Geoff Barrow in the studio in Bristol, UK. Words by Dave Morris, of a-void.ca
Musicians with multiple side projects are rarely to be trusted. They always say they’re happy and fulfilled in their main band, and then six months or two years later The White Stripes break up. By all indications, Geoff Barrow is not that musician – the co-founder of beloved gloom-merchants Portishead has his hands more than full, but as he puts it while skype-ing from his home in the U.K., “I’m not under any illusion that Beak>, Quakers and Drokk are going to pay my mortgage.” So we can enjoy Barrow’s projects without fear of them luring him away from Portishead. Digging them requires no suspension of expectations, either; all three are genuinely worth flipping out over, from the experimental trance-rock of Beak> (their new LP, > >, is due out June 2 digitally and July 12 physically on Barrow’s own Invada Records) to the boomin-system jeep-beat hip-hop of Quakers (self-titled album out now on Stones Throw) to the dystopian synthscapes of his collaboration with film composer Ben Salisbury’s Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One (released this week, also on Invada).
The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the third requires a special primer: Drokk began as a soundtrack to the forthcoming film Dredd, a new adaptation of the celebrated British comic series Judge Dredd that has run for decades in the weekly comics magazine 2000AD. Though the soundtrack wasn’t used, Salisbury and Barrow decided to finish and release it anyways. Like the Quakers record, it’s a phenomenal disc that any artist would be happy to have as their main project, and the bits of the Beak> album that have emerged are equally promising. Okayplayer spoke with Barrow about his remarkable side-hustle hat trick, his main gig and the state of modern music today. Among other things.
OKP: Thanks for agreeing to speak with us. You’re a busy man.
Geoff Barrow: I’ve got really lucky actually, the three things I’ve been working on all finished around the same time, even though one took six months, one took four years and another one took two years. And they come out like they did. It’s great.
OKP: Which was which?
GB: Drokk took six months; Beak> took two years and Quakers took four.
OKP: On the subject of Quakers, why does the album have so many short tracks?
GB: I used to DJ a fair amount with a guy called Boca 45, this guy Scott Hendy. And in his hip-hop sets, he’d just drop one tune after another and just, like cut you in half with how heavy the next tune was. We were like, let’s just make a hip-hop record that just keeps on droppin heavy.
Also, we said to the MCs, If you want on this thing, just drop a verse. You know, you haven’t got to get into a heavy one if you’re touring or whatever it is. That’s where we were, and it just makes me excited about hip-hop, really.
OKP: How did you make Drokk? I’ve read varying accounts of the production.
GB: One half of the album was made on three of the same synthesizers, Oberheim Two Voices – synthesizers from the mid-’70s. They’re really amazing machines. The other half was written on this program called Paul [PaulStretch]. It’s the most incredible time-stretch program; it’s just, like, a genius part of modern technology. The algorithm will take a Britney Spears track or a Justin Bieber track and make it sound like Sigur Ros. It’s incredible. We downloaded it, but instead of using other people’s music, we used our own; we time-stretched it down a hundred times. Absolutely enjoyable.
OKP: And Beak> is also on there, right?
GB: Yeah, for one track. We recorded Beak> playing a very Can-like, “Mother Sky” kind of vibe, and then we time-stretched it. If you go back and listen to the track, it’s us playing and then it’s the same track, put through Paul.
OKP: For North American readers, can you explain a bit about Judge Dredd and 2000AD? Some people might know the Sylvester Stallone movie adaptation from the ’90s.
GB: Ooooh, that’s a really terrible place to start. Basically, Judge Dredd is possibly the most totally brilliant, incredible comic – well not comic, graphic novel, but based in a weekly form – of our generation. In England we had Margaret Thatcher and the unions and rubbish on the street… it’s kind of like how Star Trek was so incredibly on point about bringing up situations like race or poverty or political stuff – the McCarthy years, all that stuff – how it brought it to television, 2000AD brought the Thatcher years to life in a comic.
Ben didn’t know anything about 2000AD, and I grew up reading 2000AD and listening to Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, and so it all kind of fit, really. I knew Ben from playing football – soccer, as you call it – in a team and he’s such a talented composer and writer, it’s shocking. We were approached by a friend of [novelist/screenwriter, Dredd writer/co-producer] Alex Garland to work on the new Dredd film. So we started working on the rough edits, and it was amazing, it was great, but it just didn’t work out for reasons that I can’t go into. I’ve got nothing but really good things to say about the film and the people involved – it’s brilliant. But Ben and I just kind of went: “Well, let’s just keep on going,” because we were so into the stuff we’d been doing. So then I contacted 2000AD; they knew about the film aspect of it obviously, and they said, yeah, we’d love to get involved somehow. And so we just went from there.
OKP: So much of your music has been influenced by soundtracks, and you’ve paid homage to composers like John Barry and Roy Budd. What is it that draws you to that sphere?