Rock: The reluctant dbutante

Portishead are Britain's most talked-about new band. But until now their singer has let others do the talking. Ben Thompson meets Beth Gibbons

IF YOU were the most compelling and enigmatic new group in Britain, playing your first proper gig in the sort of London club where Christine Keeler used to strut her stuff, and you found out that Michael Hutchence of INXS had just walked in, what would you do? Get your friends to throw him out, that's what. Him and his supermodel companion: let them chew pavement. Portishead don't do this though - that's not the kind of people they are ("He was on Later with us," says musical mastermind Geoff Barrow, "it was nice of him to come"). May they never have cause to regret such forbearance.

The fake foliage hanging from the Eve Club's ceiling gives it the air of a woodland glade. This is one of those gatherings in which the best one can hope for is to remain inconspicuous. That is exactly what Portishead try to do: standing around chatting while the DJ makes mellow, then melting out of the crowd and onto the cramped stage, performing a handful of songs from their superb dbut album, Dummy, and merging modestly back into the throng again. Miraculously, given the complexity of their music and the fact that this (excepting two show-stopping tunes on Later and one brief showcase in a Clapham tea-room) is its first public airing, they sound even better in person than they do on record.

Singer Beth Gibbons is barely visible, ducking down beneath the level of the front row of heads, and appearing mainly as a plume of smoke coming out of a bald man's ear. There's no over-looking her voice though - it's smooth as Sade one minute, rough and raw as Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex the next - and it cuts though the keyboard splashes and the loping bass like an ambulance through a traffic jam. The drummer's muted clank is half man, half machine, and unassuming 37-year-old guitar wizard Adrian Utley cranks out fuzz communiques Ennio Morricone might have written for Jimi Hendrix. Behind it all is the precocious 22-year-old Barrow. He crouches studiously over his turntables, using them as a musical instrument.

It's the twists and turns - the subtle shifts, the subterranean moodswings - that make this music so beguiling. If Portishead have a problem at the moment, it's an excess of mystique. This is partly their own fault, for doing everything so stylishly, but it would be a shame if their drama and complexity got washed away in a tidal wave of noir hyperbole: all smoky rooms and small-hours drinking. Portishead's music is alive: it should not just be the preserve of soundtrack obsessives and ambience- chasers.

Until now, the band's press encounters have followed a pretty strict pattern. Reporter arrives, singer leaves, often with a squeal of tyres from her Triumph convertible. This time it's different. I arrive at the appointed place - a small terraced house in a less than leafy part of Bristol. Geoff Barrow, it turns out, is ill with a suspected ulcer (he worries too much) so Beth will do the interview. Her matter-of-factness, I later discover, is in sharp contrast to the feelings of her record company, who had been planning to use Beth's first exclusive as a bargaining counter for control of North Sea oil revenues.

Cheerful and chatty, wearing glasses not contacts and speaking with a light West Country burr not a tortured torch croak, Beth Gibbons is in a good mood. Portishead's second live appearance of the week - at the Transmusicales festival in France - was much more fun than the London date, which despite everyone else's opinion they do not consider to have been a great success. Next to her passport and money on the table in the kitchen is a hand-written note from a member of the audience. It says: "You were wonderful - thank you for the pleasure you gave us."

For a band whose music wasn't, as both Geoff and now Beth have made clear, "designed for live", Portishead seem to make a big impression on everyone who sees them. Does she enjoy singing for a crowd? "I get very nervous," she says, "but I like the idea that people who are listening to us can see us." She doesn't mind admitting that nerves have made two vital contributions to her stage persona - chain-smoking and hanging onto the mike-stand as if the floor was being pulled away. "We're not there to be a dominating force," Beth continues, "I don't like it when bands go: `Look at us - enjoy it.' You might not want to enjoy it. You might be feeling ill."

On the strength of a few gigs with a boyfriend's band seven or eight years ago - her Janis Joplin phase - Gibbons has often been portrayed as some kind of grizzled pub-rock veteran. But until the fateful day in 1991 when she bumped into Barrow at an Enterprise Allowance scheme induction day, her quest for potential collaborators had been a thankless one. "I went to his house and played him some of my stuff," she remembers, "and he came round to my house and played me some of his." Common ground - he a teenage hip-hop fan, she an unrepentant, mid-twenties song-lover - was not extensive. But, says Gibbons, "he was obviously good". And when he converted some of her rough ideas into "a proper song" she was truly impressed.

Their beguiling blend of classic songcraft and eerie studio atmospherics grew out of a tortuous writing process. Geoff would go into the studio with guitarist Adrian, drummer Clive and anyone else he needed, record on digital tape, take out the best bits and put them on vinyl, then scratch- mix the results back on to tape, "to enable him to put his own style onto the playing". Only when this tricky process was complete was Beth free to add her vocal lines - tune first, lyrics after - in the privacy of her own home.

For someone who "never particularly wanted to be a songwriter" she shows an impressive facility. Portishead's next single is a prowling, snarling panther of a song called "Glory Box". Despite being a heartfelt plea for sexual equality - "Move over and give us some room" - based on the common- sense proposition that "men should give women a reason to be nice to them", this song has already been misinterpreted by at least one observer ("It was funny," Beth says indulgently, "because he was a man") as a demand for a return to more traditional masculine and feminine roles.

"People think it must feel great when everybody loves you all of a sudden, and it does," Gibbons admits, "but there are other sides to it. I don't feel like this now, but at one stage I was thinking you write songs and you hope you're gonna communicate with people - half the reason you write them is that you're feeling misunderstood and frustrated with life in general. Then it's sort of successful and you think you've communicated with people, but then you realise you haven't communicated with them at all - you've turned the whole thing into a product, so then you're even more lonely than when you started.

Beth Gibbons' current attitude - "music is a spiritual thing and it should be treated that way" - seems at odds with such a pessimistic view. Blithely asking "Would you like to hear some stuff?" she rifles through a pile of discs and DATs to find the front-room demo that she played to Geoff when they first met ("My mum still wants us to release this as a single"), an assortment of dummy runs for songs on Dummy ("This is where I tried to rip off Sinead O'Connor") and even ("I don't think he'll thank me for this") some of Geoff's early studio experiments.

A few days later I get to talk to Mr Barrow on the phone, live from his bed of pain. His physical discomfort is as nothing to the thought of a total stranger being given access to his formative moments, but he is man enough to laugh about it.

"You don't want to make an aura round anyone," his singer had explained, "because it's just not fair on that person. It's unfair and unrealistic and it makes the audience stupid. It only happens out of ignorance and because the media wants things that way; and I think the audience should be told that it's not like that."

8 `Dummy' (Go! Beat, CD/LP/tape) is available now. `Glory Box' is released on 3 January and Portishead will tour when they have to.

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?