Portishead's Geoff Barrow Gets His BEAK> On

Already loaded with his own label, some band called Portishead and a number of other recording personas, surely the last thing Geoff Barrow needs is another creative outlet? BEAK> says no.

Feature by Dave Kerr | 07 Dec 2009

Since weathering the dreaded block to play his part in Portishead’s triumphant Third coming last year, there was no such agonising over Geoff Barrow’s latest project. This month he returns to the drum stool and keyboard to tour the results of whirlwind sessions with new band Beak>.

Written, recorded live and edited on-the-fly over the course of twelve days in January, the trio’s debut – the two other constituent parts being Billy Fuller of psych-rock nomads Fuzz Against Junk and Matt ‘Team Brick’ Williams – is as much homage to the progenitors of Krautrock as a throwback to no-frills DIY record production.

Speaking from his studio, Barrow riffs on his appeal as a producer. Having remixed everyone from Gravediggaz to Gabrielle in his early career, to producing one of the most acclaimed albums of the year in 2009 – The Horrors’ Primary Colours - his work ethic remains simple: “I’m the bloke you go to if you want something else. If you want to get on radio I’m not really that bloke…unless you want to get on radio because it doesn’t sound like anything else…”


Rather than call Timbaland, you mean?

Yeah, or any number of seasoned professionals who are brilliant in their work, but I just can’t bring my head to get into.

I remember reading an interview last year where you suggested “America’s music is dying” and singled out Timbaland’s attempt to find the new Coldplay in England as he struggled to enjoy his own beats. How do you feel about that now, what with Jay-Z being all over the airwaves again?

I must have been really pissed then. [Jay-Z] tried to call me once and I spoke to about fifteen different people, then I spoke to the person he was sitting next to in a car and they said ‘why are you calling?’ I just put the phone down. I think he’s wicked, though. I don’t like his slushy stuff, because I’m a fan of hip-hop rather than R&B, but things like 99 Problems are fucking immense. It’s basically him and Rick Rubin coming together and it’s like – fucking hell – that’s that, then.  I relate more to Nas really, I was listening to Get Down last night as I was doing the run to get the takeaway. Without the kids in the car you can turn it up really loud and pretend you’re young again. Fuck me, that’s an immense tune.  They’re both amazing. Nas has always got the props but never the commercial success, but that’s always the way isn’t it? It’s still possible, though, it does come out of America every now and again, but then the ridiculousness of its whole cash-based mentality when there are countries in such poverty...it just feels weird.    

I think he reached a commercial peak – well, certainly in the UK – when he worked with Puff Daddy. Remember the Hate Me Now video, with Diddy on the cross?

Yeah, I think it’s just wrong A&R choices probably. That’s usually the way to kill your act and your career: hook up with the wrong A&R dude.

So let’s talk about your new band, Beak>...


How and when did the project first take form?

It came about through – really – having last Christmas off, having a label [Invada] that Billy and Brickie are signed to. We played together at a thing called The Invada Acid Test two years ago with a load of other people from Invada - just this out there jam thing - for a Christmas party. I said to Bill ‘we should do something’ and Matt was the bit of the triangle we didn’t have. We just got together in a room. It was my studio. We didn’t talk about much, just set up the gear and started playing. The first tune that’s on the album is the first time we’d played together.

Really, I’m not a jamming man, I don’t like it. But I do like spontaneous writing. Jamming can be a funky groove with some bloke playing a sax solo for a couple of weeks, d’you know what I mean? So the idea of trying to write melodies, lyrics and sounds with a bit of drums, keyboard or bass and everyone being really aware that it’s right in its space – rather than everyone just piling in with their amps up to eleven, blasting it out – it’s just really nice. It was a good way of working; I think it was a bit of an antidote to my brain. Portishead did really big things that needed a certain amount of concentration, but this was different. Portishead was almost non-musical as soon as we’d done the record and this was just nothing but music.

Can you work like that on Portishead material?

Ade [Utley] and I have always jammed in that way, but I suppose I’m more of a producer and writer in Portishead, whereas in Beak I’m one part of three sides to it. I would like to think that me and Ade can get into a place like that when we play, but Portishead just seems like a different proposition for some reason.

The Beak> album carries a number of imperfections and glitches throughout, which I guess must be a symptom of the strict rules you gave the recording.  As a notorious perfectionist, are you happy with the outcome?

If you’ve got imperfections in your face it’s what makes character. I kind of think that with music that’s out there at the moment, there’s stuff with nice imperfections and that’s character for music. But with us that was never an issue really. That’s just what it is.

I’m really happy with it. There’s bits all three of us don’t like, I think, and then there’s the bits that we kind of do. I think there’s just a creative thing in your belly that you really want to get out, but there’s so much other stuff that surrounds music that - especially for me, because I run a label or I’m a music producer or whatever – just to become a drummer and shout a couple of lyrics out every now and again...it’s just really nice [laughs].

Much was made of the Krautrock tangent that Third took and you’ve made no bones about its influence on Beak>. Coming from a hip-hop background, when did music from that particular movement become an inspiration?

I only knew hip-hop when I was a kid, I’d played in rock bands as a drummer but I wasn’t versed in other music except the stuff I was sampling, which can lead you to interesting places. I remember Mark E Smith being interviewed on Radio One – God, times have changed haven’t they? – he was playing his top 10 tunes and stuck on Vitamin C by Can. This was around 1990. Listening to that track made me want to give up music, because I thought someone had created the most perfect music ever. I really did think ‘wow, here’s this guy who plays like James Brown jamming with Tribe Called Quest and there’s this guy singing over the top of it with the maddest organ.’ I thought they were a new band that I was about to fall in love with, and obviously it was Can. To me it’s always been that thing about blues. Julian Cope signed to our label and he wrote Krautrock Sampler. I remember him talking to me once about the idea of playing blues notes and not playing blues notes and how the Germans weren’t particularly influenced by American blues. As a musician you want to progress but often stop to think to yourself ‘this is blues progression, and that’s not.” You work out how people start coming from different angles and become absorbed in it.

Cope's definition of Krautrock is that the sound should appear as though it can can only have originated from Germany – ignoring blues progression, as you say, as well as jazz and ultimately any kind of rock’n’roll. Is it all discipline, or do you see cultural qualities in German cities mirrored by Bristol, that somehow spilled over into the music?

Not really, because I think Bristol has always been quite rootsy, for that matter I think Bristol and Liverpool are very similar. It’s punk and reggae that lead on to the pop group in Bristol. I see those similarities more in Manchester with Factory, New Order and all that stuff, the sounds coming out of Germany influenced that city much more.

Albums like Third and the recent Horrors album you co-produced has played some part in a renaissance for the genre over the last year or so. Who was egging on who?

All I did with the Horrors was tell them that they were good and that they’d written some decent tunes. And they just needed to record their demos properly – well, not properly, but they’d done it on a tape deck or something in their practice room. Craig Silvey did it with me and he recorded it really, really well and that was it. They’re really musically savvy, they’re massive record collectors. They turned me onto a lot more music than I turned them onto while I was there, and thoughts have wings.

You're about to make your live debut with Beak> in Cologne, is that right?

Well, technically we played a record shop in Berlin. We went out and did interviews in Paris and Berlin, got on an Easyjet flight and put synths in a suitcase. There’s a place there called SpaceHall, and we thought ‘well what’s the point of chatting? And just did it. We didn’t play with a PA though, so this’ll be the first time we’ll have played in front of paying punters through a PA, doing the pretend rock’n’roll stuff.

Any nerves?

No, it’s really calm actually, it’s a really small set up and really un-rock’n’roll and sketchy. It’s not a show. If we had our own way we’d be playing somewhere that didn’t have lights and just bring it down to the bare bones of the music rather than that other side of it. It’s just the three of us. I play drums and do a bit of singing, Bill plays bass and me and Brickie swap over instruments, I play keyboard on a track or two.

Is Portishead still everything you need it to be?

Yes, that’s the ultimate one. That’s the task. Nothing does my brain in like Portishead does, and I’ve got to go off and feed it in-between records. This is a way of feeding it, but it’s a band I really enjoy being in as well. I like to have ideas in my head before I start writing, before I’ve done anything, so I’ve got some kind of sonic idea of where I want to something to go. I’m going to start writing in January and try and get on with it and approach it in a different way, because we struggle so hard to write music. It’s just some weird massive struggle. It’s not like kids on ventilators, but it’s a brain drain as an artist.

Do you consider Beak> as a means to get your head right before Portishead can make its next move?

It’s one of the steps, yeah. One of the paths to take. When I set up my label I gave up music for five years from the last Portishead album. One I set up the label I discovered all these great bands and that really helped my brain when it came to writing for Portishead.  We just want to keep on moving forward.

You put a call out on your website recently where you were looking for ideas on how to present the next Portishead album. What kind of results did that throw up?  

Just a load of fucking mad ones really. There were so many in the end that you couldn’t possibly write them all down. A lot of them were based on keeping a hold of the stuff yourself. It’s interesting, but the kind of bloke I am, I end up getting involved in every area I can possibly poke my nose into – in Portishead and the business – and it’s not good for me because it just messes up my writing. So the idea of setting up your own website. I’m sure there are plenty of people that can do that for you, but we’re pretty much control freaks in Portishead. I still like the idea of a record company model where, basically, really good people do your press, really good people know how to get you on posters. I like that, whether it’s done by ourselves, a major, or an indie.

You put the Beak> album out using Bandcamp, how does that work?

Bandcamp’s a system where somebody buys your album via PayPal and it just goes to the band. I don’t know what its ethics are, but the guys I play together with in Beak... I mean Matt still lives in a bedsit and needs to earn money – well, we all do – through Beak. Basically when someone buys the record we can divide the money, there’s no one in the middle.

Do you think that’s the kind of distribution model Portishead could survive on?

Yeah, I think it probably could. The trouble is – well, it’s more of a battle really – is that it’s more of a sonic message that Portishead has and we just want to get it out there. It’s that thing where you can easily buy a Florence and the Machine album if you want, but there are alternatives. Well, I suppose she’s perceived as alternative isn’t she, versus the Sugababes. I just like the idea that people over the age of 35 might find interesting music, but I don’t think they’ll know about it if you do it on Bandcamp.

You played a handful of European dates with Portishead last year but just the one in the US – at Coachella Festival – on the weekend before Third was released.  I found that astonishing, because you'd been away for so long and the demand for a bigger tour was clearly there. Have you grown tired of the treadmill that bands are expected to jump on once an album's out there?    

Basically, people aren’t made to stand in front of that many people with that much pressure on their shoulders. Beth [Gibbons] is great, she’s brilliant live. But she – and I think we all do – thinks ‘why are we doing this?’ If it’s not money, is it because you’re trying to get that message out? We set ourselves a certain amount of time that we would play and that was it. We played it and went home.  I mean [on Portishead’s last major tour] we toured for a year and a half before and it ended up with two divorces and some pretty horrible stuff on top. You just think ‘what the fuck was that about?’ As you get older you think ‘why am I putting myself through this?’

Has that afforded you time to keep the label's momentum going? What are you working on there at the minute?

I’ve been slowly but surely working with another two guys on a hip-hop record for about a year now. We’ve nearly pulled it over the line. It’s a bit of a tug-a-war with the world at the moment, but that will eventually come out. We’ve put out some good stuff this year, like Matt’s album with Team Brick. The Thought Forms album was really, really good. They’re touring with us actually, that’ll be cool. Come along and see them, they’re probably a lot better than us to be honest!

I’ve just been getting Invada mack on track; we’ve got a label manager – a guy called Reg – who’s come along in the last six months. We’ve just gone ‘OK, if we’re going to do it let’s do it properly, without losing too much money.’

Does this mean you're free to crack on with the next Portishead album? Have you set yourself any goals there?

I know this’ll sound like a really standard thing to say, but it’s like ‘OK, let’s try and write some good songs’. Which just means, literally, getting on a guitar and writing some chords. We’re free agents, I mean there’s been a lot of interest from people wanting to do the next record with us and all that stuff’s ongoing. I’ve dipped my toe into the soundtrack world and the music supervision side of things – I’ve got something coming out next year – but because I’ve been involved in so many projects for so long it’s time to finish them up so I can concentrate on Portishead. You might hear new music sooner than you’d think.

Is that what 2010’s all about?

Absolutely, and to try and see the kids more.

Portishead release new single Chase the Tear on 10 Dec (International Human Rights Day) in conjunction with Amnesty International. Available here.

Beak> play King Tut’s, Glasgow on 14 December.