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Interview: Geoff Barrow on New Projects, His Label and the Future of Portishead

With possible apologies to the fashion and advertising industries, there’s surely no place in the world that’s as heavily laden with bullshit as the music industry. It’s therefore refreshing to get the opportunity to speak to someone like Geoff Barrow of Portishead, who’s both an outrageously talented and innovative producer, and perhaps the most refreshingly candid, down-to-earth and genuinely lovely interviewee you could ever hope to meet. Barrow’s new project Drokk is out this week — it’s an album of soundscapes inspired by 2000 AD, the dystopian British comic that gave the character of Judge Dredd to the world. We spoke to Barrow about Drokk, his various other projects, and when we might expect a new Portishead record.

I guess you were a big Judge Dredd fan, then?
Yeah. I always have been, really. I grew up reading 2000 AD. I’m fairly dyslexic, and for some reason dyslexic kids are really drawn to comic books. My grandmother worked for a newsagent, and she used to buy [the comics] for me. But I don’t think she ever realized how harsh [2000 AD] was.

It’s pretty intense.
It is. It also demonstrated what was going on in England at that time. Many a time science fiction has echoed what’s going on, and it was a major part of Britain at that point — Judge Dredd even had a weekly appearance in one of the big tabloid newspapers. Over the years, when I got into music, I dropped reading — dropped it altogether, to be honest. Music was much easier to deal with than communicating any other way. So I just became a music nut [laughs].

What brought you back to Judge Dredd, then?
Touring, really. I started getting into graphic novels again — and “graphic novels” is the middle-aged way of saying comics, really, isn’t it? I started reading some more stuff — Batman, Arkham Asylum… I’m not an expert in any way. I’d get cut to ribbons by the real nerd types. I’m semi-nerd [laughs]. And I’d known [Drokk co-producer] Ben [Salisbury] for years, because we played together in this terrible… well, brilliant but quite terrible football team. He’s a really talented guy, and we always said we’d love to work together on something, but it was never the right time. But eventually I got approached by a friend to work on the soundtrack to the actual new Judge Dredd film.

I brought Ben on board because he has an immense talent for working music to pictures, whereas I don’t and don’t pretend to. We did some early stuff, and it was a totally brilliant experience. It didn’t work out [with the film] for whatever reason, but the film was kind of like a spark for us to work together. So we carried on. [The project] existed alongside the film, and then carried on although the film never really happened. And then I contacted the guys from 2000AD, and they were super-keen on supporting it and being involved.

I saw you just tweeted “DROKK LIVE!”. Does this mean, well, Drokk live?
We just finished rehearsals, actually, to play it in two weeks’ time. We’re gonna play in a brilliant comic shop in London. Fingers crossed the Oberheims work.

I wanted to ask you about some of the instrumentation you used, actually. It reminds me of a lot of really early electronic music — all analog, etc. It was based firmly in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the time when I was a kid and a teenager. John Carpenter was a massive influence, and also that whole post-apocalyptic mutant VHS rental film music. The instrumentation was three Oberheim two-voice synthesizers from 1975. We didn’t use any computers or anything like that — [the Oberheims] have an onboard eight-note sequencers, and on each synth you have two oscillators, so you can make harmonies of each sequence you program. Three-quarters of the album is done on those, and the other part — the more ethereal, classical part — is using this real modern software called Paul, which has the ability to time-stretch stuff hundreds of times down, while still keeping the pitch the same. It’s an incredible program. We wrote music [specifically] to time-stretch. I mean, there’s a lot of music that’s been time-stretched… Someone did it to a Justin Bieber song and it sounded like Sigur Rós.

There was that band Bear in Heaven, too, who stretched their entire album to four months long. It’s most probably using the same program. But what we did is that we wrote music to be time-stretched. There was lots of really quick singing, and if you slow that down, it becomes this incredible wash of sound.

You’ve been really prolific over the last couple of years — what are some of the other things you have on?
I’ve been working on this hip hop album I released with [Invada co-founder] Ashley Anderson, called Quakers. It’s real hip hop. You know if someone says to you, “Hey, you have to hear this album, it’s a really good blues album?” I just feel this is a really good hip hop album. Then there’s the new Beak> record, and Drokk. And I might be mixing and producing some things soon, but… well, I can’t really say who it is [laughs].

How’s your label Invada going?
We’ve just done the Drive soundtrack on vinyl. And there’s lots of good stuff. Random stuff. Invada’s just started to break even over the years, as little labels do — or don’t — and it’s just started to happen. It’s not really a genre-specific label. It’s just interesting stuff.

You’ve always been quite vocal about certain aspects of the music industry. How have you found the experience of running a label yourself?
It’s about communication and about being honest with the artist, and trying to cut the bullshit, really. If you have people on the label who work hard, you’re going to work hard for them. The music industry’s a funny thing, though. I’ve been lucky enough to being on many sides of it, from running my own little indie label to being on a major. Portishead basically manage ourselves, and have done for many years. If you’re a band like Portishead who are pretty weird [laughs]… I mean, we’re a pop band, we have a popular fanbase, but we just can’t get our music to them because no-one will support us on radio. So you have to find other ways to really to reach people. Unfortunately, we’re really shit at the Internet [laughs]. But we’re very lucky, our fans know we have a new album, we’re coming out on tour, so they come and see us and buy the album. But if you’re a new band and making odder music, fuck, man, it’s impossible.

It’s a struggle, definitely.
I have so much respect for bands who are like that who push on through, and labels like XL, because they’ll go, “Do you know what? We can take Adele’s money and plough it into something else.” The thing with big companies is that there’s so many people that work there — some really good people, but also some really horrible people who just want jobs in the music industry to get free tickets. I can rant for days, but the thing is that the music industry is dying, because since the 1980s the wrong people bought into the industry, because they saw people getting really rich from selling Phil Collins records, and thought that it was a business model you could replicate.

And they seem to feel that model has some god-given right to exist.
And it doesn’t, as is constantly proven. Their investment is short-sighted. People really do want interesting music. They always have. Even if it’s the pop version of the interesting music.

It’s like a gateway drug.
Totally. But at the moment, that gateway doesn’t exist. What we’re told is real indie is, like, Florence and the Machine. I have nothing against that music other than that I hate it [laughs].

And, finally, speaking of Portishead…
Well, I’ve got Beak> coming up, Drokk is happening, then we have a couple of Portishead gigs lined up, then I’m moving studios. And then, literally, I’ve done my shift outside of Portishead, and I’m going to clock on for Portishead. It’s the next record I want to release.

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