After an 11-year hiatus, Portishead are ﬁnally back with their long-awaited third album. Stephen Dalton talks to founding member Geoff Barrow.
When Portishead emerged from hibernation to host and headline a wintry rock festival in the remote English coastal town of Minehead last December, the effect for the crowd was almost like seeing fabled fairy-tale creatures in the flesh.
A decade after their last album, this elusive and notoriously media-shy band’s career had been in deep freeze since the millennium. Few would have bet on a triumphant return after so many years of silence.
Yet that’s exactly what this eerily ageless sci-fi blues trio achieved with their low-key Minehead show. Their black-clad singer Beth Gibbons, a haunted JK Rowling lookalike with a voice like Billie Holiday at her most ravaged, howled her vampire torch songs with a fiercely beautiful intensity. Group founder Geoff Barrow tweaked a bank of turntables and electronic gadgets while guitarist Adrian Utley added jazzy textures and noir-ish effects. They sounded magnificent, both spookily antique and utterly modern.
Emerging from a loose family of Bristol bands presided over by Massive Attack in the early 1990s, Portishead’s trademark sound is grounded in a slow-motion fusion of hip-hop, jazz and blues. The media christened this loose genre “trip-hop”, a term the band themselves hate.
But on their new album, simply called Third, those familiar creaking beats and windswept wails have been spiced with shuddering techno beats, piercing electronic noise and fragrant neo-folk flourishes. Portishead have grown wings – and muscles. Against the odds, the missing-in-action masters of sepia-tinted melancholy are poised for a mighty comeback.
But even by Barrow’s famously painstaking standards, the decade-long gestation of Third has been tortuous. So why did it take 11 long years of false starts and dead ends, divorce and sickness, exile and stagnation to make one of the finest albums of 2008?
“It’s such a long answer,” sighs the 36-year-old Barrow. “Almost as long as it took to make the record.”
Critical and commercial darlings in the 1990s, Portishead were one of the more interesting left-field success stories during the overhyped Britpop boom. But the acclaim which followed their 1994 debut, Dummy, proved double-edged for this fiercely private, introspective trio. A 1998 world tour to promote their self-titled second album left them torn and frayed.
“We were just completely thrashed by then, we’d been touring for years,” recalls the 50-year-old Utley. “We hadn’t really stopped since we’d made Dummy. It was completely full-on since then.”
“We seemed to be getting on OK,” Barrow adds. “But then what happens is: I get divorced, Ade gets divorced, and Beth is not very well because she doesn’t really travel that well. So we cancel the tour of Japan, then literally we just come home. And because I was going through a divorce, I kind of gave up on music.”
Utley, who divorced around the same time as Barrow, confirms this glum picture. “We had a meltdown in our emotional and home lives immediately on returning home,” the guitarist recalls. “It was a time when it should have been good, because we’d worked hard, we were getting a great response for our records and our tours were selling out. But behind all of that the ground was falling away.”
After the tour, Gibbons retreated to her native rural Devon to recuperate while Utley busied himself with musical side projects. But Barrow took more extreme action, leaving Britain and lying low in Australia for three years.
“I just needed to change my life,” he recalls. “I was heading downwards in Bristol, becoming a bit of a village idiot.”
In Australia, Barrow put music on hold. Utley flew out for an aborted songwriting session in 2001, but it proved fruitless. “My brain told me I should write, but I just didn’t feel anything,” Barrow says.
Back in Britain, Gibbons formed the neo-folk duo Rustin Man, releasing an elegant one-off album to general acclaim in 2002. There were times, at rock bottom, when Portishead seemed to be finished.
“My divorce was a kind of divorce from music as well,” Barrow explains. “Because it’s all I’ve ever done, and it happened the same time as my relationship with my ex. So when that broke I just thought: I’m not really into music. I’d had a whirlwind ride of seven years or something. I just thought: I don’t really know what to do now.”
The band regrouped again in Bristol in 2003, when the storm clouds finally began to lift. Barrow and Utley began to hear new live music that inspired them again, “heavy drone metal” bands who delivered the same jolt of excitement as hearing hip-hop pioneers like Public Enemy a decade before. Thus rejuvenated, Portishead began writing again.
“We just started writing music that we were into,” recalls Barrow. “It was still a massive strain. We still couldn’t knock up a tune in a day without deconstructing it 40 times.”
During these tortured recording sessions, Barrow’s online blog was full of agonised self-doubt, spiced with prickly attacks on other artists – chief among them Mark Ronson, the modish retro-pop producer behind Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, among others. Barrow derided Ronson for making “funky supermarket muzak”, drawing a withering response. But he plays down any alleged feud between them.
“There isn’t one, I just, I don’t like his music,” Barrow shrugs. “I wrote some fairly nasty things about his music, but then I write nasty things about lots of people’s music. And I can’t take the criticism back either, I get really annoyed when people don’t like my music. There’s lots of music I don’t dig, his just happens to be the most odious.”
But for all its traumatic gestation, Third brings Portishead out of lengthy hibernation sounding bigger, better and weirder than ever.
In true Nietzschean manner, that which did not kill them seems to have made them stronger. Barrow recently remarried and now has two young children. Utley is also in a new relationship, with a 14-month-old daughter. The future almost looks bright for Britain’s gloomiest band.
“It’s all good,” Barrow smiles. “I definitely think we’re stronger now as a band. I don’t know if we’re going to get on better, or if it’s just me getting older and understanding a bit more of what Beth sings about. But I think we’ve got a stronger voice now.”
Stephen Dalton writes about film and television for The Times