Tis The Season.
Out Of Season is in stores now.
Paul Webb lives in a converted barn in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere on the edge of Stansted Airport in Essex. "It's actually lovely countryside," he says. "You even get deer in the garden." This small nirvana - even if the flight path does pass overhead - is like so many nirvanas these days, threatened. There's talk of making Stansted a hub airport. That means more planes, lots more planes. "I might even have to move," Webb moans.
Some facts: Webb, the former bass player with brilliant avant atmospheric band, Talk Talk, is also known as Rustin' Man on his latest project, the album Out Of Season with ultra-shy Beth Gibbons, chanteuse with the trip-hop chiller thrillers, Portishead. When Webb left Talk Talk in 1990 after four albums (that included the definitive micro-air, Spirit Of Eden) and formed the even more avant O'rang, Beth auditioned - this was before Portishead was even a ghost of a thought in the Bristol coterie from which it sprang - and they've been friends ever since.
The end result, a decade later, is a match made in some musical garden where the soil is so rich it produces extraordinary blooms. Despite the praise for Portishead - particularly its melodramatic and cinematic debut, Dummy - and the majority of Talk Talk's esteemed catalogue, Out Of Season is a better record than either band has ever made.
"I'm pleased with the reaction," Webb says, "not only because people recognise what we've made but also because I live in this little village - there's only four or five houses - and when I moved here none of the locals knew who Talk Talk were, so I told them 'I'm a musician and I'm making a record'. After four years I don't think any of them believed I was doing it.”
"Once we finished it, the first thing I did was make CD copies and posted it to all the people of the village. Sort of 'See, I do actually make records!' And now if there's a bit of fuss about it, even better."
"I think to make a record you've got to have a bit of life to talk about it - and I've been making records for 20 years now. I was only a youngster of 19 or 20 when I joined Talk Talk. And making music does get harder to do the longer you do it, as well, because if you're any kind of serious musician you're always raising the bar, striving to do something even more remarkable."
Out Of Season is going to be the proverbial hard act to follow when - and if - this pair get together again.
"You don't think I haven't thought about that," Webb chortles and takes a slight lateral leap. "The reason nobody actually knew this record was going to come out this year was because we didn't actually know if we were ever going to finish it. There were times when we nearly gave up.”
"It all began when Beth just phoned up out of the blue one day, so we had a meeting and decided to see what kind of noise we'd make together. I always liked her voice but with O'rang I was going a different route to her. We were going very, very left field and it would have been wasted on her. We were into improvisation."
That also allowed him to present Gibbons in a way that is both more dynamic and sympathetic and offered her the challenge to sing through a variety of styles.
"We actually had no idea what we were going to do when we started. We played it almost totally by ear. We'd both just bought new studios so the first year we were just getting our heads around that. As we live so far apart (Gibbons lives in Devon), I'd go down there and jam as she's got a lot of instruments. I'd just play my heart out and she'd sing and we'd be up for like three nights and we'd do all this stuff and I'd bring it home and sift through it and I'd send something down or she'd send me up a vocal and then we'd go back and do it all again.”
"We ended with up about 20 tracks. There were snippets of melodies from different things and when we came up with a new chord sequence we'd pick out a couple of melodies we liked or lyrics we'd liked and put them against the new chords and kind of mixed and matched. I'm embarrassed to say this entire record took four years to do. We were on the phone at least three hours a day talking this through when I wasn't down at her studio and I got so immersed in doing the record that I even stopped listening to the radio. Almost obsessed by it.”
"So now we'll do some gigs. We've just started rehearsals and I'm actually looking forward to them. The last Talk Talk gig was about 15 years ago." And Portishead has been missing in action for over four years. "Yes, they have, although I think they're going to do some shows in the New Year. And I can nick off and have a decent break and we'll see what happens later."