Portishead Catches On, Comes Here

21 April, 1995
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
by Jon Bream

Three. That's how many concerts Portishead, the ultracool rock-noir duo from England, had given before booking its current tour of the United States. And one of the concerts didn't go well.

"Nerves and bad organization," said Geoff Barrow, 23, the musical architect of Portishead. "We had to do everything ourselves, and there was a lot of rushing about. It was not one of those situations where you had people setting up your gear for you and packing it away. I had to sort out the sound and make sure everyone's instruments were working properly, and I didn't have time to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing."

"To see the live response is very unusual for our type of music because it is so studio- and record-oriented. It's always interesting, but it's scary."

Scary is a word that could be used to describe Portishead's moody music. It's been called bleak, naked, claustrophobic, ominous and "the sound of something horrible about to happen."

REV 105, the Twin Cities' cutting-edge radio station, jumped on the duo's song, "Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)," last fall before it was even released in the United States. It's a hypnotic hip-hop torch song. Imagine Sade on Prozac.

Like a new drug, Portishead is catching on in England and States, thanks to "Sour Times." More than 300,000 copies of the band's debut album, "Dummy," have been sold.

"We never expected to sell so many," said Barrow from Bristol, England, where he was rehearsing for a tour that brings Portishead to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on Sunday. "It's incredible what we're doing in America; I don't know if we're ready for it. We didn't expect any interest from anywhere, except from England."

Not bad for a studio nerd and a melancholy chanteuse who met at an unemployment office, spent a couple of years in the studio together and were just about to call it quits when Barrow came up with the backing track for "Sour Times" based on a sample from a Lalo Schriffin movie soundtrack. Singer Beth Gibbons disappeared for a few days and wrote the lyrics. "Sour Times" revitalized the collaboration and turned into sweet success commercially.

Barrow, who played drums as a child, is a studio rat. At 17 he helped engineer Neneh Cherry's acclaimed "Homebrew" album, and later he was hired to do remixes of recordings by Depeche Mode, Paul Weller, Primal Scream and Ride. He's also worked with Massive Attack, another Bristol band that's creating a buzz in Britain and the United States.

As a teenager, Barrow was smitten by American hip-hop, "But I never pretend to understand the political angle, being a little white kid from England." Through hip-hop, he got into sampling and began experimenting with everything from '60s spy-movie soundtracks to lounge jazz. And that's how he has crafted Portishead's emotionally disturbing sound.

"Beth was singing as a child," said Barrow. "I read that in one of her interviews, which she very rarely gives. She's done more gigs in her bedroom than she's ever done out."

Portishead takes its name from the town in which Barrow grew up. "It's pretty dull," he said. "People who live there think they live a very pure existence - white picket fence, standard nuclear family type of thing. But it's the opposite of that; it's small-mindedness, greed and nastiness."

He said the residents love the band being named for the town. "They think it's to honor them," he said. "They don't realize it's to take the piss out of them."

Barrow isn't sure that the folks at Go! Discs, for which Portishead records, understand the duo's music. He thinks the record label figures the band has a hit so it must take to the road. Barrow would prefer to stay in the studio and work on Portishead's second album.

At the record company's behest, Barrow and Gibbons, 30, have put together a band with a drummer, organist and bassist. In concert, Barrow will serve as a DJ. But he's not happy about going on tour.

"The British music industry is disgusting," said Barrow, who was trying to tune a snare drum as he talked. "People work against each other; they're there purely for money. They won't even let talent breathe. Most people in England don't get a chance to record a second album; they [the press] are going to slay it before you even start recording it. I wish we could just go and record the third album."

"All Portishead wanted to do is release records and see what people thought of it. If we had our own way, I would want to blow all the image stuff out of the water and just get back to music and people not caring what people look like. Just have something that has a good emotional content, that wasn't false."

Eric D. Hendrickson
Last modified: Wed Mar 13 13:10:08 CST 2002