Portishead Third

Portishead Third
Highly anticipated and 11 years in the making, the aptly titled Third is a beautiful and accomplished album either compared to its predecessors or taken on its own. Beth Gibbons, all wild-eyed and dramatic on Portishead, is nicely restrained here, with those 11 years bringing a calm and maturity to her emotional turmoil. The real triumph is that Portishead break from their sound without losing any of the atmosphere and tone that fans fell in love with all those years ago. "The Rip” is a fantastical journey that’s almost electro folk in its simplicity. "We Carry On” is the standout track because its industrial beats aren’t as harsh as "Machine Gun,” and the outstanding shoegazer-esque guitar breakdown that comes and goes accentuates Gibbons’ strong vocals perfectly. The gem is the short and simple "Deep Water,” which eschews all electronic doo-hickeys and sounds like it was fished out of some deep South swamp and immediately played on a hand-cranked gramophone, and thus is perfect. It’s just Gibbons’ voice, carrying all her imaginary weight, and simple, expert musicianship. And, really, beyond all the hype, that’s what makes Portishead great, as well as this extremely welcome return.

Who initiated this new album in 2004? Did somebody just call somebody? How did it come together?
Adrian Utley: We see each other all the time, or we don’t live that far from each other and we always hang out and I don’t think there’s a day or week that I haven’t spoken to Geoff [Barrow] or Beth [Gibbons], really. We’re always hanging around and stuff so I don’t know how it started really, I really don’t. I can’t remember at all. I know suddenly we were in my house, or my studio and we’re working on stuff. We just were together, hanging out sort of thing.

Since you were working at home, was there a schedule or did it just happen organically?
We do make a schedule about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do stuff and we have goals even though it’s been absolutely ages and stuff, but I’ve got a pretty comprehensive studio in my house and it meant that we could just get on with stuff and it didn’t cost us loads of money to be in rented studios or anything. We could just be experimental and do what we want and it’s full of brilliant instruments and all sorts of stuff. So, yeah, it’s cool. And we get on.

Well, you’ve known each other a long time.
Yeah, yeah. I guess, some days aren’t good as other days and being at home is something of a distraction as well even though it’s kind of separate-ish from the house. I don’t know. The way we make music is often quite as difficult to describe it as it is difficult to actually do it, so we have really up days and really down days really. It works out, though I’m the one going about my studio and my house so I don’t know but it seems to work out okay there.

How did the songs come together? Is it quite collaborative between all of you or does someone lead and the rest refine?
It could go anyway you like really. There’ll be ideas coming from anyone but it could also be like Beth could give us a song and a kind of guitar riff that we could use, like on "Threads” that pretty much how it was. With "Silence” that came as a song from Beth, in that weird timing, and we completely changed everything around it and it remained her song there with the kind of weird time meter about it and on a song like "Hunter” it would be Geoff and I sitting around, making the chord sequence that came from something that we had, but it’s not particularly well-known. I don’t remember who it is, it was just a sound that we liked and we thought ‘Well let’s do something in that world,’ or with that sound kind of thing. With "Machine Gun,” I had this really crappy organ that I was going to buy that I sampled the drums sound from and Geoff took it and made a beat out of it so that came from his studio at home and they all work differently, really. And then we ship them along bit by bit. What we do is generally get a good idea first of all, whether it be a musical idea, generally, a backing track kind of idea and then get vocals on it, either a verse or a chorus or something and a couple of other ideas that we’re really buzzing on and we like and then we’ll leave that and move onto something else until we’ve written another bit of music. Then once we’ve got enough tracks we’ll work on them. It’s like they’re demos that you can then build on but, then, some of those demos become the main thing, they become the backbone of the track that you hear on the record.

About that, since 2004, how many times did the songs change? It seems like a lengthy and detailed process.
It’s a long time, isn’t it? It’s a long, long time. Well, things do change. I mean, there’s a few things on there that have really changed a lot, like "Nylon Smile.” That was really an acoustic song that has really changed into something else, but still has the same melody and the same chordal implication that is really like a remix of it. Something like "The Rip” was really like a folk song, first of all, just for the guitar and a voice and we had so many ideas on that and so many things that evolved over the time that we were doing it and then discarded and, then, it moved onto where it is now. Some of these songs have many lives, if you like. They become something and they flower and then they go back to how they were and become re-invented again. This is why I think it takes long. There are things that we could have said, "That’s cool, let’s go with that” but along the route, you know you can do better, so that’s why it takes longer.

That leads into the question of when do you stop? How do you decide when to stop?
When you feel it is actually saying what you need it to say and you’ve got no more ideas left. Sometimes you don’t have any ideas, we’re sitting around in a desperate state of frustration not being able to get any ideas. I mean, we’re not prolific, I know it’s an obvious thing to say [laughs], but it really is just frustrating because of the Dogme-esque type manifesto that – we don’t have a real Dogme manifesto, but it’s a bit like that – binds us to what we will and what we won’t do and that can be very difficult to transcend sometimes.

I’m interested in the song "Deep Water”; it’s one of my favourites on the album since it’s both similar to what you’ve done before and quite unlike anything you’ve done before.
That’s quite interesting. We squabbled quite a lot about that, I thought it shit for quite a long time [laughs]. I thought it was a shit idea and I played the ukulele on it and worked out the chords and stuff but it was kind of based on a thing from Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Geoff suggested it and I just thought he was joking, but I think it’s cool now. I’m not the person to talk to about that, because I couldn’t really see it’s place on our record at all and I couldn’t see it in an ironic way and I couldn’t see it… I shouldn’t be slagging off that stuff, should I? But, I really like it now and I love the song that Beth has written on it now, but at the time I couldn’t see it and I couldn’t see it even in a kind of Moe Tucker "I’m Sticking With You” type way, either.

I love the placement of it, since it’s between "Machine Gun” and "We Carry On,” so it’s like a palette cleanser…
Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean, it’s like a sorbet, isn’t it? [Laughs] It’s just harsh around it, isn’t it? There is a kind of an oasis in the middle of it there. I’m glad you like it, I glad you like it.

That leads into my next question, or with "Machine Gun” and "We Carry On,” they seem to break so much from the past stuff that you’ve done, like using these heavy beats. Was it just a natural thing that you liked or was it an intentional break from what you did before?
One of the rules in our manifesto is to not do what we’ve done before but another rule is to remain true to ourselves, so we wouldn’t want to make dubstep music because that’s currently fashionable. It would have to be a continuation of where we are and where we’ve always been. I think that’s what we have got now. When Dummy first came out, or when we finished it before it even came out, all of us thought that "That’s a pretty fucking weird record to release.” We had a slight trepidation, well, not really, but I think we were obviously into it but you didn’t how it was going to be received. I think we’ve always tried to be experimental and forward, pushing the sonic boundaries a little bit and I think this is kind of the same road we’ve always been on, just a hell of a lot further along it, do you know what I mean? And our influences are quite different now then they were then but, in a strange way, very similar as well. It feels very honest for us to do this record.

Yeah, I agree as you still have that same atmosphere.
That’s a big part of what we do really. You mention atmosphere and that is really very much a part of what we try and do, or that every song has its own atmosphere and its own world to live in, really.

Now, so far down the road, what do you think of that tag "trip-hop”? Did it ever make sense to you?
No, not at all. It’s extremely odd and it doesn’t really mean anything. It became a sort of media thing, like grunge, or Britpop, or whatever. A name to define a genre, really, well, not even a genre… I don’t know. There’s a great big mythology about Bristol and the music scene and the trip-hop thing and it’s really irrelevant actually. It always was, but, now, thank god it’s kind of gone. We don’t hear that word happening too much anymore.

How does it feel to be doing this all over again? Exciting? Tiring?
It’s quite mad to be honest. I can see how we were broken after we came out of 1998 because we do take control of everything we do, like merchandise, the sound of the record, all the stuff we do, so it can be pretty exhausting looking at all those areas of it and then doing press. I mean, we don’t mind doing it because that’s what we’re here to do but I think to some extent you have to protect yourself, which is kind of why we haven’t gone touring for too long. You know, I think it’s cool and it’s certainly sounds good live and it’s enjoyable to some extent although it’s also terrifying at the same time as well. In some weird way when we came back to play, I think the first gig was Porto [in Portugal] that we played at and it didn’t feel like we’d been away really. It seemed really odd. We have all the same band and the same crew and it’s back to "Whoa,” like you blinked and you’re back here again, you know. It’s weird really.

Weird in a good way, weird in a bad way?
Well, I think weird in a good way, I think it is, but, to be honest, I’m not enjoying being away from home as Geoff and I have kids now and stuff and that’s not so enjoyable to be away from but it kind of focuses that energy live in a different way. Yeah, it’s good, I mean I love playing and it’s an important part of the thing you want to do. Sometimes it’s not nice and sometimes it’s great, you know.

Thanks! That’s all the questions I have.
Great. Sorry we’re not coming to Canada.

That’s okay, we’re patient. We can wait another, what is it? Eleven years?
Yeah, yeah, there you go [laughs]. We’ll see what happens in the future. We’re just being careful about touring right now and not doing too much stuff.

Obviously your priorities have changed over the years and that’s natural.
They have and, also, making more records is kind of more important in a way, to us, than touring. And it’s really important to go to Canada, to go to Poland, to go to America, to go Russia, to go to Australia, all these things, but we’re not doing it for the moment. I know it’s important but we’ve made that decision that we’re not going to, for now, as making records is important. (Universal)