For Portishead, second thoughts on success

April 28, 1995|By Cary Darling | Cary Darling,Orange County Register

To hear Geoff Barrow tell it, things aren't going well for his band, Portishead.

The group's debut album, "Dummy," reportedly has sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States. The initial single, "Sour Times," has become a staple on alternative rock and adult album alternative stations.

Not only that, Portishead -- named after the band's hometown near Bristol, England -- has received a rapturous critical reception from underground and mainstream media outlets such as as the New York Times, People and Rolling Stone.

To top it off, the duo -- Mr. Barrow, a composer/arranger, and singer Beth Gibbons -- have been hailed as being at the forefront of a new musical movement dubbed trip-hop, a languid, jazzy and cinematic brand of malaise and melancholy. In Portishead's case, it's the torched soul of prime-era Peggy Lee dressed in spy movie, spaghetti Western and '90s urban cool. Perhaps the best description appeared in Mixmag: "Beth Gibbons sounds like a chain-smoking Joni Mitchell hanging out with Cypress Hill."

But Mr. Barrow, 23, is not altogether happy, and he's not even sure how long Portishead will survive.

"We didn't expect to sell more than 30,000 copies in England," he said by telephone on the eve of the band's first U.S. dates. "I wanted to release three albums before we crossed the channel, and it's all gone wrong. And I think it will finish us, to be absolutely honest."

Later, Mr. Barrow backs down a bit.

"We will do a second album," he conceded. "We'll most probably survive, but the second album will be damned in England. There are trendier people out than us now.

"I don't want to come across as ungrateful. I'm very pleased with what's happened. I feel incredibly lucky, because it never happens to some bands. But I was working to a plan, and things break open and that's very dangerous -- unless you've got a backup plan, which I've not got."

The plan began in 1991, when Mr. Barrow, a disc jockey and recording-studio employee in search of a singer for a collaborative project, met Ms. Gibbons in an unemployment office.

Mr. Barrow already had started on various recordings but wasn't happy with any of it until Ms. Gibbons wrote "Sour Times."

"[That song] saved it all, really," he recalled.

And that's the song that caught the ear of alternative America.

Many critics have remarked on Ms. Gibbons' dazed depression and noir nightmares, her sense of spiraling ever deeper into a pitiless purgatory. Mr. Barrow says even he's not sure where all this sorrow comes from and has been quoted as saying he doesn't care.

"I care if it's going to be mentally damaging to her, but, on the other hand, I'm not a great lyrical person," he said. "I don't get involved. I just make sure it works sonically. The melody lines are what I care about. Lyrically, I trust her. She is being honest. She's not writing a song just to make money or sound distressed."

But he says what's been written about Ms. Gibbons isn't always true. For instance, it's been said she doesn't do interviews, but Mr. Barrow maintains that only applies to the British press.

"She was nervous to do interviews," he admitted. "But she found doing European and American interviews, they seemed to be a lot more honest and to the point."

As for his own musical influences, Mr. Barrow admits he has listened to many soundtracks.

"I'm more into soundtrack music as music than actually the films or the images," he said. "I've never seen the films for most of the soundtracks I've owned. I just collect records I like: ones from the late '60s and '70s, Italian, French and American spy movies and thrillers."

Though Mr. Barrow started off sampling, he says the current tour will feature live instruments, even though the group has performed only occasional concerts.

"Hopefully, it will still keep the same air about it," he said. "It's not going to sound exactly like the album, but I wanted it to be a live thing rather than a computerized event."

When he gets back to England after Portishead's brief U.S. swing, Mr. Barrow is going to start the second album -- and wait for the P-head backlash to start.

"Someone's already written that they want the Portishead backlash to start now," he said with a laugh. "It just cracks me up. People will believe it, and then people will start slagging our stuff."

Portishead in concert

When: Tuesday, May 2, 8 p.m.

Where: Radio Music Hall, 815 V Street N.W., Washington.

Tickets: $17.50

Call: (410) 481-SEAT

"Dummy"

To hear an excerpt from Portishead's "Dummy," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6219 after you hear the greeting.

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