More bass! More Power! More rumbling noises! Leftfield emerge from the studio holding the album we’ve all been waiting for...
Words: Ian Harrison
Photos: Angus Mill
"If there’s too much bass, the groove becomes too wide and the needle pops out." Neil Barnes, one half of Leftfield, is giving a quick tutorial about bass and vinyl in a tone so serious you’d think it was an elaborate wind-up. "You have a trade-off of either compressing something and making it really loud or having the sound you want. But if you turn it up, your bass gets louder and washier and the grooves basically start to collide. Technically there’s no way round it."
He nods a bit, squares his shoulders and takes a swig of coke. So, since Leftfield stopped touring the huge-selling, genre-redefining ‘Leftism’ three years ago and retreated into their home studio to make the follow-up, is this the sort of thing that’s been taking up their time?
Paul Daley, the burlier of the two, laughs into his coffee. Neil ponders for a moment: "Yeah. More or less."
You can pardon such funny little ways though, like the way you can excuse their taking 20 minutes to choose where to be interviewed before realising how pushed for time they were. Lesser producers can worry about getting their albums out quickly, cleanly and logically. This is Leftfield, and in a very real sense, they can do what they want.
Sipping soft drinks at a Camden Lock boozer, Leftfield shelter under a tree to avoid the flesh-frying afternoon sun. As we had walked to the pub, they mused on the ability of Tennants-drinking winos to stay cool in the midday sun, even when wearing thick coats. And, ironically for a group who made extreme volume their speciality, they decided to avoid one place because it was "too loud".
Unhurried, unworried and conversational, this doesn’t seem the behaviour of mysterious returnees from the mid-90s who are unsure of their roles. On the contrary, the two late-30-somethings – just about carrying off their three-quarter-length keks – seem like men with clear consciences. Ex-teacher Neil Barnes is quietly-spoken and keeps his shades on; former hairdresser Paul Daley is more robust and geezerish. Between them they keep up a humourous double act; Paul puts comic emphasis on certain words while Neil deadpans his way through the conversation.
They’ve just returned from Djing at the Westergasfabriek gasworks in Amsterdam and gripe good-naturedly about going to New York tomorrow to begin the kind of non-stop press round that goes with eagerly awaited albums that took too long to make.
It’s the fault of ‘Leftism’ – the album with a shark’s jaws and bassbin on the front – that we’re here. It was recently voted the best dance album ever in a poll of Leftfield’s peers, and was strikingly ahead of its time, dubbed progressive house because you could listen to it at home as while chewing your lips off in a club. The epic UK tour in 1996, with its record-setting bass frequencies, live theremin and drums by Daley, sealed the first phase, which also included the number 13 success ‘Open Up’ with former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon and three more hit singles.
Never ones for fortnightly remixes or double albums every six months, however, there’s been nothing since but a few goodwill remixes for Lydon’s fairly kack ‘Psycho’s Path’ album and a collaborative cover of John Barry’s ‘Space March’ with David Arnold, who arranges strings for Bond film soundtracks.
Then ‘Phat Planet’ appeared on super-rare 10" promo and the best, pure genius Guinness advert ever, and we began to suspect another revelation of an album was rumbling down the tracks. So. Leftfield, are you…
"Old?" suggests Neil. "Past it? Cheesy?"
…the best dance act around?
‘Rhythm And Stealth’, out on September 6th, is an electrifying piece of work, good enough even to excuse it’s partial appearance on the soundtrack to the film Rogue Trader. Genre-splicing the urban music of the 90s, from dub to techno, is a popular pastime, but few do it with as much skill, subtlety or sheer invention as Leftfield. There’s no realignment into commercialisation or sonic extreme, the panto substitute for innovation. Instead they have kept to their plan of fascinating rhythms and deep-space shifts into the unknown.
As on the dark electro-stormbringer ‘Afrika Shox’ and the mindwarping ’88-style ‘Double Flash’, old sounds are reinvented. Familiar yet disturbingly alien, it’s the best bit of club-bound blood and circuitry since, well, ‘Leftism’, and all with the planet-destroying bass that makes future live shows a thing of temptation and dread.
Dance music being a world that worships bass – the louder and more skull-to-kidneys vibrating the better – it follows that anyone of a like mind will find a warm place for ‘Rhythm And Stealth’. As Paul says, bass is just as important to them. "It makes me want to shit myself," he explains. "Hit in the chest and the gut… when me and Neil were at warehouse parties all the systems were like that, so we took that as a marker. We come from a world where bass was the most powerful thing and everything followed on from it."
"Yeah, you couldn’t get it loud enough," Neil reminisces happily. "I remember UB40 being stunning at one point – and loud! Joy Division were the same. It comes from having music filling your head in a physical sense and completely taking you over."
On their notorious UK tour health and safety officials told them to turn the sound down as plaster was falling from the Brixton Academy ceiling. The sound crew that made possible such bowel-vibrating bass are even now circling the Leftfield camp to once again work their evil magic, like the Blues Brothers reforming the band, they say. Although that could be the difference between profit and breaking even, Neil’s unrepentant.
"I’ve been to gigs where I could have a conversation," he spits. "What’s the fucking point? It’s like bands who go on tour two weeks after finishing their album; I don’t know how they get a wicked set and top live sound worked out so quickly. In fact I do – they don’t."
Leftfield are a far more complex than the likes of, say, good old Blocko and Peasy, and Neil goes on to express admiration for mad Mike Banks-endorsed Glaswegian guitar abusers Mogwai (motto: "Blur are shite"). And Paul says he’s happy to rediscover hoary old rock acts like the Steve Miller Band. Making the album, they listened to wedge-cut 80s types like the Human League and Ultravox ("John Foxx era, of course," says Neil).
Try and delve any further than their music, however, and the duo are somewhat evasive. "We have a life outside of this, yes," says single guy Paul, but when they politely side-step the question, it seems more because they have other things to talk about than because they’re trying to be moodily enigmatic.
"For two years this has been occupying all our time," explains Neil. So, apart from the legendary recording, remixing, scrapping videos and starting all over again, why did it take so long? "We may as well admit it," quips Neil. "We only started six weeks ago."
It’s awkward to express, they say, but they always had the same, strange way of working. Having famously described themselves as "sound fashionists", non-musicians who wrestled with the technology of acid house to make new music, it’s clear the hardware didn’t make things any easier.
"It was all kind of mashed up," says Paul, his good humour momentarily dimmed by the memory. "For a long time the whole fucking album was a big fucking mess, like I remember the last one being. Plus, there was pressure on us from our own success, which we weren’t expecting. At the end of the day we had to do what we thought was right. That’s probably the shortest answer. You still feel like fucking giving up, though. But hey, that’s showbiz."
It took two years, for example, to decide to make the 90bpm ‘Dusted’ into 97bpm. Other times they would work on a track for three weeks and then bin it.
They say some people who loved ‘Leftism’ might find ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ too hard, but acknowledge they’re too close to make a proper judgement. They also recognise they’re up against some amazing records that have been made over the last four years. But despite understandable paranoia, they have stuck to one idea: someone has to maintain standards and keep their shit together.
"We had to move Leftfield forward. It was our sound, but because so many people had corrupted it and mutilated it we had to get away," says Paul, in a rare bout of criticism of the opposition. "What we do is a fucking big sculpture – there’s so many things to think of."
"Anyway, ‘Leftism’ actually took 30 years to do," says Neil. "you spend your life up to that point making your first LP. How are you supposed to make the next one in a year?"
"We had a choice," he adds. "We could have really milked what we’d done and the success of the first album and gone to America and flogged it there. But we wanted to stay here and keep in touch with the underground. And," here he smiles, anticipating the fence-sitting cliché he’s about to say, "make the music we wanted to make."
"The underground" could be said to be a debased, unreal concept. While fully aware that talking about it is often the preserve of techno fruitcakes who won’t have their pictures taken or release records, Leftfield associate it with a time when dance music was still a risky, uncommon interest. For them, it’s still a source of rich inspiration.
"When the dance thing booted off in the late 80s," explains Paul, "It was underground and it was about discovering an alternative, that there was more out there than people were playing and you have no idea who makes them. That was an aspect we enjoyed. It made it easier to manoeuvre and we felt we were doing something different from anyone else."
"For me, it was about listening to early dub productions when I was about 19," says Neil, about to lapse into more excited studio patois. "Talk about filtering! Twenty years ago! Hearing those stripped down Lee Perry instrumentals… fuckin’ hell. These things are definitely still inspiring to me."
Chasing uniqueness, that moment when you realise you’re listening to a killer track, is Leftfield’s objective. And for ex-punks, they have a refreshingly non-judgemental stance on such burning issues as whether trance sucks big logs or if glowsticks should be banned. You can suggest a ‘celestial rave nuns warbling over a soaring rhythm and Ski Sunday strings’ trance, and still they won’t slag it.
"It annoys me when people go, ‘Oh I hate trance, I hate drum ‘n’ bass’," says Paul, momentarily narked. "It’s always been the same – a few records poke through as really different, some are terrible. I still love a record with a 303 on it doing something different. Fucking respect to the 303, it still rocks!"
"And don’t forget the snare roll," chortles Neil. "We managed to get one of them cheesy old snare rolls on the LP, ha-ha!"
Proof that this philosophy is serving them well comes from DJs like Pete Tong, Jeremy Healy and Seb Fontaine, who’ve all give ‘Phat Planet’ pride of place in their sets. There was even a live cover version of the elusive promo being performed by suit-wearing techno-impurists Interfearence a full two months before it even came out. How did this feel?
"We were really chuffed, over the moon," smiles Paul. "It’s wicked when DJs who maybe aren’t your, er, bag play your record. I heard it was getting played by people from Dave Clark to fuckin’ Jeremy Healy, who played it in El Divino in Ibiza! In a way that’s what ‘Not Forgotten’ [their 1990 first single] did – rose above these barriers."
Was this the masterplan?
"The best plans are no plans, know what I mean?" says Paul. "Anarchy! Punk ethics! Ha!"
Some may laugh, but the obvious choice would have been to carry on with the rock/dance thing that made ‘Open Up’ such a hit. But it’s representative of the Leftfield spirit that they chose to stay one step ahead of the competition, saying even the last tour was too much like being a stadium techno band. So turning down the offers of collaboration, they changed their methods again.
"On this album we consciously chose to record with people who were a bit more anonymous," says Paul, explaining that the excellent ‘Dusted’ with Roots Manuva began its slow mutation two years ago. "Apart from Afrika Bambaataa, obviously, but he isn’t exactly a household name. It was to put the attention back on the music and not to have this definite attempt to cash in on the mass appeal of duets. And they seemed more valid than a bunch of celebs."
Meeting Bambaataa was an inspiration, says Neil: "He’s a soothsayer, very open-minded culturally and musically. The first time we saw him he was playing AC/DC with an electro beat over the top. Fucking wicked."
Were there any peculiar offers?
"Don’t, please," says Neil to Paul quietly.
His partner cackles. "We were stalked by… ha, ha… one of the girls from Buck’s Fizz. She was convinced we were going to make a record with her."
For such a challenging album, Leftfield display a peculiar serenity. Ask them if they were annoyed by the electro resurgence they anticipated with ‘Afrika Shox’ passing them by, and Paul suggests that true electro was always an underground thing. Say that their contribution to dance music has been underestimated, and Paul reckons sometimes they’ve been overvalued. It’s at times like this that you think maybe it’s the other producers, the ones who crank out an album a year and DJ to the point of exhaustion, who are the unbalanced ones.
Barnes and Daley, markedly sane and down to earth, undoubtedly keep a tighter grip on their quality control than all of the competition. But when asked about future recordings, Neil still manages to sing a line from The Carpenters’ Radio 2 fave ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’.
"Doing the live thing will take us further," says Paul, "and we either do that or we stop."
Then they have to split for the photoshoot, another thing which has taken longer than usual to figure out. In parting they say that believing your own press is a sure fire way to madness, and had they got this success ten years earlier they would have been dead by now. Then Neil tells Paul he has a new secret track to play him, but can’t make the name of it public knowledge.
"We keep our enthusiasm by doing this," he explains gleefully, visions of obscure vinyl evidently filling his head. "I love discovering old electronic records I never knew existed, ones that could have been made yesterday. That’s the proof of a good record. Ten, 20 years later – it will always sound fresh."
What was the record that changed your life?
Paul: "I remember hearing ‘Buffalo Girls’ by Malcolm McLaren on the radio in about 1982. The scratching and the b-boy thing hadn’t hit Britain and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I liked punk, but that was just raw attitude. This was… year zero."
Neil: "I’d say ‘Metal Box’ by PiL. I heard it round my mates in about 1979. It was a leap on after punk and it had all the elements I liked – dub basslines, mad guitars, synths – and it sounded really loud because it was on three 12"s. Very experimental."
What was the last great record you bought?
Neil: "I bought this ambient compilation ‘Voices From My Lunchbox’ yesterday. I like it for the vocals: one’s operatic, one’s sort of Japanese. It’s quite dark and Low-esque in a Bowie sort of way, but I’m addicted to it."
Paul: "I bought this thing by I:Cube the other day – I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s total fucking electronic chaos and then becomes almost danceable. The way the rhythm is unpredictable got me excited and gave me a rush."
If you had three wishes, what would they be?
Paul: "Hmm. I dunno what I want. I know it’s a bit heavy, but people should learn from the past, ‘cos you watch the news and it’s always history repeating itself. So wake up!"
Neil: "I wish there were better records on the radio. It should represent what’s going on in music and it doesn’t, which irritates me. No one sticks their neck out. Nothing new, though."
Paul: "I’ve thought of another: will someone sort out the records in my garage? It’ll be a two week job. I need a top anorak."
When was the last time you danced?
Paul: "Last Saturday at the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam, to Robert Armani. You couldn’t help it – it sounded like he was knocking an Icelandic trawler together up there."
Neil: "I danced to him [Paul] the same night. I was on the dancefloor getting stamped on by 3,000 frighteningly tall Dutch people. And cuddled by the women – wicked."
What’s the best club you’ve ever been to?
Neil: "Pasha in Ibiza is a monument to what clubs should be, both the sound rig and the vibe in there. Not all the music’s my cup of tea, but it draws you into it. I thought it was fantastic. The Sound Factory blew me away as well. It’s heavily gay, but the music goes beyond sexuality."
Paul: "I’ve got two. Global Village, which is Heaven now, was the first one club I went to and it was amazing. The other was our fancy dress party at The Clinic in Soho, which is also the worst one. The manager was riding around naked on a bike, which was very interesting. I had a peach on my head."
Neil: "I went as Paul Calf that night – I lived the dream."
What’s the strangest dream you’ve ever had?
Paul: "I had a top stress dream when we were doing the tour. We were on a stage made of canvas and everyone and all the equipment slid into the middle and sunk. Double fucking on-the-road stress. I always have outrageous dreams though – my mate with an Alsatian’s head wearing the Sunderland strip for example."
(article nicked from 'Mixmag', dated September 1999)