Designed in Switzerland in 2000, the hang is one of the world’s newest instruments, producing a glowing, radiant sound not unlike a steel drum. For most of its lifetime, it’s been synonymous with the London group Portico Quartet, who formed in 2005 and quickly won acclaim for their shimmering and evocative sound, residing somewhere in the blurred boundaries between contemporary jazz and epic post-rock. 2007’s debut album, Knee-Deep in the North Sea, was hailed as a high watermark for British jazz, as was its successor, Isla, two years later.

Portico Quartet’s self-titled third album followed a line-up change, with the departure of founder-member Nick Mulvey. The group also began to experiment with their sound, reducing the prominence of the hang and introducing more synthesised elements, as well as releasing electronic reworkings of their songs from the likes of Luke Abbott and Konx-Om-Pax on 2013’s Live/Remix. This new direction culminated in 2015’s synth pop-influenced Living Fields, released under the name Portico, and 2017’s Art in the Age of Automation, released via Manchester-based Gondwana Records.

Portico Quartet have a show at Manchester’s Gorilla (15 June) before going on to headline this year’s Folk Forest (21-22 July) in Sheffield. I caught up with drummer Duncan Bellamy from Egypt to talk about the shows and their latest record.

Tell us about your new record, ‘Untitled (AITAOA #2)’

When we recorded Art in the Age of Automation, we were in a particularly productive mood and form. We ended up with so much music and it just couldn’t all fit on the album. We love all these extra tracks, and rather than just split them into a couple of throwaway EPs, we decided to put them into one distinct piece of work. We like to think of it as a mini-album, a companion piece to Art in the Age of Automation.

How do you feel your music fits into the classical tradition, if at all?

I suppose not that neatly, really. There has always been a minimalist strain running through our music – the work of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, for example – but not a lot of ‘classical’. That said, it does share some similarities with artists such as Max Richter and Nils Frahm.

To me, your music has quite a filmic quality. Are you influenced by cinema?

Yeah for sure, although perhaps not directly. Visual art has always been something of an influence, and cinema too in a similar vein. The music is quite abstract though, so these things often have quite an opaque influence on the music.

What visual artists have inspired Portico’s work?

It’s usually a very indirect kind of inspiration, but Gerhard Richter’s work in the Köln ‘Dom’ Cathedral inspired both the title of one of our tracks, ‘4096 Colours’ from our self-titled album, but there is also a field recording made from inside the cathedral running through the track itself.

In our 2011 interview, you told us you’d be interested in doing soundtrack work. Have you been offered commissions?

Although our work is often described as having a cinematic or filmic quality, we’ve never been approached with any solid commissions for soundtracks. There has been interest, but nothing has materialised so far. It’s definitely something we would love to do in the future.

What music excites you at the moment?

I’ve been really enjoying an album by Italian musician Gigi Masin called Wind. It’s an ambient album from 1986 and still feels so current.

Your music is sometimes described as possessing ambient qualities. Eno talks about ambient music as enhancing an environment with an atmosphere or tint. Is this an idea you relate to the group’s work?

I think we approach and use ideas of ambient music in a slightly different way to this. We don’t really use it in an environmental sense. It is usually more of a structural device as part of a wider composition.

What do you make of all this talk about New British Jazz?

I think it’s great it’s getting a lot of exposure. There’s a real energy to it and it’s great to see it moving beyond the academic institutions into wider culture.

On the self-titled album you focussed less on the hang. How has your setup of instruments evolved since then?

Well, it has definitely moved on, but the allure of the hang drum has been hard to shake. It doesn’t play such a dominant role as it once did, but is still a voice. We use a lot of effects pedals on our synths, drum machines and samplers, in combination with our acoustic instruments.

How has your creative process changed with the introduction of more electronic instruments?

We used to write all of our music live, with all of us in a room. Over the years that has changed and we now write a lot of material individually, sketching ideas on our laptops before developing them further together. Using this process helps us to try different sounds and gives a greater flexibility to how we compose.

What influenced the decision to release Living Fields under the Portico banner? Do you have future plans for the side project?

Living Fields was really meant to be a complete side project. It wasn’t meant to be related to Portico Quartet really in any way. It was us exploring a totally different area and form. There aren’t really any plans for more music at this point.

You switched labels for your most recent release. What made you sign with Gondwana?

We have known Matthew Halsall, who is the label owner, for a really long time and there was a point before we recorded Art in the Age of Automation where there was an opportunity to move labels and it just seemed a really good time and fit. We loved what Matthew had done with the label and it just seemed like great timing.

What are the group working on next?

At the moment, we have begun to work on writing music for our next album. We’re in the very early stages of this, but it’s exciting when everything is open and undefined at this point.

You’re playing some shows soon, including Manchester’s Gorilla and Sheffield’s Folk Forest. What can we look forward to?

Music from our new albums, as well as some from our previous albums. It’s a set that builds and builds in intensity…

Portico Quartet play at Gorilla on Friday 15 June, then they headline the Folk Forest in Sheffield on Saturday 21 July.

porticoquartet.com
thefolkforest.net
@thefolkforest

Sam Gregory