She’s got a lovely singing voice, but off stage Portishead singer Beth Gibbons doesn’t talk. At least not to the press. Sometime after the British trip-hop band’s 1994 debut, Dummy, infiltrated the American charts with its mopey hit ”Sour Times,” the shy chanteuse stopped doing interviews. As a result, the rest of the band — musical mastermind Geoff Barrow, plus guitarist Adrian Utley and drummer Dave McDonald — have had to do the talking about their long-awaited second album, Portishead, which merges scratchy, string-heavy atmosphere with huge beats, giving it a distinctive sound that’s at once futuristic and antique. Making the album was a difficult process, but unlike their reticent singer, the band seem to enjoy discussing Portishead’s agonizing creation.
”We came up against a lot of obstacles we put there ourselves,” says Utley, relaxing in a New York hotel room. ”We didn’t want to make Dummy again, but we were unsure of our language, our vocabulary. We went through a big dip of noncreative agony. A block. It was a very dark time for us.” To overcome that hurdle, the band undertook a painstaking — some would say compulsive — process: Instead of sampling existing records, they recorded themselves playing snippets of songs, then sent the tapes out to be pressed onto vinyl, which they sampled and, if they liked the results, used to construct the songs. Why go to such extremes? ”Making a record from other people’s material was so easy and obvious,” boasts Barrow.
The results are impressive. So what gives with Gibbons’ silent treatment? ”She just doesn’t like interviews,” says Barrow. ”She wants to be represented through our music. People see Beth as this mystery woman, but she’s not.” What about lyrics like ”Nobody loves me,” or that pouty onstage demeanor? ”If she were sitting here she’d be exactly the same as we are,” insists the good-natured Utley. She wouldn’t be in a corner staring at the wall? ”Absolutely not. She’d drink you under the table.”