Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on Experimental Band Beak>, Challenges of U.S. Touring + More
Beak> is a highly experimental Bristol, U.K., band spearheaded by Portishead's Geoff Barrow in partnership with Billy Fuller and Matt Williams. Last year, the trio released its sophomore LP, '>>,' which has been called "sludge-rock," "post-punk" and "psychedelic," among other things. If critics disagree about how to describe the disc, there's less debate about the quality: Spin, Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound included the album on their year-end best-of lists.
Beak> recently wrapped a brief U.S. tour, but before the members went home to focus on other creative pursuits, such as the hip-hop group Quakers, Diffuser.fm was able to get Barrow on the phone for a quick chat. As he readied for an in-store performance in Berkeley, Calif., the multi-instrumentalist and producer discussed the challenges of touring, recent changes in the music industry and the differences between Beak> and Portishead. He also shared his strategy for dealing with journalists who only want to focus on the latter band.
How are you doing, Geoff?
I’m fine, man. I’m just stuck in a tiny little hotbox in a room in Berkley, just getting ready for this in-store thing. This is gonna be our last live bit of music as Beak> for a couple of years in America.
Really, you don’t plan on being back for that long?
No, not if we can’t get more people out to the shows. You know what I mean? To be honest, I don’t want to come out here to lose money. I mean, it’s not about making money, but to be honest with you, Billy’s got a little kid, and Matt’s not rich, so it’s just like, if we come over, we need to make it worth it. We’ve had some really good turnouts, but it’s just so expensive to come over with the visas and stuff. They just really want to royally f--- you over. You’re 10 grand down before you even step foot in America.
Yeah, but it keeps music happening in America. I think that’s the way they see it, so … fair enough.
Well, I’m glad you were able to make it over despite the hefty price tag. How many shows are you guys doing?
We did four shows, one radio session, one online session, and now we’re doing in-store in Berkely. So, that’s it. Matt, who’s in Beak>, is in music college, and he only had 10 days off for his school break. So we’re back on the plane tomorrow.
That’s quite a debt to get into to come over and play such few shows, too.
Yeah, that’s what happens with all those things like SXSW and stuff, [too]. It usually costs about five grand to fly a band over, and with a few accommodations, you’re 10 grand down by the time you finish.
That’s hard, since those festivals are such jumping-off points for artists; it’s so important for bands to be present at fests like that.
Yeah, you know, I’ve heard a lot of good things, and I’ve heard about lots of people having terrible times there. Like, really, really amazing bands get overlooked because the mainstream industry’s taking over. You know the bands that are gonna do well have already been decided before they’re out there, because they’ve got big machines working for them. Even if they’ve got indie deals, they’ve done potential deals with massive labels, so it’s just a hype machine. So it might work for you, but I think you’ve got to have a bit of a machine going to make a mark on it.
So that being said, if you were starting from scratch right now, and you didn’t have big machines working for you, what strategy would you take?
There’s only one strategy to take, and that’s just make the best f---ing music you can. That’s the only strategy you can do. That’s the thing that you can really control, and that’s it. It really is that simple. If you make the best music to your ability and really think about stuff, and you sound individual to yourself, then basically, you might have a shot. People make their own music to the best of their ability, and then the wind has to be blowing in the right direction. If the wind’s not blowing in the right direction, then it could be totally amazing, but it just doesn’t get through ... But the last thing you want to do is try and chase what is happening now. Because you're not doing what’s pure for you.
Also, there’s such a delay with everything that if you chase what’s happening now, your record is obsolete by the time it comes out, right?
Yeah, it’s not good. It’s not good. You’ve literally got to say, “What am I into? Where do we want to go with this?” Beth, who I work with, is a believer that if you write a good enough song in any form that it will get to people. I never knew if that was true or not when I was younger, but I think she’s right now.
Even if she's wrong, it’s a great mantra to subscribe to.
So, I was reading about your label, and I found something on Wikipedia about Invada that refers to the label as an Australian label, but you’re from the U.K. How is that?
Yeah, but it started in Australia … maybe 12 years ago. And then it started in England 10 years ago. In Australia, my partner Phil runs it now. It’s kind of a beat, hip-hop label. And basically Invada in the U.K. is a rock label. So it was always different. My partner in the U.K. is named Fat Paul, and we’ve got one employee. We’ve released an awful lot of records. We really have done it from the bottom up. After 10 years of working, we only just put a single on the radio, because it usually just costs too much. It’s going well. We’re actually breaking even; people know about us. Whether people like it or not isn’t really the issue; it’s just whether we can cover Reg, who works for us, ‘cause he’s got two kids, and that the bands feel like they’re treated properly while they’re on it. Hopefully, we release good music.
It was just a curious thing to me that the label started on a whole separate continent.
Yeah, well it was me and the other guy while I was living in Australia for a bit. I was basically helping him out. He wanted to put out an album, and back then, he was like the Australian DJ Shadow. He’s the guy that produced the Quakers album that I just put out on Stones Throw. We went around to all the record labels in Australia, and they were so far behind when it came to any kind of beat-based music that we just decided to set up our own label. And his record did really well; it sold f---ing loads.
If you were going to start Invada today, would you do it any differently?
It wouldn’t, really. We’re quite dinosaur-based. We’re a neanderthal kind of record company in the sense of we release records. We don’t have someone who has meals with [artists] to talk about online stuff, or to talk about getting one of our tracks on a new soundtrack. We should, really, but we don’t. What we do is we get bands to go into studios to record records with people, and then we just release them on CD and vinyl, and we’ve got our own shop. And that’s how we sell them. And then the band goes out and plays. We should be more clever than that, but it doesn’t seem to work like that for us.
Well if it’s working …
Yeah, well most these other labels I know, their turnover is so much greater. Because they just do these ads, or they do some weird thing where an offshoot of a tire company that will pay for a band’s album to be done so they can use it once in an online ad in Israel, or something like that. And I don’t know how people do that. I don’t knock people for doing that, but I don’t do it myself.
So, with Beak>, the project ...
The band, you mean?
Right, the band, apologies. The band writes slow-building songs that a listener can really get lost in, which seems to be in direct contrast to the group you’re most known for, Portishead. Did you do this on purpose?
No, basically they’re instantaneously written. There’s no writing in Beak>. We go into the studio, we set up the instruments, we play and we write simultaneously, and we record it that way. It’s very much like that. Portishead is a completely different world. It’s a traditional song-based project. F---ing hell, I’m saying project now! Band. Beth [Gibbons, of Portishead] writes. She’s a writer. Beak> and Portishead are just two different worlds. But I don’t see Beak> any less. It’s still me being one third, playing an instrument and enjoying myself. I’ve taken things I’ve learned in Portishead into Beak>, and I’ve taken things I’ve learned in Beak> into Portishead.
I’ve read that you use old recording gear, don't do overdubs and write in the studio. Is that the whole focus? Would you ever change your methods?
Yeah, nothing’s fixed. We can record on a Dictaphone, or a computer, or whatever. There’s nothing like that. It’s just that the instruments we play are quite old. You won’t find us on stage with a laptop. It just doesn’t fit with us right as musicians.
That’s good that you guys are open to other possibilities.
Yeah, I mean, we were even talking about doing an a capella album next. It’s just about enjoyment of music. I feel like I’m sixteen again in Beak>, beating on my drums.
When I spoke with your publicist, she clarified that we would focus our questions for this interview on Beak>. What would you say to an interviewer who abused this opportunity with too many questions about your other group?
Fair enough, but I don’t want to talk about that band. There’s nothing to talk about. So if people start talking about them, I’m like “Well, this is just f---ing boring”. If you want to research Portishead, go on the Internet. Pop it into Google. What can I say? At the moment, I want to move forward. Anything I talk about Portishead is going to be back. So unless I’m talking about Portishead, I don’t want to talk about Portishead. I just say, “I’m really sorry. This isn’t a Portishead interview. I’ll see you later. Take care.” There’s nothing wrong with Portishead questions. You know what I mean? So if you want to know what we’re doing next, well, I’d say we’re playing some shows in Europe, which we are. Everyone’s really cool at the moment. We’ve all got studios in Bristol. I’m just moving mine at the moment, and then I can’t wait to start on the new Portishead record. That’s where we’re at. But it’s when people start going, “Well, in 1994, you said Beth had a really bad haircut …”
I hate that. This isn’t Vidal Sassoon. I wanted to ask also about the hip-hop project you mentioned above, Quakers. What effect did real Quakers have on the name of that project?
Well I really like the idea of Quakers because, well, two reasons: One, because of earthquakes, and the whole kind of hip-hop thing of beats and rap stuff and quaking, and two was Quakers’ meetings where you can be from anywhere, where you can be anybody you want. If you feel the need to talk, you talk, and people listen. I liked the idea that Quakers was this big meeting. It wasn’t a religious tie-up. It was purely that.