Page last updated at 07:41 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 08:41 UK

Persistence pays off for Portishead

By Stephen Dowling
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Portishead
Portishead spent four years recording their latest album

In 1994, a three-piece band from Bristol released their debut album - and became the flagbearers of a new brand of late-night, atmospheric electronica, heavy on spy-film strings and slow, languid beats.

That album, Dummy, mixed samples from old jazz records alongside DJ scratches, snatches of Lalo Schifrin instrumentals, Isaac Hayes guitar riffs, skittering beats and the chilling voice of frontwoman Beth Gibbons.

In a music scene suddenly obsessed with plundering the rinky-dink piano riffs of The Kinks and the simpler end of The Beatles' canon, Portishead's debut was an intriguing alternative.

Within months, they became one of Britain's biggest cult bands, a three-headed collective built around Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and self-confessed hip-hop obsessive Geoff Barrow.

Decade-long silence

Dummy became an unexpected hit and won 1995's Mercury Prize for the best British or Irish album of the year.

By 1997, when their self-titled second album came out, things were even more widescreen and menacing. The strong follow-up was itself followed by a live release - complete with orchestra - recorded in New York.

Portishead in Bristol (taken by Orynthia Thomas)
The trio have played only occasional gigs over the past decade

And then? Burnt out from a year-long tour that saw them headline festivals to crowds of 50,000, Portishead took some serious time out.

Speaking amidst gulps of Earl Grey tea in a London hotel, Utley admits Portishead had pushed themselves too far.

"Those years were quite dark," he admits.

"There was no sense of 'right, let's do another record' - there absolutely wasn't. We were absolutely exhausted."

On top of that, both Utley and Barrow's marriages had ended. "Our lives had gone into meltdown," the guitarist adds.

"There were times when I thought, 'This is not going to happen,'" he says.

"We had Nick Gatfield, our MD from Island [the band's record label], come down and listen to seven tracks. We said we'd meet him in a couple of months, we'd have a load more tracks and we'd pretty much be there.

"And almost exactly a year later we had six tracks."

It's taken probably four years to do - it's just the way it worked this time, when we've got kids and stuff, life's a bit more chaotic
Adrian Utley

While Utley points out the band never felt like giving up and always felt Third would see the light of day, progress was painstaking. There were sessions in Australia which were encouraging but didn't result in any songs. Gibbons took time out to make another record, Rustin Man, and toured it.

In an industry built around a two-year cycle between albums - three if your band's called Radiohead - the delay is certainly out of the ordinary.

"It's taken probably four years to do; it's just the way it worked this time. When we've got kids and stuff, life's a bit more chaotic this time," Utley explains.

"It's our difficulty in getting things to the stage where we're happy with them."

But ultimately he is happy Third was not assembled too easily.

"The more we mould together, the less interesting the music will be, we've got to keep that jaggedy edge."

For the most part, Third breaks away from the downtempo feel of the first two records in favour of something much darker. Tracks such as the post-punk flavoured The Rip sound like the work of another band.

"All of the things came out of - as always with Portishead - a hard road that we walk, without composition or structure of music," says Utley. "It's painful and just difficult, really."

'A journey'

What has emerged is an album very much out of step with its predecessors. The opener, Silence, bursts out of the blocks with cowbells, pounding tribal percussion, doom-laden strings and psychedelically-distorted guitars.

Portishead
The group's songs include Sour Times, Numb and Glory Box

"That song, like many, had a life before it is as you hear it. It was just a really beautiful song that Beth had written with some quite strange time signatures."

Geoff Barrow ended up creating the pounding tribal drum rhythm. It's unlike anything on their first two records.

"That's what we're always trying to strive to do," Utley says.

"We might have something that simple as an idea, and we're trying to find a reason for it to live and go ahead. It's a journey. There are mad, improvised things we edited too."

He adds: "I think within us we have kind of manifesto. It's an unwritten one... it's like a Dogma film manifesto. We can break the rules because we know them."

He sums up the group's dynamic as "bits that don't fit". He says it is "those little conflicts that make things interesting".

The band unveiled several of the new album's songs in December to fans at the All Tomorrow's Party mini-festival in the UK, and the results, Utley says, were promising.

"When we played the new tracks, it seemed like they were more into them than they were into the old ones."

Portishead's UK tour starts on 9 April. They will preview their new material on Current TV from 11 April with the album, Third, released on 28 April.


SEE ALSO
Portishead 'feared unfinished LP'
13 Mar 08 |  Entertainment
Portishead announce comeback gigs
22 May 07 |  Entertainment
Portishead back after eight years
18 Jan 05 |  Entertainment

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