Adrian Utley: Portishead Sound Shaper

Interview | Artist

Published in SOS June 1995
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

With Portishead's much acclaimed Gold selling debut album, Dummy, riding high in the charts, the West Country finally have an act to make a song and dance about. JONATHAN MILLER gets the low down on fame, fortune and MI6 from co-producer and band member Adrian Utley, a man of many talents.


Until recently, Portishead was simply a name on a map -- a deceptively mundane English town overlooking the Mouth of the Severn on the outskirts of Bristol. Previous claims to fame include residents Eddie Large, half of comedy duo Little and Large, and photographer Martin Elliot, responsible for the infamous bottom baring tennis-girl poster, adorning many a student halls of residence bedroom wall in bygone days.

An unlikely candidate for a band name, Portishead now rolls off music fans' tongues up and down the country, and beyond. It comes as little surprise to learn that Portishead is the former hometown of founder member 24 year-old Geoff Barrow.

Much media coverage has been directed at the Portishead nucleus of turntables man, keyboard 'dabbler' and programmer Geoff, and reclusive vocalist Beth Gibbons. As a tape-op at Bristol's Coach House studios, Geoff befriended Massive Attack and graduated to occasional engineering work. This fortuitous connection led to work with Neneh Cherry, with whom he co-wrote three tracks for her Homebrew album; Tricky; Ride; Primal Scream; Sabres Of Paradise; and Depeche Mode, to name but a few.

However, it is 37 year-old guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, co-producer, co-writer and 'sound shaper' Adrian Utley who is arguably the group's unsung hero. As Musical Director, he is effectively the unofficial third full-time member of the Portishead project. Prior to a chance meeting with Geoff at Coach House studios, Adrian was an active session musician, relentlessly touring and playing alongside musicians of the calibre of guitarist Jeff Beck and saxophonist Dick Morrisey. At Coach House, he heard early versions of tracks that would end up on Dummy and made a brave decision to retire from session work and join Portishead. The rest, as they say, is history.


Although 'Sour Times', the unusual top 20 single featured on Dummy, put Portishead on the road to glory, their first actual release was a 10-minute short film entitled To Kill A Dead Man, nominated for an award at The British Short Film festival in August 1994. National release supporting the likes of Quentin Taratino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction no doubt assisted in the credibility stakes. Based on an original idea by Portishead themselves, it features a score owing much to the work of '60s soundtrack supremo John Barry -- obviously Adrian's passion for classic spy films rubbed off on Geoff & Co. This is further reflected on 'Sour Times' itself, with samples credited to Lalo Schifrin from More Mission Impossible, amongst others. And Adrian maintains that when Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) turns on the coffee grinder during the title sequence of The Ipcress File, it's in tune with the music!


Dummy, once called "a '90s mix of hip hop beats, imaginary '60s film soundtracks and the scorching blues vocals of Beth Gibbons," has, to date, sold in excess of 850,00 copies worldwide since its release in August 1994, whilst the second single taken from it, 'Glory Box', sold a quarter of a million copies, both in the UK and the USA. Heavy rotation on MTV's Buzz Bin helped bring Portishead to the masses, as did an outrageous publicity stunt involving large-scale projections onto the MI6 building on London's South Bank, a la Jean-Michel Jarre -- it's that 007 vibe again.

I was lucky to speak with Adrian Utley, during a break in rehearsals for Channel 4's The White Room music show at West Way Studios in London, at a time when his career is about to go stratospheric. He recently turned down a direct offer from a certain internationally famous ivory-tinkling singer/songwriter to remix a track from his first album of the decade. Instead Adrian opted to pursue his first love of jazz, producing the comparatively unknown Flanagan Ingham Quartet. Here is an artist who is definitely not ruled by his wallet -- increasingly rare in this day and age.


Comfortably ensconced in the sunlit surroundings of West Way Studio's outdoor restaurant, I began by asking about the aforementioned '60s fixation, with intentions of shedding further light on the unique and much sought-after Portishead sound. The group have even gone as far as sampling the sound of crackling vinyl to add to their tracks. Adrian:

"Sixties soundtrack music is a minute facet of what we all listen to, but the sounds that we make are like that, so it will sound similar. For me, I love that kind of soundtrack music. The Ipcress File has been one of my favourite films for years and the sound of John Barry's orchestrations, in terms of voicings and the way they were recorded, is amazing.

"I don't suppose John Barry had much to do with the recording process, although I know that Ennio Morricone must have done when he did things like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. I imagine from listening to the electric guitar on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which is such a disgusting noise when it comes in, that he must have got his hands on the amp, saying, 'I'll have a bit of that, whatever that is'. So it's the sound of soundtracks and the way they are recorded that I love."

Adrian agreed that Portishead had actively tried to emulate this style of music on To Kill A Dead Man: "We were into a bloke called Riz Ortolani at that time, who nobody's ever heard of. We picked up this cheap soundtrack album and it's probably a crappy film, but Geoff, Dave and myself like the sound of Italian soundtracks. I think they were trying to copy the American soundtrack stuff that was going on at the time. They hear Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones and people like that and then they do it in their own way, but all they've got is a Fender Rhodes and an echo unit. They haven't got masses of technology, so they record something really dodgy with that and then flip the tape over so it's backwards. It's really inventive, a little bit crap and just sounds really vibey. Also the Italian orchestras sound like they're half pissed, don't they? That's the appeal for me."


Dummy is not simply an electronic affair. Adrian is credited with the string arrangement on 'Roads', yet strings are not his forté: "We were helped by the string players on that, although it was in our heads. I do read music and used to do arrangements jazz-wise with horns and stuff, but I'm not very experienced with strings, although I want to be. I'm not actually sure of the entire range of a viola, or what it sounds like in that range, or whether you can play it on a certain string, or whatever, but it is something I will be learning more about."

This prompted me to observe that ex-Tangerine Dream member Christopher Franke, now a successful soundtrack composer, has set up his composition software such that he cannot play outside the various orchestral instruments' ranges, before handing over to his own Berlin Symphonic Orchestra.

Adrian: "I might do something similar, because I'm going to get a Fender Rhodes at home to play on. I don't play keyboards very well, but I think piano is an incredible instrument to see it all on. I do like guitar, but there's things you just can't do, like tight clusters. I did know an arranger who had the range of instruments written on the piano.

"It's a timbral thing. I know what would sound better on a guitar, bass and the instruments that I do know without hearing it, whereas with strings I could see that the viola goes from that note to that note and the player might be able to play harmonics if they're very good, but I don't instinctively know what that actually sounds like in an orchestration. I think that is only something you can learn by actually doing it, or by writing your arrangement and then going to a professional and saying, 'I want the violins to sound like Bernard Hermann and I want this kind of vibrato here'. I know the sounds that I want and they'd probably think, 'Christ, corny!'"

Bearing in mind the lucrative niche that the likes of Christopher Franke have carved for themselves, and the fact that the instrumental nature of 'To Kill A Dead Man' is obviously ideally suited to visual accompaniment, I wondered if Adrian had aspirations to conquer Hollywood: "It would be excellent. A few Hollywood people have picked up on Portishead stuff. I'd definitely like to work with films that are more sort of left-field. To do something like Blue Steel would be absolutely bloody excellent! But I couldn't possibly deal with something like Star Wars -- God forbid! Something like a cop film would be cool, but I'd rather go for something a bit weirder. I'm not chasing the dollar, although we've all got to live."


I was particularly interested in the fact that Adrian was once described as a 'sound shaper', and asked him to expand on this theme: "The sound is worked on by our engineer Dave McDonald, Geoff and myself. The sound sources we use are very particular and very 'worked on'. For example, a synth sound from a Roland SH09, which is integral to a new track we've been working on, relies heavily on a valve reverb which is immensely important to the sound. The synth itself is also important, so I tend to collect all sorts of instruments, keyboards, guitars and effects. 'Sound shaping' involves whatever I put onto tape sounding pretty much like the finished result.

"With guitars I always record direct to tape with the effects already on. That's how it used to be done and it's good because you're making a commitment. It's the same with sampling."

Attention to detail is obviously the name of the game with Portishead, as Adrian concurred: "There was one remix of 'Glory Box' we did that used one vibraphone note on it. It did have two vibes notes, and it took us an hour to get rid of one of them, as if to say, 'Now that's much better with just that one little touch.' It makes that much difference."


Adrian is primarily a guitarist, but within the last three or four years has discovered the joys of subtractive synthesis and sampling: "I'm completely self-taught in terms of recording, self-taught on the guitar and self-taught with synths. I've now got an ARP Odyssey Mk1, which has very distinctive sound. I want a Moog now, particularly an early Minimoog, and I'd really like to get a big modular system. I started off just messing around with knobs and now understand all about routing. When I got the ARP it took me about an hour to get a noise out of it, but now the possibilities seem endless.

"I'm more interested in old synth sounds. Most people can hear the difference between old and new synths. Even the SH09 sounds totally different to the Odyssey. Modern synths are on every advert the next week, so it's nice to create your own sounds and use the sampler to make pads up out of synths."


I asked Adrian if he multisamples his old monosynths so he can effectively play chords: "I do that, but you can't use any kind of massive filter or modulation effects because it'll go weird over the pitch range, so you have to use the internal facilities in the sampler. I did have a Roland S330, which is quite good in that respect, but I've just flogged it because I'm going to get an Akai S1000. Geoff uses an S1000 and I've got an S950, which is also really excellent. Even though it's 12-bit it's got a grainy sound which I really like."

I wondered whether he would consider sampling parts of older Portishead compositions and reworking them into new ones: "I've got a feeling we're kind of doing that anyway. There's quite a library of stuff that Geoff and myself have put together on various DATs and they'll get sampled. That's why I want an 8-track and Revox to build things up and sample them. My ARP Odyssey's so evolving and massive for me, never having got near a modular, that I now start taping everything that I do, even if it's just messing around, because you never know what you're going to come up with that could be sampled and used."

Bearing in mind that several artists are credited for samples on Dummy, I was surprised to learn that Adrian is not keen on sampling other artists' material. When asked on his position regarding people sampling Portishead, he replied, "I've never thought about it. I've got a feeling we heard something we thought somebody had sampled. We were going to get it in the studio and slow it down and see if it was us, but we forgot about it fairly quickly.

"I don't think we'll be sampling other people any more, but the songs on Dummy evolved like that. In a way I don't blame companies for sueing over uncleared samples because there's a lot of people who buy a sampler and think they can sample what the hell they like and get away with it."


Adrian's love affair with all things analogue extends to his home studio setup: "I've got a Kenton Pro2 MIDI/CV interface for my Roland SH101, SH09, ARP Odyssey and Pro One synths. I use an Atari running Cubase V2 for sequencing and storing ideas. For Portishead there's very little on it, just a couple of things going along on screen.

"I've got a Tascam analogue 8-track, which I haven't used yet, and I'm planning to get a Revox B77 for mastering. I like mucking around with editing and I also want to use the Revox for bouncing on the 8-track. I'm quite into putting a load of stuff together, bouncing it over to the Revox in stereo and then bouncing it back onto two tracks of the multitrack and building things up that way. I love that warm analogue sound.

"I did something recently on ADAT and I really didn't like the sound of it. I've got a '70s Fender Twin amp reverb which has a really warm sound and I know what that sounds like -- and it didn't sound like that on ADAT. It wasn't EQ'ed. We stuck SM57 mics on it, which I always use -- one at the front and one at the back -- and it did not sound the same. It scooped out the whole 'warmth' area in the sound.

"I don't like DAT machines either, but they are a necessary evil. We cut the Portishead album from DAT, although we did master it to quarter-inch. There was an obvious difference between the two, but the recording was so noisy and dense to start with anyway that it really didn't make that much difference.

"However, if you've got something with a lot of bass in it, like a jazz recording, where things are not so messed up sound-wise, then the sound from quarter-inch or half-inch is just excellent, especially if you really drive it hard. You hear something as you're mixing it, then you listen back to the quarter inch and it's been compressed in the most excellent way."


Outboard is obviously an integral part of Portishead's sound. Here, too, Adrian sings the praises of analogue.

"I don't like Lexicons, although I have used them. I don't know what it is, but I'm not keen on them at all. When I did another film project called Protocol in a studio in London recently, they had an EMT plate reverb. I think it's called a Gold Foil, which is one of the little portable ones. They're in a lead box or something, so it would still take a couple of people to lift it, but the sound of it was unbelievable and the tail-off as the reverb decayed was absolutely crystal clear and very warm, unlike digital reverbs. It was completely smooth, like on the Isaac Hayes recordings of the '70s. So faced with that, I couldn't possibly use digital reverb. I'm almost on the point of buying an EMT and having it lifted to wherever I'm going to mix. It just makes so much difference if you're going to do a jazz record, for instance, where the reverb is an immensely important part of the sound. It's only £600, so I would do it."

I joked that in addition to an initial outlay of £600, Adrian would need to put a couple of people on the Portishead payroll to lift the damn thing!


Dummy was recorded in various Bristol studios, and I wondered if this was a case of financial constraints or of familiarity: "We did go down to a big London studio to mix, but we hated the result because we weren't used to it. We know that the studios around us have got what we need and we know the sound of them.

"We've now got our own place, State Of Art, which is based around a Studer 24-track and TAC Scorpion desk. It mainly came about through the concept of first idea, best idea. I was talking to Beth about this. When she sings, that's it and it's the same when I play something on guitar. When you first get that vibe of the moment, it's a pain in the arse trying to recreate it. Once it's on tape, as far as I'm concerned, that's it, even if it's got little mistakes in it. To us, saying, 'OK, let's go to a real studio now and do it for real', is a ridiculous concept."

State Of Art was already a studio before Portishead took over, having previously used it for pre-production purposes. They then re-equipped the facility to suit their needs, choosing older gear -- hence the tongue-in-cheek name.

"It was built from the ground up really. Dave, the engineer, had already been working there when it was a 16-track, when we did our pre-production. Some of the vocals on Dummy were actually from the 16-track synced up with a 24-track because the vibe was right.

"We were going to get a 2-inch 16-track originally, which would have been a wonderful format with even greater separation, but in reality, if we get sent remixes they are always on 24-track. When we remixed the Paul Weller 'Wildwood' track, for example, we had to go to another studio; now we can actually do it all on our gear.

"I remember reading that producer Don Was had a 24-track at home when he was working with Bonnie Raitt, because she would sing something, play it, and that would be it. Then he could take it to other places to work on, but the vibe was there from day one when it was written.

"For years and years bands have always tried to recreate their demos, but better quality. So if you do it at half reasonable quality in the first place, you can end up using it. One take can be completely different to another, and one can be the one and that's it. I think that's a problem that we all felt -- we did it in pre-production, why are we doing it again? So that's why we got our own studio."


As our meeting drew to a close, Adrian elaborated on his new-found dual career as a successful musician and producer, an enviable position by any standards: "I enjoy both really. I've always wanted to produce all my life. I definitely want to do more film work, but that will be in my own esoteric kind of way. I don't want to end up doing corporate music. It would bore the shit out of me! In terms of production, I'd like to do more jazz because I really want to get on top of it. I'm going to die doing that!

"I wouldn't change my outfit to suit a new band, that's why I only want to work with someone I like, or jazz. I'd even like to work with country people, or anything which is acoustic or analogue. I don't really want to work with pop people because it's too fickle and I don't understand the charts enough. So to sum up, anything from the heart, definitely good songs, anything with nice guitar playing on it that's not clever Dick, although I could work on thrash noise surf nonsense -- severe noise, but interesting. Music from the heart is what I'm really into."



Were you surprised at the success of 'Glory Box' and Dummy, given that they are not exactly commercial recordings?

"I'm a major fan of Beth. Her voice and her vibe is incredible, so I wasn't surprised that people would like her and what we are doing, but I didn't expect it to sell as well as it has or as many people to be into it. I am so glad they are, just because we've done it from an honest point of view and used severe production techniques and sounds that we like."

Are you perturbed by the daunting task of producing a follow-up?

"I don't think it's a worry in the camp. We just want to get on and do it again, but now we've got to tour for seven weeks. We're pretty reluctant, although we're doing it. It's chopping into the recording and thinking time. The 'phone's never stopped ringing. It's not like it used to be where we could sit and talk. Now it's just full-on madness."



Musical inspiration is always difficult to sum up in words, and there are no hard and fast rules in the Portishead modus operandi: "Within the Portishead context it's soundtrack-type sounds -- weird, vibey little things. We're looking for loops mainly. It's not like a traditional songwriting situation, sitting down and strumming a guitar or whatever, although a couple of the songs could be done that way now, but they didn't come about that way at all. So we tend to find a little vibey, atmospheric thing, then that gets sampled and Geoff works on it. We add little bits and put live stuff on top. Inspiration can come from anywhere. It could be a sound from an organ with an unusual echo or something on it, or it could just be a beat that Geoff's put together.

"Geoff and I tend to work together, trying to find something by bouncing ideas back and forth between us. Remixes are very much like that as well, but on a Portishead song it usually starts with a vibe that Geoff wants to get going and then we all do our stuff.

"With Portishead we put something together on a tape, very roughly arranged with a chorus, and then Beth works on the lyrics at home. Geoff tends to help her with the melody, if it's not working."

Whilst we're on the subject of 'good vibrations', I mentioned that Adrian is credited with playing a 'Thereman' on Dummy's opening track, 'Mysterons'. I was most impressed that he had mastered what is a difficult instrument to play, until he told me the background to this track.

"This is a terrible thing to admit, but it wasn't actually a Theremin. It's a synth sound made on an SH101, because we couldn't actually get hold of the real thing. Since then I've got one from a guy called Barry Wooding who makes them. He saw the same TV program that we saw about Leon Theremin. That changed my life! I've always been into those kind of sounds anyway and I never knew what it was.

"There's another thing called an Ondes Martenot. It's a keyboard, where you wear a ring on your finger to make contact. It makes virtually the same sound as a Theremin, but it's obviously a lot easier to play because you're touching a keyboard, unlike the Theremin, which is incredibly difficult to play."



Although Portishead are actively involved in remixing, it would be unfair to accuse them of jumping on the bandwagon. Adrian is well aware of the proliferation of remixes, with record companies actively using the concept as a marketing ploy. For example, EMI used The Orb to remix a Mike Oldfield track in order to give their artist 'credibility', according to Orb man Alex Paterson.

"I generally don't like it. We've done quite a few remixes -- Paul Weller, Massive Attack, Earthling, Ride -- and I enjoyed doing them. Some them sound so fucked up that you couldn't possibly dance to them and I quite like that, but I really hate the remix angle where the song is no longer as important as who's remixed it! The record companies are just hedging their bets.

"Last summer I first heard jungle full on. I really like jungle and wouldn't muck around with it; I just think when you start hearing jungle remixes, it cheapens the music. It happened with garage and I think it's a crappy record company tool to sell more records across the board."

Having got that off his chest, Adrian went on to outline how he would typically approach a remix: "It would start with the original vocal and nothing else. If we were going to do something involving me playing live, then I would try not to hear any of the chords from the original and I would try and get some kind of weird harmonic twist on what's going on with the melody.

"In the case of the Paul Weller track, I hadn't heard 'Wildwood' until Geoff asked me to come over and work on it. We stuck the vocal track up and I was stunned. It was just one fader with his voice on it and his guitar had bled onto it as well. Obviously it was live and not done to a click, so they'd built up around that. We couldn't just take the vocal and had to incorporate the bled guitar as well. We built up something around it and then stripped a lot away. Geoff played the drums on it live and I took responsibility for dropping the drums in. Then we put the bass on it and some twangy guitar."

Geoff Barrow has talked about performing Portishead tracks in a different style, like grunge, to attract fans of that style in the hope of leading them into the 'true' Portishead sound. Adrian: "We did do a grunge version of 'Glory Box'. It had noisy guitars on it, and that's something that both Geoff and I like anyway, so that could be encompassed in Portishead, even though there's nothing like it on the album."

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