It’s been 16 years since the last Leftfield album, more than enough time to render the phrase, “a lot has changed” entirely meaningless. Pretty much the whole world has changed and we have changed the way we interact with that world. In 1999 receiving an email on your clamshell mobile was the stuff of peculiarly heady dreams, now, if the mood takes us, we can Periscope our all-new dreams to vast, interconnected, always-on communities. However, when you listen to Alternative Light Source those 16 years feel like the stuff of moments.
We are who we were, yet we’re also someone entirely new. As the band’s previous albums, 1995’s Leftism and 1999’s Rhythm & Stealth proved, Leftfield have always been about the tension between weight and weightless, between intensity and calm, between pressure and release. Those qualities are all over this record. Alternative Light Source is, at times, both crushingly heavy and fantastically delicate and that is all down to the man who dreamt this whole mad adventure up in the first place, Neil Barnes.
20 years after Mercury nominated Leftism, 16 after that album’s Number One charting follow-up and five after reviving the name for a series of live shows, Neil has brought Leftfield back to the very centre of modern electronic music. Three years in the making – and with former partner Paul Daley no longer involved – ALS is Neil’s vision and Neil’s concept. Born as a metaphor for our unceasing search for answers, this is a collection that considers how we all look for different ways of doing things and the artist’s heat-seeking hunt for inspiration.
“There’s always an honesty to the music,” he says. “It is genuine and it comes from a genuine place. There’s nothing cynical about it, I’d never just put on a breakbeat that everyone is familiar with. There’s an element of bravery too – after all this time I do feel like I’m jumping into the unknown a little…”
The question is, are you jumping happily?
“Happily, and unhappily,” he says. “Some of the things that have happened in my life over the last two years have been very sad, and that’s reflected in the music. But it’s uplifting too. There’s a very, very emotional bedrock in everything I do, a genuine emotion that’s underneath it all. That’s precisely the feeling I’m trying to get across with this album.”
Neil was born in Gospel Oak in North London and his earliest memory is lying in his cot, hearing his brother, an actual child prodigy who would later *almost* join prog-rock legends ELP, practise the violin. One day, in the summer of 1967, Neil’s elder sister – who’d previously been more into Petula Clark – brought home the Beatles’ new LP, a weird item about someone called Sergeant Pepper.
“Hearing Day in the Life as a 9 year old just blew my mind,” Neil says. “I vividly remember thinking, isn’t it extraordinary what people can do?”
In his mid-teens Neil would go clubbing – he still remembers hearing Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love for the first time, before Punk and its fallout inspired him to form Elephant Stampede with three friends. Influenced by Buzzcocks and PiL, they’d met Sex Pistol John Lydon through Neil’s best friend – and legendary record collector, John Gray. It was Gray who poo-poo’d Neil’s love for Elvis Costello and turned him onto reggae through records by Hugh Mundell, everything on the Rockers label and artists like Barry Brown and Al Campbell. Between 1979 and 1984 Neil insists all he did was go and see live music. “I saw everything,” he smiles. He followed Joy Division round the country and became “obsessed” by them. Then there was the brilliant Black Uhuru, The Fall, Gang of Four and Wire.
One night Neil was at an Afrika Bambaataa show when he noticed this odd black box on stage – it was a drum machine. At the end of the gig, while Bam was cleaning records on his t-shirt, Neil shouted over to dancer Crazy Legs, “What’s that?” the reply – “That’s a Linndrum.”
When Elephant Stampede found out Linndrums were £3000 they immediately split the band. If you can’t move music forward, you stop. In fact Neil stopped making music all together around 1984. He kept buying records, his electronic music collection was becoming massive, and he began DJing at the Wag, playing very hip, very American imports from electro-funk pioneers like SOS Band, Shep Pettibone and Slave, as well as UK talent like Junior Giscombe. At the same time Neil had become obsessed by Latin American rhythms and went to the London School of Samba. While playing congas at a club run by the Sandals Neil met Paul, who was playing bongos and congas. They got on immediately and saw eye to eye on music and were excited about technological possibilities and both frustrated about where they were themselves.
So Neil nicked his brother’s Juno 106 keyboard, got a bank loan and bought a sampler. And here’s where it all really began, in the kitchen of Neil’s tiny little flat in Marylebone.
The first idea was to create an alternative version of the soundtrack of a film that Neil had seen: “taking the emotion of it,” Neil says, “but making an electronic version with drums”. And that’s how Leftfield’s timeless Not Forgotten was born. Neil sent one cassette to Pete Tong and one to Rhythm King and it was the latter that phoned back to tell him about their new label, Outer Rhythm, who were aligned with Warp. Neil played it to Paul, who saw the potential and was excited about the track. He wanted to remix it, so they worked on a new version together, Paul finished it off and took it to new places. Neil saw the potential of the collaboration and that became the sound of early Leftfield.
Not Forgotten sold about 30,000 copies and people still talk to Neil about it and DJs still play both versions of it – in the hyper speed world of electronic music, that’s incredible. Unwilling to record more for Outer Rhythm, Neil and Paul began a nine-month journey through around 20 remixes, beginning with React To Rhythm for Guerrilla (£200) and up to David Bowie (significantly more). The buzz around the band was monumental.
During that time they wrote Song Of Life and Release the Pressure. Neil and Paul formed their own label, Hard Hands, through which they released the epochal Open Up (with John Lydon) which would have been a Number One record had the LA riots not rendered Lydon’s lyric, “Burn hollywood burn!” make the BBC feel so nervous they stopped playing it. So their reputation soared even further, to the the point where major labels were circling with the Big Chequebook wide open. What they delivered was an instant classic, heard in every club, car and house party.
But, what do you do next?
“It became a struggle,” Neil says. “We spent nearly a year putting our live tour together – then we had to go back into the studio and suddenly come up with a new record.” This turned out to be the similarly inspirational Rhythm And Stealth, which was also nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and included the track “Phat Planet” which went on to be used in the famous Guinness Ad.
Despite this success, Paul and Neil were having their own difficulties and their friendship was going sour. The end of the 90s was an unhappy time and after the 2000 tour Paul wanted to go off and do a solo record.
“And that was it. We broke up in 2002″
In January 2012 Neil started making new Leftfield demos having toured as Leftfield in 2010, asking himself, how can I move it forwards? Working in the studio with Adam Wren (who engineered Rhythm & Stealth, and is a key part of the group’s live work), a great working relationship evolved, with Adam contributing to the writing process and helping Neil shape the album and the ideas within it.
Soon tracks started to emerge. Bad Radio, now featuring Tunde from TV on the Radio, was an early idea that came out of Neil’s struggle with depression.
“It’s about being in a bad place,” he says, “about bad signals, about trying to get through something really tough.”
Alternative Light Source is about knowledge, about searching, but Neil says there’s a physics angle to it – the Universal Everything. Think black holes, alternative realities and Tunde’s mad dystopia. Immense space and immense weight.
Universal Everything was meant to be an underground white-label only for-the-heads track that ended up being debuted on BBC Radio One’s Annie Mac Show, and added to the playlist on BBC 6 Music (“That’s mental, isn’t it!”). Head and Shoulders is something else entirely. A friend at Rough Trade knew Neil wanted a new hip hop type of vocalist for a track and, while he’d been listening to Sleaford Mods, he’d not thought about approaching Jason. When he did, it just worked immediately.
“Jason’s a poet,” Neil says. “I encouraged him to really get into that character, take it somewhere else. I think it’s got a Streets vibe to it…”
Other collaborator’s on ALS include Channy Leaneagh from Poliça, who appears on two tracks (Bilocation and Little Fish). “Channy is such a creative person. She sounds so different on these two tracks. She gets into character and gets completely lost inside the music.”
London’s own Ofei, a uniquely talented soul singer, appears on Levitate For You. Believe it or not, Neil was thinking of sending it to George Michael to voice before Ofei jumped on it, nailed it and helped push the track even further on. Little Fish began life as a house track that morphed into something bigger and bolder, while the oldest – and perhaps rawest – track on the record is Dark Matter, a live jam that Neil and partner Ads worked up one afternoon. “There’s an awful lot of old analogue keyboards on that,” Neil smiles.
And now, with all this ready to go, how does it feel?
“Terrifying,” Neil laughs. “It feels terrifying, taking this out into the world. But I’m excited about what people will make of it. What’s really odd is how I’m starting to believe it’s all real. It does sound like a new journey. A new chapter for us all.”