Sour (And Good) Times

4.27.2008

By Barry Walters

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.

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