Interview // Neil Barnes of Leftfield
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, June 1.
“It’s going to be pumping, it’s going to be diverse – all the things you would expect from a Leftfield album in 2013,” says a proud Neil Barnes of the ground-breaking electronic act’s first attempt at new material in 14 long years.
14 years is a lifetime in electronic music – and the lay of the digital land has shifted immeasurably since Rhythm and Stealth topped the UK album charts and landed on the Mercury Prize shortlist in 1999 – but Barnes is adamant that the new sound will be recognisable without being predictable and influenced by, but not beholden to, current music trends.
“It’s not just going to sound like old Leftfield. It doesn’t sound like ‘progressive house,’ or anything like that. I’m in a different space now. It’s just my take on electronic music. I can’t really describe it. I’m going to have some exciting collaborations which, at the moment, I can’t really talk about, but that’s what I’m planning to do. I’ve got a few people I want to approach.”
“There’s one track in the live set that definitely goes down the dubstep route – that really heavy, thumping groove type of thing that is very current. I just like music, really, so current music influences what I do.”
When Leftfield dropped their debut, Leftism, in 1995, it was a game-changer in terms of what people came to expect from dance music, proving the genre was more than just white label club mixes and dancefloor-fillers and could sustain itself across the cycle of a full-length record. Today, the internet has made the CD-length album less important in the commercial sense, but it is still Barnes’ preferred medium.
“I’m deliberately not looking at it terms of its ‘commerciability,’ how much it’s going to sell and all that, because things have changed so radically. I’ve got to just make something that’s got credibility, that’s powerful, fresh and has elements that people can recognise. That’s what I’m aiming at doing, and hopefully it will sell as a result.
“There’s no point going away for 10 years and then coming back without something that doesn’t live up to my own standards. People will be out to criticise it. A lot of people will be very excited but a lot of other people will be quite sceptical, which is fair enough. I just want to make the best record I can make – that’s it. I can’t think in terms of what young people want to listen to. I’m just going to make it really so I feel that people will enjoy it. It’s not going to be aimed at the 40+ market.”
Since Barnes relaunched Leftfield in 2010 – minus partner Paul Daley, who has decided to focus on his own projects – he has been across the Irish Sea and back more times than anybody cares to count, with a full band in tow, though he insists he’s only responding to the demand.
“I don’t know why I keep on getting asked back – it’s not me! – but I seem to get asked back which is really nice. Irish audiences are great. I’m not just saying that – just like playing in Scotland, the same type of vibe always seems to go down. You’re just really receptive to the music as a nation.
“Obviously there is the sort of thing about traditional céilí music – when you listen to that it’s very pounding, isn’t it? It’s very powerful, trance-like. Maybe there’s a connection there. One does wonder if you do take to it more than other people. Instrumental music has got more of a place in Irish culture. I think in the past, you’ve always liked something a bit more alternative and that’s why we were first successful in Ireland.”
Leftfield’s appearance at Forbidden Fruit is their only live date pencilled in for the rest of the year – as Barnes continues to work on new material – so it’s fitting that they will headline the main stage on Saturday with a full live band and a fleet of live musicians.
“We’ve got Jess Mills, who’s really doing well now on the dubstep scene – she’s coming. Chesire Cat will be there. Jim Jim will be there. It’s the full show – the full band will be there, all musicians and drummers. It’s not a DJ set or anything like that.
“There’s tonnes of live mixing on there, really. There’s a live drummer, there’s two of us up there making sounds and modulating sounds, then there’s five singers. There’s real bass, all types of percussion and live instruments that you’d expect from a Leftfield gig.
“The sound of it is all completely different from the recorded tracks. The tracks have been changed endlessly to keep me interested and to keep the rest of the band interested, so I’m always experimenting with sounds while I’m up there, so it has changed a lot.
“For summer festivals I tend to do something that is a little more well-known because there are a lot of people there who might be seeing Leftfield for the first time. I’m still sort of changing the tracks all the time, but when it comes to certain gigs it is best to keep it to the familiar songs.”
As far as the future is concerned, Barnes is full of energy and enthusiasm: “A year from now, it’d be nice to see Leftfield back in there making current music. It would be nice to be looking back on a third album and planning a new tour and people asking me, ‘what’s the next album going to sound like?’ I feel the story’s not finished, you know? There’s more to be said.”
His one regret? He says: “I wish I was doing the new album this weekend, but it’s going to be good regardless. Maybe next year.”