Published Apr 28, 2008Highly 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 thats almost electro folk in its simplicity. "We Carry On is the standout track because its industrial beats arent 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. Its just Gibbons voice, carrying all her imaginary weight, and simple, expert musicianship. And, really, beyond all the hype, thats 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 dont live that far from each other and we always hang out and I dont think theres a day or week that I havent spoken to Geoff [Barrow] or Beth [Gibbons], really. Were always hanging around and stuff so I dont know how it started really, I really dont. I cant remember at all. I know suddenly we were in my house, or my studio and were 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 were going to do and how were going to do stuff and we have goals even though its been absolutely ages and stuff, but Ive got a pretty comprehensive studio in my house and it meant that we could just get on with stuff and it didnt cost us loads of money to be in rented studios or anything. We could just be experimental and do what we want and its full of brilliant instruments and all sorts of stuff. So, yeah, its cool. And we get on.
Well, youve known each other a long time.
Yeah, yeah. I guess, some days arent good as other days and being at home is something of a distraction as well even though its kind of separate-ish from the house. I dont 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 Im the one going about my studio and my house so I dont 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. Therell 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 its not particularly well-known. I dont remember who it is, it was just a sound that we liked and we thought Well lets 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 were really buzzing on and we like and then well leave that and move onto something else until weve written another bit of music. Then once weve got enough tracks well work on them. Its like theyre 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.
Its a long time, isnt it? Its a long, long time. Well, things do change. I mean, theres 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, "Thats cool, lets go with that but along the route, you know you can do better, so thats 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 youve got no more ideas left. Sometimes you dont have any ideas, were sitting around in a desperate state of frustration not being able to get any ideas. I mean, were not prolific, I know its an obvious thing to say [laughs], but it really is just frustrating because of the Dogme-esque type manifesto that we dont have a real Dogme manifesto, but its a bit like that binds us to what we will and what we wont do and that can be very difficult to transcend sometimes.
Im interested in the song "Deep Water; its one of my favourites on the album since its both similar to what youve done before and quite unlike anything youve done before.
Thats 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 Martins The Jerk. Geoff suggested it and I just thought he was joking, but I think its cool now. Im not the person to talk to about that, because I couldnt really see its place on our record at all and I couldnt see it in an ironic way and I couldnt see it I shouldnt 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 couldnt see it and I couldnt see it even in a kind of Moe Tucker "Im Sticking With You type way, either.
I love the placement of it, since its between "Machine Gun and "We Carry On, so its like a palette cleanser
Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean, its like a sorbet, isnt it? [Laughs] Its just harsh around it, isnt it? There is a kind of an oasis in the middle of it there. Im 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 youve 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 weve done before but another rule is to remain true to ourselves, so we wouldnt want to make dubstep music because thats currently fashionable. It would have to be a continuation of where we are and where weve always been. I think thats 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 "Thats 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 didnt how it was going to be received. I think weve always tried to be experimental and forward, pushing the sonic boundaries a little bit and I think this is kind of the same road weve 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.
Thats 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. Its extremely odd and it doesnt 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 dont know. Theres a great big mythology about Bristol and the music scene and the trip-hop thing and its really irrelevant actually. It always was, but, now, thank god its kind of gone. We dont hear that word happening too much anymore.
How does it feel to be doing this all over again? Exciting? Tiring?
Its 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 dont mind doing it because thats what were here to do but I think to some extent you have to protect yourself, which is kind of why we havent gone touring for too long. You know, I think its cool and its certainly sounds good live and its enjoyable to some extent although its 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 didnt feel like wed been away really. It seemed really odd. We have all the same band and the same crew and its back to "Whoa, like you blinked and youre back here again, you know. Its 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, Im not enjoying being away from home as Geoff and I have kids now and stuff and thats not so enjoyable to be away from but it kind of focuses that energy live in a different way. Yeah, its good, I mean I love playing and its an important part of the thing you want to do. Sometimes its not nice and sometimes its great, you know.
Thanks! Thats all the questions I have.
Great. Sorry were not coming to Canada.
Thats okay, were patient. We can wait another, what is it? Eleven years?
Yeah, yeah, there you go [laughs]. Well see what happens in the future. Were just being careful about touring right now and not doing too much stuff.
Obviously your priorities have changed over the years and thats natural.
They have and, also, making more records is kind of more important in a way, to us, than touring. And its 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 were not doing it for the moment. I know its important but weve made that decision that were not going to, for now, as making records is important. (Universal)