Portico Quartet have been riding a pretty high wave recently. Having been hailed as one of the most exciting bands in a new wave of contemporary music and as ‘a phenomenon in the making’ by the Independent newspaper, they’ve enjoyed continued success over the past couple of years with a unique sounding take on classical, London jazz and world music.
In just a couple of years they have gone from unknown buskers in London, to widespread acclaim and success, and have just finished recording their much anticipated second album. Their debut album ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’ was crowned Time Out’s Jazz album of the year in 2007, and was subsequently nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
I caught up with them to chat about their new album, busking and the sound of the Portico Quartet to come…
Your first album ‘Knee Deep in The North Sea‘ was received with great acclaim. Was the album‘s success and your nomination for the Mercury Prize a surprise? Did you think you had a chance of winning?
We’ve always had a strong and positive reaction to our music, which stemmed I think mainly from having a different and unusual sound, so the Mercury nomination was the continuation of a response that started a couple of years earlier when we were busking on the south bank. In this respect it was a gradual progression and after a while you begin to think ‘yeah, why not. Why couldn’t we win?’
You busked for a long time down at the Southbank before recording the first album. Was this an important process in developing your sound, and what sort of progression did your music take? Was it an important aspect in moulding the band into a cohesive group?
Absolutely. We would play one or two ‘normal’ gigs a week and then do maybe 5 hours busking on a Saturday. This, in terms of hours playing, is like 7 gigs a week! So it got us really tight and instilled a good work ethic. Busking is a no-expectation performing environment and so was a fertile space for us. It dissolved the boundaries between practice and performance. We also sold over 10,000 copies of our home-made demo and played to many more people, so when we gained some media coverage, some seeds were already sown.
So you‘re currently recording your second album at Abbey Road Studios. Are you feeling any of the alleged pressure of the difficult second album?
There’s definitely more expectation. Recording at Abbey Road with John Leckie amps things up somewhat, but that’s more exciting than anything. The pressure increases but so does our ability to deal with it. It’s been a really exciting experience that we’ve all been able to enjoy.
How would you describe your second album? Is it similar to the first or have you made any conscious effort to expand?
The new album is deeper than the first. There are less catchy melodies, but it’s more adventurous and feels a lot heavier. Having said that, it’s still very much us and our sound. We all want to keep expanding as musicians and want to keep challenging ourselves. The production is a lot better on this record and we all think it sounds amazing so we’re really happy with the direction the album has taken.
The hang was such an alluring instrument and considered such a central feature of the Portico Quartet sound. Does it still feature heavily in the work on the new album?
The hang is still a big part of what we do. It remains an exciting instrument and one that we can use to create backing sounds and rhythms, as well as to create building harmonies.
Is there any method to which you are approaching the production of the second album? Has it come about largely though experimentation and jamming, or has there been a strong element of ‘song-writing‘?
There has been a strong element of both. We spent December 08 to April 09 playing in our rehearsal space at the bottom of our garden. We would often play quite free, just jam ideas and then craft some structure to them afterwards. Sometimes we would find a nice melody or tune and then experiment with that on different instruments. There was also a lot of in-between too, where we would create parameters for us to improvise within, and thus it would alter our relationships to one another.
You have been described as part of a new wave of jazz groups that are reportedly taking jazz in a new direction and reinvigorating its image. How do you feel about this? Is it something you‘ve been aware of?
Not really. I don’t feel the association very strongly, though I take it as a complement. We just make the music we feel like.
I‘ve heard you say before that you are deliberately not playing in a‘jazz‘ way. In many ways you‘re a tighter band with all elements contributing to the unique sound of your music. What is it do you feel that makes you distinct?
It’s not that we are ‘deliberately’ not playing jazz. We just play what feels obvious and follow our own threads and it’s just not really jazz. Certainly not in a rigid, static definition. The hang is really a sound that makes us distinct, and by combining this with contemporary and classical influences, alongside jazz and dance and world and rock etc. we just create something which we feel really happy playing.
Have you considered using a vocal element in your music and how do you feel this would work?
It is something we have considered. The right vocalist will work a treat. That’ll happen when it happens. There is something ‘unsaid’ about our music which is important, so a voice could work amazingly, but lyrics and narratives I feel would ‘fix’ our music. I like the open interpretation non-lyrical music has. But it all depends on who’s doing it and how they do it. There’s no reason why it couldn’t work.
This article was originally written for Spoonfed.co.uk here: http://www.spoonfed.co.uk/spooners/samgould-5043/portico-quartet-1462/