With so few able to deliver truly memorable dance albums, the anticipation surrounding the new Leftfield LP has been immense. At last ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ is ready to go and Tayo Popoola could wait no longer
Photos: Stefan De Batselier
After two years of whispers, rumours, ‘industry insider’ nudges and winks and tales of sturm und drang inside Leftfield Towers, ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ will soon be released on Higher Ground, finally taking it out of the hands of its two fiendishly talented creators, and delivering it into the greedy paws of Seasoned Hack and his far more important cousin Johnny Punter. After the unprecedented success of its predecessor ‘Leftism’, the pressure has been on Paul Daley and Neil Barnes to produce the goods once again, improving on an album that, for many, has been the definitive 90s long player.
Fast forward a few years to a sophomore effort that has been plagued with postponements due to Messrs Daley and Barnes not being happy with the results. The longer we waited the more pressure there has been for the next album to be The One. With so much riding on this, it would be no surprise to see the two of them walking around London, an unshaven shambles muttering to themselves about the meaning of life, and the socio-political importance of bass or something.
Not so. Paul Daley walks into the pub hirsute, knackered more because he’s only just returned from New York rather than because of any serious worries about the album. "We’ve just been doing loads of interviews in the US for the last few days. Boiling hot outside and bloody air conditioning on the inside. Which means I’ve got a touch of flu to go with my jet lag."
A few minutes later, a bright and breezy Neil Barnes strolls in, fully rested ("I got loads of sleep last night thanks") sporting pop star sunglasses despite the cloudy day, and full of life. If these are two men worried about their album then they are doing a brilliant job of hiding it. The idea of them being grumpy old men is swiftly quashed as Paul takes a look at Seven’s questions and declares with mock seriousness that he "is not answering that, that, that or that". Better rethink the "what’s your favourite colour" line of questioning then…
"The two questions that we get asked by everyone are "What took you so long?" and "What was it like working with John Lydon?" says Paul as we get comfortable. "Ho, ho, ho" snort I. Shame on these amateur interviewers and their boring straight-forward questions! Pause. Ummm… so what did take you so long?
"The rules and regulations, about how long it’s supposed to take to make an album are made by other people aren’t they?" says Paul over a decidedly un-rock & roll orange juice. "We’d been making music solidly since 1989, and by the time we’d finished touring we were knackered. You need the time off don’t you? And we’ve only been making this album for two years."
"If a rock band takes as long as we did then it’s not a problem," reckons Neil. "I think that attitude comes down to the fact that dance music, electronic music, is supposed to be throw away. You do it and move on to the next one almost immediately. If a rock band did that then it would be alright because they make ‘real’ music. But we’re only supposed to be filling in before the next great rock and roll revolution. The music we make actually takes a hell of a lot longer because we have to make our own sounds instead of relying on an instrument. On top of that we took a long time because we wanted to make sure that we made something totally fresh, something that would excite us."
Given the fact that many bands simply fall off the rails or implode after an initial success, a hiatus doesn’t seem such a bad idea. It certainly hasn’t done these two any harm, who seem more relaxed, and at ease with themselves than they have ever been portrayed previously. You’d never guess that ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ was something they are now going to be judged on everyday until the September release, and for months after. The experience of success with the first album has liberated them both, preventing them from taking the critical merry-go-round too seriously.
"As far as criticism goes, you can’t worry too much about it anymore, as it’s only the opinion of one person. You can’t control it." shrugs Paul. "Whatever we do people are going to say it isn’t as good as ‘Leftism’ and we’re expecting that. What we had to do is try and keep things interesting for ourselves" stresses Neil. "That was the only thing that matters. We have to make sure we like it." And do you? "I’m not sure yet, it’s hard to be objective yet as we’ve lived with it for so long. To be honest I can’t really listen to it at the moment. But we felt the same after ‘Leftism’, so time will tell."
For the record, ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ is good. Very good. The sonic mastery on ‘Dusted’ (featuring the multi-talented Roots Manuva) and the now familiar riff of ‘Phat Planet’, and the electronic breakbeat and dark vocodered vocals on ‘Afrika Shox’ are the obvious stand out tracks, but ignore tracks like ‘Dub Gussett’, and ‘Swords’ at your own cost. As with all albums that are hoping to stand the test of time, favourite tracks will change. "That’s what has been exciting so far with this album." says Neil. "In the States, people have picked up on loads of different tracks, which is really encouraging. One girl was going mad for the full-on techno of ‘Double Flash’, but in the main they’ve obviously gone for the more vocal tracks, and the Bambaataa one was their favourite. With everyone liking something different I think that is a good omen as far as the album’s longevity is concerned."
Once again, Leftfield seem to have come out on top with the people they have chosen to collaborate with, not picking on bona fide celebrities, but looking to find people who would best compliment their style. It was Paul who found about Roots Manuva. "I had a record he had done on Ronin records which we both thought was great. We couldn’t work out where he was from, but he just had this wicked presence. We tracked him down only to find out that he lived a couple of miles down the road." The two also deserve the credit for Bambaataa’s best work for a very long time. "We told Bam that we didn’t want a party record from him. I think to be fair he’s needed the right people to work with him, and we pushed him to come up with something else. One day in the studio he showed us these lyrics he had written about conspiracy theories and stuff like that, and ‘Afrika Shox’ was ready. He’s so talented anyway we knew he’d come up with the goods."
The presence of Bambaataa might help them ‘break’ America this time in a way that they failed to before. But of course they’re not worrying unduly about it. "It seemed to bother others more than us that the States didn’t really get it before. We couldn’t sound US even if we wanted to. I think the difference now is that America has paid a lot of attention to what’s going on over here – they’ve been influenced by drum & bass and other British ideas. You only have to look at Timbaland; the current TLC album is also brilliant. Plus the success of the Chemical Brothers over there will probably make them more aware this time around. The place is so big they don’t have the same sort of social compression as we do. If they ‘get it’ now then that’s a bonus."
The two are proud of the fact that ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ is "a London sound, a very English sound. We try not to analyse what we do too much. Obviously the bottom end is really important – you’ll hear sub sounds on big speakers that you’ll miss on your Walkman, and we spend a hell of a long time on the rhythm track…"
Erm. You spend a long time on everything actually. Word is you’re notorious tweakers, never satisfied. Paul is still not bothered. "You have to work hard on stuff. In this day and age it’s hard not to sound like anyone else." With the first album the band were trying to introduce something new, so much so that they went back and remixed some of their old songs to make sure people got it. "On this album we’ve been trying really hard to get a contemporary album. Yes there were times when we scrapped things in the studio, but we have to be satisfied."
So the band are victims of their own success. Since they started, the leftfield has moved much closer to the mainstream, and legions of imitators ("I’ve got a full set of tunes that have sampled us," says Paul) have upped the stakes, making sure the originals have to work that much harder. If they’d done a sub-standard album in the accepted time, the knives would be out. Time will tell if they will be sacrificed anyway, but at least they have worked under their own conditions and to their own time-scale, successfully maintained an independent vision on a major label, and, lest we forget, made another striking album.
"When UNKLE took six years or whatever to do their album, everyone talked about it as if it was a great thing. We take a few years and everyone’s calling us c**ts!" They both laugh. "You can’t win any way can you ?"
The single ‘Afrika Shox’ is out on September 6th followed by the album ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ on September 20th. Both will be released on Hard Hands/Higher Ground
(article nicked from 'Seven', dated 13 August 1999)