Leftfield are undoubtedly one of the most influential names in dance music. Forming in 1989 and quickly building the entire genre of Progressive House, they are often called the saviours of house music. Starting off by inventively remixing huge songs such as David Bowie’s ‘Jump They Say’, the band first broke through with their debut album ‘Leftism’ in 1995. The album is still seen as a landmark of the 90’s dance scene, reaching out to music fans across the globe and channelling dance music out of the underground scene and into the consciousness of not just dance fans, but rockers, metallers, ravers and punks. It’s no wonder it’s been voted as one of the greatest albums of all time many times.
‘Leftism’ was succeeded by the bands sophomore effort ‘Rhythm and Stealth’ which saw the band top the UK charts and provided a matured sound. The music had taken a darker turn, filled with thundering basslines and harsher beats. Despite the overwhelming reaction to the band, who by this point were headlining festivals and breaking sound systems all over the world, Leftfield called it a day in 2002 to the dismay of thousands of party-goers.
In 2010 Leftfield returned for a few live shows. Following the incredibly positive reaction to the shows, main man Neil Barnes breathed new life into the ashes of Leftfield and began working on demos for a brand new album, with a not-so-new partner in crime, Adam Wren who engineered Leftfield’s earlier albums but stepped in to fill the gap left by the departure of Paul Daley. Then, on 8th June this year, the world was treated to something marvellous; the first Leftfield studio album in 16 years. ‘Alternative Light Source’ does exactly what Leftfield do best: produce eternally relevant and impressive dance music while continuously moving both their sound and the entire genre forward. Crossing new boundaries ‘Alternative Light Source’ provides the soundtrack to universal exploration of both physical space and the identity of oneself. It covers themes from dystopian worlds to personal struggles with depression. The album is the classic Leftfield we know and love, but with new discoveries, rawer sounds and even darker tones. Despite some of its themes, each and every song has the ability to create a party atmosphere and keep people dancing.
Barnes and Co. aren’t just fantastic on record though. The Leftfield live show is truly a spectacle to behold: thousands of fans letting the masterful music take control, awe-inspiring light shows, and the electrifying energy of the band. Not to mention the chance to experience huge hits like ‘Release the Pressure’, ‘Open Up’ and ‘Head and Shoulders’. Leftfield are about to embark a huge nationwide tour, which comes to O2 Guildhall on 2nd October and we got the chance recently to catch up with the mastermind behind it all, Neil Barnes, to talk about his return to the UK dance scene and what he found when he got there…
You recently released ‘Alternative Light Source’, how has the reaction been so far?
I think the reaction’s been pretty good. It’s a bit of a slow build up, like most Leftfield albums. In Europe it’s gone particularly well and it’s picking up over here.
It seems to have been very well received and gained a lot of attention from mainstream media, including Radio 1, did you expect that at all?
It’s done really well but it has been a long time since the last album so it could have been completely ignored haha. It was a big step coming back after so long, doing the new album and doing it with Adam Wren who engineered most of the album and worked on most of the songs with me. It’s been a bit of a journey, as with all Leftfield albums but it’s going well.
The album explores a lot of darker and more intense themes then your earlier works, where did these ideas come from?
Probably because I’m a bit of a miserable b*stard; that’s probably got something to do with it haha! Over the last 5 years or so I’ve had quite a serious battle with depression actually. I have my good days and my bad days and ‘Bad Radio’ is about that but the whole thing is meant to be positive. Alternative Light Source is supposed to be about finding a new direction or something out of nothing, so the overall perspective of the album is meant to be good. Oh, everyone’s leaving the room…haha… [pause as the crew evacuate Neil’s tour bus] you’re making me talk about this in front of my crew which is really funny but I have spoken about this before and I admire people that do talk about things like this and are honest about it. I think mental health issues plague our nation, far more so than ever before and should be openly discussed. Hopefully you do come out the other side and as a whole, I think the album has a positive light. The cover, for instance, is about productivity and young people. It’s a classroom. And I do believe that the future is young people and I didn’t want to make a dark album so some of the songs are a bit lighter and more positive. It’s all about the journey.
The album includes several collaborations [Sleaford Mods feature on latest single ‘Head and Shoulders’]. How did that partnership come about?
That came about because I was looking for someone to sing on that backing track and I was trying to find someone really good to do it. I tried a couple of people and it just didn’t seem to work and then I was in Rough Trade Records and a friend of mine suggested Sleaford Mods and suddenly the penny dropped, because I really like their music. So I went home and contacted Jason and I’m really proud of that track because I think Jason’s lyrics are absolutely mind-blowing. I think it’s probably the most Leftfield thing on the record, it’s the most radical piece of music.
Is there anyone that you particularly want to work with in the future?
At this particular moment, no. I really wanted to work with Robert White on this record but it didn’t quite work out. But I don’t really think about it like that; I pick people up along the way. There are loads of artists out there that I admire. I’d love to do a track with George Michael actually. I’d like to do something dark with him y’know, not disco George but ballad George. He’s got the most amazing voice. I wish I could work with The Streets, who I really love, but he doesn’t sing anymore. I wouldn’t mind working with some other production people; getting to work with some young programmers; that would be an interesting thing to do. There’s always people!
You were away for over 10 years, what brought about the decision to start making music as Leftfield again?
Boredom, basically. That’s the main reason. Needing money, that’s the second reason haha. After touring in 2010 we did a lot of the old music and then we started to do a few new tracks in the set and we twisted up the old ones and added new bits and I thought maybe… and then I stupidly made the decision to do it and then spent the next three years trying to do it haha. I felt there was still legs in Leftfield. I felt there was something that Leftfield could do to fit into the world still. And when I feel that Leftfield doesn’t anymore, then I’ll stop.
Do you think that the world of dance music has changed significantly since you were last performing as Leftfield?
Yeah it has. It’s now the norm isn’t it? Dance music is part of the fabric of everything. When we started, it was still very underground music and I suppose us - and others - are responsible for making it a global phenomenon. I never normally say this but I think Leftfield showed that dance music could make an album. Chemical Brothers did as well and the Prodigy, but ‘Leftism’ was such a big record, it showed people that you could make an album with electronic music.
Well there were very few albums at that time that managed to cross the divide of the genres, which were so strictly defined back then; and Leftism was one of them…
I think it did. It pulled people in from everywhere and I’m proud of that record because of that. We were the first people to take reggae rhythms, drum ‘n’ bass and we went everywhere with it because we could and I think now, what we were involved with back then, is massive. It’s all superstar DJ’s, it’s global, when it was a really small scene before. It’s an enormous genre that crosses over everything. But there’s a lot of generic dance music out there. I mean, there’s some real superstars making amazing music but there’s also an awful lot of generic dance music that really doesn’t need to exist but overall, I think it’s in a very healthy state.
What can we expect from the live shows this time round?
It all comes together in the live shows. In October we’re doing a longer set. We normally do an hour and a half but we’ll be doing a lot longer so expect a lot more Leftfield and a really loud sound system. I’ve always been quite proud of our live shows because we don’t do it like other people and it’s always an experience. I like to think it is anyway!
Catch Leftfield live 2 October @ O2 Guildhall Southampton