Portishead, with DJ Andy Smith, The Club, March 19, 1998
It was 1994. Electronica was making waves in the U.K. and in the U.S. underground while American commercial radio was still trying to properly exploit "alternative" rock. During this period, the electronic music scene of Bristol, England -- which would soon bring the world Tricky and drum 'n' bass master Roni Size -- was about to unleash a music collective known as Portishead to an international audience.
In late '94 Portishead released their debut album "Dummy," a scratchy mix of slow beats, film-noirish atmospheres constructed by bandleader Geoff Barrow and eerily-detached vocals by singer Beth Gibbons. The critics swooned as Portishead's sound became the blueprint for an emerging genre called "trip-hop." Their first single, "Sour Times," even made its way onto MTV rotation in the U.S. Guitarist Adrian Utley, who also contributes keyboards and production assistance, feels that the attention heaped on "Dummy" is amazing, if not life-altering. "That kind of confidence changes your life, the way you feel about life." In part due to their media image (Gibbons rarely grants interviews) and the passage of time since their debut, a mystique has been built around Portishead, making their Orlando performance an anticipated event. Utley says extreme attention has been paid to the details of the live show -- like making sure the drummer's sound is processed differently from track to track to match the studio work. The full-on band attack -- including Utley on guitar and synth and Barrow cutting-up on the turntables -- promises to transfer Portishead's creepy romanticism to a live setting.
Their eponymously titled second album, "Portishead," raised some artistic dilemmas for the band: Should they repeat "Dummy's" formula for success or evolve into something new altogether? That, coupled with the pressure the band felt from outside entities, made recording the follow-up unnerving. Melding their initial framework with some new approaches and moods, Portishead broadened their existing palette.
In addition to the increased presence of live instrumentation, Portishead took sampling to a deeper level. "Before, we'd sample from records," says Utley. "But this time we kind of made-up our own samples. We'd start off by maybe having a beat and then put a bassline on it or whatever. Then age it."
This aging process involved techniques like pressing samples onto vinyl and then resampling them again. The new production approaches led to one obvious auditory result: grit. Beth's vocals seem dusted with white noise and the beats sound overdriven. "We definitely wanted the album to sound rougher," says Utley. "We were a lot angrier making the record anyways, so we made everything -- it was more vicious sounding."
He cites the album's first track,"Cowboys," as an example, but the haunting quality that characterized Portishead from the beginning remains untouched. Though the self-titled album also elicits emotions of tension and spite, Utley says this is not a conscious strategy. "We don't try and kind of do a happy song and a sad song and an angry song. We just go where we are."
When pressed for details on the motivation behind their somber disposition, Utley replies, "It's just kind of how we are. â?¦ It's on that side of things and I think we always veer towards that. Beth's lyrics are very much that way. It's life experience. That's a real emotion, isn't it?"
It's a life-experience Portishead knows well -- one sure to be inrepreted expressively, sour times and all, in a live setting.