“I can’t be arsed with it!” exclaims Adrian Utley, half-exasperated and half-laughing down the phone. “Twitter.. it’s too much information coming in. I’ve stopped listening to the radio as well, because I can’t take all that information in. I don’t know how Geoff (Barrow, tweeter of some renown) does it, it’s really incredible.”
Clearly, the information overload of the social media age has yet to nestle on the shores of Utley’s imagination. But then, perhaps he’s too busy – rewarding Clash with some time to discuss his new recording of Terry Riley’s seminal work ‘In C’ the musician is a tumbling torrent of fresh ideas. “I’ve got a film I’m going to be writing some music for. I’m really into it, I found it at Bologna silent film festival – it’s a Russian film. I’m really interested in that” he explains. “I’ve got a couple of albums to mix and an album to produce. A Portishead album to write, with Geoff. I haven’t got time for the guitar, at the moment!”
‘In C’ itself is a labour of love. A seminal work in minimalism, the 1964 piece is designed to be played by an ensemble of musicians and remains a phenomenal study in group improvisation. “Essentially, it’s improvisation with very strict musical notes and it’s performed so you play a phrase and you repeat it and repeat it, then you move ahead and play a different phrase when you want – not when you’re told to” Utley explains. “It all works together and it’s absolutely genius, the writing.”
Forming an ensemble, the Portishead guitarist used a number of friends and contemporaries. Unusually, Bristol has emerged as a hotbed for avant garde guitar playing – not only are the majority of the musicians on the recording from the city, but Utley’s arrangement of ‘In C’ was released on Geoff Barrow’s Invada imprint. But for the arranger, what mattered was sheer sonics – not geography. “Tonally, I want the guitars to sound a certain way and they need to adhere to the rules that Terry Riley laid down. Like we all are” he states. “That’s the restrictions, really. I didn’t particularly want massive loud distorted guitar, to stand out or anything. We’ve got to play together, so I do have restrictions on it but within that context they can do as they wish, y’know”.
Taking a renewed version of the ensemble to Poland for a performance at Unsound festival, Adrian Utley notes with some dismay the lack of female musicians within the group. “There’s no women!” he exclaims. “Well, there’s one woman coming over with us. So we could do with more women guitar players involved in it, actually” the guitarist muses. “I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of the women that I play with and men. There’s a level of accuracy which is really good with them but they’re good players, y’know. I think it’s good to have a balance, really. Not just men. I’d like to see more women playing.”
Ultimately, the problem with a large, avant garde guitar orchestra is finding ways to fund the musicianship on show. Adrian Utley has received numerous gig offers, but only a few has proved to be beneficial enough to pay each of the guitarists onstage. “Nothing’s fixed yet because there’s so many of us. It’s an expensive operation” he insists. “It seems to always be like that. Some of the things we’ve been commissioned for leave us struggling to pay everybody. I did actually work with Glenn Branca, and he’s a massive hero of mine, I really, really love his work – it’s a massive inspiration to me. I know that Glenn Branca has done like 50 or 100 guitars at a time; maybe people do it and not get paid. I never want to do that, so it’s always quite tough to get it sorted”.
For Adrian Utley, his current fascination with left field, ensemble based sounds is simply the latest manifestation of a love affair with his instrument which stretches back decades. “ It’s always been my main instrument – although I play lots of other stuff” he notes. “Being involved in synthesisers – which I have been heavily in Portishead – that’s kind of informed my guitar playing, in a way. I started out as a straight up guitar player, playing blues, jazz and stuff like that. I got really, really bored of it, so I have now my own feeling about guitar and it involves different ways of playing it, different sounds”.
Using the ensemble allows Utley the privilege of being able to hear these thoughts, ideas being performed en masse. “I write pieces for the guitar which use those techniques – well, not the Terry Riley piece because that’s not my writing. Other pieces I used my techniques in a massed form. That makes me excited about it. I still have a really good relationship with the guitar and also other stringed instruments which I play – or I hear. But I’ll never ever not want to hear Jimi Hendrix play. I also think the guitar has a lot of stuff to be said. There’s a whole new breed of guitar players doing really incredible things, making the guitar sound like it’s never sounded.”
Words: Robin Murray
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