Portishead’s Dummy will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its release in 2014 – but the band’s founder and producer Geoff Barrow isn’t interested in marking the occasion, as recent reissues by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and U2 have done.
“I’m a musician, I want to move forward. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about that B side we never released because we’re not dead and we can still produce music,” Barrow tells Rolling Stone. But Barrow’s reluctance to revisit the highly influential album goes well beyond not wanting to look back: He has avoided talk of the album for nearly two decades because he was turned off by its success.
“When people say it’s the record of the decade or that time I never believe it’s in there particularly for the right reasons,” Barrow says. So he’s looking ahead with a rare U.S. tour that kicks off at ATP’s I’ll Be Your Mirror festival (which the band curated) on October 1st and thoughts of a new album – though, as he joked, “That could be 10 years.”
What prompted the tour now?
We never played [2008 album] Third in the States. We only played Coachella so when we got asked to do ATP it seemed like that was our opportunity to go back out and actually play Third to people who haven’t seen it. And we started getting calls from festivals in Europe and we haven’t played festivals in Europe since 1998 as well, so we thought, “Okay, let’s spend a little bit of time and go and enjoy ourselves.” And it was actually incredibly enjoyable, which makes a change for us.
But you’ve been able to still play live and still have the following.
Yeah, we have. Our band’s like 20 years old, we’re kind of out of the norm really. We’re in this privileged position I never thought we were gonna get to where people want to come and see us – we don’t want to over-tour so people aren’t gonna get sick of us.
Would you do any sort of special reissues for Dummy?
No, unfortunately special editions have been a dirty word because they’ve just basically been a tool of the industry to try and squeeze more money out of the fan or the music buyer. We absolutely battled and fought and pulled our hair out on Dummy to make a record. I can’t see what use there is to release material that we didn’t think was worthy for the record. We never have much bonus material – it’s not like there’s me playing acoustic guitar and Beth [Gibbons] singing on it for a song that didn’t make it, it doesn’t exist. We would only do that if we were maybe forced into it by some label contractual thing.
Have you already started the new album?
No, we haven’t. I’m going to start in January, I don’t know when Beth’s gonna start or when Adrian [Utley] is gonna start, but I’m gonna get my head together for January basically to start writing. Historically that could mean fucking 10 years. [Laughs] We’re only ever going to release something that we feel comfortable with or else it’s not worth releasing basically.
So you are realistic about the timeline?
Of course, we’ll release it when it feels like we’ve got something to say. I think most probably any one of us would prefer to go and take up some van driving job than release an album that we didn’t feel comfortable about.
So it may be a minute again.
If I could do it in a couple of weeks then I’d love to. The pressure it’d take off my wife is huge, but it’s less likely too. I can only speak for myself and usually it only comes around when I’m really, really infused with music I hear around me. If I hear music around me that freaks me out and actually scares me into wanting to test myself, then usually I’m pretty progressive and come up with stuff. If I don’t hear stuff around me then usually it takes quite a while.
What was the last thing then that had that effect on you?
“Temporary Secretary,” by Paul McCartney on McCartney II. It could just be a sound, it could literally be two notes that work against each other.
How has the music on Third changed for you revisiting it three years after it came out?
On our first tour after we released Third, the tour we played in Europe, there was definitely an uncertain feel about playing the old material next to the new material. And now it actually feels incredibly on the same path, like playing “Mysterons” next door to “Machine Gun” or “Sour Times” next to “The Rip.” I think it’s gonna be interesting to play to U.S. audiences because there are a lot of people who haven’t seen us for a long time. When we played our second album I thought we were quite difficult as a band then.
Was there a moment where you became aware of how influential Dummy had become?
I purposely avoided any conversation about Dummy with anybody because in the States and in mainland Europe it had the connotations of kind of trendy England music industry dinner party bullshit. What Dummy turned into was not what we intended it to be. It was assimilated by a dinner party kind of crowd and stuck on the background or put on by people coming down from pills as well. For me, it was avoiding that thing – the words “Dummy,” “sophisticated,” “European,” “soundtrack,” “aren’t we clever,” “jazz” aspect of it – because that was the complete opposite of where we’d come from, what our influences were, but it just rolled into that thing. So when people say it’s the record of the decade or that time I never believe it’s in there particularly for the right reasons. And if it was just a load of coke-snorting pricks, then that, to me, doesn’t mean anything.
Every artist deals with it though with a successful album, once the music is out there you can’t control who adapts it as their own.
Oh no, you can’t control it, of course. And I never really expected to, but I think behind the coolness and trip-hop and bullshit I’ve met a lot of people that have been incredibly been touched by it. And people who lived in the middle of fucking nowhere who heard a record on a radio whilst they were working on the other side of the world and you just kind of go, “Wow, that’s when you really realize that you’ve done something to be proud of.” But I’m sure lots of bands have [that problem].
Do you have any hint of the sound coming up?
No, but I really want to enable Beth to write the songs that she wants to. I think our sounds are fairly strong now and we’ve opened up a door that doesn’t have many boundaries. I just want now to write really good music for Beth to sing on to and write songs, that’s ultimately my goal. Regardless of sound, if you can write something that enables somebody to write really beautiful songs then you can’t go wrong.