Thirteen years after their last North American tour, pioneering British trio
Portishead are back to finally make the rounds in support of their latest album, Third, released in 2008. It's been a while, but for good reason; between having babies and working on new musical projects, they've been quite busy. Portishead kicked off their tour at this year's All Tomorrow's Parties, which they co-curated and headline, and they play sold-out shows at the Shrine tonight and tomorrow.
Producer Geoff Barrow–responsible, in large part, for the band's iconic sound–talks to us about writing and touring Third, what people don't understand about Dummy, and the hip-hop record he's going to release on Stones Throw.
OC Weekly: You haven't toured the States in more than a decade–why now?
Geoff Barrow: We released Third in 2008, and we never toured it properly. We played some shows in Europe, and then we came over and played Coachella, and that was it. And that comes down to personal issues–babies, all kinds of things, really–so it kind of felt like unfinished business. Then Barry and Deborah, who run All Tomorrow's Parties [ATP] in the U.K., came to us and said, “Look, we're gonna do this festival in London, and we want you to curate it, and we want you to do a New York one as well.” So we started putting in some dates in North America since we were gonna be out there for ATP anyway. We're not into the idea of repeating ourselves. People in North America haven't heard us play the new stuff–and when I say new, it's really already four years old–so it's good. The gigs have been good, people have been nice, and we've gotten a little older and a little–well, not wiser, maybe–and we're still moving forward. In January, after the tour, I'll start writing my parts for the new album.
You said writing Third was difficult because you didn't want to repeat yourselves, but you also couldn't do something new and different because you wouldn't sound like what you like about your own sound, and you'd end up hating what you just wrote. How do you figure out the balance between keeping with an old sound you and your fans like and exploring new territory?
It's not as difficult as it seems. It's a very difficult process to come up with new material, but it's very easy to say, “I don't like that” or, “I like that,” and that's really what it ends up being about–the pure gut feeling. I mean, it's not really for me to say–it's more about the audience–but I think we've found a really nice balance to kind of make everything sound together. When we play old stuff, I don't say that I find it really exciting; I find it as exciting when I play “Wandering Star” as when I play “Machine Gun.”
You've said, “What Dummy turned into was not what we intended it to be.” What did you intend it to be? Who–or what–transformed it into something you never imagined?
My influences were street music in Bristol–beats music, people such as Smith & Mighty–reggae-based drum-machine music and hip-hop. When Smith & Mighty did Walk On By, it was, like, the ultimate brilliant record. And it was kind of seen as a way to produce music that was real, that was where you were from, Bristol with a history of punk and rock and noise, and I really didn't know about those influences, but they influenced all the guys I was listening to and influenced me. Adrian came from a jazz background and had the ability to write brilliantly and bring in musicians, and Beth was a very interesting songwriter, but I must admit, I don't really know at what level I really liked what she was writing. At the time, I was too young to understand the complexity of her lyrics. So when we got together, it seemed to work; we made Dummy, but it wasn't ever a chin-out record. It was where we came from. It was a beat record. It was pretty hardcore. I suppose, at that time, it made a big splash, and it got assimilated by people just putting it in a bag of–not chilled music, but almost the kind of stuff you put on at a dinner party. And as soon as that happened, I kind of turned off. I got nothing against people–I'm not a music snob; if you wanna listen to the Black Eyed Peas, that's fine, right–but I think that sometimes can be slightly misinterpreted, and I think our record kind of was. But the thing is, I was able to go out and buy a house, feed my family and have a good life around music, so I'm not going to complain about it, but I'm going to say I think we were misinterpreted. And I think what we're doing now is correcting that issue–we're just moving forward.
After the last album came out, you were talking in an interview about how you promised to make a hip-hop record. I read that Jay-Z and Dre came calling. When will that collaboration happen?
Jay-Z–someone from his office–called me once, but that was it. I wouldn't turn them down, but I don't think hip-hip is particularly my first . . . well, I don't think I'm very good at it. I'm too overwhelmed by nervousness around other legends. But I have completed a hip-hop record with one of the guys, and it's coming out on Stones Throw next year. It has about 40 tracks, with 35 MCs on it. It has people you might've heard of and loads of people you haven't. It's not about who's featured on it–it's about making a proper hip-hop record.
What makes a proper hip-hop record?
Well, I'm coming as a middle-aged white boy from England, you know what I mean? I don't think I can actually make the most connected comment about hip-hop culture. But people aren't doing it for the money, maybe. And they want to make a little bit of a difference. Money kind of runs hip-hop for a bit, and it has for a long time, so I suppose that makes it different!