Geoff Barrow: "Portishead’s audience is more like a sleeping giant, they go to a shop to buy the record and then disappear for years until the next one"

A conversation with Portishead’s soul on his new hip hop project, Quakers, in the second part of the interview.

We go on with the in depth interview to Geoff Barrow regarding his new project Quakers: we question him on hist other projects, Duch as Drokk,, the label Invada and the hypothetical new Portishead album.

You’ve already touched on it, but I was wondering if there was any specific reason why you’d chosen to go with Stones Throw in the end?

Well, being massive Madlib fans helped [laughs]. And Dilla too. Both the past and future of the label are of interest to me, the new kids like Jonwayne and Vex Ruffin are interesting, and I did the Anika record through them as well for the States, so I just liked their vibe, really. They’ve had success and stuff that’s levelled out, but it’s not really like dealing with the American industry when you’re dealing with them.

You’re not a big fan of the American industry then?

I am. It’s very direct and successful. People open their mouths because they think that they should sometimes, and that is a downside [laughs]. The thing about Quakers is that it’s a play on earthquakes, but there’s the whole thing with the Quaker religion too… I’m an atheist, by the way, but what I liked about the idea of Quakers as a religious movement is that it welcomes people from all walks of life and beliefs and that if you feel moved by what’s happening you can stand up and speak. And I like that as an idea, outside of religion. You’ve got all these people from all over the place sitting in a room and one might be a nutter, gangster guy and the other might be a college lecturer, yet they’ve got the same level playing field. For our project it means you’ve got MCs that wouldn’t necessarily be on a record together like this actually side by side, and that’s a very good thing. There are different MC styles and they work.

Do you guys have any intention of doing something live around it? I can imagine the logistics are an issue.

There’s talk about doing something in Germany, but that would most probably be Katalyst, as the whole DJing with MCs is more his thing. I’ve never done that; I come from a rock-n-roll angle, in terms of live. Obviously we’re not going to get all the MCs together as that cost in flights would alone bankrupt a small country (laughs). I know there are people travelling in Europe this year, so we might be able to tie something together, but in reality we don’t know yet.

You mentioned Quakers was a long time in the making. And there are two more projects also coming out shortly, Beak> and Drokk. Those two were also a while in the making, weren’t they?

Not really. Drokk was about six months in the making, while the Beak> album took two years, but only over day sessions, as we’re still working under the same restrictions that we did before, where we all play live in a room with no overdubs. I think there might be two overdubs in the whole thing, when one of us ballsed up too badly. I’ve just mastered the record today actually. I’ve always been slow about the work I put out, but I’m obviously working with Ashley, Ben on the Drokk stuff and the Beak> guys, so that helps to speed things up a bit sometimes. I’m also planning to work on new Portishead material once I’ve moved studios.

"Quality level for me always has to be right up there. My own standard of quality at least. I feel strongly about all three releases even though they’ve ended up coming out close to each other. And that’s ultimately not as long as a Portishead record takes to come out."

The reason I asked was because I wondered whether or not you felt there was a benefit in taking your time to release stuff, that in a way it gives the music more power, more effect, as it can mean more time is spent crafting something. It’s less rushed so it has more potential to make an impact, in a sense.

The thing is… quality level for me always has to be right up there. My own standard of quality at least. Because things have taken quite a long time, it might seem to some like it’s all being rushed out, but that’s not the case. I feel strongly about all three releases even though they’ve ended up coming out close to each other. And that’s ultimately not as long as a Portishead record takes to come out.

You also did music supervision for Banksy’s movie. How was that?

It was brilliant, a really good experience. I’ve known him over the years, not closely, but enough to become involved. He came to me, asked me to give him a hand, and I did. It was an enjoyable process, no stress, lots of weird sessions with us recording French music and all sorts of things. Stuff that sounded like ESG covers to making hip hop tracks. That’s how a few of the Quakers tracks ended up on the soundtrack for it.

Did it have any influence or impact on you guys deciding to put the “Drive” OST out through your label?

We just were really into it, to be honest. The manager of Invada, the label manager, saw “Drive” and got on the phone. He tracked down the right guy and asked if anyone was doing the vinyl. The answer was no, so he asked if we could do it and the answer was yes, and that was kind of it. It was really simple and obviously I really like it too, it’s a good film and so it made sense! It’s nice for us to know we can do things like this and continue to put out interesting soundtrack stuff.

It feels like a fairly logical move all things considered. Especially with the Drokk project as well.

Well yeah. The Drokk stuff is music inspired by “2000 A.D” and “Mega City One”, which is where Judge Dredd lives. As an avid 2000 A.D fan throughout my early years – it’s the one thing that runs alongside hip hop in terms of life-long interests – it made sense. Ben and I worked on a film project which didn’t work out early on, but we thought the music was good and we’d enjoyed the process of working together, especially as we’d talked about it over the years. That’s how Drokk was born. It’s the 35th birthday of “2000 A.D” this year, and it just seemed like a good idea to tie it into that. Ben didn’t know so much about it, but he got into it once I put him onto some stuff. It seemed like instead of doing film music or electronic music for the sake of it, tying it to something like “2000 A.D” was the most logical thing to do. The music we’ve made is reminiscent of it anyways; “2000 A.D” came out in 1977 and the sound on Drokk has that feel to it even though we’ve tried not to make it a retro record. But due to the instruments being used, it just happened. It’s all made on old synths; it’s Carpenter-esque, something we didn’t shy away from. So we went to “2000 A.D” and they were into it, and we’re doing it in conjunction with them and they’ve given us the go-ahead. When you’re dealing with something that has so much history, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t taking the mike, I wanted to get the OK from them, and they’ve been great about it. It’s coming out through Invada. We’ve got a really good publicist we work with now on all the different projects, and the idea of having it in your own stable is really nice. Quakers is different because Stones Throw have such a massive audience and they specialise in quality hip hop, so it made sense to go with them, but these other projects like Drokk and Beak>, we have our own fan bases for them and we can grow from there.

I guess for you, with the fact you’ve been in the industry for so long, you must also be able to tap into the fan base you’ve accumulated over the years across projects, which is quite nice.

It’s very weird because there’re very few Portishead people that follow onto the stuff we do on Invada, to be honest. There’s some crossover, but I think it’s a different audience, ultimately. Portishead’s audience is more like a sleeping giant, you know, they go to a shop to buy the record and then disappear for years until the next one [laughs]. Maybe they think we’re just like them, we go to sleep for ten years and wake up and make a new record before disappearing again.

I had that reaction with your last Portishead record for sure, ‘oh yeah I remember them’.

We’re not really in your face in terms of artists, ultimately. We don’t push stuff onto people vehemently, in a sense.

Yeah I hadn’t realised you were behind the Invada label until I did some research for this interview. And I only discovered the label through the Space Invada album.

That was released by the Australian label actually. I set that up with Ashley before the UK one. That deals with dance music and hip hop more specifically, as well as soul music. Whereas the UK Invada was a lot more heavy rock orientated; I set it up with a guy called Fat Paul, and we released primarily odd records, experimental jazz and electronic stuff. Sometimes they cross over, but mainly they don’t, because we wouldn’t be very good at promoting dance music!

"It’s more about encouraging and continuing to put decent music out there. Because the other end of the market won’t do that for us. There seems to be an awful lot of stuff on the Internet, though, if I’m honest [laughs]."

I was thinking about the fact that you’re the sort of artist who’s known both ‘eras’ of the music industry, if you will. You started as a tape op and the music you first released with Portishead was during an era of the music industry that now no longer really exists, especially in terms of the major or bigger labels, where the standard way of doing things is dying. Things were done differently. Technology was different. And here you are years later sourcing a record through Myspace. It must be quite an interesting experience, being able to maybe draw from lessons from both eras.

Yeah, I think the thing is that aside from Portishead, I’ve always been on the outskirts of music, so I’ve always really been into non-commercial music in the way that you make it and promote it. The way we put out our music on Invada is still old-fashioned, I would say. We don’t have a digital shop; I don’t have brunch three times a week with a music supervisor, or a corporate identity sponsorship. And so when I see little labels in the way that they survive, it’s very much that idea that is a new business to me. They put out very little physical products and they just talk a lot [laughs], and it works for them. There’s nothing wrong with that because if any indie label can survive in any way – and I’m not being snobbish about the format it comes out on – it’s great. It’s more about encouraging and continuing to put decent music out there. Because the other end of the market won’t do that for us. There seems to be an awful lot of stuff on the Internet, though, if I’m honest [laughs].

Ah, yeah. Well you touched on it earlier with this idea of quality control, and that seems to be a recurring thing with people I speak to. Once you open the floodgates like the Internet has done, especially in terms of creativity, creating art and distributing it, how do you maintain quality control?

Well I think one of the big problems is that you used to rely on people in the industry for their recommendations. So you used to rely on people like John Peel, for example, or wherever you were from, there were people who you would listen to for recommendations. If you were into something, that’s how you found out about stuff, someone with impeccable taste would be on the radio or on TV or in a magazine and they would recommend stuff. Even bands, they would bring other bands with them to open up that were weird or brilliant or just generally not something you’d know of. What’s happened is that throwing this decision process back to the listener has kind of confused the whole process, really. I don’t quite know who to go to anymore for those sorts of recommendations, those tip-offs. That’s also why I liked Myspace. If I went to Mogwai’s page or someone like that, Sunn O))), then their friends were likely to be a cool band because they weren’t going to be listening to shit! The thing is now it feels like most websites or blogs are running stories because they’ve become part of a big machine.

Well it’s funny you say that, as I’ve often thought recently that a downside of the bigger online magazines, which have either replaced or were born of the bigger music print magazines, have essentially become an extension of the PR cycle in many ways, which is detrimental, even though it’s not always under their control.

Totally, it’s all become part of PR negotiations. Which is fine, but then you start noticing certain things, like ‘why is that on there?’ or ‘why is artist X on there?’

In the same way there seem to be less of the smaller acts, the music that makes less noise overall, but may have its own dedicated following, included in those places because they don’t always have the money for PR campaigns or such.

It comes down to how much the publications are willing to stand up to certain things and say no, or fight for a different way of doing things.

And there are some publications that have done a good job of carving a little niche for themselves in that regard. Again, seeing as you have a longer perspective than most in terms of experience, do you feel that maybe it’s a case of the overall industry still being in a state of flux and so people – whether artists, labels or magazines – are still trying to figure it out? No one knows what the new model is.

Yeah, and the new model won’t come yet because the majors haven’t died enough yet [laughs], and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way to the majors, because over the years they’ve invested in my band and other brilliant bands. At the end of the day, it’s not a mathematical equation for generating money, it’s art. Throughout the 70s, 80s and most of the 90s there was still a good vibe about it, but once the moneymen really tried to work out the formula for making money, that’s when it failed. That’s the way I see it, anyways. Until they realise that the current business model is just no longer sustainable and it dies, then something will rise up to take its place. A new model will pop up by then. It’s interesting to see what XL did, for example. They’re not the biggest label in the world, by any means, but they think in new ways, in a sense, they go for artists that aren’t obviously pop, and it seems to be working for them. I don’t know, I could be wrong, but it seems like that to me.

Stones Throw is like that for me, in a way. They feel like the last big hip hop indie label from an era that had many more, and they’ve survived by adapting and doing different things, sometimes failing, sometimes alienating their core fan base, but at least always moving forward. The thing is you don’t get to last that long by not changing what you do in some form or another, and it’s the same for artists. There are exceptions to the rule, sure, but by and large…

Well, a lot of people loved them because they were different to what else was around at the time. Once you’ve got a few kids and a full-time job, you don’t have so much time for the other stuff anymore, so things change [laughs].

There’s a need for progression. Or at least a need for saying what you feel at a certain point in time. I guess a lot of fans don’t seem willing to realise that sometimes.

A lot of people end up being purists also. Like what happened to Jazz. ‘I didn’t know they were allowed electric guitars in Jazz’ [laughs]. In the late 90s when hip hop turned into a weird fusion of new things, when the soulful elements of it started to die down a bit and it became more about technicality, about chopping up things in certain ways and so on, some of the masters from the 90s moved on with it, and some didn’t.

I love the classic 90s boom bap sound, but I always felt that if in 2009 I was still listening to new hip hop that sounded like it did in ’96, then there was a problem.

Yeah, change is good. About ten years ago, I was being a bit of a hip hop purist and confused about what was going on. So I had to smash it to bits and restart again. I had to do it or else it was going to drive me mad. I was out of love with music generally and getting weird about shit [laughs].

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