LEFTFIELD are one of the dance world’s true pioneers, a group that have changed the course of electronic music history by developing the template for dancefloor-filling, ceiling-shaking house/techno anthems. Having earned respect and a following within the underground progressive house scene of the early 90s, it wasn’t until 1995 that they truly broke into the mainstream with their now classic album Leftism, and its signature hit Phat Planet (which was used to great effect on an iconic Guinness advert). Nominated for the Mercury Prize and later hailed as the 80th greatest album of all time by Q Magazine, Leftism – and its follow-up Rhythm And Stealth (1999) – propelled Leftfield to household-name status, and they seemed unstoppable as the show carried on for another seven glorious years. However, in 2002, half of the group (Paul Daley) left, reducing the prospects of any future output. Luckily for electrophiles the world over the dream was not dead, and last year saw the return of Leftfield on disc for the first time in 15 years with the release of their third LP Alternative Light Source.
When we catch Leftfield’s now main man, Neil Barnes, over the phone it is perhaps under slightly different circumstances than if we’d met him at the back end of the 90s. Instead of finding ourselves immersed in a sea of blaring house and ensnared in strobe lighting amongst a hoard of ecstatic ravers, we hear instead the becalmed sounds of children’s laughter and the outdoors in the background. The years have been kind to Barnes, allowing him to have enough distance from his Leftfield work to get back in the mindset to make music again, but also keeping him in touch with the movers and shakers through his regular DJ sets. Still, the resurrection of Leftfield as a live entity back in 2010 was one that was met with huge excitement, as Barnes was joined by long-time collaborator Adam Wren for a headline set at Creamfields. This, and Barnes’ continuing DJ sets, brought hope of a new record, a new chapter in the history Leftfield reignited by live performance. “There was [originally] no real plan to do another album,” Barnes says when asked if he ever thought he’d make another Leftfield album. “It was only after doing the live tour in 2010 that it became a possibility. The idea was sort of mooted to me: ‘What about another album?’ And I didn’t really think about it, because I was doing it on my own now – or largely on my own, without Paul [Daley] – so I thought, ‘No, I’m not sure that’ll work’.”
Whilst DJing around the world, Barnes rediscovered the catalyst he needed for a new creative output, in the form of Rhythm And Stealth engineer Wren. Having worked with Leftfield as a whole for many years it seemed only fitting for the old friend to fill the Daley-shaped hole. “Adam wrote a lot of the tracks for me as well, so it’s almost like a duo again in a way. There’s only so much you can do on your own.” With this, Barnes and Wren set about crafting the new album. If any Leftfield fans were worried that the group’s return would be in the form of an uncomfortable caricature of their former selves, Barnes shared the same worries. “I didn’t want to make a record that sounded like Leftism or Rhythm And Stealth, but obviously I wanted to bridge a gap with something, which is what that album is in a weird way. It’s sort of a ‘coming back’ type of record. Maybe it would have been easier for me to make a record more like Leftism – it probably would have sold a lot more – but it would have just been fun [for] all the guys that want to hear 90s dance music.”
It is perhaps this approach to creating new music that has led to the album’s critical acclaim. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon and making an album steeped in nostalgia, Barnes has stayed true to the character and ideals that have made him who he is in the world of dance. “I suppose as long as I’m making music that is relevant, or has got some relevance, then that’s important. I mean, that’s what Leftfield should be doing.” By embracing innovation over rose-tinted 90s fetishism, he has been able to keep the group hurtling forwards rather than trawling backwards: however, he has held on to just enough of the trademark nuances to keep old fans happy. It doesn’t take long for things to feel distinctively Leftfield on Alternative Light Source (about 30 seconds in on its opener, Bad Radio, to be precise), with trademark meaty basslines and moody synths soon dominating; it’s a simultaneously familiar yet new experience.
What makes Leftfield’s return all the more important is to see all their nuances with a fresh perspective, and to recognise how they’ve impacted the world of dance music today. “When I listen to some of Daniel Avery’s stuff, and all that stuff that’s coming out on [Errol Alkan’s label] Phantasy, I don’t think it could have happened without Leftfield,” Barnes declares, expanding on this statement with: “I think Rhythm And Stealth is a real influence on techno. Leftfield invented the drop to vocals in the middle of the track… When we did it, the record company sent the mix back and said, ‘Why are there no drums on there?! What have you done, where’s the track gone?!’. It’s so part of clubs now, but it didn’t exist [before]!”
The live element of the band is really what seems to drive Barnes’ creative process, though: this is what brought him back to Leftfield after a 15-year hiatus and is something truly special. “We put on a good live show. I don’t quite know what people are expecting, maybe a really old-fashioned show, but we put on something really quite radical,” he muses, not wanting to give too much away. “It adds a real sort of strangeness to it. A lot of people said that it creates a gap between the performer and the audience – yeah, it does! But that’s good, I like that.”
In an age where the performance of dance music can sometimes be considered to be stale and egocentric, Barnes seems to epitomise the opposite. “[It] becomes a real audio-visual experience, so that you’re not looking necessarily at the band, you’re just experiencing the music and the visual show, and the band are just sort of in there. It puts the mystery back into the performance.” And where better to house such a performance than in a huge warehouse in the semi-abandoned docklands of Liverpool – a true party city? Barnes seems to agree. “I can’t wait. That’s my type of gig. I love that warehouse type of vibe. That’s where Leftfield really belongs, I think. That’s where I feel most relaxed, in a club environment. An enclosed space, with loud music in a sweaty dungeon: it’s perfect.”
Leftfield play the Baltic Warehouse on Saturday 28th May / Onstage at 22:30.