Geoff Barrow of Portishead on Blue Lines, Banksy, Silver Apples and his act's early success
Portishead (due Thursday, October 27th, at 1stBank Center) wasn't the first band associated with the aesthetic of trip hop but it is the most commercially successful with major hits in the 1990s. The thing that made the band so remarkable was that the sound it crafted wasn't one that was easily duplicated and pretty much had to be accepted and marketed on its own terms. The seemingly immediate popularity of the music spoke for itself.
In 1994, when Portishead released its debut album, Dummy, songs like "Sour Times" and "Glory Box" crossed over to mainstream music outlets, and the members of the band found themselves, in a sense, unlikely pop stars. The group's haunting, dark and edgy music struck a chord in the mid '90s when a lot of popular music seemed to be turning fairly derivative.
After releasing what seemed to be its final record, the self-titled 1997 album, Portishead, the act played an occasional gig for the next eleven years, until Third came out in 2008 to great critical praise. This year, Portishead is touring the United States for the first time in over a decade, and we had a chance to talk with Geoff Barrow while he was spending some time in his studio in England.
Westword: You got involved in recording work from a fairly young age. How is it you became involved with Coach House Studios, and is there anything you learned from your experience working on [Massive Attack's] Blue Lines that you've applied to your work since?
Geoff Barrow: Yes, I learned how to make a decent cup of tea and how to make a sandwich. I didn't know the Massive Attack guys before, but they were kind of legends around Bristol. They were The Wild Bunch, at that point, one of the only internationally-known kind of British hip-hop crew through the '80s. They used to go to Japan a lot. They were very serious about what they did, and it was very Bristol-oriented. They kind of liked what I was doing; I was writing my own music at that time and had a manager, and they put me on a retainer to work for them and work for their manager, who was then managing Neneh Cherry and so on.
The main thing that came out of that was I became friends with Johnny Dollar, who was the producer of Blue Lines. Unfortunately, he passed away three years ago. He was kind of my mentor. He was an amazing guy and incredibly talented. He brought a lot of, I suppose, sophistication, really, and he was into David Sylvian. He was really into synthesizers and did the classical thing on them. So he was very much the catalyst of that record. Bringing together the arts, British pop music, very urban Bristol-based, traditional black music. He was the string guy on "Unfinished Sympathy," and he was very much a songwriter.
I suppose seeing him craft loops into song form [influenced me]. I was already doing that, but I was rarely allowed into the main studio room. There was a tiny little recording room and you could maybe squeeze four people in there. It wasn't because they didn't like me; it was because of the spacing. But I worked with Johnny Dollar for a few years after that with Neneh Cherry. But I think regardless of Massive Attack, I would say Johnny Dollar was a key influence on me.
"We Carry On" has kind of a Silver Apples sound to it. What was your introduction to that music, and what did you most want to know about when you interviewed Simeon Coxe III for Clash Music?
I was introduced to Silver Apples by Adrian [Utley] from the band. He found the album at Good Music in New York. When he first bought it, he actually thought it was modern, because it was just extraordinary. It didn't really click with me the first time I heard it. Actually, to be honest, I wasn't really much into music at all when he played it for me. I didn't like any. I found a copy, and it kind of totally clicked.
Speaking to Simeon, I was just hugely influenced by and interested by the way he had an amazing musical but non-musical ability about him. Like tuning and the noises and the lack of "music" proper -- it was outer space music, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of thing Public Enemy would have sampled. They most certainly did at some point, you know what I mean? Bomb Squad. Making literally punk music but with folk and the idea of [meshing] a singer, who is using traditionally-sounding songs, with these extraordinary jazz and electronic sounds. Three stylistically-different pieces of music being shoehorned in such an incredible way -- that's what really interested me.
Talking to him, he's just a brilliant guy. I've spoken to him a few times, and I've met up with him. He's playing I'll Be Your Mirror [festival] with us because he's doing a collaboration with Hans-Joachim Roedelius from Cluster. The idea is they were on the other sides of the country making this really odd music and then bring it together and see what they come up with.
Also, I think they were a massive influence on Jimi Hendrix because they used to play with him. They used to have a noise off between his oscillators and effects and Jimi Hendrix's guitar and effects. They used to jam together with Danny Taylor. I think the noises that they made absolutely told Jimi Hendrix it was alright to make that noise. That alone is what makes Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix. I can't say for a hundred percent that that's the way it went. Simeon's not a boshi kind of guy, do you know what I mean? "Yeah, I taught Jimi everything he knows!" It's not like that. It's like, "Yeah, we used to do these noise-offs."
How did you end up being the music supervisor to Exit Through The Gift Shop? Were you sworn to secrecy about Banksy's identity?
No, I knew him from bumping into each other late night at Bristol bars. He used to have a place around the corner from where my studio is, so we used to see each other in this terrible supermarket that just sells frozen goods. The game of when you go to the supermarket is to find something that is going to be the least harmful for you to eat. They're the purveyors grey meat matter.
Then, I don't know, I think he knew I was alright and could be trusted, so he got in contact. It wasn't like a big deal; we just sat down, and he knew what he wanted, and I tried to help him out on it. And that's how it worked. It was a really stress-free thing. I interpreted the film and hopefully it all went down and that was it.