Midway through a Friday press conference, Portishead guitarist and studio ace Adrian Utley interrupted the questioning and pointed to one of the dozen black tape recorders positioned in front of him.
"Someone's tape stopped," he said politely, looking into the field of about 25 reporters for the owner.
Ever-conscious of the media, perhaps a bit wary of the attention, Portishead are, finally, back in the spotlight. The day after a performance backed by a 30 piece orchestra at New York City's Roseland, band leader Geoff Barrow, and two of his recording/performing associates,
Utley and Dave McDonald (credited on the group's debut album, Dummy, as playing "nose flute" on "Roads"; McDonald was also the engineer for Dummy), met with the press to discuss the new self-titled Portishead album (Oct. 7).
Lead singer Beth Gibbons, who mesmerized the audience Thursday night, did not attend the press conference. "She's not trying to be Miss Mysterious Woman," explained Barrow. "It's just that she is very uncomfortable doing press."
Barrow fielded questions from an international group of reporters, many of whom had flown to New York to attend the concert and the press conference. Many of the queries focused largely on how Barrow and Gibbons were affected by the
success of the 1994 album, Dummy. "For about 13 months I just lost it," Barrow told reporters. "I felt ridiculously pressured."
Speaking candidly Barrow recounted that with the public's high expectations for
a second album, he "completely over-analyzed" the process of creating it. "I forgot the reason I play music in the first place, " he said.
explained Adrian Utley, one of the reasons Portishead waited so long to release a
second album was that the band spent an enormous amount of time creating original
work to sample from. "Rather than take a stack of records and sample those," added Barrow, "we created
a whole new stack of records to sample from."
The night before, at Roseland, the band simply walked out onto the stage and began to play. Instead of huge video screens and wild lighting, Portishead concentrated on their music. It was more than enough.
Wearing faded Levi's and a black shirt, her face framed by red shoulder-length hair, Gibbons stood at the microphone, nodding her head to the beat, smoking a cigarette and sang her melancholy lyrics in a quietly intense manner that made it near impossible to take one's eyes off her.
Opening with "Humming," a song off the upcoming album, Portishead performed most of that album, including "Cowboys," "All Mine," "Western Eyes," "Half Day Closing," "Seven Months" and "Elysium." Naturally, they also delivered the hits: "Sour Times," "Numb" and "Glory Box."
Per the band's decision, the performance had a
very "unplugged" format: television cameras circling the stage, bright lights
overhead, a relatively quiet and polite audience sitting cross-legged on the floor
or standing in the back. There are plans to make a video of
There was no departure from the band's trademark sound of slow, steady beats and
ethereal, otherworldly echoes, nor did the orchestra diminish Portishead's
minimal and crystalline sound; a dozen violins playing behind Beth Gibbons only
enriched her thinly sweet vocals.
When asked about the performance, which was the first time
the band had played live in two years, Barrow responded with a smile: "It was a
bit like putting a big magnifying glass on ourselves."
Barrow's said they used the orchestra, which won't be part of the tour scheduled to
kick off at the end of the year, because they wanted to do something different.
"And many of the newer songs have strings," added Utley.
Asked about being labeled "trip-hop," Barrow said, "There's been a lot of press about it, but at the end of
the day if people like our records, they like our records. Whatever it's called:
trip-hop or shmock-slock...it all comes down to the records."