In the months between Portishead’s last round of live engagements and their imminent return to the studio, he’s completed no less than three distinct album projects. The first of these, due out on March 26 via Stones Throw, is a hip-hop album produced in collaboration with his longtime muckers Ashley ‘Katalyst’ Anderson and Stuart ‘7-Stu-7’ Matthews, under the name Quakers, and featuring no less than 35 guest MCs, including such notable names as Guilty Simpson, Dead Prez and Aloe Blacc as well as a raft of new talent.
The following month sees the release of Music inspired by Mega City One, an imaginary soundtrack album of pulsating, Carpenter-esque electronics, for the most part created using only an Oberheim 2-voice synthesizer. The LP is credited to DROKK, a partnership comprising Barrow and his footballing pal Ben Salisbury, who’s also an established composer for the BBC. In May, there’s a new album coming from Barrow’s “regressive rock” trio BEAK>.
Quakers – ‘Fitta Happier’
Is that all? Well, not quite. The love of sparse, electronic soundtracks that has manifested itself in the DROKK project has also led Barrow and his team to license Cliff Martinez’s much-acclaimed Drive score for a special vinyl edition on his Invada label.
FACT’s Kiran Sande called him up to talk about what happens when a bunch of fortysomething white men try to make a hip-hop record, why a well-deployed synthesizer can wield more power than an orchestra, and the distant call of Hollywood.
“I’ve known Katalyst since 1999 – basically I was introduced to him to him through a mutual friend, he was known as a kind of Sydney beats producer. I’d quit music for a few years and had moved out to Sydney, and we just hung out there. He had a record that was ready to go out, but Australia was kind of behind in its electronic music at the time, and he went around a few labels but no one really knew what to do with it….so I said I’m help him out.
“We set up Invada in Australia to put the record out, and it did really well, so we signed some other stuff, and it’s just continued. We’ve always talked about doing a hip-hop project, and also with Stuart, who I’ve known for the same amount of time – he’s the engineer at my studio, and Invada’s engineer, and Portishead’s engineer. So we thought we’d do a hip-hop record, but in the most un-hip-hop way: we wouldn’t go to managers, it wouldn’t be a money record, it’d just be about the love of it.”
“We wanted to make an exciting record, with no shit on it.”
How did you go about assembling the MCs to feature on the record?
“We wanted to avoid that whole thing of European producers buying in American MCs to rap some crap over their beats. We wanted to make an exciting record, with no shit on it, if we could [laughs]. We’re in our 40s, we’re white guys from England, so we’re never going to be Odd Future, know what I mean? But at the same time we’ve got a love for hip-hop over the years – it’s certainly influenced every bit of my music.
“I’d just get a bottle of wine and spend the night trawling MySpace trying to find MCs – people that we’d heard of before, and others that we hadn’t. We just contacted them and said, these are our beats – they didn’t know that I was related to Portishead or anything – let us know if you dig them. And most people got back to us, which is why there’s a real array of people on the album – some who haven’t been heard for years, some who’ve never been on a record before.
“The most important thing for us really was that we wanted to make it exciting. Because when you first hear ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ – or whatever the tune is of your era, if you’re into hip-hop – you get that massive ‘Oh, FUCK‘ moment, and that’s what we wanted to bring to Quakers, in our own 40-year-old-dudes-from-England way, of course [laughs].”
This is your first proper MC project to date, isn’t it?
“Yeah, I’ve helped local crews in Bristol and other stuff, but I’ve never really jumped into an MC project before. Dealing with Americans can be really interesting – I’ve not had particularly good experiences in the past, I’m not a great fan of the American business ethic, the New York business ethic, so we thought we’d take a different approach to it. Ashley – Katalyst – is the main writer on the album, but we’ve both been working on it for three or four years on and off. We’re always on Skype and on the phone, sending files over, mucking around saying, I don’t know, ‘Turn that snare up!’.”
“It’s really just me doing music I enjoy, for no other reason than that it’s music I enjoy.”
The drawbacks of collaborating over the internet are obvious, but are there any advantages?
“Hugely. You don’t get involved in people’s lives. [laughs] There was none of that traditional thing of buttering people up, it was more like, ‘Do you like this beat of ours? Do you want to rhyme on it? If so, that’s cool, if not, that’s cool too. Let’s just not waste any time over it.’ There were some bigger MCs that we began to approach, and we started getting that difficult vibe straightaway, and that’s before they’d even heard a beat…and we were like, ‘Actually, it’s cool, you carry on doing what you’re doing and we’ll carry on doing what we’re doing, it’s fine.’ I’m not gonna plead with MCs to rap on tunes, know what I mean? [laughs]”
Were there any new talents you were particularly thrilled to discover?
“Definitely. Coin Locker Kid is one example – he lives in North Carolina and I just think he’s totally brilliant. I’m actually doing a whole album with him now, which is sounding superb.”
“Drokk was such an easy, musically fulfilling project.”
The Quakers LP isn’t the only thing you’ve got coming out this Spring, is it? You’ve been busy.
“I’ve got three albums coming out in three months. In March, I’ve got Quakers, in April I’ve got Drokk, and in May I’ve got BEAK>. They’ve all been worked on over years and at different times, but they’ve all happened to come together at the same time. It’s really exciting – for someone who hasn’t put out a lot of music over the years, it’s good to get a load out all at once.
“Really, with these three albums it’s kind of a….I hate to say bucket list, ‘cos I’ve been quite ill recently, I don’t want to tempt fate [laughs]. But it’s really just me doing music that I enjoy, for no other reason than that it’s music that I enjoy. The Drokk project was such an easy, musically fulfilling project – I’ve always been into early electronic, really pulsating soundtrack stuff, whether it be John Carpenter or whatever else, and that comes through in Portishead a bit. The BEAK> album we’ve been working on for a couple of years, and now we’ve got a set of songs we’re really happy with.”
From what little I’ve heard of it, the new BEAK> record sounds a little more angular than its predecessor.
“It’s more progressive than the previous record….we called the last album ‘regressive rock’, we thought we sounded like a load of cavemen hitting stuff. Whereas this one’s definitely like we’ve gone to university [laughs]. It’s funny, the process hasn’t changed: we just go in a room and we play. There’s just two overdubs, I think, on the whole of the new record. But instead of taking 12 days, this time it’s taken 2 years, because of the other things we’ve been doing, and also because we’ve been a little more selective about what we’ve ultimately included on it.
“Being someone who’s been in the business for quite a while, I feel fortunate to still be getting such proper enjoyment out of music. BEAK> is quite a freeing experience, really, and I’m learning from it – there’s definitely been times in the studio where I’ve piped up and said, ‘I don’t think it’s good enough!’ and then I’ve thought, don’t be a prick, it’s not about that, it’s about sharing with other people, and capturing a moment.”
“I think people really appreciate, especially with the Drive soundtrack, the way the music was allowed to be used.”
The DROKK album arrives at a time when there seems to be a resurgence of interest in sparse, synthesized movie scores. Trent Reznor’s work for David Fincher, Cliff Martinez’s Drive score…
“Yeah, it’s true. We just got a license to do the Drive soundtrack worldwide on vinyl. We were on tour and Ade [Portishead’s Adrian Utley] went to see it, and said the soundtrack’s really great. I didn’t see it until I was on a plane three or four months later, but Redg [Weeks], who’s the label manager at Invada and has always been a soundtrack nut, he just got on the phone and spoke to them and said, ‘Can we do the record?’ And they went, ‘Yeah’. [laughs]”
I imagined that it getting the license for a Hollywood soundtrack would be a massive pain in the arse.
“It hasn’t been at all!”
I suppose the idea of it being on vinyl was probably abstract enough to the studio to seem harmless.
“Well yeah, they probably saw it as the equivalent to, I don’t know, a Drive pencil case [laughs]. Seriously though, it’s Lakeshore Records that own it, and they’ve put out music before, so they know what’s what, it’s just that Redg was really proactive with it, and thought it really suited what we were doing, so he made it happen.”
“People have heard classical soundtracks so much that they’re not actually hearing them anymore.”
Why do you think there is this sudden proliferation of sparse electronic scores for Hollywood movies?
“I think it’s just about the strength of the emotion it can bring. I think that’s really what it’s about. What it seems, and I say this as someone who has only really dipped a toe into the soundtrack world, is that in most cases have a music supervisor who wants some ‘cool’ tunes on it, then you have the composer who writes the original material and is told, I don’t know, ‘This is a really exciting scene, so we need some massive drums on it’ or ‘We’re kind of into dubstep so can you do, like, a filtery thing?’ – at which point they might get someone from that scene to come in and actually do some really great work only to strip it right down to this little filtered hi-hat [laughs].
“So I think people really appreciate, especially with the Drive soundtrack, the way the music was allowed to be used. Space, basically, and just how cold it is. People say you can’t match the emotion you get out of strings, but the emotion you get out of cold synths is just as strong, sometimes much more powerful.”
It’s true that the same orchestral tropes are used again and again, sometimes exactly the same themes. I’ve lost count of how many different films and trailers Clint Mansell’s theme for Requiem For A Dream has been reheated. As if there’s no other way to convey drama.
“Exactly. What’s started to happen in people’s mind is that they’ve heard classical soundtracks so much that they’re not actually hearing them anymore, they’re just hearing the big drum hits and the big cymbals and they’re hearing that standardness, and it’s actually having no effect on them.
“Don’t get me wrong: within an orchestra you can write these incredible nuances between violins and violas, semitone bends and all that kind of stuff, and that can really be incredible, but it kind of gets lost in the soundtrack world, because the producers just want more oomph. It becomes just like throwing shit at the wall, to see what sticks. Whereas with a synth, unless you’re gonna do a Vangelis, you’ve only got maybe four noises you can work with – and these kind of limitations mean you have to get straight to the point. It makes you write in a different way.”
“The limitations mean you have to get straight to the point.”
Do you think we’ll see more and more electronic soundtracks in Hollywood in the coming months and years?
“I think it’s just a phase, unfortunately; it’ll come in and then it’ll go straight back out. What will happen is what always happens: you’ll have people with a really good ear, and who are really able, but they won’t ever get the Hollywood jobs – those will go to someone who’s classically trained who’ll get on his Apple Mac and do a soundalike. It’s a real shame, but it’s always been that way.”
Any plans to compose any actual movie soundtracks yourself? The Drokk album suggests the desire is there.
“Yeah, I’m edging towards it, I’ve already had a few meetings about stuff. The most important thing for me is that I don’t want to be fucked with. I’ve never compromised up to this point, so why should I start now?”