When Geoff Barrow started doing remixes and creating backing tracks for Neneh Cherry, the fact that he wasn’t himself working under a band name led many people to refer to him simply as “the guy from Portishead.” The name stuck, so when he teamed up with vocalist Beth Gibbons to focus on his own music, the project was named Portishead
Portishead’s debut album, “Dummy” has an unusual sound that brings together hip-hop influences with sampling and elements of jazz. There’s a dark retro feel thoughout which provides an interesting contrast to the hip-hop beats and scratching. While sampling old records plays a role in achieving this sound, for the most part Portishead sampled and manipulated their own playing.
“There’s about four tracks on there where we’ve taken samples from other places, which we wrote down and gave credit to,” explains Barrow. “The other ones are actually a cross between programmed beats, taking a live break an chopping it up, putting it back together and putting it through processors to make it sound older. The guitar parts are usually live, and the organ parts are usually samples, the same with the drums. But it’s us playing them live, and then sampling them.”
While Barrow and vocalist Beth Gibbons are the ones that “signed on the dotted line,” there are others with key roles in the band. Dave McDonald is the groups engineer, while Adrian Utley plays guitar and does production work. Portishead have used many different keyboardists and drummers, but for the live shows they use musicians from Utley’s own jazz band. For live shows, the group is able to use completely live instrumentation, with no samplers, while still sounding similar to the album.
The actual song writing comes from Barrow and Gibbons. Barrow will put together the backing tracks, give a tape to Gibbons so she can come up with vocals, and then the two will work more collaboratively to finish the songs.
Portishead took a unique approach to making a promotional video, as they started out with a 10 minute film. This film, “To Kill A Dead Man,” features an entirely original instrumental score. The hip-hop influence that permeates “Dummy” is absent from the soundtrack, and footage from the film was used in their “Sour Times” video.
“The film we did not as a major kind of ‘film classic,’ we just wanted to do something that was interesting,” explains Geoff. “There’s an awful lot of money wasted on pop videos, and in England the film scene is so weak, the amount of money invested in British films is disgusting, really. And because of that, we though if we’ve got the money, why should we do something that is so standard? We had this opportunity to make a film, so we thought let’s do it. The film is quite strange, only because we don’t know how to act! It’s basically a cliche of every Italian spy, kind of cold war French thriller known to man. There isn’t any dialogue, so basically we walk around like cardboard cutouts, which gives it a really odd vibe. So there’s no expression in the film.”
Despite their interest in film music, Portishead don’t see themselves as a particularly visual live band. In the future, they’d like to change that, but Barrow says that now they’re too involved with the music to worry about it.
Barrow says that the group would like to get more into film music in the future, but it would have to be on their own terms.
“The trouble is that when you do a soundtrack for a company, unless they totally love what you do, you don’t have a free rein,” he explains .”I wouldn’t be interested. We’re not a very great band on compromise, so it would be difficult, I think.”
Portishead already have about a dozen song ideas for their next album, though they are unsure what direction the music will take in terms of sound.