Their first album is the best dance album ever. Their second has been nearly three years in the making. "We had to disappear," they say. Now Leftfield have returned, with Rhythm And Stealth
Text: Dom Phillips, Photography: Donald Milne, Additional reporting: Emma Warren, Kevin Braddock
Friday night at Ministry Of Sound, and Leftfield’s Paul Daley is dropping Ben Sims' 'Killabyte' series and slabs of percussive European techno. Unshaven and wearing three-quarter-length jeans, he looks half as smart and twice the age of most of the crowd swarming below him.
After two hours, Daley's last tune throbs through Ministry's speakers. A slice of fluttering, stripped-back techno, it has a bassline reminiscent of Leftfield's classic 'Song Of Life'. There is some clapping from the floor. Daley, a man in the grey grip of apprehension until now, smiles. Two months earlier, he had tried out a track, 'Phat Planet’ at Leftfield's Shifting Gears club. Now his test-run of 'Double Flash', the first airing in four years of new Leftfield material on a sound system that does it justice, seems to have gone OK.
As he lugs his record box out to a waiting Land Rover Freelander, Paul Daley admits that he was nervous about tonight. He and partner Neil Barnes - at home tonight with his girlfriend and two kids - have been nervous a lot over the last three years. "We got all the paranoias that you would expect," Daley says. "A lot of the new dance music coming out in the last few years was amazing."
"We're not confident people," Barnes will later say. "We always think we're not as good as we should be. That's what keeps us going."
You might have heard of 'Afrika Shox', the Leftfield comeback single that had one video made for it in summer 1997, then another in March 1998, and still isn't out. Or seen the Guinness advert featuring Leftfield's 'Phat Planet'. Or bought the Go soundtrack on account of it featuring 'Swords', the first publicly available Leftfield music since 'Release The Pressure' in January 1996. You may have read about Leftfield having bypassed several release dates for the follow-up to their million-selling debut. Leftism was recently voted, by a poll of DJs, the best dance album... ever.
And you might have wondered: where the hell have Leftfield been?
They've been in the studio. Recording. Mixing. Editing. Ditching. Panicking. Getting distracted by Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation. Kickstarting the electro revival, then not getting any credit for it. Discovering south London rapper Roots Manuva. Editing and mixing some more. Then starting all over again.
"We're not musicians," Barnes will say, "we're sound fashionists." "Success," Daley says. "That's why the album's taken so long."
Friday afternoon in Porky's Mastering Studio in central London, and Leftfield are working on the 'final' edit of the last track to be completed for their second album. The track is 'Afrika Shox'. The album is to be called Rhythm And Stealth. During last year's shoot for Chris Cunningham's already legendary zombie-in-New-York clip, Barnes and Daley were still tinkering with the track. "When I came to edit it," recalls Cunningham, "I had to say, 'You've got to stop giving me new mixes’"
Fifteen months on, Barnes and Daley are still doggedly fiddling with sound effects. Neither considers that the impact of their heavily-anticipated return has already been compromised. Yes, it's unfortunate that the video's breakdancing scenes were being choreographed at precisely the moment the headspinning kineticism of Jason Nevins Vs Run DMC's 'It's Like That' was breaking on MTV all over Europe. So the electro revival started without them, and the intrigue of excavating Afrika Bambaataa for vocal duties has been superseded by his subsequent ubiquity (on Carpe Diem's 'Just Get Up And Dance', Westbam's 'Arghaarta' and Danmass' 'Electro Funk Express').
"We knew electro was going to come back," shrugs Barnes with the resigned air of a spottery sound-obsessive, "we knew it was on the cards." That's Leftfield: they have seen and heard the future, but they can't get too excited about it. Partly because they've spent long enough dreaming up new ones.
Slumped in this neat room, they look remarkably healthy for two men who've spent most of the last three years in studios. They're relaxed, buzzed by their video, clearly long-used to the company of no one but each other.
The long shadow of Leftism doesn't seem to reach into this underground bunker. This was the first British album to bring the club floor to the living room - and then take it back again, intact. A grandiose collection of dub bass, soulful techno and downbeat, melodic ambition, Leftism, like nothing before, defined both the upswing and the comedown of the British clubbing experience. Clubland's current interest in 'Afrobeat’? Leftism was there first, with 'Afro-Left'. Bridging the rock/rave gulf with 'indie' vocalists? Leftism had Toni Halliday, of proto-Garbage goth band Curve. On 'Release The Pressure', featuring toaster Earl Sixteen, Leftfield were the only crew to match Blue Lines for an inventive, modem UK tack on dub-reggae. And for true block-quaking power, Leftfield's 1996 tour will forever tower over any big beat throwdown.
"We do like music loud, yeah," grins Barnes, recognising their tendency to blast their sounds in the studio, too. "We tried to create a show, give the gig an atmosphere like a DJ set, always keeping it going, keeping it seamless."
All this, and they'd already crashed the Top Ten in 1993 with their pummelling collaboration with John Lydon, 'Open Up'. Before that, they'd helped instigate a credible British house sound - 'progressive house' - with 'Not Forgotten', their first single. Along the way they set up their own label, Hard Hands, as a "quicker way to put out our own music". In 1994, says Barnes, "there were few labels doing our kind of thing. Now there are millions. But through putting out music, we realised how the game worked." Now they're winding up Hard Hands. They're too busy with their own music to "do justice to other people's".
"It takes a long time to formulate things," they say, mentioning other painstaking artists like Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "We push on until things feel special. There's three years' work on Leftism,"
"How are we going to follow that man?" says Delay, recalling the post-Leftism comedown. "How are we going to make all these people feel like that again? I don't know whether we'll ever make a better album than that first album. Living up to it is hard."
Leftfield: always innovators, never imitators. And that takes time. And patience.
Neil Barnes, 38, and Paul Daley, 36, never wanted to be pop stars. Bouncing round the London club and band scene, they bonded over their common instrument - the conga drum - and diverged over their professions: Barnes taught communication skills and English, Daley was a hairdresser.
The irony is not lost on Leftfield as they try to get into the glitzy Trainspotting party at which they are the star performers. The duo wrote the title track for the same filmmakers' Shallow Grave, and their 'The Final Hit' soundtracks Trainspotting's pivotal coach journey scene.
Noel Gallagher spends the gig with his head in a bassbin: Damon Albarn says 'Storm 3000' made his throat vibrate. Leftfield persuade the pair to shake hands. "I remember thinking," grins Daley, "’This is pretty surreal.’"
The end of Leftfield's tour. They have assembled the biggest, crispest, bassiest soundsystem they could afford. MC Cheshire Cat, vocalist Djum Djum and scratcher Nick Rapaccioli patrol the stage while Barnes and Daley feverishly work their keyboards and percussion. It is a hot Saturday, the day of the Scotland-England Euro '96 game. The 'carnival atmosphere' is emphatically underscored when the Leftfield soundsystem brings plaster and dust tumbling down onto the stage. "The tour had to rock," says Daley. "They tried to arrest our soundman, and we were told by the venue never to come back!" says Barnes. "We've never been accused of inducing tinnitus - but the bass was enormous."
Leftfield begin their second album. "We had everything on the floor," says Barnes. "Loads of records. Keyboards. Dust junction." The sessions start badly. On Leftism, tracks had rolled out "much more organically". Now, from the off, every single note is a struggle.
They work on 'Double Flash', 'Afrika Shox' and '6/8 Drums', a piledriving track based around "a war of rhythms". But Daley feels there is "a lack of direction" in the new music. "You wanna move on, but you don't wanna disappear up your own arse."
They are impressed by the emerging radical techno and breakbeat hybrids - records by people like London Elektricity and Sweden's Carl Lekebusch. Leftfield feel burdened by mainstream acceptance. "You can't go back in time and pretend you're an underground act," reflects Barnes. "What you can do is try end do things with integrity. Give people what they were into you for in the first place."
Leftfield remix two tracks for John Lydon's Psycho's Path album. Afrika Bambaataa arrives at the studio to record a vocal with a full complement of Belgian and French Zulu Nation followers. He regales Leftfield with conspiracy theories - the millennium, for example, has already happened because the date fixed for the birth of Christ is incorrect.
Leftfield aren't happy with the sessions. They want a "darker vibe". Bambaataa returns a couple of days later and lays down a range of vocals on a millennial theme. Most of them end up on 'Afrika Shox', forming the chorus of "Let’s get electrified! Let's get electrified!"
Nicole Willis, a singer who's worked with Curtis Mayfield, flies in from New York to record 'Swords', an acld-y take on Portishead. Brummie chatter Cheshire Cat records the plaintive dub lament 'Chant Of A Poor Man'. "Reggae rhythms change all the time so we thought we'd make a new one," says Barnes.
At a gig at Mount Vesuvius the year before, Daley had met Almamegretta, who mix North African-influenced Neapolitan music with dub and indie-rock. Singer Rino, a friend of Massive Attack's 3D, travels from Naples to record 'Rino's Theme', a pulsing, beatless groove.
South London rapper Roots Manuva, then a student on an engineering course, is invited to collaborate on a tune, 'Dusted'. Two years before his recent breakthrough with Brand New Second Hand, Leftfield had picked up an obscure 12-inch called 'Blessed Be The Manor' by Skitz Featuring Roots Manuva.
"I couldn't believe these big techno guys were buying little independent records like mine!" says Roots Manuva. "At the studio, fucking hell, it's like being in a club! They were playing old school breaks, techno, dancehall, ambient stuff that blew my head off."
"Roots is a poet," says Barnes. "We wanted to do a rap, but something new - he sounds English, not like he's trying to be American."
Leftfield's PR talks to a dance magazine about the duo appearing on an autumn cover, to herald their return.
At the end of the previous summer's recording, Leftfield had filmed a video for 'Afrika Shox'. They scrap it and, under "gentle pressure" from their label Sony, commission Chris Cunningham to shoot a new one. "There was that pressure," says Daley. "The Prodigy were happening and all that [rock/rave crossover] was going off. But we're not The Prodigy, we're not The Chemical Brothers, we're Leftfield. We do things on instinct. Happy accidents. Chaos rules! Punk was an accident, so was acid house. No one really said, 'We're gonna make this thing...’"
The pair feel the rest of the material they've recorded for the album has advanced beyond 'Afrika Shox'. A summer release is abandoned. The new video, meanwhile, features a shot of a newspaper headline: 'Album Release Pressure'.
"That was my little joke," says Cunningham. "Neil and Paul were totally cool with it."
Relations between the two perfectionists ebb and flow. "I think sometimes we don't open up enough," says Barnes. "When you work with someone so close for ten years you become like part of the family. Sometimes you take another person for granted. We don't have a shouting, screaming type of relationship. We have rows, but they blow over. And out of those rows comes movement in the music."
They inch forward. By now 'Dusted' has been canned twice, once because "it just sounded like a hip hop record". They speed it up, from 90 to 97 beats per minute.
Leftfield's PR, having discarded a spring cover option, now talks about September.
In the last 14 months, Leftfield have nailed down 'Chant Of A Poor Man' and the desolate ambience of 'El Cid'. They have also, post-Go, remixed 'Swords'. Today, a couple of sound effects are to be added to the latest 'final' edit of 'Afrika Shox', and that's it. In theory.
"Our music has to take me down some kind of emotional development," says Barnes, pacing the small room. "It has to excite me, it has to make me feel sad. There's a seriousness there - often we go, 'It sounds like a graveyard what we've done here.' But that's just us."
"We did disappear," says Daley evenly. "It was important to do that for our own good. Bathing in success fucks you up, 'cause you start believing what everyone says about you."
Because Leftfield and their music look relentlessly forward, because they don't talk to each other as much as they should do, because they can... because of all these things, Leftfield have spent nearly three years making Rhythm And Stealth. It's paid off, with an album that is rigorously, obsessively, soulfully, forcefully futuristic. Previously, they'd reinvented British house, and now, with tunes like 'Dusted', 'Phat Planet' and 'Atrika Shox', they're finding new crossroads between modern urban dub, jugular techno and wild-eyed millennial electro. For Leftfield, it's about the science of sound, about striving for sonic progression, but never at the expense of adrenaline. Paul Daley and Neil Barnes learned to think the unthinkable - go away, dream it all up again, then rip it up and do it all over again.
The Leftism cover didn't feature the band or a nice graphic. It had a loudspeaker.
Tuesday afternoon in the Notting Hill office shared by Leftfield's management and PR, and trays of Guinness are stacked by the fax machine. "There's a surfboard, too, it you want one," jokes Barnes. The band that David Bowie described as "craftsmen" after they turned his 'Jump They Say' into a credible club anthem have little perspective on what they might have achieved with their second album. Rhythm And Stealth, reckons Barnes, is not as "big-sounding as Leftism. It's a little darker". Hopefully, considers Daley, "It'll stand up for itself. I honestly don't know if it’s any good. But it's definitely time for people to hear it!"
"We've virtually let it go," admits Barnes. "We realise it's not necessarily the best way of working, but it's the way we are. It's a process of elimination - we're not classic songwriters. We come up with a fluid thing that we base the track around, and then work with a vocalist. And the track sort of develops, with ideas being throws in and thrown out. As a matter of fact, it's the way The Beatles used to work."
Then it transpires that next weekend they're booked into a studio in north London. There's a 12-inch mix of 'Afrika Shox' to be done.
'Afrika-Shox' is released on August 23, Rhythm And Stealth on September 6
(article nicked from 'The Face', dated July 1999)