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Downtempo visionaries Portishead slip back into focus

Introversion is an undervalued trait, especially in the celebrity-driven realm of pop culture. So when Portishead emerged with its pastiche of chilled electronics, gloomy Sunday crooning, and hazy film-noir aesthetics, it wasn't the most obvious path to becoming one of the '90s most important and influential bands.

Except, maybe, in retrospect. Dummy, the British band's slow-burning 1994 debut, bore three hit singles — "Numb," "Glory Box" and "Sour Times" — and sold more than 2 million copies. Smitten critics grasped for words to describe the reclusive Bristol trio's highly ephemeral, strikingly original soundscapes. "Trip-hop" was the one that stuck, and was subsequently applied to similarly downtempo UK acts like Tricky and Massive Attack.

However you categorized them, singer Beth Gibbons and multi-instrumentalists Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow sounded unlike anything that came before them.

"Yeah, I think we kind of sensed that," says Utley. "When I met Geoff, he was already making beats that I thought were completely brilliant. And then we just puked up everything that we had into this pot and, you know, discovered new stuff. We decided that we could do these things that we wanted to do, and make this really odd music that we've made."

For a while, at least. But after a self-titled sophomore album and a live recording with the New York Philharmonic, the three musicians abandoned the music industry treadmill to pursue some semblance of ordinary life.

It would be another full decade before Portishead returned to active service with 2008's Third, the band's first-ever American Top 10 album. From the sputtering rhythm of "Machine Gun" to the Joy Division-inspired riff that infiltrates "We Carry On," the album diversified Portishead's sound without losing its original appeal. An appearance at Coachella followed and then ... well, nothing, really.

So why are musicians who've never exactly been road warriors suddenly doing a full American tour, with no new "product" to promote?

"The record industry is in a very sort of fucked-up state at the moment, isn't it?" muses Utley. "It's like an interim period — a time of huge change and confusion — so I don't think we feel any kind of mad need to get a record done just for the sake of doing a record, just for the sake of saying that it didn't take us four years to do it. You know, Geoff said in the press back in 2008 — and I've been reminded of this millions of times in interviews — that we would be working on a new record in 2008. He said that, I didn't!"

Since the band has yet to write a single song for the next record, they're instead hitting the road to perform songs from Third and its predecessors.

"We didn't tour the States when we came out to do Coachella, because we had a load of personal stuff that we had to sort out. So we thought, well, why don't we just do it now, because we didn't do it then?"

Utley says the plan is to hit the studio after they get off the road in January. What that album will end up sounding like is anyone's guess, but Utley plans to deploy a few "secret weapons" that he won't be touching before sessions begin. "I know this will sound really stupid, but I'm saving them for Portishead next year, so they'll be inspirational when we fire them up."

And while he won't get into specifics — "it won't be a secret weapon if I say it!" — the musician does admit that one is "a fairly messy synthesizer that probably Vangelis would have used."

Or Yes' caped keyboardist, Rick Wakeman?

"Oh no," says Utley with an audible shudder. "I've gotta tell you that I did see Rick Wakemen doing some terrible thing when I was about 16. 'King Arthur on Ice,' with ice skaters! Unbelievable. I actually had [Wakemen's] Six Wives of Henry the VIII, which was pretty appalling, because I was really obsessed with Moog synthesizers. And then when we went to that, me and my sister got really stoned, and I kind of realized, you know, this is pretentious shit!"

His prog-rock dreams shattered, Utley has since developed more avant-garde interests. He's collaborating with Larry "Stonephace" Stabbins, a British jazzman who worked with German sax-anarchist Peter Brötzmann, and he wants to explore the kind of guitar orchestras pioneered by Glenn Branca.

And then there's his scoring project with Goldfrapp's Will Gregory. "Straight after Denver, I'm flying to New York to play my soundtrack to a silent film at Lincoln Center. It's called The Passion of Joan of Arc, and it's got 23 musicians and six electric guitars and a choir."

While it may not be entirely obvious, Utley sees a connection between such projects and the direction in which Portishead is heading.

"On 'Magic Doors' off the Third album, Will Gregory plays a free baritone, and I think of Brötzmann when he plays that. So in my mind, there's a through-line there. And when we play live, the song 'Threads' has gotten a lot more heavy than it was on the record, with this synthesized Viking horn of doom at the end of it!"

Touring, says Utley, continues to be "brilliantly scary and affirming and tiring and all of the things that you expect."

It's also pretty gratifying. "The fact that we can play gigs of some size in America is always remarkable to me. I never take that one for granted."

bill@csindy.com

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