Like Gibbons, Utley also lends Portishead a human touch. Though schooled in jazz and rock guitar, Utley eventually found himself attracted to hip-hop. Sometime around 1991, while recording with a jazz band in the Coach House Studio in Bristol, Utley met Barrows, who had just landed a job as a tape operator (and tea carrier) there. Though Utley was then 33 years old and Barrows only 20, they found common ground in their love of American hip-hop and rap. Utley agreed to collaborate with Barrows and his friend Gibbons on a track called "Sour Times," which was recorded at the Coach House. The song eventually became Portishead's first single. For Utley, playing alongside samplers and turntables came naturally.
"I'd always been looking for something within jazz anyway," says Utley, now age 40. "Even though jazz is a musicianly music, if you like, I've never been interested in that technical aspect of stuff. It's always been a spiritual vibe for me. I've never been out to prove any sort of technical thing. So if it meant playing one note, it was cool with me, completely."
As a live act, it's taken some time for Portishead to find its feet. The band's earliest shows tended to be subdued, static affairs. The musicians played with almost no lighting and stood toward the back of the stage. Gibbons looked uncomfortable and only occasionally unleashed the wilder sounds in her repertoire. Utley points out that Portishead has since successfully completed long tours through America, Canada, and Europe.
"It's not as difficult as it used to be," he says. "We try and make a balance between making it sound exactly like the record, sonically and groove-wise, and making it a live experience -- without turning it into a rock band. You know what I mean? But at the same time, being experimental and interactive, and keeping it within what we do. And I think we're getting better at that."
Compared to recently arrived electronica artists such as Supersonic and Fatboy Slim, Portishead sounds positively organic. Utley points out that, in concert, the band doesn't use ADAT machines, DAT players, or samplers -- the common tools of today's digital-oriented bands. "It's all coming off instruments," he says. "We've got heaps of vintage gear."
In a sense, trip-hop sounds oddly old-fashioned now. Initially perceived as a revolutionary form of music, trip-hop actually opened the door for the frenetic, frazzled dance-music of electronica. Today, Massive Attack has all but disappeared; Tricky has moved on to explore noisier, edgier avenues; and the bevy of new trip-hop bands are mining the standard three-minute, pop-song vein. Only Portishead has remained true to the form while breathing new life into it. For a band that once seemed to herald the end of "real" music, Portishead sounds more real than ever.
Portishead performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 20-21 at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $22. Call 305-532-0922.