Portishead: ‘We’re a bit of a sleeping dragon’

So says the band’s Geoff Barrow as they prepare to play their first Irish show for 17 years at Electric Picnic. He talks about the Stradbally festival and the band’s future recording plans


When Geoff Barrow spoke to this newspaper two years ago, there was a long list of projects to talk about. That year alone had seen releases from his hip-hop project Quakers, the lo-fi Krautrock-style trio he led called Beak; and Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One, a soundtrack of sorts for a mooted Judge Dredd film with composer Ben Salisbury.

During that interview he mentioned “the P”, the band he made his name with. “I’m just finishing up all the other projects I’m involved in so I can concentrate on it,” he said back then. “I’m thinking about the P, but we just need to get on with it.”

Portishead are getting on with it with gusto. It’s the second summer in a row the band have spent touring. Later this month, they play Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois, their first Irish show since 1997.

“We’re trying to wind up the current set, the one we’re bringing to Electric Picnic and have been playing since the release of Third, but it works really, really well at festivals,” says Barrow. “We’re also trying to play places we haven’t been before or haven’t been for a very long time. That’s why we’re going to Iceland and Finland and Poland and Ireland. ”

As for a follow-up album to 2008’s Third, Barrow says it is “a slow process to get there” with Portishead. “What it takes is to get a vibe. It’s not about playing live. Portishead playing live is like a theatre performance because the script is already written. It’s like the circus, because you know when someone flips a switch over there that you have to run from here with a blanket to catch them. The chances of movement within that are very small and I don’t think they ever occur.

“But what does happen is the three of us get together and we start chatting, and that is so much more important than anything we could possibly do onstage as regards what comes next.”


Keeping busy

The fact all are busy with other tasks and projects has slowed things down. Singer Beth Gibbons is working on a solo album for Domino Records, while guitarist Adrian Utley produced a concert of Terry Riley’s In C with his Guitar Orchestra and worked with Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory.

But all of these side projects, Barrow believes, contribute to the Portishead creative arsenal. “I know it’s a really bad analogy, but you know when you’re playing a video game, and, before you can fight the big baddie at the end, you’ve got to leg it around the bases picking up power packs and weapons and shields? That’s what I am doing now, and I suppose what I’ve been doing with the soundtrack work and Beak.

“I’ve learned something from Beak, from Quakers, from the soundtrack stuff to bring into what Portishead is. Same with Beth and Adrian.

“While we’re doing that, we’re also writing. There are no dates in mind, but if I sit down and I think about writing music, it’s for Portishead. For the last five years, Portishead would be fourth or fifth on the list, but now it’s at the top.”


No pressure

The lack of pressure from a third party is probably another contributing factor. Portishead are without a record label, and Barrow says they are happy with this.

“We’re just sitting back, looking at the industry settling down, and people finding different ways of doing stuff. We’re not the most forthcoming people when it comes to a business model, to be honest, so we’ll let the industry do that, and we can then go, ‘We’ll do what Arcade Fire did’, or ‘We’ll do what Radiohead are doing.’ Usually, it’s Radiohead. If anything comes up about the past stuff, we go to Island, and we’ve been working a little with XL on the idea of future stuff.”

Barrow is keen to work with music people when the time comes to deal with labels again. “I think there are still a lot of music people in the business and Richard [Russell, XL’s boss] is one of them. His exploration into his own production stuff is totally brilliant, and he’s done some good records. If you make a record, you know how hard it is.

“Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] who now runs Polydor, was our A&R man for years, and he’s amazing at knowing how to make proper records. I think the music people are still there, but some of the artistic decisions taken have been a bit weird.”

Perhaps he could release the album on his own Invada label? “Running a label has been totally brilliant, but I’m releasing music by bands who might sell a hundred copies, and I consider that to be a success. I’ve been amazed at the records we’ve sold, but I’ve never got caught up in that, because good records, in my experience, rarely sell an awful lot.”

Regardless of when and where that fourth album might appear, Barrow is happy that there will be an audience for it.

“We’re a bit of a sleeping dragon. We go quiet – very quiet – and when we do something, I’m shocked by the amount of people who are there to see a gig or a tour. We’re been offered bigger gigs now than we were when we were at the height of our supposed powers. Some of the offers are ridiculous – like ‘No, go away, we can’t fill that’ – but the demand seems to be there.

“It’s the nicest feeling to know there are fans out there who are interested in a Portishead album or ticket and we don’t have to do a lot of stuff in between. You don’t have to go on a permanent self-promoting wave or work with the coolest people or trendiest hipsters. We are who we are.”

He is looking forward to the Irish show. “I’ve heard great things about Electric Picnic and I’m bringing my mum and my sister and all my nieces and nephews.” But he is wary about some of the events he has come across in the current festival boom.

“It’s very difficult to know what a festival is like until you play there or speak to someone who has played there. There’s a huge question for some bands, where you go to an event and it’s heavily sponsored by Coca-Cola or someone like that, someone I consider to be an unethical corporation. But if it’s a relatively poor country, the fans say you wouldn’t be able to play here and the ticket prices would be higher if it wasn’t for those brands.

“There’s definitely a divide. You get the whole corporate mobile phone-sponsored event with corporate hotdog stands, where VIP fans are segregated away from everyone else. It’s called a festival but it’s not. Then you’ve events like Pohoda in Slovakia, where this guy has created his own Glastonbury on an airstrip. It’s full of interesting music and art and food. That would be more my kind of thing.”

At festivals, Barrow hopes to avoid what he terms “the righteous middle class” who have already caused him to leave Bristol.

“The righteous middle-class are taking over the world, mate. I’ve moved out of Bristol and into the countryside last year because of them. The area in Bristol that I moved into 17 years ago has been totally taken over by the righteous middle class, and I couldn’t handle it any more.

George Ferguson [a Bristol architect and the city’s first elected mayor] has this vision for the city as the only way for Bristol. We have food banks on the increase here and he’s closing down streets to put in a giant water slide for people to use on the weekends. It’s unbearable. I got out.”

Portishead play the Electric Picnic on August 30

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