Neil Barnes, founding member of British electronic pioneers Leftfield never wanted to play live, but then he never expected the band’s debut album to become a decade-defining record either. Now 22 years later he is making connections.
THE FUTURE STILL LEANS LEFTISM
History, eh? Turns out it can be rewritten. This time with beats.
The music press and hit radio at the time, and music press and retro-vision radio now, would have you think the 1990s was all about the internecine feuds, cheap nationalism and ‘60s revivalism of Britpop, the last drops being squeezed out of grunge, or maybe in Australia the big claim on the mainstream by the guitar rock bands sprung fully formed from the indie scene.
But in big rooms, in open fields and in bedrooms there was an alternative narrative being written and the present and future wasn’t guitars: it was beats and machines, dancing and churning, Underworld and Chemical Brothers, Bjork and Portishead, Ronnie Size Reprazents and Aphex Twin, Massive Attack and Goldie. And Leftfield.
Leftfield’s debut album in 1995, Leftism, melded house and reggae in blissful waves and energised nods to raves, and potent lyrics that were all about the mixed present not a nod to glorified past.
Neil Barnes and Paul Daley had been around for six years already as Leftfield, single tracks pinging off walls in the clubs, but Leftism, along with Underworld’s earlier dubnobasswithmyheadman, made the idea of a conceptually and emotionally coherent electronic dance album as relevant as any floor-cracking one-off track.
The album has stayed as a centrepiece of the alternative ‘90s and a 22-year anniversary remaster was released to near universal hum of approval: it still feels euphoric and intriguing in equal measure.
An Australian tour next year will complete a year-long program of full concert performances of Leftism. That too is already generating excitement – and not just among the ecstasy dealers looking at a big uptick in demand – with overseas reviews promising something communal and ecstatic.
But here’s the thing for Barnes – the remaining member since a long ago split with Daley - albums become important to us as fans and buyers for various reasons that may have nothing to do with what the people who made them feel. They remain fixed for us.
That can’t work for the artists for whom being fixed in time is a creative dead end, so how do you keep an album fresh for yourself? Is it in remastering? Reimagining? Forgetting?
“I think the best way to keep it fresh is not to listen to it,” Barnes chuckles. “I just haven’t listened to it very often because it’s impossible for it to mean the same to me because I did it. It’s something that artists in all forms of art must think about: the interest is in the creation of it, and then you let it go. You no longer own it so therefore you are no longer connected to it in the same way.”
“Often I think the people [who love an album] are far more familiar in some ways with the emotional effect the album has. I can tell you every single sound that’s on the album and how each track was largely put together, and Paul [Daley] would probably be able to do the same but you can’t then then approach it from the listener’s viewpoint: it’s the distance between creation and appreciation.”
Which must make it difficult when first of all it’s a constant point of reference in any interviews he has done during other album and tour round of appearances.
“It’s the albatrosses isn’t it?,” he says without any of the rancour you might expect. “I change my mind over it all the time and I think it’s like Radiohead not playing Creep for years and now suddenly they are playing it. You fall in and out of love with things you’ve done and I’m at the point now I actually appreciate the record as a record. In different moods when I’m playing it live I’m very fond of it and I love watching the crowd’s reaction.”
So he doesn’t dismiss either the album or our continuing affection for it?
“It’s just that in the past if I had said what fans say about it I would have sounded like an arrogant prick,” says Barnes. “I do hear artists talking about their work like that all the time [but] most artists if they’ve got any integrity know they have created something important and it’s arrogant to try and deny it. It means something to people and I respect that. And you know I sometimes get the same buzz from playing it live as I did in the studio making it.”
Which is, for Barnes, probably the ultimate compliment. When he and Daley began, playing live was not what they were about or interested in at all. Gigs were rock band territory and that bored the pair to death.
“Not one thought entered our brain about playing it live. Ever,” says Barnes. “We didn’t want to play live music. We saw live music, and I have to be honest with you there’s a part of me that still feels, that the whole live music thing is often not as good as it’s made out to be.”
He says it took them three years to be convinced to put the shows on in the late 1990s, a gap he thinks probably stopped them becoming a huge act in the mould of the Chemical Brothers and Underworld.
And even when they did get into a huge rehearsal space to prepare, Daley and Barnes were sceptical – “both of us saying, how the fuck are we going to do this?”. That attitude has changed for Barnes.
“I’ve turned it into something I like, that’s how I’ve dealt with it,” he says. “The way we do Leftism live is so exciting. I’ve made it exciting for me, and for the band, by faithfully representing it. It becomes almost like a scientific enterprise: how can we get it sounding exactly like the album, but better?”
Maybe even he is feeling that emotional connection that the rest of us have had to that record. Or at least connecting with our emotional connection. Second hand is better than not at all.
But nothing stays static outside our record collections with Leftfield’s albums in 1999 (Rhythm And Stealth) and 2015 (Alternative Light Source) positing the band in similar but different spheres even as the legend of the debut remained.
If it’s a different world, it must be a different Neil Barnes.
“I don’t think I’m any different at all. I don’t think I’ve changed at all,” he says. “I don’t take anything for granted in the studio and I’m always trying to develop myself. But when we were younger the difference is it’s a new world and you actually haven’t done it yet. It’s as simple as that.
“Leftism was our first record and I’ve often thought like a first book, you put into that record all your experiences and a lot of your life up to that point. That’s what Leftism was: me and Paul feeling quite arrogant and may I am less arrogant now but I’m no less difficult and demanding when it comes to what I want something to sound like.”
Those were days without doubt. Can that be replicated?
“Some people struggle once you’ve had that experience and so much of themselves has gone into it, and maybe that’s when doubts come in. Maybe when you get to my age now, I feel like I did when I first walked into the studio: everything is possible again.”
Leftfield play Leftism at:
Powerstation, Auckland NZ, January 30
Enmore Theatre, Sydney, February 1
Forum Theatre, February 2
Metropolis, Fremantle, February 3