Oor nr.6, 8 April 1995
Source: Oor nr.6, 8 April 1995
A 23-year old hiphop- and dusty soundtrack addicted soundfreak, a somewhat older singer who's been singing in British pubs for 10 years and an even older jazz and R&B guitarist. Put them together and there you have Portishead. Add the musical magic word 'Bristol' and you've got a winner. A talk with Portishead's face: Beth Gibbons.
Let's get one thing straight: there's no such thing as the Bristol sound. That the three acts associated with this fresh new 'trend' - Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky - produce a similar sound has to do with a few musical noses pointing in the same direction and the cooperation established at a certain moment because of this. No, there's no romantic Seattle or Manchester-like offensive of musical solidarity feeling in Bristol but just a few dead-boring tracable facts: Portishead-brain Geoff Barrow was the poor guy who made the tea and sandwiches and was allowed to press a few unimportant buttons in the studio while Massive Attack were making their debut Blue Lines in 1990. Rapper Tricky belonged to Massive Attack's permanent entourage and is also heard on their new album Protection. And the knowledge that acts like The Blue Aeroplanes (intellectual guitarpop), Mark Stewart & The Muffin (industrial funk) and the Beatnik Filmstars (surly noise) are also from Bristol doesn't contribute at all to a good definition of a 'Bristol-sound'.
Of course it could have been great: an enthusiastic argument about that beautiful former trade centre in the county of Gloucester with its nice buildings, its university with observatory, its port, its shipbuilding- machine and glass industry and for a short time its very own recognizable sound; sinister,coloured, slow on languid hiphop-beats, leaning suspense jazz, full of movie soundtracks, haunted samples, distorted raps and half-frozen voice parts. But alas the truth is getting in the way again.
Right Portishead. A nice example of a succesful apparenty incompatible coincidence : the only thing young wizzkid Geoff Barrow and experienced Blue Note-scene musician playing jazz and R&B guitarist Adrian Utley had in common was their love for one particular CD: Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. And of course their fascination for sounds: they could spend hours discussing how soundtrack-legend John Barry managed to get the sound of a coffee grinder completely in tune with the music. But when Geoff ran into the fragile Beth Gibbons in 1991 ( at an Enterprise Training Scheme, a kind of course for starting enterprisers) they hardly got along. "We listened to each others home-made tapes and immediatly come to the conclusion that it wouldn't work" , says Beth. "I wanted to do live things, needed an audience. Geoff was more of a studio-guy. A real programmer. So pretty soon it was: nice to meet you, bye."
When Beth's singing -career got on a wrong track soon after this, she thought of Geoff again. And especially the speed and efficiency he works with and his boundless inventiveness when it comes to making backing tracks for other artists. She decided to ask him to do 'something' with her song "It Could Be Sweet". He did that. The outcome was pretty good and from that moment on the cooperation was a fact. After persuading Utley, drummer Clive Deamer and technician Dave McDonald Portishead was born.
Portishead's mastermind may be called Geoff Barrow, but the voice and face still belong to Beth Gibbons, a small, slight and pale little bird who, contrary to the introverted and worrying characters she presents on the Portishead debut Dummy, appears to be very cheerful. And that's probably not caused by the many interviews, previous British messages said Beth categor refuses to speak to reporters, simply because she's to shy, thinks her lyrics are too personal and can't say anything about Portishead's musical concept. "You still have to talk to Geoff about that last one but all of those stories about my interview-fear date from the beginning of the band. At the time of our first interviews everything was new and unclear, so I usually was staring at a reporter with this big question mark above my head. I just didn't know it then. It was too new and I was nervous and paranoid. And I still don't like doing interviews. I hardly do any, only if Geoff's too busy. I hope this will be the last one for a long while."
Why do you still find it difficult to talk
about your lyrics? Well, in the beginning it went alright: I had just
written them and they felt really personal then. Meanwhile most of the
lyrics are over a year old and it doesn't feel like it's about me. Time
created a distance. People don't change that much in a year, do they?
When you write your lyrics, are you guided
by Geoff's music? Or is it the other way around?
And then suddenly:Gotcha. Then you return it
You and Geoff have totally different musical
backgrounds. The secret of Portishead?
Bono? With his stylish voice? Whereas your
voice is very...
But where does that leave the emotion you
just talked about? You obviously can't totally use that in Portishead.
And meanwhile nobody knows what you're