An interview with Geoff Barrows
Portishead's long-awaited second album is finally on the shelves
after an agonizing year for the band during which they wrote,
re-wrote, mixed and re-mixed until they were happy with the new
Portishead - the follow-up to the double-platinum debut
Dummy - comprises 11 self-penned tracks. It was previewed
in New York in August at the impressive Roseland ballroom, complete
with a 30-piece string section.
Songwriter, DJ and part-time drummer Geoff Barrow told Freebase
he was glad the album was finally out...
It definitely took a while to get going but I'm massively relieved
that it's done, but the work continues. It's a non-stop game,
even if you finish an album it just carries on. I don't know if
I'm completely happy yet until more than 50 people own it in their
record collections. Then I'll be happy.
Did you feel at one point that you were approaching the
album in the wrong way?
Yeah, it was really weird. We spent - or I spent - 13 months
in hell. I think everyone did actually. It just wasn't happening
at all. It really was a dire situation where the pressure just
got to everyone and for literally about 13 months nothing happened.
It just kind of fell apart. We were still working every day. We
started working from the end of promotion of Dummy, which
was the summer of '95 and carried on working through but 13 months
after that we were still in the same position. We made all these
rules, I especially made all these rules, saying we're not allowed
to use these instruments that we used on Dummy, we're not
allowed to sample other people, we've got to write all the stuff
ourselves and basically what I thought should be the second album
was better than what I was writing. I was just chucking away mountains
and mountains of work and Ade and I went into the studio all the
time and the stuff we were doing in sessions it was good stuff
but I couldn't see it then. My head was cloudy and it was just...it
took the rest of the band to say this really isn't happening,
what are we going to do about it?
Take us through the tracks on the album. The opening track
is Cowboys, which has been sent out as a limited 12 inch before
the release of the first single.
Yeah, it's not done to be...a lot of people have said it's elitist
and stuff like that but it's because I was so unsure about the
whole thing that I just wanted to..........kind of almost like
that thing of trickling it out. It was always going to be the
b-side of All Mine, which is the first single, so it wasn't
like this thing of the general public are never going to be able
to get hold of this. It's not saying this is limited to these
certain core people because unfortunately that's what happens
when you put out a white label but on the first record we put
out white labels and I'm just really into the whole thing of putting
out a tester so you can get a vibe from people. Not so that if
they didn't like it you'd change it but it just makes me feel
more confident about our stuff. I was really unconfident about
everything, about putting out anything, because it had been so
long and no-one had heard from us for so long. I just wanted instead
of just saying "hello we're back" or jumping off cliffs with parachutes
with a copy of the album and making this huge entrance I just
like the idea of work in vinyl without any big press campaign.
Just literally putting out a record.
Track two is the first official single All Mine and immediately
there's the Portishead big film sound again.
It's really weird because obviously we realise now people say
"it's James Bond" or whatever but we really wanted to get away
from that on this album. It started off as just a backing track
- the beats, a bassline, a little bit of keyboard - and it was
going to be like a soul groove I suppose. And then we thought
it would be great if we did it like a big old tune, like a big
old soul tune because that's what we're into really and it's really
weird because we put those horn stabs in it and stuff and then
without even considering what was going on we put in the low notes
and then we had it scored, we recorded the strings, and as soon
as they played it, it was like "oh no, it's James Bond, it's the
Bond theme". That was like the last thing we wanted to do but
we thought it sounded good so we just thought "sod it, leave it,
just leave it" and just have it as a tune that sounds like that.
I enjoyed recording the tune and making and writing the tune,
I think everyone did, so we just thought "well, leave it". But
it is...I don't know whether it's the BIG ONE on the album, I'm
not too sure. I mean I suppose because it's got horns and strings
and it's quite big in that sense then I suppose it seems to work
as a single.
People might have said if you were nervous about the new
album and playing live again it might have been wise to play a
few small, low-key dates. But that's not what happened is it?
What about the New York experience?
It was because of the schedule. The way that we work we try and
have control, or we believe that we've got a certain amount of
control - whether we have or not is another thing. The way that
we work on everything from artwork to videos to everything is
that we want to see everything before it goes out. We try and
come up with the original ideas for everything we do, whether
it be artwork or you know and because of that and because of the
album taking so long we finished mixing the last track on a Sunday,
we cut the album on a Monday and then we were literally into rehearsals.
And then we had three weeks of rehearsals, Ade was really busy
writing the score with Nick and we were all talking about it.
We got the band in and it was the first time we'd played the new
stuff. We did three weeks of that in Bristol and then we just
didn't have time to put in a gig. The other thing about it is
we wouldn't have been able to play a little gig because we arranged
everything in the rehearsals with the horns and strings so there's
no way you could play a small club. And then we pretty much forgot
about the whole point of what we personally feel, when we got
there we just thought it would be alright and we were completely
wrong about that and we misjudged the whole situation.
Track three is Undenied...
Undenied is a simple track, it's really musically just
left to Beth's vocals. It was just that thing...musically it's
just a simple riff that just repeats. It's one of my favourite
tracks because it is just so simple. It's one of the best types
of songs that Beth writes. It's really simple but with emotion.
What about Half Day Closing...
It's kind of roughly based on an old psychedelic track from the
United States of America, an old psychedelic band. It's really
weird because I don't know musically how similar it is. I know
it's styled on it. It's the only one I play drums all the way
through in, which I was absolutely chuffed with, I've actually
managed to play drums through a whole track. Rather than it being
based on samples, that was the turning point of the record really
because what we did is that Dave put up some channels, me and
Ade went into the studio, I got on the drums Ade got on the bass
and we recorded it start to finish. We usually use samples and
stuff like that and spend ages on arrangements but literally we
just went "okay let's record it" so we recorded this track and
built it up like a normal guitar band would build up a track and
mixed it like it as well. It's kind of like people will say it's
a bit psychedelic or whatever but I don't know. We were just on
that thing of nothing mattered, the whole Portsishead thing didn't
matter. We were just going to enjoy recording a track - didn't
matter what it sounded like, we were just going to bang it out
and be noisy and not kind of rock noisy. It wasn't even going
to be on the album it was just something to do to really be inspired
by music again and feel like you're doing it for the enjoyment
rather than you're doing it because of a business. And that's
pretty much how it came together and it ended up on the album
and its one of my favourite tracks.
There can't be many bands whose first album went double
platinum and won the Mercury prize. That must really increase
the pressure for the second album.
Yeah, absolutely. The Mercury prize and the amount of records
we sold was what it was all about really and all the basis that
people were saying Portishead were really cool, it was all of
that time really and we're not in that time any more. I don't
care much for the Mercury prize. What's actually come out of it
is that we've managed to gain a lot of control because we've sold
enough records for the record company to be happy to allow us
to do it and I can live more comfortably. I don't have to worry
about the electricity bill and what happens is that I relax. When
we came back off tour I actually relaxed and I relaxed too much.
I had money coming in, I'd got myself a house, it looked like
we were going to get married and everything was really sweet and
it made everything a little bit too nice. The initial hunger,
which is what people write music for, it disappeared. So we were
being over-critical, the hunger wasn't quite there as well. It
was like every standard difficult second album scenario you can
imagine was on there. We didn't have any pressure from the record
company. We didn't even really have an awful lot of pressure in
the sense of time either. It was just the point of whether we
were ever actually going to make a second record.
Track Five, Over...
Over was an old track that we used to play on tour. We
played it on the Mercury prize thing with some strings. It's quite
an old track and we didn't think it was going to go on the album.
And then we were a couple of tracks down right near the end of
recording so we thought let's just have a crack at doing it and
it was kind of pieced together but it now sounds whole. It's a
little bit rougher than the original one which was a little bit
sweeter. But I managed to get a beat in there which I've had for
ages which I'm really happy about. And I think it's one of Beth's
favourites as well.
What's your fascination with John Barry and that whole
It's weird because people see it as a film thing. It's not. I
just see it as records. I see it as pieces of music. The whole
cinematic experience - people say "oh Portishead, I can see all
these visuals" and stuff - that's fair enough for the listener
or whoever but for me when I write I don't see anything. It's
not actually a film. I do love films like The Ipcress File
and things like that, I think they're brilliant, and the Ennio
Morricone stuff. I think they're amazing films but I don't know
anything about films, I don't even know an awful lot about records.
I just buy them and those are the ones that inspire me. I see
them as completely separate things from the film. We just get
inspired by odd things, rather than getting inspired by a whole
new album we're massively into new music but I suppose I'm more
into older music. For us there might be like a Brady Bunch
show on or something and the music in it was probably recorded
in the early seventies and there might be this sad bit that the
oldest daughter's had her pigtails cut off or something and then
because at the time someone plays on a Wurlitzer or a Rhodes there's
kind of a bit of what people would say was crap sad music but
if you take away the picture and just see it as the music it could
be a really strong bit of emotional music. The writer probably
thought I'll knock that down together, I'll put that down, most
probably did it in half an hour but that's where we get our inspiration
from. In connection with the picture it doesn't mean anything,
it could be the Brady Bunch, that's not the point but the
actual music itself. I think it's most probably people like John
Barry are obviously incredibly talented and we're just massively
into a lot of people, a lot of Italian stuff and American stuff.
There's a lot of experimenting on soundtracks, especially on thrillers,
so that whole thing about Portishead being tied into spy films
and stuff like that, it's definitely not so much the films it's
just the actual music that went along with it.
And so to the next track Humming...
Humming starts off like the Day the Earth Stood Still,
an old sci-fi film. And I wanted to do something that was more
straight- up in a sense of beats. We ended up having about 15
different arrangements for it, we spent ages in the studio literally
just rearranging it and mixing it. It's an odd one. I really liked
it when we initially did it, then I didn't like it in the middle,
even though it was Adrian's favourite track. It's going to take
a while for me for it to grow because what happens when you spend
so much time on something you just lose interest. I'll most probably
listen to it in a year's time and say that's alright. At the moment
it's difficult to talk about because every time I talk about it
I just think about those 15 arrangements.
Will there ever be a chance of Portishead doing anything
like the To Kill A Dead Man short film project again?
That was a bit of a mistake for us really at the end of the day.
Not to put down the director. We were just really, really naive
about the business and we just thought spending forty grand on
a video's a lot of money, why don't we just do a film and we can
write the soundtrack. And all we thought about was the soundtrack
and how good we could make the soundtrack instead of thinking
about us walking around looking like planks, which pretty much
ended up happening. Some people saw it as kind of really weird
- it's only really weird because we can't act and it has no story.
Like some kind of sixth form film project. Because we thought
we were a band with no image we thought we could take the visuals
from this and make this the visuals of the band, make it look
interesting. It was very stylised. The whole idea was for it not
to be stylised and then a lot of things got confused. Some of
the sets were brilliant, I was amazed by it, but I think we all
can't watch it anymore and we're all highly embarrassed by the
Would you rather pursue the soundtrack avenue?
Yeah, I watched the chart show when
I finished work last night and the whole soundtrack thing has
just gone down the pooper hasn't it? There's one or two soundtracks
about that still keep true orchestrated pieces to go with the
film but all this thing of revamping stuff like The Saint,
The Avengers, Mission Impossible and all this kind of stuff
and then getting ten seconds of a track that's not actually on
the film and then putting it on this album, it's just mass marketing.
It's like they can sell millions and millions of albums like that.
We just don't want to be any part of it. We've ended up on a couple
of soundtrack albums like that with single tracks and it's just
absolute rubbish. We would like to do something with a film maker
and actually get involved in writing a score but I don't know
about it now. I'm just going to concentrate on making records.
Track seven Mourning Air is
the only one you didn't play in New York. Why was that?
There were 16 tracks and we didn't
want to bore everyone to death. The New York audience liked everything
when it was really fast and loud and they could only handle a
certain amount of moodier stuff. The older tracks went down well
because people know them. That's a track that we wrote at the
end of '95 and it's been round a long time. It went on the Bosnian
Help album, the Warchild album and we just thought it was
still in keeping with what we do. It was going to be a 10-track
album but we believed it still held what we wrote it for.
Is there still a lot of remixing
No, I haven't done any remixes of our stuff yet. When I did the
remixes for the last album I was happy with a couple of them but
that was about it. I'm just going to take my time and make sure
they're really worthwhile things to do. We've come up a bit short
on the singles because there's not about 12 remixes. But I just
wanted to get back to the a and b-side thing where you can just
put on the record what you wanted and there's a bonus track, whether
it be one off the album or a live version of it or possibly a remix.
I used to put on loads of remixes because I wasn't sure what one
was the best. Hopefully I'm going to put out an EP of remixes of
Do people constantly ask you
to remix their stuff?
No. I did a lot of remixes before for other people and I wasn't
really happy with them. If you do an instrumental remix, you just
end up writing a new track. I don't mind giving someone a new track
but it just ends up having no relevance to what the original track
was about. I've been turning down a lot of instrumental stuff and
I'm just going to do vocal stuff, I think. The main thing for me
I would love to do more hip-hop remixes but whether people think
I'm good enough to do them is another thing.
Seven Months is the next track...
It actually took 14 months to write
but at that stage when we named it, it was only seven so we kept
it. It's really difficult to describe the tracks at the moment,
mainly because I can describe them but I don't know what I feel
about them. Hopefully in a year's time I might be able to say
I know what that one's about now.It's really difficult to judge
the stuff now. It's a string-based thing with more of an old-style
song over it but it still never got over about 90 beats per minute.
Do you find it hard to listen
with an open mind?
I find it incredibly hard to listen
to. I can't listen to Dummy. I can't listen to this one
either. I just find it really hard to listen to the stuff we do
because you spend so much time on it. I don't even know if I'm
pleased with them really. I just put them out and see what happens.
Next up is Only You...
Only You was a song Beth
originally wrote on another backing track so we ended up writing
the backing track underneath Beth's song, where we usually work
the other way round. A couple of tracks went in a different direction
and I wanted to do something that was more solid grounded. It's
got a sample of Inspector Clouseau on it - it's the only track
that's got samples from other people on it.
And the penultimate track
That was the last one we recorded.
It took a while to get going but I like the end result. I like
Beth's song on it. I think it's a really good melody and it's
a little bit more angry than the first record, some of the stuff
she'd done on it.
And the last song, Western
It was something that came together
pretty quick. Beth wrote the song on another backing track so
she was able to sing it straight off and then we recorded it.
Then I got our mate Shaun to come down and sing for us and we
built this whole crooning track. On the album we've actually got
it down as some old record. It's just our sick little joke at
Have you read any reviews
of your album yet?
My own personal view of journalists
reviews is I don't believe any of them. If you do believe any,
whether they be amazing or absolutely tear you apart, as a musician
I can't believe any of them. Even the good ones, you just can't
believe. It's someone's personal opinion. For me it's about survival,
it's about getting on with the next record now. It's about promoting
this one first, then going on tour and starting another record.
There's nothing you can do once it's out there. We just have to
wait and see. I think the general vibe is that people like it.