Sunday, May 18, 2008

Interview: Portishead

This feature appears in Wireless Bollinger.

It begins as if it never ended. A vocal sample crackles, cryptic as ever, as a man speaks in Portuguese: “Beware of the rule of three. What you give will get back at you. This lesson you must learn. You only get what you deserve.”

So begins Portishead’s Third, released a decade after the band’s last record. And although it starts with a prophecy, in many ways, the album is self-fulfilling. It’s a creative miracle – the result of four years’ work from a group whom everyone thought had disappeared. But the greatest challenge wasn’t outside expectation. Rather, the band’s own goals made it such a difficult album to craft.

“We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, but we didn’t want to not sound like ourselves,” says Geoff Barrow, the band’s mastermind and co-producer. “It was really difficult for us. Each album we’ve done has always progressed. We absolutely wanted to maintain the sound of Portishead, but we didn’t want to fall into the trap of the previous work. We are incredibly tough on ourselves.”

Inner conflict defines Portishead’s centerpiece, singer Beth Gibbons. Her fragile vocals elevate each of their songs to an emotionally devastating pitch, as her own uncertainty seizes the listener. Adrian Utley, an accomplished jazz musician, completes the trio by adding instrumentation and production work.

Barrow says that they remained in close contact during the hiatus. However, repeated attempts at songwriting didn’t lead to enough progression to warrant another album – until now. But while the band’s goals have remained consistent, everything has changed around them.

To appreciate the gulf, one has to look back. Portishad’s debut, Dummy, was a revelation in 1994. Alongside fellow Bristol natives Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead became renowned as leaders of trip-hop, a genre that combines seductive, nocturnal beats and influences ranging from jazz to dub. As with any tag, the term has its detractors, including Barrow.

“I never had any interest in slow beats,” he says. “What we made as Portishead was just a reaction to our influences. We were listening to Can and Pubic Enemy. Anything specifically styled as trip-hop, I couldn’t get near. In the UK it was a dirty word. In Italy and Spain, it was a name for alternative music, for people who were outside the mainstream. Instead of listening to the Scorpions, they were listening to Massive Attack.”

Ironically, trip-hop invaded coffee shops and commercials, as downtempo became not merely fashionable, but economically successful. Dummy sold over two million copies in Europe, and Portishead put a flourish on their American tour by playing New York’s Roseland Ballroom with a full orchestra, later releasing a live album and DVD to immortalize the show.

Although their live experience remains highly regarded, as evidenced by the numbers who flocked to Coachella and last winter’s All Tomorrows’ Parties festival to see the band, Barrow dislikes it.

“I don’t really feel a connection with the people we’re playing for,” he says. “I don’t get into that. I feel weird about performing on-stage. The idea of people looking at you is just weird. I’m concerned that we don’t progress any further than standard rock and roll. I’d like to find a way to perform in a different kind of way, and get excited about performing in a different environment.”

Last spring, the trio did just that, performing without notice at a small club in their native Bristol, to the amazement of unsuspecting onlookers. They played the classic "Wandering Star" and a song that would eventually become "The Rip.”

Unfortunately, the typical show is not nearly as intimate. “You end up in a stage behind a barrier with security guards,” says Barrow. “It’s like a train that you can’t get off.” Due to the layers of production, it isn’t possible to duplicate Portishead’s studio sound in a live form without adding more musicians and performing in a large space. The downside is more distance from the audience, although it’s safe to say that Portishead is capable of filling up very large venues.

But for a band that resonates with loneliness, mass appeal has its own discontents.

“It turned into a beast that we didn’t like the look of,” says Barrow. Thus, Portishead splintered without breaking up following the wake of their second, self-titled album, in 1998. Barrow started his own label Invada, with Australian and UK branches, and produced other bands, alongside Utley. Meanwhile, Gibbons collaborated with Paul Webb of Talk Talk, releasing a countrified album entitled Out of Season in 2002.

Meanwhile, the music industry swayed dizzyingly. Terrestrial radio maintained a firm grip, until the internet put an end to musical hegemony. Although Portishead has the benefit of re-emerging with the authority of their previous work, the internet has given them an edge. Perhaps more importantly, their up-and-coming peers have the benefit of increased independence.

“We carry on because of the internet. I think it’s good for bands like Black Mountain or Battles, people who are outside the mainstream, middle class rock. We don’t have to sacrifice art to get airplay on some commercial station,” says Barrow.

One alternative the band utilized was, a music networking site. A week before Third’s release, they made the entire album available for streaming. It’s estimated that a quarter of a million people visited to listen in.

“I know the guy that runs it in Germany. I liked the idea that you can discover new music from it,” says Barrow, although, he admits with a laugh, “At the time I wasn’t aware that it was bought by CBS.”

Third was released in April to positive critical reception, and debuted in the top ten in both the UK and US charts. Although Barrow says he doesn’t take success for granted, other peoples’ reactions remain secondary to the band’s personal accomplishment.

“We were content with the concept of finishing the album,” he says. “Anything past that was a bonus. We knew that we could get the album done, but it was really scary at times. I don’t really do anything else. Portishead is where my life is.”

Ultimately, the band will remain an enigma: respected, perhaps even revered, but always from a distance. However, Portishead’s outsider status isn’t just for aesthetics - it’s consistent with their beliefs.

“We don’t work well in the mainstream media,” says Barrow. “They’re so worried about their market. They don’t really want us. They want what they’ve created in their own mind. We generally fight against that. I don’t mind doing press, but when you have to change what you do just to satisfy a major label or TV show or radio station, I’d rather not be part of that.

Still, Portishead has made a mark, not merely on a commercial scale, but on an artistic one. What’s more impressive, they’ve done it twice.


Thanks to Geoff, Sioux and Emily! Portishead will hopefully be in the States next year.

MP3: Portishead - Silence
MP3: Portishead - Roads
MySpace: Portishead
Official Site: Portishead

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