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Issue 1084

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Feature

Portico Quartet: New horizons

Portico Quartet @bluesandsoul.com
Portico Quartet @bluesandsoul.com Portico Quartet perfom at Rough Trade East (Photo: Tom Major)

The New Portico Quartet album certainly sent me into a right old panic. They seemed to have forsaken their signature sound, the Hang (pronounced Hung), and embraced electronica - which took this particular hack totally by surprise! Leaving me somewhat bewildered by all the bleeps and beats. I was determined to find out what the heck was going on and why their sound had morphed so much!

So Guys, PQ are the leading exponents of the Hang instrument, and the main player has just left what happened there? Are you phasing the instrument out as it appears to be only noticeable on one track!

Jack: His first instrument was the guitar and whilst he loved playing the Hang it wasn't what his real passion was. We're still using the Hang on most of the tracks but it's been treated and so it's not that identifiable. One of things we did get round when Nick left was to sampled it basically and pitch it down lower, which gave it a further unique sound, but the tune "Rubidium" (on the new album) is more like how we used it in the old days. It's got that Hang motif and the track is built around that. Our new album is focussed around other influences as we were beginning to be well known only as the Hang band which was getting in the way of us being judged for our musicality rather than our instrumentation. It's been a direct move away from that.

Tell us about your contract with Real World (Peter Gabriel's label) you've been with them quite a while. Do you think you traded your independence in a little too early?

Jack: They're really good! They let us do what the hell we want as we have complete creative control. They have a lot of international clout as well and they can push the music in the right places and they've put a bit of money behind us!

Milo: We were like kids in a sweet shop! They said you could record here, wicked! Can we still do what we want? Yes! They gave us free reign!

Does Gabriel himself get involved much with the label these days?

Jack: Well he doesn't actively run the label, he has a say and he puts a lot of his money into it, investing in it.

You've introduced a whole heap of electronica, changing your sound dramatically on this album are you in danger of disappearing down a black hole of IDM ambience music? In my humble opinion it works on "Rubidium" where the drummer fights with the bleeps and the glitches of some mad synthesis going on -real innovative stuff but I'm not sure about the programmed beats on tracks such as "Lacker Boo," which I find rather stilted.

Milo: Firstly it's not programmed, it's all played live. You can probably recontextualise it completely into the old set up we used to have if you listen to any of the Hang parts, such as on "Isla," they're just repetitive cycles. The new format is not that different it just allows us to go off into different places. So in fact we've taken something that was always prevalent and given it a flip. What's changed the most is the drums, that has opened up new doors whilst closing others too and shifted the band sound dramatically.

It's a huge change in your sound, which I think is great! A lot of people hold you in cherished fashion, I don't know how they're going to reactâ€Â¦ Let's talk about this new album of yours, dramatic, moody, uplifting with panoramic soundscapes tell us about it!

Jack: The sound began to develop when we were touring with our last album "Isla," we started effecting our instruments and Milo was using a lot of loop station stuff - I was experimenting heavily with pedals too. This all developed quite quickly, plus we'd discovered a new use for the Hang, which we'd sampled as I mentioned. The new pitched down sounds spawned new ideas for us, it all had a new and exciting feel to it. We started off compensating for Nick not being there and we had to be quite inventive there. We did start experimenting with glitchy type of rhythms and I was doing more keyboard stuff. We began also to listen to a lot more electronic and dance music. So much so, Duncan and I released an offshoot EP as a separate side project thing of purely electronic music as it was all so inspiring.

Wow you've really taken on a whole new persona! But let's talk about your instrument the sax. You're such an evocative player with an innovative approach you get some amazing sounds out of the thing!

With this album I was conscious that we were moving the sound and ourselves forward, trying to do new things. I really wanted to reduce the amount of traditional sax sounds on it and give it more variety pushing the music in new directions. In fact, there's quite a few tracks without sax, and then the ones with are going through guitar fx pedals.

You're doing this live in the studio?

Yes, we keep as much of it as live as possible, but yes there are overdubs ......

It's such a varied album, I like "Export For Hot Climates" though it's sadly short, why?

Milo: It's as long as it's meant to be!

Jack: It's long enough to give you a break and it splits the album up quite nicely into two halves.

How did the material get selected for this album, what was the process like?

Jack: It's all done democratically. If someone doesn't like something then we don't use it. A lot of the tunes stemmed from one little idea and people build their own parts round it.

Milo: We knew exactly what is was going to be like as we'd fitted the parts of the puzzle together before we recorded it, so when it was put together it was almost fully formed. We didn't have to do too much mixing. What did take the time was the forging of the new sound, this new direction. We had to rethink basically, everything we'd done before. We all new we wanted a change, take it somewhere where we couldn't see the ends! We've tried to extend beyond our instruments! This whole thing took about four months to do. We've got the formula now, so we can plough on ahead and keep on writing and putting out tunes.

Tell us about "Steepless" you've a vocalist on it, there's no info about her though!!!

Jack: She's a swedish singer called Cornelia who does weird pop music with different time signatures. She's a friend of our flatmate Jamie Woon, who met her at the Red Bull gig in Barcelona - she came over to stay a few times and then she moved in up the road. It just happened from there really...

Well it works methinks and a nice little direction you're on working with vocalists! I think there's a few tracks that have real cinematic qualities such as "City Of Glass," "Window Seat," "Trace" and "4096 Colours" Ideal for film don't you think?

Jack: Well the BBC use us quite a lot

Milo: Yes, the BBC steal quite a lot too! (Lots of Laughter!!)

What do you mean?

They have, apparently, a weird by-law - for instance, if you create a piece of music in the UK, through some strange law of sharing the state's cultural art, the BBC can license it off you for free! Which I'm fine with us as I'm up for state programming, we like to get the music out there anyway!

Forget the BBC boys, I see you doing A Lars Von Trier film... (laughter all around)

How do you hope to promote this new album and what plans have you got for it - apart from the UK where are you popular?

I think the touring will open up a younger audience for us and we can play standing venues as we've got that new oomph behind it. We play a lot in France, Germany and Spain. We're beginning to get a foothold in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe is pretty cool, plus we've got some gigs lined up stateside and Moscow. Plus we're playing at Rough Trade in an hour are you going to come?

Yes I'd love too, just to see how all this electronica Hangs together (excuse the pun)

Milo: You're just like my old man, he thinks 'it's really nice record but says how you going to do it live, I don't think you can Milo!' What do you mean dad we've been doing it live for the last 6 months, get out of here!

So with the interview over it was time to catch them live later on in the evening and to see if they could pull off this ambitious album live, which they assured me they could! A packed out Rough Trade East shop boded well for the quartet and Jack was right, their target audience was twenty somethings who looked like they'd stepped out of a Vogue shoot. Yes the demographic, like their sound, had changed somewhat! The boys kicked off with a brooding intensity in an area of languorous and silky exquisiteness. Milo's bass sounding more like a cello underpinning the track awash with splashing cymbals, live looped drumming and Steve Reich type sequences. A dense and magical backdrop killing the ghosts of former days without giving way to pomp and bluster.

This new album is well honed and set to catapult PQ further into the public limelight. It all began to make sense, perhaps I'd been a bit hard and dogmatic about their foray into electronica, right before me it was all beginning to make sense. Here they were grabbing and demanding our attention, diverse and demanding Portico Quartet are not letting anyone dictate terms, this could be a career high with their fire and invention still raging.

Portico Quartet's new self-titled album is out now on Real World Records.
Words Emrys Baird

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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