INTERVIEW: Portico Quartet

Photo credit: Duncan Bellamy

Of all the wonderful things happening in the music scene at the moment, few are more joyous than the full reformation of Portico Quartet. In a landscape where the brand of ambient jazz which they pioneered is growing more rapidly than ever before, their return to their original four-piece layout couldn’t be more welcome.

Their 2007 album Knee Deep in the North Sea was a watershed moment, and it introduced a whole new audience an almost completely new kind of music; and to the hang, one of the most bizarre, beautiful contemporary instruments there is. In 2014 they dropped the ‘Quartet’ and became Portico, and in that guise they experimented with a more electronic soundscape under the Ninja Tune label.

Now they’re back as a foursome with a new album on the way and a hefty tour schedule including Montreal Jazz Festival, Womad and Boomtown. The album, entitled Art in the Age of Automation, feels like a culmination of everything they’ve done so far.

A few weeks ago, they premiered their new material during a short residency at the intimate Archspace venue in East London. It was quite the experience, they had the audience completely entranced as they blended reworkings of tracks from all three of their previous albums with unheard material from the new one, demonstrating an impressively elaborate new set up to complement all the old standards.

Saxophonist and keyboardist Jack Wylie was kind enough to give us a rare insight into how the band came back together, and what they have in store.

What led you to reforming the group as a quartet?
It was just me and Duncan that wrote the album. Milo’s just had a kid and was doing a lot of session work last year so wasn’t around for most of the year. So we wrote the album but brought Milo and Keir to bring it to life on the stage.

It’s been really nice to play together again. It’s funny how easy it was to remember how to play the old music, some of the music that we hadn’t played for years we were able to play straight away with no rehearsals, it was all firmly lodged in the muscle memory! But yeah it’s felt great re-connecting as a band and making the whole thing work, surprisingly easy.

What was the driving concept behind this new album?
There wasn’t so much a driving concept but we did put boundaries around what we were doing. This really helped craft the creative process and make us more efficient. We felt like we had, to whatever extent, a sound that was pretty unique that we had ownership of and could give the album a strong identity.

That sound was partly made by the mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, the saxophone, the hang drum and a mix of hypnotic/ambient and melodic/groove based music. Obviously that’s pretty broad so there’s loads of scope within that to stuff that’s sounds new and exciting but it helped up keep us on track.

What new elements did you bring into this album, by comparison to the previous ones?
I would say that the core of the compositions are reasonably similar to our third record Portico quartet but the arrangements, treatment of sounds and instruments have developed quite a bit. There’s more layers to them, the sounds and production have been developed more so it feels bigger and more varied.

How would you say the time spent as an electronic trio has affected the band’s approach as a whole?
It definitely improved our production technique/abilities – we are able to do more with sound. So when we applied this to working with our instruments we had a whole new set of tools at our disposal which enabled us to really push the sound into new places.

The Gondwana Label has become synonymous with the resurgent jazz scene in the UK, how did you find it working with them?
Gondwana were great to work with. They really just let us do our thing but chipped in when we wanted help. Which is what you really want from a record label as a musician.

Since you guys first got together, a new wave of similar ambient jazz-influenced music has risen, what’s it been like from your perspective seeing all these new groups emerging with similar approaches to your own?
It’s been interesting to see but we haven’t taken a very close interest in it to be honest. I think it’s more helpful as a musician to try and listen to music that’s different to the stuff you make and filter it in in an interesting way. Having said that it is nice to see your own music having an influence on other people!

You have a number of gigs lined up, are there any that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to them all. I’m going to spend the weekend at Womad which I think will be great. Manchester international festival has a good line up too. There is a festival in Berlin called Sacred Ground that our friends Nick Mulvey and Jono Mccleery are playing too, so that will fun to hang out at.

How has the new material translated to a live setting?
We’ve got a lot of music to choose from now so we can tailor each set to the space and venue. We can play a more direct set for festivals and then play more intricate music at concert halls. It’s nice having that freedom. We’ve also extended some tunes and added on little sections here and there.

We’ve tried to keep it as ‘live’ as possible. Also, There’s lots of additional sound and layers on the record we had to find ways of doing ‘live’. The string sounds for instance have been replaced with synths and bowed and looped double bass as we can’t take a string quartet to every gig! It’s an interesting creative challenge that means the live set is always going to be a bit different and hopefully exciting as a performance!

Art in the Age of Automation drops on August 25th, you can pre-order it here.

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