t mean to sound like a classist, I’m just saying that if you want to sell records in England, that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. We’ve all got to work with it, and eventually along pops a Nirvana or Cure and all of a sudden things become better.
I think you have to invest in interesting stuff. Really good music defies age, class, fashion, it defies it all and speaks to people who aren’t being spoken to. At the moment, there’s an awful lot of people who aren’t being spoken to — this great unwashed amount of people who just don’t buy records. Someone will come along and speak in a pure way to people that makes sense, and all this other stuff is washed along the wayside, hopefully. Do I sound old now? [laughs]
No, though I did hear something about you and Adrian being really into caravans.
I’m going caravanning tomorrow — yeah, it’s the best thing ever. In England, you haven’t got to drive very far, where in America you can drive across the country. Tomorrow we’re gonna get up — I’ve got two young girls, nearly 2 and 3 — and get the caravan and kind of stand on the beach whilst it rains. [laughs]
What’s the most common misconception about Portishead?
I think that people think we just smoke a load of weed and are into chilling out, and that is just so the opposite of what we are as people. We’re fairly uptight and passionate about things that are wrong. We listen to Public Enemy. Where we come from, that’s the equivalent of our music to kind of stand out and say, “No, this ain’t right.” Chuck D raps about what he does and Beth sings about what she knows. Even though it sounds like she’s singing about very personal things, it could be very general human things and political things or just the inability of human beings to communicate. People just perceive us as this kind of chill band, where we’re so the opposite.
Does it bother you that some people are just listening to your music to chill out?
No, not at all, because it’s just about taking it into their ears. I’ve totally come to the conclusion that people who listen to our music have got to be in the modern world. If they’re listening to our music, then respect them, because it’s tough to find it. We were signed to the biggest record company in the world, and a lot of people didn’t even know we had an album out. That kind of explains just how hard it is to get your music through. So if anybody’s checking us out, that’s a brilliant thing. Even if they hate us, at least it’s a reaction, and any music against the music that exists at the moment that actually creates some kind of emotion is a positive thing.