Few records have whipped discriminating music fans into a frenzy of anticipation as intensely as Portishead's Third. On April 29, the album interrupts 10 years of silence from the English trio of singer Beth Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley, and producer Geoff Barrow.
Whereas 1994's Dummy and 1997's Portishead shaped and refined trip-hop -- a genre based on film soundtrack samples and hip-hop rhythms that soon became ubiquitous in movies, cafes, and clothing stores -- Third plummets into even darker experimental rock territory.
Out spoke to Barrow soon after the second night of the band's current world tour to get the scoop on this radical and hauntingly beautiful album and why it took so long to create what will undoubtedly be regarded as one of 2008's musical landmarks.
Out: What's it like to be playing your music in public again?
Geoff Barrow: I've never been a fan of playing live music, really. It's not where I come from. I like the idea of playing intimate gigs, but when you get to a bigger level, I just feel kind of weird.
Is it the loss of control over what you're doing?
No, not really. Someone like Coldplay -- they've got their piano and drum sounds, and they pretty much stay like that for the rest of the gig. We change our sound between every track in order to create a new atmosphere. We actually take drums away and put new ones on, and change all the settings on our amps. I feel like I've just got to get to the end.
Is it different for Beth than it is for you?
Yeah. She said last night that the reason why she does it is to be able to communicate with people better. But since we've had success, it's kind of been the opposite.
How do you feel talking about your music after being insulated for so long?
I feel really confident about our music. I think we always have been. That's not to say that we've been confident about its commercial intentions. I think we're just happy that we got the album finished and it represents how we feel as people and the kind of music we want to make. It hasn't been a particularly easy route.
How have you and your band mates changed since the last album?
We've gotten older and fatter! (laughs) I think we're stronger now than we ever have been as a combined unit, mostly because of age. When we started I was very young, and there's a 15-year gap between me and Adrian, and a 10-year gap between myself and Beth. So now the communication's better. We're all from radically different places and upbringings, but we generally feel the same way about the world and that helps.
Do you have a sense of how those personal changes have affected the music?
Yeah, they've allowed us to be more experimental. You would think that Adrian and I would be the people pushing for out-there stuff and that Beth is more like a traditional vocalist. That's not the way at all. She always wants to do stuff that's mad and interesting and unusual. If you play really obvious music to her, she's just not interested. If you play her a truck running over a squirrel in an echo chamber, then she writes a wicked melody.
The album seems incredibly in tune with the times. Was that a conscious thing?
I think it was. We talk more than we actually make music -- a lot about society, the inability of human beings to communicate properly, human conditioning, how you're supposed to be in the world, and the fear that you're basically outside that in some way -- frustration that you want to change things, but you feel the inability to do it. Whether it's film, or politics, or life in general, we feel like outsiders, even toward music.
One of the things that's happened since you last made a record is the Iraq War. I don't know what it's like in England, but in America it's nearly disappeared from the TV.
I think that most people in the UK are absolutely terrified of a threat that doesn't exist. The United States and England [are] in bed with each other to do really, really awful things to people in very, very poor countries with no real sense of guilt or plan. Young men [are] dying for absolutely no cause, just based on some kind of religious extremism. I mean, it really is appalling. So, yes, [we're] hugely, hugely aware of stuff. But [we're] also trying to be careful not to sound like conspiracy theorists because then you can be ignored.
It seems this album is about those things, but it can take some work to understand what Beth is singing.
I think you could tie in feelings about Iraq and political things, but it absolutely comes down to the inability of human beings to communicate.
Did you find yourself scrapping something while making this record because it sounded too much like what you'd done before?
I think that it was scrapped before it happened almost. You kind of have a sense that things just aren't strong enough, or they sound a bit predictable and it doesn't even go anywhere. Sometimes there might be a backing track that we are into, and then Beth sings on it and it doesn't work. And that's not because of what Beth is doing, it's just the combination.
Was that what happened in the recording session that was abandoned a few years ago?
No, not really. We did a session in Australia in 2001, but it didn't have any vocals. [Recording the album has] been an ongoing thing since 2003, 2004. It's an incredibly drawn-out process for us. It should be easier, but we're just so unimpressed by ourselves. [Laughs.] The thing is, we wanted to push ourselves, not repeat ourselves, but still sound like ourselves, which was really difficult.
I worry about bringing up the trip-hop word for fear that you'll explode.
Oh, not at all. In the UK, trip-hop was always a rubbish word, even when it started. But I have just realized that in places like Italy and Spain and Portugal, it was alternative music, an alternative to middle-of-the-road, mainly American rock that was forced onto radio. We couldn't stand the stuff. We were into emotional music, whether it be really angry, like Public Enemy and harsh hip-hop, or really big, like soundtracks -- the complete opposite of this chill-out-ness.
I've read that you took time off to have a home life.
Well, what was left of it. We did a big tour in 1997, 1998 and ended up playing those festivals in Europe to 50,000 people. I didn't like music at that point. I really didn't like much, to be honest, so I disappeared. I got divorced in 1998. Then I gave up music for three years. I went to Australia and just kind of spent some of the money that I'd earned.
What did you spend your money on?
Drink. And flights to Australia. Basically living for the last 10 years.
Was it difficult to walk away from what you were good at and concentrate on those day-to-day things you previously had no time to work on?
Yeah. I needed time to work out the person I was. I was 26 and in Australia, and I met up with [relatives of a friend] and they were a bit 90210. They were lovely people, but they were living this lifestyle -- they were quite affluent. And I felt really, really weird. They would take me to the beach, and I would just sit there with my jeans on and a black shirt. I felt like I couldn't communicate, and it was a long time before I could build [a life] back up.
Were you able to get to a more comfortable place?
Yeah, I'm married again, and I've got two girls. And I feel strong because I found real inspiration within some music. I'd always been into hip-hop, but I'm not really a huge fan of it [anymore], except for someone like Madlib. The commercial aspect of [hip-hop] I find insulting really. But I massively got into experimental rock and stuff that was severely uncompromising. And because I got into that, it was like hearing Public Enemy when I was a kid. That's what really pushed me into writing this record.
I hear the influence of Can and other German '70s bands.
Yeah, lots of Can. I'm fascinated with the way they can create tension, even though lots of it came from jamming, which is the opposite from the way we work. And [pioneering electronic rockers] Silver Apples. We tried to make music [where] the traditional song structure is there, but not the traditional chords and sounds. I just find them so boring. There's acoustic guitar and stuff like that -- [the album] is not that out there. But we're trying to find different roots.
Did you teach yourself to play that kind of experimental music you just mentioned, and did Adrian teach himself how not to play what he'd been playing?
Yeah, I think that's a good version of events. [Laughs] I think it was at times very frustrating for both of us. We had these rules that Adrian couldn't play a fucking chord almost, and me trying to play keyboards or drums when I couldn't, you know. [Laughs] Oh, the wonders of technology.
Are you aware that Portishead's music resonates particularly deeply with gay men?
No, not really. I've never known that it makes any difference for anybody. I think what Beth writes is good and honest.
So no one's ever mentioned gay fans or gay perception of your music?
Not any more or any less than any other fans, really. I mean, people who are on the outside of so-called modern society always have to struggle because the system is not set up for them. Even the system of being gay is not set up for them. It's about struggle, and Beth is about struggle.
I think gay men who've lost many of their friends to AIDS and/or are facing what had been for many years considered a fatal illness could connect to something in your music that's sad or deeply felt -- more than someone who's had a protected existence might understand.
There's the perception that you're going to find what you're looking for in happiness, in going out and having a good time. But listening to music like ours could be a good thing. You're not in a lonely place. Yeah, I can definitely see what you mean.