Geoff Barrow Interview: Invada Festival, Bristol & Being Too Old For Dubstep

Portishead and BEAK> man Geoff Barrow speaks to Laura Snapes about this weekend's Invada Invasion festival, and why the label "was set up to spend money and lose friends"

As intrinsically linked with Bristol’s cultural legacy as the lavishly rejuvenated Colston Hall itself, Geoff Barrow has in the past 18 months have blown away all traces of his comparative wilderness years. Although a long time coming, his alma mater Portishead’s matter-of-factly titled third album sold over a million copies, and Invada Records, the label he established with fellow Bristolian and Croft owner Fat Paul, celebrated its most successful release: Crippled Black Phoenix’s ‘200 Tons of Bad Luck’. This Saturday (26 September) CBP will join Zu, Fuck Buttons and Mogwai amongst others to storm Colston Hall as part of the Invada Invasion — a night that curated by the label as part of a week-long series celebrating the venue’s £20m overhaul.

Accompanying this uncompromising soundtrack will be a specially commissioned art exhibition from "possibly the smallest gallery in the world", Bristol’s Friend & Co gallery, in which Barrow has been heavily involved. He’s also been busy with BEAK>, his new band comprising Billy Fuller, of Invada’s first singings Fuzz Against Funk, and Team Brick’s Matt Williams. Their debut was recorded in twelve days under exacting conditions that stipulated no overdubs or tweaking, and it’s just as prosaically titled as Portishead’s latest: Recordings 05/01/09 – 17/01/09. But that’s the sole trace of banality. Their two freely available songs tread determinedly between Deerhunter’s punctuated ambience and the detached mantras of King Crimson. French fans will get the first live taste on a short promo tour, before they make their British debut in Minehead this December to celebrate 10 Years of ATP.

The Quietus caught up with Barrow as he ducked out of a noisy BEAK> rehearsal to drink a cup of tea and discuss being too old for dubstep, the council’s attitude to Bristol’s less illustrious street artists and the ever-changing face of selling records.

How did you get involved with celebrating the regeneration of Colston Hall — did they ask you?

Yeah. I’ve always been dubious to get involved with Colston Hall because of Sir Edward Colston who was involved in part of the murdering of 10 million Africans. My band played there a few years back, we made the decision that we should — it’s always been known as a bit of a dinosaur when it comes down to concert halls. Anyway, what happened was a guy called Graham took over running it, and has turned it completely around. He’s got a lot of huge music projects going in there and the budgets to support local musicians and so on. They’ve got this ginormous new foyer, which is quite weird, this new golden building attached to a really old one, but it seems to work really well. They approached me with the idea of doing something so it was the perfect opportunity for Invada, having lost the Venn Festival from Bristol, to put something on with the council’s money [laughs]. We’re fans of things like ATP and Supersonic in Birmingham, so thought we could have a go at doing something similar in Bristol.

You said in an interview with Drowned in Sound that you were concerned that people saw the Portishead ATP as "the Geoff Barrow show" — would it be fair to say that the Invasion’s a chance for you to indulge yourself in that way?

[Laughs] Well I don’t know, because Adrian was incredibly involved with ATP, lots of his stuff — Glenn Branca etc — so it was a really fair deal on that front. When it comes to the Invada stuff, it’s the stuff we’ve got signed to our label, and what I’d consider to be our sonic relatives.

Zun Zun Egui and so on?

No, they’re not on Invada, nor Zu, Fuck Buttons or obviously Mogwai, though I wish they all were!

How did you get Mogwai involved? That’s a real coup.

It was pretty mad really, there’s a guy who’s actually the production manager of the event, a guy called Peter Conway, and we were dealing with him for budgeting, meetings and so on. We always wanted to get Mogwai involved, but it’s the cost, y’know? We thought, they’ll never cough up the money to get them. But when we suggested it, Conway said, "well find how much they are and we’ll talk about it", so we did and he said he could get the money! We always wanted them, because I know Dominic’s playing with Crippled Black Phoenix, so it just seemed like the perfect event to have them play, I don’t think they’ve played Bristol for a few years.

Did you ask The Horrors to play?

They’re in America at the moment, and they played the Thekla in June, so I’d have loved for them to, but they’re touring like complete crazies. We tried to get Lightning Bolt to play too, but although they wanted to, they couldn’t.

How did you get the Emerald Ensemble involved? They seem almost at odds with Crippled Black Phoenix, and Team Brick especially.

They’re not really at odds, they’re really up for just playing with us. Through a friend, Ben Salisbury and Liz Purnell — who are the string arrangers and writers — worked with CBP and scored out their stuff. CPB’s stuff is incredibly orchestral in itself, it just needed adapting. Team Brick has written a whole new piece, it’s twenty minutes long. I don’t know what it’s called, I’m with him at the moment, rehearsing for BEAK>, so I’ll have to find out [laughs]! It’s more of a traditional classical piece for him, he’s not doing any electronics, it’s quieter with some vibes and a big bass drum.

Why did you decide to keep BEAK>’s first performance until Ten Years of ATP instead of debuting at the Invasion?

We didn’t want to play Bristol. We’re from there, we’ve always played there, so it’s nice not to play it. Minehead’s going to be our local gig.

Did the strict recording process of BEAK>’s album ever get frustrating?

Incredibly, it was the opposite of frustrating really. It was just brilliant, that we would play something, run over an idea maybe twice and then record it, and say, there, it’s done. Or we’d jam out for hours and then edit the bits together. It was really uncomplicated, pure playing really.

Did your production work with The Horrors impact on the recording?

No, it was more of an organic decision. None of us is actually in charge of BEAK>, we’re three equal members, so we got into that room and it seemed like that was the natural way of doing it. We gave ourselves rules — not initially — but then it seemed to be going well so we decided not to do any overdubs, do the vocals in the room through an amp and record it. Some of the lyrics are a bit weird because I was writing them as we were recording them.

So when you perform it at ATP, will it reflect that approach or will the songs be fixed by then?

That was just the writing process, so the performance will be close to the record. We’re rehearsing at the moment as we’re going to go to France and do a promo tour first.

Something that’s quite unique about BEAK> and Invada’s releases in general is that you put a lot of effort into making limited and special edition packaging for your releases. Why this approach?

I think there’s definitely two ways of doing it now — people who just want it digitally on their computer will just have it that way, pay a smaller amount for possibly less material, and go, "OK, I’ve spent a fiver on seven tracks," whereas for people who want the actual physical stuff, let’s give ‘em something really nice that’s physical. If they’re willing to pay a little bit extra, they can get a lot more material, like the CBP double album rather than the single one. Those who just want the single CD, that’s what they get. We’re never going to sell millions of records from the Invada artists, so we’re covering all bases and making sure everyone’s quite happy.

Is it correct that you put the money you make from the releases back into the label — does it work as a kind of co-operative?

Basically, we’ve never made actual money! We just plough it back into other projects, which is really difficult. We’ve had to take on a brilliant guy called Reg as our label manager, and we’ve taken it to the point where we might be able to start paying him [laughs]! That’s it really, I don’t buffer it, it tries to stand a lot on its own. Like any business, especially a record company, it’s very difficult because we haven’t got the money to spend on marketing and pluggers and all that stuff, so we have to make sure we choose decent bands that people get into. Sometimes we sell 60 copies, sometimes we sell 8,000 copies. But generally, a similar kind of effort is put into both. It’s been a big learning curve, what works and what doesn’t, and bands are never happy [laughs]! The main thing that I’ve learned is that, as it says on our website, this label was set up to spend money and lose friends! [laughs]

You blogged quite recently, asking people to send in new ideas of how to sell Portishead’s music, short of actually giving it away. Did you get many good ideas resulting from that?

We did, yeah. There are some really interesting things out there, ways of doing it. To investigate them all, there wouldn’t be another record, I’d just be sat reading emails! I don’t know how ethical something like Bandcamp is — we’ve got BEAK> stuff on there at the moment, I think they take 20 cents from every download you sell, but other than that it’s free.

It seems that Invada has a very defined ethos — even with regard to the artwork you use. Can you tell us more about the specially commissioned exhibition that Friend & Co are doing for the night?

Well . . . [laughs] I can’t actually go into it too much, it’s um . . . I don’t want to get into trouble!

Is that because you don’t want to reveal their secrets, or because they’re doing something a bit suspect?

Both! [Laughs] Either way, it’ll be interesting — that’s the main thing!

You’re giving these underground artists a really great platform with this event. What do you make of the ongoing battles between the council and the People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft, the painting over of street art and so on?

Basically, the way I’ve always seen it is that I’m yet to hear or see anybody that represents a governmental position — the whole time I’ve lived in and around Bristol — that makes any sense or talks language that I can understand. Anybody to do anything to rejuvenate or regenerate, or just put an effort in . . . there are areas of Bristol now — you mention Stokes Croft — that remind me of Berlin. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I don’t quite know what the council are doing. I’ve sure they’ve done some really good jobs, but I cannot relate to them, I have no relationship with anybody at that level. Traditionally, Bristol had the Corporation [of the Poor] and then the Merchants [Venturers] and there’s been no forward progression since then. What people in Stokes Croft are doing is absolutely brilliant.

It’s interesting what you said about Berlin — the German electronic scene flourished in the derelict buildings of East Berlin when the wall opened up, and it almost seems like that’s what’s happened in Stokes Croft with dubstep becoming this new Bristol sound. Is that a type of music you’re into?

I don’t get to hear it, and I don’t really know an awful lot about it. I think I’m most probably too old for it! I know that sounds like a really stupid thing to say, but I think dubstep’s really about being in a club where they utilise a system in the right way, and I’ve not heard anything outside of that scenario that’s really kicked me in the ear.

In terms of getting out in Bristol, have you seen anything recently that’s really impressed you?

I haven’t actually, I’ve been working loads. Paul, who runs Invada with me, owns the Croft, so I see stuff when he’s there, and one of my best mates runs the Louisiana and he often turns me on to stuff. He told me about Rosie Red Rash when they first came out. We’ve always got our ears out there. Fuck Buttons are a prime example of that, we got onto them a little bit too late, then they signed to ATP with Barry, which has worked out incredibly well. I’d like to see more gigs really, but with work and kids, it doesn’t work out [laughs]!

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