Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Portico Quartet: 4-tune Hunters

Portico Quartet
Portico Quartet Portico Quartet Portico Quartet Portico Quartet

Right, let’s play a little game before we start -I want you to think of the coolest thing you can... No not ice cream, ice cubes or air conditioning. I want you to think coooool – that’s right cool. Think Elvis back in the day, think Isaac Hayes any day, and hitting a 9.999 recurring on the coolomitor this very day we have the Portico Quartet! Who you say?

Well, take the classic laidback sound of a calypso sounding steel drum- turn it inside out and call it a Hang (pronounced Hung) then mix it with four highly talented Jazz (yeahhh baby!) musicians. Ahh that’s right, now you’re getting it... To sum it up, as it were, take cool calypso + cool jazz and you’ll find it equates to the subzero sounds of the Portico Quartet. Described recently as “jazz darlings”, this formidable foursome have a new album to showcase their wares, which indecently, I should probably say “man it’s good!” – O and did I mention it sounds dead cool too?!

To finish my build up please excuse me while I talk in the third person... B&S’ Lee Tyler catches up with Drummer/Hang player from the formidable jazz de force, the Portico Quartet. We talk humble beginnings, pressures of living and working together, Mercury prize shot listing, fighting critics, the new album ‘Isla’ and having an Imelda May and Lizzie Parks sandwich!? ... HP sauce anyone?

Lee: Firstly, how does it feel going from busking on the South Bank to making the short-list for a Mercury prize in such a short time frame?

Duncan: [Laughs] It feels really great! It all feels like it’s been so much fun. You know, like when we first met we instantly had a really good connection - the band started as two pairs of old friends. So we kind of always approached it from the point of view of doing it cos we really love it - not because of any reason. That’s why we started buskin really, cos it was such an easy place to rehearse. It’s funny that when we were having lunch with our new record label, we were cracking up thinking how this all started – you know, when we were busking at the South Bank with all our Hangs all those years ago.

Lee: The Hang is such a fascinating instrument. Steel drums have always had that summery vibe because of their use in steel bands – You have found something that sounds pretty similar and matched it with a genre that’s just as cool.

Duncan: [Laughs] I guess yeah – the whole thing was just chance you know. When me and Nick saw it at Womad in 2003-2004, there was a shop there called ‘Knock On Wood’ from Leeds and they used to distribute the Hung. They had maybe four or five there and we saw it and said “what the hell is that”. Both being drummers, we had a go- you can try them out, we loved it. Then I sort of scraped together all the money that I had, with it being my birthday so I had a little bit of cash from that. I just managed to buy one, I mean, I picked the scale – they all come tuned.

Lee: I read that the makers are very selective who they let buy one, you have to write to them to ask their permission to own a Hang – is that right?

Duncan: Yeah pretty much – I think anyone can sort of get one I think. They’ve stopped distributing them now - you have to sort of get on the email list and they send an email round. They take a lot of time out every year to sort of research because they are instrument makers in the broadest sense. They do maybe four months research each year – they close their books for a bit, then they make a load more and you have to get in there as soon as you can.

Lee: Surely you must get your Hang’s for nothing now?

Duncan: Well no, we bought three. We bought the first two - one at Womad then Nick ordered one subsequently that would go with mine so we could play together, that was the idea. I then managed to get an invite and flew over to Switzerland (suppose you could say x3 makes them well Hung!? Boom, boom!). They cost a bit, but they’re totally worth it you know.

Lee: If someone wants to buy one, how much do they cost?

Duncan: They probably go for... with a case and and shell and stuff to protect it... Probably about a thousand Euros roughly, maybe a bit less - eight hundred. They’re sort of pretty beautiful things, quite unique.

Lee: Yes they definitely are unique, that’s one thing I will say – Do you think it is it because of the Hang that you are attracting attention, is this your IN if you like?

Duncan: That’s an interesting one – probably in the beginning, when we used to busk a lot. Probably when me and Nick first started playing, there was definitely an element of “no one’s ever heard that sound before” and “what the hell is that thing?” The Hang is definitely a factor, but I don’t think that’s strictly it, it’s totally part of our sound which probably makes it quite unique. But I don’t think that’s just it you know.

Lee: Where do you guys reside now. Is that right that you all live together?

Duncan: We live in the north east now – we used to live in Clapham, but now live in Clapton. Yeah, we still live together - we’ve lived together for about four years now.

Lee: [Laughs] A Portico commune. You all get on well?

Duncan: [Laughs] Yes, really well. We’ve been having some pre-rehearsal lunch in the garden, in the sun. We’ve got a studio at the end of the garden - it’s like an old garage that’s been converted.

Lee: Do you find it hard work living and working all under one roof?

Duncan: Yeah it can be a bit stressful sometimes but on the whole, we still hang out a lot together and stuff, but yeah you know undoubtedly - we are on the road together as well... You come home and you just chip off and do your own thing, see different mates and whatever - but we’re pretty tight.

Lee: Did the Mercury nod help?

Duncan: Yes, it did. We sold loads of albums because of the Mercury. Smaller bands like us, that were pretty much unheard of to most people, it was just a good boost you know.

Lee: What do you think about the kudos that you guys have started to pick up? You’ve been called “the darlings of Jazz/leftfield” amongst other things. Is this the plan?

Duncan: Yes I think so, yeah definitely. Yeah it’s all going to plan I think... We are all really happy with it – we are with a cool new label (Real World Records) and have a great Producer called John Leckie. He’s done loads of stuff like ‘The Bends’ by radio head, he did some Muse stuff - he did the the Rodrigo and Gabriella album. Basically he’s done a really broad mixture of stuff, loads of classical music and stuff.

Lee: There’s a little controversy surrounding what genre you represent. Would you say you were a true Jazz act?

Duncan: It’s a question we get asked a lot, it’s not strictly Jazz I would say – We’ve been called “Post Jazz” as well. I did an interview at Jazz FM about Post Jazz... It’s all quite confusing (You got that right!?). I’m not really sure, you could probably argue on each side whether it is Jazz. But at the end of the day we’re not so worried about giving it a box. So long as we get it out there. Cos it draws on so much different stuff you know, cos we all love different things.

Lee: How did you feel about playing one of the crème de la crème Jazz events, the Cheltenham Festival?

Duncan: Great actually, we played on the Saturday – had a really nice slot and it’s really nice to be sandwiched in between some really great people.

Lee: A nice sandwich would be in between Imelda May and Lizzie Parks?

Duncan: [Laughs] I like that one.

Lee: You must be happy with the fact that you’ve been acknowledged by the Jazz fraternity, that you’re one of their own because you’re playing Cheltenham – it can’t get better than that in Jazz circles can it?

Duncan: I guess you’re right, I hadn’t thought about it like that. It’s always been one of those funny things - the proper Jazz community. The more open ended spectrum really love it and the more conservative critics who... I suppose they are a bit older and they’ve seen the linage, you know what I mean (don’t bring me into this). They’ve got their own opinions.

Lee: Those people that are into that type of Jazz don’t like it touched.

Duncan: Totally. Maybe if you’ve been there in the sixties in London and you’d seen all the greats, maybe you’d feel differently I suppose.

Lee: Not your fault you weren’t there really?

Duncan: Totally, [Laughs] I make no apology. I think it was a good date to have though.

Lee: Let’s talk about the new album?

Duncan: Yeah, we went to Abbey Road to record the album in May.

Lee: I’ve listen to it and am really impressed as I think it’s a solid album with some real stand-out tracks. My favourite is ‘Rock, Paper, Stones’ which I think is an absolutely outstanding track mate.

Duncan: Wicked, yeah-yeah that’s one of my fav’s.

Lee: It’s instantly catchy, I loved it – the album is good from start to finish. What’s your favourite on there?

Duncan: My favourite, there’s a song called ‘Clipper’.

Lee: Did you guys write it all?

Duncan: It’s composed by us and we sort of battled between the four of us at the end of our garden for a few months. The way we write is real group writing, we sit around and everyone’s involved from start to finish. Often there’s a lot of deadlock – there’s stuff that someone likes and there’s stuff that other people don’t like, but we get to a point that we all agree.

Lee: Is there anyone in the group who like to have his own way?

Duncan: Probably me, [laughs] I can be a bit stubborn.

Lee: [Laughs]Well I’m glad I spoke to you about it then.

Duncan: All of us can be in our own way I think.

Lee: How much material did you record for the album, was there a lot left off?

Duncan: Yeah, there’s about four tracks that were left off, but you’ll be able to catch them on the limited edition collection – if you order it from Rough Trade (the music club) - it’s gonna come out on a little EP which won’t be that easy to get hold of. There was too much material in the end, which was funny cos we thought we wouldn’t have enough.

Lee: No collaborations?

Duncan: No, I mean we did try to do a couple of things with some singers and stuff but it didn’t really... We haven’t worked that one out yet in terms of how we interact with a singer. Often it ends up with us sort of seeming like a bit of a backing band to a singer you know. But there’s some stuff with some string players that we all found quite exciting, so maybe some more instrumental things coming up in the future.

Well I reckon the Portico’s are doing just fine on their own at the mo. And if you get a chance to listen to new album ‘Isla’ prepare yourself for a REAL treat – it’s out now!

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