Reflections on silent cinema and noisy music

By Álvaro García Montoliu

We spoke with Adrian Utley, one third of Portishead, just a few hours before their gig at the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim 2011. The musician turns out to be a relaxed man, beer in hand, seemingly unaware of the fact that he is shouldering the task of being one of the heavyweights on the festival bill. As we thought, he seems to be a methodical person, a hard worker and not easily satisfied. Even though the band haven’t yet started work on their much awaited fourth album (he claims it’s impossible to write songs in the tour bus), he talks to us about the projects he’s involved in: the handling of the ATP festival the band are curating this weekend in London and his soundtrack for “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928), written alongside Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, which they will be performing live. He shows his passion for silent cinema and he gives us some clue as to what music he’s been listening to lately. You can write down the name of free jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann.

After a long break from touring, what drove you to return to the road?

I guess because we like it, it’s what we do, what people do if they are in a band. It’s been three years since we made our record and we didn’t tour enough at that time, because of lots of reasons. So we decided, after pursuing other projects, to start doing our next album by playing live this year. So that has - in some sort of way - made us be Portishead again.

You are from Great Britain, a country where the majority of the Benicàssim crowd come from. What perspective do you have of the festival there?

I don’t know. It’s amazing that there are lots of English people here, isn’t it? I have lots of friends and people that we know that are coming over to this… but I don’t know. I don’t go to festivals unless I’m playing them. The only reason I know about Benicàssim is from playing here a few year’s ago with Beth’s solo project

This weekend is the ATP festival you curated. What criteria did you follow to sign the bands?

Purely, what we like. That’s all. What bands we like and what things we are into. That’s it. That’s what’s so cool about ATP, it’s not about money… I mean, everybody needs to get paid. But the criteria are simply bands that we like.

Can you name any band that you specifically like?

All of them . . . well, pretty much all of them: ATP are curating some of them with us. The bands that we really like are Grinderman, Polly Harvey, Swans, Liars, Company Flow and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (it’s amazing that they are doing it). I find it hard to remember who’s doing what because we are doing another one in New York. So, I mean, we are obviously into all of them. I am really delighted to have them. We are very happy to have Grinderman and Polly. She is a friend of ours and it’s really, really good that she could come and do it because we wanted her to do the last one but she was too busy. So it’s very cool that she’s doing this one. We saw Grinderman the other night in Exit Festival in Serbia - where we played with them - and they were amazing. We had to go, so I couldn’t see the whole set, so I’m really looking forward to seeing them.

Are there some important bands you wanted them to play but couldn’t sign?

There was always a fear that we couldn’t get Godspeed - and we almost couldn’t. But I really can’t remember what important bands couldn’t come. Anyways, we are still trying to get some for ATP in New York later in the year that we haven’t managed to get yet. There’s a free jazz German saxophone player called Peter Brotzmann that I really wanted, but couldn’t get him. He’s great, fantastic. He was very much around in the seventies and eighties - and still is. A shame he isn’t coming.

Are you going to offer a different show each night?

We are going to do the same kind of show, really, because we haven’t got that many songs.

How did you come up with the idea of creating a soundtrack for “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc”?

It was a friend of mine who runs a cinema in Bristol that commissioned us to do it. My friend Will Gregory and I wanted to do it. He made it possible at Colston Hall - which is kind of a big hall who have money, so they can do it. Most of all it’s a fantastically brilliant film and it meant that we could write music that we wanted to write. It’s a kind of mixture of medieval choral music, which you would expect, and noise.

What do you find so fascinating about the film?

It’s a really powerful film. It’s incredible, a real masterpiece, fantastically brilliant - based on the transcript of Joan Of Arc’s trial and ultimate execution.

Electronic music has usually been linked to sci-fi. Do you see yourself creating a soundtrack for a movie of this genre?

It’d love it. Doing a soundtrack for a film is a really amazing thing to do. There are lots of problems politically because of Hollywood and stuff, but I’d love to. I’m really into electronics and science fiction perspectives.

Aside from this project, do you have any others? Creating a new band, like Geoff Barrow has done, or anything else?

Oh, yeah, yeah. I hope I’m going to do many films. I mean, my main focus now is Portishead - but when I’ve got time, I’m going to try to find old silent films that move me into doing music for. I’m looking now for a western cowboy movie from the twenties that would be good to do something with.

Do you have a particular one in mind?

No, I’ve got to find one. They are not always easy to find. When I did “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” we watched twenty films to find the right one to work with. And there’s the thing that old movies aren’t always that great, sometimes they are just OK. And there is a whole load of films like “Nosferatu”, “The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari” and “Battleship Potemkin” - all of them classic old films that so many people have written music for, that I’m not interested in doing them. I’m trying to find things that were really great, but never got seen. It’s quite hard to find them because they haven’t been seen!

How far along are you with the new Portishead album?

We haven’t started yet. We are just listening to music, getting ideas, thinking, talking and seeing where are we going to get with it. We’ve got ideas, but we’re involved in touring. And, you know, it’s kind of tough doing touring and trying to write music on a bus. It’s not possible. I imagine some people do it, but it is impossible for us. But we are going to get it done as quickly as we possibly can.

What kind of sounds are you listening to now?

All sorts of different stuff. Basically Egyptian psychedelic music, baroque music, early electronic music, strange psych bands. We found a band from Brazil - I don’t remember what they are called – who are really cool.

Do you consider yourself under extra pressure with your fourth album, considering the critical acclaim of your third?

No, because we’ve been through that already with “Dummy”. We just get on with another record and we do what we want to do.

Do you think it’s harder to face a new album, the further you get into your career?

Yeah, sure, of course. I think so, because when you make your first record you have many ideas from all your life - but now you kind of have done those ideas and you have to think of others things to do in a shorter time. So, yeah, it’s harder, but I don’t want to admit it either!

Do you like any particular new acts?

There are a few things, but at the moment no, I’m listening to older bands. I can’t think of anything new. I would say most of the bands at the ATP Festival. I like Liars, the band Geoff is working with, Anika - and that’s it!

Are you into BEAK>?

Yeah, I like it. Do you? It’s cool, isn’t it? But, I mean, a lot of the things I listen to are from the eighties or the 1600s.

Someone told me you’re some sort of a music ‘dealer’ for Portishead, that you introduced Sunn O))) to Geoff. Is that so?

That’s weird. I do bring a lot of things like Silver Apples, White Noise and stuff like that. But I think he was the one that told me about Sunn O))). I can’t remember now, but usually we bring things to each other. Obviously, if any one of us discovers something cool, we’ll tell the rest about it. Geoff tends to have friends who run labels that send the cool things they find . . . but I don’t remember where Sunn O))) came from, we are both really into them.

Do you think that the current English music scene is as well-nourished as it was when you released your first record?

I think it’s much more eclectic, there’s a lot more stuff going on. It’s very, very, very wide. Possibly, more so than when we started. There’s more of a focus on various genres of music. We spoke to Adrian Utley a couple of hours before Portishead’s gig at FIB 2011. There are no hints at a fourth album as of yet, but he did tell us he wants to write a soundtrack for a twenties western - and that he’s currently mainly listening to Egyptian psychedelica.

Photo by Noelia Rodríguez

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” Carl Theodor Dreyer “The Passion of Joan of Arc” Carl Theodor Dreyer.

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