A Chat with Portishead's Geoff Barrow/Jon Wiederhorn

Source: Microsoft Music Central
Attitude and Armageddon: A Chat with Portishead's Geoff Barrow
By Jon Wiederhorn

A few years ago near Bristol, England, Portishead and its neighbors Massive Attack and Tricky pioneered a form of electronics-based music called trip-hop, which blended sleepy rap beats with otherworldly samples and weary, melancholy female vocals. Portishead's 1994 debut album, Dummy, met with massive acclaim, and before the band had time to wail "Nobody Loves Me," trip-hop became the flavor of the moment. Soon, scores of bands began to mellow out and think bleak thoughts with the hopes that they, too, could hop up the transitory ladder of stardom. In an effort not to trip over itself as it started working on the follow-up to Dummy, Portishead strove to reinvent its sound. Instead of sampling from other artists, the band created its own exotic sounds, sampled them, and then cut and pasted them into new songs. The process was stressful and time-consuming, but the results are remarkable. Portishead's new self-titled album retains the woe and wonder of Dummy, while catapulting the group's trademark sound in a fresher, more experimental direction. We recently talked with multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow about anger, attitude and Armageddon.

Why so glum, chum?: We went through a lot of despair and frustration making this record, and I think it came through. Also, I think the music is dark because that's the general mood England was in at the end of the Tory government. We had years where the government was making up rules as they were going along and crushing the life out of the people. There were rules that were instated to stop people from gathering in the street and making any sort of protest. So if anybody had a party with over six people, then you could actually be arrested.

Why it took so long to make the new record: I went through a huge period of writer's block. Basically, we were afraid to finish a song because we felt there was so much to live up to. We took 14 months writing and putting things together, but we never ended up with any finished results. We just ended up with a lot of ideas and rough songs. We were on the verge of panicking, and then [guitarist] Adrian [Utley] said, "Well, look, let's just finish one track, and we'll get it up to scratch, and then carry on from there." So we did "Half Day Closing," which had no samples in it. And from then on it took five months to finish the rest of the album.

The glut of trip-hop bands in today's music scene: I'm not here to slag anyone off, but if Massive Attack or Portishead was already out, and I was starting a new band, the last thing I would want to do is sound like them.

Why vocalist Beth Gibbons won't do interviews: Her songs are about things that are very personal to her. I've never seen her sing something that doesn't involve a real emotion, and she doesn't want to have to talk to the press and reveal stuff that's private. Also, she's afraid that if she did interviews, it would affect the way she thinks about writing songs.

It's the end of the world as we know it: When I started making music, I had an eight-year plan that predicted the end of the world, and that affected my life quite heavily. When the Gulf War started, I thought that the end was just around the corner. I've only just gotten over not watching the teletext when I come home from work, but I've still got to sleep with the TV on all night. I just feel like we're spiraling towards our demise. Nostradamus predicted the world would end, and I don't see why not. He was right about everything else. But even if it means the end of us, it doesn't have to mean the end of everything, and that's an important point to me. If something else can carry on living, then it's worth going on.