Portishead's Geoff Barrow gives us the lowdown on his new Judge Dredd-inspired synth project, DROKK.
Geoff Barrow may have spent some time in the wilderness after the release of Portishead's eponymous second album, but since the equal parts stunning and challenging return the band achieved with Third he has regained his passion for making music, and has been involved in a wealth of new projects, bringing his own Invada label back to the UK, helping to curate All Tomorrow's Parties, and making three new collaborative albums.
The forty-one track hip-hop project he released with Australian producer Katalyst and long-time Portishead-affiliate 7Stu7, under the name Quakers, debuted last month on Stones Throw, to widespread acclaim. He also has a new album with his experimental band BEAK> dropping in June. But perhaps the most fascinating project he's been involved in of late is DROKK, a collaboration with score composer Ben Salisbury, conceived as a concept album about that most celebrated of British comics characters, Judge Dredd.
With a big-budget film adaptation of Judge Dredd being released this year, the project is well-timed, but as Barrow tells us, it all grew out of his lifelong passion for British sci-fi comic book institution 2000AD. The Skinny caught up with Barrow to find out about the surprising origins of DROKK, the genesis of the epic Quakers album, and what the future holds for Portishead.
How did the making of DROKK compare with the other albums you've been involved in over the years?
It was a very pleasurable experience making DROKK. There aren't many records I've made which I could say were truly pleasurable experiences, but this one was. It came together really easily, it was cool.
Did you and Ben Salisbury have a good working relationship?
Yeah, we had known each other not in a professional sense, just as mates – we played football together. We're from very different musical backgrounds, really, but we kept saying we would have to get together on something, so we had that possibility in the back of our minds for a long time. Ben comes from a soundtrack background: he understands working to picture incredibly well. I come from a completely different place when it comes to music, having worked on much more traditional, song-based stuff, and eventually finding my way towards working on much more experimental arrangements, but never really working with pictures, with film. But I had always thought that would be a fun thing to do. So we started talking about things... strangely enough I was working on the Banksy film [Exit Through The Gift Shop], and I was talking to him over a pint after football about working to picture. I was the music supervisor on that project: I made some tunes to go in the film, rather than actually writing a score.
Ben and I had agreed that we had to work together, and then we were approached with the opportunity to do a film score as a project, with the idea of it being synth-based. We began working with some traditional elements too, like strings and stuff like that, but really messing around with them, time-stretching them really far, to create a different kind of vibe. So, the project for the film didn't really work out, but we just kind of kept on going! Because of the type of music that it was, and because I've always been a 2000AD fan, it just made sense to connect it with 2000AD and Mega-City One. So, we went to see the guys at 2000AD, and they were up for the concept and supported it.
So, just to be clear, there's no connection between DROKK and the forthcoming movie Dredd, with Karl Urban?
No, there's no connection now, no.
That was the first thing that struck us, listening to DROKK – how powerful the music you and Ben created would be, if twinned with the right visual, artistic interpretation of the Judge Dredd universe. Was there any point at which you were tempted to try and get in touch with the filmmakers, and see if anything could be done to join the two projects?
Well, basically, that was the film we were working on. It didn't work out, for lots of different reasons. Because the film's still in production, and there's massive secrecy around the project, I'd rather not go into it. One thing I can say is that it was an absolutely brilliant experience: I became good friends with [Dredd script writer] Alex Garland. The film is going to be fucking brilliant. Categorically, there is absolutely no bad feeling between us and any of the filmmakers. It was just a project which didn't work out, but Ben and I decided to carry on with the project in a different form. But the relationship with the film-makers and with Alex is so good, that there's no way I would want people to think there was any kind of problem between us.
Is there any small part of you that secretly hopes that, once the film's out, someone might take it and remix it, using the music you created for DROKK?
No, not at all! It's not that kind of feeling that I have towards the film, y'know what I mean? The only feelings I have towards the film are massively positive. It's not like they didn't use our music, and we're angry or disappointed, it's not that kind of vibe. At all. That's all I can really say about it. But I am massively looking forward to the film.
In the process of making the album you used quite a lot of vintage synthesizers and analogue equipment. Can you take us through the kit you used?
Well, I'm not someone like Ade [Adrian Utley, of Portishead] or Will Gregory, or Robert Moog, y'know what I mean! I'm not some kind of super synth-head. But I have bought a synth, I've used it a lot over the years, and I've always been a massive fan of people like John Carpenter; early electronic stuff like Delia Derbyshire; right through to stuff like The Human League, and lots of unknown stuff – random electronic records. Because of the history of the synth-based stuff that Portishead have done, I had always wanted to do a soundtrack like that, or a record like that.
A few years ago, I did a project which never came out, which was just me and a synth. It was just literally me in a bedroom, with a synth going, and a bit of singing or whatever. I've never released it, but I've always been really into it. After working with Ade for years, and doing the BEAK> stuff, working with Matt Williams, who is Team Brick... he's a really good player. If you get a really good player on a good synth, it's just amazing. A lot of people think that once you get the sound right on a synth, you're gonna be fine. You end up with a nice squelchy sound, or whatever. But when you get someone who can really play it... it's just shocking. Someone who knows what they're doing with delays and synths. That's what's been incredible about working with Matt from BEAK>. So, I'd got this synth.
I'd been looking for one which had an on-board sequencer: something you don't have to play like an expert to be able to write sequences. Pure sequences – eight notes, and four oscillators, that was the idea. That's kind of a dream come true. So as soon as I got this Oberheim Two-Voice, which Ade helped me find, basically I went and bought another one [laughs]. I just kind of went: 'It's not enough! I want more!' So I bought another one, and then Ben bought one. There's a photograph which will be on the album of us with our three Two-Voice synths. Which essentially means we've got a Sixteen Voice. They're not linked up – it just means you can have two sequences running, then you can have four different oscillators playing chords. It was just a really exciting thing to do. I was always inspired by 2000AD musically anyway: once we linked up the synths, it just seemed like the perfect thing to do with them, like a continuation of 2000AD in music. It all fit into place. It fit like Cinderella's bloody slipper [laughs].
So it sounds like a lot of the collaboration for DROKK happened in real-time, face-to-face?
Yeah. Ben's just a great writer. Not just a great writer, you should never say that about anybody, but he is an astonishingly good music writer. I've got a bit of history of being slightly harsh about the way I like music to sound. So that is what really worked well, his ability to write – to say 'no, we don't need to over-complicate a part. That's what I really like about working with old gear, it gives you these incredible restrictions. It's very different from using a software synth. I'm really lucky, right – I've sold records, so I can afford to buy an old synth. But to be honest, it doesn't really cost that much money. People say you've got to be a multimillionaire to buy vintage gear, but that's crap really. You can buy a synth for the price of a second-hand car. If you;re that devoted to it, then you can get one, d'you know what I mean? It's not like... I mean, obviously if people are fucking completely skint and haven't got money to feed the kids, then they aren't gonna buy a fucking synth! [Laughs]
So I was incredibly lucky, I bought these snyths. But if you use a soft synth, you can just keep on adding channels. You can just keep adding another sequencer, attach it to that, link it to this, and keep on going. That's the way it is with virtual gear: it doesn't exist, d'you know what I mean? I think it ends up sounding too top-y, too bottom-y. Too lush. Whereas the best thing about our synths is they sound quite cranky. They're really heavy. They've got a sound that is fairly pure. There's only one post-production effect on the whole album. I just took a direct input from out the back of the synth into the desk, and recorded it, because I wanted it to be as pure as possible. The user restrictions of only having two sounds forces you to actually write a melody. I mean, when you use an orchestra, you can have violas going, you can have so many different things. With a synth, the bassline goes: 'Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo' and the line goes across that, then a note goes across that... you've got to write it.
So are you an analogue gear addict now?
I've always been an analogue gear head, I came up that way really. All of Dummy was recorded on an Akai S1000 sampler. But honestly, I don't really care what gear you use – I'm not a gear snob by any means. It's just that I think, sometimes modern technology gives you the option to do so much, that you lose the simplicity of ideas, you lose the ability to tell what is a good sound.
Did you find yourself going back to the 2000AD comics you had read when you were growing up when writing the album?
Yeah, I did. It's such a strong memory for me: it's ingrained in my brain. It's really, really important – part of my formative years. 2000AD is as important to me as Public Enemy, and Eric B & Rakim. 2000AD is kind of weird, because when I was growing up, you were either into hip-hop or you were into Iron Maiden, and you were a metaller. There were two sides. If you think about what 2000AD was talking about, and when it came out, it was a really brilliant, fascinating social commentary. It's like what Star Trek was in the sixties in America. It was that, to Thatcher's Britain, and in a weekly comic, which is really weird. Brilliant writing and art. And Judge Dredd, he's an asshole, isn't he, really?
Did you ever read the storyline 'Demo Crazy?' Dredd framed the leading democratic figure in Mega-City One; they set up all this shit to frame him and send him down. I mean, as a kid you might think the Judges are the good guys, but... Yeah, it's an important thing for me. I was dyslexic, so it was the one kind of thing I could read that was fairly grown-up. I mean for me, from sixteen, music took over. I just stopped reading everything. But 2000AD has always been part of the music I make. Always.
There's a certain dystopian element to all of the music you've made over the years, from Portishead to BEAK>, so it makes sense that you would choose Dredd as an inspiration, rather than, say, Superman.
Yeah, because it's never that easy, is it? It's never that cut and dried. Same with the X-Men. In these stories there are always consequences, and the good guys are never really the good guys.
What are your ambitions for DROKK in terms of what audience you hope it will reach?
You know what, it's really strange, because DROKK will be the second record I've released this year... I'm releasing three albums, which I've been part of, in the space of three months. There's Quakers, the hip-hop project which came out on Stonesthrow, DROKK, and then BEAK> have got a new album out in June. I'm just massively enjoying making music. All three albums took different lengths of time to make: DROKK took three months, the BEAK> album took two years, and the Quakers record took four years on and off, because of other projects and stuff. I haven't really thought about audiences, or anything like that. I mean, doing Invada [Barrow's record label] and stuff like that, you don't really think about it. Anyone who digs it, that's cool. It doesn't matter what the situation is, or what they're into. I'm lucky enough to be able to sell records at the moment, so I just sit back and enjoy it.
I mean, the thing with the Quakers record is that it just is what it says on the tin. It's a hip-hop record. It's not trying to break any new ground, or whatever. It's the music we grew up liking and making, and it's a continuation of that.
Has there ever been a time where you've felt it was really difficult to move forward with musical projects?
Well, after the second Portishead record I kind of quit music. I didn't have any love for music. I didn't like the people I was meeting through music. It's that weird thing... that was the time during the mid-nineties, up to the early 2000s, where dance music was just so dominant. I just thought the whole thing was so full of assholes. I mean, dance music is full of good people too... There were really fucking cool people in some basement in Detroit, just making music, but that was completely screwed by people with big sunglasses and egos. It was all just really dark; horrible drugs, that whole thing. The easiness of just looping something up. I actually never thought I'd go back to making a generic hip-hop record, because I was just done with that. Done with loops, done with chopping audio. I just thought, 'Christ, there's no art to it.' But then one artist that came through for me was Madlib. He completely side-stepped hip-hop, and by doing that he took it forwards.
Anyway, I went to Australia and for a time I just didn't want to do a lot of music. I did a record with Stephanie McKay [2003's McKay, which Barrow co-produced and co-wrote], and it took a long time to make. It was a soul record. It was fairly confused, I must admit. I didn't quite know what I was doing. I thought at the time that was the right thing to do – just make a soul record. Forget about making clever music or any of that, just make a straight-up soul record. I thought the album was alright, but afterwards I just felt like I couldn't do anything like that ever again. It wasn't because she was bad, it was just a bad experience in the music industry for me. We were on Go! Beat with that record, and then it got passed over to Polydor. I mean, by that point I'd been in the business for quite a while, and I started to see what the major label side of it started to turn into... I'd been signed to majors for years, and I didn't really know indies, not really. I kind of wish I had.
You had a situation where the head of marketing was this twenty-three year-old woman, for whom it was all about just kind of... hanging out. It was all bullshit. [Laughs] I went for a meeting with her one day, and she was like: “Oh yeah my brother does these drum and bass remixes... why don't you get him to do one of them?” I was like, 'Are you fucking joking? You're trying to sell me your fucking brother, who's never done a proper mix before, as a way of promoting this record?' I just switched off from the music industry altogether really, until I reformed Invada in England with Fat Paul, and we released albums like Gonga, and found a completely different, wicked fucking energy, with people that were real. It took me back to that whole amazing Public Enemy and Judge Dredd feel, you know what I mean? I found a way through in my writing, to not use beats and loops so much. I would put something together in the studio, but if it sounded anything like hip-hop or dance music, loop-based, I'd just want to smash the fuck out of it. I would have no interest in it whatsoever. It was depressing.
But eventually things started to come together. I was just into a whole different kind of music, listening to a lot of Can, experimental music, doom stuff like Sunn O))) and Earth. Then we got involved with All Tomorrow's Parties, and it was just like, fucking hell, there is a world out there that is real after all. I mean, Portishead had a load of success, and we were just in this weird place where people would talk to us about projects. They'd say, oh yeah, you could work with this artist, or remix this, all because it's fashionable... And I was just thinking, 'what the fuck? I don't wanna do that!'
Portishead were unfairly lumped in with trip-hop, with the likes of DJ Shadow. Even the very talented artists in that 'genre' were treated as coffee table, background music, but that's never seemed to be what Portishead were about...
Yeah, I mean, obviously Shadow's a really talented dude. But then there was a fucking load of shit, people copying him, which came afterwards. Portishead are just three very different people who work together, but ultimately we hear when something turns us on musically, and that's usually something similar, even though we come from very different walks of life. But nevertheless, writing a Portishead tune is always incredibly difficult. We try and aspire to the things that turn us on. That could be some mad classical thing, or can, or Silver Apples, or Delia Derbyshire or Leonard Cohen. People like that are true innovators and incredible songwriters, and we're just people... so to set ourselves the task of being as good as that, well... it's quite a task. Whether we reach that level or not, I don't know, but it's something we feel we have to attempt.
Back at the start of your career with Portishead, there were people who wanted to set up a kind of Blur vs. Oasis style opposition between your band and Massive Attack. You were always very different bands with very different processes and techniques...
Totally, yeah. I mean, I worked with those guys years and years ago. Like I've said elsewhere, I was the guy who made their sandwiches! [Laughs] Massive Attack was British soul music, proper street soul, and I don't mean 'street soul' in any derogatory way to them. The way their records were put together, the early ones especially, I mean.... Blue Lines is a masterpiece. So yeah, it draws on completely different things. I can remember them not liking Beth's voice at all, and that was kind of understandable, because she wasn't a soul singer as such. Massive Attack are really wicked guys, so I don't see why they would pitch us together, other than the fact we're both from Bristol.
Is Bristol, and the cultural diversity of the city, still a big influence on your work?
Well, I only go there to shop at Marks & Spencers now, and to pick the kids up from their posh school. [Laughs] I am older, I don't go out to clubs, I've done a couple of gigs. But I don't think I've ever been a club person. A lot of the music that's made there was made in people's houses, or in production rooms. I think the whole dubstep scene in Bristol now is a lot more open... but I don't know anything about it really, I could be talking completely out of my ass. You probably know more about it than I do.
Let's talk about Quakers. That felt like it was a long-distance collaboration – three producers, thirty-five emcees, from several different countries and time zones...
It was a drunken MySpace record! [Laughs]
There's a real contrast: some tracks went in a heavy, synth-led direction, and a lot were straight-up hip-hop. How did that work out, was it difficult to keep it cohesive as a project?
No, it was very easy, very simple. Ashley [Anderson, aka Katalyst] took control of the engineering-stroke-compiling duties. It's all on his hard drive. There's beats from years ago, beats put together the last week before we handed it over to Stones Throw. It was genuinely a MySpace record – it was conceived online, with a bottle of wine or six, finding emcees who were cool, or people who were coming through town – Ashley is a promoter in Australia, so he knows a lot about who is touring and when, so we'd go backstage and chat to them.
It was a nice feeling – we just wanted to stay away from the whole thing of approaching managers and saying: 'The bloke from Portishead wants to make a hip-hop record.' We weren't interested in that. So we just went to people who we heard, and who we liked. They downloaded beats from MySpace, recorded their lyrics and sent the files back. Or we said 'Have you got a mate with a decent mic, or can you go into a studio, and we'll pay for the studio time.' It wasn't supposed to be forty tracks... it was just supposed to be a record which keeps smashing you with different ideas. For me it really came from a guy called Boca 45 [aka Scott Hendy, a legendary Bristol DJ]. He's one of my best mates, and one of the best club DJs I've ever seen. If you wanna go out, get smashed, and hear some really brilliant tunes put together in a relentless way – just dropping them and dropping them – he is the best DJ out there. He used to be a resident DJ at Dojo in Bristol on a Friday, and he had this style where he would drop a tune, go into the first verse, play the chorus and then drop into another tune. He's got musical ADD really. But it worked!
At what point did Stones Throw get involved with Quakers, and was there any pressure or obligation to use their emcees?
I wouldn't call it pressure! We just said: 'Yes please!' I knew Chris [Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw founder] years ago, through Andy Smith. I talked to him a few times about stuff. We kept chatting, and then eventually the Anika record went through Stones Throw. We got chatting again then, and I said I was working on a hip-hop record, and he was definitely interested. I really like the hip-hop stuff on Stones Throw, but I really like the other stuff as well – stuff like Jonwayne, that newer side of the label that's really confusing people. They're really nice people at Stones Throw, and we met up when I was touring with Anika, and again when we were touring with Portishead. Where they're going as a label now, I just think it's really, really good.
It really felt like you were using fresh breaks – like you'd managed to capture the crate-digging ethos of Madlib and Dilla.
There's kind of two schools of thought in hip-hop. There are guys who will take a beat that's been looped up the same way before, again and again: they take the beat from Eric B Is President but do something different with it. Primo is the master of that. But I've always gravitated towards the more out there stuff. All three of us have really, as producers: we prefer stuff with really interesting samples. In the mid to late eighties, if I bought an album by someone like Lord Finesse or someone and heard the loop from 'Funky Drummer' I'd be like, aww, couldn't they find something else? But that was part of the Quakers project, it showed me how little I did actually know about true hip-hop culture. [Laughs]
Did the synth-led material you were producing for DROKK influence Quakers at all?
All three projects have kind of rolled into each other. There's a track on Quakers that loops a BEAK> track, for example. They're all synced. There are synth parts on the new BEAK> album that people will think sounds like DROKK. It's all one big mashup. The people I'm working with all dig their gear.
Can you tell us when we might hear more from Portishead?
We have some shows coming up, mostly in Europe rather than in the UK. England's such a weird country. [Laughs] It would be so depressing, the state of festivals over here. It's one step from being the radio One fucking Roadshow, innit? I mean there's some great stuff too, don't get me wrong. But it's just gotten to the point where, like, there were a few festivals Portishead played last time that had been taken over by British companies... and it was like, 'Why the fuck are we playing next to Mika?' It all went down well, but you kind of go... and I'm not trying to show disrespect to Mika, obviously people love him, but... oh man.
But then again, we did the gig at Alexandra Palace, and that was just fantastic. We're so lucky to be able to do those events, with the full band. But in terms of new Portishead material, I've finished all of my other musical projects now. So I can concentrate on Portishead. I'm moving studios right now, and it's been a bit of a nightmare – it looks like a studio, but nobody's done any soundproofing, so the people upstairs just hear everything. So I've got to work on that, and then just bash in to the new Portishead stuff. The fourth album is definitely on it's way.