The city of Bristol in England, 1991. Two unemployed musicians met in a job retraining program offered by the city. Geoff Barrow was a producer and keyboardist and Beth Gibbons was a singer who had played in lots of local bands. They started making music together and in 1992 added jazz guitarist Adrian Utley. They named the band Portishead after the west coast town that Barrow had grown up in. In 1994 they scored a short film noir To Kill a Dead Man, and this soundtrack caught the attention of British label Go Records. In 1994 Portishead released their first record, Dummy. Gibbons was notoriously shy, and the band refused to tour or do press interviews for this album. Despite this fact, the record sold 150,000 copies in the US.
Barrow was influenced by hip-hop bands like Public Enemy and DJ Premier. Gibbons loved singers like Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and indie bands: The Pixies, Cocteau Twins and The Sugarcubes. She cites her biggest influence as Paul Webb from Talk Talk. Portishead were innovative because they used the production style and beats from hip-hop and made the singer the focus of the song in a way that hadn’t been done much in electronic music. Gibbons’ sultry, sorrowful voice and melodically impressive songwriting took this music effectively into the pop realm. Dummy won the Mercury Prize in 1995, beating out huge English acts like Blur, Oasis and Pulp. The same year the single “Glory Box” hit #13 on the UK charts, even though it had gotten absolutely no radio airplay.
The same year in the US, MTV played the video for the song “Sour Times” to a culture that had no idea what trip-hop was. The genre had been invented by Massive Attack, but it was Portishead’s album Dummy that popularized the style. In 1997 the band released their second album, Portishead, changing their style by putting their own instrumental compositions onto vinyl and then making loops from those sampled records. In 1998 their live album, Roseland NYC, sported not only their best songs, but also a full rock band and 35-piece orchestra. After this, the band took a break. Utley and Barrrow worked on other projects and Beth Gibbons collaborated on an LP with Rustin Man (formerly known as Paul Webb from Talk Talk).
Portishead’s last album, Third, dropped in 2008. It was a challenge for the band, they had made a self-imposed rule not to use instruments they had used before. This album was also challenging for fans, who wanted to hear the group’s trademark sampled sound (that the media had dubbed “trip-hop”, a label the band never liked). In this KEXP Documentary you’ll hear parts of a rare Beth Gibbons interview, which provides an unusual inside look at this intentionally mysterious band.
Portishead play WAMU Theater here in Seattle on Sunday, October 23.
KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. This series was co-produced by Decibel Festival‘s Sean Horton. Assistant Producers are John Felthous and Mary Janisch. Lesson Plans are created by Tiffany Grobelski and Michele Myers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post historical music facts, research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.