As Portishead finished its meticulously sparse evening performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the typically reticent Beth Gibbons suddenly leapt off the stage and ran a 100-yard dash along the fenced-in crowd, exuberantly shaking their hands.
Percussionist Geoff Barrow and guitarist Adrian Utley soon exited more quietly. Barrow, though, paused in front of a microphone to say, simply, “Thanks for waiting.”
After a ten-year hiatus, Portishead is back. This is not a reunion bow, though, but rather an energized reboot of a band that ten years ago found itself burnt out from a rock ’n’ roll life and creatively kaput after the success of their enormously popular 1994 trip-hop debut “Dummy” and their 1997 self-titled follow-up.
They’ve returned with the aptly titled “Third,” a record bristling with angst, darkness and a desire to obliterate misperceptions of the band as merely hip background music.
“We’ve always had to struggle with that kind of thing,” said Barrow, the 36-year-old founder of the band which he named after the English coastal town where he once lived. “When our music absorbed into the mainstream, a lot of people started thinking that it was like a chill record or that sort of thing. But we’ve never really ever been about that.”
Becoming an adjective
In 1991, Portishead formed in Bristol, fusing Barrow’s turntable skills, Utley’s jazz guitar background and Gibbons’ haunting, fragile voice. At the time, Bristol was becoming a “scene” that also birthed Massive Attack, Tricky and a moody, electronic sound dubbed trip-hop (a term Portishead dislikes).
With classic dirges like “Mysterons” and “Glory Box,” the trio became a band with whom no college student was unfamiliar. Having carved out a distinct space, “Portishead” morphed into an adjective lent to hundreds of music reviews.
The narrowing view of Portishead wasn’t lost on the band. And after a large festival tour and a lavish 1998 live album performed with the New York Philharmonic, the group felt they were clouded by excess.
“We burnt ourselves out in ‘98,” said Utley, 51. “It’s the reason we weren’t interested in doing Portishead because we just absolutely went too much.”
The 43-year-old Gibbons, who hasn’t given interviews for years, released a solo album in 2002 (“Out of Season”) with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb. Utley contributed to the album, toured with Gibbons and spent time working on various soundtracks.
Barrow retreated to Australia, where he set up the experimental label Invada and produced for the band The Coral, on which Utley also worked. Both Barrow and Utley went through divorces.
“At the end of our (1998) tour, I kind of thought we had actually fulfilled our musical life,” said Barrow. “Not like it was over — we would never quit — but we really had to go away and think how we did stuff. That took six years before we could comfortably get back together and say, ‘We’ve got a cause now.”’
Barrow says he entirely quit music for three years, that he didn’t “have it in my stomach.” Inspiration returned after Barrow listened to bands such as Sunn O))) (pronounced simply “sun”) and Ohm, as well as watching bands on his label — “brilliant people with no commercial aspirations,” he said.
Slow going in the studioThe group tried to put some music together in 2001, but failed to produce anything exciting. They reconvened in 2003, when Barrow and Gibbons recorded “Magic Doors,” one of the 11 songs on “Third.”
“We always had an idea about what we wanted,” said Utley. “We didn’t want it to sound like old Portishead — ‘Glory Box’ or ‘Cowboys’ or anything. But we do reference our own albums in spirit.”
He added: “We were more interested in dissonance, darker, colder sounds. We talked about that a lot.”
Still, once back in the studio, the going was slow. Portishead has always chosen to work long and hard to build their textures precisely. “Third” took about four years to complete, a process Barrow said was “just pulling teeth. We could barely find a chord to say was OK.”
“I’m not really the person that wants to go ‘Yeah!’ when you hear a guitar solo,” said Barrow. “I run in the opposite direction.”
The most emblematic song on “Third” — and surely a sprint away from stylishness or bravado — is “Machine Gun.” Purposefully abrasive — far more so than the Jimi Hendrix tune by the same name — the song uses drum machines to mimic the sound of a machine gun.
Sings Gibbons: “I can’t see nothing good/ Nothing is so bad/ I never had a chance to explain/ Exactly what I meant.”
Barrow said he doesn’t see any great departure in the new material and believes their earlier work was just as dark: “To me there’s no difference between (‘Machine Gun’) and ‘Wandering Star.”’
So far, the album has been met with largely glowing reviews and on Wednesday, it charted no. 7 with 53,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It’s Portishead’s highest chart position, though “Dummy” eventually sold more than one million copies. Said Spin magazine: “Instead of revisiting the past, Portishead capture the present’s anxieties.”
‘We don’t want to be on tour forever’Their brief exposure, though, is essentially over. Portishead played about a dozen concerts in Europe before the April 26 Coachella date, and will soon wrap up their touring.
Barrow takes no joy from performing because of the intensity of recreating their sounds live. That’s partly because unlike many electronically minded groups that perform with laptops, Portishead doesn’t play to prerecorded material.
“We’ve got families and stuff now, so we don’t want to be on tour forever,” said Utley. “When you wake up in Berlin on a tour bus, it doesn’t matter how many people come to see you that night — you’re not with your daughter and your girlfriend. I’m 51. I got drunk enough in my life.”
Still, the band says they feel rejuvenated. “Third” closes out their record contract with Universal Music Group and both Utley and Barrow say that’s a liberating feeling.
“We feel like we’re in the same place, just progressing,” said Barrow. “We just want to keep on working. I’m definitely re-energized. I think we all are.”