Leftfield headline Rock Ness 2010 - Neil Barnes interview

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Leftfield: Active Progressive

After a long hiatus, dance music pioneer Neil Barnes is bringing back the Leftfield stage show to the festival stage. But can it live up to the act’s legendary reputation? Henry Northmore asks him

Electronic duo Leftfield (aka Neil Barnes and Paul Daley) are responsible for some of electronic music’s most enduring tracks. Their debut, Leftism (1995) mixed house, techno, deep dub and post punk in a unique exploration of the possibilities of electronica. Four years later they unleashed the darker, but no less engrossing, Rhythm & Stealth, which included the pounding beats of single ‘Phat Planet’ – notorious as the backing track to Guinness’ ‘surfer advert’. Despite an official split in 2002 their music has endured, making them the most eagerly anticipated act at this year’s Rock Ness.

Are you very conscious that, for a lot of people, this will be the first time they will see Leftfield live?
There’s a massive reputation I have to live up to, and it’s really important to me that I reflect the sound of Leftfield properly, particularly as it’s been so long. That’s why people have to be able to recognise what we’re doing. We could go up there and do a dub mix, which would be great fun for us but I have to pull it back to the original vibe, otherwise it starts to lose its continuity.

A lot of dance music is very much of its time. Why do you think Leftfield have avoided sounding dated?
I wish I knew, but it’s great though. We spent a lot of time making the records. The first album was a lifetime’s worth of ideas; it all came exploding out of us over a period of two years. We analysed everything we did, we tried to stay away from clichés, so maybe that helped? That and the fact that the style varies between each track. The last reason is that we wanted what we did to sound like an album, and that’s one of the problems I have when I listen to albums now; they sound like ten tracks chucked in there, people haven’t thought about what it sounds like to someone who’s listening all the way through.

What did you think of the label ‘progressive house’, which was pretty much invented by the music press just for Leftfield?
We thought it was a bit silly really. We did invent the music, there’s no doubt, but we’d already moved on by the time the term was invented. We were trying to push the barriers and get on with expanding electronic music as much as we could.

What made you think that now was the right time for a comeback?
It was goodwill that made me come back generally. I thought long and hard about it, and the technology has moved on, meaning we can do it properly and really, really make it sound good – even better than last time.

Paul Daley isn’t involved this time. How has it been without him?
Initially it was weird looking over and seeing that Paul wasn’t there, and it’s a shame, but it wouldn’t have happened if I’d waited for him, so I had to throw myself in there and we’ve done it. The proof will be in the pudding, as we haven’t played any gigs yet, but so far it sounds absolutely brilliant.

Why did Leftfield split in the first place?
We were exhausted after the second album – we’d been working together for nearly 15 years, most people don’t realise that. We put our all into those albums, especially the second album and then the tour – it was an enormous task. I think we needed to get away. We had gone as far as we thought we could at the time. I have no regrets. People always say “why didn’t you do a third album?” Well things end because it’s the right point for them to end. I’m very happy with our catalogue, I’m very proud of it and I’ve become more proud of it the more I’ve been working on it.

What is the live set up for these shows?
We’ve got a fantastic drummer, big set up, big electronic kit; we’ve got Adam Wren doing keyboards and effects on stage; another keyboard player called Kwes using computers and playing live over the top; then me doing keyboards and all the little bits and pieces that are on the records, and then a group of singers. The thing is, every track is different; every track has got a whole gamut of different sounds, that’s why I have to use so many different keyboards and effects to replicate them live.

What can we expect from your headline show at Rock Ness?
Now you’re making me nervous. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s mainly the first album. It just felt like the right thing to do. It seemed to flow that way, but with a couple I had to put in that everyone loves. It’s a journey through the history of Leftfield.

Leftfield headline the Main Stage at Rock Ness, Sat 12 Jun.

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