What do you do when the music you’re surrounded by leaves you cold? Make better music. An obvious manifesto perhaps, and one Geoff Barrow lives by. In 2009, feeding off the experimentalist impulse of his beloved Krautrock pioneers, he created BEAK> with fellow musicians Matt Williams (Team Brick) and Billy Fuller (Funk Against Junk). Together, they’ve taken on the churning mediocrity of the music industry, releasing both their self-titled debut and this year’s follow-up >> on their own label Invada.
Of course, the music industry is something Barrow has witnessed at close quarters, having first found unlikely fame as part of Bristol trip hop act Portishead. While Portishead has gone on to age far more gracefully than many of their peers, Barrow’s hardened beliefs are very much that of someone forced to endure the age when the suits reigned supreme. Barrow’s righteous opinions have made him into a valuable force within contemporary music, both as a producer (The Horrors‘ outstanding second album Primary Colours sported more than a handful of Barrow’s sonic fingerprints) and iconoclast. Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax sat down with Barrow and the rest of BEAK> over a round of drinks to get to the heart of what drives them to do what they do.
Max Dax: I was recently in the south of France interviewing Irmin Schmidt from Can. He told me it can be very calming to know that you’re not supposed to invent anything new; instead your role is to add something new to something already existing.
Geoff Barrow (GB): I can go along with that. It is very difficult to purely invent, you’re inspired by elements of things that make you up musically or artistically. Cooking is another, somewhat cheap analogy, with the ingredients in the pot.
Billy Fuller (BF): If you’re trying to consciously move something forward, it can easily become too calculated. We’re not that clever.
GB: Looking at who we are as individuals and what we’re influenced by, it makes sense that we would make music as we do. My favorite band is in fact Can. What I get out of them is a positive emotional feeling that is nonstandard. It’s not surprising if BEAK> is related to Krautrock.
BF: Can sounded like a group of individuals who wanted to do something for themselves without any outside influence. The only reference point with my limited musical knowledge is Karlheinz Stockhausen. Apart from that, they were just being themselves in a room without any of the blues stuff going on. I think there’s a heaviness in the European basis of bands like Can or even people like Soft Machine. They’re fucking amazing.
What do you mean by ‘any of the blues stuff’?
GB: I think there’s an emotional limitation to blues music. It has been so stripped out that I have trouble being emotionally attached to contemporary blues artists because I feel like everything is being repeated. What bores the fuck out of me is when I know where a chord is going to go next. And if it goes there, it leaves me cold on an emotional level.
BF: On the other hand you can still hear the freshness in the original blues music of Sun House or Robert Johnson or Fred McDowell, because it was still new back then.
GB: Likewise, nowadays when you hear a popular new band you can rarely say it sounds new. You just have to listen to their chords. You kind of already know what the structure is going to be, you anticipate what their melody is going to be, you realize that someone has put it into a computer and added some element of shitty dance music. That to me is dead music. It’s a corpse.
How can you break the pattern as a musician?
GB: You break the pattern for yourself so you can get some enjoyment out of music again because you’re not getting it from listening to fucking radio.
That’s interesting to hear because Bristol – where you’re from – is the place where there used be a lot of pirate radio stations, so radio was something that could’ve been this exciting, inspirational thing.
GB: Now, that’s a different kind of radio. It was very inspirational in the early nineties and I’m sure to the young kids it still is. From grime onwards. Suffice to say this does not apply to normal radio. But when it comes to BEAK> and the Can question, we don’t necessarily set out to emulate or push things further of a style. It’s us three musicians in our room.
You refer to a very specific space. Irmin Schmidt told me, in a very detailed way, how the old Can studio in Weilerswist was set up and how big it was. It was an old cinema with a high ceiling and everyone had their own vast territory so everyone would work for themselves but together. Also, I liked this other aspect that he told me – that in the summer they would sometimes open the door and they would hear these noises from the farm nearby. They accepted it like musique concrète, that it wasn’t something that had to be cut out or muted but could actually be part of the music. I like this idea that the room can be as important as the people in it.
GB: The studio that we record in, there’s nothing in there to make you happy. There’s nothing in there to inspire you or bring you down. It’s a neutral space. When I’m making music anything visual is not important, my eyes close off. I work with other musicians who see it differently. But we want it neutral. And we take that aesthetic into the music.
To visualize the track Iron Acton off of the first BEAK> record you had a video showing nothing and so much at the same time. It definitely had a strong aesthetic – it was noirish, John Carpenter-ish. Would you say it represented your sound?
GB: The idea with that video was that we wanted to show what we did and how we made it – the realities of creation. Usually people don’t ever get to see the reality of creation. It’s like with paintings exhibited in a gallery – it always shocks me when I see art in white cubes and everything seems so clean and distant. However, see the same paintings in the artist’s studio and we’ve a completely different thing. There’s paint everywhere and overalls and records. That is a million times more interesting to me than attending an exhibition opening at a gallery – because it shows the art of creation and the space of creation rather than just a blank white wall. By the way: We eventually decided to stay in that room and did also record our second album there, in this neutral environment. In our environment.
Did you also record parts of the futurist-sounding Drokk record there?
GB: A bit of that and also a bit in Ben Salisbury’s house which is a very functional room as well. You know, I did the record together with film music composer Ben Salisbury.
BF: BEAK> just did one tune for it and Geoff had to use a program to slow it down. I couldn’t be more involved in Drokk because my bass sound was too real and organic to be featured on something that was supposed to sound unreal and electronic.
GB: It was an organic record, but electronically organic.
I considered the Anika album a BEAK> record. Do you feel the same way?
GB: We don’t really consider the Anika record a BEAK> album. We were the band on the record but where BEAK> musically is is very different to where Anika is at. It had a similar kind of cloudiness to it, a mist, you could never sharp focus on anything, whether it be reverb or whatever it was, it was just kind of …
BF: …a neutral room.
Wasn’t it initially an experiment of how BEAK> would sound with a voice? Anika told me that she was invited by you to sing and she didn’t realize who you were.
GB: That’s true but it was never a BEAK> session. It was just for an interesting session, a musical session that might work or might not. We liked the idea of working with a vocalist but definitely not for BEAK>, it was just another thing. Generally what happens is, and this is me being biased, but when I get pissed off with and I don’t hear music that I like, instead of trying to find it I try to make it.
Matt Williams (MW): I’m the same.
BF: Oh, are you awake?
MW: A lot of what I do is a reaction against something that I feel hasn’t got it right so I try and make it right. I get it wrong and then make something different anyway.
GB: I’m a lot more interested in making my own work than listening to someone else’s. Maybe I’m self-obsessed? Did you notice that most female singers on a commercial level all seem to have the same voice. They underplay their capabilities of singing. [does impression of reedy voice] ”I saw you at the bus stop … ”
When it comes to the female voice in the music business, it seems it has to fit into a certain frame.
GB: I mean Björk and Polly Harvey both change their voices but they’re still them. Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her. And I’d like to say that Beth Gibbons sang in her voice too as she was very influenced by Janice Joplin. Whereas, I think Whiney Shitehouse – Amy Winehouse –, by the end of it, had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang. I saw her with an electric guitar in a little pub in Bristol and people were going “that’s amazing” but it wasn’t all that. Then she had the big drug problem and all the tabloids got involved and she would start being Minnie Ripperton or whatever it was. It seemed fake, but because there was a massive drug problem you couldn’t say it was fake, but her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice.
Let’s get back to visualizing an imaginary thing, because the Drokk album is a soundtrack to an imaginary movie about Judge Dredd you had in your mind.
GB: It started off being a soundtrack to an actual real film, the Dredd movie, but we didn’t end up doing it. They wanted the music to be a lot more commercial than what we wanted to go, so we pulled out.
There’s always this question over what is commercial and what isn’t. Where do you draw a line?
GB: It comes down to some bloke sat in America who’s written a check for a couple of million dollars who’s basically said “I don’t get this shit!”. Then, a young person goes, “Yeah boss, you want to put some electronic beats and phasers on it!” Art and commerce don’t mix. I didn’t realize how severely fucked the film industry is compared to the music industry. You realize how much pain people go through in trying to make a film. If we make a record then there’s three of us, we haven’t got to answer to anyone, we put it out, we’re the label and we can get a certain amount of exposure. With a film you’re fucked, you have to rely on other people, you’ve got to have a crew, you have to rely on someone else’s vision of your work and, depending on how much money is in question, producers get involved to tell you what they think of your film. Then, at the end of it you have to get a distribution deal. It’s like making a record for thirty-five million or even forty million and then not having a record company to put it out.
Is it an accident that Portishead became so huge?
GB: Obviously it happened and it was very uncomfortable and you have to then find a way to skirt around it, to give another image of yourself that is adequate to the needs of the machine other than putting yourself out there.
When you become famous the aspect of handling your celebrity status properly becomes a time-consuming aspect in your life, both personally and artistically speaking.
GB: As you know, if you signed a record deal in the mid-90s the record companies come to you with all these terrible ideas of how you should market yourself. Unless you have something that is incredibly marketable, you have to way find a way around it. We struggled for a long time to find any identity that would fit to us. It ended up just being the capital P in the end. The letter became our identity and luckily people recognize that as the band. It’s our logo and we can hide behind it.