Open Up: Leftfield Interviewed

"I like this and I don't care what other people think.."

For any artist, producing new material after a decade long break can be a tough ask. But for Leftfield, these complications were compounded by the simple fact of slimming from two musicians down to one.

Paul Daley politely turned down the offer to reform the duo in 2010, with Neil Barnes taking the project back out on the road. Famed for their volume and commitment to sound perfection, Leftfield found a new generation willing to listen, their ears already roasted by dubstep's commitment to bass weight.

It's been a long road but it leads us here. New album 'Alternative Light Source' is a triumph in both a creative and commercial sense – critics and fans love it, while the record soared into the Top Ten while barely breaking sweat. “I think at the moment there's a lot of very good electronic music across the world, it's a very different place to where we started,” he reflects. “Even to be involved with it, to have a record out there that's done as well as it's done, to be selling out tours – which I never thought we'd do – that's an amazingly lucky position to be in.”

Not that the new material slid effortlessly into place. “The album took three years to put together,” he explains. “I'm coming back after fifteen years, largely without my ex-partner to make a new Leftfield album and obviously people are going to be saying, is this good enough? So the first year was spent making demos, and it freed me up actually to be Leftfield, in a weird way. To try and think of a way of doing something which fitted into now – which is what I wanted to do.”

A necessary period of experimentation, the fruitless first year allowed Neil time to re-connect with the pioneering spirit which runs through the project's finest material. “So the first part was, yeah, I've got this heritage, what are people going to think about it, and the next two years was actually developing that on and gradually becoming stronger as a result of being honest about what it sounded like. I tended to chuck things out – this is a different Leftfield record, it's not so reggae based. I wanted to leave that behind and try and do something slightly different.”

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An energetic, engaging individual in conversation, the producer admits that he enjoys being swallowed up by projects. Leftfield, it seems, is a wholly immersive endeavour, one that took up virtually every waking thought across those recording sessions. “It was something I felt that once we got stuck into it, it was like… it felt incomplete,” he says. “The thing is, until it actually was finished, the last few months, it felt like: oh God, I'm never going to get there. To make something that I like.”

“We've chucked out loads of things, we'd sit in front of the speakers for days and months trying mixes out. Trying to get the sound of it right, trying to get the bottom end in there,” he recalls. “It's a continuous process of trying to get the balance right in terms of electronic music. Is there a song in here? Everything that goes into a record that people can listen to, rather than just techno or house. So all the time things are changing, developing. There are millions of mixes of things. I mean, something like 'Bilocation' which turned into something completely different, I think there's about a hundred mixes of it. A hundred different versions of it, different basslines.”

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I like this and I don't care what other people think…

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Re-born as a live project, Neil Barnes was forced to figure out how to get the genie back into the bottle – in other words, how to re-cast Leftfield as a recording entity in the 21st century. “It was written, really, with clubs in mind. 'Leftism' is a club record. It was written completely as a studio album, we didn't really think about the live aspect. There's an element of it, an element of thinking about that all along because you know that's the next thing you're going to have to do. I turned it into a live show. So it was really conceptualised as an album with the live thing later although they're both equally important.”

One of the album's real flash points is 'Head And Shoulders', an imposing track featuring Sleaford Mods' vocalist Jason Williamson. Neil Barnes is a huge fan of the Nottingham duo, personally inviting them to get on board and allowing them relatively free reign over their contributions. “Well, for me, Sleafords just are a breath of fresh air, really,” he enthuses. “They're brave and they take out a lot of the bullshit that's in music and Jason's lyrics are incredible. I just think people don't understand how lucky we are to have a bloke like Jason in the world at the moment because it amazes me some of the things that are written about what they do.”

“If people just listened to Jason or looked at his book – he's got a book called 'Grammar Wanker' which is fucking brilliant – he is a really talented lyricist and that's why I wanted to work with him. And when we started the track, we had the idea of this world of over-consumption destroying itself. The whole idea of Head & Shoulders, this thing about washing your hair, the growth of it all. That's how it kicked off. I just thought: this is brilliant. I like this and I don't care what other people think.”

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In approach and attitude – if not sound – Sleaford Mods seem to hark back to Leftfield's beginnings. The project was always at odd with both the mainstream and the underground, whether it was working with John Lydon on 'Open Up' or accepting the influence of reggae on their sound the outfit seemed to collide with the zeitgeist and revel in the sparks which flew.

“Me and Paul, we come from a different time, when music was the edge,” he reflects. “Maybe it isn't now, maybe music isn't the edge – maybe it's just wallpaper. You know, I get involved with it. Sometimes when I'm Djing I'm thinking: why am I playing this? It's just like what everyone else is playing. So when I'm making music it's an opportunity to say: oh for fuck's sake! Come on! Let's do something that's really… and it doesn't fit in, often. Often what we do doesn't fit in to what everyone else is doing, is doesn't fit in on the dancefloor, it fits in as an album. It becomes something else.”

“We did it with 'Open Up' – that stirred things up massively. 'Release The Pressure' stirred it up – when we made that nobody was making music with reggae. Only a few people. Yet we thought it was completely obvious. We could talk about my whole bloody career now! To me, they're all natural things for someone to want to do and that's why Jason is on the record and that's why Tunde (Adebimpe) is on the record and that's why Channy Leaneagh (Polica) is on the record, Georgia's on the record. They're all there because they're all people that are trying to do something different. Trying to do something different and, to the best of our ability, that's all we do.”

Not that Neil Barnes is a nostalgic person. Jokingly dismissive of any 'Leftism' anniversary celebrations – “I'm planning a barbecue, actually” – he rarely plays past material in his DJ sets. “I'm not a nostalgic person. I'm really not,” he laughs. “I'm awful. I don't play Leftfield tracks when I'm DJing. Very rarely. And I always think DJing is an opportunity to play other people's music. Now and again I play remixes, the Legowelt remix, but I'm not nostalgic, I'm into new music. That is it. The opportunity to do the new album is where my heart is. Because it's the new album.”

It's as simple as that. Still storming the barricades, Leftfield are currently plotting another nationwide tour. Who knows, more new material could yet arise. As a punk from a slightly earlier era would have it, the future remains unwritten.

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Leftfield have confirmed the following shows:

1 Cardiff Great Hall
2 Southampton O2 Guildhall
3 Liverpool Guild Of Students
8 Nottingham Rock City
9 Birmingham Institute
10 Edinburgh Corn Exchange
11 Aberdeen Music Hall
14 London Roundhouse
16 Norwich UEA
17 Newcastle Northumbria Uni

12 Manchester Warehouse Project

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