Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Welcome to Portishead... live NYC

By Peter McLennan, originally published in Lava magazine, 1999.

It's 10.20pm on a Wednesday night, and my phone rings. It's the operator at Polydor UK, calling up to connect me for a Portishead interview. Ah, the joys of modern telecommunications.

Portishead member Geoff Barrow comes on the phone, much to my surprise. I was told I'd be talking to guitarist Adrian Utley, but Geoff tells me Adrian is a bit knackered, having just done 40 interviews in 2 days, and Geoff has kindly stepped in to give him a break. What a nice chap, I like him already. So, down to business.

PNYC is the new release from Portishead, a collection of live recordings based around their televised concert recorded in July last year at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, which was screened here a while back. The cd however has only just seen the light of day, after their second, self-titled album and an arduous 10 month tour round the planet. Marketing ploy, anyone?

Geoff explains that they've been busy."We finished touring about a month ago. The response we had was pretty much complete and utter total madness. It was shocking really. We started playing to about two, three thousand, and then it started creeping up in Europe to like eight thousand, and then we came down to Australia and New Zealand, and that was another complete buzz, and then the States, and every show was sold out except for one, in Mertle Beach in South Carolina, which was a House Of Blues place, and we were told they were going into their college holiday season, and they're was actually no one there but old people, in the town! And then we did the festivals over the summer, in Europe, and in some of those we played like to fifty thousand people.

L: With festivals, do you get to see any of the other bands?
GB: Well, what I liked to do, is just getting in there early. Other people would just chill out at the hotel, and I'd usually go down with the crew and wander around the festival. To be quite honest, the European festival circuit was really drab this year. There was some really good bands like Pulp, Beastie Boys, but the rest of the stuff I thought, was really substandard, except for Asian Dub Foundation, they were really good.

L: Anyway, back to PNYC

GB: Well, with Roselands, we've been on tour, and we haven't been able to work on it at all, or edit it, or get it into some kind of shape. When you saw it on tv, it was mixed in two or three days just after we did it. There's two tracks on PNYC from the tour as well. When we got back from tour we went into the studio, just to have a listen to it, and make it sound a bit better, not to do stupid things to it, no nasty overdubbing and stuff. Because we have so much control over everything that we do, in the sense of production, artwork, videos, whatever, because of that, if we're out on tour, we can't concentrate on anything else. And we don't like things going out without us being involved in it. So we wanted to wait til now and get it right."

The concert represented not just the standard everyday Portishead line-up (if there is such a thing), but a show with all the bells and trimmings, including a horn section and an orchestra comprising members of New York's Philharmonic. Nervous then, were we Geoff?

"We were really, really nervous, about the whole thing. There wasn't an awful lot of rehearsal time with the orchestra, but we were really happy with the way it came out. It was a strange one, Roselands, cause it was at the start of the tour, and the band has developed so much since then. At the same time, because of the strings and everything else, it makes it a separate entity again, know what I mean?

A lot of people have said to us, when can I get hold of something of you live? So it's not like this massive surge of us saying 'you have to go and buy this, this is like the third Portishead record', this is just what we've done over the last couple of years, and a lot of people liked Roselands and wanted to buy it.

L: With the whole scale of the thing, did you reach a point where you thought 'Oh god, it's too much'?

GB Yeah absolutely, just before we went on! At the time I was doing press as well, about ten interviews a day, so we were rehearsing, Ade (Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley) was trying to get all the arrangements sorted, it was just like really, really full on. But it seemed to work, so I can't complain about it now! It was a huge risk, financially, all the way through. Even though the record company paid for it, you got to pay that money back somehow.

L: Was it hard taking those songs straight out of the studio, and then expanding them, and still retain some control over it?

GB Oh yeah, definitely. We worked with a brilliant arranger. When we were mixing the second record, Ade was downstairs roughly writing out the arrangements for the strings. It was difficult to do, because we had set ourselves a really difficult task. We were playing tunes we'd never played to an audience before, let alone played live before, and prior to that, we hadn't played for two and a half years. It wasn't going to be a rock'n'roll show, it was going to be us in the middle of the Ballroom with the lights fully on.

So you can't hide behind anything, it's all bang in front of you. With Roselands, for us it was like, instead of just coming out with the new record and talking about it, we wanted to just play it, but in a situation where people could see what we did, because we're not really like this celebrity band, y'know what I mean. We haven't got anything particularly interesting to say about our lives. So we thought right, let's just show people what we do.

L: The visual style of the tv concert is very striking. Where did that come from?

GB: It's based on an Miles Davis and Gil Evans tv show from the mid sixties. We didn't want it like a rock'n'roll show where it was really fast moving, cutting all the time. We wanted to have a pace about it, and to suit our music. we just thought right, lets just let the camera really work it, and suit whatever track it is. Cause most things that you see on tv, even if it's like a slow performance, if you go into a tv show and you've got a tv crew, they're always cutting around it like mad, they're always trying to find those bits so they can go 'drums to vocal, drums to vocal, drums to guitar', y'know what I mean? Really, it wasn't about that. It was setting up a mood and watching what we did, if anyone was interested.

L: What have you been listening to lately?

GB: A lot of hip hop. But it could just be like, anything that's interesting. There's a band called Arab Strap, that are on the same label as us, a Scottish band. It's like the real thing, a band that sings about their situation, which is really good. We're still into Radiohead, Nirvana, Foo Fighters. I'm not really a dance music fan, know what I mean? I don't go out to clubs and do loads of pills. It's not that I don't like it, I just don't appreciate it. It doesn't do anything for me when I listen to it straight.

L: So, what's next for you, now the touring's all finished?

GB: Well, when you've been out on the road for about a year, it's just such an odd feeling, coming back to normal life. Touring and music can bring up so many problems in your life, know what I mean? Now I've just got to sort my life out, without trying to drink too much. Cause that's the terrible one you slip into on tour.

At the moment I'm doing as little as possible. I'm just having time off, sorting out my house. It's the first break we've had really, we've been working non stop since 93, really. So, I'm done for a bit. I've just been trying to put it at the back of my mind, and doing things like hoovering. Back to reality, basically".

And with that splendid picture of domestic bliss, we bid farewell to Geoff.

PNYC (the video, cd and double vinyl) is in the shops now, and the band will shortly have a special limited edition cd-rom available through their website, www.Portishead.co.uk

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