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Beak>’s Geoff Barrow on Stunning New LP, Getting Back to Portishead

Geoff Barrow / Photo by Adam Faraday

The groggy post-punk fidget of Bristol’s Beak> — Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his two studio-rat pals from Team Brick and Fuzz Against Junk — is erected on antiquated, simplistic, intentionally demanding limits. The trio write in the studio, record in one room at the same time, don’t do overdubs, and use outdated digital recording rigs that have as much capability as a 24-track tape machine. All of this despite the fact that one-third of the band could be headlining a 10,000-seat theater at any minute. The result of their labors is masterful second album >>. It’s not some Wasting Light “go analog” gimmick party, but a perfect mix of robotic human rhythms intertwining with humanized electronic textures: weird, timeless gloom’n’roll to the beat of the funk fuzz. Ancient-sounding synths phase in Silver Apples wooze-glory, krautrock grooves melt into This Heat avant-punk minimalism, and Devo performs through a mouth full of cottonballs and a stomach full of Codeine. We caught up with Geoff Barrow to talk about his new nauseous ghost-rock opus.

What’s up, Geoff?
England just beat Sweden in the Euro championships so I’m pretty happy. It’s the kind of match that the whole of England closes down. I didn’t do anything, but I did drink beer and watch it. And ignore my children.

Where did you end up watching it?
I watched it at home, I was just knackered today. Actually, I’ve been doing Portishead rehearsals for the shows next week and Clive [Deamer]’s out with Radiohead so I’ve been doing all his drum parts. He’s a mean bastard of a drummer so I’ve had to up my game to try and emulate him. But it’s been good for me, drumming, because I have to really pull myself up, you know?

When you’re not touring or recording, how often do you practice drums?
Never. That might change now because I’ve actually started to like the things I’m coming up with. I think that all the practice I’ve done with Beak> as a drummer actually has made me a lot better drummer… But at the same time there is a kind of naïveté about that first record I really like and I miss on the second one.

How was recording the second record different than the first?
The first album was absolutely just a kind of slugger, a dreamboat of a recording. Basically, we just went in, set up, played, recorded, went home, and that was the album, really. And this time around it was a lot more of a struggle. I think we kind of expected a similar kind of vibe and then we went into the studio and it just wasn’t. When we came back from tour we did a couple of sessions, and we really did sound like a really God-awful prog pub band, really.

Why did you guys end up sounding like that? Because you guys were so practiced?
Yeah, just, I think we were just loud. Because there’s a certain kind of thing with live, you just kind of get into this groove, and as people get into it, you get into it. When you bring it back into a kind of studio scenario , you play it and you just go, “you wanker. There was a lot of material recorded. We’re releasing a bit of a special edition which has got 11 bonus tracks on it. We didn’t just want them to go into the pit of hell.

The first one was done in 12 days. How long did it take you to do this one?
I don’t know, about 50 days or something. There’s still no overdubs….There’s like one overdub, which is like a vocal overdub on something. I think it’s just that whole thing of breaking down that whole, “let’s let a producer fuck around with the ProTools plugins for 30 days, something that doesn’t resemble what you played.”

When you did that one overdub, did you feel like you were breaking a hunger strike?
It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with track-laying, it’s just exciting to create and then for it to be done. You usually create and then there’s eight months of fucking around with it. It’s kind of like if you have a poo and then you keep on having to wipe your ass, flushing the toilet for days on end, you know what I mean? You can actually have a crap, and it’s gone!

Well, you do have another band that hones their records and does a lot of overdubs.
And it will continue to. I think what it is is just a breather. It creates a balanced kind of view, of what your musical world is, know what I mean?

Speaking of limitations, do Beak> record to tape?
Most of the time we record to RADAR. I love it as much as I love tape, basically. I actually, I think I might even love it more. RADAR’s a Canadian digital recording system, it’s got 24 tracks like a tape machine. You can do really limited editing on it, but you can’t change the sounds. Like digital tape. It’s just like a black box that says forward, rewind, record.

The last Foo Fighters record was similar, just one take, all in the same room. It’s becoming kind of like a popular thing now, to give your band limitations.
Bands like Foo Fighters, because they’re a guitar band, they’re all incredible musicians, and able songwriters, so why shouldn’t they be able to go into a fucking garage and bash it out? That’s what people want, in that music, really. I think there’s a real lack of connection through the sound of technology.

How do Beak> bond as friends?
We try and go bowling as much as we can, and we have little celebratory kind of bowling trips with our engineers too.

Which one of you is the best bowler?
It would have to be me, because I’m on the phone. But, I think, Matt [Williams] is kind of wild card, I kind of suppose he’s, what should I call it, his kind of spectrum of mental illness helps him create these weird shots that he sets off and gets strikes at, and Billy’s just kind of pretty, straight down the middle.

Was there a decision to sort of turn your lyrics into these kind of formless groans
[Laughs] Formless groans… Well, because when we play, usually what happens, is we start playing, and I start singing to myself outside of the mic so nobody can hear me. When I’ve kind of got something marginally sorted, I just kind of get on the mic and sing something, and it’s kind of like a stream of consciousness. Half-words come to me, and that’s usually the ones that end up on the record. They usually kind of end up being about something, in my consciousness. Because I’m playing the drums at the same time, it’s really difficult to concentrate on them, you know what I mean?

Do you sing the same thing when you play them live, or do they change?
They change, they develop a bit. When you sing it live, it kind of turns into something else. I was listening to something the other day actually, which was one of our tracks that we were rehearsing to play live in Barcelona, a beat track, and it was like, fucking I didn’t know, I kind of completely changed the words completely, and changed what it was kind of about. But I really liked what it was actually about originally, so I think I’m going to go back to that.

So, uh, what’s up with the next Portishead record?
We’re also playing a couple shows around Europe for a couple of weeks, and then basically I’ll properly get into the writing aspect of it again. It’s been really good rehearsing the last couple of days. It’s given me a real vibe to start writing. Which I’ve had before, but this has definitely given me like a buzz to, because basically, recently I’ve obviously done a load of albums, I did the Quakers album, and did Drokk, the Beak> record, so I feel like I’ve got the space now, that I didn’t have before. I’m really just looking forward to getting into the Portishead. Really just working with Beth the last couple of days, her voice is just so brilliant. Yeah, it will just be really nice to start.