Full Way Round: Leftfield Interviewed

Neil Barnes on his techno roots, embracing the future, and retaining a "fuck off attitude"...

‘This Is What We Do’ is Leftfield’s first album of new music since 2015’s feted ‘Alternative Light Source’. The wonderfully crafted album comes courtesy of Neil Barnes, working with long-time studio collaborator and mix engineer Adam Wren. Leftfield are the dance group synonymous with the wave of artists including Orbital, The Prodigy and others who spawned in the late 90s to bring electronic music to the forefront of British music. 

The group’s latest endeavour ‘This is What We Do’, is an eclectic long-player that embodies the core optimistic ethos of the iconic dance music act. Exploring themes around love, acceptance, diversity and healing. Clash spoke to Leftfield’s very own Neil Barnes about the origins of Leftfield, the state of modern-day music, and why this is his most important album yet. 

Neil grew up in London in formative years in an era of mass innovation. “I’m really fortunate to have been to see so many exciting bands in my youth. I managed to see the first records being mixed on decks in London in 1985. I just didn’t know what was going on, it was at a Warehouse party in the centre of town, they had two decks and I literally couldn’t work out how they were doing it. I remember leaving and trying to explain it to people, and my friends literally couldn’t understand what I was explaining to them. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some amazing live shows that have really shaped my music.”

For years, music was a mere hobby where Neil played in bands. Looking back, he recalls where it all changed. “Yeah, I was working as a teacher and I read about sampling in a magazine. There was a shop at the top of Portobello Road, in 1988 I took out a loan to buy as AKAI S950 sampler and two sequencers – I had no idea why I even did it, I just had this mad fascination. Out of nowhere the technology changed and samplers became properly affordable and we were off… The first show we played was at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and is the only gig I have no memory of. I remember walking up the stairs to the stage, with sweat-soaked walls. All I remember is walking out to see all of our friends at the front who’d travelled from London, then my memory just goes blank, I genuinely couldn’t tell you how it went, what we played!”

What ensued was a legacy of global tours, iconic albums and a plethora of music influenced by Leftfield’s truly unique sound. “Yeah, the success of Leftfield still blows me away to this day. I started by just buying a little piece of equipment and jamming on it. It was incredible that this equipment gave us so much control, we really did break the rules. Playing at Glastonbury to 60,000 people just floored me, it was a bit out there to see that many people at a techno set.”

The album is heralded by standout track ‘Full Way Round’ feat Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten. The song is a thrilling combination of styles: Leftfield’s tough, electro-indebted production is punctuated by Chatten’s iconoclastic vocal delivery, every syllable delivered with purpose and a steely intent. “I think our work with Grian came out remarkably. He is such a talented guy, he really had the skill to grow that track over the two days he was with us. He is a part of such an important band so getting to work with him was truly incredible.”

Leftfield have also had a tremendous knowledge on how to keep their finger on the pulse of emerging artists. They had a very notable collaboration with Sex Pistol John Lydon on ‘Open Up’. Reflecting on the single, he shares: “It all seemed to be a very natural collaboration. I knew John through mutual friends, the concept of doing the track came years before we did it. It was actually a really easy process, John was incredible in the studio, it was genuinely a dream to make. We released it when John was at the height of his power. He actually tried to get out of it, but I wouldn’t let him (laughs). It’s all about confidence with John, it’s not arrogance. John is an artist, and artists are temperamental. We gave him plenty of support and guidance.”

‘This Is What We Do’, is an eclectic long-player that embodies the core optimistic ethos of the iconic dance music act. Exploring themes around love, acceptance, diversity and healing, the album was written before and after two extremely challenging and transformative periods in the life of Barnes. The global pandemic, and his own personal health crisis, both having a direct impact on the creative process, with his own drive to heal childhood trauma as a backdrop. 

“This last year has been pretty mad,” he shares. “It started pre-COVID, then I got diagnosed with cancer during it. That really did just feel like another world, it strangely infused me with a sort of creative energy for a short time. I don’t know where that comes from, I don’t know whether it was avoidance of the issue. The day before I went in for the procedure I did an A&R meeting and played the album. When I reflect on that, it’s sort of a mental thing to do.”

The album cover is a shot taken by lauded photographer Steve McCurry, whose work includes the celebrated photograph Afghan Girl. This cover image is a marked departure to previous Leftfield album imagery, chosen to reflect the warmth and positivity of the album and to celebrate the connections that we make with others throughout our lives.

 When talking about the cover art Neil shares: “We worked with Steve McCurry for the photo. It’s a book of pictures of children. In my head it’s about being adventurous, the imagery of a mother and daughter supporting each other. You end up asking yourself who is supporting who? For me it really summed up what I think is important, that early connection is what we all need to think about.”

Full Way Round: Leftfield Interviewed

This is an album fans and critics have waited for a lengthy amount of time to hear, something that can often build the nerves ahead of the release. “You get to the point where you just want the bloody thing out, but I’m really pleased it’s out. It all seems to be going down really well. You know I don’t think that nervous feeling ever really goes… you feel a bit burnt out with it all by the time it’s out.”

The interview touches on how he feels Leftfield would be received as a new band today. “If I’m honest, I do think it’s harder these days for artists; we had the space and time to test things out. It’s very hard for people now because people are filming you from the off. It feels like people are trying to define you before you’ve even started, it makes it so hard to do original things… how difficult would it be for a new Bob Marley, or David Bowie to exist nowadays? You are told you can’t do things now, I’ve always thought music needs to have a ‘fuck off attitude’, that’s what drew me in.”

Neil also still regularly DJs, so is very much on the ball when it comes to emerging labels. “I find myself listening to a lot of electronic labels. I loved the recent Daniel Avery album, I also love bands like Overmono, they’ve got something really special about them. I also follow labels like Craigie Knowes, Pets Recordings. I really like the recent Sault record.”

‘This Is What We Do’ provides the perfect channel for Barnes to utilise electronic music to work through a highly challenging period of his life, facing his own trauma, and going through a process of self-examination. The positive energy and dance-inducing music across the LP demonstrates the power of dance music can heal and transform; individually and societally. “This record isn’t dark or sad, it’s about my belief in people,” he insists. “The album isn’t meant to be wallowing in sadness, it was my companion through one of the toughest periods of my life and I hope people enjoy the output.”

There’s a lot more to come, too. Closing, Neil promises a full remix album in 2023, alongside Leftfield’s titanic UK tour.

Catch Leftfield at the following shows:

18 London Steel Yard (RESCHEDULED DATE)
19 Manchester New Century
20 Manchester New Century (RESCHEDULED DATE)
25 Bristol Marble Factory (RESCHEDULED DATE)
26 Cardiff Great Hall
27 Bournemouth O2 Academy

1 Glasgow Barrowland (RESCHEDULED DATE & NEW VENUE)
2 Newcastle NX
3 Wolverhampton The Civic at the Halls
8 Sheffield O2 Academy
9 Norwich UEA The Nick Rayns LCR

Words: Josh Crowe
Photo Credit: Steve Gullick

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