Portishead’s Dummy, an arguably perfect album released in 1994, successfully merged hip-hop breakbeat sensibility with a forward-looking electronic style—adding pop hallmarks like great songwriting and excellent vocal performances. Created through an organic artistic process, the record is credited with inspiring a new genre: trip-hop. Despite the term being much-maligned by like-minded artists—including fellow breakthrough Bristol, England acts Massive Attack and Tricky—the sound of Dummy would be widely praised and copied, its genre-bending, minimalistic style still rippling through the soundscpaes of modern millennials.
The album sold over two million copies in Europe, beating out Oasis, Tricky, and PJ Harvey for the coveted Mercury Music Prize, awarded by the British Phonographic Industry for the best album in the U.K. and Ireland. The album is currently just shy of platinum in the U.S., with over 825,000 copies sold at last count. With the 20th anniversary of the album observed in August of this year, one might have suspected the band to attempt to push it to platinum by releasing a neatly-packaged deluxe edition reissue, perhaps collecting all of the b-sides and remixes from its singles. There was certainly enough material to do so.
Instead, the following note was posted on the band’s website: “To mark the 20th anniversary of the release, in August 1994, of Dummy, Portishead will be reissuing the album on vinyl, pressed on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl, in a gatefold sleeve. There will be no additional material on the reissue, with the songs remaining exactly as recorded on the original release.”
Not surprisingly, the eternally aloof trio offered little fanfare for the two-decade milestone of their seminal debut, which follows their usual M.O. of seldom touring, rarely giving interviews and taking decade-long breaks between recording sessions.
Portishead is made up of three core members: vocalist Beth Gibbons, producer Geoff Barrow, and guitarist Adrian Utley. While Beth wrote lyrics, Geoff and Adrian played a large role in assembling the music, which found them touching multiple instruments: Geoff on a Rhodes piano, drums, and strings, while Adrian alternated between strings, bass, theremin and hammond, among his regular guitar plucking.
Also helping in the creation of Dummy were outside musicians, including Dave McDonald, who played the nose flute on “Roads” and is credited for “unerring judgment in the line of fire,” according to the album’s liner notes. There was also Andy Smith, who acted as the band’s DJ, bringing early samples to Barrow, as well as Clive Deamer, who played drums on many of the album’s tracks.
“It’s not a group. That’s the thing. Everyone assumes that I’m a member of Portishead, but it was only ever Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley. Originally, Dave McDonald was in there, but that sort of changed obviously,” Clive Deamer, who still tours with the band as drummer, told Cuepoint. “So for me, it was just session work, but it became session work on a record that became very powerful and very influential, and here we are 20 years later still doing it.”
Although the band would largely be credited with defining “the Bristol sound,” its origins began twelve miles southwest, in a small coastal town of 22,000, not coincidentally called Portishead. Geoff Barrow and DJ Andy Smith grew up together there, sharing an interest in hip-hop and breaks.
“I met Geoff in the late 80s, because we grew up in the place called Portishead. I did a gig in the youth club in Portishead, playing hip-hop and rare groove, and funk and stuff, to a crowd that really didn’t know much about it, except for this one guy called Geoff, who was really into it. That’s where I met him,” Andy Smith reveals. “He was younger than me, but at the time, he was basically working in the Coach House Studio where Massive Attack’s Blue Lines was being created. Basically making the tea and fixing the roof, he’ll tell you.”
“Geoff was the tape operator up at Coach House Studios where Massive Attack made their records, and we also managed Massive Attack,” recalls Caroline Killoury, who managed the band from 1992–2006. “Massive Attack were going through most of the Blue Lines LP, and it was a very project, collaborative based album. Geoff was trying a similar thing.”
Says Andy, “[Massive Attack] kind of caught on to the fact that he was keen to making beats and stuff. So they gave him an AKAI sampler and a computer, which he had set up in his room… But he didn’t really have anything sampled, because he didn’t have very many records. He wasn’t really much of a record collector. He kind of knew where he wanted to go. I remember him sampling the break from the Grease soundtrack because I think his sister had it. So, we kind of hooked up, with our knowledge of old school hip-hop and current hip-hop at the time, and breaks and stuff. I’d kind of play him old breaks that he’d never heard before to work on tracks, really. This was before any other members of Portishead, before we even knew that there would be a band called Portishead. It was just Geoff on his own with a sampler and a computer, and me coming around with beats to loop up and kind of mess about really.
“I remember some girls came down on the bus from Bristol and went to his mum’s house, and did an audition in his bedroom, doing some vocals. It didn’t really work out, they were kind of no good. So he was after a vocalist and trying to build the band. It was a long way before it all kind of came together in the mid 90s. That was when he started to get his ideas together. I think he always knew that he wanted to use hip-hop—the beats of hip-hop, the musicality—but he always knew he was going to skew it in a different way, even if at that time he didn’t really know how he was going to do it.”
Geoff’s determination would find him auditioning numerous acts to do vocals for a series of skeletal tracks and unfinished demos. However, a fateful meeting in the most unlikely of places would lead him to Beth Gibbons—the sultry, sorrowful voice of the group.
“I think they both went to some kind of work-experience course that the government was running. If you went along and showed that you had your own business, you could get some money from the government. I didn’t go, but Geoff did,” says Andy. “I think there was some guy that was a baker there, and some guy that was a writer there, and various people from all different professions. And the only other person there that was on the music side was Beth. Because she was trying to get money to forge ahead with her project.”
Andy had known Beth before her serendipitous encounter with Geoff. “She was just a singer in those days. In fact, the mad thing I think about now, is that there were certain gigs where Beth would just do the gig as Beth, and I would cut up breaks with her,” says Andy. “So everybody kind of knew each other, but the idea of Portishead wasn’t quite really formed in those days. Geoff was obviously interested in what she did, because it was quite out there. Everybody kind of met up and jelled, and the other guys kind of came along and it all came together later on, really.”
“He was bringing in different singers, and a rapper, and it was a very kind of project-based thing,” says Caroline. “We all kind of bit-by-bit realized that Beth was the frontrunner, and it felt more natural if it became a more unique proposition. Not so much about a project, but more a band that was fully formed and unified. Obviously, once we signed to Go! Discs, then funding was there, and the band went more full-time into the studio with the traditional recording process. Then, Adrian Utley got more involved, in terms of bringing in his sound with the guitars. It was fleshed out into, sonically, a more developed sound.”
Guitarist Adrian Utley was the missing link that would tie the whole thing together, bringing drummer Clive Deamer with him. Deamer encouraged a struggling Utley to record his music, rather than just perform it live each night.
“I was living in Adrian Utley’s house. He and I were penniless musicians, trying to make a living. I was playing in R&B bands, jazz bands. Adrian was doing strictly jazz at that time. He was really quite a purist at that point,” says Clive. “And while he was dealing with the frustrations of some of the realities being a jazz musician—i.e. never achieving much in the way of recorded work—he took a room at the Coach House Studio, which is where he first met Geoff. And I remember encouraging Adrian to take the room. I said, Look, you’re a great musician, you’ve got great ideas. You should be working on recordings, as opposed to just going out and playing gigs, and those gigs just being lost to the wind.”
Clive continues, “So he met Geoff there. I had already come across Geoff unknowingly, when I had done sessions as a drummer at the same studio, but I didn’t remember meeting him. A few months went by, and Adrian told me how he was forming this relationship with this guy Geoff Barrow, and eventually one day they asked me to come over to the State of Arts Studio, their own place that they had put together, and to hear some of the stuff that they had been working on. They had two tracks, maybe three. But it was clear that they were onto this very unique sound. The moment that Adrian and he teamed up, it was quite obvious they made rapid progress, and then soon after that they got me in to do essentially two main recording sessions. Those two recording sessions that I did became essentially the bulk of their first record.”
It Could Be Sweet
Geoff’s nine-to-five at Coach House Studio would allow him more than just the bragging rights of sitting in on Massive Attack’s sessions and scoring a free sampler. He’d often “borrow” studio time in the late night hours to expatiate his ideas into fruition.
“The album was made over a fairly long period of time—I’d say over 18 months really—and done kind of on the down-low, on dark studio time on other people’s sessions and things like that, because we were all very young with very little money,” laughs Caroline.
“What would happen is, whenever there was free time in the Coach House, when there wasn’t anyone else there, Geoff would go into the front room, and use whatever time he could, even if it was in the middle of the night to progress those ideas,” says Andy.
“Geoff would write tracks; Beth would write top lines, not necessarily in the same room, and it would sort of just come together, as they do,” Caroline adds.
The sound of Dummy and the trip-hop genre that it spawned was unprecedented. Geoff and company were taking the classic approach of building sample-based hip-hop beats, yet adding cinematic, live instrumentation over the top of them. The music sounded in part like it should have an American MC rapping over it, and part as if it should be the soundtrack to a 60s spy film, juxtaposed with Beth’s delicate, bittersweet, misery-laden vocals.
“Geoff had a love of soundtracks. He was obsessed with [Italian composer] Ennio Morricone and all these things,” says Caroline.
“The sound of Dummy, was really Geoff’s baby. Geoff had a direction of where he really wanted it to go, and I just helped him by bringing samples and maybe opening him up to music he really didn’t know about,” Andy recounts. “He was not the kind of guy that would spend all day digging in a record shop with a portable record player. So I kind of brought that to the table. But it was always his intention to use the hip-hop sound, but take it somewhere else. He was also into the heaviness of Jimi Hendrix and the rock stuff as well, so he wanted to bring it all together.”
Unlike most hip-hop production, the sound of Portishead was more than just sample and drum machine-based beats, benefitting from the fusion of live instruments in the mix.
Geoff wanted to maintain that raw, syncopated sound, so he had Clive play live drums, which they would then filter into the sampler and loop.
“At that time, most everybody had rinsed out the vinyl breakbeats that everybody had. So Geoff was being a bit of a drummer then, but he used me to play things he couldn’t play himself. So he’d play me a bit of vinyl and say Listen to this, can you play that, but change the hi-hat to this? Or leave that bit out? Or make it more this,” explains Clive. “He described how he wanted it different. And then we’d go into great detail, perfecting the mic, the sound, the tuning of the sound, the dampening of the drums, until he got what he wanted. The only exception was one time when I free-falled, and that’s how they got the beat for ‘Mysterons.’ The beat is entirely me playing. They took that section and looped it.”
“A lot of time I wasn’t playing to anything. So I had no idea what I was playing to or for,” Clive continues. “So it was a very microscopic focus on a drum beat, a playing style, a very careful construction of the balance of the playing. Very different from the normal recording of drums. It’s very much about balancing the relative volumes of all the parts. The level of the bass drum, against the snare drum, against the hi-hat or cymbals or whatever. Very strictly controlled playing and recorded incredibly quietly. Way quieter than anybody ever records. That’s a big part of the sound, along with a lot of other things. It was a very detailed, unusual thing. Sampling was a new experience for me. So new that when I heard the record, I barely recognized what I played. Bar on bar, looped perfectly. It was the first time I had encountered that.”
It’s a Fire
After the release of Dummy in August of 1994, led by the single “Sour Times,” Portishead quickly gained mainstream appeal, becoming the face of “trip-hop” and “the Bristol sound,” alongside fellow acts Massive Attack and Tricky, the latter who was also managed by Caroline Killoury.
“We had a lot of very cool, underground press and support. Bristol was a big scene at the time, obviously, there were a lot of things coming out of Bristol. We had the Manchester scene going on as well. People were looking to Bristol for things, so that kind of set a theme. It was kind of the cool, club side of things, as Giles Peterson and all those guys were around. So it was very much in that world,” recalls Killoury.
“And then things started to seep out a little more into the mainstream, and it really caught fire. It’s hard to know quite why these things happened the way they did. When you are in the middle of them, you can’t really acknowledge why certain things take off. You’re just kind of along for the ride, building it and building it and building it, not really that consciously,” she adds.
The album would win the Mercury Music Prize in 1995, go double platinum in Europe, and achieve gold status in the U.S., taking the band around the world.
“When it became what it did become, the first evidence of that was when we went on the first tour and when around the U.K. and especially the states. The reaction of the audiences and the atmosphere of the gigs was just astonishing. I started to realize what I was playing and what it meant to people. It was a unique thing and I was privileged to be a part of it,” says Clive.
Evidence of this is captured on the timeless Roseland New York DVD, released in 1998, which finds the band performing with a 28-piece symphonic orchestra, fully realizing Geoff’s bedroom producer dreams to, perhaps, the highest degree.
The influence of Portishead and Dummy was far reaching and spawned copycats. Consider Lizzy Grant, an artist who was a nonstarter until she changed her name to Lana Del Rey, adopted a pouty face and tapped into her inner Beth Gibbons.
“All the female singers you hear out there today try to sing like Beth, or try to do material like Portishead. To me, anyone with a pair of ears can hear that. You can tell that they are acting that part, or trying to be like Beth, and put that super melancholic, lost soul, kind of tragic thing. And you can tell that they don’t have that. You can tell they don’t feel that. You can tell that they want to be that, but they don’t have that,” says Clive.
Neither Beth nor Portishead was ever interested in the lure of celebrity, the glamour and glitz that the music industry offers, and especially not in receiving it handed to them from ghostwriters or ghost producers.
“Beth is a contradiction; she’s quite an enigma. In the early days, they had just hell getting her onto the stage. She was so petrified to perform. And everything about her personality is the complete opposite of someone who would ever get on stage and perform, which is why she won’t do interviews,” says Clive. “Which is why you won’t see her on the front cover of a magazine, wearing an outfit, being a pop star. She is totally disinterested and dismissive, and quite rightly, finds it to be a joke. Because it is a joke. Portishead is everything about not being pop stars, not playing the game, which is why the music sounds the way it does. It’s very dysfunctional.
“There’s been many shows I’ve done where it still puts the goosebumps up my back when she sings. And yet, if you compliment her, she’ll turn it around like you’re taking the piss, as if you are being insincere in saying that. She’s a very strange person, but completely dedicated to what she is trying to do. Certainly not interested in all in compromising in any way, whatsoever. They are all like that, completely obsessive and uncompromising in their vision of what Portishead should be,” he adds.
“They are a dysfunctional miserable bunch of bastards, and yet they’re not. They are very, very funny,” laughs Clive.
Portishead’s detachment has raised them to legendary status and allowed them to maintain their mystique for two decades. It’s not surprising that Cuepoint’s requests for interviews with each Beth, Geoff, and Adrian fell on deaf ears. This admirable stubbornness may explain why it took eleven years to follow up their self-titled 1997 sophomore LP with Third in 2008.
“I mean, they’re from Bristol. Things don’t move fast, if you look at most Bristol artists,” laughs Caroline. “The band had done a hell of a lot of touring, they’d gone on to have families, you know. Life goes on, as it goes. Time sort of just slips away. It wasn’t a breakup at all, it was more of a pause; the pause just lasted a long time.”
“They are uncompromising people. If one of the three says, I don’t like what we are working on, that means then everything stops, no matter how good the other two think it is. If one says, that’s shit, or that’s not the right thing for us to do, there will be an argument and that project or that idea will grind to a halt,” Clive reveals.
“The obvious fact that because of the integrity and authenticity of the first two records, set such a whole new standard of music, a whole genre almost, that’s a very hard thing to top. To come back and follow up,” Clive continues. “Because they are so damn stubbornly uncompromising, they won’t say, Oh fuck it, let’s bum another record and get on with it, like many other bands would. Put out some kind of pale, half-baked record, just to satisfy some expectation or record company executive. They just won’t do it.”
As Geoff’s friends and collaborators tell it, he was a futurist, a visionary that could see Portishead’s success long before it came to pass.
“The thing that always amazes me is the fact that Geoff, in his mind, knew that it was going to happen for him. I think all of the people around him, certainly me, thought that what we were doing was great,” says Andy. “But there’s a lot of great music that never really gets anywhere. And Adrian, who was a bit older, had done a lot of stuff before, but it hadn’t really blown up in the same way.
Geoff was always on that mission, that this would be big. Even in the late 80s when he was at my house, it was always ‘when.’ When this blows up (as I’m sure everyone says), you can DJ, you can warm-up for us, do a scratch mix thing, be DJ and represent Portishead. And I’m like, Yeah, right. Yeah, cheers, Geoff. Thanks a lot. I didn’t really believe in it, but he always believed in it and knew it was going to get somewhere. He had such drive in him; I guess he always thought he would make it and do something big, even in the 80s, which is amazing because it didn’t happen until ‘94. I admire that; I still do.”