Critics haven't always been willing to acknowledge that Portishead are, at heart, an experimental band with experimental tastes, but by now their new album Third should have set everyone straight. So last month I packed my earplugs and asked guitarist Adrian Utley to take me on a tour through what is perhaps the most forbidding hinterland of avant-garde music: NOISE.
Dazed Digital: What does "noise" mean to you?
Adrian Utley: I think of it as going back to Sonic Youth and Swans and Glenna Branca and Fred Frith and, even earlier, to Hawkwind. I'm 50 now so I got to see a lot of those bands.
DD: Deeply unfashionable 1970s space rock band Hawkwind? Seriously?
AU: Yeah, they were definitely pure, ear-splitting noise when I used to see them live. They had riffing like a rock band, but they also had a lot of pure, atonal feedback that sounded like bombs dropping. And before that there was Lamonte Young and Jimi Hendrix. Even the Beatles used a white noise generator on "I Want You".
DD: What do you like about Sunn O)))?
AU: They're pretty avant-garde. A lot of what they're doing is about harmonics between the notes – when amps and guitars are together, played at terrific volume, they speak differently. The guitars start to vibrate to each other's strings. So one amp will set all the other guitars going. And there's often a slight discrepancy of tuning between instruments that gives you this beating sound. I remember seeing Sonic Boom play, and he had four guitars set up that he wasn't even playing, just resonating.
DD: Are noise people frightening?
AU: Yeah sometimes! Steven O'Malley and the other guy in Sunn O))) were not frightening, but Glenn Branca's a pretty frightening guy. He's a lovely man but he has a full-on attitude. You can't make music like that if you don't have it, I think. He's gone through so much – years of people thinking he was absolutely shit, and he's not a rich man either. But he's been so influential on so many of us. Whether you know his legacy or not he started a whole world of drone and atmospheric and alternative ways of orchestrating guitar. So I guess just to keep going like that without losing your path will turn you into a scary person.
DD: I've heard that Sunn O))) gigs have made members of the audience lose control of their bowels. Do you know if this is true?
AU: Actually I've never stayed to the end of a Sunn O))) or an Om gig, I just get what I need and go. But I'm not sure you could really lose control of your bowels! I remember when David Vorhaus' White Noise records came out, they came with a warning about frequencies that would make you do weird things. It scared me as a kid, but of course I didn't realise that the bass on my stereo couldn't go down low enough for that to be a remote possibility. I think it's actually a very joyous body experience to see Sunn O))) or any band like that. That drone at terrific volume is a very warm thing, it's like being in the womb. And yet at the same time, volume is incredibly exciting. It excites the hairs on your ears, and they start agitating and producing adrenaline, and you get that rush. That's been the nature of rock'n'roll since its first days.
DD: So has all this changed you as a musician?
AU: Yeah. We've got an old track called "Glory Box" which has a traditional guitar solo on it, and I'm really uninterested in playing it and I have been for some time. That was fifteen years ago. These days, I'm much more interested in pure noise and clusters of sound. If I play live on tracks now I'll use a bow or an electric fan.
DD: An electric fan?
AU: Yes, because the motor and the sound of the air hitting the strings is cacophonous.
DD: So there's more noise on the new Portishead album?
AU: Well, there's a bit of guitar on "Hunter" that I think sounds like "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath. And then end of the record has a foghorn sound that I think also sounds like Black Sabbath or Hawkwind. But more generally, what we've tried to learn from bands like Om and Sunn O))) and Black Mountain is their courage and their forward-thinking spirit. Their uncompromising commitment to their voyage.
Portishead's new single "The Rip" is out this week.