The last time Bristol, England, trip-hop visionaries Portishead released a full-length studio album was back in 1997, when artists — and the music industry, as a whole — didn't lose sleep over the possibility of their work prematurely leaking to millions of illegal downloaders several weeks ahead of their LP's commercial release.
A lot can happen in 11 years.
"We definitely weren't expecting that," Portishead multi-instrumentalist — and founding member — Adrian Utley said of their new album's leak, in an interview with MTV News last week. "And we're definitely pissed about it. But I suppose there's nothing you can do about it. We know how it leaked, and I would love to tell you, but I can't. You can only hope that it's not going to f--- everything up for you, because I think, in this world, there are downloaders and people who buy. I don't know if you can convince downloaders to buy. If we don't sell records, we can't make any more records. We're just not rich people."
What Utley doesn't realize, though, is that — like Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy — Portishead's Third may be one of the most anticipated records of the last decade. Eleven years is a long time to wait, so it was never a question of if, but rather when the record would hit the Net. And in all sincerity, Utley's sort of oblivious to the rabid demand for Third, which finally lands in stores April 28.
"We were just in Paris and Berlin doing some television shows, and when we took the stage, there was the hugest cheer — it was really affirming," Utley explained. "When you're in the studio you have the Internet, so you sort of sense what's going on to some extent. But we'd see each other every day, and we'd talk about biscuits or tea or politics, music — we didn't really talk about the outside world or the world's perception of us very much. We've just started to sense it now."
And while fans the world over may be ecstatic for new Portishead material, Utley said the band is not quite as psyched. They're just happy to be back on the scene with an album that, in the opinion of this writer, is deserving of the wait.
" 'Excited' is not something that we ever get, really," he said. "I'm excited that you're excited, and that's good enough. I'd have to say that my own relationship with [Third] is complex, and I don't know that it will ever be resolved. The same thing happened with [1994's] Dummy. I've never listened to it. I've never listened to Portishead, and I'll probably never listen to Third again. I don't mean that in a bad way, but once you've done it, it's out in the world for other people to hear. I am proud of what we've done, but the flame burns so brightly when you're making it, that it's almost like being sick — you don't want to revisit it if you don't have to."
In the time since Portishead's release, singer Beth Gibbons went off to record a solo album, 2002's Out of Season, and Utley and instrumentalist Geoff Barrow worked on several other projects as well. Portishead had always planned on recording a third set, but now that they've all started families, it took them a lot longer to get cracking on the tracks.
"There was no sense that we weren't ever going to do a record again," Utley said. "Geoff and I had already started working on the stuff earlier on, I'd say around 2001. So we always knew we were going to do it, but we wanted to do other stuff, too. We'd grown exhausted with what we were doing, and we were touring almost nonstop since Dummy. We couldn't take care of all the other aspects of our lives. It's quite exhausting in the end, so we wanted to do other things, but we didn't want to not do Portishead."
When Utley and Barrow first started throwing ideas around for Third, they "didn't feel right — it wasn't happening really." So they decided to take a few more years to think about what they wanted to do with the record and reconvened in 2004. "And that's when we wrote the track 'We Carry On.' That was the beginning of a new us, really. That's when we thought, 'OK, this is going to work now.'
"But it's never prolific and easy," Utley continued. "It always just takes a long time, and it's just particular to us working together, because if we work outside of this context, we can work a lot quicker. For us, every track has to live somewhere — it has to have a world that it's going to live in, rather than just being a song straight away."
The problem the band originally faced back in 2001 was that, while they wanted to retain some semblance of their signature sound, the songs they were working on sounded, well, not like Portishead at all, Utley said.
"This other stuff that we did didn't work earlier on, because it wasn't right," he said. "It didn't sound like us, if you like. You might have thought it was us, but it didn't feel like it was us. One of our rules is, we don't want to repeat what we've done before, and I imagine a lot of people are like that. We couldn't possibly go back to doing a 'Glory Box,' or doing a 'Strangers' or doing a 'Cowboys.' It's done. So that was one of the hard things — we had to find a new voice but retain that old voice as well, and be relevant. We wanted to incorporate some of the influences we've had since [Portishead], and I think we've done that."
Unfortunately, aside from their appearance at next month's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (see "M.I.A., Roger Waters, Portishead Lead Coachella Lineup; East Coast Festival Also Announced"), Portishead don't plan on touring the States at all — not this year, or the next. And Utley is "deeply sorry for that." But if the band were to do an extensive tour, that would make the wait for the band's fourth record that much longer.
"To do a massive tour at the moment would be a folly, I think," he said. "If we do a year of touring again, we won't want to see each other for a while. It won't be another 10 years, I swear. Man, it's just that life passes so quickly, and you get home and do other things and you try to enjoy your life. We've got children now, and we just wanted to live life, rather than being slaves to this career, if you like. It's not like we've gone off and spent time having children and just doing nothing but that, but time just goes by like that. We finished the album late last year, and it's springtime already."