IRC chat 1
Dave Mc Donnald
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Interview with Adrian, Geoff and Dave
An interview with Portishead
Having reached the millennium's edge, Portishead is pausing
for a moment to ponder future life with the nervous desperation
of a cigarette's slow ashing-- and to deliver a sophomore album,
Portishead. Two years after Dummy, their smashing
debut, Portishead has managed to further evolve a sound that was
already years ahead of its time. The group bears the name of founding
breakologist and head sound bomber Geoff Barrow's home town, a
few miles west of the group's private recording studio in the
blue-collar city of Bristol, on the western shores of Britain.
Yes, the crew has been relatively isolated here for the last two
years, far from the pulse of London's music industry and media
posturing. But the new album is edgier, lusher, more collaborative,
and less redemptive than could perhaps have been achieved under
more standard circumstances.
Listen to Portishead. A new form of mutant music has
been established, fusing apocalyptic-folk sensibility with the
intensity of American hip-hop. Live musicianship has been tempered
with an understanding of electronic loop groove, as original chords
and hooks recorded live by the group are shifted and transmogrified
into samples, and manipulated through reverb and distortion effects
back on to vinyl or DAT. Full orchestra and horns are used sparingly.
Minimalist sonic space allows all the muted colors and shades
of Portishead's tunes to reveal themselves. The sparse use of
musical and rhythmic elements signifies the group's continuing
reverence for producers like RZA, DJ Premier, and Isaac Hayes.
Organically fused into the mix is their trademark '60s spy-movie
soundtrack tremolo guitar (a sound, incidentally, that inspired
numerous imitators and practically spawned the category trip-hop).
The resultant depth of the texture affords a more satisfying experience
with every listen.
After interviewing Geoff Barrow, I realized how much his political
and social concerns have informed Portishead's sound and message.
He states that the final fall of the lingering British Empire
should be embraced rather than mourned nostalgically. For him,
the Empire destroyed vibrant, innocent cultures, enslaved whole
races. For him, politics in Britain are so screwed up that the
Labour party may not be able to effect anything positive for the
common person. The level of social violence in Britain is approaching
that of the US, he says. And he is wary of the possibility of
global conflict, especially involving China-- a threat to the
new millennium that echos the specter of nuclear holocaust that
curdled the '80s for him and was a definitive influence upon his
youth. It is perhaps the fusion of this skepticism and atomic
paranoia with Barrow's love of American hip-hop that makes Portishead
so intriguing. Nuclear threat seems to lurk everywhere on the
new album, but so do suggested escape routes to freedom and renewal--
some of which are evoked by the voice of Beth Gibbons, which thunders
in defiance of lost love, lust, and industrial totalitarianism:
You could call Portishead "the Wu Tang Clan of apocalyptic
folk-soul"-- meaning that on this album, in particular, they
are breathing desperate breath, creating a work that demands focussed
attention rather than the half-listen you give a coffeehouse playlist
selection. Portishead is a darker album that Dummy
-- angrier and more immediate. The production seems more subtly
crafted to suit each song, reflecting growing musical mastery,
but several things have changed in the life of the crew since
the world first caught sight of them in 1994. They won Britain's
most prestigious music award, the Mercury, for Dummy. Geoff Barrow
got married. And the group is going to tour-- which is quite a
turnaround from their almost claustrophobic resistance to public
performance two years ago. They almost broke up under self-imposed
creative pressure following the success of Dummy -- and
in the face of the multiple cheap imitations that came from it--
but today they seem more Portishead than ever.
In fact, Portishead seems to have recreated themselves on the
second album by not changing a damn thing. They have become even
more themselves musically, doing everything live. They may benefit
from some major industry-mystery, what with the image of Gibbons
(who seems elusive but is merely shy)-- yet, really, Portishead
is made up of just some common good folk. The kind who enjoying
a pint at the local pub with family and friends-- more human than
TOM: Portishead has won so many fans among artsy, college, and film
circles, yet you've also turned on a lot of people in the hip-hop
underground. Can you talk about how influenced you've been by
the approach that American hip-hop takes to production and music?
GEOFF: We've been massively influenced. I was in rock and could
have stayed with the drums and stuff, but when hip-hop first hit
suburban England, it kind of took over and was massively exciting.
It was a real thing you could get into. It's difficult to describe,
but to a younger generation of sixteen-year-old kids it was that
you wouldn't go out and have a fight; you'd go out and dance against
each other. We were like, "Well, what the hell?"-- you
know what I mean? People might laugh at that-- like you're laughing
now. But that's the way it happened.
The other point was that America was the absolute home
of it. It was developed straight out of block parties or whatever,
and when it got to the UK it wasn't a commercial thing. It wasn't
until a lot later that I started seeing it on the TV. It was just
massively exciting getting these tunes-- whether it be "So
Why Is It Fresh?' and the original breaking' tunes. In the UK
we had these "electro" records, which were basically American
imports on a series of compilation albums called "Electro". It
went from "Electro One" to "Electro Fifty," or god knows how many.
If you couldn't afford to buy the imports you'd go out and buy
Yeah, and it had all of the original Roxanne Shante stuff
And it was hip-hop?
Pure hip-hop, yeah-- from all of the Grandmaster Flash
stuff to even stuff like the Knights of the Turntables [laughs]--
you know what I mean? It was totally exciting, and you could tell
the different crews from Los Angeles to New York, to whatever.
And you had people coming out of the UK, as well. People started
Well, yeah. But I mean the Wild Bunch thing was pretty
big and just all over the shop. It started to get played on radio
and it was still called "underground." It wasn't a mainstream
thing. And then there was a guy I used to buy tapes off, who still
DJs with us.
DAVE AND ADRIAN: Andy Smith.
GEOFF: Basically, Andy's been DJing since the late '70s-- disco
tunes, disco mixing, and the whole thing. He had these turntables
and I went down to his house, heard this stuff, and was like,
"Ahhh, that's it." And it's been that way all the way through
'til now-- listening to hip-hop and through that being introduced
to jazz and soul tunes.
And soundtracks. So it's massively creative, hip-hop,
and it still will be even if it's commercial. I mean, the thing
about people slaying the commercial hip-hop that is happening
in America-- Yeah, it's commercial, but it's just the development
of hip-hop. Hip-hop has developed all the way through, but instead
of having that guy Vanilla Ice on the top of the charts, you've
got someone who owns a black record company. Which is better for
hip-hop, because he can get his millions of dollars and reinvest
it into something that is underground. It's just more investment
into black music. I mean, at one point hip-hop was so controlled
by the big labels that only a certain amount could get through.
But now, especially when you have people like Wu Tang selling
the kind of records they do...
And everything else they're doing... ay pure is
to write your own beats.
It just means more generated money, and what that does
is creative. What used to happen is that if a commercial rap act
were owned by a major record company, the record company would
take that money and invest it in more pop. Whereas these guys
[in black-owned companies] are investing in their friends and