At a time where ‘post’ seems to be the prefix on everybody’s lips when describing current music, Portico Quartet’s ethereal tunes have never seemed more relevant. With two stellar albums under their belt and a third one in the pipeline, the guys who started busking on the Southbank four years ago might just be taking their ‘post-jazz’ title to new heights. The recent departure of hang player Nick Mulvey, has been ‘the catalyst for loads of crazy stuff’ says drummer Duncan Bellamy, as they’ve sampled the hang onto drum pads allowing much more creative versatility. ‘When it’s pitched down it sounds like a big gong’ says Jack Wylie the saxophonist.
Although Nick’s decision to explore the guitar instead of the hang has rendered the band’s name slightly redundant it also seems to have opened up creative channels for the group as electronic sounds and samples take on a bigger role than they did in second album Isla. ‘There’ll definitely be a few tracks without the hang at all,’ says Jack, hinting at the sound of the forthcoming album which they’ll hopefully be recording in August.
Their relationship with the distinctive instrument – which sounds something like a steel pan – has been a complex one: it liberated them from the constraints of any specific genre but also threatened to ‘back them into a corner musically and conceptually’.
Having recorded their heavily praised second album Isla with the prestigious John Leckie in Abbey Road, the group’s creative process seems to have returned to its humble origins as they go into their East London studio individually to lay down compositional ideas. Discussing their influences it becomes apparent that diversity and eclecticism nurture their music.
Naming people such as Arve Henriksen, Radiohead and the experimental Steve Reich, Portico Quartet seem to draw their influences from everywhere and filter it down into their own distinct sound. The melodic and hook-based aspect of their music makes them wonderfully accessible and enables them to play gigs like Bestival and more traditional jazz concerts without any conflict.
There is however a feeling that at more upbeat festivals programmers ‘get confused with where to put us’, says Duncan, although the promise of ‘a bit more punch’ on the forthcoming album may change this.
Their assertion that ‘none of us wanted to make a repeat of Isla’ implies a further change of musical direction for the group and one can’t help but presume that their beat making flatmate Jamie Woon might have had a little influence in their decidedly more electronic escapades. Duncan and Jack and their friend Will Ward are also currently working on a side project called Circle Traps which fits the current surge of synth based electronica – albeit with inescapable jazz undertones – and have just released their EP on Opit Records.
As well as exploring different soundscapes, Portico Quartet have toured Europe and the States and have been met by devoted fans of all different age groups, although according to Jack, ‘inland America was pretty barren’. Out of their one hundred and seventy gigs last year seventy were in Europe, and ‘everything’s just happened quicker over there’ says Jack about their rise in popularity.
Let’s hope that this speed translates itself to the rate of their production, as I’m not sure I can wait till next year for their next instalment. In the meantime Portico Quartet will be performing at Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 2nd bringing the bank holiday to a beautiful close. When you coming to Oxford guys?