I sat down with the Bristol conglomerate the afternoon before their performance at The Echoplex on Tuesday, February 12. I stop short of calling them a “supergroup” because I’m almost positive they’d scoff at the title. I met them poolside at The Roosevelt on Hollywood Blvd., a destination drummer Geoff Barrow said they booked on accident, as if their individual musical accomplishments didn’t warrant such glamorous accommodations. Their personalities were as individually distinctive off stage as they were on stage, and it made for lively conversation. We touched on everything from their hometown to the Grammy’s. And of course, we made sure to save some time to discuss a little band called Portishead.
Read my review of the show HERE
UVSF: Back in L.A., a bit different than Bristol I’d imagine. Whens the last time you were in town?
Billy Fuller: I was here with Anika in 2011, playing The Echoplex.
Geoff Barrow: I was here when we played The Greek…not The Greek..the big theatre where they hosted the Oscars. 1
UVSF: You have a pretty dense relationship with LA, with Stones Throw in particular.
GB: Yeah yeah, that’s developed over the last couple years. It’s been great really. We’ve spent a lot of time with (Stones Throw Founder) Chris (Manak) and his record label.
UVSF: And then you have your own hip hop project with Stones Throw, correct?
GB: Yeah, Quakers. That took about 4 years.
UVSF: And you’ve all had various projects over the years, and I’ve read about the impromptu improv sessions, but how did you come to find each other?
BF: We met because I was in a band called Fuzz Against Junk that had a record out with Invada, Geoff’s label, and Matt was with Team Brick who had a record out with Invada. And one Christmas, I think it was like 2002, or 2001, or 2003…or 2024, Invada had a Christmas party where part of it was called the “Invada Acid Test” and there’s a load of instruments up on stage, and all the artists of Invada can get up and have a jam together. Us three got up and played, and we said afterwards when we had some time in the future we’d get together and try to do some stuff.
UVSF: So that initial session went pretty well?
GB: No, I don’t think anyone could really remember it.
BF: On the stage? No, I don’t know anything about that, but afterwards we got in the studio we just set up and first time we ever played and recorded ended up becoming the first album.
GB: There was literally..set the stuff up, set the stuff up, set the mics up, hit record – didn’t really discuss much. Had a cup of tea, and that was the first track on the album.
UVSF: So you made the debut record — 12 days of improv no overdubs — then you went on tour, come back to record the second record but had some difficulties trying to capture the spontaneity of the initial sessions — correct?
BF: Basically, we went in and, for whatever reason, we expected the same thing – which was just to go in. We can play music together quite easily. There’s no headache, but it just didn’t sound very good – or it didn’t sound exciting. It took a lot longer for us to sort of get to somewhere we had something like a record fully realized… but once that did it all happened quickly again.
UVSF: And it came together just like the first record?
BF: Yeah, it was just press play in a room. The problem was the affects of touring – we were playing some very big stages toward the end of it at festivals. It was really loud, and much different than the studio.
UVSF: Some of these songs sound like far cries from blank page improv sessions. “Mono” in particular sounded fleshed out.
GB: It was weird really, it was a bit more fleshed out – but it didn’t make the album for that reason. It was a section that we did and there was something wrong at the core of it. It felt like it wasn’t part of the work we had done. So we released the album, and then I went through tapes and found it.
I’m no patriot when it comes to music. I don’t give a fuck where it comes from.
UVSF: These setting differ a bit from projects you’ve done in the past — Massive Attack, Portishead — but this is a completely different animal in most respects. What are the pros and cons in terms of starting with a blank slate in contrast to a collective endeavor of a whole?
GB: It’s the purest sense of musicality, really. We all like writing and playing, so the idea that you can go in and play without the stress of predefined ideas, and then not actually having to go mix, produce and overdub and be content and joyful in making it. Its kind of like the ultimate thing. You’re pushing yourself. You’re not just jamming…blues jams. That itself is just the ultimate. We all would like to write things that are emotionally bright, and lyrical, but that’s a different process. This is a joyful thing that we have between us all, what sounds right and what doesn’t. We record and play, and that’s the highest moment of Beak>. And after that it goes downhill.
UVSF: I was just about to ask. Does something like this start to feel stagnant over the course of a tour?
GB: It goes downhill from when you record it, listen to it – that’s great. Really in theory, the idea of releasing it and playing it live are very nice things to do…because we’re lucky to do those things. Were not taking that in a frivolous way. But for me, I feel like a 15 year old kid again playing the drums and being creative. That to me is great.
BF: From my point of view I’m quite surprised that over 20 years of playing and putting stuff out, this process we have between us of instant composing has actually come this late. I thought that this sort of thing would come first, do you know what I mean?
GB: I think as you get older as a musician, you get bogged down in recording equipment. The process. The studios. The finances of it all. And I think this is a massive joyful alternative to that.
UVSF: Lets talk about Bristol. It serves as sort of the breeding grounds for what you guys do…the dark minimal feel. What’s going on there?
GB: I wouldn’t know. I run a label there, but I don’t know any of the new producers there.
BF: Musically, I’ve got family, I’ve got time to do my own stuff. I might accidentally hear something. But I cant say offhand what might be going on with a million 18 year olds in Bristol making music.
Matt Williams: I’m no patriot when it comes to music. I don’t give a fuck where it comes from. If it sounds good it sounds good. I’m not interested in the fucking local stuff that’s passed around. If I hear something good I hear something good. I never go “Where does this come from?”
UVSF: There’s an aesthetic that comes from that region that’s a product of it’s environment, wouldn’t you say?
BF: I don’t know if it is.
GB: I would admit that there is something specific about the art music and culture in Bristol. It just is. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not talking about Massive Attack. I mean way before that. Way, way, way before that. They lump it all in together. Major cities are so homogenized now. You don’t get that anymore, you just don’t get it. You might have seen it come out of Camden — the skinny jean, whatever, riff rock for that week. But there is a general thing in Bristol. I’ve read a fair amount about the history of Bristol, but I’m like Matt – I don’t care where the music comes from. But I’m interested in the history of the city and stuff. Most people in Bristol are actually really apathetic. They cant be fucked with doing anything for anybody. And really if they’re left alone, just get on with it, then they’re quite happy to do that. In the Civil War, they paid both sides to leave them alone. When the slave trade was there it was only the Quakers who were against it. They were more happy to be taking the money. There’s a very dark history there. There’s always been an avid stance against commercialism in Bristol. But now because of the homogenization, that’s no more. You’ve got young producers who want to be The Neptunes, or whoever it is. They want to make money, and they want the cars and the girls and the American culture.
UVSF: So individual projects aside from Beak, what’s lined up for the rest of the year?
BF: I’m going to be touring with Robert plant again. And then I’m also having my second baby in May. That’s going to keep me busy.
MW: Ive got a bunch of shit going on — putting out something myself. A vinyl of my first album. I’ve got all fucking sorts of things online already. I’ve got something coming out in Japan this summer, and a couple other things if labels get on board with it.
UVSF: Hitting the road with that stuff?
MW: I’ll do what I can.
GF: Building a studio in Bristol that Invada is moving into. It’s own rubbish version of Motown. And then Portishead. Solely concentrating on the album.
UVSF: And Portishead. Whats happening there?
GB: Well, just started writing it really. We’re never not up for it. We’ll do it when it’s right.
If you’re an artist and you’re prepared to sell your music to a company that knowingly starves children of fresh water, I fucking hate you. There’s no line to cross. You make that decision – you’re a wanker and that’s it.
UVSF: I’ve just seen these sort of ambiguous comments over the years where it been “Oh Portishead? 10 fucking years, maybe. Get off my fucking back”. You know what I mean?
GB: I mean yeah, the last thing we want to be is disrespectful to our fans. Because they stuck with us for years, you know? I think they’re in a similar position as us. They don’t want to know what shoes we’re wearing on a red carpet. They just want to know were putting out another record and it’s going to be good and we’ll visit somewhere close to them so they can come see us. It’s a real basic set up. We’re very, very lucky that we came from a time where there’s a very basic set up where we’ve stuck by them and they come see us play. Playing Coachella was a massive thing for us.
UVSF: How do you mean?
GB: I think people wanted to see us. It was just a really good show. As far as I know, it was an experience for people and it was an experience for us that you very rarely get. Its caused a lot of interest. It’s strange now we’re bigger now outside of the UK than we’ve ever been. In the sense of playing live, we’re as big as we’ve ever been. We played Mexico after Coachella, and it was just ridiculous. We had never been there before. There were kids there! It was amazing. Hopefully it’s because we try to be as truthful as much as we can. We’re preposterously uncomfortable with that showbiz thing. We’ve never been a part of that. I understand why people play that game. It’s part of music — always has been — to be James Brown or Beyonce. I never knock that stuff, because it’s entertainment and it affects peoples lives as much as any other kind of music. My biggest bone in the music industry that I chew on is when people pretend to be righteous about their music or the way they produce and promote – and it’s total bullshit. And they dupe normal working people into believing something about them and it’s a load of a shit.
UVSF: The virtue with Invada and Portishead seems to be make a great album, give them shows, keep them informed and repeat.
GB: Yep. If someone plays the industry, I respect that. Brilliant, fair play. You’ve got so many people in the music industry that make so much money, and its never enough. How much money do you need? Because if you’re an artist and you’re prepared to sell your music to a company that knowingly starves children of fresh water, I fucking hate you. There’s no line to cross. You make that decision – you’re a wanker and that’s it. You’re as bad as anybody. And because you can feed your kids and education and send your gran to go on a cruise, no problem. You can sit in a room surrounded by cocaine and hookers, that’s no problem. But when you try and be righteous while connecting yourself with products and unethical things, there’s no question there. The artists know what it is, but they turn a blind eye to it.
If you’re an up and coming artist, and you cant afford to pay your rent, and Coca-Cola comes to you and says “we want to use it and here’s 6 grand”, you say, fuck me, I can live. Take the fucking money. There’s no question about that. If I don’t have enough money to feed my kids, you want me to jump over there? Ill do it. But it’s people who have ridiculous sums of money but are still able to say “I need more money”. That’s just greed. And in their interviews they talk about God, and righteousness.
UVSF: So you guys came in town at an interesting time. This past weekend…
GB: The Grammy’s?
GB: Yeah I’ve had a couple of grannys, but they died.
UVSF: I think this one’s dying too. Whats the take on this sort of overproduction?
GB: Nothing to do with us.
BF: Literally, I can’t relate to it in any way.
UVSF: That seems to be the general sentiment of a lot of artists. When is this thing going to fall through the floor?
GB: Any awards show is about TV & advertising. It could be the best fucking cockring of the year.
BF: Which I won last year, but I didn’t get much advertising coming in..
1. Ironically, we were sitting precisely where the first Academy Awards were held.