Portishead’s debut album Dummy came out 25 years ago on August 22, 1994. Considered by many as one of the best albums certainly of the 90s, it is also celebrated by many as one of the best records of all time.
Ahead of the album’s anniversary, Portishead's Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley spoke with me for nearly three hours reflecting in depth on how they along with vocalist Beth Gibbons met and began collaborating in the early 90s, how they secured a record deal for this new sound in a landscape of massively popular Brit-Rock bands, going into incredible detail about each track on Dummy, and speaking to the impact it has had in the last 25 years.
We are excited to share with you their interview, speaking in this much detail for the first time since the record's release. – Morgan Chosnyk
Geoff Barrow: In the UK, you could do a year being unemployed, and the government would pay you the same amount of money you would get as being unemployed, but you could set up a business. So the idea was I was going to set up a music production company. We had to go for this kind of one day where you sit round and learn about the fact of how to do.
Adrian Utley: Personal humiliation day I think it's called.
Barrow: Personal humiliation day for the government. It was really awkward. We were sat around this big kind of table in this hotel in Clifton, and there was a mobile hairdresser. There was a guy wanting to sell chocolates at the back of a van like a sheep shearer. Then, Beth kind of said she wanted to quit and just do singing as a career, and she wanted to concentrate on a song and so on. It was like, "Oh, she's a professional singer," and she's looking at us going out there like a music production company. This is amazing. We could have been, well, absolutely terrible, but we were just like, "Let's work together!"
Barrow: Even though we were making our own records, we had to make stuff that actually sounded like it was taken from full records and then sampled that. If we had made it too, "That's the baseline. That the beat. That's that," it would have sounded too much like a real record here.
Utley: It was a super kind of nerdy operation of ever-evolving methods of making this thing hang together but not be so in tune and not so out of tune. It was a really new way of thinking.
Barrow: We this thing going on, and then we had Beth. That made a massive difference. You had people like DJ Shadow, but there was never maybe a focus point and deep songwriting and personal feeling. She brought her soul to the record.
Barrow: People just didn't get it.
Utley: No, I'd seen this already with some of this stuff that we'd done playing it to some of the old school. There was a kind of massive brick wall in between what we were doing and what they thought. They thought it was really weird, which in some way made me think it was wicked. I felt even more confident about what we were doing that these people were not understanding, and actually who gives a f*** anyway.
Barrow: Basically, what happened [was Ferdy, who became our A&R man when I was working with Neneh Cherry, was sat on the toilet and reading music week, and it said that Neneh Cherry was working with the guys from Portishead. We didn't have a name then, and that's how we got the name Portishead we are from Portis head So.
Utley: I had got a sampler and I was trying to learn how to do all this stuff. I was really interested in it, and it was my complete passion. I've played guitar and other things since I was 15, and for a very brief time in my life I kind of fell out of love with the guitar and was really obsessed with hip hop. I didn't know about the history of it. I learned that from Geoff and Andy Smith later, but for me it was super exciting to hear what Geoff was doing upstairs. I was working with samples. It was like like '91, '92, or something. Eras suddenly switch, and things become really interesting again when they've been really stale. This new thing was exciting. That was a really good vibe for us to start with. Geoff had asked me to help with the record, and I didn't have much more of an idea than he did about doing it other than I had played on quite a few records before. It was another school day for me and an exciting new journey.
Utley: When Geoff asked me to be involved in it, he came back to me and said, "I'm really glad you're involved. It's been absolute chaos up until now. It's been like food fights and God knows what."
Barrow: It was it was like a frat house, but the thing is I had no interest in that frat kind of stuff. I just desperately wanted to write music. Me and Dave Mack had our head down. The other guys were just ultimately having a laugh, and Beth would come up. She was older, as well, and she had a management company. Basically, Beth was singing. It was obvious that she was a grown-up and a songwriter, very unlike the people that I worked with before. All of a sudden something happened. It was actually serious and good, and her voice is incredible.
Utley: We were really obsessed with the tiny minutiae. If you sample a record, there's probably something hanging over from the bar before like a bit of reverb off the voice, which gives a tonality to the drum break. There might be somebody doing tiny chops in it, but they really muffled on an organ. You're not totally aware of them, but if they're not there it makes it sound super clean. We were always into kind of muddying the water bit and giving it some atmosphere.
Barrow: Just stuff you wouldn't really hear, but you feel it.
Barrow: We worked in the studio in another part of Bristol which is called State of Art, and it wasn't state of art by any means. It was you know like it was a budget studio. It didn't matter though because you couldn't really see through most of it because it was just smoke.
Utley: We smoked at least two packs a day.
Barrow: Yeah. All of all of us. We actually opened the door because there was no fresh air and no window. So, we opened the side door one day, and it looked like it was on fire. The fire brigade came!
Barrow: She comes from a different place than where I come from.
Utley: She comes from a different place from all of us I think.
Barrow: Yeah! Because of that she really makes you reconsider your standard thoughts. Nothing's ever cut and dry.
Utley: No, I generally leave conversations with Beth, if it was a cartoon I'd have a massive question mark above my head.
Barrow: It's questioning everything like, "Well, why does that gotta be that way?" You go, "Yeah! Good point! Why does it gonna be that?"
Barrow: I mean, we were into this thing that we called “hip hop tuning” which was when people like New York hip hop producers really inspired us. They would take a sample from Shostakovich and have a big orchestral thing, and then they would take a beat from James Brown. Then, they would take a horn riff from Fred Wesley or Miles Davis. But they had drums already in it, and they had bottom end in it. So, they would try and craft these scenes together. Then, there would be notes that wouldn't actually fit, but it kinda works if you listen to the far side.
Utley: I was obsessed with them at that time. It was a new kind of tonality really. It was kind of two things forced together. Why is that working because they're actually in different keys? It didn't matter anymore because we were in a new world. It doesn't matter that this one's slightly sharp of the other one or is actually in a different key. If it sounds cool, then that's kind of all you need to know.
Barrow: Barry Gray and his orchestra wrote and recorded the music for Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet. They were puppets, but they had the most amazing spacecrafts and dark music, and they had a full massive orchestral score.
Utley: I think the Barry Gray had the biggest orchestra. He always demanded the biggest orchestra, and it was really weird because it wasn't for a big program. It was for a sci-fi puppet show. He is a great writer. The music was awesome.
Barrow: Captain Scarlet's main enemy was the Mysterons, and somebody had a Barry Gray 12". It was the theme from Thunderbirds, and on the other side it was the theme from Mysterons. It had a theremin-like instrument.
Utley: It had a thing called an ondes martenot, which is a French classical instrument that was invented in the 20s. They used to on Star Trek famously.
Barrow: It's kind of sci-fi spooky, and that became that became the main body of it.
Barrow: Andy Smith, who was an old maid from Portishead, is a brilliant DJ and such a lovely lovely man. He had a brilliant record collection and had some soundtracks. I borrowed a load off him. I would borrow records off him all the time to sample and that tune was just you know it was like a straight up hip hop loop.
Utley: I remember John Peel playing something of ours, and that was like a massive moment because he'd been the person you trusted so much about music. That was so cool that's where I first heard Joy Division, so to hear him play one of our tunes it was brilliant.
Barrow: What I loved about him was he didn't play it again because it became too popular. He loved it as a record, but he wouldn't play it because other deejays were playing it and he could play some other stuff that wasn't going to get any airplay.
Barrow: It's got [a] really, like, knocky bass drum. I came up with that, and then from a session I took a chord of an organ or something like that. I put it in the beat, and then I used really heavy compression to make it sound really exciting. Where you hear kick drum everything else goes quiet, and when you don't hear the kick drum and the snare drum all the rest of the noise in between sucks up. It was so important to Dummy.
Barrow: Her tone is really strange as well.
Utley: It's really kind of soulful.
Barrow: It's also Devonshire accent. The way that she pronounces words, on listening back to it, it's really odd.
Utley: I think that's really super cool.
Barrow: Devon is like a farming community.
Utley: I've heard that people start to sound like the animals that they're surrounded with historically. Around cows people have that kind of 'ooh' in their voice, and if they've got sheep they have 'aah' in the voice. I heard somebody say that, and I thought that cannot be true. But, there is an element like way back when shepherds hung out with their sheep more than human beings.
Barrow: You want a pint? Aye.
Utley: That's probably true, isn't it... "It Could Be Sweet." When I first heard it, I could not believe it. I mean the sound of it, but also Beth's voice just completely blew me away. It was a massive moment in life for me that I still remember. As the door opened into the main studio, I heard this voice, and I thought, "Wow, that's amazing!"
Barrow: "Wandering Star" kind of needed a solo, so I just kind of scratched the start of Magic Mountain. I wasn't really ever a scratch DJ, as such, but I was always madly into DJ Premier. You don't need loads of notes to make it sound cool, and that's what Premier did with his scratching. He didn't have to do anything. It was an incredible technique, but still it would just be so cool. He's the most soulful scratch DJ there's ever been.
Utley: That's one of Beth's old tracks, and it had some really strange chord changes in it.
Barrow: Beth wrote it entirely. I think she got a beat tape off of Andy Smith that had just some loops on it, and she just sampled it up and looped it in a really weird place. It was great. I wish I had done that. You played the really wobbly bass stuff, which is the majority of it. You've worked out the weird kind of chords that she had. I can remember the session really well, too. Gary (Baldwin, Hammond organist) is an East Ender, a proper kind of Cockney.
Utley: I had a tune in a band that had the word sneaky in it, and I can't remember what it was. So, I would say like, "Okay, a bit more sneaky."
Barrow: Then he goes, "What like, like this?" You could hear these two old cod going at it. What Gary had was just amazing expression. He could make his organ just go from barely audible to absolutely take your head off.
Utley: It sounded so heavy when we first did it. I remember being really into and taking it on cassette to a session I did with that singer out of Free, Paul Rodgers, and Jeff Beck, and they super did not get it. They said that the snare drum sounds like a tin can. I was like, "Yeah! Wicked! It does!"
Barrow: It was kind of based on when the little girl gets shot in Assault on Precinct 13 by the ice cream van, and there's a theme that goes with it. It's a Fender Rhodes keyboard, and it's really wicked.
Utley: That's John Carpenter. He was like super switched on to just emotion and not any musicality really. All his music was made because he's a director. There's something about that. It's pitched perfectly in terms of emotion. It's kind of sad, but it's not like throw your guts up, which is something we've always tried to avoid.
Barrow: It's kind of got a filmic sound. If you listen to a lot of those kind of late 60s and 70s soundtracks, there is emotion, and it's not hidden. It's direct to the vein.
Utley: It is such a beautiful song.
Barrow: You've said in the past that you don't really want to go to bat to say what a song is about because they are deeply personal things. She doesn't write in third person. It's all her stuff, so it's really personal.
Utley: She's always quoting from Braveheart. I'm not gonna say that's what it was, but sometimes it could be quite surprising that she's massively moved by something. Of course, there is a moving thing, but I always kind of see Braveheart as a little cheesy. It speaks to her.
Barrow: Yes, but it's people saying things that hit directly on an emotion. Whether it was cheesy or not, it's just that she's heard someone else say it. It could be in a completely different context.
Barrow: Well, when I first came to Bristol I didn't have any money. I was a musician, and I had nothing but a bass guitar because I'd been playing bass with people making money. Somebody offered me a session in that time in 1986 when I came to Bristol. The guy asked if I had a fretless bass, so I pulled all the frets out my bass because I needed the money. I basically ruined my bass just to get this session because it was quite well paid, and I could pay the rent then. I was just going to think about it afterwards and see if I could get the frets back in. That's the only bass I had. That's the kind of Jaco Pastorius kind of riff with all the harmonics. It's very much that, and it was the basis of the track.
Barrow: We had the song. We had the beat. We had the parts, but we just didn't have the thing that was the other instrument on top. There were always records everywhere, and I just had a box of like 60s pop. It could be anything, just rubbish that I might be able to take a snare drum from or whatever. I had Johnny Ray "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," and it just worked. I had to slow it down a bit with my hands to make it fit.
Utley: It was absolutely astonishing when you first put it on.
Barrow: The worlds collided. I really like the idea of bit of slowing it down and feeling it be really rough over the top of it because it's a rough sounding track.
Barrow: It was an Isaac Hayes sample. Sometimes in space you just find something, and I hadn't heard it used on another track before. It's just purity, really. That's the loop.
Utley: It's so luscious sounding.
Barrow: They play it so quietly. I mean that's the other thing about it.
Utley: Isaac Hayes is singing over there. He has a massive voice, and he's right close to the microphone. It's quiet, and there's loads of reverb in there. The band is really chilled, so it's a beautiful sounding record.
Barrow: It was a really trashed record, as well. It had a warp in it. It wasn't made on very thick plastic, so it was kind of like cheap. Obviously someone left it out in the sun or something. Luckily, it didn't go too wobbly.
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