The Interview: Neil Barnes

Neil Barnes

Neil Barnes

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Sixteen years after their last album topped the charts, Leftfield have a fresh top-10 hit. MALCOLM WYATT talked deep space, dance music and decibels with the band’s driving force Neil Barnes

Like Mercury Prize-nominated predecessors Leftism (1995) and Rhythm & Stealth (1999), new Leftfield LP Alternative Light Source finds the London-based dance outfit on top form.

Yet there’s one fundamental difference – this time it’s solely a Neil Barnes-driven project, his Leftfield co-creator Paul Daley having decided against returning to the fold in 2010.

That doesn’t seem to have hampered Neil though, an array of expertise on both sides of the mic, in the studio and on the road, helping take the Leftfield story on from where it initially left off in 2002.

This week the new album, in digital, CD and vinyl format via Infectious Music, entered the charts at No 6, while second single, Bilocation, one of two tracks featuring Polica’s Channy Leaneagh, followed lung-busting first waxing, Universal Everything.

Alongside Channy, from Minneapolis, the album includes collaborations with London’s ‘distorted soul and unearthly gospel’ exponent Ofei, Tunde Adebimpe of Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, and quirky Nottingham post-punk hip-hop duo Sleaford Mods.

Leftfield's new album 'Alternative Light Source'

Leftfield's new album 'Alternative Light Source'

Meanwhile, the first live outings for the new set are underway, Neil and his guests having already taken their big sound authority to Bristol Academy and London’s Forum (for two nights), before a sell-out show at Manchester’s Albert Hall last night then a trip to Glasgow’s Barrowland this evening.

What’s more, Leftfield have a few special headline shows this summer, including a return to Glastonbury Festival at the end of the month to finish Saturday’s Sonic stage proceedings.

But first I wished Neil congratulations on another top-10 album, with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it’s easy, this long player lark.

“Yep… well, actually, it’s never easy, but it’s always good news... great news in fact.”

There is always honesty to the music – it’s from a genuine place

This latest collection of songs – at least officially – considers how we all look for different ways of doing things, while considering the band’s own heat-seeking hunt for inspiration.

So, if the new album title, Alternative Light Source, is officially described as a metaphor for our unceasing search for answers, does Neil think he’s any closer to revelation than when he set out on this whole venture 25 years ago?

“No! I’m still learning as I go, learning every day. Maybe that revelation might hit me in the head, but perhaps there are no answers out there.

“Nothing’s occurred to me, apart from continuing along the path really.”

Well, supposedly it’s often better to travel than to arrive anyway, isn’t it?

“Everyone expresses it in a different way – journey and arrival, light out of dark, it’s also about education and young people.

“And whenever I think about the music, I think about the cover and the amazing art.”

Talking of travelling, you’ve been busy touring since the return of Leftfield. Have these new songs been a long time in the making, honed as you went along?

“The album’s taken three years to make, we’ve been in the studio since we stopped touring in 2011, and first time we took these new songs out was in Bristol, just last week.

“It’s going really well. I’ve got Ofei doing vocals on Swords, which is amazing, a new drummer, Nick Rice, and Adam Wren on stage too.

“In fact, Ads was a major part in making the record. That should be mentioned.”

Yes, it’s easy to think that now Paul Daley’s moved on, Leftfield is just Neil’s baby. But that’s not strictly the case, is it?

“It’s a collaboration, and there’s a lot of collaborative work on this album.

“Ads has been there all the way through the process and with the live stuff as well. It’s very much me and him in the studio too.”

According to the record company handouts, Alternative Light Source is, at times, ‘both crushingly heavy and fantastically delicate’.

As Neil puts it, “There’s always an honesty to the music. It is genuine and it comes from a genuine place.

“There’s nothing cynical about it, I’d never just put on a breakbeat that everyone is familiar with.

“There’s an element of bravery too – after all this time I do feel like I’m jumping into the unknown a little.

“Some of the things that have happened in my life over the last two years have been very sad, and that’s reflected in the music. But it’s uplifting too.

“There’s a very emotional bedrock in everything I do, a genuine emotion that’s underneath it all. That’s precisely the feeling I’m trying to get across with this album.”

While Alternative Light Source is supposedly about knowledge and searching, Neil says there’s a physics angle to it too – that Universal Everything, and thoughts of black holes, alternative realities, Tunde’s mad dystopia, immense space and immense weight.

I’m only a few listens in so far, but straight away moments jumped out of the speakers at me, not least first single Universal Everything then Little Fish, the other track featuring Channy.

I put it to Neil that he seems to have got the mix just right, with regards to guest appearances and so on.

“Yes, it’s just continuing the story really, what I started working on with Paul on the first two albums. I’m just trying to make a good record.

“As a vocalist I really like Channy, then there’s Jason from Sleaford Mods on Head and Shoulders.

“We did that ages ago, and it’s been sitting around. It’s a real pleasure to work with him.”

I remember in my formative London days, the DJ Gary Crowley playing something on Capital Radio, then announcing, ‘if it’s too loud, you’re too old’. And rumour has it that Leftfield were once recorded at a higher decibel level than Concorde.

So it appears that a band whose first gig led to the soundman in Amsterdam being arrested, then issues with refunds in Belgium after complaints about excessive sound levels, and talk of falling plaster at Brixton Academy as recently as 2010, are not quite – to misquote This Is Spinal Tap – ready to turn it down to 10 yet?

“No! It’s still up there at 11! We travel with a quality system supplied by Britannia Row and put it in where we can.

“We try and make it as powerful, sonically, as we can – to match the music. In the end, that’s what our music’s about, hopefully losing yourself on the dancefloor, getting immersed in the sound. And you need power to do that.”

Interesting you should say that, as I associate 1995’s Leftism with getting told off by my other half for unwittingly getting faster and faster in the driving seat while playing that album in the car. In fact, I had to ban myself from doing so on the road.

“Singing down the motorway at dangerous levels, that’s a great image! I’ll think about that today.”

For all the freshness of the new album, there’s definitely a link back to that first album. But it still sounds very ‘now’. Is that just a reflection of how far ahead of the pack you were back then?

“That’s interesting. I don’t know. Someone mentioned the word ‘vintage’ regarding our sound, which I thought was something. It’s not meant to be.

“What I’m trying to do is something that keeps me interested, because I do listen to lots of music and there are certain things I continue to like, like bass-end.

“This album does the same thing most Leftfield albums do, it coaxes you and pulls you along and drops you into places you don’t expect.

“That’s sort of what Leftfield has all been about, doing things in a slightly different way. So maybe that’s the same as what me and Paul did.

“It’s a different sound this album, it’s not so much a reggae album and not such a dub-centred album.

“But maybe I’m not listening to as much reggae now. Dub-influenced music has been done so much … by Leftfield, particularly.”

Listening to Leftism again recently, I felt there was nothing there that had aged, as opposed to a few albums from that era. I’m not sure what it was they nailed there.

“I don’t know either. It’s difficult to say, but there’s definitely a link between that and electronic music. Styles changed, but maybe modern acts have heard it. I don’t know.”

In short, Leftfield have continued to stay ahead of the pack judging by this latest release.

And there’s still a mighty appetite for the band judging by some of their big shows since Neil’s return, such as the Creamfields, Rockness and Electric Picnic headliners.

Leftfield are also one of those bands where more people know their songs than they might realise, not least those used on adverts like Phat Planet (used by Guinness) and 6/8 War (used by Volkswagen).

That seems rather apt though, considering the fact that Neil and former Leftfield partner Paul started out more as underground record producers, working on remixes, steadily building their reputation.

Neil’s journey to where he is now took a complicated route, perhaps starting when he ‘blew his mind’ hearing A Day In The Life as a nine-year-old on his sister’s copy of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

In his own formative club nights he enjoyed the disco scene and Giorgio Moroder songs before discovering punk, becoming a 100 Club regular alongside the likes of future Leftfield collaborator John Lydon.

He soon fell in love with reggae and live music in general, following the likes of Joy Division, Black Uhuru, The Fall, Gang of Four and Wire.

Then, inspired by the innovative style of Africa Bambaataa and his drum machine, Neil went down the dance route, later meeting Paul on the deep house warehouse scene.

At one stage, Neil was playing hip American electro-funk outfits and similar homegrown talents at the Wag Club, while studying at the London School of Samba.

And while playing congas at one London club, he met fellow congas and bongo player Paul, the pair hitting it off immediately.

To cut a long story short, Neil borrowed his brother’s Juno 106 keyboard, got a bank loan and bought a sampler, the Leftfield story properly starting in the kitchen of Neil’s tiny flat in Marylebone.

In fact, the pair worked together as a unit six years before that first album saw the light of day.

Part of the reason for that stalling was out of their hands, down to contractual problems, while contemporaries like Massive Attack had more product out far earlier.

I put it to Neil that, while in that sense it must have been a frustrating period, it turned out for the best.

“I think definitely. We weren’t ready at that stage and weren’t really interested in making an album then.

“But as we started to grow, that changed, and after Release the Pressure (featuring Earl 16), Space Shanty and Open Up (featuring John Lydon) it was starting to occur to us by then.

“We started out just doing remixes and very much as an underground unit, like a lot of young people today.

“The idea of doing an album wasn’t something that really struck us.

“But then we started to experiment with all these other areas. And that’s how it happened.”

And a quarter of a century after those first Leftfield recordings, Alternative Light Source suggests Neil and his associates are continuing to shine, lighting the way for progressive house and electronic music in general.

For the latest from Leftfield, head to their official website,

www.leftfieldmusic.com

• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, whose blog can be found at http://writewyattuk.com/