Portishead should have been a classic film but instead manifested as a band, and their strange and dreamy sound echoes even decades after they first emerged. Adrian Utley speaks now about his secret friend Banksy and why he doesn’t trust in the government at all. This interview by Kristina Benson.
You got signed before you even played a show?
Adrian Utley: Yeah, we made a record before we played a show.
So many bands play half-empty clubs for years, and go on tours, hoping for a break and you didn’t have to go through any of that.
I can tell you, ‘No we didn’t,’ but I did, my whole life. And Beth [Gibbons] did some of that. Geoff [Barrow] didn’t because he was really young when we started it and he didn’t really play instruments. Although when he was at school he was in a band that played ‘Final Countdown’ and all kinds of terrible covers like that, when he was in school, you know. So no, he didn’t do that but I’d done a lot of that and I used to get paid to play with people to play to nobody, to have showcases for record labels. I’ve seen all of that. But luckily we didn’t ever want to play live, it was always a studio project, and we were never going to do that. When the record started to be successful, there were discussions that we had to play live. I remember saying to Geoff, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do that.’
What was it about that time that provided space for your music to be so popular?
I think that time was an important time for change, and making music in new way. I was excited by hearing Massive Attack, and Smith & Mighty stuff, and before that, Public Enemy. That’s why Geoff and I got together, listening to hip-hop, really. I had given up my whole life of sort of session playing and everything to start a studio—saved all my money and got it together and did that, and eventually me and Geoff started working together. It was a magical time in a lot of ways. I felt the spirit of newness, a new world, a new life ahead. I decided I didn’t really want to play with the people I’d been playing with before, even though I needed to make money. I’ve never done anything but make music in my life. I’ve always managed to survive, and play with some of my heroes as well. But I kind of didn’t want to do that anymore. There was a really cool feeling around Bristol at that time, and I was very pleased to be working with a new person, and we had a very like-minded approach to things.
Geoff had this money from something called an Enterprise Artist Grant—what is that?
Enterprise Allowance. It’s like unemployment benefit but set up in a different way so the figures look a little different. It was a way of getting people to create work for themselves by giving them money—the same as unemployment but called something else. When I was Geoff’s age, I was on the dole. Every musician that I knew that was trying to make it, or had a band trying to get a record deal—the only way we survived was unemployment benefit. … I don’t think we’ve got it now, it was always a bit shitty anyway; it was just the government desperate to change the figures a little bit, make it look like people were not on unemployment.
When you guys were making your record, you would make a guitar line and then you’d press a copy of the record with the guitar line, and sample that copy of that record? Is that true?
That’s what we did. We were fascinated by the sound—well, people had been sampling from records through the late 80s—Public Enemy, all the hip-hop bands we knew, were sampling from vinyl. So we made tracks, and made it like an album of our own sample, and sampled them from the vinyl after we’d jumped about on it on the floor and rubbed it around in the carpet. Honestly. And then we’d get it on the record deck and Geoff would cut up on one beat of it for ages, just so that part was worn. Sometimes you get to a sample and you hear a certain snare in the beat and it sounds duller than the other ones because someone had been cutting up and destroyed the vinyl, so we got really deep into the technique of making the music sound like it did. It came from not having other facilities to do—we just worked it out, had to do it ourselves.
In a 1997 interview with Spin, Geoff said, ‘The industry is a monster. It’s a nasty beast.’ How would things have been different if you’d been in charge instead of the label?
Yeah, well, it was a bad time then. I remember that we were all feeling a bit shitty about the whole deal, the whole world around. From the very early days—it’s usually down to money, or down to control, that kind of thing. And we’ve never taken a lot of money from a record company so we’ve never been in debt to them that much, or at all. We recouped on all of our deals very quickly. Not that it was an Us and Them situation, it’s not. We’re not signed at the moment. It was probably just a bad day when Geoff said that, but I always think that about the record industry.
I know someone used your song in an Italian car commercial without clearing it. Did that happen a lot—that people would steal your songs without permission and use them in commercials?
That was weird because Geoff and I were in Italy doing press, and someone said, ‘Are you aware that your career in Italy was kicked off by this car commercial?’ And neither of us knew about that. I don’t know how that happened! Because we take care of everything, we all manage ourselves and look at all aspects of our lives. We look at T-shirt designs, tour stuff, everything. We employ who we need to make that work and keep an eye on it all. But it still happens, that stuff.
In an interview with Prefix, one of you said that after you did the second album it was like the doors were closed and you’d hit this Lara Croft moment where none of the doors would open, and you couldn’t find the key to open it.
There was definitely that feeling going on.
How do you work through that?
We did other things. We had money trickling in to keep us going through that. We aren’t ostentatious and I think it was a creative decision. We didn’t want to work on Portishead at that time so we worked on other things. We would make money from the other things we did and that was cool. And then we got an advance to make our next record and Geoff and I worked around 2002 or something, 2003. At that time I was working with Beth—I produced a lot of tracks for her solo album and had gone on tour with her—so I was really busy all the time, Geoff was busy, he took a big time-out and went to Australia and hung out on the beach for a while, and I carried on working and doing things I wanted to do. Things that inspired me and fed my brain for our future. … I did some work with Sparklehorse, and that was a good time for me in a way, but it was not a good time for Portishead. But it wasn’t a big drama. That’s another thing about press: ‘They split up and they hate each other and Geoff attacked Adrian on the plane and tried to kill him with a knife!’ No one ever said that, but it’s that kind of thing. It gets massively out of hand. We finished touring for a year and a half, a really long stint, our whole lives were fucked, the keys didn’t fit the doors of life anymore when we got back, and Geoff and I mixed our live album, and went out to the countryside. After everyone had gone home, we straight filled up the car with alcohol, went to a studio out in the country, got fucked for about three weeks, mixed the live record, and walked away from there thinking we would not do anything with each other for a long while.
You’re referring to the Live at Roseland record?
Yeah, that was the last effort, the last hill where we could roll down the other side.
In the 90s you could put out a record and just sort of let it marinate for a couple years. But now, everything is old the second it comes out. And bands feel pressured to put out an album every year or so.
Yes, and a lot of bands don’t sustain it, and don’t survive it. And some bands—some of my favorite bands—who have had albums I don’t really like, you can tell they weren’t really inspired when they did it. There’s a sense that they did it because that’s what they do—even older bands, real favorites of mine. And then they make a killer album. I suppose there’s something to be said for that, but I don’t think that’s anything we’d want to do. We just want it to be something we can really stand behind.
Ikey Owens once said to me, ‘I don’t believe in inspiration, I believe in ritual.’
I like to have inspiration and do less, I think. Just recently I’ve been running from one slippery rock to another, jumping from one slippery rock to another one. And surviving through it. All ways are valid, but with Portishead we wait for inspiration. Ritual is a good way, but I don’t think we could ever do that. I’m excited by stuff I listen to at the moment and there are periods of my life where I couldn’t give a fuck about what I’m listening to, it’s a deluge of nonsense. Now it’s a good space—I feel inspired and ready to do a record when we come off tour in January.
It’s rumored you guys are friends with Banksy. Is that true?
How did you find that out? Given that he doesn’t tell people who he is. Was it like you came home to find a stencil on your wall and you’re like, ‘Bob! Did you do that?’ and Bob says, ‘Yeah. I’m Banksy.’
Geoff did some music for his film, but I knew Banksy. I remember about twelve years ago cycling through an area of Bristol and seeing a stencil—it was one of those ones of a clown with a gun, on a signpost—and I stopped on my bike and thought, ‘Who’s Banksy, this is amazing!’ And I knew this arty couple who moved to Bristol who were really fucking weird and they tried to get art happenings happening and stuff, and they introduced me to Banksy when I was going to see Polly Jean Harvey play, and she’s a friend of mine. We met, and I was really late to meet him, and I said, ‘Do you want to come to the Polly Harvey gig?’ And we went to the gig together. I sort of—I never bought any of his paintings and I don’t have any of his paintings, but I really did want to. Because he was around, we knew him. He has world mystique but he’s been to my house at parties and stuff. He doesn’t live in Bristol anymore but he used to, he’s got a Bristol accent and lived in Bristol.
You said in a recent interview that there is a negative feeling in England now most of the time. But when I think of England, I’m like, ‘Well, even if I don’t have a job, I don’t have to take out loans to pay for school and there’s free health care.’
I think a lot of people feel disgruntled. That’s what those riots were about in some ways. We don’t trust in the government at all, no one does. There’s a lot of shit going on as always, same as in your country as well. I know we have health care, but we’ve always had health care. If we didn’t have it we’d be more aware of it. But we’ve had it all our lives, and I think of course it’s a brilliant thing, and there’s good stuff here—good free education. But I watched TV this morning, and it was just horrific the stuff that was going on, the politics all over the world. Endless nastiness and shit around the world. And all the phone hacking stuff in England. They’re finding more and more stuff, really bad stuff. We found that journalists had been finding private phone numbers of people whose children had been murdered. They’d gotten ex-directory numbers. I don’t really understand how that can happen. There’s a lot of negativity and shittiness. But you’ve got that in your country as well.
Yeah, well don’t get too comfortable about that health care. We’ve had Social Security since the New Deal, and I’m not so sure it won’t be privatized by ten years from now. Something that has existed my whole life, that I counted on existing when I’m old, that I pay into—it’s on the table now, and who knows what will happen.
Really? That’s fucked up.
PORTISHEAD WITH THOUGHT FORMS ON WED., OCT. 19, AT THE SHRINE AUDITORIUM AND EXPO HALL, 665 W. JEFFERSON BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM.