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A conversation with Geoff Barrow

Geoff Barrow is a musician, producer and film score composer based in South West England. He is co-founder of the bands Portishead and Beak, and has had international success touring and producing music in one form or another for the last 25+ years. Latterly his film work has brought acclaim and, together with his regular collaborator Ben Salisbury, has scored several films of the writer-director Alex Garland amongst others. Throughout his career Geoff/Barrow has also experienced various mental health issues and here he talks to The Man Down Programme.

Man Down Programme: Can you tell us a little bit about how you grew up and how some of your experiences of distress/illness began?

Geoff Barrow: I had a fairly kind of normal upbringing in North Somerset in Portishead, and then my parents broke up because of an affair, so I moved in to live with my mum. [When you’re young and] you kind of don't know who you are, you don't know what is supposed to be normal.

I can remember over the summer holidays getting a bit depressed, especially one summer when I put myself to bed, pretending I was sick. I didn't have a TV in my room, so there was nothing to do - this was before any computer games or phones or anything like that. I think I just stayed there for four days. Feeling really, really strange. I remember thinking, I don’t know if this feeling is common but I’m definitely not going to have a conversation with anyone about it. But then I got over it and moved in with my mum and step-dad. My dad definitely went through what they would call a breakdown at that point.

I became a teenager around the time of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Threads, the TV show about nuclear war in Sheffield. It absolutely fucking petrified me, and for some reason all my anxiety locked onto that.

Also, I was really dyslexic. I was kind of colour blind, I didn't really know how to read and when I left school, I had no qualifications.

I was into DJing, I was a scratch DJ, and I was putting beats together in my mum’s house and life was normal; hanging around drinking cider, that kind of stuff. I didn't get into smoking weed, didn't do drugs, I was just into music, and when people started getting into pills, I was just starting making beats. I’ve still never done a pill in my life. And it wasn't because I was against it or anything, I just wasn't interested.

I went to a good school and then started working for a studio. I was told that if I helped build a studio I’d get a YTS placement at the end of it, so I helped this guy out and he gave me a job making tea for bands. And then I could make my own tunes. The thing that was constant through this was my dyslexia, and I had a problem with anger. It was a huge frustration.

It was that classic kind of anxiety where I could talk my way through stuff and if it was practical, I could do it, but anything that meant instruction, I couldn't take it in. So I thought, there's no way I can do an office job. When I left school, there was a glass factory next to the school, and the careers advisor just said, go there. I thought, fuck that.

But I was starting to understand how tunes were put together. I think that people who have a learning issue, whether it be dyslexia or whatever, often have some other talent - and mine was that I could strip a tune apart in my head and build it back together. So, I could listen to something and I knew exactly what the bassline or the hi-hat pattern was.

MDP: At that time did you stop feeling the anger and frustration when you started to think about the things you could do, or did you still feel those things?

GB: No, I felt like when I started to write tunes I felt like I was worth something. Because before that I really didn't feel like I was worth shit.

MDP: Wow. Okay.

GB: The trouble is that your worth is based on your success. It was the only way I could prove myself that I wasn't an idiot. So I met Smith and Mighty, who came into the studio, they were always really lovely, and Massive Attack came in with Neneh Cherry and her husband Cameron, when they were doing Blue Lines. I was just making tea and getting sandwiches. And then the first Gulf War happened.

I was living at my mum's and I was watching 24 hour news, and my anxiety grew and grew to the point where I was being physically sick every couple of hours. Absolutely convinced that the world was ending. That’s something that's continued throughout my anxiety is I could not stop my brain. I could not slow it down. That's all I thought about 24 hours a day.

So even when I was making tunes, I'd go and be sick. I can remember talking to my girlfriend at the time and she said, you’ve just got to stop watching the news. It'll be fine. But it’s almost like I'd been waiting for that moment all my life since seeing the documentaries so it was a self fulfilling prophecy, and it didn't seem like it was gonna end. So I was sick an awful lot, and I never went to see anybody about it.

Then the war ended and life carried on, and Portishead took off. So within two years of the war ending, I threw myself into Portishead, and got a record deal.

I’ve got rid of this now, but back then I was a complete control freak. So anything you've ever seen come out about Portishead, I've seen it and signed it off. So there's nothing left to chance. I would never trust the press person to do it. I would have to see it.

MDP: Did that have implications in the band?

GB: No, we all agreed on what we thought was shit or not, so it was easy to have a combined voice. We were a pretty strong voice as a band: Dave MacDonald was our engineer, who was also in the band, then obviously Adrian Utley and Beth, and I think they all trusted me to know how to promote the band to the world. I just didn’t realise the pressure I was putting myself under.

When we released Dummy, it was so big on a global scale and I was so controlling that it completely burnt me out. The pressure of it was so strong I went back into anxiety again being sick, I was eating and making myself sick, like I was bulimic. It was a relief. There was nothing my body could do to deal with stress other than be sick.

MDP: To purge everything?

GB: To purge it, yeah. I was trying to run the band, do mixes, doing 15 interviews a day, looking at marketing plans from Japan, and if someone said do you want to see this, I'd go ‘yeah, bring it on’, because I didn't want anything to go out there that I thought was sub-standard or represented us in the wrong way.

MDP: When you look back now, do you think that that was obsessive behaviour?

GB: Absolutely. But now, I do film scores for people and I realise that a lot of film directors are exactly the same. From the time they start to the time they finish, they’re at 180%. And they work harder than anyone I know. You’ve got a $60m film being made and every different department wants to show you what they've done that day for you to make a judgement on it. And that was kind of similar to Portishead, and that’s why so many film directors crack up.

But instead of stopping after Dummy, we went straight in to record a second album. I was not in a fit place; it was a terrible experience. We ended up living in a studio out in the country, all of us, with no ideas, rowing all the time. And me being sick and getting drunk, hungover all the time...

MDP: Tell me about Third (the third Portishead album) - was it the same as what you had on Dummy, the controlling stuff?

GB: Massively, but it was worse because the music industry had changed. And a lot of the radio stations that would have played us had disappeared. So you would fail in every country because the people that were working for you were the wrong people.

But it came out, we toured it, and it was a success. Once again, I felt amazing because I proved that I could come back from people thinking we were old fashioned or from the 90s and do something that was relevant.

So, we did that up to about 2010-2011. Then, while I was producing a band called The Horrors, something weird happened. I was mixing the last track of their record. I was giving my mate a lift back to his house one night after the studio. And I just said, I can't work, I think I’m having a breakdown. I think there's something wrong with me. And he said, of course, let's stop the session. And I spoke to my wife and she said, I’d not been communicating, I'd been really withdrawn. I couldn’t listen to two people talking at the same time. It was like my brain was full. I just completely shut down.

MDP: What did you do?

GB: I went home and went to bed. I was more scared than anything, because I couldn't do anything. I had no thoughts. My mate described it like, your life and your brain is a library, that you've been putting thoughts and memories into, right? And then someone's come in and ripped all the books off the shelves and just ripped all the pieces up. And that's what happened to me. I didn't know what I was doing, who I was. It wasn’t anxiety, it was just a complete shutdown.

MDP: We often talk in psychiatry about the feeling of being blunted. Where you just don't feel a thing. You don't feel sad.

GB: That was absolutely what it was. I'd always suffered depression; I would go and have a meeting or do a TV show, perform, and then go back to the hotel room and just puke. So, I had to stop work. I tried to have a meeting that week and I had to walk out of it because I couldn't take it in. So I had to just stay in bed, and I stopped working for a month or so.

I started getting therapy which was going to somebody a couple of times a week, and talking about how I felt and then going back through my history.

I went onto Citalopram which I’ve now been on for eight years. It definitely helped me. I still take it now, although I came off them for a six month period and I had a complete and utter relapse and that's when I started CBD. That was [around] when Ebola was happening. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. It was the same thing again, I was being sick.

MDP: And the same with COVID-19?

GB: Yeah. I went on tour with Beak and we did a show in France. I was scared of travelling to France at that point, I just wanted to be home. Nobody I was with knew what was going on with the virus, but I had already hit peak anxiety a month before. My anxiety might have been that it was going to happen. And now we're actually in it.

I'm still hugely in fear of it, of my family getting it. I've got friends who’ve got it at the moment and they’re coming through it. People are saying for some it doesn't really affect them. But a lot of people I know have got immune issues and I’m terrified for them. I’ve decided not to watch any news at all to try to stop my anxiety, and it;s seemed to have worked so far.

MDP: One of the major things that you said is about how you found that being able to strip back a song and undo that and then build a song gave you a sense of being worthy of something, whereas your frustrations around not being able to read properly or do academic work probably made you feel worthless. So you've carried those frustrations where you felt like you haven't been good enough for a long time and then you found something you were good at and you wanted to control it because you didn't want anybody else to fuck that up.

GB: I think that's very common in men. I think through many traditions of family behaviour, trying to be the breadwinner, trying to secure and keep your family safe, men, women, everybody, you’ve got to be the perfect wife or husband on Instagram. That's constantly out in the open, which is terrifying.

But I’ve taken enough of your time up anyway…

MDP: No I've enjoyed it. Thank you!

Geoff Barrow has kindly agreed to take part in the MDP film, so you will be able to see more of his story through the finished film. If you’re interested in seeing the finished film, please donate here, stay at home, and let’s beat this damn virus.

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