A few years ago, the internet coughed up an old image of Leftfield’s Neil Barnes hammering a keyboard at a festival in Scotland. Perched on his shoulders is a little girl. It’s his daughter Georgia, then six years old but today a Mercury-nominated singer and producer. As it did the rounds on Twitter, the consensus was that the picture, from 1996, was the coolest dad-daughter snap in the history of dad-daughter photographs.
The one person on whom the charms of the photo were lost was Barnes. “It was totally irresponsible. Something you’d never do now. I look at that and I feel quite bad,” he says.
The sheer volume of Leftfield’s gigs at that time made them no place for a child, he says. “I don’t enjoy looking at that picture. I think about protecting her ears. Because it was so loud.”
Barnes (62) is speaking to The Irish Times ahead of the release of Leftfield’s remarkable new LP, This Is What We Do, on Friday, December 2nd. It’s the fourth Leftfield album in their three-decade history. And, as with their previous records, it was forged in a crucible of struggle and self-doubt.
Depression, a divorce several years previously from Georgia’s mother and an ongoing crisis of confidence were all part of the background noise as Barnes slogged ever onwards. While those personal and professional storm clouds rumbled, he and regular collaborator Adam Wren – replacing original Leftfield member Paul Daley, who left in 2000 – toiled in vain to impose a structure on the music. Barnes was a mess. So was the album. He was in a hole with no apparent way out.
“I’ve been through the mill,” he says. “I had to accept the reality of struggling with depression. I tend to come in and out of it, as people who know me know. I have great losses of confidence and belief in myself and what we do. I’m very fortunate to have Adam Wren there, who kept the whole project on song. And to have my partner Leanne. Going through the mill is part of living. It’s part of life. You either stop or you keep going. I chose to keep going.”
Things couldn’t get any worse. Until they did. In the summer of 2021, he experienced bowel problems and went for a colonoscopy. It turned out that he had cancer. Urgent surgery was required.
Weirdly, the experience had a galvanising effect. Few things bring clarity like life-threatening illness.
“I had a tough time at certain points. Everyone had the whole Covid stuff. And I had a brush with bowel cancer. Which slowed the process – and also sped it up in some strange way. You read about this sometimes when people are really sick. It drives you. Just because I had cancer is not a reason [to give up]. I mean I wasn’t dancing around the room. But I always felt that the record was coming out of a positive place for Leftfield.”
Leftfield are one of the foundational voices in modern electronica. Their 1994 debut, Leftism, was a landmark dance album, fusing the spirit of rave and the snotty brio of punk (a scene Barnes had witnessed first-hand as a teenager).
Leftism was a retort, too, to the cartoon jingoism of Britpop. At a time when the UK music industry was bundled up in a union jack and old fish-and-chips wrappers, shouting “oi!” in the street, Leftism championed the dub and reggae that Barnes had grown up with in north London (one of his first gigs as a musician was at Notting Hill Carnival in 1986). To this, they added the outlaw mania of acid house with beats that shone like supernovas and shuddered like depth charges.
“I don’t think we ever felt part of that Brit thing at all. We got nominated for the Mercury Music Prize [in 1995, for Leftism]. We got a few things like that. I’m proud of the fact that we brought in something that we were inspired by – the reggae and dub influences on the first album,” says Barnes. “And more techno influences coming in on Rhythm and Stealth [their underrated 1999 second LP]. I think it stands up as an attempt to make an album in a different way. I’m pleased we stuck to our guns at the time.”
He brings up Andrew Weatherall, the DJ and producer who had a hand in some of the great electronic long-players of the 1990s: One Dove’s Morning Dove White and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, for starters. And who, with Sabresf Paradise’s Haunted Dancehall from 1994, was operating on the same dub-meets-techno wavelength as Leftfield.
Weatherall died aged 56 in February 2020, shortly before the world shut down and Barnes was plunged into his own lockdown hellscape. He and Weatherall weren’t best buddies. But they were on good terms: the suddenness of the death hit Barnes hard. Which is why This Is What We Do is dedicated to Weatherall.
“He wasn’t a close friend of mine. But his influence was so powerful. He was very kind about the track that I did with Jason from Sleaford Mods [Head and Shoulders from 2015′s Alternative Light Source]. He was full of encouragement once backstage after he’d been DJ-ing. He inspired me. When he died, it was such a loss to electronic music. His attitude to doing things was so radical. That’s why I’ve dedicated the record to him.”
Leftfield have always had an ear for collaborators. Leftism featured poet Lemn Sissay and reggae vocalist Earl Sixteen, alongside 1990s goth siren Toni Halliday. Most famously it had a cameo by John Lydon of PiL and the Sex Pistols. “Burn, Hollywood burn!” he shrieked on the single Open Up – a war cry received as a call to arms against the fake lustre of tinseltown.
The truth about the rant is more prosaic. The former Johnny Rotten was expressing frustration over his inability to pick up acting work in Los Angeles. Still, who cares about the actual motivation? Open Up was an anti-glamour anthem that put Lydon’s snarl into the engine room of a monster rave tune. That’s what really matters.
Sissay and Earl Sixteen return for the new record – though Barnes resisted the temptation to work once again with daughter, Georgia (who was on Alternative Light Source). Which brings us to This Is What We Do’s other notable guest: Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC.
Chatten, from Skerries, is riding high with the success of Fontaines’ third album, Skinty Fia (though perhaps not as high as hoped with the record missing out on a Mercury nomination). He has also emerged as a bit of a secret weapon for artists looking to put a smudge of Dublin noir into their sound.
His droning Liffey burr was by far the best thing on Kae Tempest’s The Line Is a Curve from last April. Chatten is in the same dislocated headspace on the Leftfield track Full Way Round. It’s Leftfield-does-Joyce. Or Fontaines DC having an out-of-body experience adjacent to an illegal soundsystem at 3am. Whatever it is, it’s a pummelling masterclass.
“I like lunatics, I like poets. He’s a poet,” says Barnes. “When I first read about them [Fontaines DC] being poets, the energy of them… doing things differently. Lyrics contents, power. With Grian, all those things seemed to drop into place immediately. We got him into the studio and it was a real powerful experience.”
Ireland has several surprising cameos in the Leftfield story. The first goes back to the early days of touring Leftism when their live shows wreaked a trail of destruction.
The mayhem wasn’t merely artistic. At Brixton Academy, their speaker system put cracks in the roof. In Amsterdam on the same tour, the police threatened to arrest Barnes and Daley because they were breaching legally permissible noise levels.
It all came to a head at The Point in Dublin, on June 1st, 1996. With the Chemical Brothers and Flux supporting, Leftfield short-circuited the power supply. The audience were left to chat as the crew tried to put the lights back on.
“It was one of the biggest gigs we did at the time,” says Barnes. “Our system sucked all the power out. The whole gig came to a stop. And Cheshire Cat [Leftfield’s vocalist] went out on stage and started to sing. And everyone kept dancing.”
He recalls that first tour as the best sort of “organised chaos”.
“It was exciting because there weren’t so many rules, let’s be honest. There are too many rules now. All the festivals are so controlled. The whole idea of breaking rules, which is what excited us… It’s gone. I know there are some wicked events in Ireland. There are people trying to put on some really good things. But it’s more difficult because there are so many people there telling you that you can’t do something in a certain way.”
Then came their “Guinness” moment. In 1999, Phat Planet, off Rhythm and Stealth, was used in the famous Guinness “Surfer” ad, featuring a melancholic water sports enthusiast and waves that turned into dancing white stallions – an image inspired by Walter Crane’s 1893 painting, Neptune’s Horses.
The commercial was acclaimed. Barnes, though, grew disgruntled as others tried to commander all the credit for the ad – including for the music. Worse yet, Leftfield didn’t even bag a lifetime supply of stout for their troubles.
“A lot of people took credit for lots of things to do with that. Which was unfair. We were unaware of it at the time – that some people took credit for the music.”
His one source of comfort is knowing Leftfield played a part in one of the most visually stunning ads ever made.
“If you just look at the film and the music together – it was exciting. Even though we didn’t have anything to do with the film at all, you can’t have regrets. It’s an incredible piece of work. We didn’t get any Guinness, by the way. They gave us one crate of cans which arrived in the office one afternoon. I remember walking in and seeing everyone else drinking. And that was it. Everyone says to me, ‘oh I bet you got a lifetime supply of Guinness…' Nothing. Me and Paul got nothing.”
This Is What We Do is released on Friday, December 2nd