...And eventu-bloody-ally, after four long years, Leftfield have got their she-iiit together on another mighty fine album. Or is it arse?! Have your say!
Text: Keith Cameron
Photography: Hamish Brown
Neil Barnes is in the bath. He's got the radio on, he's asking it questions. And Neil isn't getting the answers he wants.
He wants to hear something that confounds him. He's after something the like of which he's never heard before, something that vindicates this 38-year-old veteran of the punk and dance wars' obsession with music, something new, something unprecedented, something that, as he himself would say, "moves things forward…" Indeed, something to make Neil Barnes sit up, splash dirty water all over the bathroom floor, leg it to the phone and exclaim in his finest corncrake London vowels to his mate Paul Daley:
"Faaaarkin' 'ell'. You've just got to listen to this!"
He hears nothing of the sort. Well, almost nothing.
"It was, oh wossisname? I was listening to the Evening Session. Having a bath and listened to the Evening Session. Listened to the whole show. And it was pretty average." He shakes his head. "Anyway, the only track, the only track in the whole show that sounded fucking brilliant was by My Bloody Valentine!"
Paul Daley raises an incredulous 36-year-old eyebrow. Neil is adamant.
"My Bloody Valentine! And it's three years old!!! Stunning."
Sat together outside an Amsterdam canal-side bar on a seductively warm Saturday afternoon in July, the men of Leftfield chew over this remarkable state of affairs. The only track on Radio 1's prime-time cutting-edge new music programme that got Neil Barnes' soap in a lather was by My Bloody Valentine. And it's… err, three years old? Neil?!
"Oh. Might be longer, yeah. Yeah. Five."
My Bloody Valentine haven't released a new record since 1991!
"Yeah, longer than that, Neil, what you talkin' about?!" splutters Paul. "It's much longer than three years!''
"Yeah, yeah." Neil waves in acknowledgement and takes a sip from his glass. "Yeah. But," he leans forward conspiratorially, "nothing else came up to it. Nothing! Which was interesting. Haha!"
Time and Leftfield have what you might call a special relationship. It's not so much that they don't get on, just that they leave each other so well alone that sometimes the one forgets the other exists. Leftfield have recently finished an album, their second in nine years of making records. From the first bout of tinkering around with demos at Paul Daley's north London home to the last tweak of an EQ in the Soho mastering studio it's taken them nigh on three years. Projected release dates carne and went. A video for the first mooted single was made, then rejected, and then another one made and quietly put on hold, waiting. Virtually a whole album's worth of material got shelved for sounding "dated" and "not saying anything".
When Neil Barnes and Paul Daley embarked upon their hazardous mission, John Major was Prime Minister, Princess Diana was alive, Mitsubishi was just a type of car and Catatonia merely a state of mind. Evidently, things have changed a bit round here - but what of in there? What the hell took them so long? And now that they've made it through, with the second Leftfield album 'Rhythm And Stealth' absolutely, definitely coming out at the end of September, was it all worth it?
To answer that we've got to retrace time's arrow a little further back. To 1993, when Leftfield's steadily burgeoning reputation as the two men forging a very modern and very British kind of house music - one both epic and ethnic, blissed and belligerent, cuckoo yet conscious - reached its apotheosis with 'Open Up', the techno-punk crossover anthem to begin and end them all. Adding John Lydon's apocalyptic caw to Barnes and Daley's pounding trance know-how was the masterstroke that lifted the lid off clubland's simmering pressure cooker and scalded the pop mainstream. Nothing would be the same again, particularly after 'Leftism', the debut Leftfield album appeared - finally - in the first month of 1995. 'Leftism' achieved what was then considered unthinkable: acceptance by techno trainspotters and happy-clappy weekend travellers alike. While the former went on to dig ever deeper in search of the underground pulse and the latter just wanted hands-in-the-air slam-bam nirvana, both camps always gave respect to Leftfield. 'Leftism' sold 500,000 copies and the live Leftfield experience shattered all who witnessed it. Literally: at London's Brixton Academy in June '96, the volume was so loud that bits of the ceiling fell down. They haven't been invited back.
As 1996 cooled off and Neil and Paul began clearing their heads and wondered what to do next, it became clear that Leftfield had made an indelible impression on the cultural landscape. The floodgates were open. Dance music, from being a thriving cult that still prompted the occasional question in the House, became a mass phenomenon, co-opted into advertising, films and sports jingles, assimilated into the subliminal hum of modem living. What had been underground was now everywhere. All of which helps to explain why Leftfield have taken so long to make another album. Because they know they're responsible and, mindful of where they come from, they feel a wee bit guilty. Because their pure, perfectionist instincts couldn't allow themselves to merely rehash the past under a different name. And because the wild success of the first album meant they could. Because someone said they had plenty of time.
At 2am in a converted gasworks on the outskirts of Amsterdam, Paul Daley steps up to the decks. Leftfield are here because he's here, to bring the noise for two hours, delivering to a crowd of techno-hungry Dutch berserkers at this vast, impressively cool, entirely legal party. But don't expect any advance selections from the new Leftfield album. That's not what Paul does.
"I'm not here to advertise my new record," he says. "I don't wanna do that! I'm doing it to salute other people's music, that's why I've always enjoyed DJing. People don't understand. 'Why don't you play Leftfield?' Well, that's for other people to play."
While Paul plays, Neil wanders around with his girlfriend, soaking up the scene. He never DJs, whereas Paul kept that side of his life busy throughout 'Rhythm And Stealth''s protracted gestation. Neil's two children, a nine-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy, help give him the necessary perspective with which to keep a grip on life's priorities. A necessary grounding force, it would seem, to judge from their account of the last few years' trials.
"We lost the plot on a couple of occasions," says Neil, gazing at the busy afternoon canal traffic and imbibing a large measure of Amsterdam's finest amber nectar. "Not dangerously, but we went down the wrong avenue on a couple of tracks and used up a bit of time. Just going down the wrong turning for two months and not realising it. That happens. And it did happen."
"It's horrible," nods Paul, confining himself to orange juice in view of tonight's professional commitments. "You go home and you go to bed and you can't sleep because you're trying to think what's wrong with this fucking track. I don't know, perhaps other people go through that."
"I think they do, Paul. I think they do."
And how do you pull yourself out of those situations?
Paul: "Hard drugs. Hahahaha! If you're a conscious person trying to do something creative, whether it be movies, art, comedy or whatever, it's fucking hard work."
Neil: "It's not all plain sailing. It's a painful experience. Not to be too arty about it, but it is. It takes a lot out of you."
"We never really counted on the success of the first album," Paul says. "I think that put a lot of pressure on us, dealing with that. Shit, all of a sudden we were famous! From being an underground thing into this mainstream world. It wasn't a secret any more. Before, it felt like we were doing something that was special. And we still obviously feel what we do is special, but before that it really was. It was underground. But you have to move on, and once you've done something you can't change it back. You have to find a balance."
The search for balance explains why the world has had to wait so long for 'Rhythm And Stealth'. The album's opening track is an astounding futuristic vision of hip-hop called 'Dusted'. It features a lithe rap from one Rodney Smith, aka south London's man-who-can Roots Manuva, ripping snaggletooth guitar samples, and some strange whooshing noises that we can unequivocally guarantee haven't been heard anywhere else ever before… because Leftfield took 18 months inventing them.
"The thing is with that track," Paul explains, "Rodney's rap was so good it was actually hard for us to get the balance between Leftfield music and him, because his presence was so strong. It took us a long time to get the backing track as interesting and as good as what he'd done. He's a poet."
"It's a hybrid we're looking for," adds Neil. "We're not looking to create something that's familiar. That backing track for 'Dusted' is not like a hip-hop tune, the way it ended up. It's a very strange, mad, distorted groove. If we'd played that to Rodney…"
Paul: "It woulda scared him!"
Neil: "He might have got lost on it and it might have affected the vocal he did. But it was exactly what we wanted. It happened very quick." He considers for a moment. "But then we spent a year-and-a-half getting the intro right."
Paul laughs. "So we kinda work with people and then we remix it after they've gone. Hahaha!"
Roots Manuva walked into Leftfield's studio to record his vocal in early 1997. Just before him had been Afrika Bambaataa, who arrived with an entourage of Zulu Nation disciples to authenticate 'Afrika Shox', the first track to be gleaned from the home demo sessions late the previous year. Bambaataa had heard of Leftfield through John Lydon, but the three had never met. Considering that Neil had experienced something close to religious meltdown when he saw Bambaataa play London in the early-'80s, this must have been quite a moment.
"When we met Bambaataa we went to see him DJ at the Ministry and he was playing fucking AC/DC!" hoots Paul. "Fucking respect, mate!" It had an electro cowbell rhythm over the top! Then he came down the studio."
"He's the closest I could get to working with Sun Ra," says Neil, solemnly. "The idea's been on the backburner for years, thinking it was something we couldn't ever have done. And then it became a potential thing to try, we wanted a modern interpretation of those dark records he made like 'Planet Rock' and Time Zone. He's into all this conspiracy theory stuff but he's also got this real commercial side to him. When we said we don't want that, he jumped. I had to sit with him and tell him exactly what we wanted.
Weren't you in awe of him? Couldn't he have turned up and done anything and you would have said it was OK?
"No! No, we weren't that much in awe of him, were we?" Neil turns to Paul, whose face indicated that he, actually, was rather in awe. "What d'you mean? We asked him to come back to the studio on his own, which was unheard of! And he came, because he wanted to do the record. He's serious about music."
With Bam and Lydon having broken an earlier set of rules with the Time Zone's "World Destruction" back in 1985. 'Afrika Shox' neatly squares the Lydon-Leftfield-Bambaataa collaborative circle. But although the first single to be culled from 'Rhythm And Stealth', it isn't, of course, the first to be widely consumed. Arguably the best track on the new Leftfield album has been in the public domain for nearly six months, thanks to Jonathan Glazer's remarkable 30-second advertisement for Guinness, the one featuring horses, surfers and a sonorous reading from Moby Dick. The sound of looped, onrushing, percussive Armageddon was Leftfield's 'Phat Planet'. As you may have suspected by now, it had been lying around for about a year or so, waiting. Then, one day their publisher got a call from the ad agency, wondering if he might have suitable music to hand…
Paul: "We were a bit cynical. We thought it would be some bloke jumping around doing a silly dance, or Rutger Hauer mincing around in his long mac! But when we saw it we thought it was a wicked advert, and like nothing else on TV."
Neil: "So we said yeah because we thought it was wicked, simple as that. And we got a little bit of free Guinness. Which I never even got any of! Three crates of Guinness at our office and they never told us!"
Mmmm. And how financially lucrative was this arrangement?
Neil: "Haven't got a clue."
Neil: "Honestly! Thing is, the music's always the last thing they stick on, and even though everyone knows that ad cost about a million pounds to make, when it comes to music it's always, 'Who can we call that's cheap? Phone Leftfield!' So it's never as big as you think it's gonna he."
But why release a track from your album way before the album comes out, and in such a form that most people will hear it but not be able to properly listen to it?
"We thought it was quite an interesting way of people hearing something from the new album," says Paul. "A lot of our friends hadn't even heard that track, and when people were like, 'Have you seen that Guinness ad with the mad track on it?' So we were getting an objective opinion. So much pop is about advertising and media hype now, and this was more of a subtle hype for us. That's why we've kept the album so close to our chests, 'cos people will be more objective about it. Rather than seeing posters everywhere four months before the album and by the time people have got it they're not even listening to it because they're so fucking brainwashed by all the images and the whole fucking package."
Throughout the entire long, tortuous, frequently fraught ("We've always had our ups and downs in the studio," shrugs Paul) process of constructing 'Rhythm And Stealth', Leftfield's corporate patrons at Sony more or less accepted that there was nothing they could do about it; they would just have to wait until the thing was ready. They did get a little twitchy around the time when the Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers began shifting serious units in the US - hence the scrapping of the original 'Afrika Shox' video and the commissioning of Chris Cunningham's already notorious new version.
"There was huge pressure on us," admits Paul. "They felt, 'Why isn't it you?' But we weren't bothered about it being us, though, that's the reality. They'd be quite happy for us to have gone along that route. But younger people probably get really bullied by their record companies. I suppose 'cos me and Neil are older we get away with more. Probably because we established ourselves before we got involved with a major record company."
"And it worked before," reasons Neil. "And it worked before because they didn't get involved. We just handed it over, 'Here you are,' and it worked. So I suppose they have to see whether it's gonna work again this time."
It's safe to say Sony would have preferred 'Leftism: The Same Again Please'. Where the first Leftfield album was lush and vibrant and stadium-sized, 'Rhythm And Stealth' is minimal, morose and scary, and built for fearful contemplation late at night, preferably alone and under the sheets, armed with a bottle of something staunch. It's not much fun. But it also happens to be brilliant. Just when the word 'electronica' has become debased almost beyond usefulness, here come the original gangsters, back to make a play for their wired-up manor. Though they're far too modest and insecure and downright decent to ever see it like that.
"I don't know how people can go, 'We're better than any other band in the world!" splutters Paul. "Wot?! You really think that mate? Or has someone told you to think that? You got to keep your feet on the ground."
"The best we can do is what we've done with this record," says Neil. "We ended it at the point where we couldn't take it any further. And all this hyperbole around it is just dangerous. I'm not just talking about our stuff, it's all a massive process of selling. Is someone ever gonna stick their neck out and say what they actually thought of something? Oasis is the ultimate exarnple. A poor, poor last album. Fucking awful! Shite doesn't describe it. It's the worst type of stodgy crap rock that you've ever heard in your life. But the papers said it was the greatest thing since whatever!. No-one wrote an honest review of it."
Because they're part of the process. It wasn't until Noel Gallagher said he thought it was shit too that it was OK to come out and say it.
"Exactly! Where's the Nick Kents, people prepared to stick their neck out?"
Paul stares at his orange juice and smiles. "I'm not wishing this upon us, but it's nice to have someone slag you off sometimes, because otherwise you start thinking everyone's saying they like your album because everyone else is. And you don't want that, you want them to be honest. I'm actually quite relieved when people come up and say, 'I didn't like your album.' 'Well respects, mate, and respects for coming up and telling me.' Don't be a fucking sheep, man, speak your mind."
Believe the anti-hype: this is the Leftfield hardline. Neil and Paul plan the usual six-month hiatus between album release and getting it together to take 'Rhythm And Stealth' on the road. As Paul nips inside to the loo, a by now ever so slightly squiffy Neil starts raving about the band he'd most like to take with them on tour. Mogwai.
"I think they're wicked. But they wanna get their records to sound like they do live. I've seen 'em a few times and they really impress me. Best British rock band I've seen after Joy Division and PiL. They need to be louder, though! Our engineer could sort them out."
This coming from a man who saw virtually every one of Joy Division's gigs is praise indeed. What, one wonders, do his children think of what daddy does for a living?
"Err, Georgia likes 'Dusted', thinks it's absolutely stunning. Hates everything else. Actually, Georgia's favourite album is the Pole album. Now that's totally true! She calls it 'the crackly record'. I'd play it a lot in the car and she's into it. She has an extraordinary memory for tunes that I'm sure her friends don't have."
Her friends probably aren't listening to Pole.
"I doubt that they are, no. Sad, really. They like bass, kids. Very young kids do like bass. My little boy used to have a lot of dub reggae when he was tiny. And then they go through this phase when they don't like it loud. And then by the time they get to nine or ten, Georgia's age, they're up for loud music again. She goes and gets some decks and scratches all my records. Digs out all the oldies, Carpenters. She loves The Carpenters. 'I love The Carpenters, they're my favourite band!"
Paul returns to see Neil's eyes rapidly glazing over with rheumy pleasure.
"Oh, he's not talking about The Carpenters, is he?!"
There aren't any people around like that now," laments Neil. "It's a shame."
"I like The Eagles." says Paul, not to be outdone. "My sister used to listen to them in the '70s and then I bought 'em all 'cos I realised what wicked records they were."
And on they burble, as underground as they wanna be, because what being underground ultimately ought to mean is staying true to your own instincts, no matter how unfashionable they might be. It doesn't really matter whether Leftfield have made the greatest album of 1999 or one of the worst, or that they've taken what seems to most people an inordinately long time to do so. Because they did it (cough) their way.
"Someone's written 'Sham 69' in the bogs!"
Neil's rushing back from the loo, in a right old state. It transpires that he's just recently got to know Jimmy Pursey. The Sham singer has taken to popping up at Hengistbury Head, a beauty spot on the South Coast near Bournemouth where Neil owns a beach hut, and haranguing the locals about his latest ideas, the latest of which is to remake Steptoe & Son with John Lydon as the dad and Pursey as Harold.
"I like Jimmy," says Neil, "he's a real enthusiast. But it's funny - I go down there to relax and get away from music, and Jimmy Pursey comes along and sings me his new songs!"
"You need people like that in the world," says Paul Daley, chuckling to his mate Neil Barnes, the pair of them alive for, in love with, and ever so slightly lost in music."
(article nicked from 'New Musical Express', dated 11 September 1999)