Leftfield: 'Really listening to people is something that I’m trying to get better at'

Neil Barnes of Leftfield. Picture: Steve GullickNeil Barnes of Leftfield. Picture: Steve Gullick
Neil Barnes of Leftfield. Picture: Steve Gullick
Leftfield’s new album, This Is What We Do, might seem prosaically titled, but after a difficult period for the electronic band’s mainstay Neil Barnes, it’s a perfectly apt summary of where he feels the musical project he founded 30 years ago is at.

The songs on this record were at the stage of “quite developed demos” in 2021 when Barnes was diagnosed with bowel cancer, necessitating urgent surgery. In the aftermath, he was filled with a desire to get the album finished.

“It was a very strange burst of energy, which is apparently very common,” the 62-year-old says. “Maybe it came out of trying to avoid things. I had an A&R meeting about the music literally the day before I went in to have my operation. It happened very quickly diagnosis to operation, I was feeling unwell when were working on stuff and suddenly there it was.

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“There was an energy to get that part of it done, then unfortunately afterwards I was in recovery for quite a long time and I was still working and I think that was probably a worse period. The energy you put out to get through it, when you get the good news, it’s almost like you can’t quite believe it.”

Although he has “spoken quite jovially about the colonoscopy, because I was in a sort of heightened state”, Barnes says: “The reality is it was quite a hard time afterwards, through the making of the record, to get it finished. It’s not uncommon, all records are difficult, but there were good moments as well, there was excitement and joy in it. A lot of people go through cancers and I was very fortunate that here I am and I’m fairly healthy now.”

In spite of Barnes’ health problems, This Is What We Do is a remarkably uplifting record. “There’s lots of stuff in it about communication and listening to people, generally life experiences and appreciation of what people have done,” he says. “I suppose that’s a positivity about life in general and my belief in people being good fundamentally. I’m trying to get that across. Hopefully there’s an energy coming out of the music.”

Importantly, the album reconnects Barnes with two figures from Leftfield’s past: the singer Earl 16 and the poet Lemn Sissay. “They’ve both had journeys like me, and working with both of them was particularly inspiring on that life journey idea,” Barnes says. “That’s what the lyrics are about, what you have to go through sometimes in life and make really interesting art.

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"Reconnecting with them was really essential,” he adds. “They’re both people that I’m really fond of. I was trying to find a way to work with some artists that I’ve worked with before. I couldn’t bring everyone back, but I just wanted to do something with Earl also that was a little bit different to (their previous collaboration) Release The Pressure and wasn’t just going over old ground, it pushed it in a different dynamic and direction. With Lemn as well, the speech on that track (Making A Difference) is again about appreciation of teaching and what people have to go through. I used to be a teacher. They’re both tracks that I tried to put in a modern context, trying to make music that has meaning and has relevance.”

Leftfield. Picture: Steve GullickLeftfield. Picture: Steve Gullick
Leftfield. Picture: Steve Gullick

One of the album’s core themes is outlined in its closing track, The Power of Listening, which includes a sample from the late American psychologist Carl Rogers. In recent years Barnes has been training to become a psychologist himself. “Really listening to people is something that I’m trying to get better at,” he says. “I fail miserably on a day to day basis, but I try. It’s not easy. It’s also a double thing about the power of listening to music, it’s jumping around and doing some unusual things, it’s got prog rock influences and solos.”

Although he’s temporarily suspended his psychology training while completing the record, he believes it’s something that could run in parallel with music in the years to come. “I know I’m not the only one doing it as well, there are several other people in my area that have decided to do it, and some people have actually finished their training and are actively working,” he notes. “I feel at my age I can see them both working together really nicely, it’s something that I’m really interested in and I can see myself doing a lot more work in.”

Alongside several bangers, the tracks City of Synths and Machines Like Me illustrate Barnes’ love of Kraftwerk. He says they were one of a number of German groups who sparked his interest in electronic music in the first place. “They influenced everybody,” he says. “Funnily enough, when I was younger it was actually quite difficult to get hold of Kraftwerk records. You heard tracks but it wasn’t available (to buy), it influenced people like Afrika Bambaataa. But the whole Krautrock movement interested me, bands like Harmonia. It was electronic music before electronic music had big beats on. I’ve got a ton of Kraftwerk records, the way they crafted songs is there (in Leftfield) but I’m trying to put my own spin on it.”

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Having picked up on the “exciting vibe” of Dublin band Fontaines DC, Barnes reached out to singer Grion Chatten to appear on the song Full Way Round, with encouragement from his daughter, the drummer and recording artist Georgia. “I gave him a couple of tracks and I was pleasantly surprised he wanted to do it,” he says. “It was an extraordinary experience in the studio working with him because that track grew in a really magical way. I just like the sound of his voice on our music. I’m really proud of that as a piece of work.”

It’s 30 years since Release The Pressure came out. Barnes says he looks back on those formative years with his then musical partner Paul Daley as a “fantastic experience”. “They were so much connected with Paul because it was so much a joint venture. Release The Pressure came out of a love of reggae. Now I’m in a different period (working with studio partner Adam Wren) and that’s exciting for me as well, but I appreciate what we did and why it’s important to people.”

The duo are perhaps best remembered for their 1993 collaboration with John Lydon, Open Up. For Barnes, the chance to work with the Sex Pistols and PiL vocalist was, he says, “massive for me”. “Even though we were in a completely different scene, making early house and techno music, it was much closer, having grown up with punk,” he says. “I was influenced not just by John but loads of new wave bands from that era and I still listen to them. John was a massive infuence on me and Paul, he was the voice of opposition in the country, he represented that, and it was amazing to have done that track. I’ve performed it myself a few times and I love it.”

This Is What We Do is out now. Leftfield’s December gigs in London, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow have been postponed until 2023, due to health issues.

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