Few names loom as large in British dance music as Leftfield.
On paper their 1990s discography looks minimal: two albums in ten years. But those two albums, both Mercury nominated and both Platinum-selling, cast extremely long shadows.
The London duo’s 1995 debut Leftism introduced the world to their unique amalgam of atmospheric electronic programming, gritty dub stylings and massive, massive breaks. Featuing high profile vocalists like John Lydon (a career revival for the former Sex Pistol), the record reached number three in the UK album chart – an early example of dance music finding a mainstream audience.
For Neil Barnes and Paul Daley, this rise from frustrated bedroom producers and serial remixers to one of the biggest names in British music must have been dizzying. While they shunned the lager-fuelled celebrity lifestyle of the time that was seducing many a DJ, Leftfield’s music seeped into popular culture, with ‘A Final Hit’ notably featuring on the Trainspotting soundtrack.
The long-awaited follow-up, Rhythm and Stealth, pushed their sound into a truly digital soundscape that was lean, mean and measured. Again, they recruited MCs like their musical hero Afrika Bambaataa and then-up and coming rapper Roots Manuva to provide the lyrical content, and the use of ‘Phat Planet’ on that Guinness advert meant that their popularity reached a career peak.
Despite their commercial and critical success, the start of a new millennium wasn’t a happy time for the duo. They’d pushed themselves hard on the second record (both have admitted to being huge perfectionists, which explains the gap between releases), and as their collaboration turned sour they went their separate ways. Leftfield was no more.
But a decade later Barnes decided to take the old set on tour once more, on his own, pummelling thousands more eardrums with the band’s infamously loud soundsystem.
This burst of new activity convinced Barnes to start recording again. Working closely with Adam Wren (who engineered Rhythm and Stealth), he gradually produced a body of work that became Alternative Light Source, the even-more-delayed third Leftfield album.
Featuring vocals from the likes of Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, it’s a pulsating, eclectic record that ranges from the mountainous beats of lead single ‘Universal Everything’ to the twilight, melancholy vibe of album closer ‘Levitate For You’.
The week before its release and a series of sold out tour dates, unashamed Leftfield fan Nick Mitchell spoke to Neil Barnes about the past, present and future of his project – but not necessarily in that order.
This is probably the question you’ve been asked the most, but what was the impetus for coming back to recording after 16 years away from the studio?
“Just to actually do something new. I felt I had something more to offer, and general excitement about the current music scene, wanting to be a part of it and wanting to be involved. There were still things that I wanted to do, and as a result of the live show last time I felt quite inspired by it. It all steamrollered from there.”
As Leftfield is now mainly you, how much of ‘you’ is in Alternative Light Source? Does it follow your personality or do you keep a separation?
“Um, no there’s an awful lot of me in it. I worked very closely with Adam Wren on it. He’s an engineer but has quite a lot of writing on it. But I suppose the impetus for the tracks comes from my interest in so many different styles of music, and experimenting and looking at different emotions. It’s quite an emotional album, the tracks are about a variety of things. I had an idea about the album being about light coming from dark, or something coming from nothing. That’s what the title’s about.
“It’s been three years in the making. I have spoken before about depression and anxiety, which is something that I do suffer from, and I’ve had to learn to live with. There are very euphoric moments and some inward-thinking moments, which reflects the way I feel about life.”
That ties into something I was thinking about your music, and how it can suit different listening modes. I remember listening to Rhythm & Stealth a lot when I was studying for exams at school – not exactly the most exciting experience for me, but it shows that electronic music especially can live in headphones as much as nightclubs. Is that something that you bear in mind at all when you’re making it?
“That’s interesting. The idea is that you can get lost in it in different environments I suppose. I get so in touch with each track, so maybe that’s infectious. It’s the same as all music, you try to get involved with the movement in it. Sometimes I get frustrated with my lack of ability as a musician, trying to get things across that I can’t get across. It is designed for all listening modes. Particularly this record, it’s quite moody.”
Leftfield played a big role in taking dance music out of the club, establishing the album format for electronic music alongside the traditionally album-centric genres like rock, indie and hip hop. Do you feel that you’re now in a bit of competition with this new generation of electronic producers that you’ve helped inspire?
“It’s a healthy competition. I like to be considered that I’m in that area now, I’d love my music to be associated with all the brilliant producers that are out there – people like Hudson Mohawke, Jamie XX, they’re doing varied things on their records. If I’m part of that world then that’s where I’d like to be. Competition? It’s not something I think of. I do a lot of DJing, I like other people’s music, and their attitude isn’t like that either. Maybe record companies are like that, because they’re competing for positions in the chart, but it isn’t a sport.”
After being away from releasing music for so long, were you ever tempted to slip out a secret track on SoundCloud under a different name?
(laughs) “Yeah, I suppose I was. I did lots of different things over the past three years before this album. I like that type of thing, but if I felt I had anything good enough I would have done it. It’s interesting – if I’d done that would anyone have picked up on it? It actually hasn’t occured to me, to be honest. Maybe in the future now, you could give me an idea.”
I’ll look out for it…
“Well you won’t know if it’s me.
“Oh actually, my idea for ‘Universal Everything’ was that it was going to be released as a white label, with nothing on it. But of course those grand plans, before you know it, slip away from you and become these epic campaigns. So there you go… the thought has crossed my mind.”
Is it still the DJ and club scene, white labels and vinyl, that still chimes with you more than the social media and blogging community, or are you across both?
“I do both. My local record shop’s Rough Trade in West London, I go there and take big stacks of vinyl home. He lets me take them home and I go through them for hours. There is still that. That’s a major part of what I like to do. Like everyone else, I discover things from all types of places and people.
“I DJ with a computer and controller. I was never much good on decks anyway. That’s the honest truth!”
With the range of guest vocalists on the new album, it carries on the tradition from the first two Leftfield albums. I was curious how the songwriting process works – is some of it impromptu?
“Generally I’ve had a strong idea. Me and Adam had written a track together, with an idea beforehand of who it would be for. With Tunde [Adebimpe] it was a case of sending stuff to America and him going into a studio and putting a vocal on it and sending it back. With Jason [Williamson] I sent him nearly a complete track and he worked on it in his own studio. Everyone’s worked in their own studios. Only Channy [Leaneagh – of Poliça] came and recorded both vocals in London. So that was more of a groove, and the vocals were a journey of madness, a spoken word New York sort of thing. And I moved the vocal around, it’s a free-flowing process. Obviously we show respect for the song. Vocalists like to do it their own way. As long as the end result works. There’s no right or wrong way.”
I noticed that the upcoming tour dates are all sold out.
“Ages ago. It’s good.”
Do you find any irony in the fact that you’re one of the big ’90s dance names filling these traditional gig venues that the guitar bands usually headline?
“No, I mean a venue’s a venue. We’ve always tried to turn venues into clubs, in a weird sense. Even though it’s all centred on us. I’ve often fought against us going live. We never intended Leftfield to be a live thing. So it’s all a bit of an experiment, it’s just changing with the times. We change the venues as much as we physically can with our system.”
I saw you at T in the Park back in 2011…
“Yeah, the old set…”
Yes. It was in the Slam Tent, so it was a proper club experience. You were always infamously loud as an act, and you certainly were that day. Do you still get warnings from venues to keep a lid on it?
“Oh yeah. There are very strict restrictions. At certain places you can get away with it. At most festivals there’s a legal limit and it’s harsh. Especially in metropolitan areas like Liverpool and London. We tend to obey the laws. Considering I’m about to do a tour I have to be careful what I say! It’s pumping.”
Has anyone ever actually recorded the decibel levels?
“Yeah. In the past, at the back of the venue in Brixton. We were louder than Concorde. That was the first tour – we’re nowhere near that now. We’re up there, but it’s more about quality than loudness. That’s the idea anyway.”
With ‘Universal Everything’ you get across a sense of massive sonic space without blasting it. I’ve heard the track a bit on TV already.
Yes, there was a documentary last week about doping in sport that used it.
“That’s interesting. Yeah I do tend to get used for things like that. Drug references! The pumping type of thing.”
Your music featured on the famous Guinness advert too of course, which is often referred to as the greatest TV ad ever. Is that something you’re still proud of, or is it just a way to pay the bills?
“It’s a brilliant bit of film, and the track was written and already done. It works beautifully. I saw it the other day, and it’s a really brave advert.”
Technology has made electronic music much more accessible for a new wave of artists. But you still have yourself, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, who are still massive names. Over in the States there’s the EDM scene, where it doesn’t really feel that the genre’s being taken forward that much. I wondered what your thoughts are on the commercialisation of dance music?
“To be honest it’s always been there. I hate slagging off a whole movement, it’s dangerous to do it. Just to say ‘I don’t like EDM’. I’m not keen on the trancey, DJ stuff you hear from America but I don’t actually get to hear a lot of it. If there’s that type of thing going on there’s maybe an underground scene going on in the cool clubs. It’s a bit of a generalisation. It doesn’t inspire me particularly, but maybe I haven’t heard much. Dance music is commercialised everywhere.”
Alternative Light Source is out now. More info at www.leftfieldmusic.com