Portishead

Bristolian Mercury Award winners
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Pain. One of life’s most revealing double edged swords. Without pain all our sense of relativity would flounder making a mockery of comfort, joy and pleasure.


There is a notion that only good art is borne from suffering - and with this in mind Clash sat down with Portishead; a trio of disparate humans attempting to make music together – an agonising process that has seen a decade pass since their last live album.

Without getting too highbrow Nietzsche, a once eminent philosopher said: “The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it, but in what one pays for it- what is costs us”

Enter stage left the Bristolian Mercury Award winners making a mockery of the iPod generation who spit out whimsical noise as fast as their mum changes their bed sheets.

Portishead’s suitably titled ‘Third’ album has taken over four years to record and has seen the band doubled over in pain extracting it from their souls.

Nietzsche journey is over for them - so it’s our turn to collectively pick up the trail as we sat down with Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow.

Clash: Did you feel with the new album that you had to figure out what portishead should sound like in 2008? Concept meeting?

Ade: Everyday is a concept meeting for us. A lot of the time it would be me and Geoff in the studio. For a few years. We would have conversations with Beth. But generally it was us two sitting there having conversations about politics or biscuits or bands or babies. Everyday is a moulding of where we are going.

Clash: Aside from letting go of things or coming up with something you really liked - what was the biggest challenge with Third?

Dummy was easy enough because it was all those ideas. I was 21 and like ‘wow a big studio I can do this in.’

Ade: Getting it finished really. It’s arduous.

Clash: Do you think the struggle of getting your output out and being happy with it is just a triangulation of your personalities?

Ade: Yeah it is. That juxtaposition is what makes the music that we make. We’d all make different music on our own.

Clash: There wasn’t any point when you thought ‘right that’s us!’ we are doing this anymore

Geoff: It was weird; I quit music for three years but never had a thought that we wouldn’t make another one. We came off tour, it was all fucking horrible – not really edgy between us but we were all old enough to realise that shit happens on tour. It wasn’t personal, it was relationships outside of that and just how evil the tour was. So we didn’t feel any kind of thing against each other I don’t think. Or hopefully not. Or if we did it’s buried after 10 years. Me and Ade came back and mixed the Rosemount gig in Wales somewhere and literally at the end of it went home and said see you when I see you kind of thing. And I think we were, I was void of any kind of musical idea or strength or anything . I hated music I really didn’t like it at all. So three years kind of came and passed. I went to Australia. Drank a lot and got divorced.

Clash: Was the Australia chapter coping with your mind falling to pieces and you needed to get out the UK?

Geoff: I’d been there on tour, it was sunny, English speaking. I am not the type of person you’ll find travelling in Bornio. Bournemouth was about as far as I went because I was so concentrated on music and there was nothing else going on in my life that I really cared about. I was spat out of this tour like an ugly newborn baby. I just kind of wandered around looking at the bright colours.

Clash: How long was the bulk of the recording process?

Ade: Unbelievably about 4 years. It’s incredible how quickly that time can go past. It isn’t really a recording process where we write a song, play it and then go ‘let’s have some bass on that’ and then all play together. That would be bliss if it was. But it isn’t ever like that. It’s an endless, and not joyless, journey.

Clash: So when it was time for the new album what did you all bring to the table having been away from each other for a while?

Geoff: Me and Ade got together in 2001 when we were in Australia. We wrote some music and I felt like I hadn’t progressed enough in music with any influences or anything to really bring anything to the table. Ade had because he’s always full on working like that. And Beth never really got involved in that. Just me and Ade. And then we parted again. 2003 I started working on my own in the studio. I own my own commercial studio in Bristol. Just fucking around and stuff. Trying to make some kind of attempt at doing some Portishead music and it was all too nice, too musical. Didn’t like it again. But then came up with Magic Doors which is on the album. Which has changed a bit but not that much. I played the bass on it and did the back work which I thought was ok. Beth came and sang on it. And she sang on it straight away and it stayed like that for four years. Just that demo as one of the first things. Then there was a massive gap after that again. We started writing maybe two years ago. Then when we actually sat down and did stuff. I’d set up a label in England and found music that I thought was really exciting. Me and Ade working together was still difficult to find stuff we liked and to write music and get on and work out what we were supposed to be doing. And then Beth wrote stuff as well but rather than writing onto a backing track she wrote as delivered it to us as an integral part musically. So then we remixed stuff over her vocals or she sang on our stuff. So it was all coming from different angles.

Clash: Was that a new thing for Beth? Being specific about what she wanted within the music?

Geoff: No. I don’t think she was being especially specific about what she wanted. She was just desperately trying to get something happening. Like we all were. We are so desperate to hear two notes that we like that it’s rare that it happens.

Clash: Did you struggle with what you thought Portishead should sound like in 2008?

Geoff: Yeah. I’d be lying to say, there’s always been an agenda of perception. At the same time it’s what we are into. That’s what makes us. That’s what makes every band really I suppose unless you play classic blues or something.

Clash: So you went down a quite an industrial path which shifted you significantly from what you were doing before. Were there any other avenues where you thought ‘this could be the new sound’ or did it just organically go one way?

Geoff: It kind of always went that way. It’s actually just a progression from where we were. When I think about Biscuit and Wandering Star or Cowboys. It’s just 10 years later and that’s what Portishead sounds like.

Clash: What came easiest?

Geoff: Finishing it and going on tour.

Clash: Even though the tour almost destroyed you before?

Geoff: Yeah because then it’s just recreation and working out how to play it live. It’s written. The hardest thing is creation. It is always an absolute motherfucker. We cannot just create and be happy. We just can’t do it. I don’t know why we can’t do it. But that’s the reason it takes so long as well.

Clash: Do you think that’s why you get that tone? Your atmosphere?

Geoff: Yeah. As you get older it’s more difficult. Beth will be up all night for weeks and fuck herself up from being up all night just writing lyrics and trying to write ideas. And it’s such an ugly place to be when you get older. I’ve got two kids now. I would end up doing 5 hours a day. And getting depressed and getting drunk.

Clash: Does Beth get engaged in that process through her personality need to purge herself of it? Or does she just find it hard to write?

Geoff: All of us find it hard to write. Not for anything else. But we do for portishead.

Clash: Why do you think that is?

Geoff: [laughs] I haven’t got clue. You can tell me the answer. I don’t know.

Clash: Is that a scurge or blessing?

Geoff: A painful blessing quite possibly. It all seems to be right in the end.

Clash: Who do you think was most surprising on the new album? Any big shifts? Or are you too familiar to be surprised?

Geoff: I don’t think there is any surprises really. We know each other so well. That’s it. It’s trying to surprise people by each of us trying to get each other motivated. But it rarely works.

Ade: I think we’ve known each other for too long to be surprised. I laud the strength of the people that I work with and the determination. I wouldn’t talk about myself. But with Jeff and Beth there is no giving up. We are all like that and that is something I love about us. When we are up against it we won’t give up. I see that with them. It has always felt difficult to make music together. Glen Branca for example is a really difficult man. I don’t know how much joy he gets from his music. I get a lot as a listener and as a player with him. But I don’t know that it is always a joyous experience, creativity. I don’t mean that in some fucking heartfelt I’m in hell kind of thing, as I’m not. It’s just that sometimes, that conflict makes even if it is just an internal conflict, makes creativity better than if you were in some joyous world.

Clash: I read somewhere that you only have only recently come to understand each other as people. For years you were very dissimilar and thrown together.

Geoff: Yeah it is fairly weird in that sense. We are dissimilar. We just come form different places, different ages, goals for our lives. Trying to do something creative.

Clash: How important is it that Third is a commercial success?

Geoff: It’s important financially.

Clash: For you? For the label?

Geoff: Well for my life it is. Really the main thing was to just get it finished. I knew it would be finished but I didn’t know when. So any positive words about it has that point. It is a blessing. It’s a nice thing. I’m not het up on shitty reviews. I get more angry with the people that won’t play us on radio or something than people’s personal thing because everyone’s got their own shit. They either dig it or they don’t.

Clash: Do you read your own reviews? Some artists pretend they are not interested.

Geoff: I’m not interested in it. It used to make me angry but then I realised that everyone’s different.

Clash: What was the most significant thing you learnt during the recording?

Geoff: That you have got to work hard at everything. Nothing comes easy. It’s like anything. It does rip us apart though. I feel weird to get so het up about music because it seems such a strange thing to get het up about. There’s so much fucking shit in the world and having kids changes that thing. You think, mid 30 guy so fucking concerned about his snare drum. There are other thing in your life that are a lot more worthy than struggling for years and years over this thing. I haven’t learnt how to deal with that. Especially when you get older. A lot of this lot are all finding their way. They’re all making their marks for the first time. That energy that drives you, sometimes you have to dig deep to find that energy again.

Clash: What happened to Andy Smith?

Everyday is a concept meeting for us. A lot of the time it would be me and Geoff in the studio. For a few years.

Geoff: He’s just had twins. He basically was a mate of mine in Portishead that had a ginormous record collection. He was always a club DJ and I never was. He came on tour with us and he used to drop off piles of records to sample. And we’re best mates and we still are. That’s it.

Clash: There hasn’t been mention of him in the new press. I just wondered if his position was overstated as a band member.

Geoff: Most probably. But he was integral. He’s one of those people who’s brilliant and supplies vinyl.

Clash: Do you feel like you got more or less obsessed with getting it right?

Geoff: Dummy was easy enough because it was all those ideas. I was 21 and like ‘wow a big studio I can do this in.’ The second album was incredibly difficult. As much as this one was.

Clash: You get called stand-offish. Do you think that’s fair?

Geoff: No. I think that we’re fairly sure about how we want to be represented. We’ve always represented ourselves in that sense. I don’t like most of the way the industry works or the media. If they wanna say that it doesn’t matter really.

Clash: Do you think it’s to do with you being quite controlling about your what goes in and what goes out?

Geoff: Yeah but you either employ a producer to do that for you or you do that yourself. Will Young… there’s still gonna be loads of meetings about how he’s perceived. As much as there is in the back of a transit down the M1. Some air-cutted band. Young bands do that. They discuss what other bands are out there. Sorry that wasn’t the question I went off the path…. Stand-offish. I dunno. We’re just older and know what we want. Everyone is so desperate to please every aspect of the industry.

Clash: With Beth’s stance on interviews: Does she feel like she’s got nothing else to add to what she’s created or was she stung in the past with interviews?

Geoff: Bit of both really.

Clash: Did she do interviews on the first album? When did she stop?

Geoff: About two or three interviews in.

Clash: She doesn’t like being exposed at that level?

Geoff: No. She thought people were just gonna write what they thought anyway. What they made up in their minds about how she was and then to her she’d really get into a big one about what she trying to sing about. She couldn’t do it in a sound byte in 20 minutes. And the ridiculousness of having a really heavy conversation with someone she’d then want to tell them to fuck of when it was trivial.

Clash: What would you like your most enduring musical achievement to be?

Geoff: To make a mark. As a writer or whatever it is. To have hopefully made some noise that made some kind of impact in some way.

Clash: What’s your biggest fear in life?

Geoff: Death and my children.

Clash: Biggest regret as a band?

Geoff: [thinks hard] I think communication could have been better.

Ade: I don’t have any actually. I think we have had difficult times and turmoil. I wish we’d made decisions about things earlier possibly, if there are any regrets. But I don’t like to dwell on that sort of thing.

Clash: Turning point in your life?

Geoff: As a musician, Public Enemy hearing Rebel Without a Pause in a massive white glove. When I had my chinos on, and I was 15, looking at girls. Everything changed then. When you get to that age you’re into a bit of music and you’re into BMXing or some fucking weird thing or trainsets. Then you discover girls and it was that thing. Even though I’d always played drums since I was 8 and was into Djing. Then that girl thing, being a teenager, then being hit by Rebel Without A Pause. This ginormous system broke me in half. I just went right I am on that course. On a personal thing, a death of someone I knew who was young. It just said, don’t fuck around, there are consequences, this is life. It comes and it goes. It can be that quick.

Ade: There’s been a few moments in my life where things have changed. Because I’ve made the effort to make them change and been frightened. Particularly when I first met Jeff was a big moment, not because we are talking about Portishead, but because it was. I was in a world that was ok, it was a safe-ish world. But there were things I wanted and I changed things. I gave up stuff that I had worked a long, long time to get. I fucked it all off. Close friends to me thought that I was a bit mad but I was determined. I felt that [what I was doing with Jeff] was successful. We didn’t know it was going to be. It took a year after making it for it to be anything. Personally, is having a child. It is the most immense thing that has ever happened to me. Really levelling. All the things that people say it will be. Except everybody said get some sleep because you’ll never get any again. That’s complete and utter fucking bollocks. If you’ve been a musician all your life you hardly get any sleep anyway. Most of us, nowadays are used to sleep deprivation anyway.

Clash: If you could change one thing about yourself?

Geoff: I wish I was a better footballer.

Ade: I’d change loads of things if could. I’d like to be more decisive.

Clash: If you could change one thing about Portishead what would it be?

Ade: I’d sack the other two {laughs}. No, that we could work much faster, be more visceral.

Clash: Do you feel people often ask too much of Portishead myth?

Ade: There is a myth I think yeah. I talk to people. Have done. I’m talking to you. I’m not sure if we’re talking the same language. I’m not sure what we’re saying to each other. Do I understand your questions? Do I know what you’re talking about? Do you know what I’m talking about? Really. So there is this mythology that builds up about bands through miscommunication possibly, I don’t know. I sometimes think, in reality we are three people that make music. We have these people around us that help us do that. That’s it. The mythology that surrounds us through media and websites and forums is mad.

Clash: You do strike a fairly deep chord though. It is not a hype thing. Your music is so personable that people just totally adopt it.

Ade; Yeah I think that’s totally wicked. I just think the mythology that surrounds it that is a sort of halo of expectation and misinformation really, about what we want, what we are, what we do. I think that’s how I interpreted your question. The fact that people are into our music and their deeply into it is awesome. We have had a good reaction to this record and touring which is brilliant. I have nothing bad to say about that.

Clash: What is the next stage past Third?

Ade: Fourth. I’d say definitely.

Clash: Has there been any talk about that yet?

Ade: Yeah we are talking.

Clash: That’s early.

Ade: Yeah I know it is. None of us want to make it 10 years again. Time can really fuck past you. Before you know it, you’re in another world.

Clash: What are the discussions? Anything specific about sound?

Ade: No. Some stuff that we all wanna do, so we wanna get on with a few things before we do it. That’s good as well. No input, no output. We need to input things. Do things. We’ve been in the studio for four years together. Jeff and I have been doing press since December, it’s great. But we now need to stop, because we learnt this from the past, and get on with some stuff. Then make another record as quickly as possible. What discussions we have had, is how we are going to release it. How that will manifest itself because we don’t have a deal now.

Clash: What’s the most significant thing you learnt with Third?

Ade: Erm… I could say I learnt how to do the bloomline microphone stereo technique that we used on the symbol and then mixed it in mono in the end anyway. Google it.

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For August we asked Portishead to curate our Ones to Watch section.

You can check out their selections here.

The Blessing

Team Brick

Rosie Red Rash

Om

Madlib

Kling Klang

Joe Volk

Gonga

Glenn Branca

A Hawk and A Hacksaw

You can also download a free compilation of songs by their chosen acts here.

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