Portishead is not the kind of band that does things in the typical sort of way. They don’t put a record out every two to three years, nor are they on an endless touring cycle. But in between the lengthy moments of silence, which at points in their career have lasted as long as 10 years, the members of Portishead are highly engaged with the many side projects that emphasize their diverse tastes in music. When Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley do reconvene as Portishead, however, it is always to the delight of fans, and it is always accompanied with an output of creativity that is unlike anything else in popular music. Utley and I spoke via phone recently about the band’s extensive participation as curators of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which comes to Asbury Park the weekend of Sept. 30 through Oct. 2. Portishead hosted the U.K. version of the festival this past July in London, and Utley spoke to me about how they became involved with the festival organizers.
“We’ve been aware of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival for a long time, for years and years,” says Utley, “and it was first a photographer friend of mine that told me they wanted to get in touch. That was sort of in the middle of writing our last album [2008’s Third]. I can’t remember exactly how it happened—whether they got in touch with our people, or whatever—but I remember going to check one of the festivals out, and watched Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth, and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing, just a real buzz was in the air.”
The All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival is just as unique in its own way as the curators of this year’s festival. The festival is not supported by corporate sponsors—akin to the way that Portishead is not affiliated with any one particular record label (each of their releases has been distributed by a different label). The festival aims to be presented in an environment that is an alternative to giant stadium gatherings, which provides an intimacy that fans of music can appreciate. As for the artists that play, there is the great honor of being chosen to be “curator”—essentially, to invite bands of their liking to come share the stage along with each year’s presenter. This awesome opportunity for anyone who has an affinity for music is seemingly the pinnacle of fan appreciation. “It doesn’t matter how many people you know or meet, in favorite bands or whatever—still, to have that opportunity to put that many bands on, that are your favorite bands, it’s still like when you bought your first record. It’s completely a musical festival. It’s not about selling beer, you know what I mean? It’s completely about bands… and all the cool things that you’re into.”
He continues by saying, “There’s no sort of massive VIP thing anywhere. Lots of bands can just walk around and check out other bands—so it’s very cool on that sort of level. And from a fan’s point of view, it’s awesome that you get to see so many cool bands in one place. And films, too. The one just in London, we had some great films and great people talking about the films they made. So, it seems to work. Of course, there’s budget constraints and that sort of thing—like, we wanted Tom Waits, for instance, and they said that it would take up the whole festival budget just to get him. So, you can’t have everyone you want. But pretty much, you can balance the books a bit and get it done.”
Of the many acts that will perform over the three-day weekend, Portishead have selected a wide range of groups that exemplify a balance between electronic-focused acts and underground rock groups. For instance, on the Saturday line-up, hip-hop legends Ultramagnetic MC’s will play alongside the seminal Swans, who have recently reunited—as well as well-know DJ Peanut Butter Wolf, who will also be performing. The Sunday line-up is equally as exciting—featuring the majestic Mogwai, as well Canandian experimental group DD/MM/YYYY, and Public Enemy, who will be performing their 1989 classic Fear Of A Black Planet in its entirety.
Utley comments, “I think people really enjoy themselves. It’s not manic. I mean, I’ve played a lot of festivals, and a lot of them were just beers, bands and burgers—and noise. And it’s really just a fucking shit place to be. Whereas these things, there’s interesting and like-minded people—you can meet people and talk to them. You can do that at other festivals, but this one is just exceptional in many ways. And if you’re into Portishead, then there’s a good chance that you’re going to like Swans, or you’re going to like DD/MM/YYYY. There’s this sort of unity throughout the whole thing. Now, I’m not saying everyone is going to like everything, that’s just not possible. But it’s fantastic when people just walk around and talk about music that you made. Really, I can’t say enough good things about that festival. There’s really nothing like this.”
“Like, Glastonbury has a vibe now where it’s a fucking mad circus—I mean, it’s completely crazy. It’s interesting, but utterly mad compared to how it used to be. But ATP has kept its thing. It’s got a philosophy, and that stays with it always.”
After ATP, Portishead will embark on their first North American tour in 10 years, which, though short, will hit cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, Mexico City, as well as two nights in New York City at the Hammerstein Ballroom. As far as what to expect from the shows, Utley expresses an excitement at the idea of playing Portishead’s latest material. “We want to play our new record, really. Not to press, but we’ve never played all the tracks on [Portishead’s 1994 debut] Dummy ever. You know, we’d only played a few of them, and I can’t imagine how we’d do some of them, or if we’d even want to now. We still play “Sour Times” and “Wandering Star.” But I kinda feel more about the future and the last album we did, really, because we didn’t really do that record much—certainly in America, where we only played at Coachella. We haven’t played that enough out, so I think we’re still on that.”
Portishead have always done things at their own leisure, and it has seemed to pay off for them in terms of their creative process. But listening to Utley, fans should be jazzed about the prospect of what’s still to come. “We do things slowly, “ he says, “and it’s not in any way just willfully taking a piss, or not doing it, it’s just how it works for us. And one of the reasons we’re touring right now is because it pulls us back together to do things, because we can all slip into our side projects very easily. But we don’t make music like Portishead with other people. So, I’m always pleased that audiences still wait for us to do another album. I fully expect them to just go “Fuck you—it takes too long,” but it doesn’t happen like that. And everything we do, or are doing, is always done with integrity—and I think it always will be that way in the future.”
As for the future, Utley says that he certainly feels a buzz in terms of continuing to create as Portishead. He says that there will be definitely be a follow up album to Third, though he couldn’t say how and when it will actually happen. But for now, with their participation with All Tomorrow’s Parties and the tour of North America following, fans will have the opportunity to see the band that has always taken their time and always done things their way—much to everyone’s delight.
Portishead will be playing ATP Festival at Convention Hall in Asbury Partk Oct. 1 – 2 and two headlining shows at Hammerstein Ballroom Oct. 4 – 5. More info at portishead.co.uk.