Yet the Bristol band never really went away. Portishead's early albums are considered classics, their band name continues to adorn hipster t-shirts and dorm-room posters and their dark, moody beatscapes still reverberate today in the sounds of our most cutting-edge artists (see: Weeknd, the). In a wide-ranging, hour-long phone call from the UK before the tour kickoff, Geoff Barrows talked to Spinner about Portishead's legacy, why you shouldn't book him on the same festival bill as Bruno Mars, his thoughts on Odd Future's rape raps and why he hated the term trip-hop so damn much.
Why has it been so long since you toured North America?
Adrian has always liked playing live. I don't think Beth has ever been incredibly comfortable with it, and I never have either. So with two out of the three mainstay members, it's just not particularly an option. And we didn't make a record for such a long time. We never broke up but we went our separate ways to rediscover different things in our lives. That would be the other main reason we didn't tour.
What do you all do on your lengthy downtime?
We write music and when we don't, we don't do anything.
Do you garden? Like, what's up?
Beth went and did her record. I could've really fell out of love with music and so I set up the label in the UK called Invader and one earlier one in Australia also called Invader. Adrian did some soundtrack work and played with some people. Portishead is our main thing, it's our life. At the same time, we want it to be meaningful and not just doing it for the sake of it.
Now that it's been a project for so long, what do you think of the legacy you guys have created?
I don't know. We have got a very severe quality control thing, but we've never purposely used being away as some kinda tool to cause intrigue. This has just been the way it happened in our lives ... I mean, I still like to go and see Radiohead play, and if Nirvana was still about I'd want to go see them. You just want to see good bands. But you do get bands that just tour all the time, what happens is that their quality just goes down. They just want to be crowd-pleasers. You just lose the edge. And we haven't really played enough to become crowd-pleasers.
Perhaps, but at the same time I feel like some artists feel that they need to be in the news all the time.
People have not really been interested in us as people, and we are not really interested in being people in the industry, more just musicians.
And I think that has probably a lot to do with the first two albums, the third is more recent, which sound kind of timeless. They don't sound dated like, say, a Fatboy Slim song.
Maybe because we always wanted to concentrate on the songwriting element of it and we were influenced by timeless music, even though it was conceived as incredibly stylized. But it's great that you say it's maintained, it's always nice to hear that.
You take the beats away and all of a sudden you could be in a film noir where Beth is singing in a black and white night club.
I think a lot of people had that kind of image of us, this noir thing. I think it's just distinctly European.
Given your sound's apocalyptic undertones, do you think in these modern times, which are darker and heavier than when you guys first came out, do you think that it perhaps hits people harder now?
No, I think there's always been fairly apocalyptic music, whether it be from electronic to Gothic to classical to hip-hop. I actually find that there is less music like that now. I think that music is really bubble gum, in the strangest way. I very, very rarely hear anything that is really kinda minor cords, that reaches any height of any playlist unless it's specialist radio. Melodies of R&B is the same melodies as pop, is the same melody of rock, y'know, it's homogenized. It's like the guy in the emo band sounds like he's singing the same melodies as Will.I.Am. They just change the instruments and push the rock button instead.
I did read that angry quote about you playing the same festival as Bruno Mars.
Well, the thing is we were on the wrong festival. The other thing that is was completely taken out of context by f--ing N.M.E magazine. We've played two festivals with Bruno Mars and Coldplay, and we were at the wrong festival. They were at the right festival and we were at the wrong one. But they reported it like I was really f---ing pissed off. But I wasn't. I was just like, "We were at the wrong festival."
You don't think it's good that people of all tastes get to hang out together and maybe Bruno Mars fans can be turned onto you guys?
It's a nice way of thinking it, but the way that the modern musical society is, it's just like, no. There isn't that cross-fertilization. They'll listen to an R&B guy who sounds like the singer from that emo band -- that's as far as the cross-fertilization goes, I don't think it goes any deeper than that.
But it's not just the hip, cool people who are into Portishead. At this point, it's permeated pop culture. I had a similar conversation when I interviewed the Pixies -- yeah, they were cool at the time, but now they're almost a rite of passage for young people.
But you didn't get the same response from the Pixies?
No, I did.
Well, that's great. Basically, no one talks about us until we do something. And they go out and buy it or they go out and see us and they go on and carry on with their lives. If you look at online stuff, nobody really writes about us. We've just got this army of fans which is amazing. They get on with their lives, go to the show, pick up a record and disappear again.
But there's a new group of classic albums -- like 'Doolittle' and 'Nevermind' and your first two records -- creating a new cannon now that we've gotten past the '60s and '70s stuff. The kids that are coming up, that were not around when these records were released, are still discovering them in high-school and it's opening up their taste.
If that's the case, that's really good. 'Nevermind' and 'Dummy' were pop records. They were not experimental records, they were on the outside of alternative culture. Maybe they are sightly more valuable now because that was the last time you could actually do that.
What do you think about the resurgence in electronic music? It's not rave culture anymore but dance culture has come back in North America after being gone for almost a decade.
You got to look at the drugs, really. When I think of electronic music, I just think of what drugs have been released or what people are doing, 'cause that usually has a lot to do with it. Electronic music has never gone away, it has just kind of changed in the UK, it's always been such a mainstay of alternative culture. I don't know anybody that doesn't make electronic music, it's so easy to do on your laptop. I don't know anything about dubstep, really, but when it comes to electronic it always just evolves.
You were roped into the electronic music culture at the time. Did you feel like you were part of it?
No, we were so oddly different than most people. I don't mean that we're special compared to the electronic stuff that was going on the same time as us. I was never really into dance music, and most of it was dance music. I liked really early jungle, like really hard jungle, because it was almost like Public Enemy sped-up triple time, so that was kind of good.
There was always the talk about you guys and your hip-hop influences, do you still hear those in hindsight?
Yeah, absolutely, because the way it was produced, the way it was written and produced musically. It was very hip-hop based, put together on sequencers as chunks of music, which is pretty much what was happening to hip-hop then, so it was very much based on that, scratch tech and stuff, so there is that element of it. And, because of the response we got from the hip-hop community, in America, it was mental, it was, like, wow.
What do you think about the current era of hip-hop?
I think it's difficult to say. I don't know what people are calling hip-hop now. You got the stars, like Kanye or whoever, and then you got everybody doing like this mad struggling thing underneath. I think there is still some really good hip-hop out there. I'm still a massive fan of Madlib; MF Doom played ATP, he was immense. I don't know much about new guys. What's your take on Tyler, the Creator?
I think Odd Future are a fascinating phenomenon, and really talented, and I wish they didn't go for the shock factor so often because it distracts from the progressive stuff they're doing. I wish they wouldn't make rape jokes, y'know?
Obviously, that's rubbish. I agree with you entirely there is no need for it but then if they feel it's an important part of their art, then people will turn off from it. Or turn on to it. I was following him on Twitter and then I stopped following him, it was like someone was shouting at me.
I respect people like him and I respect the punks. You wanna f--- stuff up. There's always s--- you don't like about punks, because they're always made to not make you like them.
I guess they're trying to shock people, so it's equivalent of a swastika armband worn by a '70s punk.
Yeah, maybe they are. They're obviously really bright. It's easy just being a kid talking about rape -- or is there a reason that he's doing it? Is it just to shock or is it for something else? He's obviously a bright kid so you hope it was for another reason.
Do you think those kind of lyrics can discount everything else they are trying to do? Or do you think that you should be able to take all the different aspects of the whole when you are judging them?
Shocking artists aren't going to please you, or they wouldn't be shocking artists, would they? There's always going to be an element of what they do that is completely outrageous.
And they certainly add a level of danger to hip-hop that has been missing for a long time.
They do, but I can't get with the music. I like their voices, their intelligence, but the beats are too normal for me. When I saw Tyler on the Jimmy Fallon show, it really excited me 'cause I thought, "Aw, f--- yes, someone's kicking some ass again and they don't give a f---" -- which is great. But then after hearing some more of it, I just thought the beats were a bit boring. But then I'm from another generation of hip-hop. I've never really been a lyrical person, I've always been more the beats side of it and they are incredibly lyrical.
Not everybody is Dr. Dre at age 18.
But there's lots of kids who are. There's lots of people doing interesting s---, and I just think their tools are not allowing great creativity. I think it's just me. Lots of people get off on that stuff, but I just kind of find a lot of modern programming is stock sounds because MCs have become more prominent over the beats.
Well, that might be from growing up in a cipher culture, where they just put any beat on and just rap at each other.
That's not always been the most important thing. That's cool, but it was the opposite for me. I can't rap so I was gonna spend months thinking about a snare drum.
Trip-hop became such a hated genre tag for a lot of people. What's your take?
We were the first vocal people to hate it. I don't think anybody hated it or was as vocal about it was we were. When Massive Attack released 'Blue Lines' in '91, that was just British urban music, like electronic soul. We were doing our record in '92/'93, released it in '94 -- and trip-hop didn't exist. A London journalist along with maybe James LaValle for the Mo' Wax label decided it was going to be called trip-hop. We said, "It's s---, we don't want anything to do with it." And we continued with that all the way through. Now we don't even think about it because it's thankfully dead and buried. And we can just carry on making music like we always have.
So I guess it became such a dirty word mostly because of you guys.
I don't think we were the innovators like Smith and Mighty, or with instrumental beats stuff coming out of the west coast. We were from Bristol and it was just a lazy term, really, and we kind of resented it. It's basically like a scene that's quite pure coming up in, say, Toronto and New York names it one stupid name. And you go, "Well, that's a stupid name, and your from f---ing New York, what the f--- do you know?" And then it takes on across the world because they're New York. It's like grunge in Seattle.