Portishead survives agonizing sessions
Source: Now Magazine, December 4, 1997
By KIM HUGHES
NEW YORK CITY -- For a band that claims to hate the spotlight
and performs live in just about equal measure, England's Portishead
has set the stage for a potentially huge and very public stumble.
It's late July, and Manhattan's Roseland ballroom -- the site
of the group's first official gig supporting their new self-titled
disc -- is savagely lit, looking more like a movie set than a
joint designed to enhance the idiosyncratic ticks of rock and
roll pounders, let alone the Bristol squad's agonizingly detailed,
While a 30-piece orchestra hired just for this occasion tunes
up, various techies weighed down with tool belts evidently borrowed
from KISS action figures scamper around adjusting lights, microphones
and more lights. A circular track used to ferry a dolly-mounted
camera surrounds the players. The track itself is surrounded by
the audience, haphazardly packed onto low risers arranged bleacher-like
on the floor.
The event, being filmed for broadcast on British TV and possible
release on a long-form video, is unquestionably a weird move,
and at this moment, in the minds of pathologically shy singer/lyricist
Beth Gibbons and partner, aural technician and mixmaster Geoff
Barrow, one of those things that probably looked good on paper.
Between director-ordered starts and stops, Gibbons wriggles uncomfortably,
eyes shut, chain-smoking, while Barrow, lead-footed behind turntables,
headphone plastered to one cocked ear, compulsively wipes sweaty
palms down pant legs.
Almost all the material is new and not especially orchestral,
which leaves the hired guns to fidget between random horn blasts
and occasional string swipes. There's no atmosphere to speak of,
and the band look like they'd rather be in the dentist's chair.
Clearly, it ain't easy being Portishead.
Now that the so-called triphop banner begrudgingly hoisted by
the combo has been lip-smackingly co-opted by the likes of Sneaker
Pimps, Morcheeba and others in search of a quick commercial fix,
the real question at hand is not whether Gibbons and Barrow can
reclaim their status as crafty dub-pop innovators with a kitchen-sink
approach to recording or match the astonishing, left-field success
of their 1994 Dummy debut. It's whether or not our hermetic heroes
can stay sane enough to continue making lulling, cinematic, tear-streaked
epics amidst the major-label push to present them as bona fide
pop stars -- hence the NYC gig.
The answer to that, as the self-deprecating Barrow tells it during
a one-on-one, is no -- at least not initially. Next to finally
completing the new album, Portishead, the July Roseland show --
performed in front of a potentially lethal mix of slavish band
devotees and international journalists -- was a walk in the park.
"We had been talking about this record before we toured
Dummy," Barrows offers from a midtown hotel, "and then
it all just fell apart for 13 months. When I actually went to
work on all the ideas I had, everything sounded awful, so we literally
just had to start from scratch. Thirteen months in and I was completely
lost. I'd go into the studio, be working and it sounded OK, but
it just wasn't good enough for the second record. I overanalyzed.
'How can I make another record that will sell like Dummy? How
can I make people happy?'
"Finally, with the help of the band, I realized I just couldn't
do that. I had to do what I enjoy.
"That's why some of this record sounds a bit different.
Eventually, we'd just go into the studio, I'd set up a drum kit,
Ade (guitarist Adrian Utley) would start playing bass and we'd
just play it live instead of using samples. There's still a lot
of that going on on the album and I suppose people might say it
sounds a lot like Dummy, but whatever. Maintaining our sound is
what's important to us." Mission accomplished, although the
stakes have been raised considerably since Dummy's ghostly ambience
permeated global psyches in 1994, launching countless imitators
and showing that music seemingly tailored to a slow, painful death
could be a hot seller.
That's more than can be said for the so-called Bristol scene,
which Portishead effectively put on the map but which never really
materialized on a mass scale despite predictions that it would
and an ocean of critical ink.
"When it comes down to Bristol," Barrow says, "I
don't feel like we carried it at all. There were amazing bands
there already, real groundbreakers working long before us. People
say we broke that sound, but I don't see it that way.
"There is no Bristol scene, purely because no one hangs
out together. If there were a scene, I'd see guys from other bands
more than once a year. We're all friendly with each other and
try to help each other out, but there is no scene." Actually,
if there is any kind of scene happening around Portishead, it's
"Just after we finished promoting the last record, Beth
and I took a train journey to London and we just talked, for the
first time, about things other than music."
True to their Brit musical heritage, the pair met at a work initiative
program in Bristol designed for those on the dole. Apparently,
that was the full extent of what they had in common prior to forming
"Anyway, we just talked about general things -- what she
likes, what her friends are like -- just stuff that I never bothered
with during the record because I was so blinkered. I'll admit
it was a weird relationship, but it just sort of happened that
"This time, it was different because it was a more relaxed
atmosphere in the studio. Well, eventually it was more relaxed.
It certainly wasn't for that first 13 months."