Sour (And Good) Times
By Barry Walters
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.