Portishead, Tricky, and Massive Attack all hail from the southern English city of Bristol. So the "Bristol sound" consists of murky hip-hop beats, sampled film soundtracks, apocryphal mutterings, and tortured diva wails, right?
Purple Penguin: It rains in their hometown, too.
Go sit in the corner, Junior. That's the same half-assed logic that saw Sky Cries Mary, Young Fresh Fellows, and the Posies shunted aside to allow more column inches for the grunge contingent back in the ubiquitous "Seattle scene" articles of the early '90s.
This predisposition for being pigeonholed isn't the only trait Bristol—which has also spawned drum and bass kingpin Roni Size, experimental producers Smith & Mighty, and post-punk pioneers the Pop Group—shares with the Emerald City. Gray skies and persistent rain contribute heavily to the Bristol climate, too.
"That's definitely what it's like over here, for seven months of the year," says Ben Dubuisson, one-half of the Bristol duo Purple Penguin, who visits town this Sunday night to promote their second LP, Question (on Cup of Tea Records). "It's pretty horrible, really."
The geographic parallels don't end there. "We're in the west, so things are kind of laid back. It's similar to California in that respect. It's not London or New York. People have more time to do things, and less pressure.
"But then the English mentality comes through," he adds. "We don't get a lot of great weather, so we're not all happy-go-lucky. We're stuck at home a lot of the time. That's why English people make music—to do a bit of something else in their bedrooms."
Regardless of where it was conceived, Question, which ripples with fillips of cool jazz and subtle funk, boasts a more playful palette than the work of many of Purple Penguin's peers. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," says Dubuisson, speaking for his partner, Scott Hendy. "A lot of people do. But that's a stance they take for effect a lot of the time."
How can he speak with such authority? Dubuisson is one of the proprietors of a record store also named Purple Penguin, specializing in hip-hop, drum and bass, breaks and beats, and Mo'Wax-style grooves—the bread and butter of many of Bristol's finest DJs and producers. "I see the people who make the music from Portishead and Massive Attack," observes Dubuisson. "They're friends of mine. And they're not like you'd think they are from their music. They like to go out and have fun, just like anyone else."
Still, it's hard to imagine Portishead's dour singer, Beth Gibbons, with her skirts hitched up, dancing a drunken jig atop a table down at the local pub; the music of Purple Penguin suggests the duo might be more inclined in that carefree direction (except for the part about the skirt, obviously). Dubuisson claims their upcoming ARO.space set on the wheels of steel—manning three turntables total—will bear out this promise.
"When we DJ, we like to mix it all up and have a good time, a bit of a laugh. We might drop in the theme tune from some old TV show, like The A-Team, as an introduction to some beats." But it's not all tongue-in-cheek. Vintage jazz, funk, reggae, and hip-hop figure heavily in the mix, too.
For a representative sample, check out the new compilation Turbo Beats, mixed by Hendy. The program isn't as wildly diverse or hip-hop-heavy as The Document, the 1998 CD by Portishead's Andy Smith, but instead strikes a fine balance between Bristol locals (Statik Sound System), Cup of Tea labelmates (Fruitloop, Slick Sixty), and like-minded beat merchants (Mr. Scruff, Jaz Klash).
Before you start planning your big move, however, be advised that Bristol doesn't resemble Seattle in every respect: The population and city limits are much smaller. "It's a very tight-knit place," concludes Dubuisson. "From where I live, in the city center, I could walk to the countryside in 20 minutes, easily." Hmm . . . cow pastures or Ballard—which sounds better to you?