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  • Jack Starr

LEFTFIELD Interview – ‘90s Electronic Legend Neil Barnes Talks Sheffield, Cancer, and The AI Future

Image by Steve Gullick

Along with The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Orbital, Leftfield were one of the groups that brought British electronic music to the forefront during the 1990s. Their 1995 album Leftism is still considered one of the all-time greatest electronic dance LPs, blending house with dub and breakbeat into a style now known as progressive house.

Their music reached further prominence with its frequent use in popular media, including adverts, video games, and particularly, the films of Danny Boyle – Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and The Beach featured iconic Leftfield tracks.

Since the 1990s, Leftfield have re-emerged intermittently to tour and release new content. Their latest album, This is What We Do, released in December to positive reviews. In support, they are planning a tour this summer, including a Sheffield date on the 8th of June.

Image by Steve Gullick

In anticipation of the tour, we had a chat with Neil Barnes, the man who has been behind Leftfield since 1989.

Hiya Neil, it’s Jack Starr from Sheffield Magazine. Just going to ask you a few questions, if that's alright.

Yeah, absolutely. The home of electronic music, so I'm happy to talk to you!

It’s been a few months since This is What We Do came out – now that the dust has settled, how are you feeling about that album?

I'm really happy. It's had some fabulous reaction, and it's working out really nicely when we turn it into a live show, the elements, the tracks that we're doing are sounding really good. Singles are working out really well. The next single is ‘Rapture 16’, that sounds really good, we've remixed that single actually and that's quite exciting, so the whole thing's been a really positive experience so far, really happy with it.

You’ve been doing Leftfield since 1989, but this is only your fourth LP in all that time – is there any reason you haven’t done more?

Why indeed? I think it's always taken quite a long time to formulate Leftfield tracks. Even in the early days we took a long time because we desperately were trying to do things so that we weren't repeating ourselves, and I suppose that takes time. This particular time has been interrupted by Covid, and, unfortunately, my own bowel cancer incident, so that's slowed us up quite a lot with this album. But yeah, we're slow workers. We should be sacked! We’re sloppy and slow. That's what I put it down to.

Your music has featured heavily in films, TV, video games and adverts – how do you feel this has impacted your legacy? Have you ever been approached for soundtrack work?

Yes, for both of those questions. I think they really helped. I mean, with Leftfield, especially in the ‘90s, with Trainspotting and The Beach and various other films that the tracks were in. And yes, we are talking to people now about soundtrack work, which is really exciting. So I'm hopeful that we will have something out in the next couple of years.

Can you share any more details on that, or is it all still in-the-air?

Not really, I can't. I can tell you that we've got a dub album coming out. It's a Record Store Day one, a dub version of this album. And people have heard that – soundtrack people have heard that, and I suppose that's really encouraged people to ask us. So also, there might be video game stuff as well, which we also get asked to do – working on games. So it's a couple of things in the pipeline.

You’re on tour again this summer, your first one in a while. You’ll be in Sheffield on the 8th of June. Are you excited to be back on the road?

Oh yeah, I'm really excited. I'm particularly excited about coming to Sheffield, and Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol – there are all places that I've got a lot of fond memories of previous gigs at. We've played Sheffield many times now – it's a part of the world where I've got a lot of friends, and a lot of important music has come out of Sheffield particularly, which has influenced me massively. So it's a great delight to be back in Sheffield actually, because I've got a lot of friends from the city and like I said, so many of my early gigs, especially all the stuff from the ‘80s and the ‘90s, has been influenced by Sheffield bands.

What are your favourite Sheffield bands?

Oh, crikey. Now you're going to get me into trouble if I say that! I have to say you can't get much further than ABC in terms of great, great bands. I saw them before they became ABC, so I was, you know, a massive fan. But generally - all the electronic acts that come out of Sheffield over the years, you know, it's influenced us all really. So it's really great just coming back.

Image by Steve Gullick

Some of your gigs back in the day were famously extremely loud, with reports of plaster falling from the ceiling at the Brixton Academy, and your sound system being banned. Can we expect you to be this loud again, or do you now have to be more mindful of fans’ hearing these days?

I think you have to be a little more mindful of everybody's hearing. There are good rules in place to protect people from excessive levels. I mean, in actual fact, we were very loud, but we were also very basic. And I like to think that we actually didn't really damage anybody. It's the top end guitar type of thing that screeches out, that is particularly bad for the people who lose the top end of their hearing. What we do now is that we really are as loud as is possible, because we don't want to hurt anybody. And also, there are laws out there now that you have to abide by. But we do push it as much as we can. There are ways of getting it as loud as possible. And quality is really more important than loudness as well. So that's important to us. It's the quality of the sound. Rather than just being loud for loudness' sake, that isn't good either.

You’ve had some health issues over the pandemic – how are you doing now? And how has this affected your music?

Well, yes, I did. Recently, I got bowel cancer, which is something that we should all be wary of. We should all do lots of tests and listen to our bodies, especially guys – though women need to as well. That particular cloud hit me in 2021, just when we were working on the album. And it was initially quite difficult to come to terms with. And the after effects of it were quite depressing. So it slowed everything up. The record itself isn't at all a sad record. In fact, it's the opposite. So, in some bizarre and strange way, the actual process invigorated me to try and get things done. And it made us both a bit aware of the finality of things, really, and how important it was to try and leave the record in the best possible position. And then I had surgery and everything. It looks really good. You can never say never, but it looks like I'm clear of it. But it does leave you somewhat tired. And it did affect me. There's no doubt it affects everybody, but I feel I'm surrounded by really supportive people and I really want to get out there and bring this record to the people. So I really was always wanting to do it, but unfortunately it's just taking its time to get it to a position where I'm able to do the whole thing, and now, May is perfect. So I'm looking forward to being able to put it all behind me and be up there on stage.

But I do feel that on the larger issue, cancer is a really difficult thing and it's very hard for all of us knowing people or going through cancer. And we do have to show real respect and also compassion to people who have had it or are living with it, because it affects families. It’s sweeping through our culture, so many people getting different forms of cancer. I think the new government scheme for us to check ourselves is really good. I feel I'm happy, I've had fantastic treatment on the NHS at the Royal Marston Hospital. I've had two bouts of cancer – I've had skin cancer as well. I go to Luton Hospital – so again, thanks to all the nurses and doctors at Luton Hospital, they have looked after me so well. Things are good now, things are good.

Technology has changed a lot since the 1990s – how has the music-making process changed for you?

Just press a button, don't we now! We just say to the computer, ‘can you make a 12 track album, please? Make it a bit different to the last one?’ and then we go down the pub! (Laughs) It is a bit worrying that maybe, eventually music might end up like that. I hate the thought of it all being done like that, but it seems to me that highly possible that it could end up being made by machines. Well, machines do make it, it's just we are very much in control at the moment.

With the process, it puts everything at your fingertips and allows you to control most aspects of what you do. The downside of that is that everyone has the same stuff, so you do have to work a bit harder to make you what you do sound different to what other people do. But the technology is extraordinary – the speed of the computers is fantastic, so you're able to get so much done. It doesn't necessarily speed up the process because you just end up spending more time doing things that you didn't know you could do, but it's extraordinary, and I would say the fear for me is what the next stage of bots do, if we got bots doing it. You know, computers now can mimic so much in songwriting and that's slightly concerning. I mean if people didn't know that how their favourite track was written, would they care if it was actually written by a program rather than a person? That's what I'm fearful of.

What are you listening to lately? Do you have any shout-outs for newer or smaller artists?

I'm always listening to underground labels. I listen to some wonderful new music out by Dense & Pika, on Dense & Pika's label. I'm also listening to Crazy Noise a lot, Scottish Label. There is I Love Acid - one of my favourite labels, Josh from I Love Acid. I'm really keen on him, his music. I get sent a lot of good stuff. There's a track by Octave One. Do you know Octave One? It's called ‘Tears’. That's one of the biggest tracks. That's going to be one of the biggest tracks of the summer. It's an amazing bit of techno. It's really uplifting. It's really, really, really musical and uplifting. I've just done a set for Simone Butler from Soho Radio, which people can hear. I've done some tracks, a combination of tracks that I'm really into at the moment. There's a Dense & Pika track called ‘From Nothing’, they did with Melody's Enemy and also another track they did called ‘Touch’, which is just out at the moment, which is also fabulous. I get my music from all over the place; I'm one of those people.

I mean, there are lots and lots of small labels out there that I follow, but sometimes they go quiet. Like, for instance, you know, R&S. R&S at the moment has got some really great music out there. Everything recently done on R&S the last six months – they've had about five releases out, and they're all really strong. So yeah, so I'm always listening, because I still – you know, I still love DJs. I just haven't got much chance to do it at the moment. I need to get back into DJing at the end of the summer. Maybe I'll come up to Sheffield!

Leftfield will perform at the O2 Academy Sheffield on the 8th of June, 2023, as part of the This is What We Do promotional tour. The album is available now.


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