At this point we’re saying nothing new about Leftfield by labeling the group ‘Legends’. It goes without saying, as it does with plenty of the other electronic acts that spawned around the same time and paved the way for the burgeoning group of producers and DJs we have on our hands at the moment. With that being said, Neil Barnes, the life and soul of Leftfield hasn’t left his innovative mind in an era gone by and has managed to carve out a wholly successful career since the group’s initial split up.
Having unearthed the Leftfield name some years ago, he has breathed new life into one of electronic music’s sleeping dragons and not only re-introduced their sound to a younger generation, but reinvented their sound to something that translates more to 2018 than 1990-99.
Barnes is polite as ever when answering the phone; chirpily discussing the pleasant weather in London at the time of the call, highlighting that he’s taking it in before it is sooner rather than later replaced by the more familiar sight of grey clouds and rain. That little window of small talk allows us to quickly go back and forth on how ‘Phat Planet’ was the theme song for Beast Machines; a late 90s/early 00s spin off where the Transformers are reimagined in futuristic animal form, which acted as an introduction to an unassuming future journalist at the humble age of 10.
The conversation kicks off where Barnes and Leftfield did too; the 90s. When we talk about those legendary big beat/electronic acts from the defining 90s era in the UK; one from which Leftfield emerged and helped create, it feels that the legendary group are, at times, unfairly left out of the conversation that usually revolves around the usual suspects like The Prodigy, Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and the rest of the groundbreaking acts from what was really a golden era for electronic music.
“There’s no doubt that The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy are far more successful than Leftfield are, they kept making records when we stopped, so that’s probably why. I think I’ve got a massively loyal following of people that follow Leftfield. We did the tour of Leftism last year and the whole thing was sold out, so I’m happy with the attention that we get, especially surrounding those two albums, the first two, but even for my last album ‘Alternative Light Source’, there was lots of interest in it.”
That particular tour of Leftism came to a thunderous halt at Metropolis festival last year, with a performance that will probably resonate with everyone in attendance. Not only did it show that the album really and truly is a timeless piece of work, but that after all these years, Barnes is still well capable of playing the equivalent of a box-to-box midfielder on stage, maneuvering through a range of instruments all at once; the conductor and heartbeat of a well oiled machine.
“That was the end of that tour that was and it really was amazing.” He says, taking a second to think back to the RDS in late October, “There must have been about 4,000 people at that. It was really young, it was a young audience! So, yes, I’m really happy with the attention that Leftfield gets.”
It’s well documented that there are two sides to Leftfield, with the group having split up in 2002 and eventually reappearing solely with Barnes at the helm in 2010, something that in some ways gave them a chance to expose their sound to a new audience that wouldn’t have been caught up in their original rise to prominence, something we can see through the change in direction with Barnes’ most recent Leftfield album; ‘Alternative Light Source’.
“I DJ a lot as well so when I’m DJing I often have quite a young audience, so I don’t play Leftism or that stuff in my sets, I play more modern electronic stuff. That helps as well because it keeps the young audience there. With ‘Alternative Light Source’, that tour really helped bring in a lot of younger followers. I just put out music that I want to hear, not necessarily what young people want to hear, obviously I’m happy if there’s people still want to listen to Leftfield.”
The change in sound in terms of production is evident if one listens to earlier Leftfield material compared to now, but a change in Barnes’ DJing style isn’t as obvious, given that acts from the 90s era often get whittled down to playing almost exclusively ‘Old School’ sets, something he hasn’t fallen victim to, allowing his sets to take a more modern turn than many would expect.
“I play a combination. At the moment I’m into quite dirty house records, a lot of acid house records, some techno and some African things too or a few classics that get things going. I don’t really play big room techno music anymore, it doesn’t really grab me, even though there are some really great records in there. I play people like Radioslave, Hodge (Who remixed the Leftfield classic ‘Afro Left’ along with Peverlist), Shadow Child; like a lot of new acts. I start off with a lot of acid records and I see if I can play some old tracks in there too. I don’t really play any old Leftfield though.
“People said to me ‘Oh God you’ve got to play some old Leftfield’ so I’ve done it and then people look really confused!” He remarks, laughing, “‘Release the Pressure’ was a great live track but it doesn’t really work in a DJ set! I play stuff like ‘Afro Left’ and ‘Phat Planet’ when it works in a DJ set but generally it’s a bit of a journey, I don’t just play house or techno, there’ll be five from one genre then five from another. I’m always looking out for new records.”
With such a diverse sound as a DJ and almost two exclusive sides to Leftfield; with their classic and modern albums, Barnes fits onto a myriad of lineups both as a DJ and a live act, something that has most definitely kept Leftfield close to fans over the years, where other acts from that era were limited solely to festival season.
“I play whatever I want to play to be perfectly honest. I was playing in Manchester recently to an older crowd and I didn’t think they were going to like what I had in store because it was quite heavy with a lot of acid. I was playing back to back with Darren Emerson and we absolutely banged it out for four hours and they all stayed, with them all being over 40, there was some young kids there going mad too!” His voice jumps for a minute recounting the excitement of that evening in Manchester, but he swiftly returns to a more even tone;
“I think if people are into music and want to dance, if they’re open minded, they’ll respond to it. With bigger festivals younger audiences are used to it being fast moving, with big drops every 10 seconds. I find that a little bit tiresome.”
Obviously, track sales are an almost non-existent source of income for electronic music producers nowadays and busy tour schedules are usually the way to go for most, if not all artists. Having some of electronic music’s most iconic albums under his belt, it was interesting to see what Barnes made of the new phenomenon of artists blowing up off a track or an EP that gets spread like wildfire online and building a career off of that.
“I think that’s probably always been the way that it is in some way or another. I think the best DJs usually make it to the top and there are a hell of a lot of producers producing a lot of music to get to where they are. I think there are a lot of very average people out there; you hear them and get sent their records and they are really average, but there are an awful lot of festivals and clubs out there for them.
“Some people are just really good DJs and don’t put much music out. Not everyone that DJs are putting tracks out or remixing, they’re just brilliant DJs, there are quite a lot of them actually that I meet all the time. I do see a lot of very talented people out there at the moment. Especially young people that have a very wide taste in music. You take someone like DJ Haus and all the records on Unknown to the Unknown, it’s incredible. I don’t know how he does it!”
With that being said, Barnes too has had quite a busy tour schedule himself between DJ sets and live shows. Not only that, but the pressure of living up to Leftfield’s enormous reputation within the industry is much bigger than that of a producer that’s made it big via a YouTube channel. Tracks with Barnes or Leftfield’s name attached are bound to be scrutinised a lot harsher than most others’, meaning that his tracks can’t really be made while waiting in airports on a laptop, they need a lot more TLC.
“I couldn’t do what someone like Skream does or Daniel Avery; 15 nights in a row with all nighters and stuff like that. I’m not really interested in doing that because I want to do things in the studio. It’s tough because I like to do things properly, I care about what I do, someone said that to me over the weekend, ‘It’s nice to know you care about what you do’”. Pausing at that for a brief moment, he continues;
“I don’t just go to Beatport 24 hours before I DJ and pick the top 20 techno tunes, which is what some people do, I spend hours getting my sets together. I find it a bit tiring and truthfully, I’m not making music when I’m DJing, or when I’m touring as Leftfield, so it’s tough. There’s only so many things you can do and I don’t have a production line of people to help me sift through my records and feed me the best 10 I have.
“I’m working on an EP at the moment, but whenever I sit down to work on it I have to go out and tour, but the next thing is a Leftfield EP. The gigs will probably dry up by the end of the summer and I’ll be in the studio or DJing then after that.”
That so-called pressure that comes along with making new Leftfield records is an interesting concept that must apply to all ‘legendary’ acts that are renowned for their earlier work. With that being said, expecting an act to continue to go back to one point in time when they produced a particular sound is a bit narrow-minded, and in Barnes’ case virtually impossible;
“It’s impossible to recapture that. It was 25 years ago, everything has changed. Your mindset is in a different place, even if you do try and go back to it, and I have, the problem with it is that it sounds really cheesy.
“You can’t use breakbeats anymore!” He exclaims, the one time his voice seems to break its relaxed manner;
“‘Leftism’ and ‘Rhythm & Stealth’ have got a lot of samples in them, hidden in there and buried within them. Chopped up samples, we didn’t use samples like the Chemical Brothers did; big samples, where whole tracks were sampled, we didn’t do that, but a lot of influences and stuff come from breakbeats and you can’t use them anymore because you’d get sued.”
“You can’t use samples so the nature in music is different. That early Leftfield is quite a sample-based sound so it’s very hard to capture that again.
“I’m on the brink of reissuing ‘Not Forgotten’, that was my first record. I’m getting it remastered and remixed and getting it back out there. I’ll do stuff like that, but as far as new music goes, I don’t want to go down the techno route so much anymore, I might let go of that and do something different.”
The other problem that almost all electronic music producers in 2018 are faced with is the tricky decision of making tracks solely for club play or tracks for ‘listening’ purposes. On the one hand, you have the opportunity to get more shows off the back of a popular track or you have a chance to beef up your music’s ‘integrity’ in the eyes of more diehard fans, a conundrum even a legend like Barnes isn’t immune to.
“It’s often a problem. That’s the problem with doing remixes actually; people expect something and they might get something entirely different. I don’t want to just make club music but it’s fun now and again to do it; making a banging house track or something. I like Daniel Avery’s newest album; it’s not banging and it’s not what you’d expect and I’ve started to do that myself with ‘Head & Shoulders’, that’s where I’m going with the album in the end. That got quite a lot of radio, so really it was a ‘radio track’.
“Ideally I’d like to make radio music, something that’s really dark that gets on the radio, to me that’s my favourite place. I think Bicep did it really well with their last album, it crossed over in a really well.”
With that, Barnes signs off, even more politely than how he answered the phone and returns to taking in the London sun outside of his studio.
Leftfield’s legacy on the surface is undeniable, with some of the greatest and most timeless albums that electronic music will ever see, but scratch a bit deeper and you’ll find that while their previous collections act as time capsules, Barnes’ genius isn’t stuck in the past, it’s being shaped by the future.
Neil Barnes will play a DJ set as Leftfield at Cork Townlands Carnival, which takes place between the 20th and 22nd of July. For more information click here.