Interview: Portico Quartet

Gary Green chats to Portico Quartet

Interview: Portico Quartet Bearded: Why have you chosen your up-and-coming album to be self-titled?

Jack: Well I guess we went through a lot of changes this year; someone left (Nick Mulvey), Kier joined and we worked really hard. It was quite a struggle at points – we didn’t really know how it was going to end up. So I suppose in a way as an album title it felt quite reaffirming. That we achieved what we set out to achieve and felt really strong again.

B: What was the first song you wrote while making the album that got you excited?

Jack: ‘Lacker Boo’, actually.

Milo: Well the first track we wrote was ‘Spinner’ actually.

Duncan: It felt like we had actually done something. The guy who used to play the hang (Nick Mulvey) left, and it was just me, Milo and Jack. And so we were finding ways to compensate and trying to write music with the three of us, but with just sax, bass and drums – nothing in the middle. It was the first one where we came up with something really good. It was a step-on musically but also [made us] feel like we could do it again.

B: By the time we reach ‘Spinner’ on the album, it sounds like a full-on ambient electronic record. Do you think there’s a more interesting direction to be found in your more traditional jazz style or in electronica?

Duncan: I’d probably say in the middle, maybe.

Jack: I wouldn’t say it’s even, really. There’s a lot of different influences. You know, some things are from jazz – but that’s probably from the instrumentation, with the double bass and the saxophone. I think if you did it on like, a synth, compositionally it’s like jazz. In terms of the direction, I think there’s a space that’s opened up between a lot of different music that people can tap into.

B: With your experimentation in electronica, do you think you’ll reach a point where you’ll do so much with it that you’ll turn back to playing just purely acoustically again, or do you think the sky’s the limit?

Duncan: I wouldn’t rule anything out, really. It’s whatever we’re feeling, I suppose; whatever we’re exciting about or interested in. But I’m definitely on the ‘sky is the limit’ side.

B: There doesn’t seem to be not so much an absence of the Hang, but you’ve started to sample it a lot more on the latest album. And you used to use it for pretty much all your songs, especially on Knee Deep in the North Sea. What brought that about?

Duncan: I think we needed to re-approach the actual sound of it. There are limitations to the instrument, and that instrumentation reached a certain point; we started using pedal boards, and actually sampled it in and played around with what we could do with it. I think the main thing was trying to make sure we could still be inspired by the instrument – still keeping that warm sound, but basically fucking around with it a bit more.

B: Why do you decide to produce your records yourself?

Jack: I think we did it mainly because we were getting into more electronica and production, and we felt like, we had our own sort of styles I guess in terms of production we wanted to use on the album. We did do what you might assume is ‘production’ on this album, but we did actually play live – a lot of the effects pedals and reverb. Duncan’s levels are all set on his MPC which is essentially a sampler.

Milo: What does MPC stand for then?

Jack: Music production centre.

(Sound of collective realisation)

B: When it comes to stuff like that, what’s the most advanced technique or application of technology you’ve used in the studio for this album? Or live?

Jack: One of the things we did mainly – I say it’s advanced, it’s more interesting – is when Duncan, whilst playing live, samples a lot of what I play (saxophone) and plays around with that. He’ll sample what I do, then affect it, fiddle about with it.

B: What’s the bets effect you’ve found?

Duncan: Best effect? Is there a best effect? Reverb?

(Everyone laughs)

Duncan: Delay? I don’t know.

Jack: There’s a thing called a Kaoss pad that Duncan uses quite a lot.

B: It’s clear that you’re combining the sounds of multiple instruments in the studio to create new timbres. Is there anything else you’d like to try, and what’s the most interesting piece tone-wise on the album?

Jack: The start of ‘Window Seat’s quite nice. Duncan got the reverb from the end of a big piano chord and repeated it.

Duncan: It was the trail end of a piano. I always really like the ends of songs, like on loads of old jazz records; that last chord is always really nice, finishing off a real sweet one.

B: Is that what you do live? Finishing on sweet chords?

Milo: Not so much. (Laughs)

B: If opening on ‘Window Seat’ which could be the soundtrack to a car, train or plane journey, what’s your view on the role of music in someone’s everyday life? Does it play more of an active role or does it take a bit of a backseat?

Kier: I don’t think it necessarily needs to be overall; I listen to music while I’m doing stuff, but it can be subconscious and still be enjoyable and I think there are times where you’re really zoned in. Like Eno’s Music for Airports, that’s not something you’d necessarily sit down and home in on, listen to it in detail; but it’s great to listen to.

B: Where do you think your guys’ music fits in?

Milo: At the gym?

(Everyone laughs)

Jack: You can have, erm, you can listen to it in both ways.

Kier: It probably does sort of bridge both territories, and I definitely listen to a lot of odd stuff while I’m travelling – your mind just goes off somewhere. But equally, if I want to sit down and listen quite intensely, it’s still rewarding.

Duncan: Some tracks lean more toward active listen and some more toward passive listening.

B: Kier, you have a classical training in composition, is that right?

Kier: Yeah, of sorts. I did contemporary classical stuff at Uni.

B: How does that affect the songwriting in Portico Quartet?

Kier: Well, I think all these guys were already probably doing quite a lot of contemporary classical influenced stuff, so I think I’ve just added another hand for the spoon in the pot. I think the guys are as clued up on it as I am, really.

B: While touring, what are the places you’ve visited that have inspired you the most?

Jack: I’d say Morocco. We’d played in Rabbatt – the gig wasn’t great – but we travelled down to Sirewa which used to be on the hippie trail where people would go and leave England and they’d go to Goa and around the Middle East, and Jimi Hendrix lived there for a while. You usually see a washed-up old hippie in the sea.

Milo: Living the dream.

Duncan: That was inspiring actually: seeing some dead hippie.

(Everyone laughs)

Duncan: But Lisbon was really cool. We went there a couple of times, and we’re going back there again in February.

B: Since you guys don’t really sound like anything else out there right now, what would you class as your biggest influence other than music?

Duncan: For me, definitely visual art, in all it’s forms. Installations, paintings, whatever.

Jack: I think it’s generally living in a city and having access to visual art – and the sounds that you hear just around as well.

Milo: The sounds of life.

Jack: Yeah. But I really think that affects what you write.

Duncan: Yeah, definitely. Your environment is important.

B: What examples can you give of that?

Duncan: Well, I do think our studio is some kind of influence, because we moved to the studio when we wrote this album in Leyton, in an industrial estate, which is pretty bleak. I mean, I’ve grown to love it, but there’s definitely a vibe there. I think it does affect your psychology when you’re there.

Jack: There are quite a lot of ambient recordings on the album. There’s some trains on ‘Lacker Boo’ which have been pitched down. And in ‘4096 Colours’ which has a cathedral that is actually quite quiet in the background.

B: Hence, that’s what would’ve inspired the title – the stain-glassed window in the cathedral. Seeing as you’re an instrumental band, when you give your songs a name like that, what is the importance to you guys of actually giving a name to a song that doesn’t actually have any lyrics to it?

Jack: That’s the only sort of like, linguistically, the only thing people can hold onto – which is going to give you the most information apart from the music, instead of where you have lyrics and it’s telling a story. I find it really hard to name tracks, because whatever you pick really has to be spot on. A lot of them are quite arbitrary: like ‘Lacker Boo’.

Duncan: Quite a nice play on words.

B: Going on the same theme, you’ve got a vocalist on ‘Steepless’. What inspired you to have a vocalist?

Duncan: We’d been thinking from the outset of trying to do stuff with some singers.

Jack: It was quite nice, because it took the focus away from the saxophone which was being quite dominant.

B: What’s next for your band?

Duncan: A lot of touring, I suppose. Obviously the album’s coming out on the 30th, then we’re going to be playing a lot of gigs Europe-wise, then there’ll be some remixes coming out. But mainly a lot of touring.