Portishead Masters Audio Glue on 'Third' Album On the band's first album in more than 10 years, Portishead finds a new door into its future. Members Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley talk about what it means to still be strange even when the odd production techniques of Dummy are standard practice today.

Portishead Masters Audio Glue on 'Third' Album

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In 1994, a new sound arrived on our shores from England.


M: (Singing) I'm so tired of playing, playing with this bow and arrow. Gonna give my heart away...

SEABROOK: The trio, known as Portishead, was indefinably cool, though of course the critics tried their best to define it: acid jazz, trip hop and - here's a good one - the Wu-Tang Clan of apocalyptic folk soul. Yowza.

What it was, it sure didn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time, and pop music fans fell for it hard.


SEABROOK: Then, after two studio albums, Portishead just vanished. That was 10 years ago. They never broke up, according to the band's members, they just needed a break and they needed to find something new to say. Now they have. Portishead's new CD is called "Third."


M: (Singing) If only I could see, return myself to me, and recognize the poison in my heart...

SEABROOK: Two of the three members of Portishead join me now from Los Angeles - Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. Welcome.

M: Hi.

M: Hello.

SEABROOK: Hi. Well, 10 years do seem to change things. It seems like you are breaking out of the tyranny of melody and basic, you know, four-square rhythms.

M: I think there's a lot of melody in what we do. It's just not in the standard pop format.


M: And I think that's what we've always tried to do is stay within a genre but try and experiment. And especially on this record, we've kind of extended the kind of dissonant angle of it. You know, we were interested in out-of-tuneness and roughness and leaving things in that you would generally edit out. And having echo things and out of time, not in time, because all of these things are so easy to do nowadays with the technology that we have. It's easy to clean everything up and make everything dead square and uninteresting ultimately, I think.

M: I think also as well is, you know, the questions you're asking - I don't mean this in a bad way - but it was the same questions we were asked about when we first came out. It was just seen as a strange record. And then our second album was a strange record. And now this one's a strange record. So, it was just how the first album has been absorbed into the mainstream.

M: Yeah. It's been assimilated into the kind of, you know, world of sound. It's not so odd. When we first made it, we thought this is pretty weird.

M: Yeah. And it was like that. I mean, people really couldn't get their head around the first album. You know, in the U.K. they actually took back CDs to the record shop saying that, you know, why should CDs have crackles, you know. We've always...

SEABROOK: You mean like a record?

M: Yeah.

M: Yeah, that static.

M: So we've always come against it. Every album we've released, people'd say, this isn't like your other stuff. And it kind of is.


M: (Singing) I'd like to laugh at what you said but I just can't find a smile. I wonder why you can't. I struggle with myself. Hoping I might change a little, hoping that I might be someone I want to be...

SEABROOK: I want to take the advantage of the fact that your third band member, Beth Gibbons, is not here and talk about her. There's something about Beth Gibbons' voice that is so vulnerable, you know? I mean, it makes the music so much more fragile in a way. I mean, not that she isn't strong but there is a rawness to it.

M: I think she's kind of asking more questions than being fragile really and showing her frustration with kind of, modern society.

M: She sings about desolation and she means it completely.

M: Yeah, there's no kind of, I'm just going to write a song and we write miserable songs, so I better write a miserable song. Yeah, I mean...


SEABROOK: She does write all the lyrics, yes?

M: Yeah.

M: Yeah.

M: Absolutely. And the melodies.

M: She's got an amazing voice, first of all. She's got an amazing - voices, really, because she has different elements to her voice that - you can always know it's her, but she can sound remarkably different from one track to another.

M: And I think you don't get many kind of artists nowadays that are allowed to be just what they sound like. It's not massively overproduced. It's not - all the cracks and pops have been removed from most, you know, even the kind of singers that you think are real singers, they all go through Auto-Tune and get tidied up by somebody. You know what I mean.

And, I mean, I'm just talking from a...

M: Pure...

M: ...pure production...

M: Yeah.

M: ...kind of level, you know.

SEABROOK: So, give me an example of how you work with another song on your album. You pick.

M: I think "We Carry On" was the first track we did that showed us we'd got a new way to go really, wasn't it?

SEABROOK: Let's play it.


M: (Singing) The taste of life I can't describe is choking up my mind...

M: This signified a kind of change for us very much in that it's more up-tempo than anything we've done particularly before. So this was quite a potent time in terms of, for a moment, it kind of, for a brief moment, there was a glimmer of light ahead.

SEABROOK: It's funny you should say a new sound, because that beginning, that tone, that synthesizer tone...

M: Yeah.

SEABROOK: ...almost sounds like an old Moog or something that you're playing.

M: It is an old Moog. No, it's not. It's an old Eng - it's a VCS-3, which is an English synthesizer.

SEABROOK: Oh. But...

M: But it - the bass is an old Moog.

SEABROOK: ...an old - yeah, yeah. You can almost hear the electricity in it. So, how did you make this track?

M: Well, it had three versions of this. We'd lost the first version...


M: ...which was really a drag. And we really liked it, but actually I think this is better.

M: Yeah, it is. It had to be...


M: We couldn't enter into that world. Yeah, we lost it. But it started off actually - it was Geoff playing the drums and me playing the bass in my studio. And that was the first time we played it. And it had - we'd edited it in a way that was completely random.


M: (Singing) Oh can't you see...

M: Like, drum fills didn't lead into choruses or into anything. They just came gratuitously in the middle of singing and stuff. There was no pattern to it, which was a freedom.

SEABROOK: That's what I mean by breaking the tyranny of convention.

M: Yeah. I mean, early on I think our arrangements were more conventional because that's where we were at that time. We would have intro, verse, chorus, bridge...

M: Yeah.

M: ...chorus, chorus, out, kind of thing, but...

M: I think because we were experimenting for the first time to actually write songs.

M: Exactly.

M: We were trying to get to, like, just a song that might actually be fairly normal was a struggle for us.

M: And then we experimented more with the sound that time, the...

M: Yeah.

M: ...arrangement. But now we're experimenting with...

M: It's both, isn't it.

M: ...with both, yeah. And that's probably why this sounds a little more uncomfortable, because it doesn't do the things you expect it to.

SEABROOK: Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley are members of the band Portishead. Their first CD in more than a decade is called "Third."

And why don't we go out on the song "Deep Water," which is totally different...


SEABROOK: ...from any other one on the CD. And it's got this lovely ukulele. Am I right?

M: Yes. A ukulele.

SEABROOK: Ukulele and...

M: I played that so you're allowed to say that.


SEABROOK: Can you give me the 30-second story on this song?

M: Well, it depends who you ask, really. Talk to Geoff about it.

M: Yeah, we've got this ongoing thing that Ade never really dug the track that much. Beth and I ganged up on him really a bit.

M: You see, I come around to it now so it's okay.


M: I've still got issues with it but...


SEABROOK: All right. Thank you both very much.

M: Thank you.


M: (Singing) I gotta remember, don't fight it, even if I don't like it. Somehow turn me around. No matter how far I drift, deep waters won't scare me tonight.

SEABROOK: There are two tracks from Portishead's new CD on our Web site, npr.org. And if you're lucky enough to be in Southern California tonight, they're playing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

We'll steal our parting words tonight from Peter Schickele. He's the composer and humorist best known for his work as P.D.Q. Bach. At the start of a show, Schickele once announced, the music selected for this program will not be determined by brow height.


SEABROOK: That's also true here.

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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