Geoff Barrow Of Portishead Talks New Projects, Touring and “Judge Dredd”
It’s no secret that Portishead is one of the most iconic bands of the past two decades. While their electro-infused hymns with a hip-hop sensibility ultimately set the stage for the current landscapes of both electronic dance music and rap, there is still an insatiable hunger for more Portishead projects. One of the masterminds, Geoff Barrow, has delivered his heightened production to other projects like Quakers, BEAK>, and now Drokk with Ben Salisbury. The latter is a project initially intended to be the soundtrack for the next installment of the Judge Dredd film series, but now exists as a standalone project that sonic connoisseurs and sci-fi heads can mutually agree upon. Catching up with Geoff during Drokk press, he elaborates on his projects, the future of Portishead, and how being a living legend from Bristol still can’t get him a decent hotel room in Boston.
Life+Times: So how many of your interviews start with asking where Portishead’s fourth album is?
Geoff Barrow: Um, pretty much every one.
L+T: So where is it anyway?
GB: I’m not telling you! We just literally came back yesterday from playing some gigs. So we were just out in Italy, Spain and France with Portishead so it’s good. When we go on the road, it actually really makes me…well it makes me at least…really want to write again. And we’re supposed to be moving studios, but it’s not looking great. I just kind of found out today, so there are walls being built to stop us, but I’m going to get on it basically. Soon as I do a couple of little BEAK> things, I’m going to be back doing it.
L+T: Awesome. What was it like touring again with Portishead?
GB: Well I’ve started to really enjoy it! I didn’t enjoy it at all when I was younger. I just didn’t like it. And for some reason I’ve kind of chilled out. If I can combine it with things like BEAK> and stuff like that, I find it really interesting. Portishead’s actually quite a big monster to take out on the road, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of things going on. So it takes a lot of work, but then when we get going, it’s really good. Especially if we’re playing for places we haven’t been before. Like last year, we went to Eastern Europe. We went to Slovakia, Poland, Serbia and it kind of was all fresh. It wasn’t just doing the… I mean, even going to the States because we haven’t been there for such a long time.
L+T: Getting started, how did you figure out what you wanted the Portishead sound to be?
GB: Ah well, that was like a combination of listening to kind of like, some American hip-hop, that music. And taking those techniques to Bristol, and reggae. And then things like film soundtracks… I mean, we were lucky in Bristol that we had people like Smith & Mighty kind of guide the way for younger generations like me really.
L+T: You’ve managed to find ways to diversify with stuff like Quakers and BEAK>. Do you feel like when you come up with new sounds that you want to experience or at least deliver, do you want to start new groups? Like continue to do so? Or new collectives, rather?
GB: No, not really. I mean basically I work with an awful lot of people because of my label and friends and musicians I really like and some are not applicable to Portishead at all. I mean, I wouldn’t like to take Portishead anymore hip-hop at all. And really as a musician, I just wanted to expand what I could do with production and then ideas and then bring them back to Portishead really. There’s also like, little walls that like I said got to jump up more for Portishead and so I wanted to free myself from a lot of the things that kind of held me back.
L+T: Do you feel like the world’s relationship with electronic music has changed since you first started?
GB: Kind of… Well everything’s electric, really. Unless it’s acoustic, it’s electric or electronic, so it’s just how technology grows. I mean, when we first released Dummy, we weren’t at the height of electronic instruments. I mean at that time, there were lots of people who were into House music and Dance music, you know? So really, we weren’t ever really pushing boundaries, but we were just a band that sounded like ourselves and that’s all we really ever wanted to be.
L+T: It sounds like you bring that to Quakers and BEAK> too. Like, you bring just being yourself and the quality of that sound to those groups as well.
GB: Well I think that’s I suppose kind of just honesty really. Or just rawness, you know? Trying to bring a rawness, whether it be emotionally or it’s just the opposite of over-produced really. I’ve never been a real fan of… I mean, I like big productions, don’t get me wrong. Something like Stevie Wonder‘s production or production that’s hype and incredible. But I just like to bring kind of a rawness to things. You know, like hopefully an honesty to music.
L+T: Can you explain Drokk, and how it pertains to Dredd and everything in between for the American audience?
GB: Oh, how long you got? In 1977, a British comic was released…it still continues today…called 2000 AD. Its main principle character was a lawman called Judge Dredd. Judge Dredd is based in the future and it’s a post-apocalyptic kind of America, where the whole Eastern seaboard has just been basically turned into one city and most of the outside has been irradiated. And the justice system is kind of like martial law so they’re called judges because if you do wrong, they could arrest you, try you and execute you basically. I mean it was written in 1977 and throughout that period in the UK where it was a lot of those issues. You know poverty strikes, racial stuff going on and it’s kind of how Star Trek in science fiction reflected the things that were going on in America politically at that time. It’s kind of Judge Dredd, and 2000 AD did the same for the UK. And I’ve always been a fan, and it’s very usually that comics go along with music – whether it be Iron Maiden for people or Public Enemy. So I was supposed to with a friend of mine, who told me to do this to work on the soundtrack of the new upcoming Dredd film. It never worked out, but it was a really positive experience that we walked away from very happy. So we released the music that we recorded for it, because as lifelong 2000 AD fans, we kind of based it on Mega-City One, which is that Eastern seaboard city of America set in the future. And it’s very John Carpenter-esque. It’s very synthesizer-based.
L+T: I can imagine though how many sci-fi fans will probably flock to you and ask you crazy questions about the project.
GB: It’s not too bad actually. I mean we’ve taken it live as well. We’ve played a live performance of it in a comic shop, so I was really hoping to get out to Comic Con to play over there. Hopefully in the future we’ll play some big kind of sci-fi or big comic convention in the States. That would be great.
L+T: So what’s the weirdest thing that a fan has done for you? I mean I’m sure over the years, especially with Portishead’s cult following and everything.
GB: That’s a pretty loaded question!
L+T: Well you could be as detailed as possible or a one-word answer! Whatever.
GB: I don’t know really. I must admit, that most Portishead fans in the early years completely had the wrong idea of what we were like as people. I think they just thought that we kind of lived in kind of weird, Transylvanian style castles in Bristol and thought that we wore cloaks. So really it wasn’t until Third came around and all that time in the middle, that people actually realized what was going on I think. They also thought we were massive stoners and stuff like that, and we weren’t that either. I think the weirdest thing is when people really kind of feel like they should treat you differently because you’re in a band and like that you would really like to be treated special or specially. Do you know what I mean? That’s the weirdest feeling. That’s definitely the weirdest feeling. It doesn’t sit right at all with us basically. When people go… well we’ve got security for them when they go outside, and all that kind of stuff because we are really just very, very, very much not like that. When we’re in America it’s really weird because what we find is if you don’t… I mean – I understand why people play that game and sometimes being a little more “starry” than normal because if you don’t, people just treat you like shit. So it’s like, sometimes you are actually better off saying, “Yeah, I’ll have a nice room please” because I think it’s an American thing that if you don’t act starry, then people just think, “Oh they’re just weird.” Like I’ve been in hotels in Boston, where I’ve had to show my I.D. three or four times because the guy thought I was too scruffy to be in the hotel and stuff.
L+T: Oh no! If you don’t flash your collection of albums, they’ll put you on a cot.
L+T: So how did you go about releasing the Drive soundtrack on vinyl?
GB: That was amazing. No, not amazing, it was brilliant to do with the guy that runs my label, Reg. I was in Canada at the time and Adrian from Portishead had seen Drive and said it was really cool and it was a really good soundtrack. And I didn’t get to see it until about a month afterwards on a plane. And in that meantime, Reg who runs Invada Records in the UK is a big Cliff Martinez fan and phoned up Lakeshore [Records] and said, “Is anyone doing the vinyl?” and they said no and we asked if we could do it and they said yes. And it was really that simple and it’s been brilliant for us.
L+T: What’s your favorite soundtrack of all time?
GB: Most probably Assault On Precinct 13 by John Carpenter.
L+T: Do you tend to enjoy soundtracks because you enjoy the movies or are there some that you just don’t even consider the films?
GB: I mean most of the soundtracks I used to like in the past, I never saw the films. They were usually sort of terrible, unfunny gangster films or something, you know? So yeah, a good soundtrack and a good film don’t always go hand in hand as is proven on a weekly basis.
L+T: So if there’s one artist that’s out now that you can bring on your label roster, who would you want?
GB: Um, I don’t know! That’s a really good point actually. You know probably I would love to have The Aphex Twins because I think that he’s miles ahead of everyone else and a really interesting artist. I’d say him and Chris Cunningham maybe. We supported Chris Cunningham on a couple of shows last year and he does a lot of music now and that was really cool. I mean it’s kind of mostly the only kind of laptop music I could really listen to because it’s extreme, you know? But then I would love to sign Chuck D.
GB: Chuck D. joined Portishead on stage a couple of times when we’ve done “Machine Gun” where we asked him to play and it’s been amazing! He’s like – he’s such a heavy character and brilliant. And [Public Enemy] released a new track [“I Shall Not Be Moved”] and I haven’t really seen it on online and it’s like, what’s up with everyone, you know?
L+T: So, everyone listens to you. Who are you listening to?
GB: Music wise? Oh I just listened to…I just heard a band called The Savages who I think sound really good. Who else am I listening to? Um, Death Grips maybe a bit. Just, I don’t know. Any music, I don’t know. Vex Ruffin I like a lot.
L+T: What’s next for you?
GB: Doing press for the new album, and then Portishead is in France and Holland. Then I go to the caravan with the kids for a week.
L+T: Wow, so balancing being a star and being a regular guy, just like you said.
GB: Well, I don’t think that star thing really comes into caravan-ing much really…