The musical landscape of the mid-1990s wasn’t so different from today, in so much as the singles chart was a mix of pop, rock and dance music, mainly. The dominant genres of that time have remained so through to now. What was different, or at least what felt different to someone buying records at the time, was that albums didn’t tend to be made by dance acts – at least not to the critically celebrated standards that rock music enjoyed.
Leftfield’s debut of 1995, ‘Leftism’, played a substantial role in changing that. Alongside The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Exit Planet Dust’ and The Prodigy’s ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ – and, to a slightly lesser extent, the genre-mash-up sounds of Portishead’s ‘Dummy’, Moby’s ‘Everything Is Wrong’ and Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ – the first album from production pair Neil Barnes and Paul Daley popularised the dance long-player like never before.
Released on January 30th 1995, ‘Leftism’ was received as a new dawn for British house, and recognised as one of the albums of the year by the Mercury Prize panel, shortlisted beside both ‘Dummy’ and ‘Maxinquaye’. Tracks like ‘Open Up’, featuring John Lydon, and the Earl Sixteen-starring ‘Release The Pressure’, were radio staples, and commonplace additions to indie compilations of the time. It was a period of change documented in series like ‘The Best… Album In The World… Ever’, the third volume of which (I still have it) placed ‘Open Up’ and The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ on the same disc as ‘Stupid Girl’, ‘Going Out’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. Genre lines were blurring. Dance was no longer just a club concern.
Come 1999, Leftfield had their first number one album. ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, with the hit single ‘Afrika Shox’ and Guinness ad-featured ‘Phat Planet’, earned another Mercury nomination, although for the second album in a row Leftfield didn’t walk away with the top prize. In 2002, though, everything went quiet: Barnes and Daley put Leftfield on hiatus. Their return in 2010 produced the live LP ‘Tourism’, but Daley subsequently elected to go solo, leaving the Leftfield reins to Barnes alone.
Which is where we pick all things Leftfield up: on the phone to Barnes to see what exactly the situation is, now that he’s the sole custodian of the project.
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‘Afrika Shox’, featuring Afrika Bambaataa (1999)
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What is the state of play with all things Leftfield?
The state of play is that I’m finishing a new album. You might even have an exclusive here, but you asked what I was doing – and what I’ve been doing, over the past six months, is finishing a new Leftfield album. I’m still doing that, and fitting a bit of DJing in. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say when the new album is coming out. I’ve rather let the cat out of the… box? Bush? What is it they say?
Yeah, the cat’s out the bag. But why not let someone know. It’s no secret that I have been working on a Leftfield album. The Facebook page is full of it. I’ve got deadlines now, which is a horrible thing to think about. So most of my time right now is being spent on brushing up on the new album. And I’m not going to say anything else about it, obviously. Because that would be revealing too much. And I couldn’t tell you much more anyway!
But presumably you’re very happy with it, as it’s not something that is being rushed out?
Oh, I’m f*cking very happy with it.
And is it going to be very vocalists heavy?
Ooooh, y’see, there you go. I’m not going to tell you. But yeah, it’s a Leftfield album, and that’s all I will say. So expect a bit of madness, expect the unexpected. It’s been going for three years, and it’s very… I don’t know. At the moment, I’m still finishing it up, so I’m finessing it over the next couple of months. Y’know, finishing and mixing, filling in things that I think are missing. There have been parts that I’ve dismissed, but then come back to and realised were good. And now I have to put it all together on a record. It’ll have no resemblance whatsoever to the past, put it that way.
You say that, but presumably a new Leftfield album will be identifiable as a Leftfield album, rather than anything else?
Oh yeah. I think so. It doesn’t sound like a remake of ‘Leftism’, or ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, put it that way. There’s some great electronic music being made today, and I have to compete with that.
Some of those musicians will have grown up listening to you.
I suppose some of them will have. A lot, maybe. But there’s some pretty stunning stuff coming out of Europe over the last few years, like Moderat and Modeselektor, and Caribou’s new album. I’m into all of that, and they’re making albums that work really well – like, Gesaffelstein too. Somehow I have to be up there with them. And then there’s people like Hudson Mohawke, and Aphex Twin has just come back – I love his new album. There’s some brilliant, fresh music coming out of Bristol at the moment, too. Really powerful tracks. People don’t realise just how much amazing music is being made by young artists in this country.
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‘Open Up’, featuring John Lydon (1993)
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You’ve got people like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke really making their names with album work – both on their own and through contributions to other LPs. Do you think that you played a significant part in ‘legitimising’ the dance music LP, with ‘Leftism’?
Definitely, we did. It was the time of The Chemical Brothers and the second Prodigy album, too. Before these albums, people thought dance was a disposable form. We grew up on great albums, though – albums that told a story. And I suppose we had so much stuff that we wanted to express, that we had to make an album. And when we did, we thought we’d sell 20,000 copies or something. We had no idea it’d become a classic – we just made a record that we’d want to sit down and listen to.
Generally, nowadays, it’s hard to make an album that’s 10 good tracks. That’s something Moderat have achieved with their latest one – and I’m looking forward to hearing what HudMo does next. Young people now are buying things track by track – I’m not sure they’re listening to albums as we used to anymore.
I suppose you have artists like Disclosure, who have the single track hits, but also put together a generally well-received album, that hangs together in an older-school sense.
Yeah, I really like their album. They get the pop thing, they’re really good – they know what they’re doing. And they’re really young!
I don’t think that they were both born when ‘Leftism’ came out. I’m pretty sure one of the brothers is still terrifically young. (Not quite, says the internet: 1991 and 1994 for Guy and Howard, respectively.)
Good luck to him!
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I’m happy working on the new material, but I’m not against doing something with ‘Leftism’...
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Do you have any plans to mark the 20th anniversary of ‘Leftism’ next year?
I’ve no idea. At the moment, nobody’s said anything to me about it. Someone would have to come to me with an idea for it. I’m happy working on the new material, but I’m not against doing something with ‘Leftism’. I think if I wasn’t also doing the new album, I’d be less interested to revisit it. To be honest, in my head at the moment, I’m just trying to make a new album that’s as good as the people I just mentioned. I don’t want to look like an old twat, wasting his time.
Do you think that electronic music gives you a greater freedom as you get older, to experiment and advance your material, compared to a more ‘classic’ rock set up? Because you think of electronic music as being less physical than banging a drum, or running around a stage with a guitar…
Well, I think there’s a great deal of originality still to be found in just bass, drums and guitar – it all depends on how you put it together. I mean, these days for electronic music, you can just get a program, press play and it’ll give you a techno rhythm. It’s all about new ideas – the process, or the type of music you’re making, almost doesn’t matter. I still believe that there’s great new music to be made from what you know. Look at The xx – that’s great, minimal music, with just a great voice, bass and drums. It’s like Talking Heads – go and listen to that, and it’s minimal and brilliant, because of all the ideas in there.
I’m really into Sleaford Mods right now. What they do is brilliant. And if you listen to what they’re doing, you’ll see what I’m talking about: it’s really simple music, really minimal. But the thing about electronic music – well, all music now, because most of it is made in computers – is that everyone can find their way around it. We all have massive memories in our computers, and the scope is almost endless. The problem, the danger I suppose, is how much of it can sound fake. That’s the criticism I’d put towards a lot of mainstream dance, compared to the more underground stuff – a lot of the mainstream stuff is made to requests. Like: ‘That’s popular, can you make me more of that.’ That’s why house rhythms are all the same today – everybody is doing the same thing. For me, that’s sad.
People do see success that some acts have had, and then they set out to copy it to try to get some for themselves. And I have no problem with that, in dance music or electro. That is how a scene forms. What’s important then, though, is to push that scene forward. As long as there are people looking to push things on, we’ll be okay. If you don’t have those people, you get a blanket blandness.
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Interview: Mike Diver
Photos: Marot and Sons