Nothing's quite right without the wrongness
He’s on tour with his other band BEAK>, but Geoff Barrow hasn’t forgotten about the next Portishead album, he tells JIM CARROLL
YOU CAN BE sure that Geoff Barrow gets the most out of every hour of the day. The roll-call of projects that the Portishead musician, producer and collaborator is involved in seems to grow with every year.
In 2012 so far, there have been albums from Quakers, Barrow’s sprawling hip-hop project; BEAK>, his lo-fi Krautrock trio who play Dublin this month; and Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One, a soundtrack-of-sorts for a mooted Judge Dredd film with composer Ben Salisbury.
You could argue that all of these side projects are a distraction from the work on a new Portishead album, but Barrow would beg to differ. These albums and collaborations are clearly just as important to him as releasing a fourth album with a big P on the cover.
Take Quakers, for example. Helmed by long-time hip-hop fanatic Barrow, studio engineer Stuart Matthews and producer Katalyst, Quakers stars 35 different MCs working with impressive, back-in-the-day beats and breaks.
“We were working on it for four years on and off between other projects and waiting for MCs to get back to us and people dropping off and picking up new people,” explains Barrow. “We approached people via MySpace initially and said this is a hip-hop band called Quakers. We were quite confident that if you get a MC with the right mindset, he’ll hear a couple of those beats and he will want to get involved. If you’re into it for the love of hip-hop, you’ll get it.
Barrow says there was a “no bullshit” policy in effect for the album. “As the artist gets bigger, the bullshit gets bigger. We could have said this is a record by Geoff Barrow from Portishead°, but it’s not a Geoff Barrow from Portishead record. The policy was to bring in anybody and not to just focus on the ones who had something to say. The vibe with Quakers was that everyone was welcome as long as they were cool and had a good voice.”
This year also saw Barrow resume BEAK> activities with Matt Willams and Billy Fuller. Like their first album, the plan with album number two, BEAK>>, was to record it very quickly in a room with no overdubs or retakes. “The first time, we just got in a room and played. The tracks that were good, we kept and the ones that weren’t as good, we kept for the bonus disc.”
That, though, didn’t happen on this occasion. “When we started playing in the room together at the start of the new record, it was fucking awful,” admits Barrow. “I don’t think any of us liked what we were doing. We then went away and did our other things before something clicked and we went from there.
“It was a different experience to the first record. But it’s all done on the basis of the opposite to the grand computer-produced music we hear so readily. It’s not saying that we’re any better for that, but it’s different.”
Barrow believes modern music production has become very sanitised and homogeneous. “It’s very, very rare to turn on a mainstream radio station and hear something that sounds different. Be it a rock track or a hip-hop track or a country track, it all sonically sounds the same. All the levels are up to 11, all the frequencies sound the same.
“There’s no wrongness and wrongness is what makes individuality and that’s what missing. I can’t tell the difference between Example and Chase N Status or Mumford Sons or The Killers. Go back to the Stones and the Beatles and they had an individual sound to differentiate them from everyone else.”
He has done some production work himself with bands, though he tends to shy away from it. “There are bands I really like who come to me and I listen to the demo and tell them that they don’t need me. They just need a decent engineer because the music is strong enough and doesn’t need me to fuck with it.
“I don’t do that much production because I’ve only got the energy and enthusiasm and passion really for my own projects. It takes a lot to produce a band and there are some brilliant people who are really good at it and I don’t think I’m one of them. I really enjoyed doing The Horrors’ record (Primary Colours), but I was very nervous about it and it wore me out and scared me away from production a bit. Hopefully I am going do a week or so with Savages. I doubt that they need a producer but I’ll definitely help them out.”
He’s also keen to do more soundtrack work following his collaboration with Ben Salisbury on the Drokk album for the Judge Dredd film that never happened. “We’re now looking for independent films to start working on,” he says.
There is another project in the background which Barrow has to get to at some stage. The last Portishead album came out in 2008 and, while there has been a subsequent Amnesty International single and lots of live shows, there’s been little sign of a follow-up to Third.
Barrow says it’s on the cards. “I’m just finishing up all the other projects I’m involved in and moving studio so I can concentrate on it. ”
Right now, he’s eager to get to Dublin. “It’s been so, so long since we’ve played Dublin. We’ve been trying to get a Portishead gig together in Ireland for so long and we’ve tried so many times and it just hasn’t worked out so I’m really looking forward to this BEAK> show over there.”
BEAK> play Whelan’s, Dublin, on November 18