Leftfield In The Studio: Neil Barnes Reveals Details Of New Album Influenced By “Very Dark Episodes”

Sixteen years after their last album and one member down, the iconic dance act Leftfield are set to return with a new LP. NME’s Louis Pattison finds out the details.

These days we’ve come to expect big gaps between albums. Nonetheless, there are NME readers who won’t have been born when Leftfield’s last LP, 1999’s ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, hit shelves. Neil Barnes, what have you been up to for the last 16 years? “I’ve been doing other things,” laughs the Leftfield founder. “I built a studio. I spent a long time bringing my family up. I spent years doing demos in various styles, trying to get away from dance music, but nothing really came of any of it.”

Now there is a new Leftfield album, ‘Alternative Light Source’ – and if you’re wondering why you should care, first a history lesson. Electronic music as we know it today exists in Leftfield’s image. Like a bit of dub weight to your dance music? When Leftfield played Brixton Academy in 1996, a year after debut LP ‘Leftism’, the bass assault showered ravers with dust and plaster from the roof. Thinking of dropping a big name on your dance track? Leftfield’s idea too – see 1993 single ‘Open Up’, on which John Lydon spat bile at LA celebrity culture. “We were the first people to do a really big instrumental drop,” says Barnes, warming to the theme. “The record company said, ‘What’s that bit? What happened to the drums?’ We changed the possibilities of what you could do on a dancefloor.”

Following a rapturously received 2000 tour, Barnes and his original Leftfield partner, Paul Daley, went their separate ways. “It was a drifting apart,” recalls Barnes. “I wanted to do Leftfield, he wanted to do different things. Which is fair enough. Our relationship broke down, and that’s the way it is.” Barnes revived Leftfield for some live shows in 2010, and started buying records again, reeling off a list of current favourites including George FitzGerald, Legowelt and Daniel Avery. He wondered what he might make that sounded relevant in 2015. “I couldn’t genuinely call it a Leftfield record unless I felt like it sounded like now.”

Happily, ‘Alternative Light Source’ fits the bill. Made with new collaborator Adam Wren, it’s an artfully sequenced 10 tracks that veer between the epic jackhammer of ‘Universal Everything’ to more atmospheric moments like ‘Dark Matters’ and ‘Storms End’. Also on board is an impressive guestlist that includes Channy Leaneagh of Poliça (‘Biolocation’), Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio (‘Bad Radio’) and Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. ‘Head And Shoulders’ is a withering glare at cokehead culture that comes from a darker, weirder place than Williamson’s recent, cartoonish Prodigy collaboration. “I wanted him to develop it, like a story,” says Barnes. “I encouraged him to let his poetic side out.”

Barnes explains that the album title and sleeve – the latter by Turner-nominated artist Mark Wallinger – tie into a loose concept, “about searching for light in darkness”. He hasn’t really discussed it before publically, he says, but in the past he’s experienced “some very dark episodes” – whole months lost to depression, in which he was unable to set foot in the studio. He’s got it under control – meditation and mindfulness help. “But sometimes it just grabs you. It’s triggered by something in the brain, there’s no doubt.”

Perhaps, ventures NME, dark but uplifting music of the sort Leftfield make, can be heard as a sort of grapple with depression? Beating the black dog? “Yeah, I think so. You’re looking for an answer, or a safe place. When depression hits you it takes you to a place where it seems like there’s no way out. That’s what ‘Bad Radio’ is about. But out of all that, good things can happen. There’s light and darkness. Despair and hope. You go through it, then come out the other side.”