Techno titans Leftfield prepare to bring an Alternative Light Source to Bestival
Leftfield have never been an act to rush things.
The legendary techno duo Neil Barnes and Paul Daley had been together for six years before they dropped the soon-to-be-classic and hugely influential Leftism, which included their hit team-up with former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, Open Up.
It was another four years before their second album Rhythm and Stealth appeared, which produced the seminal track Phat Planet – often remembered as the soundtrack to the Guinness ‘surfer’ advert. Both albums were nominated for the Mercury Prize.
After touring that album though, things went very quiet in the Leftfield camp for along time. There were some live dates in 2010 and a live album before it again appeared to go quiet.
Last year, however, they re-emerged with album number three – Alternative Light Source – and Neil was now flying solo, as Paul had left the group.
With a fearsome reputation as a live act, they will be showing what they can do when they perform in the Big Top at Bestival tomorrow night.
So what took so long?
‘There have been different stages in it,’ Neil tells WOW247. ‘I only really started working on this record in October 2012, so this record took three years to make, not 15.
‘The rest of the time I was doing other stuff, not always to do with music, and then in 2010 I toured as Leftfield again, and that’s where it began again.
‘I didn’t know what to expect from that, no-one did. I did it because the guys at Cream put it together. and we did Rockness, big festivals and it did go down really well, we did put on a really good show, and it did rekindle the idea of doing it all again – it came from that process.
‘I had some legal issues to sort out with going out as Leftfield, and once that was done...’
Ah, yes. What happened there?
‘Everything is problematic when it comes to business, that’s the truth of it. The business side of what you do is always uncomfortable because you’re artists and suddenly you’re talking about financial implications, but all I can say is that it has been sorted out.
‘I started out Leftfield, I wanted to continue with Leftfield, Paul didn’t. In the end I did get my way and I forced it on, and it was the right thing to do.’
Neil speaks without rancour about his old musical partner and is keen to move on from that period.
‘This is a new, very different Leftfield. We’ve both done very well out of it – it’s rejuvenated the old catalogue, which I didn’t expect.
‘At the moment, whatever you can get is a real bonus, to be honest, with the way things are as a musician, trying to earn a living, anything we can get out of it is good.’
And he laughs as he realises how that sounds: ‘Strings are playing in the distance – I’m going busking in a minute, down the market, I’m taking my drum machine and my old keyboards. I’m going down to the corner of Ladbroke Grove and I’ll hang a sign around my neck that says: “Old techno musician, please give generously”.’
While their records have become classics, it is in the live arena that Leftfield really make a mark, but with the emphasis on the spectacle Neil reveals it’s not the cash cow many believe.
‘We don’t do well out of the touring – I just about keep my head above water, because of the show we put on. I employ a lot of people, which I’m proud of. I could easily cut that down, but it wouldn’t be so much fun.
‘I don’t know if it is a big money making venture for anyone any more. I think there’s some very rude awakenings happening for a lot of people across the world who think that’s the case, I know it, actually.
‘When you’ve got 15-16 people in a crew, when you add it all up, most of these acts are getting quite shocking realisations when they see the cheques coming in at the end after all that work.
‘Unless you’re Kanye West and you’re getting $1m for a gig – and deservedly so in my opinion as he’s at the top of the tree – most of us aren’t in that arena though, we’re jobbing musicians, that’s what we are.’
Their shows are also famed for being very loud – so loud that their soundsystem was banned from Brixton Academy after it caused plaster to fall off the ceiling. And at their first gig in Amsterdam, police threatened to arrest their soundman for breaking legal sound limits.
‘It’s all the bass,’ says Neil with a chuckle. ‘But that’s better than the noise you get from a guitar band. Parents, send your kids to techno gigs – it’s much better for you than those nasty guitar bands,’ he deadpans.
‘That first tour, the guy who did our front of house was pretty deaf, which I think is why he had it so loud. He had it so loud, we had to have it loud on stage as well. What we had on stage is as big as most festivals have at the moment.
‘I can’t believe we’re not all deaf.’
Leftfield’s first brush with fame coincided with the likes of The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy breaking into the mainstream. Given the often transitory nature of much dance music, is Neil surprised these acts have also stood the test of time?
‘I do find it surprising, it’s sort of fading a bit, and it needs to.
‘Maybe there aren’t big festival acts coming through.
‘A lot of us, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, we played to smaller crowds, 800-1,000 people, for quite a long time. And then you picked up the festivals and got more experienced.
‘I am amazed, but The Chems have just done a very good album and that’s why they’re out there, because they’re still making good music.’
Neil sees that part of the problem with finding live techno acts to take over their mantle could be the lucrative lure of DJing.
‘Gesaffelstein, people like, that will be coming back next year. But a lot of people are choosing not to go out live, like Daniel Avery didn’t choose to go live, he DJs, and that was a very good record he put out, a very big record. But a lot of people are choosing to stay in the DJing world and doing it that way.
‘Calvin Harris, he had a live band and they were good. But then he decided, why slog around all these festivals not making any money when he could do it behind the decks? I’m sure that had a point to be played in it. It’s a tricky one that, very tricky.’
And he reckons there will be more new music from Leftfield sooner rather than later.
‘I think there could be. I’ve been asked to do it. It definitely won’t take another 15 years, because I’ll be 70 or something by then,’ he catches himself and swears. ‘That’s embarrassing.’
‘I might do something different, I might do an EP, maybe next year. Surprise people with a new record, maybe do it in a new way and drop this whole album concept thing and just do EPs, that’s sort of what I’d like to do.’
While Leftfield has a small but impressive legacy, people shouldn’t expect to go to see them live for some comfy nostalgia, and Neil warns that those expecting to hear Leftism ‘should stay at home with their moccasins on’.
‘Nah, I’ll be putting a couple of tracks in there for the old codgers, send them home happy, if that’s what they want.
‘I’m not deliberately not playing it, I’m just trying to do something a bit different.’
One Leftism track he’s never played live but wants to is Open Up: ‘We’ve never done Open Up because we’ve never been able to do it with John, he’s never around.
‘I’d love to do it, but whenever I’ve approached him, he’s doing something else.’
n Bestival runs from today until Sunday at Robin Hill Country Park on the Isle of Wight. Tickets are still available at bestival.net. Also appearing are Major Lazer, The Cure Wiz Khalifa and dozens more.
See tomorrow and Monday’s News for full coverage as well as online at portsmouth.co.uk