By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It is perhaps just as well that Portishead, which was to make its American debut here April 16 at Deep Ellum Live, canceled its Dallas gig just a few days ago. The Island Records publicist explains the cancellation this way: "The band decided to play two shows in Los Angeles instead. They didn't really have a venue in Dallas locked down, anyway."
But Portishead mastermind Geoff Barrow had expressed his hesitancy about performing in America (and Texas, especially--"You do hear some weird stories about Dallas," he says) a week earlier over the phone from a recording studio in England. He feared he would make his first trip to the States and find, as he put it with great hesitancy in his voice, "Line dancing, country music, rednecks, and that kind of stuff. You know what I mean?"
"I won't be going out anywhere," said the 23-year-old Barrow of his impending tour. "I'm just going to be kind of going to bed early."
But such are the attitudes of a man whose music is distinctly British, however grounded it is in the soul and sound tracks of America circa 1955 or the hip-hop of Compton 1988. Portishead, like This Mortal Coil before them and Massive Attack afterward, is a band that's distinctly English--the product of a dank, loveless land (stereotypes go both ways, podnuh) that has also produced such glum, moody, atmospheric types as Cocteau Twins, Morrissey, the Cure, A.R. Kane, and My Bloody Valentine.
If there is, indeed, a new wave of the British invasion occurring at this moment, with such bands as Oasis and Bush and London Suede pulling up to our unguarded shores armed to the teeth with the ammunition of pop, then Portishead, riding on the success of its debut, Dummy, outclasses and outshines them all--the best reason since the Clash for the American Revolution.
The 24-year-old Barrow came of age in the dank and dreary small English town of Portishead (he now lives a few miles away in Bristol), a pasty-faced white kid who spent lots of his free time spinning records in friends' basements. He eschewed the clubs and became "one of the millions of bedroom DJs that happened in this country"--purchasing recording decks, mixing and matching records and dance beats, scratching old American soul, R&B, and jazz vinyl.
To this day, he owns relatively few albums and claims to possess the most basic knowledge of music, picking up most of his information from the British music mags and his few forays into the clubs. Though it seems an odd combination, the sound track of his youth was American hip-hop, which became the rage in England several years after its popularity exploded here. (While N.W.A., the Geto Boys, and Ice-T were just beginning to reap phat dollars wielding Uzis and hoes, white kids in England were spinning upside-down on pieces of cardboard and thrilling to the idea of breakdancing.)
"Hip-hop was kind of weird, because it was really strange for me--being a little white kiddie from Portishead," Barrow says. "That was the music for me. It's actually the truth. It was. People like Fu-Schnickens, A Tribe Called Quest, the New School, and Black Sheep. It's just kind of gone on. Now I listen to rock music, indie music, classical, whatever...any kind of music.
"But back then, I would just kind of pretty much listen to dance music and rap. I could never say that I lived the hip-hop lifestyle, because it's impossible. I would never say that I understood exactly what the lyrics were, because I didn't come from the Bronx or Los Angeles. I would never even dream I could pretend to understand what those guys had gone through. But the music was new and totally exciting.
"It's weird, isn't it? It's amazing that music can travel like that. At the time I was living in Portishead, there was two black people living there. To be absolutely honest, it's ridiculous, little towns like that. I suppose it's the same thing in the States."
If Dummy reflects Barrow's early appreciation for hip-hop, it also takes its cue from a much, much older sound--the groovy jazz of film and TV composer Lalo Schiffrin (who wrote the score for "Mission: Impossible"), the funky soul of Isaac Hayes, the fusion of Weather Report. It incorporates so many styles it manages to transcend simple definition ("trip-hop" is but one label writers use to describe Portishead, though it's no more useful than "grunge"). This is a band that both relies on technology and claims to abhor it, one that uses samples (from War's "Magic Mountain" to Johnny Ray's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again") and programmers as well as an honest-to-God string section, trumpets, and a Hammond organ.
"Because of modern technology, everything, especially music, sounds so, so clean and crisp and digital, and we've tried to go the opposite of that," Barrow says. "We've tried to capture some kind of old style of songwriting. I just think most of it is so kind of made, not real. I personally think there has been a lack of song in music for quite a while."