WIND BACK WEDNESDAY GOES BEYOND THE DINNER TABLE WITH PORTISHEAD



It was in this week in 1994 that a Bristol trio of enigmatic mood and impenetrable mien released their first album, Dummy. It didn’t just bring Bristol to corners of the world which had never heard of the Clifton Suspension Bridge or the home of the British slave trade, it solidified a term the band, and associates like Massive Attack and Tricky, never accepted but had to live with, trip-hop.


For Portishead though, Dummy became their calling card, their millstone even as a second album three years later proved almost as stunning, and one reason why it took until 2008, when this interview happened, for a third album to arrive.



Wind Back Wednesday finds us in London, downstairs, and talking what happens when an audience takes you to places you never expected.


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IN THE MID '90s it often seemed that you could not walk into homes, and particularly apartments, in Australian cities without hearing the cinematic but claustrophobic sound of Portishead's Dummy album.


There was Beth Gibbon's voice, which was caught between pain and the heavy breath released instead of anger but always with an underpinning of sorrow. There was the sound created by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley which borrowed from or was inspired by soundtracks to noir-ish films, the deep drops of dub reggae, the rhythmic jolts of hip-hop, the ragged edges of rock, the elliptical shapes of jazz and the grand sweep of dramatic pop music.


Even when couched in Sour Times, the kind of song which you could imagine as a combination of Shirley Bassey and the Smiths, the combination was intense and liable to nibble at the edges of your peace of mind. When Gibbons sang "Nobody loves me, it's true/not like you do" it had never sounded so forlorn but when, in Glory Box, she closed the album telling us "I've been a temptress too long/give me a reason to love you/give me a reason to be a woman" there wasn't a question behind it but a provocation.


There was enough smoothness, or the appearance of something placid, for Dummy - and to a certain extent its self-titled successor - to be, as the cliché goes, the soundtrack to many a can't-you-tell-we're-hip dinner party, the background to many a decaf cap with friand order. But it was also the music you would hear playing from inner city units and the back rooms of share houses, the sound drifting down on cold nights and empty Sunday afternoons.



This was the sound of the (sour) times for thousands of singletons: alone, outwardly cynical about life but inwardly as romantic as any of their forebears, certain they were smarter but perplexed by life not panning out the way the spreadsheet or self-help book suggested.



"It was very strange," recalls Geoff Barrow now. "It turned into an album like eight years later people wanted Dido or Coldplay because everyone expected you to have it. Dummy turned into that even though to me it was a strange record for that to happen."


To a certain extent if you want to know what it was like being young and single in the 90s you could play Dummy. Which is odd if only because the album never directly addresses that.

"I know, it's strange," Barrow laughs. "We had a terrible TV program called This Life and [Dummy] was like the soundtrack for it. That connection was like Frankenstein had created this monster."


A monster that Barrow and Gibbons in particular felt they had lost control of. Within four years, after the self-titled album second album and a live recording, the Bristol group slipped from view. There were rumours of continued work, there were side projects, a one-off show in 2005 and there were occasional hints that a third album was near. But eventually it just seemed more likely that like the '90s, Portishead were in the past.


But this month, 14 years after Dummy and more than a decade after the second album, Portishead's Third is released. A dark, sometimes embittered, sometimes almost grimly romantic album it may well be the sound of these times, it most certainly is far from easy listening. And the trio couldn't be happier.


Well, we can say that about the men who are offering themselves freely in a most un-Portishead manner. As for Gibbons, her long held reluctance to bare herself to the media has not changed and she is nowhere to be found this afternoon as we sit in a downstairs bar underneath a London restaurant.


Barrow, who has wispy blond hair and today a black sweater and low riding jeans had "a big night last night". He's fortified himself with a substantial bacon sandwich as a hangover cure but the baggy eyes and stubble suggest he has a way to go yet.



When asked to explain why Portishead have been absent for the past decade his answer begins and, in a way, ends in Australia. He says that in 1998 after their tour here the band flew home "broken. As people."


"I got divorced, Adrian had relationship issues, Beth was not very well and we had to cancel the Japanese leg of the tour," Barrow remembers. "We went home separately, staying in contact but really we didn't start work on anything until six years later.


"What was strange about it was I had a week off in Sydney [during that tour], and it was a fairly awful week for personal reasons, and we were standing up at the Cross and I kind of got a sense of freedom. There is sense of freedom I get in Australia that I don't get anywhere else in the world. I became a bit of a drunk in Bristol for a bit and thought I gotta split from my life really, change it, and I flew by myself to Australia. It was brilliant.


"I fell out of love with music really, to be honest. The industry, everything. When I went to Sydney it was a complete breath of fresh air."


If his months in Sydney, which saw Barrow start a working relationship and record label with local DJ/Producer Ashley Anderson, aka Katalyst, regenerated him, it didn't exactly rush the return to the public eye and ear. While he says the band never broke up and had a contractual obligation to produce two more records (the final one of which is likely to be a record company best of) there had to be a question over all of them as they began to work again: why do this again? Now?


"I started getting excited and frustrated and [feeling] all those things that drive me, my hatred for other people's music. It felt like a challenge," Barrow says. "It never bothered me when people said 'they are never going to make another record', it was more like can we make on the record? Can we break new ground? That was the challenge."


With both the public and the media no longer looking their way Barrow, Utley and Gibbons felt a rare freedom but a familiar stirring in their psyches of the "frustration and anger" which have always been at the core of their work.


"It goes back to what we've always talked about, but especially on this record, this thing that we live in a really shallow veneer of life basically,” Barrow says. “And we interact on that level, get fed our news on all the celebrity thing so there's us living in the varnish on the table and you've got this a table underneath it of the reality of life that nobody really wants to see or hear.


“The varnish is getting broken up, people are hooking onto the last kind of islands of varnish."

An extended wood polishing metaphor for modern existence. You don't get that in your Kylie Minogue interview.



Like the world they see around them, filled with paranoia and CCTV, venal aspirations masquerading as acts in the public good, and fear as a weapon, Third is at times a harsh and pessimistic album.


"That's definitely true. It's a hard record in places but also Beth has made some beautiful songs."

True, there are moments of genuine beauty on the record and a lot more happening melodically now, with more French languor within the occasionally brittle carapaces as in the creeping darkness of Hunter. But those obviously attractive elements are all happening in strange ways, quite often discordant.


"We've always been a fan of when you take two samples and push them together there's this clash, sonically and that chord going against that chord. We've always found that really exciting," Barrow says energetically. "Punk is discordant, noisy and then you've got hip-hop, Public Enemy, the same thing, that clash. That's where we've come from with this one as well. We did it some more with the second album but that was kind of crafted where this record is noisier, more experimental."


And is that how Barrow see this album reflecting 2008 the way Dummy did 1994?


"Dummy did that more successfully because, as you said you would go around to your friends' homes and they thought they were listening to something quite polite but really there was darkness to its that creeps in," he says, before returning to his favourite metaphor.


"They only saw the veneer of it but Dummy crept in. This is a more blatant, massive wooden table."