Multiplicity: Geoff Barrow Speaks On Quakers, Beak >, Drokk + Portishead

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.Geoff_Barrow

Geoff Barrow in the studio in Bristol, UK. Words by Dave Morris, of

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?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.Geoff_Barrow-Beak

GB: It’s the same thing that draws me to what is considered Krautrock I suppose, as well; it’s the unconventional music writing. I suppose most people when they pick up the guitar, they play a couple of major chords and want to sing to it. For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to experimentation and sounds that I don’t know where they come from. As a kid, the stuff that really got me into that was early electronic pop from the ’80s, I expect. As an 11, 12 year old, I would be into O.M.D., “Joan of Arc” or something. The opening notes of “Joan of Arc” are just these weird sounds. And then on from there.

I think that’s where Krautrock fits in. It was made by people in Germany that wanted a feeling for themselves, that wasn’t just copying. You know, the Rolling Stones would look back at blues and go, OK, this is where we are. And Can and Kraftwerk were, like, we don’t want to be just a German band trying to be an American blues band. I would never put myself in the same league, but I suppose I would say, that’s the same as Portishead regarding traditional songwriting. I mean, you listen to the radio now and it’s like, Skrillex, wobbly bass kind of rhythmical, blues verse and a classical, rock chorus. You look at the basis of songwriting; in Portishead we keep on trying to move it, but we still try to maintain a human aspect of our writing – that is emotional, that pulls on your heartstrings, yet that isn’t based on blues. It’s like, trying to write sad music without it being blues based.

I suppose, that is the ultimate goal for me. I mean, modern music is so fucking positive, I hate it! It’s like everybody’s on pills, everyone’s on MDMA. It’s just like, you’re not allowed to have a minor aspect of that, or a slightly shit-recorded version of it. Even the bands that are supposedly real, like Alabama Shakes. It’s so happy, know what I mean? And Adele, who I’ve got a lot of respect for as a person and as a songwriter… it’s still fucking happy-sad.

OKP: It’s almost oppressively happy.

GB: It’s happy-sad. It’s like, don’t go underneath this line, because Satan will come and strip you of your tattoos. Fuck’s sake, it’s just weird, man. And there’s, like, billions of people going, I want to hear some decent music, but I’m just confused. Do I like this? I don’t know whether I like this. I don’t really like it, because it’s not Nirvana, it’s not someone who tears my fucking guts up – in a pop way – that’s brilliant. It’s no wonder the music industry is on its arse. It needs someone who gives a fuck – I mean, who’s not perfect.

OKP: And who’s given the room to do what they do best.

GB: Yeah, but traditionally, that would happen regardless of any major label or any radio stuff. But it’s just stopped dead in its tracks. It’s really scary, man. It’s scary for the general public not to have someone they can really believe in, know what I mean?

OKP:  It goes in cycles, I suppose. Though to be fair, we forget that there was only one Clash.

GB: Yeah, but there was always one. And at the moment, there ain’t one. Know what I mean?

OKP: Fair point. That’d be a depressing note to end the interview on, though! Tell me what’s happening with Beak>?

GB: [Laughs] I guess it would. Basically, we recorded as a band that had never played together in 2009, and it was really harmonious, it came out brilliantly. And then we went on tour, which was really exciting because we were in the back of the van, doing what we did, playing like weird Norwegian dance and music festivals. And we got back into the studio and we were so busting, really busting, to record another record. And we pushed record, and we were fucking terrible. Like, the worst prog pub shit you’d ever heard in your life. Anything we had achieved had been broken.

We kept on trying, and one day we did something that sounded alright. So we don’t really know what we are now. The tunes sound more together and put us in a better place. So the album just is what it is. I think it’s got some really good tunes on it, but they are more proper tunes than experiments. I’m singing more, which is frightening for me because I’m singing and that is never what I expected to do. What I love about Beak> is, OK, this is the second record. There’ll be a third record, and there’s going to be a fourth record and a fifth record, and people will take it or do what they want with it, really. There are 10 or 11 tracks on the album, and there’s a special edition with another 11 tracks, and I think Matt from the band thinks that the bonus tracks are better than the album. We can’t tell anymore. We’re just going to put it out.

At the moment with Quakers, Drokk and Beak>, I could not be in a happier place. It’s brilliant, man. Just to be able to release music and be able to pay someone to work full time to work on the label, it’s just brilliant. Invada is me and Fat Paul and a guy called Reg who runs the label, and we can pay his wages from what we release, and it’s great.

OKP:  You’re living the dream.

GB: Well, there’s lots of people that ain’t, in music. I’m not under any illusion that Beak>, Quakers and Drokk will pay my mortgage, do you know what I mean? Obviously Portishead is that thing. But if I can do some stuff that people who dig Portishead might be into, then cool, man. It’s good.