Wed, Jun 25, 2008 - Page 14 News List

‘It’s not wonderful at all — it’s horrible’

Don’t let the smiles fool you — after an 11-year hiatus, Portishead is back with a tour de force third album, yet they’re more miserable and profane than ever

By Caroline Sullivan  /  THE GUARDIAN , PARIS


For a band that not so long ago had been left for dead, Portishead is enjoying a triumphant year so far. Third, its first studio album in 11 years, went straight to number two in the British charts a month ago, buoyed by almost unanimously ecstatic reviews. The band’s brief world tour has been equally well received. Other once-popular bands have reappeared after less time to find that the world no longer gives a tinker’s cuss about them — just ask Elastica or the Stereo MCs — so you might think that all this warm attention would gladden the heart of producer/multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow. But you would be wrong.

“Everything’s a nice surprise, but it doesn’t fill us with joy,” he says, his face crinkling into a pained expression. “My wife Emma called up and said, ‘Have you got the midweeks [chart positions] in?’ And I said, ‘Well no, not really. We’re not that bothered.’ And she’s like, ‘Well why? Don’t be silly. It’s brilliant. Fucking cheer up a bit.’” His wonky, self-mocking grin suggests that was not the first time he had heard those words.

Sitting outside Paris’s Zenith concert hall in the waning sunshine of a glorious spring evening, the 36-year-old Barrow is an amiable curmudgeon, quick to rail colorfully against what he hates about the modern world (almost everything, it seems), but equally quick to laugh at himself. Never mind what anyone thinks of Third, he says: all that matters is that he, guitarist Adrian Utley and vocalist Beth Gibbons have actually finished the thing.

Once labeled trip-hop, alongside fellow West Country innovators Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead now have more in common with Radiohead: the fretful, left-leaning politics (Barrow deems Conservative Party leader David Cameron “a weasely fucking knobpuppet”); the old-fashioned principles (they have never licensed a song to an advert); the dogged determination to overhaul their sound, and the potent combination of bold, strange music with raw emotion. Third could be this year’s Kid A: an art-house statement, full of wrong-footing structures, sonic ambushes and gnomic anguish, that somehow finds its way into a lot of record collections.

Success creates its own logic. Because Portishead’s 1994 debut Dummy became an era-defining, Mercury-winning phenomenon and birthed a slew of pallid imitations, it was tarred as a “coffee-table” album — an easy-listening lifestyle accessory. But it was nothing of the sort: rather a brooding, unprecedented confluence of hip-hop’s hiss and crackle, the eerie ambience of old movie sound tracks and the seductive heartache of torch songs. In recent years, Kanye West and Gnarls Barkley have both cited it as a key influence and strands of its DNA are detectable in Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (even though Barrow later accused producer Mark Ronson of making “shit funky supermarket muzak”).

Barrow, a 22-year-old hip-hop fanatic at the time of Dummy’s release, reacted badly to what he perceived as the wrong kind of acclaim. His discomfort intensified when TV programs adopted the songs as easy signifiers of upmarket emotional turmoil, most famously on the BBC drama This Life (whose music adviser was one Ricky Gervais), in which uptight lawyer Milly seemed incapable of running a bath without popping Dummy in the stereo.

“You’re writing music because you’re really concerned about certain things and then it gets put on to entertain twats at trendy fondue dinner parties,” protests Barrow, still aggrieved. There is something bracing about his militant distaste for mainstream culture. “People would ask me to DJ at some trendy bar and you’d think, ‘These people are fucking horrible.’ Big sunglasses. I’d think, ‘Fucking hell, have I spent my life working in music just to be a performing monkey for these cunts?’”

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