An Interview With Adrian Utley
Portishead’s Adrian Utley has released a live recording of Terry Riley’s minimalist In C featuring eighteen guitars and a clarinet. (Our review of which is here.) Philip Allen went to talk to him.
Adrian Utley is a very talented and sometimes patient man. This is my first face to face interview and I am struggling to find a new battery for my recorder. Borrowing one from the Silver Bullet Deli caravan we are sat outside, Adrian comes over as a kind, helpful sort of guy. He is of course, most famous for being the guitar player with Portishead for what is close to twenty years and is always collaborating with various friends like Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and pianist Graham Fitkin on projects as well as being commissioned by the National Trust to compose a ‘sonic journey’ to play whilst walking at Croft Castle in Herefordshire. Bristol’s Paintworks is a ‘super-creative’ industrial area, home to many media and creative companies . Adrian and I are discussing his new release on Invada Records – a live recording of Terry Riley’s minimal epic, ‘In C’. A review on Louder Than War can be found here.
“I have played it a few times over the last five years with Conductor Charles Hazelwood who is also playing on the album. I knew about Steve Reich but didn’t know much about Terry Riley really. We played it with all different instruments which is how it was meant to be with the disparity of sound with a trumpet and a violin. Charles and I were chatting about it and I said it would be cool to do it with a load of guitars, so we did it.”
The first time he played it at St George’s Hall a few years previous with the inclusion of, Will Gregory and Graham Fitkin, Adrian states,
“We didn’t actually play it until we did it as a performance in front of an audience. Loads of people in the bar afterwards were really knocked out by it and I didn’t think it would get that kind of response because it’s very long. It went on for an hour and twenty minutes. So, we decided to go back and do it again.”
This time around, as well as an eighteen guitar orchestra at St George’s Hall in Bristol there was the inclusion of a Bass Clarinet which for Adrian ties in with Steve Reich and the pulsing intro to his piece, ‘Music For Eighteen Musicians’. I asked him how he felt about this performance?
“Well, its mythical. If you try and make it like the last time it isn’t going to work, it has to be its own thing. When we recently played it in Poland, Guitarist Neil Smith and I tried to organise something within it, sort of dynamics. It’s not really in the rules but lets try and do this. There was no way we could do it in the performance. It has its own spirit. It’s not about organisation in that way. We had six or seven Polish players along side twelve of us from the UK and they all have a very different experience of life and music and that comes to it. When we rehearsed it it was very noisy and no one could hear what the hell was going on, then the performance turned out to be very sedate and meditative.”
Talking of Terry Riley writing, Adrian was emphatic that ….
“It is bloody brilliant the way the phrases work when they are against each other. He conceived it as an idea to work in the way it does and it really does, it’s amazing! Sometimes I listen to someone like Arvo Pärt which is very strict, sacred music where everything’s in the pocket and he is a far superior composer but actually Terry Riley is just as spiritual.”
As we were discussing instrumental music and Bristol’s very own Instrumental Stoner Rock Gods, GONGA (Who Adrian knows really well from George and Tom working for Portishead on their world tours). Adrian mused,
“In fact, George texted me the other day saying he would like to play and there are so many others who want to be involved, it’s brilliant. Deej and Charlie from Thought Forms played on this recorded performance and they bring something cool to it.”
Which led us to Bristol’s vibrant live music scene, where Adrian expressed regret he didn’t have much time left over after the studio and his two young children, which is understandable.
“I’m just knackered by the time it comes to night. I could do with going out and seeing stuff, you know. I do enjoy playing festivals with Portishead because you get see other bands. I really like Savages. They have been with us on a couple of gigs. I really like Thought Forms. I was just recently in Poland and Geoff’s (Barrow, Portishead band member & Ivada Records owner) band, BEAK played, they were fantastic.”
What other instruments do you enjoy playing?
“I’ve always really liked synthesizers ever since I was a kid and I couldn’t afford them but now I am working on something with a MiniMoog and a Mellotron. I have a great affinity with old school electronics; polysynths, sequencers and drum machines, old stuff that is cronky and always fucking breaking! All the key instruments I keep playing and thinking that’s wicked and then I turn it on the next day and it’s gone wrong. I have a shuttle service to a repair guy that’s sorting my stuff out.”
But idiosyncratic electronic equipment apart Adrian’s passion comes the fore,
“Synths I really love, they are close to my heart like guitars are. I’m learning Bach and baroque music on the guitar at the moment which is a bit of a mission. I am becoming more interested in orchestral classical baroque music . I also play banjo, double bass, a bit of lap steel stuff too, piano, organ. I am learning the oud, an Arabic instrument at the moment.”
I tried to find out what lies behind Adrian’s playing, what his ethos was?
“Even though this album is not my writing, it’s about a sonic world that I want to inhabit. I do write things for loads of guitars, I am really interested in the concept of de-tuned guitars played in different ways with extended techniques of playing. One big thing for me was at around the time of Portishead beginning about twenty years ago, I made a conscious effort to try to not play like anyone else ever again. That is when my journey began in finding a voice. I used to try and play like the American jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery or Grant Green but I suddenly didn’t see any point in it anymore.”
As the interview wound down, Adrian’s wise words rang true whilst discussing the writing process, he expressed his unhappiness with it but also managed to nail his ethos down –
“I find it really difficult. I’m rarely pleased with it and it’s such an agony. At the moment I’m in that agony right now. I’ve just been working on something this morning and I think it’s completely shit! But it will probably turn out alright in the end. You just have to work at it and If your not doing it then you have to think about it, you have to put the hours in. So, my ethos really is to follow my heart on things.”
All words by Philip Allen. More work by Philip can be found in his Louder Than War archive.