Comfortably Numb

Portishead's sppoky mood music provides a soundtrack for sour times

When Portishead kicked off a highly anticipated American junket last weekend, the Bristol group had performed a grand total of three gigs. Bandleader Geoff Barrow laughs nervously when asked whether those U.K. shows were enough preparation for his band's stateside unveiling. “No,” he answers without hesitation. “That was a definite no.”

In many ways, Dummy is a well-chosen album title for Barrow's red-hot-and-blue group. Away from the microphone, vocalist Beth Gibbons cultivates a mute persona that's already been widely noted. Barrow, the group's chief conceptualist, admits he plays just enough keyboards and drums to get by. The band's dour soundtracks suggest a fixation on cult films, but Barrow claims he's not even sure what film noir is, exactly. And though the British press has dubbed Portis-head the ringleaders of the Bristol-based “trip-hop” movement, Barrow says, “We don't know an awful lot of other bands, to be quite honest.”

In spite of all this blissful ignorance, Portishead have somehow managed to capture the sound of being too much with the world. Their defeatist's triumph — the ghostly “Sour Times” — introduced a pop form as current as hip hop yet as time-tested as Edith Piaf, a seemingly incongruous union of agonized torch singing and funky drumming. In the States, Dummy has ridden the single to sales approaching the gold plateau; the track “Roads” is now featured in the movie Tank Girl. Already, Barrow's initial plan for Portishead — to record 10 albums in 10 years — has been derailed. “We failed on that one this year,” Barrow sighs. “But I can't complain.”

Though his unwitting demeanor is refreshing, Barrow stretches the bounds of plausibility when he says he doesn't really see despair as the band's metier. Melancholia covers Portishead's debut LP like a shut-in's bedsores, from the throbbing ache of “Wandering Star” (as Gibbons sings of being “always doubled up inside … the blackness, the darkness, forever”) to the creeping catatonia of “Biscuit.” On the latter, when Gibbons ekes out the line, “It's just I'm scared,” her quickened pulse is palpable.

To Barrow, Gibbons' evocations of a woman and her interior voices are less about misery than they are a return to passionate expression in general. “The main thing is,” he says, “we just wanted to get some real emotion back into music.” For the 23-year-old arranger, hip-hop beats propel his ideas. “The most emotional type of music we've got is rap music,” Barrow argues.

While reviewers continually reference Dummy's “cinematic” quality, Barrow addresses the issue only with reservations. He won't cite specific composers; instead he claims he found inspiration in the “whole genre” from the '60s and the '70s. “They were using backward organs distorted at high levels and odd drum sounds. That's what we got off on. Not because they're soundtracks, but because they're curious bits of music …

“In France and Italy,” he continues, “they used classical playing in thrillers, [with] one riff running all the way through the film on different weird instruments.” Later, film scores would incorporate what Barros calls the States' “funky soul thing: Cannon, Starsky and Hutch — soul beats, you know? To us, it was excellent.”

Claiming he's not a choosy moviegoer, Barrow describes his taste. “To me, Star Wars is the best movie ever. I like Michael Caine films. I usually buy Dolph Lundgren videos. Really brain-dead films,” he laughs. “Perhaps I should say that we're into art films, but we're not.”

Portishead's own 10-minute art film, To Kill a Dead Man (scheduled as a centerpiece of their live set), is not exactly Barrow's proudest moment. “I wouldn't particularly like to show it,” he admits, “but other people are interested.

“It was an experiment. We didn't want to make a standard pop video, spending 100,000 pounds on a dancing girl.” The “Sour Times” video is an edit from Dead Man, but Portishead has since made more “conventional” videos, shooting bargain-basement Super 8 scenes for the singles “Numb” (its first U.K. hit) and “Glory Box.”

” 'Glory Box' is what made us in England,” Barrow explains. ” 'Sour Times' really never happened over here.” Although Go! Discs/London Records clamored for the band to release the single in their homeland, Barrow declined. “It's time to move on,” he says. “We've done a lot more than we ever expected. I don't want to mess it up by releasing old stuff again.”

Barrow, a compulsive tinkerer, says he weaned himself off the computer screen to complete his concept for Dummy: “We've abandoned the idea of modern technology taking you forward,” he says. “Obviously we use some technology, like samplers, but it's a very small amount. We collect old instruments.” He says the band works to “personalize” sounds, “rather than just buying a big Korg keyboard and playing the Hammond sound off it. I like the idea of playing our own sound.”

Despite his frontman status, Barrow downplays his role as the brains inside the Portis head: “I'm a bit of a jack of all trades and master of none, really. I can play drums enough to get a loop, or play keyboards enough to write something … When we play live I use a DAT [tape machine], to correct noises. Live, we don't have any samplers.”

Along with a new drummer and keyboardist, Portishead's touring ensemble includes Barrow's regular collaborators — sound engineer Dave McDonald and guitarist Adrian Utley. Though Dummy is the product of prodigious multitracking, Barrow has mixed attitudes toward sampling other artists' sound bites.

“I can understand why people sample. You can have a rhythm section that's got the groove from hell on it, and you could be in your bedroom and you'd never be able to re-create that. But if you've got the facilities to use real instruments, I think you should … We hardly used any samples on the album.”

Portishead's success has heightened demand for Barrow as a remixer (his credits include Paul Weller, Primal Scream and Ride), but he says, “I did one for the Gravediggaz, and it wasn't very good. For me to be remixing the Gravediggaz is a very big deal. And I think the pressure was on so much that I actually messed it up.” He laughs, soberly. “Most of the remixes have been done with Adrian, and most have been guitar-oriented. Some I've been happy with, but a lot I've been depressed about.” Spoken in true Portishead parlance.

Portishead plays a sold-out show Wed, April 19, at Bimbo's 365 Club in S.F.; call 474-0365.

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