Q&A: Portishead producer Geoff Barrow on hip hop, krautrock, and film scores

DROKKGeoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury: Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One (Invada, 5/1/12)

“Lawmaster Pursuit”

Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury: “Lawmaster Pursuit”

If there’s one band that pulled off the long, mysterious hiatus with mystique intact, it’s Bristol, England’s Portishead. Yet when the ’90s trip-hop act resurfaced in 2006, it had substantially changed — gone were the down-tempo beats and much of the melancholy, replaced with a new sound and sparse, driving rhythms that owed more to krautrock than Def Jam.

Beatsmith/songwriter Geoff Barrow was guiding it that way. Since the reunion, he’s been on fire, issuing music in a variety of guises with Beak> (a rock band), Quakers (a sprawling hip-hop project), and as Drokk (a soundtracking duo). That’s not including the records that Barrow has produced for others and released on his label, Invada.

With no shortage of topics in tow, we caught up with Barrow to talk about drum sounds, film scores, and writing music for Judge Dredd.

What draws you to production work, and what’s your production philosophy?

I’m not a jobbing producer as such; I’ve done so little. I’ve produced more records on my own label. It’s just telling a band that they [don’t have to] conform. What makes them special is the fucking wrongness of the music. Most of the time, producers are brought in to make hits. I suppose I am kind of the anti-producer, the anti-Christ of production. I just say that the more out there, the more interesting, the more specific to your own band you can get, the better. Because that is what will make you stand out from all the other shit out there.

Your drum sounds are really distinct, but they’re not exaggerated.

When people say, “Let’s have really crazy drums,” they always put them through distortion pedals and shit like that. Or they make them as loud as possible. Most of my drum sounds are terrible, but terrible in a good way. If you listen to classic records, it’s just about having a drummer that’s inventive. I don’t use the best gear; I just use whatever is around, really, and a couple of dodgy techniques that I’ve done over the years. I am really inspired by rhythmical records and the beat: Can, James Brown, Soft Machine, Public Enemy. Beats are really the thing.

With Quakers, the whole thing is so cohesive. How is that possible with so many artists involved?

It’s about having a strong aesthetic. It’s kind of like, “Let’s make this really slamming, as exciting and as interesting as we can.” I’ve worked with Stuart [Matthews, a.k.a. 7-Stu-7] for years; he’s my engineer and studio manager. I’ve worked with Ashley [Anderson, a.k.a. Katalyst] for 10 years. We just generally tried to get that feeling of a good, solid hip-hop record, the ones you used to listen to that would slap you on the head a bit every time a new track came on. It’s not retro; it’s not forward thinking. It’s a hip-hop record, [and] that’s it, really.

What hip-hop records did you have in mind?

Wu-Tang, Gang Starr, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, EPMD, MF Doom, Madlib, Dilla, Marley Marl, Dre

Just the primo. Run DMC, you know — that stuff. The ultimate hip-hop stuff, basically.

Was this keeping the hip-hop side of you alive as you moved more into rock?

I would say that in 1998, I turned off hip hop completely from my life. I didn’t like funk. I set up Invada and signed experimental ’90s kraut bands. I felt like anything [with] loops [was] going round and round. I didn’t want to do a record like that ever again.

In the meantime, I found bands like Sunn O))), Om, Lightning Bolt, and Silver Apples and went, “Oh, man, this is it.” Moondog. And the biggest band throughout that is Can for me. Just unbelievable; they are my perfect band ever.

What draws you to krautrock?

What really fucks me off about the whole supposed krautrock thing is that people see it as a retro movement. Really, it’s so much more than that. There are only a few ways to write a song. A lot of British music is kind of based on the blues. Krautrock didn’t use blues at all; it just avoided blues, which is a massive change in direction. I love traditional blues, but the chord changes become so standard. I find it really exciting not to go down traditional routes but still have emotion. Something like “The Rip” or “Machine Gun” is my ultimate ability to write, because you’re not using standardisms, but you are still managing to deliver an emotional impact on a song.

What took place between Beak> albums?

The second Beak> album [took] a long time. We came back [from touring] buzzing to record another record, but we sounded like the most mediocre prog bar band you’d ever heard. Anything we did was just rubbish. And then one day, we recorded a tune and sounded like ourselves. The difficult second album is completely true. Right near the end of the album, it just started clicking. It’s different from the first time around. It’s a lot less ghostly, less reverb-y. Now, I’m really properly in a band.

I’m in a really good position with Drokk, Quakers, Beak>, and Portishead. I hate to use the word blessed, but I feel very lucky. I gave up music for eight years.

What did you do?

Got divorced, got drunk a lot, and spent a lot of money.

You have the energy of the guy who’s gotten a second chance.

More likely, I’ve gotten the chance to do the music that I should have done in that space [where] I didn’t do anything.


Post-Apocalypse Now

Originally tabbed to soundtrack the new Judge Dredd reboot, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury began working on a sci-fi synth score à la John Carpenter. Though the studio went in a different direction, the duo finished an album anyway, releasing the dark opus as Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One.

What soundtrack does your album resemble most?

People have said the album is very Carpenter-esque. It ties in with those fond memories you have with the Terminator soundtrack or Assault on Precinct 13. I can’t really see a super-modern interpretation of Dredd, because I started reading it at age 13. But hopefully it’s not just a retro piece.

What film soundtracks are your favorites?

They’re really varied. Confessions of a Police Commissioner [is one]. As a child, it would be Terminator, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and the classics [like] The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And I’ve always had a massive soft spot for Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. There’s something totally wrong about them, but there’s something totally brilliant as well. They defy the laws of music.

Has Portishead done soundtracks?

No, we’ve never been asked. Literally, we weren’t out there selling ourselves in the film world. We kind of disappear. Adrian has done one feature and one short film, I think, maybe more. So small amounts. I don’t know why, but we’ve never been asked. What we found is that it was mainly people that ripped us off that got soundtrack work, because they were up for doing anything. We’re not commercial writers. I’ve been surprised over the years that more independent filmmakers haven’t approached us.

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