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Neil Barnes talks all things Leftfield ahead of the electronic music duo’s appearance at this year’s Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival.

The ever-popular Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival makes a welcome return this month, featuring in its impressive line-up electronic music favourites Leftfield. What’s On caught up with founder member Neil Barnes to find out more about a duo who are still riding high on the success of their most recent album, This Is What We Do... 

You'd think that after three hugely acclaimed albums, Leftfield's Neil Barnes would be used to praise. But even he was surprised by how enthusiastically their most recent collection, This Is What We Do, was received.

"I was really blown away by the critical reaction to the record and all the nice things people said, you know?" says Neil, humbly. "It was a real journey, that album, and to see that people could really relate to it, and could see what we were trying to do, made it all special.

"And because the album came out of ... I'd say struggle, but I suppose just life events, life turning, it meant a lot to me, and to Adam. I'm very proud of it actually."

And so he should be. Released at the end of 2022, and produced by Barnes with current Leftfield cohort Adam Wren, This Is What We Do reconfirmed them as one of the great British dance acts of the last 40 years. Featuring contributions from Fontaines DC vocalist Grian Chatten, as well as '90s collaborators Earl Sixteen and Lemn Sissay, it finds Leftfield acknowledging their past but also looking forward, combining pounding beats, rippling sequencers and sweeping synths to create an album of both light and darkness, yet consistently infused with hope.

"Certain people can see what the idea behind the album was: the opportunity to dance, relax, think, sing along. I think maybe it had all the composite parts of a good Leftfield album. And put into context, [it came] out of a time of all this turbulence.”

For Barnes, personally, that turbulence included a 2021 bowel cancer diagnosis which, in the run-up to major surgery, energised him to complete album demos.

"I just decided that, ‘If I don't get this done now, I will probably either die, or it will never be done,’" says the producer (now in remission), who also acknowledges that the entire world was facing previously inconceivable challenges too.

“[It also] came out of a period of Covid, and maybe that's one of the other reasons why people responded to it so well ..."

Formed by Barnes with Paul Daley, Leftfield were part of a wave of acts inspired by Acid House/rave, Detroit techno and European electronica, coupled with punk’s core DIY ethic, who reshaped dance music during the so-called Britpop era. Following a trickle of well-received underground releases, their debut album, Leftism - which included the hits Original, Afro-Left and Release The Pressure - exploded in 1995. Nominated for the Mercury Prize, it went on to spend a substantial 136 weeks in the UK charts, establishing the duo as crossover stars.

Looking back at their unexpected fame, Neil says: "We were just like two young kids thrown into a world that we didn't understand, that we had no preparation for. We weren't interested. We dipped our toes into going to award ceremonies and things like that, and we were just 'Wow!'

“[Leftism was] really big, and it came as such a surprise. We were very naive and we didn't know what was happening, but the actual effect of, and success of, Leftism did affect our ability in the studio.

“It's such a cliche, but you have your whole life to make your first record, and then you're told you have six months to follow it up. So, second records are often very difficult things if you care about what you do, or if you find it difficult to just knock things out - which is what we just couldn't do.”

Eventually overcoming their creative challenges, album number two finally arrived in 1999. Topping the UK charts, Rhythm And Stealth solidified their reputation as electronic music innovators. But after two LPs, numerous cool soundtrack contributions (The Beach, Trainspotting etc) and remixes (including David Bowie), by the early noughties, the duo had drifted apart.

That should have been the end of the Leftfield story, but Barnes was lured back to the stage in the 2010s, with a third Leftfield album - the Top 10 Alternative Light Source - appearing in 2015.

"It started off simply with an opportunity to play live again, which I wanted to do because I just felt it was a shame just to end, to stop, and I wanted to take that forward and play live," says Barnes of Leftfield’s revival, which makes the most of today’s tech to allow the live band to perform and expand tracks in ways they never could in the ’90s. "And then, out of that, the idea of doing a new album came. I just felt that there was more to be said. There was more to the story."

That story has continued with 2017’s Leftism 22 remix and This Is What We Do, along with its 2023 dub Version Excursion counterpart. There’s also been more acclaimed live dates, with a return to Birmingham this month for Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival - where they headline alongside US '70s funk pioneers Kool & The Gang and man of the moment Yussef Dayes. Then, next year, there are tentative plans to mark Leftfield's 35th anniversary, while Barnes aims to diversify by mixing musicmaking with counselling, having paused his therapy studies to complete This Is What We Do.

"It's something that I'm planning to get back into, as it's something I'm very interested in,” he says of counselling.

Barnes discusses how his own anxieties have impacted his music (especially outside of Leftfield), how therapy has helped him, and how he’d like to help others (“some musicians have suffered from mental illness, and, as we know, there are some very sad stories…”); he even hints it may eventually become his main gig. But first, there’s more study.

“I'm looking for a course that would suit me,” says the 62-year-old. “I’m really interested in the power of communication, how various forms of therapy - and there's so many out there - can allow us to free ourselves and to get to the root issues of our problems."

Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul Festival, Birmingham, runs from Friday 12 to Sunday 14 July. To find out more, visit mostlyjazz.co.uk.