INWARD-LOOKING PORTISHEAD DIGS DEEPER FOR ORIGINAL IDEAS
The Georgia Strait, Volume 31, December 11-18, 1997
Whatever else Portishead may be, it is not a trip-hop band. Despite
the Bristol, England-based group's penchant for scratching, funky
breakbeats, and samples, Geoff Barrow is quick to distance its
music from that label. On the phone from a tour stop in Atlanta,
Georgia, Barrow explains that, in England, trip-hop is "seen
as a really dirty word". Trip-hop, he says, is a form of
instrumental dance music that was developed by DJs in New York,
and has nothing to do with the slow, soulful mood music proffered
by Portishead. In 1994, at roughly the same time that this nascent
genre was taking root in English clubs, a new sound was emerging
from Bristol. Portishead released its first album, Dummy, and
like-minded artists such as Tricky and Massive Attack were rapidly
attracting the attention of the fickle British music press.Somewhere
along the way, the signals got crossed, and the Bristol sound
was incorrectly slapped with the dreaded label.
"We don't come from dance culture," says Barrow, who
plays keyboards and drums in the band. "We've never particularly
been into dance culture. But it's so massively huge in Europe,
and a lot of the people who were making this so-called trip-hop
came from dance culture. They worked in clubs and came out of
house music, and slowed stuff down and did all that kind of stuff.
For us, we were never about that. It was never about club music.
So we always felt completely separated from that."
Whatever the label, Dummy was a remarkable debut. Beth Gibbons'
mournful vocals and Adrian Utley's minimal, spy-movie guitar lines
were a magic combination. Topped off with tastefully mixed snippets
of old jazz records and Mission: Impossible soundtrack albums,
songs such as "Sour Times", "Numb", and "Glory
Box" seemed to come from the past and the future at the same
time. The album sold some two million copies worldwide, and has
had a far-reaching influence.
When Barrow began hearing that influence every time he turned
on the radio or television, he realized the next Portishead album
would have to be different. He says th band's members became "very
distrusting of our own sounds" when it came time to record
their eponymous sophomore disc.
"What caused a lot of the problems on the second record
is that we were hearing the sounds we had used on so many other
things. On TV adverts... It seems to be the general mood, you
know?" In order to work from a fresh sonic palette, they
agreed to a complete moratorium on sampling; Well, almost complete.
"There's two really tiny samples on the album" Barrow
admits. "And they're more like the icing on the cake, rather
than the body of the work on the track, whereas 'Sour Times' was
based on a Lalo Schifrin sample, and 'Glory Box' was based on
an Isaac Hayes sample."
Barrow acknowledges that the music on Dummy was heavily influenced
by what the group's members were listening to at the time - everything
from film-noir scores to American hip-hop - but he says that more
recently, Portishead has been into, well, Portishead. "In
the end, instead of looking outside for inspiration, we just went
deeper inside of what we actually do. And that's why it's called
Portishead," he says.
For Gibbons, going deeper meant wading into some uncharted emotional
waters. The lovelorn victim of Dummy has been joined by a stronger,
more vengeful character. When she snarls lines like "The
truth is sold/ The deal is done" ("Cowboys") or
"Why should I forgive you/After all that I've seen/Quietly
whisper/When my heart wants to scream?" ("Seven Months"),
the delivery is worthy of Eartha Kitt or Shirley Bassey (the former
being best-known for her TV role as Catwoman, the latter for her
rendition of "Goldfinger").
"There was a little bit more frustration and anger on this
record than the last one, in her vocal style," Barrow says.
"I think it's just her finding other places. We were all
massively conscious of trying not to go into the same areas again,
and do something new and refreshing, rather than Dummy Part 2."
With so much emphasis placed on fresh musical ideas, perhaps
lazy critics will quit lumping the band into the currently trendy
category of "electronica". Watching electronic artists
press buttons and twist knobs can quickly become tiresome, but
when Portishead plays live, which it will do Saturday (December
13) at the Rage, it does so as a true band. In concert, the core
lineup of Barrow, Gibbons, Utley, and engineer Dave McDonald is
joined by keyboardist John Baggot, bassist Jim Barr, and drummer
Clive Dreamer. "There's nothing coming from a sequencer,"
Barrow announces proudly. "I think it's fine for people to
use sequencers and everything else, but for us, the people who
play with us are incredibly talented, so there's no reason why
we should. And we feel like we can change stuff, we can bring
stuff up, we can actually give our own emotions into the playing
Ultimately, all these labels, categories, and subcategories are
mean-ingless, especially if the music lacks quality and the artist
lacks talent or conviction. Happily, Portishead lacks neither.
"For us, it's about making music, and trying to be as original
as you can," says Barrow. "That's all that matters to