January 27, 2012
Interview: Portico Quartet
“Who said a funk band can’t play rock?” queried Funkadelic’s George Clinton in the 1978 song of the same name. While he may have been bemoaning the pigeonholing of his band as exclusively a funk outfit (perhaps conveniently overlooking the group’s name), in the same song Clinton also asks “who said a jazz band can’t play dance music?” And now, 34 years later, another band is asking the same question.
To be fair, theirs is not an all-out rejection of a genre they are unquestionably grounded in, more a reasonable request not to be judged by its boundaries, for London’s Portico Quartet bring so much more to the table than jazz. The group established their sound from days spent busking on the South Bank — through debut album Knee Deep In The North Sea’s Cinematic Orchestra-inflected instrumentals, and its follow up Isla’s development of the same — and are now incorporating electronic elements into their music.
“Electronic music is a little less dogmatic now,” explains Keir Vine when we meet up with the group in a Dalston café. “Which I think is why you can be free to do whatever the fuck you want.”
It’s a bold move for a band that had, until now, built their identity on a keen sense of melody and arrangement, as well as the unique tones of the ‘hang’ — a tuned percussion instrument that the group use to good effect as a textural layer. Not that they’ve abandoned it in any way.
“We’ve reinvented the hang quite a lot, because we’ve resampled it and pitched it and pulled it around,” says drummer Duncan Bellamy.
Vine agrees. “Yeah, the sub-bass you can generate from shifting it down a couple of octaves is wicked. So we’ve got it all over: melodic, bass, textural…we just need to put it through a vocoder next!”
Despite the experimentation, one listen to their imminent third, self-titled, album proves that the group are skilled enough to know when to reel it in if it’s in detriment to the track. Longer, noodlier cuts such as ‘Rubidium’ and ‘City of Glass’ are balanced out by the Bonobo-type groove of ‘Ruins’, or a refined turn from vocalist Cornelia on the elegant ‘Steepless’. The Swedish singer was an ideal fit for Portico Quartet’s first non-instrumental foray, and the process was a natural one.
“It was a very basic sketch that we sent to her”, admits Bellamy. “But because she’s a friend, we trusted her, I suppose. She did her thing, we didn’t interfere.”
The band uploaded elements of the track for a remix competition on their website, a gauntlet taken up to interesting effect by a number of fans.
“It’s quite a good insight into the way a lot of our listeners hear the music”, bass player Milo Fitzpatrick explains. “Sometimes they’ll hear a drum beat, or a piano loop, or a high synth line that’s usually supposed to be in the background of the music, they hear that as the most prominent part, and decipher that in interesting ways.”
Good-natured and humorous, the group talk excitedly of an upcoming tour. It’s a rarity that four individuals who spend so much time together display no obvious friction, especially when considering that Bellamy, Fitzpatrick and saxophonist Jack Wyllie all used to share a house (along with blue-eyed soul boy Jamie Woon).
“Yeeeah” starts Wyllie, hesitantly, when asked about the period. “It was a bit intense, I think. Do you know what I mean?”
Was Woon an influence on the electronic side of things?
“He used to stand just outside the door of our practice room,” jokes Fitzpatrick, affecting an impression of the singer: “I need some ideas, guys!”
Bellamy chips in: “Yeah, like “Jamie, turn your recorder off! Jamie, turn that microphone off!””
“But no, we owe Jamie quite a lot. He was our technological guinea pig,” concedes Fitzpatrick. “We used to nick his stuff, and if we liked it, then we would get it!”
The relationship has also stretched to collaboration, with Woon contributing to a remix of a track called ‘Coy Carp’ for an upcoming EP. Other contemporary influences are discussed, such as Oneohtrix Point Never, Grouper, and Detroit house man Theo Parrish, and the band seem keen to emphasise their position outside the orthodox jazz realm.
“People that aren’t in to jazz call us jazz, and people that are in to jazz definitely don’t call us jazz”, explains Vine, referring to the characters the group have encountered at the stranger festivals of central Germany and parts of Switzerland.
“They’re a much older demographic,” Wyllie reasons. “We’ll be playing our electronic influenced stuff, and there’ll be someone else with a Zimmer frame singing bop!”
Surely that’s a collaboration waiting to happen?
Vine laughs at the suggestion. “Yeah, don’t get me wrong, the next album’s brewing and it’s looking pretty good!”
Read this interview in context over at The Stool Pigeon