Originally published in the Stool Pigeon
Bristol’s Geoff Barrow is a man with many hats. Best known as the third of Portishead most commonly hunched over a bank of electronic equipment, he is also the guy behind lo fi rockers Beak> and sci fi comic book collaborators Drokk (the latter recently released a record to mark the 30th anniversary of 2000AD); he is the founder of prolific indie label Invada, a record producer for hire and, most recently, one of three hip hop nostalgists unleashing the Quakers album on Stone’s Throw.
Look him up on Twitter, however, and you’ll find none of the International Man Of Mystery airs that such an intimidating CV might inspire in others. Instead, under the moniker @jetfury, Barrow lays into the insanity of the modern world with quips so barbed and blackly humorous that you can’t help thinking some of his followers probably have no idea of his musical legacy, knowing him instead as the grumpy Bristolian with an axe to grind – mostly on the faces of young musicians with diplomas from the Brit School.
The only real mystery is how this 40-year-old father of two manages to juggle so many projects, but then the studio has been a second home to Geoff since he was a first employed by Bristol’s legendary Coach House Studios as part of his government Youth Training Scheme in the late 80s, sitting in on sessions by pioneers of the city’s emerging trip hop scene – not bad for a boy from a Somerset village with a population of barely 200.
“I was already a DJing and writing beats at that point – I had my own sampler with the sound of a dog barking and what have you. And suddenly I found myself surrounded by guys from the Wild Bunch crew, by Smith & Mighty and Jonny Dollar, who produced Blue Lines. Most of the time I made the tea and stayed out of the way, but later on I had a chance to play some of my stuff to Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack, and they basically took me on as a writer and beat maker.”
It wasn’t long before Geoff was embarking on the project for which he is best known. Portishead – named after the Bristol town to which Geoff moved with his mother after his parents divorced – endured various forms and formulas before the integration of instrumentalist Adrian Utley and vocalist Beth Gibbons, and the release of Dummy, their slow-burning, cinema-tinted debut, which won the notoriously press-shy trio the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and lifted them up in a tornado of international attention. Without intending to, the band had created a record that tapped into a worldwide fascination with the blunted beats and smoky cinematic soundscapes emerging from Bristol; with Beth’s sinister songwriting lending the whole thing a more accessible structure, Portishead found themselves the surprise owners of a zeitgeist album being played everywhere from dinner parties and chill out rooms to bars, bong sessions a huge number of TV programs. Not that the band were letting it get to them.
“Personally I thought what we were trying to do was quite angry. It was my equivalent of punk, I suppose, which is funny, because it doesn’t necessarily sound like that listening back to it. But it definitely meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. At the same time as we were getting messages from people saying how much they enjoyed listening to our music at fondue parties, we were also hearing from Wu Tang fans saying they thought it was heavy shit. We thought that was pretty cool. And I don’t begrudge anyone listening to any of our music in any situation – that’s just snobbery. But I will say that when you’ve put your guts into something – when you actually know what Beth is singing about and what it means to her personally – and then you hear it being used as little more than background music on television, that can be quite frustrating.”
Rather than attempting to please so many disparate groups of listeners, the group narrowed their focus, creating an eponymous follow-up in 1997 that was arguably more claustrophobic and paranoid than its predecessor, and setting out on an American tour that ended in tensions and turmoil, relationship breakdowns and divorces. After that it took ten years for the group to reassemble for the release of their most experimental work yet, Third, an album heralded by a performance of distortion heavy single Machine Gun on Jools Holland that left audiences open mouthed with admiration and unease. The delay was partly the result of solo projects and partly, Geoff admits, because making music as Portishead was so laboured and laborious a process that the trio almost dreaded embarking on new material.
“Adrian described it as like trying to run with concrete wellington boots on. I think a lot of that comes down to expectation – people want to hear a good Portishead record, as do we, and we’re not massively confident of our abilities. Our output over the years is absolutely tiny, and we get so disillusioned by some of the stuff we’re working on that it just falls through our fingers – we write a track and build it up and then two days later we fucking hate it and think it’s useless.”
It’s a weight of responsibility from which Geoff has found refuge in numerous personal projects; from supervising soundtracks (2010’s Exit Through The Gift Shop) and championing up-and-coming artists like Anika and drone-rockers Thought Forms through his Invada imprint, to curating festivals and co-producing albums including The Coral’s The Invisible Invasion and The Horrors’ Primary Colours.
Most tellingly, he has also countered the intensity of the Portishead studio experience with Beak>, a lo-fi, krautrock-influenced band whose eponymous 2009 debut LP was recorded in one room over twelve days at Bristol’s State Of Art Studios, with no overdubs and no repairs, a process resulting in a moody and menacing work that perhaps wasn’t so far from Portishead in its sense of being a record transcribed from séances and static, but which neatly sidestepped the burden of songs in favour of loose, echoey jams, many of them accompanied by shouty vocals from Barrow himself.
“We’re not virtuoso players, so it’s pretty rough and ready, and we very early established recording rules with Beak> to make the whole thing easier and more enjoyable. There are no conventional songs in the way that Beth writes songs – which I really think is one of the toughest jobs in the world. But the advantage of that is that it gets me away from the desk and frees me up to do other things: it feels like I’m part of something else, that something else is driving Beak> and it’s not just about me.”
The same can be said of Quakers, the hip hop project Barrow has just dropped on Stone’s Throw. Despairing at the hollow ring and empty name-checking of most modern hip hop, he and two producer friends – Katalyst and 7Stu7 – set about creating a mix of heavyweight beats before whiling away weeks browsing the internet for rappers both known and unknown, firing off messages and asking if they’d be interested in contributing a verse or two for the project. The result is one of the most unusual hip hop records in years – a democratic 41-track mixtape in which instrumental interludes compete with cameos from both luminaries like Guilty Simpson, Dead Prez and Prince Po, and comparative unknowns like Dave Dub, Tone Tank and Scoutleader Deed from Bristol’s Parlour Talk. It’s a record that exudes the feel of a social as well as a musical experiment, and one that flips a suitably middle aged middle finger to a music industry pandering to the whims of the YouTube generation.
“As a 40-year-old bloke with two kids, I’m never going to be hanging out with young urban rappers – I never really did. But that wasn’t the point of Quakers. We wanted to explore that feeling we got when we listened to the hip hop we grew up with – that feeling in your gut when you heard what you knew was a standout track by Dre, or Tribe, or whoever. I’m not saying there’s nothing interesting happening in hip hop – I get a lot of good energy from the Odd Future guys, for example – but for the most part I listen to what comes out these days and I just find myself in awe at how little rappers have to say for themselves. I mean, you’ve got all this shit happening in the world, probably better reported now than it ever has been before thanks to the internet, but I can’t find one fucking artist who is saying anything about it. It makes me think the whole world has been drugged.”
It’s a subject that has been on the receiving end of @jetfury’s wrath plenty of times in the past – be it during his blow-by-blow account of the Brits, or his individual criticisms of artists from both the mainstream (‘Is Drake the Canadian Dappy?’) and the self-styled indie fringes (“Noel Fielding really does look like a woman #Florence’). For the man who once said that Portishead could only write music while depressed, the state of the music business seems to be an endless source of inspiration.
“It drives me crazy when you see musicians who are promoted by the majors as real artists, because it’s like they’ve drawn a line and anything on the wrong side of that line is deemed ‘too weird’ for the general public. And that’s a real shame, because the best British pop music has always been weird, whether that’s Ian Drury and the Blockheads or Kate Bush. Now it seems like we’ve got half of the youth pinning their hopes on the X Factor-style ‘success as everything’ model, and the other half emulating the Brit School of training: write a sincere ballad in the style of Coldplay, but mention phones in it somewhere along the line. I just don’t understand how everyone can be writing the same songs about the same things. It confuses the fuck out of me, it makes me feel really fucking old.”