Leftfield were one of dance music’s Fab Four in the 90s. And while their output might have been less prolific than some of their contemporaries, when they did release a record, or play live, it would usually change everything. Neil Barnes, now ably assisted by Adam Wren, looks back on the band’s career, and following a brush with mortality, what it all means. “I’m taking people on a journey emotionally with the sound,” he tells Craig McLean…
Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’ (1995): the greatest dance album ever – discuss.
“I’m not keen on ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ type of words. It’s not a top-of-the-table game of football. It’s a bit of art that had a window of time. And there was a period when neither of us wanted anything much to do with it, especially when we were writing ‘Rhythm and Stealth’. But I appreciate that ‘Leftism’ means a lot to people. And I enjoy playing bits of it live now – ‘Melt’ sounds like a modern bit of music still. A lot of it does. That’s because we put so much of ourselves into it. That’s how it came: hard work and a bit of talent.”
Neil Barnes, London, March 2023
It’s the balmy, barmy summer of 1996. Today, Saturday 15 June, England are playing Scotland at Wembley in Euro 96. Coachloads of Tartan Army foot soldiers are swarming into the stadium car park in north-west London. Fans, who’ve already had considerably more than their Weetabix, are hanging out of the bus windows and even, somehow, the orangey skylights. For the visitors, the party atmosphere continues inside the stadium – until, you know, the football gets going.
Full-time: England 2 Scotland 0.
Self-medicating their raging sense of injustice (as per…), remnants of the Scottish fans press onwards to south London. There, at Brixton Academy, Leftfield are finishing their UK tour with an all-nighter. Standing on the mock-baroque hall’s inclined floor, a bewildered Tartan Army irregular wobbles slightly. It’s that slope’s fault. The infernal heat isn’t helping. Nor is the fact that the sole stomach ballast in today’s liquid-only diet has been a disco biscuit for tea.
Also, not to be discounted: the electronic boom blasting from Leftfield’s sound system. At the time, the sonically buffeted gig-goer doesn’t have the power of speech, far less the words, to convey the game-changing nature of this moment: dance music turned into an album that delivers as a body-of-work, turned into a stage experience that feels like a revolution in live music. The gig as rave, the rave as gig.
Then the roof caves in. As Leftfield play, plaster tumbles down, dislodged by volumes reaching 137 decibels. According to the website of one university science faculty, that’s more than the 130 dB generated by “military jet aircraft take-off from aircraft carrier with afterburner at 50 ft”. Or the 108-114 dB of “live rock music”. In a very real sense: banging.
Reader, I was that kilted, wilted, stilted fan. Saturday 15 June 1996 was one of the greatest days of my life. What a time to be a fan, even if the score was shit and the ceiling falls on your head.
“The big difference between dance music then and now is that everybody took so many more drugs,” Barnes is saying as our pre-interview small talk about That Brixton Show (about which he has little memory) moves into the lengthy, recorded portion of our conversation. “I mean, I don’t know, because I’m not young and I don’t do drugs anymore for health reasons,” adds this fit-looking 62-year-old. “I never was an enormous [user]. But so much of what we did was fuelled and supported by the emergence of E culture.”
Still, Barnes does have some memories of Leftfield’s epochal 1996 tour, when he and Paul Daley, then the other half of the electronic duo, first “played out” in a whole new way.
“I do remember doing gigs to straight audiences. On that ‘96 tour, we did a gig in Belfast, in the Ulster Hall. This was still during the Troubles, and all the security were massive [guys]. It was no alcohol – and it was really dead!” he says, laughing. “Everyone’s like: ‘Well, I’m not sure about that bit, and that’s a bit of a strange track to be playing...’ You could see the analytical minds working, rather than: “‘Hey, let your hair down!’”
Leftfield have been helping – nay, encouraging, you might even say forcing – us to let our hair down for 33 years, on and off. Although to be honest, it’s been more “off” than “on”.
Once they’d released first single ‘Not Forgotten’ in 1990, it would be the best part of five years before a debut album appeared. After ‘Leftism’ in January 1995, it was four-and-half years until the release of ‘Rhythm and Stealth’. There was an even longer, er, longueur between albums two and three, with ‘Alternative Light Source’ appearing 16 years later. Then, almost seven years before we were gifted, late last year, the thunderous, defiantly uplifting ‘This Is What We Do’. The news that there’s already a fifth(ish) album due, albeit “just” a Record Store Day-hooked dub version of ‘This Is What We Do’, might cause your own metaphorical sky to fall in.
The reasons for those lengthy delays include but are not limited to: success, excess, drugs, perfectionism, soundtracks (‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Trainspotting’, ‘The Beach’ – a Danny Boyle trifecta), David Bowie, Guinness, musical divorce, actual divorce, cancer, therapy (both the receiving and the studying thereof), Covid obvs and did we mention perfectionism?
Leftfield are one of The Big Four 90s dance outfits – alongside Orbital, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld, latterly duos all – with the catalogue and kudos to match. As intimated above, though, they’ve weathered more storms than any of their peers. But with a spring 2023 tour and a summer festival run, Leftfield – which now comprises Barnes and long-standing engineer/wingman Adam Wren – are very much back and buoyant. And so is Barnes, after a terrifying brush with mortality in 2021, when a bowel cancer diagnosis meant the removal of a five-inch tumour.
He is, then, in the mood for a decades’ long overview of the left and right, right and wrong, of Leftfield. Well, he is once he’s comfy, relaxed on a sofa in a gear-crowded side-room at Leftfield’s studio on a grungy industrial estate in Acton, west London (turn right at the Triumph sports car pound).
Initially, though, with shoe off (just the one) and Marks & Spencer’s custard creams to hand, Barnes tarries at the mouth of memory lane.
“I have had those conversations with my kids, and I can’t help but be shocked,” he says, continuing our earlier theme. “My son will say something like: ‘Oh, yeah, I had a heavy weekend, I was up all night,’ and I know he’s been doing something,” he says of one of his two children with his ex-wife. The other is electronic artist Georgia, whose 2020 album ‘Seeking Thrills’ was, like ‘Leftism’, nominated for the Mercury Prize. “And of course, when I was his age,” continues Barnes, “I was doing magic mushrooms and God knows what. Terrible things.
“You can put that in. I don’t care what you put in,” he adds – although for reasons professional and respectful, that will turn out to not be the case.
“The big difference between dance music then and now is that everybody took so many more drugs. I mean, I don’t know, because I’m not young and I don’t do drugs anymore for health reasons. I never was an enormous [user]. But so much of what we did was fuelled and supported by the emergence of E culture.”
Neil Barnes grew up in suburban north London, the son of Marxist parents. Both, remarkably, fought at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when the East End rose up against Oswald Mosley’s fascists. “My dad threw marbles to bring police horses down,” he says, proudly.
Born in 1960, he was a “late baby”. His dad was a self-made man with an “absolute shithole of a childhood [but] he ended up running Islington Adult Education Institute”, a career his youngest would end up pursuing: across his 20s and into his early 30s, Neil Barnes had a proper job, as a teacher.
Musically, a brief stint playing violin was usurped when Barnes became “a record-buying fanatic from the age of 13”. This was 1973, so it’s Glam O’Clock: “T Rex. David Bowie… and Electric Light Orchestra! And some real terrible prog stuff, like Yes.”
But he was also the perfect age to be a punk, with Barnes getting his teenage kicks at gigs by Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Clash. As a wannabe musician, though, post-punk was his time. Elephant Stampede were “a bit like PiL”, formed with mates from a school-based friendship circle that also included the future Spandau Ballet, with whom he’s pals to this day.
Elephant Stampede weren’t a gigging group, but Barnes and one of his bandmates started DJing at house parties, playing “early-80s stuff like D Train and (London R&B outfit) Central Line. I’ve got hundreds of 12-inches from the 80s. Wonderful records.”
A DJ gig at peak early-80s London nightspot The Wag followed. “But they didn’t like us, because we weren’t playing rare groove. So, we didn’t last long.”
In 1982, though, an epiphany: he saw Afrika Bambaataa play in London, one of the UK’s earliest hip hop shows. Barnes’ revelation? That he should quit making music. “Because I couldn’t afford it.” Bambaataa used a Linn drum machine, which would have been a huge asset for Elephant Stampede. But at some £2,000, it was beyond the band’s reach. So, Barnes went back to concentrating on the day job.
Another, parallel musical love, however, continued. After landing a cleaning job as a youngster at west London record shop institution Honest Jon’s, Barnes had been inducted into the church of jazz and Latin by owner Jon Clare. “Amazing bloke. He had 300 records, each one fantastic. From Jon’s inspiration I’ve about five or six records which sum up salsa.”
The result was a passion that would colour everything he did thereafter.
“I fell in love with the congas, Ray Barretto and people like that. And as you did in those days, I started to learn. But I realised that as a white guy, there’s only so far I can go – it’s not in my soul. If I forget my white frigid self, I can really play congas,” he clarifies. And, indeed, Barnes must have been some cop: he was a member of the London School of Samba in the late-80s. “I [do have] really good Latin technique. And I put that into Leftfield. It appears in all the tracks. It’s always there.”
It literally is: Barnes’ congas are sitting behind me in the studio. To this day, he still sees himself as a conga player.
“Paul was the same. He was a percussionist. We weren’t musicians. We weren’t keyboard players. That’s why Leftfield is what it is: we play instruments like they’re percussion. My sister says I was always sitting around, as a child, making mad noises and tapping.”
In a Melody Maker interview in 1992, journalist Push writes how, in 1989: “(Barnes’) congas and cowbells were… traded in for a grand’s worth of technological wizardry.” Barnes thinks now that might have been something to do with the fact that he was staring down the barrel of 30. “I was bored shitless as a teacher. No disrespect to teachers, but it wasn’t me. I felt like my life was drifting away. And I wanted to do something else.”
After a bank loan, he bought an Akai S950 sampler “for about a grand”. He hooked it up to an Alesis MMT-8 sequencer and drum machine. “And I nicked my brother’s Juno-106 – which I’ve given to Georgia! I hope it’s on her new record,” he says of ‘Euphoric’, to be released this July. He had, too, a primitive mixer, the whole set-up: “Great fun! It was like magic! Fuck me!”
And as if by that magic: ‘Not Forgotten’, inspired by New York house label Strictly Rhythm, featuring a Willem Dafoe sample from Alan Parker’s ‘Mississippi Burning’, the first single credited to Leftfield, then comprising Barnes only. Progressive house’s ground zero? Probably. Barnes’ first go at writing a tune? Pretty much – he had written one other demo as he learned how to use the gear. Congas? Definitely.
Around the same time, he met Paul Daley in a club, the percussive pair quickly bonding. As a then-member of A Man Called Adam (“an amazing band live”), Barnes credits Daley as “far more advanced than me... a really good musician.” For the B-side of Leftfield’s second single, 1991’s ‘More Than I Know’, Daley did a do-over of ‘Not Forgotten’. It was known as the Hard Hands Remix, its title taken from the 1968 Ray Barretto album. Now Leftfield were two, launching their own label – “no one would sign us because we were too alternative” – with the name Hard Hands.
From the off, the pair were simpatico. It was the old Björk maths: two plus two equals five, something extra arising from their combination. They gave each other confidence and belief – and energy. “Paul was really driven. I was as well – I didn’t think I was, but I fucking was. We worked ridiculous hours.”
In the early years, many of those hours were taken up as remixers for hire. They said yes to David Bowie, for 1993s ‘Jump They Say’, no to U2 (Barnes can’t remember the tune but it was likely something from 1993’s ‘Zooropa’). Eventually, though, by late-1994 and now signed to Columbia, Leftfield had completed an album.
‘Leftism’ included older tracks like the Balearic-goes-dub-goes-trance anthem ‘Song of Life’, a tribute to a friend of Daley’s who had died in Ibiza, and ‘Release the Pressure’, featuring veteran Jamaican reggae singer Earl Daley. And then there was ‘Original’ and ‘Open Up’ with, respectively, Toni Halliday and John Lydon on vocals – pioneering examples of the “faceless dance blokes hire guest vocalist” trick, albeit (ahem) left-field, non-dance music choices. And with the latter track, Leftfield almost became chart-topping pop stars.
“‘Open Up’ was a nailed-on Number One! It was killing everybody else in the charts!” exclaims Barnes of a song with a chorus that featured Lydon demanding ‘burn, Hollywood, burn!’ Unfortunately, wildfires were raging in southern California, resulting in the video being yanked from MTV and ‘The Chart Show’. “The song was about him not getting a part in a film. He’s not talking about burning down [the neighbourhood of] Hollywood at all!” Barnes shrugs. “But that’s typical Leftfield: things like that used to happen all the time. It’s yin and yang.”
One incident that could also be filed into that good/bad category: the last instalment in the duo’s three-film relationship with Danny Boyle. That had begun when either the director or his producer Andrew Macdonald asked them to write the title tune to 1994’s ‘Shallow Grave’. Barnes isn’t sure which, nor whether the thrilling, high-speed opening titles were edited to the bpm of the track. (“Danny was the Leftfield fan,” Macdonald tells me. “We added the music to the opening late on, maybe even in the mix.”)
But things got sticky for Leftfield when they wrote ‘Snake Blood’ for ‘The Beach’ soundtrack: Barnes forgot to remove (or replicate) an OMD sample. This meant “we had to pay them everything we earnt off the record… I wasn’t very popular,” he says wryly. “Paul was a bit disgruntled about it.”
Another such incident: the first anyone heard of the long-awaited ‘Rhythm and Stealth’ was the song ‘Phat Planet’ – not as a single, but as a 60-second snippet on Jonathan Glazer’s now-iconic Guinness advert, ‘Surfer’, released a full six months before the actual first single, ‘Afrika Shox’, which featured cornerstone Barnes inspiration Bambaataa on vocals.
“I can’t even remember how that process happened,” Barnes says, frowning. “Because it was about money – it was a lot of money for us,” he adds, then swearily lays into certain external parties involved in the commercial for “rip[ping] us off… by claiming all the [credit]”.
The whole album, though: hard work, wasn’t it? Barnes, otherwise easy-going and forthcoming, now grunts and slumps.
“Yeah. We both went mad. That’s one of the sad things. I just disappeared… My dad died… So it’s mainly a Paul Daley album... I do contribute, I definitely did. But I felt I wasn’t there.”
The way he describes it, his musical other half was struggling in a different way. “Paul found it difficult to finish. Probably he never felt it was good enough… I’ll give you an example: we finished a version of ‘Afrika Shox’ a year before. And it was probably wicked. We even made a video to it. I was involved in that as well, listening to it, going: ‘Oh fuck, it’s not quite right…’ So we shelved the whole project, including the video.”
In the end, he stepped up. “The album would never have happened if I hadn’t pushed it through radically at the end. That might be why Paul…” He stops. “I just threw my toys out the pram and got really stroppy about [the fact] that we had to finish it.”
Thirty months after ‘Rhythm and Stealth’ was, finally, released, they split. “After 12 years of sonic experimentation, Paul Daley and Neil Barnes have decided to pull the plug on Leftfield,” said a statement on 4 March 2002. “Both parties will be pursuing solo projects so Leftfield fans should not be downhearted. This should be seen as a new beginning in an ongoing process.”
Barnes is wary of talking in detail on-the-record of what went down with him and Daley. This is partly out of respect – this is only his side of events. But in his memory, their manager Lisa Horan called: “Paul’s decided he doesn’t want to do Leftfield anymore.”
And that, he says now, was it. “There was no discussion. No communication. I remember saying to Lisa: ‘Don’t you think we should talk about this?’ My memory might be wrong but it’s that the message came back that things had gone too far, and Paul didn’t want to talk about it. I remember him saying: ‘Leftfield is a 90s thing.’ Something like that. And I never saw him again.”
To cut a long story short, Barnes now operates under the name Leftfield, with Adam Wren – who’d been an engineer on ‘Leftism’ – stepping up as his partner, starting with the 2010 comeback tour.
Five years later, the new duo released ‘Alternative Light Source’. The process was, again, “difficult, just because it was coming after so long. I wasn’t sure what record to make…. Also, we were never in our own space. It suffered from being shunted to different studios.”
Relatively quickly (for them), Leftfield started on a fourth album. What would become ‘This Is What We Do’ began life in 2019. “A lot of the demos were there, but it was rough.”
Then, Covid. Then, in early summer 2021, Barnes’ diagnosis. “But the news of the cancer galvanised me, actually. It pulled things together. I don’t know why, but I got a real burst of creative energy.”
The day before his operation, he called an A&R meeting with new label Virgin in this studio. “I cobbled together all the demos, worked on them in a rough way, because I’m not a mixer or an engineer… I knew there was something good in this record, but it was way off being finished. So I played it really loud!” The ceiling didn’t cave, but “the guys from Virgin loved it.”
Barnes needed that. He also needed ‘This Is What We Do’ to speak to another trauma. Leftfield’s fourth album explores attachment theory and healing, part of a psychotherapeutic journey that the musician undertook at The Minster Centre in north-west London, which is where The Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons also studied. Simons is now a qualified therapist, as is another figure from the electronic music world, Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay. “Tom’s my inspiration,” acknowledges Barnes of his own studies. “He interviewed me for his dissertation!” (“This is true,” Findlay tells me. “I was doing my Dissertation for my Psychology Masters on ‘Mental Health in the Music Industry’… and Neil very kindly gave me a few hours of his time.”)
Barnes’ interest derives from long-buried trauma: aged seven or eight, he suffered “an instance of child abuse”. The experience is the beginning of his psychological journey in life. “It underpins who I am, unfortunately. It pops up every now and again when I lose confidence… Some of the stuff to do with the album is about healing that. And [about] my belief in the power of music. I’m taking people on a journey emotionally with the sound, rather than actually pinpointing it with lyrics.”
He says that desire is most directly incarnated in the last track on ‘This Is What We Do’, ‘Power of Listening’. Its whole point “is the importance of being able to hear what other people say and really listen. I’m playing around with that. You’ve got to listen to this track really carefully because it goes in this prog direction. But give it a chance to breathe and you’ll see something that maybe you didn’t initially hear in it.”
This is what he does, and that is what he’s done: over 33 years, Neil Barnes – aided by Paul Daley, and then Adam Wren – has taken electronic music in myriad interesting directions. And with Leftfield’s fourth album, he’s gone the furthest yet, all the way back to a terrible, inciting incident. But against the odds – professional, mental, mortal – he’s come out on top.
Does he have a fifth Leftfield album in him? He doesn’t know. He jokes (I think) about a folk album (“Is it time to give up electronic music?”), then muses about returning to the source. “I thought I should go back to where it began, releasing quick tracks.”
Get yer congas out, mate…
“Yeah, they’re there, behind you! They’re coming on tour with us! They’re on (‘This Is What We Do’ track) ‘Accumulator’. That’s me playing congas... out of time, ha ha!”