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Music

Geoff Barrow: The creative master of doing it yourself

Geoff Barrow is a man who has done it all. His 30-year music career has been so illustrious that it’s left many confounded at how the hell he’s done it. Well, it seems as if there are two key reasons: intellect and strict attention to following one’s will. Although Barrow had dalliances with major labels during his Portishead days, since the band’s last album in 2008, Barrow has been on a rather DIY journey to tread his own path, and to his credit, it’s paid off. 

Barrow grew up in the town of Portishead from the age of eleven, and as a teenager, was involved in a handful of bands in the local music scene where he cut his teeth. Adding as many strings to his bow as humanly possible, Barrow played the drums while also working as DJ in hip-hop outfits during his formative years, and it is this dexterity that would carry him through his career. Later, he secured a job at Bristol’s now-iconic Coach House Studios as a tape operator in 1989, and soon after, he’d start to make his imprint on British music. 

Whilst working at the studio, Barrow assisted on Massive Attack’s debut studio album, Blue Lines, and it was here that he’d get his chance to flesh out his own musical ideas. Massive Attack were kind enough to allow him to use some spare studio time to record his own thoughts. So, in many ways, Portishead may well have not come to fruition if it wasn’t for Robert Del Naja and Co. being so open-minded.

With a renewed creative vigour after his studio experience, Barrow would meet Beth Gibbons at an Enterprise Allowance course in February 1991. They hit it off, and later in the year, the duo recorded the early track ‘It Could Be Sweet’. Some time afterwards, they met Adrian Utley whilst recording at Coach House Studios and began to exchange musical ideas with him. With creative momentum building, Portishead was formed as a duo of Barrow and Gibbons in 1991, and Utley would eventually enter the fold officially after the release of their debut album, 1994’s Dummy. Of his artistic intentions when forming the band, Barrow told the NME in 2009: “I just wanted to make interesting music, proper songs with a proper life span and a decent place in people’s record collections”.

Around the time that Portishead was formed, Barrow was also gaining a reputation as a studio whizz and remixer. He worked with greats such as Primal Scream, Paul Weller and Depeche Mode and even helped to write ‘Somedays’ off Neneh Cherry’s 1992 album Homebrew in what is the clearest indication of the work ethic instilled in Barrow from his youth. 

Geoff Barrow is a man who has done it all. His 30-year career in music has been so illustrious that it’s left many confounded at how the hell he’s done it. Well, it seems as if there’s two key reasons, intellect and strict attention to following one’s will. Although he’s had dalliances with major labels in Portishead, since the band’s last album in 2008, Barrow has been on a rather DIY journey and tread his own path, and to his credit, it’s paid off. 

Barrow grew up in the town of Portishead from the age of eleven, and as a teenager was involved in a handful of bands in the local music scene, where he cut his teeth. Adding as many strings to his bow as possible, he played the drums and also DJ’ed in hip-hop outfits, this dexterity would carry him through his career. He secured a job at Bristol’s now-iconic Coach House Studios as a tape operator in 1989, and soon after, he’d start to make his imprint on British music. 

Whilst working at the studio, Barrow assisted on Massive Attack’s debut studio album, Blue Lines, and it was here where he’d get his chance to flesh out his own musical ideas. Massive Attack were kind enough to let him use some spare studio time to record his own ideas. So, in many ways, Portishead may well have not come into fruition if it wasn’t for Robert Del Naja and Co., a monumental fact. 

Barrow met Beth Gibbons at an Enterprise Allowance course in February 1991. They hit it off, and later in the year, they recorded the early track ‘It Could Be Sweet’. Some time afterwards, they met Adrian Utley whilst recording at Coach House Studios, and began to exchange musical ideas with him. 

Portishead was formed as a duo of Barrow and Gibbons in 1991, and Utley would eventually enter the fold officially after the release of their debut album, 1994’s Dummy. Of his artistic intentions when forming the band, Barrow told the NME in 2009: “I just wanted to make interesting music, proper songs with a proper life span and a decent place in people’s record collections.”

Around the time that Portishead was formed, Barrow was also gaining a reputation as a studio whizz and remixer. He worked with greats such as Primal Scream, Paul Weller and Depeche Mode and even helped to write ‘Somedays’ off Neneh Cherry’s 1992 album Homebrew

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In 2001, Barrow formed Australia based record label Invada Records, and in 2003, he set up Invada UK, an experimental music label in collaboration with Fat Paul. This ongoing adding of workload is the continual theme in Barrow’s life, one that simply won’t allow him to stand still for a moment too long. Then in 2005, alongside Utley, he produced The Coral’s third album, The Invisible Invasion, which featured the hit single ‘In the Morning’. 

Portishead reconvened for their last most recent LP, Third, which was recorded between 2005 and 2008, and it was eventually released to widespread critical acclaim in April 2008. Showing there’s nothing he’s afraid of doing, alongside Craig Silvey, Barrow produced the criminally underrated sophomore album by The HorrorsPrimary Colours, that same year. 

During this time, as if he wasn’t busy enough, Barrow formed his current project BEAK> with Billy Fuller of local bands Fuzz Against Junk and Matt Williams of Team Brick, who were signed to Invada UK. Together, they released their self-titled album in 2009, and unsurprisingly, it was met with critical acclaim. BEAK> are brilliant in the way that they defy expectations. They make music in whatever genre they desire, and it’s undeniably refreshing. It remains a major factor that BEAK> refused pushed into a corner by a major label, and this gives them the freedom to do as they please. This artistic independence has created a project that has been consistently surprising over their three albums, and in the best way possible. Their most recent effort, BEAK 3, was released in 2018. There’s no pastiche, no rip-offs, just originality. 

Speaking to Line of Best Fit in 2019, discussing the artistic freedom that the DIY approach affords, Barrow said: “The idea of that freedom is utterly brilliant. It means when you go into a gig, there’s no confusion. The only confusion there’s been is that with Beak>, it’s the whole thing of it being my side project. As with Portishead, we haven’t done anything in such a long time, it’s disappearing, do you know what I mean?”.

Of BEAK>, he explained: “When people say Geoff Barrow, they don’t say that guy, they say who the fuck is Geoff Barrow? Which is really nice. We’ll always take the piss with anyone who says it but it’s a band. It’s more of a band than any of us have been in and we’ve been doing it for ten years now”.

Of course, as we are all too aware, a sample of success is not enough to allow time for rest with Barrow. Alongside his many creative endeavours, Barrow has also been a busy soundtrack composer. In 2013, he created the ominous score for Alex Garland’s dystopian parable Ex Machina, alongside Ben Salisbury, who he also worked with in 2012 to produce the standalone album Drokk: Music inspired by Mega​-​City One. The pair also operated on Garland’s 2018 psychological romp Annihilation and sci-fi series Devs

One of the most consistent boundary-pushers that the UK has to offer, Geoff Barrow leads by tremendous example. Without people like him, the creative world would be stuck in a rut of rip-offs, owing to the vanilla wishes of major labels who are blatantly followers of the green idol. Since the start of his career, Barrow has gone against the grain, proving that it is possible to be an artist and follow your own course and have much success.

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