Leftfield: ‘Having a colonoscopy was like being in a nightclub’

If the UK electronica pioneers’ new album sounds urgent, that’s because Neil Barnes has faced divorce, depression and a cancer scare. ‘I thought: if I don’t get it done, I never will,’ he says

In 2021, Leftfield were midway through making a new album when Neil Barnes started experiencing “very loose bowel movements” and feeling quite uncomfortable. “I’ve never been one of those blokes who ignores warning signs,” he says. So he went to the doctor, who did some blood tests, couldn’t find a thing but was troubled. Barnes explains: “He said, ‘I’m not happy about this. I want you to have a colonoscopy.’”

Ironically, given that Leftfield were one of the most influential dance acts of the 1990s, Barnes found the medical procedure – in which a tiny camera is inserted in the rectum, the results shown on screen – like “being in a club. You’re given some drugs and then it’s like, ‘Here we go round the corner and the lights are on the walls and … whoosh!” he chuckles. “It’s all bright and sparkly.” But then he glanced at the screen and saw a huge growth on his bowel. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t be there, should it?’”

Being told that he needed urgent surgery for bowel cancer knocked him for six until he simply added it to a list of difficulties he was experiencing at the time. “Depression. Cancer …” he chuckles. “Also, to be honest, the money had run out, we’d lost a chunk of time through Covid and the album sounded like a mess. But suddenly I was motivated to do things. I literally thought, ‘If I don’t get this done now, I possibly never will.’” He went back into the studio, went through all the demos, revamped and edited all the arrangements and made everything hang together like an album. “Then I went into the record label, played them the demos, got everyone going and had the operation the day after.”

This is the surreal backdrop to Leftfield’s fourth album, This Is What We Do, which was finished in February and will be out for Christmas. (Two tracks, Pulse and Accumulator, have come out so far.) Today, Zooming from his kitchen table, Barnes is a happy, visibly healthy 62-year-old who apologises in advance should he get befuddled, which he doesn’t. “I’ve just had my first annual post-cancer colonoscopy,” he grins, having received an all-clear, “but the drugs are still inside me.”

He knows he has been lucky. “I’m so grateful to Luton NHS that I’ve survived. They removed nine centimetres of my bowel. If I’d left it another three months it would have got into my lymph nodes, and that would have been … very tricky.” Perhaps this partly explains why the album isn’t dark. In fact, with vocal contributions from Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten, poet Lemn Sissay and the reggae singer Earl Sixteen, it’s a buoyant, euphoric electronic odyssey. “I’m a positive person,” smiles Barnes. “Ironically the worst period was when I got the good news [that surgery was successful]. I hit rock bottom. Because suddenly you’re able to let go of all the feelings you’ve been fighting too hard to hold in, and they just swamp you.”

That was July 2021, but Barnes credits his Leftfield partner Adam Wren [who replaced original collaborator Paul Daley in 2010 when the band reactivated] for being “a fantastic and understanding human being” and “pulling the record together”.

‘Suddenly you’re able to let go of all the feelings you’ve been fighting too hard to hold in’ … Leftfield.
‘Suddenly you’re able to let go of all the feelings you’ve been fighting too hard to hold in’ … Leftfield. Photograph: Steve Gullick

Midway through the making of This Is What We Do, and looking for a role beyond electronic music, Barnes began training as a psychotherapist. As a result of “surviving some really difficult things that have happened to me over the last seven years – a difficult divorce, sort of semi-estrangement from my children, feeling low and my low self-esteem,” he started self-analysis. “Looking into why I’m driven and creative but also have terrible self doubt that makes me want to chuck everything and start again, which must be exhausting to be around.”

Barnes entered EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) trauma therapy. “Which was fantastic and lifesaving, talking about problems in a supportive place.” After six months, he suddenly found himself opening up about what he describes as “a single incident of abuse, which happened to me when I was very young, and witnessing my parents’ reaction to it … ” He had buried this for decades. He argues that other children have had much worse, but the therapy fired an interest in attachment theory and healing. “Which is what the album is about. I went on a bit of a journey and now I feel in a much more comfortable position to talk openly about these issues because men, particularly, bury them.”

He was in therapy when he made the decision to return to the album. Barnes reconnected with Sissay – who appeared on Leftfield’s seminal 1995 debut, Leftism – because of his 2018 poem about social responsibility, Making a Difference, which he came in to the studio to narrate for the new album’s track of the same name. “I loved the poem,” smiles Barnes, “and he’s such a unique person after what he’s gone through, and it’s such a powerful message, about what people can achieve. I believe in people.”

A mutual friend of Barnes’s daughter Georgia had a connection with Chatten, who “really put the work in” for the storming Full Way Round. “He built the words up over three days and then just delivered them in one go. I didn’t pry – the words are his business – but it seems to describe a mad cab ride after a night out.There’s the Troubles and religion and a relationship. Images and dreams are flying out. It’s like Dylan Thomas.”

For the dubbier Rapture 16, Barnes turned to Earl Sixteen, who first sang with Leftfield on 1992’s Release the Pressure. “I was very aware that I was a white producer asking a Black man to write a song,” Barnes explains, “but I asked if he’d mind doing something about growing up in Brixton. The lyrics are very simple, but also about a love of music and the connection between reggae, electronic music and the dancefloor. It’s a positive, uplifting piece.”

Barnes is rightly proud of the album and has dedicated it to the late DJ Andrew Weatherall, whom he wishes he’d known better, but who once gave him some very sound advice. “I was in a down state and he was playing a knockout reggae set in King’s Cross and he just said to me: ‘Neil, you can do whatever you want.’ That’s always stayed with me.”

This Is What We Do is released on 2 December. Leftfield’s UK tour starts on 7 December at the Steelyard, London.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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