When some popular musicians give press conferences, they get asked questions like “Who’s the father of the child?” or “Will the district attorney be pressing charges?” But the British group Portishead consider all that sort of pop-star stuff distasteful. Icky, even. They’d prefer for their music–haunting, atmospheric torch songs backed with hip-hop beats that slow down until they fall over and crawl on their bellies–to be their only method of communicating with the public. So when they meet a roomful of eighty European journalists, all flown into New York for this group encounter at the Hilton hotel, they get an entirely different caliber of interrogation.
INTENSE REPORTER WITH BRUSH HAIRCUT AND GERMAN ACCENT: “When you think about your music, do you think in terms of songs, and if so, how do you define that, since the defining criteria for a song has changed in the last decade?”
PORTISHEAD LEADER GEOFF BARROW: “Um, well, we have bridges, choruses–all those things.”
Geoff is flanked by guitarist Adrian Utley and engineer Dave McDonald; the group’s nicotine-and-honey chanteuse, Beth Gibbons, is absent because she can’t stand talking to the press. The remaining three members look like they might break into hives themselves, as they struggle with questions designed to get them to explain the NyQuil taste of their music, like “Why is it you come up with exclusively slow tracks?”
One journalist wants to know how the band feels about a recent controversy, where a British magazine printed the address of Portishead’s recording studio in Bristol. Geoff explains that they were irked, more because they were worried about thieves absconding with their antique keyboards than about fans demanding autographs.
“Did anyone actually come by?” the journalist persists.
“No,” Geoff admits. Realizing this sounds a little pathetic, he adds by way of explanation, “We don’t get any fan mail, either. Which I’m quite grateful for.”
Portishead take their name from Geoff’s hometown, a small seaside resort town in western England. It was on the Bristol Channel, but was overshadowed by the superior beach of Weston-super-Mare, twenty miles away. Portishead’s beach was more rock than sand, and during low tide, it was just muck. Locals derisively called the town “Weston-super-Mud.” The only thing to do in the hamlet of Portishead (population 6,000) was go to the pub, which meant that when you were under sixteen, there was nothing to do. It was so boring that Geoff speaks wistfully about how American towns have captivating modern distractions. He’s talking about bowling alleys. He remembers friends getting into black magic, just because there was nothing else to do. Some would even stand on the roof of the local dry-cleaner’s, hoping against hope that they might get high from the ventilation shaft’s fumes.
Geoff’s dad drove a truck; Geoff’s mom worked in the local supermarket. When Geoff left Portishead, to go to college at nearby Weston Tech, he wanted a better life, so he studied graphic design. Unfortunately, he soon found out that he was dyslexic and color-blind. After two years, when one too many layouts came out brown instead of red, he went back home.
What he really dreamed about was a career in music. He had started playing the drums when he was eight years old, and stopped at age sixteen when he discovered American hip-hop, courtesy of an Afrika Bambaataa album. Geoff had started messing around with a primitive sampler with a two-second capacity, and learning how to scratch records like a DJ. So he called up a studio in nearby Bristol, looking for a job. They hired him. Groups like Massive Attack came in to record–Geoff got to make tea and fetch sandwiches.
All the while, Geoff kept making tracks with his dinky sampler. So when Neneh Cherry came into the studio to record a cameo on a Massive Attack record, the young prodigy passed her a tape. She was impressed, and Geoff ended up co-writing and producing “Somedays,” a track on her 1992 Homebrew album. Neneh and her husband Cameron promised to sign Geoff to their Wobble label, and brought him down to London. “We spent nine months recording in her house with his money, and it was a bit of a failure,” Geoff says. Nobody was happy with the demos; Geoff went back to Portishead and started drawing unemployment. At age 19, he was washed up.
To keep receiving unemployment checks in England, you periodically need to show up for an Enterprise Allowance induction day–basically, an encounter group where everybody talks about the jobs they’re looking for or the businesses they want to set up. One day, Geoff was explaining his dreams of being a producer and in the same group, a woman named Beth Gibbons was declaring that she wanted to be a singer. During a tea break, they decided to try working together. Their first effort was a political song one of her friends had written–“about the world and crooked governments,” Geoff remembers. But as soon as he heard her throaty voice and how it plumbed the depths of despair, they started working on tracks together.
Geoff recruited some local musicians, including Dave, the engineer, and Adrian, a guitarist who played jazz and was fully fifteen years older than Geoff. They named themselves Portishead after the muddy hometown, and slowly built tracks from samples and original music, handing them over to Beth to write her lyrics, as miserable as anything Morrissey ever sang–she liked to sit just around the corner, not talking to any of the musicians. Recording whenever they could get the money for studio time, they would craft their music, hoping to come up with something as evocative as the old movie soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and John Barry. They distinguished themselves by using silence as an essential part of the mix; Geoff had learned from how American hip-hop would stop and start a song. In 1994, after three years of work, Portishead had finished Dummy, ten of Beth’s mournful wails set to 15-MPH extraterrestrial grooves. It came out around the same time as Massive Attack’s second album and Tricky’s first, but was moodier, and more successful, than either. Dummy instantly went into perpetual rotation in restaurants, clothing boutiques, and bedrooms everywhere. The inescapable single was “Sour Times.” Over a slow, jittery beat, Beth sang, “Nobody loves me,” and made you believe it. And then she twisted the knife in her own heart: “Not like you do.”
It’s monsoon season in New York City, so inside the Roseland ballroom, a couple of hundred fans sit and look damp, some drying themselves off with paper towels. A forty-piece orchestra tunes up and a film crew checks their equipment–Portishead are performing a concert to commemorate their second album, Portishead. The crowd arrived early to get close to the band, but when Geoff walks through the crowd before the show starts to check on Dave at the sound board, nobody at all recognizes him. Geoff’s more anonymous than even an ex-member of Menudo–which is how he likes it.
The orchestra isn’t just window dressing, like on an MTV Unplugged appearance; the string section isn’t even wearing tuxedoes, favoring an irregular assortment of sweaters and plaid shirts. While Dummy included plenty of samples, from sources as disparate as breakbeats and ’50s pop crooner Johnnie Ray, for the new record, Portishead decided they wanted completely original sounds. Sometimes that meant hiring an orchestra to play a melody and pressing that on acetate–Geoff would then scratch the result into the final track. The results are hypnotic, if not easily distinguishable from the first record.
Beth walks out to applause, wearing a gray sweater and blue jeans. She opens with the new “Humming,” murmuring “so unresolved, so unredeemed,” while the orchestra makes bursts of lush noise, Geoff mans the turntables, and the rest of the musicians simulate science-fiction soundtracks. When the audience cheers, she looks surprised and makes a face. She lights cigarette after cigarette, and loses herself in her torch songs, holding onto the microphone like it’s all she has left in the world. After seven songs, she looks up like she’s waking from a dream and speaks her first words to the crowd: “It’s fucking bright in here.”
The great unnegotiable with Portishead is that Beth will not speak to the press ever again. Combined with her near-suicidal lyrics, this has given her a reputation as a trip-hop Garbo, which is altogether too flamboyant for the band. So now Geoff is careful to emphasize the party line: Beth is fine, a completely normal lass. She just doesn’t enjoy interviews. He doesn’t like photo shoots, so they let each other take care of those responsibilities. But still, a dark rumor dogs Beth, explaining why she maintains a press embargo–gossip has it that she doesn’t want to admit to her hippie-rock past, when she sang Janis Joplin and Fleetwood Mac covers.
Over the years, Beth has let a few facts leak out. She’s 33 years old. She used to work for a clock-making company in Devon. She’s never explained her lyrics’ bleakness, but before entering the cone of silence, she debunked one popular theory by saying she hadn’t been sexually abused. Since she is no more available to me for an interview than Thomas Pynchon is for an ice-skating rendezvous, I ask her bandmates to describe her. Surprisingly, they agree she can be downright giggly. Dave remembers one silly evening in a hotel where she tried to teach a parrot to talk by shouting obscenities at it.
WHAT DOES BETH DO IN HER SPARE TIME?
DAVE: Work on her house.
ADRIAN: Drive–she collects classic cars.
GEOFF: Milk her mum’s cows.
Geoff and I meet for a drink in the bar of the Hilton. He orders mineral water and, holding his lighter against the side of his head, talks about having a self-titled album. “It was originally going to be called Portishead but then we thought it was a little too cocky and we tried to think of some other names. We couldn’t, and so we ended up with Portishead.” This group is utterly graceful on its finished records, but as soon as they have to consider anything else, like issues of image and modesty, they trip over their own shoelaces.
Geoff is so devoted to realizing the sounds in his head that he’s been in the studio almost nonstop since he was sixteen years old. Now he’s twenty-five, and just beginning to discover the world beyond the mixing board. He recently visited Seattle, and when he walked outside his hotel, found what he considered the greatest innovation in modern commerce yet: a combined bar and laundromat.
“Music, that’s all that’s ever mattered to me,” says Geoff. He and Beth didn’t have a conversation about anything other than music for the first three years of the band; it just didn’t seem necessary to him. Sometimes Geoff has nightmares about not being able to explain what he wants to other musicians in the studio. He endures interviews and tours because he knows they’re the price of making records. His isolation may be a boon–it let him create a sound that nobody else had ever thought of, one now imitated by groups like the Sneaker Pimps. Still, it makes talking to him like having a conversation with a houseplant that hasn’t gotten enough water and sunshine.
Some bands embrace rock-star excess because, well, it feels good. Others reject cocaine and groupies for ideological reasons. But for Portishead, these activities are as incomprehensible as Sanskrit. Geoff wanted to escape the small, dull town of Portishead, but now he carries Portishead around with him wherever he goes.
I ask him what non-musical activity he is good at. He frowns, and lights a cigarette to give himself time to think about this esoteric question. Then his face brightens. “Whittling bits of wood.”
Originally published as “Tracks of Their Tears” in the October 1997 issue of Details.