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Portico Quartet: Developing the sound

Originally signed to Vortex Records, which was set up by the owners of the Vortex Jazz Club in London, busking troubadours Portico Quartet are a band that are still in their relative infancy. Now working on album number three following the rerelease of their debut Knee-Deep in the North Sea on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records in January, the four-piece have reached a fork in the road - more of the same or something different? Considering the development shown on 2009's Isla, it would be a fair bet to plump for the latter option. I conversed with saxophonist Jack Wyllie, and he seemed to agree. Tell our readers a bit about how you got together as a band. I've known the bass player [Milo Fitzpatrick] since I was about six or seven years old. I met him at primary school in Southampton. We started playing tunes together - rock bands and a bit of jazz here and there. We both moved down to London, and went to the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I met Nick [Mulvey], who's the guy who plays hang. We started playing together a bit - Nick was on the guitar, I was playing sax and guitar. Nick knew Duncan [Bellamy, drummer] from Cambridge, where they grew up. They'd known each other for a pretty long time as well. I invited Milo along and he started playing some double bass. We started busking on the South Bank, and it happened like that. Two sets of old-school friends. Do most of you come from a formal music background? Not really, no. I'm pretty much self-taught - well, I did an A level in Music and had a few lessons, but not really. Duncan has never been taught, can't read music. Nick has probably had a few lessons in his time, here and there. But he taught himself the hang, because no-one really teaches it. Milo is more formally taught - he did a degree in Contemporary Music and Jazz at Goldsmiths. So you just learnt together... Well, we were all playing music before we got together. I'd been playing for about seven years before I met Nick. But we definitely learnt how to groove together while busking. How did going from busking on the street to performing on stage affect the dynamic of the band, do you think? Was it a positive way to start off? Not every band starts out like that. It was great to really hone the tunes. We'd practice them a bit, and then go busking with them. We'd sit on the South Bank and play for five hours straight - improvising a bit, but generally playing the tunes we'd written. So it got us really tight, and we started learning how each other works musically. We used to play down by the National Theatre, and it's a really good advert for yourself - right in the heart of cultural London. We sold a lot of CDs, which I think laid the foundation for a fanbase. Most of those tracks were presumably what went on to form Knee-Deep in the North Sea... Actually, there was one, a bit of a jam, called 'Dawn Patrol', that we wrote before we started busking. That ended up on the second album. It developed over time until we thought it was ready, although I think it would've sounded better on the first album. Why did you choose to re-release Knee-Deep in the North Sea? Were you unhappy with the original mix? Not unhappy with it. It's just that we originally recorded and mixed it in about four or five days. We mixed it in a day and a half, I think. Normally, you spend a week or two on that sort of thing. I was really happy with the album, but I thought we could go in there and realise it more fully. How we thought it could sound. What's it been like working with John Leckie and why did you choose him to produce the re-release? John produced our second album, Isla. We just really liked the sound he got with that. He really brings a track to life through the mixing, and he's used to working with more acoustic instruments and has produced a lot of world music. He did a good job on Isla, so we thought he could do the same with Knee-Deep. You didn't actually re-record any bits, did you? No, we added some live tracks though. One that we recorded at Maida Vale, 'All The Pieces Matter', which was just a live session, one take job. We also included live recordings of 'Knee-Deep in the North Sea' from Copenhagen, and 'Steps in the Wrong Direction'. You weren't tempted to return to any of the recordings then? Nahhh. Nah, no. We were up for remixing it, because we thought we could bring more to the album, but I didn't want to go back and fully revisit them. They were recorded then, and we want to focus on doing new stuff. What is it that you love so much about the hang and how did it become part of the Portico sound? Duncan bought a hang at Womad a long time ago, about seven years ago now. We just started playing around with it. It's quite a new instrument - invented in 2000 - so it doesn't have many cultural connotations. It creates a bed which you can feel quite free to play on top of. You can create a completely new sound from the hang, because it isn't associated with anything else. It's based on the steel drum, but slightly different. And the gamelan, as well. There's an almost exotic sound to it. I've heard it is hard to get hold of a hang these days. It was quite easy back then. Before they got quite big, the company that makes them in Switzerland used to distribute them quite widely. You could just buy them in shops, at festivals. Basically, they got really popular and demand outstripped supply. So instead of selling the patent, they decided to cut the distribution. Now you have to go over to Bern to pick one up. They make a certain amount each year. There's a long waiting list. I read as well that if you are going to sell one these days, you have to give them the option of buying it back first. Yeah, that's it - when we went over about two years ago they made us agree to that. It would be a nightmare if you were to lose one on tour. It would be nigh-on impossible to replace our hangs. They only make them in one key now, so we can never get the same ones. We would be absolutely fucked if we lost them. I think we have ours insured for about ten grand each though, so at least that would buy us some time to write some new music! We are starting to write stuff now that is less based on the hang anyway, moving towards other instruments. How did your tour with Penguin Cafe Orchestra come about? We were linked up by an organisation that basically teams up bands that they think would go well together and subsidise the tour. And I like them, so it should be nice. When can we expect a third album from Portico Quartet? We started writing for a new album about five days ago. We've got a studio round the corner from where we live. We've been doing it up for the past week and a half. We're writing cool tunes, I think. Still quite embryonic at this point, but I'm quite excited. We've been using the hang quite differently - sampling it quite a lot, putting effects on it. We've changed our sound over the last year, while we've been touring, to use more electronics. Mainly acoustic instruments that are manipulated live. I can sample my sax, Duncan has a link from my sax to his effects. He's got contact mics in his drums. And then the hang as well. So we've got these cross-manipulation channels going on. Just developing the sound, I guess. Will you have those tracks completely nailed before going into the studio, or do you like to work in the moment as well? It depends how it comes out. It's hard to say at the moment. If it's more improvised, I suppose we'll develop bits in the studio, but on the last album we were pretty much done, and then we just did overdubs. I guess we'll have the basis down and then build on that. Are you interested in soundtrack work? Have you had any offers? Yeah, I'd really like to do one actually. We might be doing one soon if it comes off. We've pitched for a few, but the films aren't necessarily going ahead. But I'd really like to do something like that. Would you write specifically for the project, or use old tracks? I'd like to write specifically for it, and I don't think we'd approach it in terms of tracks, but more as a score. What about collaborations for the new album? We're quite open to it, particularly for this next album. Last time around, we were still finding where we were, just the four of us, and were quite happy with that. For this album, maybe we'll get a singer on a couple of tracks. I suppose at the moment my saxophone is the 'voice', but I think if we found the right singer it could be really exciting. What advice do you have for people looking to make a living from their music? Errrrrmm... I saved the hardest question till last. [laughs] You've got to do something different. If you're in a funk band, there's going to be hundreds of bands doing the same style. It is really hard to succeed if you're a jazz player, because it's so competitive. I couldn't do it, so we've done something a bit different and carved out our own little niche within that. A lot of people who go down the jazz path find it really hard, but if you are doing your own thing, no-one else can beat you at your own game. Do you think getting out on the streets and busking is a good way to sidestep that? Definitely. For us, it was just about doing something new. Getting out there from the very beginning was a great way to start off, to mix it up and play around with instrumentation. porticoquartet.com )

Next article in issue 36

Singing Knives: Sheffield's experimental bastion

In Now Then #29, I said Singing Knives Records "specialise in folk, jazz and noise with a weird tribal junkyard edge". Well, try as I might,…

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