Geoff Barrow: the industry is full of “fucking idiots and some total geniuses”
When the news was announced that Kurt Cobain had died in 1994, the genre of Grunge was soon to follow in the eyes of the music press. Loud, long-haired Americans and their disciples where cajoled and condemned back into the ignominious underworld, as the new music media – seemingly overnight – coined a new phrase and phenomenon to alight the commercially servile public with a passion for a fashion.
Britpop’s juncture in the wake of Grunge changed Britain. The chinks in Conservatism’s armour where filled with the blue-collared grout of Labour’s hope, as the likes of Oasis and Blur penned working class stadium anthems to unite a nation in crapulous embrace.
As much as Britpop orchestrated the decade’s zeitgeist, not all the music of the time was of buoyant optimism. Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ went against the grain in 1994 in so many ways; unconcerned with gritty guitars, anthemic prosperity and celebrity enterprise, the band refused interviews, preferring to remain veiled behind their heavily produced and ruminating sound that was later to be defined as Trip Hop.
‘Dummy’ became a landmark album in 1995 when it pipped Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ and Supergrass’ ‘I Should Coco’ to the Mercury Music Prize, selling two million copies in Europe alone. The tortures of touring and publicity caused the band to remove themselves from the public eye for three years until the release of their eponymous second; and a further 11 years for the group to reform and produce 2008’s ‘Third’.
For someone that is a consumed perfectionist, producer/instrumentalist Geoff Barrow’s new project BEAK> finds himself not only going against the grain of prevailing trends once again, but his against his own musical progression and ethic. Along with Bristol-based musicians Billy Fuller and Matt Williams, their debut album entitled ‘Recordings 05/01/09 > 17/01/09’ was written and recorded in 12 days at SOA Studios with no overdubs or repairs. The result of which is the sum of its parts: musicians emancipated from musical structure only to be concerned with the assimilated texture and propagation of experimental sound.
Talking to The Quietus following one-off gigs in Paris and Berlin, Geoff Barrow explains all about his musical transformation in the form of BEAK>, how easy it was to record their debut in 12 days, why the industry is full of “fucking idiots and some total geniuses”, and what’s happening with Portishead’s fourth album now they are free from record company restraint.
**Hello Geoff. How has your time been performing in Paris and Berlin? It must be strange touring with another unit?**
Geoff Barrow: Yeah it’s alright. I mean we got the synths in a suitcase on easyJet and got a back line and stuff. It’s nice not to have a fuss, where we can just have it all set up in 20 minutes and we can play without a PA so it’s kind of nice ‘cos we just stick the vocals through an amp like we did on the album. It’s good; it’s nice to see it as it really is.
**How did you guys get together?**
GB: Billy [Fuller] plays in a band called Fuzz Against Funk who are on Invada, and Matt [Williams] who is Team Brick records for Invada. We were at an Invada New Year’s party and we did a thing called the Invada Acid Trance where lots of people on Invada just jam together for an hour, two hours, whatever. Bill played bass, I played drums, and Matt played clarinet.
Matt had played on the last Portishead album and we were just like let’s go do it. I’ve always really liked what both of them have done, so it just seemed like the right thing to do.
**You decided to record this album in 12 days. The last Portishead album took 11 years to release. What made you decide to do this so quickly?**
GB: It’s just different things for different bands really. [Pauses] It’s just kind of like if Portishead wanted to record in 12 days we would love to, I mean it’s just a different set of, I don’t know… rules, because you just want to write some more music. But I kind of had to switch one part of my brain off really, which had been annoying me for some time really…
**Which part was that?**
GB: It’s like the side where you are so over analytical about things that it kind of stops you from doing anything. So for me it was a really good thing.
Ade’s [Adrian Utley] been out playing with different people… we all do stuff outside of Portishead, producing records and so forth. It’s just another thing for us to do, I mean, we’re all into different things. And just because it’s another record it just seems that it’s related to Portishead in that way. Whereas if you produce records or play gigs, it’s maybe not seen in the same way.
**BEAK> has been a great step away from Portishead in many ways: what are your musical influences in making the record?**
GB: It was a case of we didn’t talk about anything really. We just knew what each other kind of liked and just got shut up in a room, put the levels up, mics up, and no fucking about.
The first track was the first track on the album and that was it. We just didn’t really talk about it really, I mean the record that we played once halfway through the session on day six was like The Plastic People of the Universe, and Billy hadn’t heard of them and that was kind of it. It just comes from a world that we’re all excited about, so we weren’t going to have an influences kind of chat. We were all into it. We just kind of shut up and away we went.
**So was it as fluid as it sounds? Was it a tough 12 days?**
GB: No. We worked from kind of midday ‘til seven o’clock so I could go home and put the kids to bed. We could have kept on going back over it with the torment and turmoil because you feel that it warrants a bit more of something; but just because it was easier, doesn’t mean that it was a throwaway record.
For us it’s a record that we really like the sounds of. In the past we have all made multilayered records and this was kind of slightly a reaction against that. What would happen was that we would play a tune and usually for me and Billy it would be like that’s alright and then we can start adding stuff; but Matt was already on a computer really bored of it going ‘No well it’s done isn’t it?’ because he comes from a one take avant-garde style background where he never repeats himself again. So we all decided it sounds alright and that it was done.
**It must be hard for a musician to know when you are finished?**
GB: Yeah, but it was actually really refreshing. We knew that there were imperfections, but that is what gives a face character. So it was the same with us: our out of tuneness or our wonkiness made it us. It didn’t go into Protools for some Swedish guys to then put it all in time [laughs].
So it was kind of rough and ready and a reaction to music that you hear on the radio. People like yourself are aware of albums that happen like this all the time, but not many people are and just hear “Sex On Fire” or whatever it’s called, and you just hear this enormous sound with everything in its right place but it’s just nice to have something that isn’t.
I don’t know if that is refreshing for anyone else but it definitely was for us. We’ve kind of renamed the genre ‘Regressive Rock’ [laughs].
**It is, like you say, regressive in comparison to other end products that we are used to from yourself and what we hear on the radio at the moment…**
GB: I mean not everything is, and obviously there are some really good albums out there, but the majority of what you here on the radio is.
I mean how we did it was just [pauses]… amazingly easy. The writing process was just a flow of consciousness with three different vocal mics going through a guitar amp in the room so we could hear ourselves sing. I mean we would probably do three or four takes on some stuff, and just kind of go ‘Oh well the first one was better, but the lyrics were fucked but it doesn’t really matter, forget it anyway’ [laughs]. I don’t mean for that to seem like it was some kind of throwaway project.
**I was reading a few news feeds and comments on the album…**
GB: Have you seen any reviews out there?
**Funnily enough, there was one post on Drowned In Sound saying something along the lines of ‘Well done for ripping of The Horrors’ and I found this hilarious, as you had produced their last album. As a side, how was it working with them?**
GB: The Horrors knew exactly what they were doing, I’ll just say that right from the off. I just kind of helped out on that record – if I had a traditional production role, I don’t know? I did most of the mixes and sat through all the recordings, but they gave me a CD of pretty much every single one of those tunes as it sounds on the final record.
I was away on holiday in Portugal and took one of their CDs and there were god knows how many tunes there were… loads! All I said was that they needed to record them properly, not get over commercialised sonically and just be confident about what they were doing. I know they wanted to experiment a lot more and really they have done it themselves in their own rehearsal studio.
Some of the recordings were actually from their room. I think myself, Craig Silvey and Chris Cunningham didn’t really do anything really [laughs]. They knew what they were doing and people think that they are style over content because of the way they dress and shit, you know what I mean? But they really had it nailed and they turned me onto so much music that I had never really heard of, like really avant-garde stuff. They are real record collectors and always have been.
I think myself lucky to have worked with two bands that have so much talent and are mad record collectors, and that’s The Horrors and Coral and you wouldn’t think that about them at all.
I mean literally, when they were recording the record they would be sat on the settee with five laptops and it would just be churning. You could hear their laptops straining with files, music and stuff that they were buying off eBay and God knows what. It was just unbelievable.
**You have made a reputation, especially over the last decade, of being this faceless entity behind music, co-founding trip-hop and the ‘Bristol Sound’ of the mid Nineties, and generally going against the grain of popular music at the time. Your new project BEAK> defines this somewhat. What are your opinions of the music industry at the moment?**
GB: I think at the moment, everyone is entitled to do whatever they want at any point. The industry is struggling to make money like any business is. I think that there are some total fucking idiots and some total geniuses working at every level.
The industry is in a bit of a mess where the great unwashed haven’t bought records since Oasis, and I do include myself in that [laughs]. But it’s one of those things where if we don’t have another Arctic Monkeys where the hits are at, they won’t go out and buy it. It’s like anything that people are into; they’ll spend their money on films or in Ikea. It just depends.
It’s just like people that are around my age – I’m 37 now – who were really into music like Joy Division and Factory [Records] or whatever it was, have kind of cut off all their outlets to hearing new music. You would think that it would be easier with the Internet, but maybe it is more daunting for people because there is so much.
I run a label [Invada Records] and it kind of struggles along, but if a good record comes along and someone gets hold of it, it can make money for the band but not enough to pay their rent for the year. I just don’t know how it’s all going to work out.
**There is a great sense of freedom within the ‘BEAK>’ album, do you think that this is going to replay into the new Portishead material? You’re without any ties to a record company at the moment, it must feel quite liberating?**
GB: We’re just talking to the majors at the moment, indie figures and loads of people really. It might do, but I doubt it [laughs]. We’ll just try and write it as quickly as we can, but it’s all about inspiration and whether you’re happy with yourself. If you can come up with the stuff you like then it’s fine. I don’t think that I have lowered my expectations or anything; I just think that Portishead is this dysfunctional relationship. No, dysfunctional, not relationship, because that sounds like we don’t get on; it’s like a dysfunctional family that basically just find it difficult to create something that we all enjoy together.
**So are we talking another 11 years to see another album?**
GB: No, it’s just that I gave up music for five years, so the album only took about four years in total. But I guess when you’re trying to reinvent the wheel… [laughs]. I don’t think we did it – don’t get me wrong, I don’t rate myself that highly – but when you come up with something that you are finally happy with, it’s ok.
We didn’t want to repeat ourselves [with ‘Third’], but it was really difficult sometimes: if you want to do something different, you really can’t because it doesn’t sound like you; so when you don’t sound like what you like about yourself, you end up writing stuff that you hate. It was like eating a curry and puking it up and eating it again [laughs].
**Beautiful imagery, Geoff. So have you started writing anything for the fourth album yet?**
GB: No, no. We’ve got a lot of ideas, but it’s all brain stuff and notes knocking about.
**What about BEAK> then? Is this a one off project or are you looking to move on to other stuff?**
GB: No, no. I think the way that Portishead works is that we do have gaps in between our work and stuff, and as long as the other guys are happy to do it then we’ll do it again. Whether it takes 12 days or not is different, but we were just jamming around the other day in rehearsal and it was sounding good as a new track.
It might become a multilayered synthesiser record, we just don’t know at the moment, but we are going to do it again. We’re going to go on tour at some point in December so it’s all good.
**You haven’t played in the UK yet, are you looking forward to your debut at ATP’s Tenth Birthday?**
GB: Yeah, but we’ll be playing the night before at the Garage, London, before that.
**Are you looking forward to getting back and playing on the UK scene?**
GB: Err, yeah, to be honest the English scene is, like, I don’t know… a bit fucking shit! It’s something about England: I think a lot of bands on a small level feel it all the time.
The British music scene is pretty amazing in that it reinvents itself all the time and breaks it down in the space of two days in the constant search for something new. But I think that it’s eaten it’s own bum at the moment and can’t seem to break out of it’s own negativity at the moment and it’s just really odd.
It’s just a very peculiar time and it just needs to believe that something is going to happen. I’m probably the wrong person to say, because I’m not checking out new bands all the time and there is probably some really good stuff happening, but there is that belief that people don’t support other bands though in the UK.
The thing is, with the likes of The Maccabees and The Horrors, I really expected them to be played on Radio 1. They have both produced amazing second albums and there is something quite special about them. The industry needs to get behind these bands and give it the daytime, as it is the best of new British music, but they just won’t – they’ll be lucky if they get a spot play of 6music. What the fuck is that about?
**Is new British music about whoever wins the next X Factor then?**
GB: I don’t know, but the alternative music scene in the UK has been squeezed down, especially when it comes down to the media like TV or radio. All the indie bands are scrambling over each other like rats in a rubbish tip to try and get at one can of mackerel and they are eating each other to do it.
If the level in the media was slightly pushed up a bit, so instead of like Little Boots, it was like The Horrors on Jonathan Ross – I mean, open it up a bit so that real people who will go out and buy records will go out and buy their record instead of the shit from X Factor so that we can support our industry again.
We kind of need to have another Arctic Monkeys to get behind.