Electric Picnic: Neil Barnes
When the very loud Leftfield quit over a decade ago, it was too soon, says one half of the duo, Neil Barnes. But, as he tells Eamon Sweeney, this time round it’s all about nostalgia not volume
Leftfield ruled the dance supergroup roost in the mid to late 90s. Their debut album Leftism spectacularly set out their sonic stall, nailing highly original progressive house and techno anthems, featuring memorable vocal cameos from John Lydon and Toni Halliday.
The London-based duo were a devastating live act, noted for being one the loudest bands on the whole planet. Headline appearances at Homelands and the festival formerly known as Witnness are the stuff of legend. After an absence of nearly a decade, founder member Neil Barnes is putting the show back on the road.
"Obviously, it's nostalgia on one level and I wholeheartedly accept that," Barnes admits over a morning coffee in the Morrison Hotel. "There isn't a new album or any of those things that you'd normally associate with a comeback or reunion. But there's a lot of affection for the music and goodwill towards Leftfield, which is why I've decided to do this. Also, we never overdid it. We actually didn't do that many gigs, so a lot of people have never seen a Leftfield show."
Returning to the Leftfield canon after a decade-long hiatus was a strange experience for Barnes. "Initially, it was weird," he confesses. "Last night [in TriPod] felt wonderful. I felt a bit divorced from it. You can't get too carried away by the bravado, it's just work for me. For years, I didn't listen to any of it. It was the last century when those tracks first came out.
"Thanks to YouTube, I was able to look at the early concerts to remind myself what I liked about it, what I didn't like and what could be improved. I reconnected with it and I listened to the albums and set the challenge of making it sound better. The sound quality and equipment is better now, so it should be better. It's fun rather than being a sad old man going through the motions. I love it when people see Release the Pressure and smile. We never did that live, so it's a whole new thrill."
Back in the day, Leftfield were famed for volume. At their first live show in Amsterdam, Dutch police were close to arresting the sound man. At a homecoming gig at Brixton Academy, plaster actually crumbled from the ceiling and Leftfield were banned from playing the historic south London venue.
"It wasn't about just being loud, but I'd admit that we were pretty loud," Barnes says. "The idea was to get the quality across as we had a very good sound system. We tried to do the same thing now, but you can't. It's impossible. With health and safety regulations, our hands are tied and there's guys there with meters now. You'll get fined in 90pc of venues in Europe if you're too loud.
"You can get away with more at some of the festivals if you go on at a certain time. The days of Brixton Academy are well over, but I think far too much was made of it, I really do. We weren't trying to deafen people. It was about quality, although sometimes we did probably go over the top a little bit. But I don't think the top end on a Leftfield track is as damaging as rock music. We used to say that to the guys monitoring us. When their backs were turned we'd turn it up, not let them into the booth or tape off their meters. We did all that. Now, every festival and local council is different, but it's stringent.
"When we were in Paris, we were 140db, which is louder than a jet plane. In France, it's only meant to be 90db. Our agent Russell was standing in front of the system stopping the guys from turning us off. When we played in Belgium, 60 people left and there was stuff in the paper about us being too loud. I don't want that anymore. Noel Gallagher put his head in the bassbins one night. I couldn't believe it. I told him he was completely mental."
Barnes's partner in ear-splitting crime, Paul Daley, wasn't able to fulfil touring commitments this summer, as he'd already booked into a studio. "He's been checking it out and he's sent me a couple of emails," Barnes reveals. "He's very happy with it. He made a decision to do other things at the moment, so that's it really. I took it on board fully aware that I wouldn't be doing it with him. He's very busy at the moment, but maybe things will change next year and he might want to get on board."
There is a sense of unfinished business about Leftfield. Some of their peers such as The Prodigy and Underworld soldiered on to notch up an extensive back catalogue, yet Leftfield only released two studio albums, even though they remain one of the biggest names in dance.
"I completely agree," Barnes nods. "It ended too soon. It's all in the past now and I think there will be room to do more. It's been difficult for electronic music in the last 10 years. It's been on the outside again and it's no longer a new thing.
"There's a lot of people doing fresh things. I love The xx, they're my favourite band at the moment, but there hasn't been an electronic album to do that to me for quite a while. Maybe it'll just be around the corner. Thank God for dubstep. I love it and people like Joker. I think it's the new music. There is still great electronica being made. The production these days is excellent."
As he warms up for his Electric Picnic appearance, is there any chance that John Lydon might make an appearance to sing Open Up? "I adore Public Image Ltd," Barnes gushes. "They are my biggest musical influence. He knows this, as I told him when we worked together on that track. If he wants to get onstage and do Open Up, I'm totally up for it. I won't say it to him, but maybe if he's reading this he might take a hint."
Leftfield play Electric Picnic on Saturday