Voyage of Discovery

FOURTEEN YEARS AFTER PORTISHEAD'S GROUNDBREAKING DUMMY, THE BRISTOL TRIO RETURNS AND ITS WORLD HAS NEVER SOUNDED OR LOOKED STRANGER
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“America's music is just dying, right?” asks Portishead's Geoff Barrow on the phone from Bristol. One third of this seaside town's greatest musical export is ready to discuss Third, Portishead's first album in 10 years (“I'm aware of [Remix's] nerdiness,” he jokes), but first, he has a few things to get off his chest.

“[America's music] is shit, isn't it?” he continues. “The hip-hop artists are just rubbish. Jay-Z's records always sound good, but he got the sack from Universal. If you end up with a country Britney, it doesn't matter 'cause they're all twats anyway. Timbaland came to England trying to find a Coldplay to produce. Everyone told him to fuck off. He went to America and got his own band and they are gi-normous, the most revolting people you have ever seen in your life. They are called Timbaland. We all like it underground but no one is buying it. Even Moby is struggling.”

The members of Portishead — Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley and Barrow — haven't made a proper studio record since 1997's Portishead (Go! Discs/London), the follow-up to their own gi-normous debut, Dummy (Go! Discs/London, 1994), but they have been listening. Barrow didn't like what he heard.

“Mark Ronson's record is shit,” Barrow exclaims, referring to the celebrated Amy Winehouse-associated producer's release Version (Allido, 2007). “He is a massive superstar in the UK. He considers himself as Quincy Jones. I'll tell you who else is really bad: DJ Spooky. He is so full of shit. At least Mark Ronson is talented. I saw DJ Spooky at the Knitting Factory, and I tried to buy a beer to throw at him. There are black people in England, so you don't have to come here and make out that there aren't any black people in England's art community. You have someone like Madlib who is a fucking genius — a genius! [He's] a real true artist in what he does, when he takes American TV soundtracks and turns them into hip-hop. Then Spooky turns up and plays a couple shit European drum 'n' bass records.”

THE NERVE!

Who is Barrow to be mouthing off about U.S. musical exports? For the uninitiated, Portishead single-handedly (well, along with fellow Bristol residents Massive Attack) invented trip-hop, a media-acquired term that never matched the depth and glory of Portishead's first three releases.

Like mad-alien scientists traveling the galaxy only to sample Earth's musical styles of the '60s, '70s and '80s, Portishead remain one of the most original, if remote acts of the 1990s. With Gibbons' beautiful, mournful howl at their noirish music's center, Barrow and Utley surrounded her melancholy with everything from theremin and crackling '50s guitar to samples of Isaac Hayes, War, Weather Report and Lalo Schifrin's Mission: Impossible theme. Inspired by hip-hop and the soundtracks of John Barry and Ennio Morricone (Barrow), as well as Janis Joplin and Edith Piaf (Gibbons), Portishead hit mid-'90s America — then in thrall to grunge — like a blast from some nightmarish torch-song past. Mixmag said it best: “Beth Gibbons sounds like a chain-smoking Joni Mitchell hanging out with Cypress Hill.”

Portishead's third album, Third (Island/Universal, 2008), reclaims time lost with a blaze of intuition and originality. Never ones to rest on their credits, the band made Third sound as deranged, doom-laden and experimental as anything previously released by the admittedly agonized trio.

“The new album is less hip-hop if you listen to modern hip-hop,” Barrow (drums, production) suggests. “But Third is purely influenced by old hip-hop [and metal drone group Sunn O))), as Barrow says later]. For me, it's Public Enemy, Marley Marl, EPMD, Flying Lotus and Madlib. That is pure mad music, out-of-tuneness and noise. But people are worried about making money. I'm not; I just want to make a decent album that is heavy.

“In the past, we might have relied more on soundtracks or orchestral noises or keyboards,” he continues. “Dummy was a fairly experimental record. Then the second record was the same thing. People thought it was another weird record by Portishead. Third is exactly the same, but it is a lot more heavy, less reliant on blues and soul and more reliant on purely sonically interesting sounds.”

UNDER THE RADAR

Working in a Radar 24 digital system, Portishead generally avoided direct sampling, instead creating its new nightmare scenarios with a combination of live and programmed drums (played by Barrow and Clive Deamer), guitar and a massive battery of modular-synth systems effected by a collection of '60s and '70s compressors and EQs, further warped by a Roland Space Echo. But it began with the group's wholesale rejection of Pro Tools.

“When we began recording Third in 2005,” Barrow recalls, “Pro Tools sounded shit. I would go into recording sessions where no one was listening — they would just be staring at a screen talking about a fucking plug-in that sounded shit. People were really excited when Pro Tools could reproduce the sound of a turntable stopping on a beat. That made me want to puke. They sorted it a year or so ago; now, Pro Tools sounds great, but it doesn't create soul, it just creates nerds. Jay-Z's albums always sounded good, but there was generally a lack of soul.

“But Radar is amazing,” he adds, offering a solution. “It makes you make decisions. When you record a bad saxophone solo on 138 channels, you can to listen to it forever in the [Pro Tools] mix. With Radar, you have 24 channels, like tape. So you have to make a decision. Also, Radar sounds not dissimilar from tape.”

“We used to have a tape machine, an Atari 1040 computer and a couple samplers,” Utley (guitars, synths, production) recalls. “We'd record live through nice equipment or terrible equipment. The difference with Radar is now we can capture audio on a hard-disk recorder and cut up things and have multitrack loops. We used to play a track and overdub or get people in to record, mix that, then cut it to vinyl, then sample that. Now we're just playing straight to Radar, which sounds so good. Pro Tools|HD is up there now, but Radar sounds like tape. There is no sense of urgency — obviously, we took 10 years to make this record — but it really works for us.”

Writing and recording as far back as 2000 (“Nylon Smile”), Portishead met at Barrow's SOA studio (called State of Art because it is anything but). Moving beyond their former roles, Gibbons brought in guitar riffs; Utley created noise and ideas from his ARP, Analogue Systems, Doepfer, EMS, Plan B and Moog modular synths; and Barrow recorded guitar and bass lines, as well as drum loops (created one drum and cymbal at a time). Barrow is not impressed with the general state of the plug-in, so Portishead avoided them.

“When you listen to people who make interesting production records,” he says as he ascends the soapbox again, “they all sound like they've been made in a box. They've taken a plug-in, and when they get really crazy they stick it through an amp. For fuck's sake, look at the people you really respect, and that just sounds boring. Music is so easy to distort or alter now. That is why the drums on this album are quite normal. I just want them to sound real and interesting rather than ‘plug-in interesting.''”

“Even from the early days, we wanted to achieve the same sound as now; it's only 15 years on,” Utley adds. “It's usually slightly disruptive and experimental and pushing a few boundaries. We use a mixture of extremely broken equipment and extremely rare equipment, like my valve [Neumann] U 47 and RCA ribbon mic; they have this warmth but also a fidelity that we would then completely deconstruct. It's not all that stuff that you can hear on modern recordings. That's not interesting to us.”

OUTER-SPACE TAPE

Outboard effects became integral to Portishead's recording process. Two models of Roland Space Echo, SRE-555 and RE-501, were used on every track of every song, and Sound Performance Lab's Transient Designer was added as necessary.

“Tape is gone except that we stuck things back onto the Space Echo,” Utley explains. “We are still looking for some tape emulation that actually sounds like tape, but in a realistic way. We used the Space Echo, track by track. Each track, one by one, would be recorded in Radar, then go on to a Space Echo then back to Radar. So if we recorded snare, bass drum and hi-hat, each one of those mics would go to the Space Echo and be rerecorded back onto Radar and offset by the amount of 1 ms delay of the tape heads. Space Echos have an interesting fidelity; sometimes, there is a bit of wobble you want.”

“We send a lot of stuff to the Tascam cassette as well,” Barrow confirms. “We love what it does to the top end. ‘Magic Doors'' was mastered to the Tascam cassette deck. It sounds brilliant because of it. Tape saturation is a pure, organic thing.”

Meanwhile, Barrow can't explain how the Transient Designer works or even exactly what it does, but he's convinced of its worth. “If you record a drum kit in a live room and add the Transient Designer, it's like you're drumming in the deadest room in the world. It's ultimate compression,” he says. “It's evil. It's great for sampling very live breaks for hip-hop; you just turn a knob, and they're not live. It takes the ambience out of the break. If you want something to be punchy and heavy but at the same time completely live, it will do that. I used it on vocals, guitars, everything on all the tracks. And it's worth about $200.”

As they practically pursued old-school recording conditions, miking played an important role on Third. Utley used a classical miking technique called Blumlein Pair (two mics in figure-8 placed at 45-degree angles to re-create the original ambient characteristic of the signal) on Barrow's drums, using his Coles 4038 or RCA ribbon mics overhead with a U 47 on the bass drum. Utley says they always add a lot of top end to Gibbons' vocal, cut the bass and push the upper mids, often using a Røde NTK mic.

“The whole thing about the sonics of Portishead is that every sound is incredibly considered and has to sit in its world,” Utley says. “Beth's voice is very different from as you hear it. There is a lot of bass in her voice, which we have to cut. We use an old Great British Spring reverb, and we recorded a lot of vocals in her house at her studio. She would record in Logic and bring them in, but often the original vocals were best. We used the Thermionic Culture Earlybird on her voice, though it is quite sensitive and weird, and the Telefunken V76, which has bass cut and a separate volume.”

TRACK BY TRACK

The extremes of Third are many: the Black Sabbath guitar peals of “Hunter,” homey Mills Brothers-styled vocal harmonies in “Deep Water,” savage techno beats in “Machine Gun,” the swelling strings of “Silence.” Barrow and Utley break down their processes, in their own words:

“Plastic”

Utley: “That helicopter effect in the beginning is the ARP 2600; it's the Apocalypse Now helicopter. That went through so many transitions. The guitar began with Beth, and I played some guitar into Logic through a POD. I would usually DI the guitar through the Calrec. I am really anti that POD shit, but it really sounded all right, I must admit. The prog-rock synth riff at the end is my Juno-60, performed by Geoff. It's like John Carpenter.”

Barrow: “The distorted drum fills are me trying to be Madlib. Just pure bass editing. I played the drums so they stopped. I made a stereo sample of the track, then burned it to CD and then put it into my Technics CD deck and then just literally cut the track. I'm back-spinning the verses. I wanted it to sound like I had two tracks of vinyl and was just cutting in the verses. I had the idea of a massive drum roll that would be cut short, so I would spin the vinyl backward [makes backward-scratching sound] and find the start of the track, and when it came to the chorus the record would play. That is where it comes from, just an idea I had in the late '90s.”

“Machine Gun”

Barrow: “Adrian borrowed a weird 1970s organ. It had the most amazing evil drum machine. We recorded the patterns of the drum machine, then I took it home and put it in my Akai S1000, then programmed it on my Atari ST 1040 running Cubase. It's that pure sound put through a RAT distortion pedal, which made it even heavier. The bass and snare drum come from the organ through the RAT. Then I had a sample of a Welsh horn section that I chopped up really evilly. I put it through the Yamaha DMP7 mixing desk, which is also one of the secret weapons of this album.”

“Magic Doors”

Barrow: “That's a real hurdy gurdy [aka “wheel fiddle”] and live drums recorded to a Therograph, an old British ¼-inch tape machine. I stuck it into the Akai sampler and chopped it up. Then I played a bass line that was properly off; it's just random like the bass player is not listening to the drummer. I recorded a piano going backwards, but I got really depressed 'cause it sounded like The Beatles' ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.'' So then our keyboard player, John Baggot, wrote a chorus with chords, the idea being a drone in D with the chords against it. I wanted the chords to be heavy, almost like when you play a cassette and it gets so distorted the beat disappears. Then we got Will Gregory [of Goldfrapp] to play a pure free-jazz baritone sax solo through a slap delay on a Roland Space Echo.”

“Hunter”

Utley: “The big synth there is a Farfisa organ with a slapback echo on it. The guitar is like Black Sabbath's ‘Iron Man'' but also like Sunn O))). We are really into those doom-drone metal bands. The guitar effect is from a fuzz pedal made by a Bristol company that repairs my equipment. It's based on a vintage Vox Tone Bender. It's built on the Germanium transistor like a lot of those old things.”

“The Rip”

Utley: “There is an old Minimoog playing a theremin sound and drums, and this weird old no-name synth playing the rest. A Korg MS20, as well. There are a lot of guitars, including a really cheap kid's guitar from the '70s. Cost me four pounds in a junk shop, it sounded brilliant, though they can sound terrible. But it had a major vibe to it.”

AGONY AND ECSTASY

Beth Gibbons never grants interviews anymore, but speaking with Utley and Barrow, you get the impression that Portishead is essentially three oddballs who somehow found a connection through music. In doing so, they also found a way to be true to themselves against record companies, popular music trends and their own inner demons, which at times threaten to overwhelm the recording sessions of Third.

“Every single thing was absolutely agonized over,” Utley says. “For everything you hear, there were at least 10 things that we spent fucking hours making that we didn't use — a real voyage of discovery. Sometimes it was enjoyable, but mostly it's kind of frustrating and difficult. The process of creativity is not always what you think. You are surrounded by the most beautiful equipment, but it doesn't mean anything if you haven't got an idea that is worth recording. You could record through the worst preamp with the worst microphone in the world, but [whether you have] a good idea is the most important thing. If you don't have an idea, it's better to go to a house in the country with a porta-studio and any old guitar just to purify your mind. Having amazing equipment doesn't give you the solution to creativity; it's merely a tool for recording it.”

Barrow agrees, believing that prescribed limitations make for the best recordings. Typically brash to Utley's more sensitive views, Barrow is nothing if not demonstrative.

“Buy a cassette 4-track and make a record,” he suggests. “It will be 10 times more interesting than you could ever make in Pro Tools. Though I don't want to sound like some old fucker. Use Pro Tools but put it onto cassette, fuck around with it. You need to dogma yourself. Dogma Films give limitations to what you can do to make a film. It is the same thing with recording. Record an album with limitations.”

Fatigued at the end of a long day of doing interviews, Utley just wants to sit with his daughter and watch a movie. He takes one last moment to evaluate Portishead, the people.

“We've known each other for 15 years of music-making, and we have been friends through all of that,” he says. “We've had the falling out, the joy and the playing for 50,000 people together when we started out knowing nothing. It's been a crazy journey. We're friends; were enemies. And as much as we wouldn't own up to it, we are actually a family 'cause we help each other and we're annoyed by each other.”

Portishead is scheduled to perform at this year's Coachella Festival and then hopefully tour the U.S. in '09. Don't bother searching for tickets for their current European tour, however — it's already sold out.

THIRD THREADS

Computers, DAW/recording software, consoles

Apple Power Mac G5, Logic Audio 7
DDA and Trident consoles (mixing to Digidesign Pro Tools)
iZ Technology Radar 24 digital system
Tascam 112 MKII studio cassette deck
Yamaha DMP7 digital studio mixer

Synths, keyboards

Analogue Systems Modular (various)
ARP 2600
Doepfer A-100 analog modular system
Elka EK-22
EMS VCS3
Farfisa organ
Korg MS-20
Moog Minimoog, Moog Modular systems (various)
Plan B Modular (various)
Roland Juno-60

Instruments

Fender Jazzmaster, Precision Bass
Gibson acoustic guitar
Guild Starfire guitar
Harmony Rocket guitar
Hurdy gurdy

Amplifiers

1960s Ludwig and Gretsch drum kits
1960s Ampeg R12R Reverberocket
Dubreq Stylophone
1950s Fender Vibrolux

Mics

AKG C 414
Coles 4038
Neumann U 47 FET
RCA Type 77-DX
Røde NTK
Shure SM57

EQs, preamps, compressors

1970s Calrec Audio preamp
Telefunken V76 preamps/EQ
Teletronix LA-2A leveling amplifier
Thermionic Culture Earlybird 2.2. EQ
Urei 1176 compressor/limiter

Effects

Boss DD-3 digital delay pedal
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Line 6 POD
Pro Co Sound RAT 2
Roland SRE-555, RE-501
Sound Performance Lab Transient Designer
Vox Tone Bender

Reverb

AudioEase Altiverb
Great British Spring plate

Sampler, drum machines, turntables

Akai S1000 sampler
Technics SL-DZ1200 digital turntable
No-name organ drum box

Monitors

ATC SCM20SLs
Tannoy Little Reds
Yamaha NS10s