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Portishead on Avoiding the Media, Playing Coachella, and Their Tense New Album

From left, Gibbons, Barrow, Utley.Courtesy of Portishead


After nearly a decade of self-imposed silence, Bristol, England’s Portishead return with a new album, appropriately titled Third. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley’s noir electronica, along with Beth Gibbons’s plaintive vocals, have always garnered the band critical accolades, while — for better or worse — designating them the torchbearers of that quintessentially nineties music genre, trip-hop. The weekend of their only U.S. appearance, at California’s Coachella music festival, Barrow and Utley spoke with Vulture about what the press gets wrong, why Gibbons still isn’t talking, and ending up on the same stage as fucking Limp Bizkit.

Why did you guys choose to play Coachella?
Adrian Utley: Well, they’ve been ringing us now for six years to do it. We never seemed relevant before because we were in the studio making an album, so the idea of going out to play old material at a festival, while in the middle of writing new stuff, would have felt really shit. But now it feels right.

But why is that the only U.S. date?
A.U.: There’s nothing mysterious or sinister about it. We just don’t want to keep touring forever. The more touring you do, the more it informs your music, but it can also kind of thrash the fuck out of you so you don’t really want to see anybody else in the band ever again.

You post a lot on Portishead’s blog, and most of it is very self-aware, even critical, which is a state that’s always seemed to characterize the band. Do you agree?
Geoff Barrow: Sure. I think we’re very self-critical … [laughs] to the point where Adrian has stopped reading any press at all, because he says it doesn’t matter what he says, what everybody writes is wrong and it’s not representative.

Don’t you feel like that’s been self-generated in a lot of ways though? After all, Beth is almost as famous for her reticence as she is for being in the band.
G.B.: I don’t know. We can only be as we are. I mean, Beth is not doing interviews. That’s never changed. We get some interviews and people are like, “Beth doesn’t chat.” But you know that. All you fucking have to do is look online to know she doesn’t do interviews, so don’t be annoyed by it. You know what I mean? That’s what we do.

That is Portishead.
G.B.: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to come off in any way as sounding arrogant, but we are just as we are. Even when we play live, we seem self-critical because we’re playing these gigs, and they’ve got these lights, and it’s fairly rock and roll. To us it seems fucking ridiculous. We want to do something creative and interesting, but really, when you play live, you actually just end up on the same stage as fucking Limp Bizkit.

Has that happened?
G.B.: Most probably, somewhere down the line. You just keep thinking, What the fuck are we doing that for? Even more so now that we’re playing Coachella, in the middle of the fucking desert with loads and loads of people, and Prince after us. What the fuck are we doing that for?

All these frustrations seem to have really emerged in the sound of this album, which feels a lot more tense than its predecessors.
G.B.: As we’ve got older, you work out a few things about the world in a way. I don’t know … the more you actually look into things, the less time you spend in your head trying to chase the opposite sex, or the same sex, and you have children or whatever it is, you start realizing how brilliant, but also how shit, the world actually is.

For better or worse your music used to be labeled as “trip-hop.” How do you feel about that?
A.U.: Never liked it. It was just a weird name for something we did. A media name that didn’t really mean anything. For now I’m just glad that it’s gone and that we don’t have to talk about it anymore.
–Patrick Daly