An interview with Adrian Utley
Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead form the third pillar of the Bristol triphop-scene. The dark mix of film noir, slow hiphop beats and Beth Gibbons' haunted voice hasn't lost its meaning among the new dance forces.
Because of the browbeat violence from The Prodigy, the cymbals from Oasis and the hysteria around the Spice Girls we almost didn't notice it, but secretly Portishead had returned a few months ago. The band from Bristol who in 1994 single-handedly defined the dark triphop style with their debut Dummy made a sober logical successor. They didn't think a name necessary, a simple Portishead would do. Beautiful record, full of pain, the well-known melancholy from this genre but also with new venom. The result of three years in which sound-man Geoff Barrow, singer Beth Gibbons and guitarist Adrian Utley doubted everything they represented. A relieved Utley tells how Portishead found the way back.
Despite of your bigger role as a musician and co-producer on this second album you're still not a full member of Portishead. I understand that Geoff and Beth are the only ones contracted by your record label, Go!Beat.
That's right. In the eyes of the company I obviously don't exist. Eh... I think it's better not to say anymore about that.
You've been able to resist the temptations of new trends like drum'n bass.
We don't have a choice, we couldn't have evolved in another way than we did. We are all big fans of jungle and drum'n bass. It's the first serious interracial urban music in a long time. For someone like Roni Size, our good friend from Bristol, we have a lot of respect. Our live-drummer Clive Deamer even plays with him. For a band like Portishead this music isn't right, You'll probably hear more rock and hiphop influences than dance in our music.
Did the rapid developments in music frighten you during your absence?
Not really, it's always been that way. England is known for it's cutting-edge, there have always been quick turnovers, not only in the music industry. We're not part of this cutting-edge, we work in our own pace. Just call Portishead non-dance. Still the second album sounds slightly different in the way we think it should. Not too different but just enough. The pressure after the unexpected success of Dummy was enormous. We had hoped to make enough money to be able to make a second album, that's all. Another disturbing thing was hearing a lot of our sounds in TV-commercials and all kinds of other bands. We didn't want to have anything to do with that entire triphop-wave, it only made our music more cheap. We started distrusting our own sound and everything we believed in. We came into this stage in which we imposed several stupid rules on ourselves; we weren't allowed to use Fader Rhodes piano anymore, no guitar, no strings -ridiculous really. "Half Day Closing" brought the change. Geoff and I played that number entirely 'live'. Really unique for Portishead. It brought us back on the right track, we sat down talking about it a lot later and went back to work.
Can you hear the blood sweat and tears it took to make the album?
Yes absolutely. I can't even listen to it. None of us can. That's why I'm glad we can play the songs slightly different live. But we try to stay close to the original. We really do play everything live, you don't hear any DAT's. Next year we're coming to the Netherlands too. We're not playing in Paradiso but somewhere else (21 January in the Oosterpoort in Groningen); is it normal to play there?
Eh...yes it is. I think Portishead has grown to big for Paradiso.
Oh, then we can't complain. It's a pity though. I'm crazy about that venue.
You sound considerably meaner than you did on Dummy.
That's where we were at that moment, a consequence of the difficult recording process. Another important difference from Dummy is that we created all our own samples this time, we used very few samples from others. It took us a year alone to build an adequate sound supply to chose samples from; just think of the orchestra sessions. And it frustrated us the most that we had a lot of fragments but no finished piece of music. The possibilities of samplers have not all been explored: just listen to all the new triphop variants. I still think it's a great medium. Only we were not in the mood for it this time, we wanted to play more ourselves. We looked for chords with which we could reach the right emotional impact but still with the creak of an old soundtrack; that was the goal. It was a frustrating process and you can hear that.
People who regard sampling as an easy and cheap way of making music can expect a big blow on the head from you?
Sampling sure isn't easy, rather the opposite. We used to sample pieces from others and then we played over them, but that was very limiting. It is hard enough to make music you like whether you play it or work with samples.
How are you going to make making the next album more pleasant to yourself?
I have no idea, we're not thinking about that yet. We tour until May and that stops all other activities. Because we do everything ourselves from composing and arranging to producing, everything stops for a while when we are performing. We also mainly take care of the live-sound, that's where Dave, our engineer and fourth band member comes in. We absolutely are not a band to sit in a circle with acoustic guitars and jam. When we're on tour we don't think of new Portishead songs. Radiohead on the other hand seems to have ready ten new songs already, just because they can jam as a band. They played songs from OK Computer before the album was recorded. We 're going to do an acoustic performance in America, probably an MTV Unplugged session. We believe in the principle that a good song sounds good in different forms.
You are known to be one of England's best jazz guitarists.
Oh no, I don't think so. It's true that I played jazz for a long time with all sorts of people. But I stopped because I can never equal my heroes John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I'll never be as good or as spiritual as they were thirty years ago. That's why I thought it more useful to contribute something to the present-day music, to start something new. To me music isn't limited to categories. I try to be just as valid a statement as the big jazz-musicians in my own way. I'm not saying I'm succeeding but at least I'm trying. I believe jazz has stopped evolving. Of course there are still brilliant musicians. I don't want to hurt anybody but nothing is happening in the genre. Things happen somewhere else nowadays.
Still jazz is entering in drum'n bass-acts like Lamb by the backdoor.
Do you think so? That could be, and I do hope so but I didn't notice anything about it myself. I know Miles Davis is still very popular. He's always been and always will be because he had something everybody can relate to; music with emotions. Everybody who is seriously involved in music ends up with Miles Davis, and with Mahler and Dubussy.
Being forty you are the most experiences band member. A you a kind of a father-figure?
God no, not at all. I know what you mean, there are big differences in age in the band but we are all equal. I would certainly avoid it if such a situation should occur. Also where music is concerned there are no clear definitions. People see Geoff as the sounds-man, me as the rock/jazz guitarist and Beth as the gloomy indie singer/songwriter. but in practice the functions and interests are much more scattered. Geoff and I met because I was getting frustrated with jazz and interested in hiphop and samplers, with which Geoff was experimenting at that time. So it's not clearly defined who does what, although Geoff is more into the hiphop-scene than I am. And although he's very good with sounds, and Beth writes all the lyrics, we all think about the process. For instance I go searching for equipment to make even more hideous sounds. The boundaries are very vague.
You were the only band member to be interviewed by Phil Johnson in his triphop-book Straight Outa Bristol. Didn't the others believe in a publication about the scene?
No. And I regret doing it now. Phil is, eh, was a good friend of mine, that's the only reason I cooperated. There is no scene. Of course we know Massive, Tricky and Smith & Mighty but we don't hang around the same studios. There is no talk of rivalry like the book suggests, more of a healthy interest in each others occupations.
Johnson accuses Geoff of selling out. He says Dummy is considerably more commercial than previous demo's.
He never heard a Portishead-demo. I think this remark is based on Geoff refusal to cooperate on the book.
Anyhow your sound is very open. Were you frightened by the ease with which the Portishead-sound was copied by others since Dummy?
I think it's not that bad. They only sound like us in a very superficial way. However we were irritated by the way our guitar and singing was shamelessly copied, especially in a TV-commercial for the car-brand Range Rover. But when you listen to the original you will always hear the difference. And we've got Beth! I think she is one of the most honest and intense singers. And I do mean that sincerely. It's a pleasure to be able to work with someone that special.
Apparently the price you have to pay for that is having a shy personality. Beth still doesn't do any interviews.
That's right but that has nothing to do with her supposed shyness. You should meet her, she really isn't depressed all the time. Beth feels that she can't express herself in a half-hour telephone interview, and she's afraid to be wrongly represented by false quotations. But she has already said everything she wanted to say in her lyrics.
In Straight Outa Bristol Johnson suggests Beth refuses to do interviews because she wants to conceal her not so glamorous pub-rock past.
That statement too will be based on him not getting to speak to Beth. None of us are ashamed about our past. I myself played with everything and everybody. I had a few terrible jobs. For instance I once played in a Butlin tourist camp house band. Laughable maybe but I did learn how to read music. Everything is a process of learning and you'll have to except that. But that was then...