Portishead | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020  

Portishead

Solving Silence

Jun 01, 2008 Summer 2008 - The Protest Issue Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


Ten years. It’s not much more than a blip on the timeline of recorded history, but it’s a lifetime for the typical musical act. In the ten years since Portishead last had a new release, the music industry—if not the world—has changed several times over. Back then, peer-to-peer downloading and the iPod had yet to change the way we listen to music, Britney Spears was still the girl next door, and Radiohead was still a guitar band. The Twin Towers still loomed large in New York City, gas was less than two dollars a gallon, and Barack Obama was an obscure Illinois State Senator. And ten years ago, Portishead was revolutionary, their pioneering amalgamation of bold hip-hop beats, creaky soundtrack samples, and Beth Gibbons’ eerily wounded vocals pushing pop music into a barely recognizable future. Now, ten years later, the future is here, and a generation of musicians has reexamined and recontextualized the Bristol, England, trio’s music so many times that it’s almost impossible to imagine what the still startling Dummy must have sounded like in 1994. Ten years later, can Portishead still surprise us? 

“We knew that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, but at the same time, we didn’t want to not sound like ourselves, as well,” explains multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow. How can a band that once walked away from a career as a groundbreaking and surprisingly popular group come back after such a protracted period and not disappoint people? The album has to be different enough not to simply sound like a reconfiguration of the past’s successful formulas but not so different that the original listeners won’t be able to recognize the band’s fingerprint in the songwriting. The more time that passes, the greater the need to justify taking so much of it to make an album.

“That’s what made it really difficult. Every time I had to get a beat or a backing track in a traditional way, it sounded like some awful, weakened version of ourselves,” Barrow continues. “We could make some fucking crazy music, but it would never sound like us. It would sound like someone else. It was always trying to find that middle ground. Eventually, we worked and worked and things just appeared. The main thing was to avoid what we’ve done before, really. We just wanted to write some interesting music. A lot of the stuff we’d done before was based on minor chords, and we didn’t want to do that again. Also, for Beth, we wanted to give her new places to go. There were a lot of tracks that started and died off and stopped, and then four years went past, and some of them were dug out again. For the first time ever, I feel quite happy about an album. I feel like we’ve achieved something.”

Third is not just a timeless exploration of the queasy beauty of Portishead’s original aesthetic, but one that muffles and distorts their beats, bludgeons their melodies into hazily dazzling shapes, and drapes everything in noisy fuzz. Beth Gibbons is the one constant, her vividly vulnerable presence has not dimmed in intensity one bit over time, and her songwriting still resonates with otherworldly anxiety and fragile grace. In short, it’s exactly the album they needed to make, but one that required every minute of its extended gestation period.

“I think we always knew there would be [another album], but we had to wait for the right time to do it,” says multi-instrumentalist/producer Adrian Utley. “We tried working on tracks as early as 2001, but there wasn’t any direction for us in any way. We met with the head of our record company in May, and we played him seven tracks. Then, a year later, we met him and we only had six tracks,” he laughs. “When we did ‘We Carry On,’ it signified a change in so many ways. It was faster, it had a totally different vibe, and it was much more up-tempo than anything that we’d ever done. It seemed like we’d found a root. We had one track. We also had ‘Magic Doors’ from earlier, which we thought sounded like an old Portishead track. ‘We Carry On’ changed everything in a way. It gave us hope for the future.”

Though it’s hard to understand how such gifted musicians had once lacked hope for their future, you have to consider the three personalities behind Portishead. Unwilling rock stars in every sense of the word, Gibbons doesn’t do interviews, and Barrow and Utley only grudgingly do so. Photo shoots can be painful, TV performances excruciating, and touring is dreaded but endured. By the time they finished their last tour (in 1998), they simply had no interest in jumping back on the publicity merry-go-round. Barrow and Utley started families and record labels. Gibbons made an understated collaborative album with Talk Talk’s Paul Webb (aka Rustin’ Man). But, mostly, there was silence. The band that had said so much in so short a time was worn out.

“We really just came off the last tour without anything to say,” Barrow explains. “We ended up playing these ginormous festivals in front of shitloads of people, and we felt like performing monkeys on the rock ‘n’ roll rodeo. We found ourselves doing things, because we were headlining these festivals, that the subtlety was gone from our music. Like Beth says, ‘It always feels like a fucking joke, because what your brain and body is telling you is the kind of person you are is confronted with being in front of 30,000 people.’ It’s fucking hilarious, like, ‘What am I supposed to do here? There are flashing fucking lights! How did what I did in my bedroom in Easton get here?’ It wasn’t a real happy place, and there were a lot of personal things that happened during that time. We came off tour and said, ‘Fuck that.’ Ade and Beth carried on making music for a while, but I quit for about three years. I feel like after the last tour, all the doors were closed. Musically, I didn’t know where to go. I’d kind of exhausted every idea I ever fucking had. After this one, even though I’m tired from it, I feel like there are a lot more doors open, because we’ve just opened that path of rhythms and songs and sounds.”

Rules were set when recording Third. No instruments used on previous albums would be allowed, and Utley’s slightly out-of-tune vintage synthesizer would play a large role. Simpler, rawer, and more degraded sounds would be favored over complex or clean textures. There would ukulele-led ballads (“Deep Water”), thumping grooves (“Silence”), and skonky horns (“Magic Doors”). The influences of drone metal mingled with the music of The Silver Apples and John Carpenter soundtracks. But while they had managed to break down and rebuild their sound into a remarkably transcendent whole, the question that remained was whether anyone in the new music culture would still care.

“There’s a lot of young people now that would have never heard us in the past, and I was quite aware of that,” Utley says. “I think the whole music industry has changed dramatically from when our last record came out. The Internet is much bigger and stronger and more of a reality now. It was a funny little dial-up thing 10-12 years ago. Now there’s a growing expectation for music to market it and put out more stuff. We’re not rich people. We’ve lived for ten years on what we’ve made from our last endeavors. I know teenagers who download all the time, and I’ve had them play me a Nina Simone track, and they don’t know what they’ve got. They just skip through it, and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. But there’s a lot of good inspirational music happening right now, lots of good underground bands that you can find through the Internet that you wouldn’t have been able to find before. You can google Silver Apples and find this huge world of music, and it links you to someone else, and away you go. That’s completely brilliant, I think.”

But despite the multitude of ways that the music and personalities behind Portishead can be discovered in an era of mass media, the band’s essential allure remains. Even so, the mystery that surrounds the band can’t help but feed into the image that they are essentially hopelessly depressive recluses, crafting songs in a dank basement to vent at a world gone wrong. If the modern media has increased the number of access points to the band’s music, it has created just as many distortions of who they actually are.

“We are so not what the media would want us to be or what our perception is,” Barrow suggests. “I’m not saying this is [your magazine] by any means, but a lot of magazines or TV shows want their Portishead or what they consider is their Portishead. They don’t really want us, because we’re just difficult fuckers who don’t want to do anything we don’t want to do. So, when someone comes up with something brilliant for us to do because of what they think Portishead is, we say, ‘Well, no. We desperately don’t want to do that because it’s a shit idea.’ We’re constantly in this state of not getting who we are across, because we’re usually just trying to survive a day of interviews. We’re not actively going out there to make a point that we like to do things our own way. We went into a TV show like that, and they said, ‘Can you play this track and this track and not this track, because it won’t work with our program?’ Well, that’s fine, but you know that’s what kind of fucking music we make. You want us on the show, so have us. Why have some compromised fucking version that you want?”

Still, as they are hesitant self-promoters, admittedly cranky, and disinterested in attention, it would seem that at least some of the stereotypes are warranted. They might not be joyless sad sacks or brooding ghouls, but it’s undeniable that they stare deeply into the darker side of human frailty and create sounds that accentuate the accompanying dread. If they don’t enjoy it, why keep writing songs that force them to go through the motions that exasperate them?

“It’s our way of communication,” Barrow says flatly. “We see this as a way of releasing our frustrations. It’s a very big question of why we as people make music to be out there. It’s a massive question. Except for Adrian, who is more of a live performer and likes the experience of playing music live for people, Beth and I definitely don’t [enjoy playing live]. A lot of our music is borne out of frustrations with human beings, and being better able to communicate as human beings and the fucking ridiculousness of the way the world is going. Our frustrations enable us to write the music that we really want to write. It’s all jumbled up and more one single voice than separate ones pulling against each other, which has made us a lot happier in the record that we’ve made, actually.”

In short, everything surrounding the band—all the hype, confusion, and mystery—can be reduced to a single point: Portishead are back. And while they were gone so long as to belong to a different era of music but not long enough for their return release to be considered a “reunion,” they have done the unthinkable and pushed all questions to the side, ultimately letting their music provide the answers. At the end of the day, the innate power of music continues to propel their story forward.

“I was talking to a journalist earlier about the Led Zeppelin gig that happened at the 02 arena in London,” says Utley, mentioning the 2007 reunion show by a band that had been away for even longer than his. “And he was talking to someone who lived in Canada who had sold his truck so that he could get to London to Zeppelin, and that meant that he’d have a winter of walking to work. But [the fan] thought it was totally worth it. That’s the power of music, isn’t it? When I was in my teens and I was learning guitar, I would walk 11 miles to the nearest town. I’d hitchhike there, but when the gig was finished, I’d have to walk back. If I was lucky, I’d get a lift from someone, but I was prepared to walk 11 miles back through the night to watch these bands that I wanted to see. I understand that feeling, and I think that’s the power of music. One hopes that that can happen,” he says thoughtfully. “Are you going to sell your truck to come see us?”



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