06 October 2011
Interview: Adrian Utley of Portishead
WHERE'S YOUR HEAD AT?
It's been 14 years since Portishead last performed in New Zealand - which seems reasonable considering there were 10 years between their second and third albums. Alongside Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley forms the core of the famed group. He had plenty to tell VOLUME about the band's beginnings, their forthcoming shows, and how they stay sane in the music business.
"I have really fucking had enough of this!" Adrian Utley was over it.
He'd been playing guitar since hearing Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love, he'd kicked off a career in music in the mid-'70s, playing in country and western bands, British holiday camps, jazz groups and with legends like Jeff Beck and Big John Patton.
Utley was a noted session musician, a virtuosic guitar-slinger for hire, and he'd reached the end of his tether.
In stepped a young Geoff Barrow: "Geoff was working as a tape operator - which really meant making loads of cups of tea for the bands and engineers - and he sampled a band I'd played in," says Utley of his first meeting with his future band mate, "I heard him messing about with it, and introduced myself."
"He was 19 and I was 30. We were both listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep and electronic avant-garde music, but while most of the people in my life were respectful of my desire to hear hip hop, they didn't like it," chuckles Utley, "But Geoff and I were as obsessed with Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions as we were with making new sounds, so I was like: 'There's a new door here'."
The Portishead story is well-told: this 'new door' opened to worldwide fame as their 1994 debut album Dummy sold like hotcakes pretty much everywhere, winning the prestigious Mercury Music Prize and essentially breaking the band in the US even before they'd toured there. Dummy is rightly considered a classic, and in 1997 their self-titled follow-up cemented them as a big deal. Then, nothing. Well, sort of nothing, as the band disappeared from public view for the best part of seven years.
So, did Portishead split up? "No!" Utley exclaims, "We'll never split up! We'll always make music together, but at that point we just didn't want to do it anymore. I mean, we wanted to play music together, but the experiences we'd had, particularly in touring the Portishead album, affected the level of expectation on us," he says, referring to a combination of "pressure, press and misquotes".
"Don't get me wrong; I've played my whole life in shitty dives so I'm grateful for Portishead, The thing is, we care very much about the music and getting it across, but our home lives had fallen apart and it got so intense, so we just couldn't keep going."
Portishead played a scattering of shows in the mid-2000s before releasing the aptly-titled Third in 2007, which quickly silenced the doubters and was embraced as a worthy addition to their small but highly regarded catalogue.
Now, they return to our shores - what can we expect from the show? "We'll be playing the old tunes and loads of stuff off Third. We've got some very cool visual stuff going on, and we've worked very hard as a band to be able to play 90% of everything you'll hear live, with only a few samples," Utley enthuses. "Though it sometimes feels a little like a house of cards, it's exciting and gives us the opportunity to really cut loose. We're looking forward to it immensely!"
I press him again on how long this all might last this time - is this the 'final hurrah' for Portishead? Or can we expect another album, eventually? "Nowadays we really just play together when we want to," says Utley, "I don't mean to sound conceited about it - I mean, we've all got kids now - and we don't want to thrash ourselves anymore. Plus we've all got other projects on the go, and we've found that working with people outside of the group breeds enthusiasm for writing more Portishead songs, so we're all excited about working on the new album when we're home from the tour."
That grounded attitude must have helped hugely in dealing with the level of success Portishead has enjoyed. "Definitely. We all lived in Bristol when we started - and mostly still do - you know, we didn't all move to London and change the way we live. We didn't all suddenly come swishing into the studio wearing cowboy boots - none of us would've let the others get away with it!"
Trip Hop: The Birth Of A Movement. Or Not.
"They're just words, aren't they?" Adrian Utley is talking about 'trip hop'.
Alongside Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead are considered originators of the sound, or at least responsible for popularising it.
"People need a vocabulary to describe music," he says, "but it is weird. And while there were lots of bands who got in on that sound, I thought they came at it the wrong way."
"Portishead were influenced by hip hop, electronic and avant-garde music, but we were always reaching for something new," Utley says of he and Geoff Barrow's early endeavours, "We came to this music from trying new things; putting the drums through shitty little amps but throwing really fucking heavy guitars on there."
"I guess us, Massive and Tricky were on a similar tip, but we never intended there to be a movement; we never shared what we were trying to do with those guys," he says, "I mean, one time we were recording in a studio in Bristol and we knew Mushroom [of Massive Attack] was in another studio down the hall, so we went to say hello. When we walked in the door, he pulled down all the faders and turned the computer monitors off!"
This interview originally appeared in Volume Magazine Issue #005, 4th October 2011.
Read the live review of Portishead's 2011 NZ show here.