The Portishead auteur spills the beans on his latest project, and lots
BY WILSON NEATE
After Portishead’s second album, Geoff
Barrow quit music for five years. Since the 2008 release of Third, though, he’s remained active, as
boss of the Invada label, as a producer (The Horrors’ Primary Colours) and now as a member of BEAK>, a Bristol trio
featuring Billy Fuller (Fuzz Against Junk) and Matt Williams (Team Brick).
nearly eleven years passed between the second and third Portishead albums,
BEAK> hatched their debut in just twelve days (reviewed here) An exercise in what Barrow
calls “instantaneous writing,” this is a Krautrock-influenced affair,
infused with a touch of proggy weirdness, some drones and out-there noise and a
bit of doom-metal heft. Although BEAK> shares a few influences with Portishead’s last album, particularly an affinity
for Simeon Coxe’s Silver Apples, Barrow also sees BEAK> and Portishead as
worlds apart. Exploring a largely different creative process, traveling to gigs
on budget airlines, carrying his own gear and playing small venues all add up
to a welcome change, one that he finds re-energizing.
spoke to BLURT about working with BEAK> and, among other things, his love of
Can, his ambivalent relationship with Bristol and the difficulties posed by
being a singing drummer.
BLURT: As an expat Bristolian, I was
immediately struck by the track titles on the BEAK> album, many of which are
the names of places around Bristol. Is that just playful or is there a link to
BARROW: It was very playful but, at the same time, we kind of said, “No,
no that doesn’t sound like [the village,] Pill – that one sounds like Barrow
Gurney.” So there was a connection, but it was definitely a playful
connection. But when I think of the place, Pill, I do think of that tune
[“Pill”], and when I think of Barrow Gurney, I do think of that tune,
cos it’s a sort of mad synthesizer tune.
Yeah, the sound is pretty manic – so the
title “Barrow Gurney” refers to the Barrow Gurney psychiatric
hospital, rather than the village of Barrow Gurney itself? When my grandfather was frustrated with us he used
to say, “You’ll drive me out Barrow Gurney, you will.”
Yeah, right. I know a lot of people who went to Barrow Gurney
and a few mates of mine worked there as well, as mental health nurses. It’s
closed now. It’s all Care in the Community now. They all do crack…. That was
Thatcher for you.
And is “The Cornubia” a reference
to the Cornubia pub in Bristol?
it’s a proper Real Ale pub…. As I was saying that, I felt like a proper Real
Ale drinker [laughs]. We had an Invada night at the Cornubia and we got banned
from putting on gigs there again. It’s a good pub. It’s one of the only real
pubs left standing in Bristol. I think it actually survived the bombing in the
[Second World] War. If you see pictures of it, it literally
stands alone. It’s the most peculiar kind of setting because
everything else was destroyed either side of it, in front of it and behind it,
and it just stood.
Bristol was bombed heavily in the Blitz. My
mum’s house actually took a direct hit, killing most of her family.
Bloody hell! Bristol
got hit badly during the War. If you look at photos of how it was before the
War and afterwards, you can really see it. It’s pretty different.
A lot of Bristol musicians have stayed in the
area. Do you feel a strong connection to the West Country?
I don’t know really.
I just haven’t really been anywhere else. It’s home. At times I don’t like
Bristolians and I don’t like what the city’s become. I don’t really like the
history of the city, either, but this is where I live.
When you mention the history, are you
referring to the slave trade in particular? [In the 18th century, Bristol prospered as a key British port in the
Yeah, and the
corruption. It’s always been corrupt. Do you know that book, A Darker History of Bristol by Derek
Robinson? It’s a thin book that takes you on a little historical trip into why
Bristolians are the way they are. They’re pretty apathetic. They don’t really
want to join any side. They just want to get pissed and have an all right time,
really. It’s got that kind of port mentality, you know? Like Liverpool. It’s got that about it. People just can’t
be bothered down here, really. The only people who can be bothered are thieves
You recently organized a big event at the
Colston Hall in Bristol featuring bands on your Invada label. There’s been
controversy surrounding that venue because it’s named after the Bristol
merchant Edward Colston, a prominent figure in the slave trade. Do you think
the name will actually get changed or do people not give a shit?
don’t give a shit about it, but the middle classes do. So it will change its
name eventually because it’s like having a place called the Hitler Rooms. It doesn’t sound great,
does it? Or the Goebbels Village Hall.
It doesn’t really have a good ring to it.
the Goebbels Community Center? I
think it’s got to change and eventually it’ll just happen. It’s just a name,
but you’ve got to move forward. So yeah, we did the Invada Invasion there. We took the place over with Mogwai and a
load of other bands. It was a really good night for people into alternative
music. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in Bristol, and we just thought,
“Right, we’ll do it.”
Was BEAK> a collaboration that had been on
the cards for some time?
I think we’d all
always liked what each other did. I’ve always liked Billy and his bass playing
and stuff, and I’ve always been a fan of Matt’s. I mean, that’s the reason I
put out their records on Invada. And we played together at a New Year’s Eve
party, and me and Billy said it’d be great to do it again – and that was two
years ago. Then we bumped into each other and said it again. And Matt (as Team
Brick) had played on the last Portishead record and we had this bit of free
time, so we did it. But there was no discussion about it, really. We just went
in there and set up the microphones, and the first thing we played was
basically the first track on the record, “Backwell.” As you hear it,
it’s pretty much the first time we played together, which was really
So was the record largely put together from
improvisation and, for want of a better word, jamming?
came about in that way, although I’m not really into the term
“jamming” – it was more about a kind of instantaneous writing,
really. Cos jamming, to me, reminds me of bands that stick on a chord and play
a solo for a couple of days, do you know what I mean? Like the saxophone player
goes [approximates ostentatious jazzy sax solo] and it’s all about getting your
chops in, and it’s just bollocks. For me, it was about being sat there and
being aware of the space you’re in and the sound you’re creating: being totally
aware of it and then moving things forward and just trying to write
instantaneously. It was like a flow of consciousness, really – whether it’s
lyrics or melodies or whatever. We actually played things a couple of times
when we said, “Yeah, that’s a really good idea, but it completely went and
fucked up there. Shall we just have another go at it?” And it wouldn’t be
a couple of days later, it would be in the same half an hour. But in the end
we’d usually go back to the first take and say, “Oh, it had something
about it.” So, like I said, there wasn’t really that much discussion. We’d
listen to a track after we’d played it and it’d be like, “Well, that’s
done!” And there wasn’t a sense of it being throwaway, it was more like it
just being refreshing. I mean, the album’s got bits that fuck up on it, but
that’s what gives it its character – rather than it being put on Pro Tools and
some bloke moving the snare drum so it’s in time. It’s not that kind of music,
Do you think the experience of the way you
work with BEAK> will feed back into how you do things with Portishead?
Well, the thing is that Portishead
has actually always had that aspect of it. Like the song “Numb” on Dummy – it was written by me being sat
in one room with a sampler and Ade [Adrian Utley], Gary [Baldwin] and Clive
[Deamer] basically doing the same thing that BEAK> does. But that came from
a hip-hop loop mentality. So it would be like, “Yeah, play that
again,” and I’d just stick it in the sampler and loop it up. So Portishead
have always had that, really. It’s just that people get a different impression
because we’ve taken so long over records. Because of that, people perceive that
it’s a more traditional setup. Portishead is weird – it can be instantaneous.
Like sometimes the riff is written in an afternoon, but the beat takes twelve
months. It’s just kind of fucked. And anything that can help my brain to be
more productive in a writing way is great, but you can’t leave one record, do
nothing and then start a new record without feeding your brain. That’s why I gave
up music for five years, really, after the second Portishead tour, because I
was kind of empty of ideas. I didn’t want to prove anything, didn’t want to
In addition to
improvising the music, you also made up the lyrics as you recorded the BEAK>
tracks. When you play live, do you invent new ones?
Yeah, basically, there’s a general vibe with the lyrics;
there’s always one word that fits in it – like the sound of the pronunciation,
how it suits the mood – and then you just kind of make it up. It’s interesting
because playing drums and singing, it’s odd anyway.
You’re now part of a
great tradition of singing drummers: Robert Wyatt, This Heat’s Charles Hayward,
er, Karen Carpenter…. Is it difficult?
Yeah, it’s pretty mad, singing drummers [laughs]. You know, I’ve never done it
before. It’s not too bad. It can throw you a bit. Thinking about the lyrics at
the same time as you’re playing, it’s like tapping your head and rubbing your
tummy at the same time or playing keepie-uppie with a football.
You’ve said that you don’t really enjoy
playing live with Portishead. Are you enjoying it more with BEAK>?
I am, yeah, to be honest. Recently
we’ve been playing not gigs, but little places – like we played a gallery the
other day, without a PA. We’ve been playing most of the gigs like that, without
a PA. We just set up and it’s refreshing; there’s no real pressure. There’s a
huge difference between that and playing Coachella, you know what I mean? I
engineer the drum sound when Portishead play live and me and Ade are like the
MDs of it. And with BEAK> it’s a very simple kind of setup: playing live is
pretty much as we recorded the album. There’s a couple of echo boxes we use to
get that kind of dark, deep reverb sound, and it works and I’m not stressing
over it. So, yeah, it has been really
enjoyable. I mean, setting up your own kit and setting up your own sound and
all that kind of stuff has been quite funny as well. When you compare touring
with Portishead, with a crew of eighteen, to BEAK> on an easyJet flight with
a synth in a suitcase and a snare drum in your pants, then basically it’s a
different vibe. But it’s all really refreshing and gives you a different take
So doing BEAK> has been re-energizing for you,
Yeah, it has been. I think Ade finds it incredibly
refreshing to play with other people. And Beth [Gibbons], as she’s writing her
songs, it comes from a different part anyway – so it’s all good for feeding us.
Our brains being fed like that was what brought the last Portishead record
Some of the influences I heard on the
BEAK> album were, maybe, “Church of Anthrax,” Tony Conrad and
Faust, Silver Apples, Can. Are these things you’ve all been listening to?
What was that first
“Church of Anthrax,” a track by
Terry Riley and John Cale, from 1971 – very much in a Krautrock vein….
know it, but it sounds great! [laughs] We’re definitely into lots and
lots of different music, especially the Can thing. I think we’re definitely
influenced by them. I think they’re an incredible
band, and if we’ve got anywhere near to where they were…that’s just
brilliant. We didn’t try to sound like them, though. It’s just where I’ve found
myself rhythmically, coming out of being influenced by hip hop and electronic music
and having a vibe where it’s got a beat and it’s heavy, but heavy in the right
way – it’s not heavy sonically, like, “I’m gonna smash your head in with
this sound.” Our influences are pretty wide, especially what Billy and
Matt are into. Matt’s really into the Cardiacs and Billy’s really into bands
like Plastic People of the Universe, and I’m into that as well: music that’s
really out there, but that still retains melody and rhythm. I really like
Moondog, too – that was a big influence on the last Portishead record.
And Silver Apples….
Yeah, yeah – I’m
actually interviewing Simeon for a magazine. We met at All Tomorrow’s Parties and it was really weird because he was
playing in Bristol and he asked me to play the drums, but I didn’t do it. If it
was now, I would have done it, but back then I hadn’t played drums in quite a
long time. So maybe we’ll just arrange it again. Maybe I’ll see if he wants to
play again. But yeah, our influences are there. We’re not embarrassed by them.
We think they’re brilliant bands.
Some musicians I’ve interviewed emphasize
that they don’t listen to any other music, so as to avoid being influenced.
That’s not the case with you, then?
it’s really strange because I actually listen to very, very little music. An
incredibly small amount. Like I’ll get into a Silver Apples track or one Can
album, Ege Bamyasi, and I don’t want
to hear any more. I just want to hear that one.
I think it’s just a perfect record. It’s weird: I’ve always made more music
than I’ve ever listened to. I don’t know much about other artists and I don’t
know about their techniques or anything – I’d like to! – but Ade’s kind of the
opposite. He’s a walking encyclopedia of music, but I just like to make music,
really. And he does as well, of course. Ege
Bamyasi is an absolutely genius record. I first heard Can on [BBC] Radio 1.
It was Mark E. Smith on Radio 1 talking about his favorite tracks. It was
around 1990 or something, when I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest and Gang
Starr and stuff like that. And Can’s “Vitamin C” came on and I was
bowled over. It was just like the first time I ever heard Public Enemy as a
kid. I thought Can were a new band, and I thought they were the greatest band that ever lived [laughs]. I still think that
tune is just unbelievable. No one’s even gone close to it, really.
Talking of Can, did you see that recent BBC
documentary, Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany?
What I absolutely loved about everybody in it was their true feeling that they
were just doing it because they were doing it – for no financial gain or
anything else. They were just really solid in their musical form, and they were
still there. Which is a really lovely thing.