Electronic music as we know it today, exists largely because of Leftfield. They changed the possibilities of what you could do on dancefloors worldwide. It’s been sixteen years since Leftfield released an album and now the iconic dance duo are returning to airwaves with a new LP Alternative Light Source. We caught up with Leftfield founder and frontman, Neil Barnes, at Further Future Festival, and he gives us the goods on his latest music and the decades leading up to it.
ROGUE: Let’s get started, let me find my questions....
NEIL BARNES: Honestly just make it up. The made-up interviews, they're the best ones, just make up whatever you like [laughs]. Honestly. Have you heard of Howard Marks?
Can’t say I have.
NB: He wrote a book called "Mr. Nice". It's about his adventures in the 70’s with importing drugs into the UK. It's an amazing book, he's a really interesting man. Unfortunately Howard just died after years and years of being an amazing person--a bit of a guru really. He was a very famous guy in the UK among puffing circles. He was a bit of puffer--I mean smoking marijuana and stuff like that. A bit of a "Breaking Bad" type of vibe about Howard. But anyway the reason why I wanted to talk about Marks is because we once did this interview where we went up the river on a boat with him, and it went on all day, drinking beers, etc. I was really confused because Howard wasn't taking notes or recording or anything during the interview. This was a big interview he did for this magazine, I can't remember the name of the magazine, I think it was called Loaded - and in the end - he made the whole thing up.
NB: Yeah he did. And it was funny.
Well, we’re recording this so I can’t exactly make it up…
Let’s start with the new album, did you approach it with a specific blueprint in mind or did you let it evolve organically on its own?
NB: That's a tricky one. I think initially I had a blueprint. I started off with this idea - I had the title Alternative Light Source for quite a long time - I was interested in a lot of stuff to do with physics in the universe when I started the album off. So in some of the titles there's ideas about physics-- Alternative Light Source is this idea of something from nothing - a power from nothing. It was a bit of an emotional journey for me, it was a difficult album to make. A lot of changes in my life happened while I was making it. Not all good. Some really sad things happened to me. My mother died while we were making it, I separated from my wife at the end of it. There were lots of things that came along that sort of messed up the theme of it. But initially, yes, I did start out with the idea of making something conceptual. The artwork and tracks [focused on] that light--that power that comes from nothing, which in a way, comes from the fact that the album has been so long in the making.
How do you feel about the current electronic music scene and how the internet has changed the face of the genre?
NB: Well the thing is, I think the current electronic scene is good. Very strong. I think there's lots of artists making very interesting music. I'm still someone who buys a lot of music on vinyl. Vinyl is my thing. But I do listen to a lot of music on the internet and I find a lot of music on the internet. So the internet has made the world smaller and I suppose it's a double edged sword. You know it's quite good in some ways to have these records immediately available to you but it can also be over saturated. The electric scene is enormous now, it’s not even alternative anymore. When Leftfield started it was alternative. For instance, when I listen to Radio One virtually every track is electronic music. It’s one form of dance music or another. I mean, now rock music is the alternative. But the state of electronic music, to stick to your original question. I think is incredibly strong.
There has to be something at stake for an artist not to get too comfortable. What, for you, is at stake for you when you perform or release music?
NB: Well, I mean what's at stake is your reputation. It makes you feel like you care about what you do. And every time you make a record it's the most important thing in your world. For me, making music is - you know- only as good as your next record. It's about putting your heart on the line. It's the only thing that matters really in terms of what I do, it's the next record and the quality of that music is the most important to me.
What's been one of the biggest highlights of your career over the decades?
NB: The highlight of my career was probably the first time I got a record on the radio. The first time I ever heard a Leftfield record on the radio was by a guy, John Peel, who is very famous in England on the radio, in 1990. He played our first single ‘Not Forgotten’ on his radio show for Radio One, and read a letter I had wrote and that was probably the highlight. There have been very important things like when Leftism came out , that was a big moment. Also playing Glastonbury the first time for 60,000 people, that was an amazing moment.
Before Paul joined you in Leftfield, you were a DJ and a percussionist. What led you on this dance music journey in music in the first place?
NB: I've always been [involved] with electronic music. I think it was being able to do it with the new equipment that came along. Sony revolutionized it. Up until then I was playing in other bands. When technology allowed us to make music on our own, it became electronic, it became a dance music because that was what we could do in a funny sort of way. I've always loved electronic music.
What did you listen to as a teenager?
NB: As a teenager, New Age and Punk. I grew up on post punk mainly, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Joy Division. Those records by them changed my world. And I was into disco as well. Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, those type of early records really influenced me. But then the real production of some of the amazing 80’s records that came out of America, electronic records like bands like, Aura, that I loved. So it was obvious that dance music was informative. We invented a form of dance music I suppose, Leftfield and other people early on in the scene.
What led you to eventually become a DJ at your residency at the Wire Club?
NB: That was a story! That's a long story. Playing at warehouse parties--they were a big thing in the early 80’s--first going to see people mix records then going to see two decks--that changed everything. Being able to make mixes and see this music changed the way we saw music. It made us want to make people dance really.
Who were some of the DJ's that you saw that influenced you?
NB: Most of them are gone now. I think seeing Afrika Bambaataa in London DJing was was the biggest influence in my life actually in terms of DJing. He's a real character, really, really unique. He was cleaning the records on his chair and his chest and slamming them on the decks. It just affected me.
What brought you and Paul Daley together?
NB: Paul just playing congas and percussion brought us together. We jammed together at a club which also did poetry--it was a mad club with poetry--and basically they had congas and mics out there and we used to play over the top of DJ's [laughs]. We’d really, really sort of bang away all night and that is how I met him. He was in a band called A Man Called Adam who were really good. I was nobody and I just bought some equipment and I played him my record with a really simple bass lines and it just blew him away. It was like an "Oh Shit" moment.
What was it like making electronic music back in the 90’s? The process has changed so much since then. What do you miss about the way things were done then and what do you think has been an improvement?
NB: Well the thing is, in the early days, we had primitive sequences when I started. We didn't have a computer. We didn't really have audio either, we had two tracks of audio on a computer to make Leftism. We had about 10 samplers in the studio. Now all your sampling is in a computer. You have endless computer memory. I mean in a way, there's almost too much choice now. You have to be very clear about things. You can get lost in technology these days. And the danger with that is a lot of records sound the same. Everyone uses the same effects, the same programs. Maybe I miss the maverick madness of it, you know. I suppose the other thing is it is was more expensive to get into it back then. You had to invest in expensive equipment. Nowadays you can do it on an iPad. Which is good and bad. Basically everyone thinks they can make music and they can't. You get an awful lot of generic music out there where people are just copying things. At the end of the day it's all about the ideas you have, they're the most important things. You can do really brilliant electronic music with very little equipment. Same for rock music. It's too easy to press a button. Artists like Jamie XX, he's just truly talented. He would have been successful 20 years ago because he's just got an ear for music and that type of thing is beyond just technology.
Let’s talk about your work with Johnny Rotten, on ‘Open Up’  your work with him was a really big step not just in your career, but for dance music in general. How did that legendary collaboration come about?
NB: I kept finding him- he couldn't say no. I kept hounding him. Every time he'd try to get out of it I just said "Oh come on you pansy" [Mocking Rotten] "I can't do it! I can't do it!"
I had the idea years beforehand and I was told I was a lunatic for wanting to do the track with John. I've known him since I was 19, so I've known John since the early days obviously. We've got a mutual best friend named John Gray. And I went around his house. He knew what I was doing and I sent him a demo of 'Open Up.'
I love that track.
NB: We've never performed it live unfortunately. We can never get John to do it. Maybe next year. Next year when we do Leftism. We're probably doing Leftism next year, the whole album. The whole thing!
Left: Yeah, yeah just me.
After Leftism came out you were propelled to the elite status of the electronic music world. What did you enjoy most about the new found fame and respect that were some of the pros and cons of it?
NB: Oh I'm not very interested in any of that shit. I mean, the pros are that I have some very funny incidents. We did the opening party for the film Trainspotting--we tore up the dance floor with everybody: Mick Jagger, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Elton John, and we absolutely blasted the fuck out of it. It was the loudest concert we did. We had insane moments like that. We liked not fitting in. We were these mavericks nominated for two Mercury Prizes and we knew we would never get any of them. No one's gonna give it to electronic hats. We got respect from people we admired, I suppose it's nice to get that.
Looking back do you think you should have gotten the Mercury prize over Portishead and Badly Drawn Boy?
NB: Definitely yeah. I seriously think that Leftism is the best album there without a doubt.
NB: I’m afraid of sounding arrogant, but I actually think that it’s a very good album. The first Portishead album was too. I think those are the two. And there is a good Oasis album. If you look at that Mercury list, they're all quite good albums. But yeah, arrogantly I think Leftism is the most unique album on that list. That will get me into trouble [laughs].
How do you feel about the state of electronic music scene in America?
NB: That's a tricky one because it's such an enormous question. I often buy records and I'm not even aware of who they are. I mean I don't really go for the popular electronic scene in the States. Play me a good record by someone and I'll go 'that's a good record' but generally I don't like the rave-y type of stuff I hear on the radio from a lot of American acts that are doing dance music. But having said that there are really, really good people making good dance music coming out of America. There's a lot of good dance clubs in America as well that pop up all over the place. I'd love to do more DJing in America. We're kind of a cult in America.
Back in '96 you were banned from Brookstone because your live show was so loud. Are you concerned about decibel levels now?
NB: Yeah but definitely it wasn't really about the loudness, it was about the quality. For us quality is the most important thing. So we pioneered some of the really big systems that now are being used, we didn't get much credit for that. Nobody else has done that--in terms of giving people the most amazing sounds systems they've ever heard. I'm still doing it on this UK tour, I put the best sound systems in two venues. I'm always doing it. Stupidly because it means I don't make any money but it's so fun. I love it I love playing on a big system. I love watching people's faces when the bass drops and they go "fucking hell". But we're not as loud as we were at Brookestone because you just physically can't do it. It's just too much. Couple of gigs we just went over the top [laughs] not anymore.
Well at least you still have your hearing.
NB: Sometimes I do yeah [laughs]. And my teeth. I've still got my teeth.
Photography by Dan Wilton
Interview by Hana Choe
Special Thanks to Further Future Festival