Leftfield interview: ‘Leftism live is an enormous output of emotion’

Ask any random person to recall 1995 in music and Britpop will come up right away. If you were to commission a talking heads nostalgia programme or a Q magazine special, you’d be searching for pics and clips of a coked-up Liam and Noel giving the fingers, Pulp at Glastonbury and the Blur vs Oasis tabloid war.

Even Robbie Williams tried to gatecrash the party, jumping from the pages of Smash Hits into NME with his lads on tour Glasto capers after leaving Take That.

But when the chronically retrograde Oasis are the biggest band in a scene, something’s not quite right. Author and pop culture historian David Stubbs said it best about the era: “It was like Joy Division never happened.”

In fairness, 1995 was a year of Britpop blockbusters: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory; The Great Escape and Different Class, and as an aside Radiohead released The Bends.

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Leftfield in 1995

But while Britpop acts owed a debt to the past – from Oasis’s Beatles and Kinks plundering to Pulp’s mini kitchen sink dramas – 1995 was a pivotal year for futurist electronic music crossing over. Orbital had normalised bleeps for the indie crowd at Glastonbury in 1994, and 1995 saw the release of Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do, Exit Planet Dust by the Chemical Brothers, Maxinquaye by Tricky and Goldie’s Timeless. Portishead also won the Mercury Prize for Dummy.

And in January 1995, Leftfield released their debut album Leftism – one of the most revered electronic music albums of all time, and a Mercury nominee also.

“It was extraordinary that we were in that environment. We felt we were part of something big, but we had no idea how big,” recalls Leftfield founder Neil Barnes over the phone from his base in London.

“It felt like we were being recognised for this new form of music, but this idea that electronic music would become the dominant sound in 20 years, I don’t think anyone would have known or guessed. I mean it’s the most popular music, along with hip-hop.”

Leftism, along with the above-mentioned albums, challenged the reductive cliche that dance music was fuelled by novelty rave records and gurning pill-heads in smiley T-shirts. Leftism was tagged ‘progressive house’, a freewheeling mix of house, techno, dub and hip-hop, with African chanting and percussion, ambient interludes and a very special guest John Lydon, who helped the album’s crossover appeal.

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Neil Barnes

Barnes is currently on tour performing Leftism in its entirety, with the original vocalists and MCs and live musicians. As on Leftfield’s comeback tour in 2010 after eight years away, Barnes’ founding partner Paul Daley has declined, but gave Barnes his blessing.

Barnes says he grabbed the opportunity after the triple vinyl reissue of the remastered album this year.

“I’ll never do this album tour again, so it seemed like a perfect time to do it,” he says. “I’ve learned to accept that the album deserves it. I normally pick tracks out of it, but the whole thing in its entirety is a vibe, and I think that’s what takes people over. I’ve hardly ever performed the slow ones, normally we end on something really uplifting, really big, Phat Planet or something. So to actually have something like Melt coming in at track 3, and ending on 21st Century Poem, it’s an enormous great output of emotion, its what we all experience as a band.”

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There’s a conflict between the inherent futurism of electronic music and the idea of revisiting a 22-year-old album, but Barnes says: “I’m happy to be doing this but this isn’t where Leftfield is staying, I’m not becoming a nostalgic band going into the future.

“We did the [third album] Alternative Light Source shows last year and it really attracted a young crowd. This time some crowds are older but I didn’t mind that, I have to accept that’s what it is, it’s a look back on something, there’s no getting out of this one.

“But we embrace it, there’s no doing it with strings or something embarrassing like that. This is how they were intended, long versions of each track, done as close to the original as we possibly can perform them live.”

Barnes says there’s no chance of him being fully swallowed up by the nostalgia wormhole, as “there’s a really exciting vibe right now… there’s a healthy underground scene that doesn’t need the NME or whatever”.

There’s a habit of eulogising the early rave scene as a time of peace and love and ecstasy breaking down barriers, but Barnes counters this saying: “I don’t miss it at all. It’s like everyone looks back with rosy eyes on it all. There was also a lot of crap around at the time. Tonnes of it! Tonnes of rubbish records that were overrated, one-hit wonders. OK, for pop music it was a golden time, but for every good record there were a hundred shit ones. I don’t look back like that.

“There are some great clubs in this country where there’s an open mind to music. There wasn’t when we were growing up, we try to fool ourselves there was, but there wasn’t really. People were anti-disco or anti-punk or anti-soul. It was very based on trends.

“There’s a healthy underground scene, I like to think I’m part of it so I know it exists. The established music press and radio struggle to present it.”

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One guest who isn’t coming along for the temporary nostalgia trip is John Lydon, who sneered his way through the epic Open Up – one of his greatest ever vocals on one of the defining singles of the decade. And Open Up is still the encore when Lydon tours with Public Image Ltd.

DJ Don Letts is credited with filling London punks’ heads with dub and reggae in the late 1970s, but Leftfield went one better on Open Up, adding Lydon’s iconic punk snarl to the dubby house kick of Open Up, with the stand-out line, “Burn Hollywood burn, burn down into the ground”.

“I wanted to make an extreme pop record and I thought John’s voice would work In a radical setting,” Barnes recalls. “For me it was an international world folk collaboration type of thing and John’s’ voice was in my head. I thought the message and everything about it would be powerful and extreme.

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“I’d known John on and off for years through a friend so I was able to get in there and get him in the studio. We played him loads of records we were listening to at the time and he loved it. He was jumping up and down, saying, ‘Oh God this is amazing!’ So he was into it. He just didn’t want to do it on tour with us this time because he was doing other stuff. But we’ve got a big John on the screen behind us and we play everything live around him. It shouldn’t work but it does. It goes mental!”

The Leftism 22 tour wraps up at Metropolis festival in Dublin’s RDS next weekend, and Barnes will be putting a lid on nostalgia for now. When asked if there’s any new Leftfield material in the wings he butts in immediately before the question is finished, saying: “Yeah, I’m working on an EP, that’s the idea. In terms of vocals I’m not sure yet, but I’m really into African stuff at the moment so that’s a clue. And then I’ll get onto an album.

“I want something that people will DJ, I’m not bothered about the radio. I want something for the dancefloor, something club-oriented, that’s where my head is at now. And you know what, I think that’s where Leftfield belongs.”

  • Leftfield headline the Metropolis opening party on October 28 

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