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We finally get to meet the magnificent Mercury Prize nominated wizards Portico Quartet and discuss new electronic territories
words ali Raymond / images taken from Isla recording at abby Road
I first fell in love with Portico Quartet through their second album Isla. Immediately a fan, listening to opener ‘Paper Scissor Stone’ and the wonders to follow in straight succession I was swept away by the sense of movement and stirring emotion in their music. Hypnotic minimalism was the running theme as they explored wide-angle filmic themes and textures.
Produced by John Leckie and recorded at the prestigious Abbey Road, Isla was more brave and fierce in its conviction then their critically acclaimed first album Knee Deep in the North Sea. The debut was self-produced and inspired by their days busking on the Southbank, in London. It also caught the eye of Real World Records, the label that signed them and has been their home since.
For its progression and innovation, standing on the fringes of contemporary jazz and percussion influences, the release deservedly won a Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2008 (along with Radiohead, Robert Plant and Elbow). But for me Isla indicated better a group of talented individuals hell bent on moving forward, more comfortable with each step they took into the cinematic unknown.
“We always want to make more interesting music,” Duncan says, opening our interview as I meet the band in East London.
“For the first one there was no real concept to it. It came around from just jamming with each other and busking on the Southbank. The second one was more intense and more deliberate. And I suppose that went in a slightly darker direction.”
Portico Quartet were originally made up of drummer Duncan Bellamy, bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, saxophonist/keyboardist Jack Wyllie and hang player Nick Mulvey. Nick left the group last year pursue a separate career in music. He was replaced by the talented hang player/keyboardist Kier Vine.
With Kier on board and the hang drum mastered once more, Portico recorded their third, self-titled album while touring Isla. To little surprise, expectations were high on the Mercury nominees. Portico Quartet picks up where Isla left off and goes further. The third album embraces those ambient and classical inspirations, but centres more around the band’s long-standing love for electronica and dance music.
The release plays with the electronic minimalism of Four Tet, Mount Kimbie, the bass appreciation of Burial and Flying Lotus and the instrumental textures of Little Dragon and Bon Iver. And tracks like ‘Lacker Boo’, ‘Steepless’ and ‘Window Seat’ ensure the band continue to sound like nothing you have ever heard before. (Note: on the label’s request can’t stream these tracks but you can listen on Spotify)
“While we were touring Isla, we started to bring in a lot more electronic influences and the way we manipulated sounds. And that that’s how we came to the new album, which takes from contemporary electronic music,” in Duncan’s words.
“The third is so different,” says Milo before explaining the creative process. “When you do something so different there isn’t so much expectation. We didn’t have any specific criteria when creating the album so it gave us a lot of freedom. We didn’t know where it would go. We were very much in our bubble.”
That creative freedom, although present in everything they do, is more evident then ever in their latest offering. A lack of restriction that has definitely added to the releases unique ability to paralyse.
“People think we are a lot more open to experimentation in our music and I think that comes from our love for that scene,” explains Keir, the group’s new boy, when asked about dance music. “There’s no restriction on how it is being made or created.”
Current electronic music and its dynamism in recent years clearly excites the band. It’s something they really admire because it’s something they feel they and their friends belong too as Duncan continues enthusiastically.
“There just seems with dance and electronic music in particular there is a really good dialogue between it. Across the many fields there is a lot of conversations being said.”
“It’s very active and there’s new releases coming out every week, especially with this relationship on a digital platform. It means it’s really quick. I like that. It’s not about release dates or hype but about things that are really stimulating. It’s not lagging behind maybe like other genres.”
Kier takes over with the same opinion. “A lot of the guys we know came out of that 2step scene and are now making techno records. And no one has a problem. The [electronic] labels aren’t questioning it—they’re willing to put it out.
“The UK scene has always been quite good with people supporting and working together. Now it’s more open then ever. And I like that.”
So with Portico Quartet’s expansion into new territories, what about definitions?
After their first album they where immediately put into the contemporary Jazz bracket by some circles—mostly for its rebellious style of instrumentation. And even though Isla was a step further away from any references to that genre, Portico still battled with the idea of being one specific type of music, as Duncan tries to clear up:
“We’re always said it’s not jazz and this album more so really. We always felt it projected a lot more then one thing. Even with the second though it was similar to Jazz we felt it didn’t accurately represent it.
“People that listen to jazz and are jazz heads don’t think it’s jazz, while people that don’t listen to jazz specifically think it is.”
The trademark sound of a eerie hang, ethereal sax, earthy and propulsive bass and dominating drums will always be present in their music it seems, but with this heavier organic use of electronics it seems the sound palette is less likely to be pigeonholed.
And as Jack finishes our chat, he explains that being on those fringes of musical borders has always been their real intention.
“In one respect we are fine with the idea of being called jazz because it’s a great genre to be associated with. But on the other hand unfortunately there’s a massive dogma with jazz. That you have to do things in a certain way”
“And we’re just not like that. We’re so much more open.”