Progress Report: English trip-hop pioneers embark on a long-overdue North American tour and will maybe make a record sometime. The band will release a 12″ of “Chase The Tear,” which they performed on Fallon last night, via XL on 11/14.
As a long time fan of Portishead I was really excited for the chance to talk to Geoff Barrow last week just before the band’s weekend-long stint playing (and curating) All Tomorrows Parties in New Jersey’s Asbury Park. Since this is Progress Report, I hoped he might spill some beans about the group’s next record (no such luck, really), but it was still fascinating to get his take on touring and the difficulties involved in recreating Portishead’s meticulous music in a live setting. As anyone who saw them perform at ATP will tell you, the band puts on one of the world’s most technically perfect live shows. Earlier this week, the band played NYC for two nights before heading out on a brief and long-overdue tour of North America. I suggest going to see them if you have the chance. Not only is their live show fantastic, but it might well be another decade before we see another Portishead album, let alone another tour.
STEREOGUM: Hey Geoff.
GEOFF: Hello Cole. Hello Stereogum. Where are you calling from?
GEOFF: You know, I’ve never actually been to Brooklyn.
STEREOGUM: Really? What’s stopping you?
GEOFF: I dunno. I’ve never really been a great fan of New York, to be honest. I’ve always been stuck in Manhattan. No one’s ever invited me to go out to Brooklyn. That doesn’t make me very cool, does it?
STEREOGUM: Oh, I don’t know. Some might say that makes you even cooler. I know you are currently in the thick of preparing for your tour — and I’ll actually be seeing you in New Jersey in a few days. Is this a particularly nerve-wracking time for you?
GEOFF: Yeah. Always. It’s never a particularly easy process. As we’ve gotten older it’s a little easier — we have the same crew that we had 20 years ago, so it’s a very family-type atmosphere. We’ve worked out very specific PA requirements. We’re not particularly demanding as a band as long as things sound all right and we can get our visual stuff set up correctly. It is nerve-wracking though because it always feels like we’re doing a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle every time we play. We never make it easy on ourselves by just pushing play on a computer and dancing around a bit — that would be easier, but it would also be revolting. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, you know, the whole concept of asking Beth to sing her songs — considering what they mean to her — live in front of a bunch of people … it’s pretty odd as a concept. It’s not as if she’s an actor just playing that part, it’s really her as a person, which makes it very draining. Also, we’re not really performers as much as we are just musicians, so the live thing always throws up a lot of questions for us … and I expect it always will.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about that when I saw your performance at Coachella. To replicate the sound of your records in a completely live way … and to do it in front of a huge audience on an outdoor stage, but still retain the intimacy of those songs … it’s no easy task.
GEOFF: It takes a lot of work. We’ve never been ones to do a soundcheck and say, “Oh, I guess that will do. It sounds enough like we want it to.” Basically it’s either right or it’s totally fucking wrong. We always want it to be right.
STEREOGUM: Thinking about playing live now, as opposed to 20 years ago when you first started, has technology made playing live easier now?
GEOFF: No. It’s actually made it a little more difficult, at least for us, because people will always come up to me and say things like “Why are you bothering with that old piece of shit kit, why now use one of these new ones?” and, particularly at festivals, I’m always saying “Because the band before us used that kit and maybe you didn’t hear them, but it sounded like shit.” At Coachella it was really hard. We turned up and saw Jack White and his band play. You know, whether you like them or not, he plays with shockingly good musicians and if you were to put his band in a room with shitty instruments, they are still gonna sound immense. So, I turn up and see them playing and the sound was just shit. I remember thinking that if those guys couldn’t manage to sound good on that stage, we were going to sound terrible. I think modern processing often fucks people up. Modern technology always mucks with things by trying to take out certain frequencies, which always just results in things sounding like a bee flying around in a tin. For Coachella I turned up to do a soundcheck at 7AM on this giant PA system and we have all this old gear and all the technicians are scowling at our equipment … Again, it’s like, “Why are you bothering with all this old crap gear?” But in the end we completely murdered with that gig. I don’t mean that in a cocky way. It’s just the truth. We killed ‘em. It felt like a really make-or-break situation for us, but it turned out good.
STEREOGUM: How much did that particular gig influence your decision to finally tour again?
GEOFF: It did. We hadn’t played on your side of the world for three years. There were reasons that we couldn’t do it, but still. So when the ATP people came to us with their idea about curating some festivals, we really loved it. After that, it seemed like a good idea to finally do a tour of North America. It’s not a huge tour or anything, but you know … we’re quite old now.
STEREOGUM: What appealed to you about getting involved with All Tomorrow’s Parties?
GEOFF: I just like that, for the most part, you wouldn’t want to be there if you aren’t actually into the music. It’s not like Coachella where there are loads of girls walking around in bikinis and stuff like that. It’s basically people enjoying what is often some really indulgent music. For us, it’s like a Charlie in the Chocolate Factory moment. You win the golden ticket and you get to see how the candy is made. You get to choose the bands that play with you, which is just … amazing. It’s like, wow, yes, please.
STEREOGUM: Who in particular are you most excited about seeing?
GEOFF: We’ve been really lucky over the years. We’ve done three of these ATP festivals and it’s always such a good experience. I’m always, always, always very into watching Public Enemy. Also, Ultramagnetic MCs because they are just mental and so important to hip hop. I’ll also be watching Swans … with earplugs. I want to watch everything. I want to watch as much as I possibly can.
STEREOGUM: Aside from preparing for this tour, have you guys been working on any new music?
GEOFF: No, we haven’t really been able to. You know, we’ve all got families and we came back from playing European festivals just feeling kind of exhausted. We did an ATP here in London and then decided to just go for it and play festivals — many of them in places we’d never been before, like Serbia and Hungary and Poland. We also played a few places that we shouldn’t have played — along with the likes of Bruno Mars and Coldplay. We played an incredible festival in Slovakia that was like a little mini Glastonbury. That, we loved. Most of these so-called festivals are just about selling stuff … it’s crap, really.
STEREOGUM: Do you guys in the band live far away from each other these days?
GEOFF: No, not at all. We live very near each other. We’ve always been close.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. For so many bands who have been together for a long time, it gets harder to make music spontaneously because it generally requires a certain amount of planning. Everyone has to plan to be in the same place at the same time, which is tougher when you all have kids and stuff.
GEOFF: For us, we’re more likely to just say to each other, Why not come over and just fuck about for a little while? as opposed to saying Come over and let’s try and write something…that sounds so daunting. It doesn’t sound fun. Also … say, for example, that you are in a country and western band. You’ve got some guitars, a fiddle, a drum kit, a slide guitar, and you sing very traditional songs. Or if you make hip hop and it’s like here’s the beat, here’s the mic. There’s a format there. For us it always feels like we are trying to reinvent the wheel and write a decent song at the same time. There’s a lot of stress involved.
STEREOGUM: Aside from ATP and your fall tour, do you have any sense of what your plans are beyond that? Will you guys take time off?
GEOFF: Well, you know, I also run a record label and I’ve been finishing a new Beak> album which will come out next year … hopefully in March? I’ve also got to move my studio, which has been in the same space for over 20 years, so that’s something. I’ve still got to find a new space. After all that, we’ll get back into Portishead. If Beth and Adrian are ready, we’ll dive headfirst into doing that. We’re a band, you know? We’re together. We’ll write another record if we can. And if it sounds like shit, we won’t release it.
STEREOGUM: I wish more people thought that way.
GEOFF: Well, it’s usually just about money. You get an advance to make a record and then you’re obligated to release something. We’re not really in that situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the amount of money I’ve made off of records, but I ain’t loaded. I don’t drive about in a Bentley or anything. It’s pretty basic, but if you keep things at a pretty simple level then it allows you to do what you want and also be in charge of your own destiny, which not a lot of people are. I feel very lucky.
North American tour dates:
10/07 – Montreal, QC @ Jacques Cartier Pier
10/09 – Toronto @ Sound Academy
10/10 – Toronto @ Sound Academy
10/12 – Chicago @ Aragon
10/15 – Mexico City @ Corona Festival
10/18 – L.A. @ Shrine
10/21 – Berkeley, CA @ The Greek
10/23 – Seattle, QA @ WaMu Theater
10/24 – Vancouver, BC @ PNE Forum
10/27 – Denver @ 1st Bank Center
Portishead will team up with XL to release a 12″ of “Chase The Tear,” which they performed on Fallon last night. The limited edition vinyl comes backed with a version of the track by the Doldrums, of Toronto. It’s out 11/14 worldwide.