Portico Quartet

Portico Quartet sound like nothing you ever heard before. The Mercury nominated East London based outfit’s unique music has expanded to embrace new sonic territories.

Drawing on the inspiration of electronica, ambient, classical and dance music as they take their strange, beautiful, cinematic, future music to exciting new vistas where the inspiration of Burial, Mount Kimbie and Flying Lotus rubs shoulders with the textures of Arve Henriksen and Bon Iver and echoes of Steve Reich and Max Richter. But all underpinned by a shared joy in collective music making as the band push their inimitable music into the future.

Back in January 2009 Society of Sound featured a fascinating stage in the Portico Quartet’s musical development with release of The Black and White Sessions. This work in progress subsequently metamorphosed into the critically-acclaimed ‘Isla’.  Three years on the next stage of their musical evolution is clear with the new self-titled ‘Portico Quartet’

It’s a change that was brewing for some time. As anyone who saw Portico Quartet live throughout 2010 knew, the band had added a heady brew of live samples and loops to their arsenal, exploring a harder-edged sound that brought a more contemporary edge to their previously wholly acoustic music. It was a metamorphosis that was accelerated when the band’s original hang player, Nick Mulvey, left to explore his own musical muse earlier this year and the remaining members drummer Duncan Bellamy, bassist Milo Fitzpatrick and saxophonist Jack Wyllie started exploring the possibilities of sampling the hang and triggering it’s sounds from electronic pads, opening up a whole new way of utilising the instrument’s unique sound. It accelerated further when they invited keyboard player, and now hang player, Keir Vine (an old friend of Milo’s from Goldsmith’s University) to come on board. Keir who brings his own unconventional keyboard methods and love of synth music to the band has also developed his own take on the hang style pioneered by Mulvey and his erstwhile band mates. But it is Keir’s keyboard playing (a sound Portico Quartet had always wanted to use) that has been instrumental in allowing the band to explore a new sonic world, as has drummer Duncan Bellamy’s shift to playing a hybrid electronic/acoustic drum set-up and his and his band mates organic use of live sampling and loops alongside their more traditional instruments.

Produced by the band themselves and engineered by Greg Freeman at the Fish Market Studios and Real World Studios, Portico Quartet’s eponymous third album is the sound of a band that refuses to stand still. But there are no shortcuts here, the music is played live, not pre-recorded, and the hard won collective empathy that is at the heart of their sound remains their primary touchstone.

Whilst mixing at Real World Studios the band spoke to journalist Daniel Spicer about the production of the new album:

With the addition of electronic loop pedals now augmenting the acoustic instruments, the tunes on ‘Portico Quartet’ may sound like the meticulously structured products of digital studio-craft, but it’s important to the band that they’re able to play live too. With all tracks starting out as live jams before they started to record the album, this obviously isn’t a studio project.  “It’s probably something between,” says Bellamy. “A lot of the loops and little bits and pieces might sound quite sequenced and programmed – but all the drum sounds and a lot of the effects are done live. “

Evidently, much of the music on ‘Portico Quartet’ was created as a result of electronic experimentation, which marks a break from their previous largely acoustic approach.  It’s a development that was partly thrust upon the band by the departure of original band member Nick Mulvey at the beginning of 2011.  Up till then, it had been Mulvey who crystallised the band’s signature sound by playing the hang : a tuned, metal percussion instrument, not unlike a steel drum, usually played with the finger-tips but played with mallets by Mulvey (causing minor controversy among hang purists)….Wyllie explains:  “After Nick left our first thought was to sample the hang”  …and then use those recorded snippets as building blocks to a new electronic approach. Though no longer the instantly recognisable central voice of the band, the hang’s basic tone has become a key compositional element – and provided the impetus for much of the material on ‘Portico Quartet’, as Bellamy explains: “Sampling the hang and playing those samples on the drums and then being able to switch it around and loop it – that was one of the initial springboards into the more electronic feel of the whole thing.  On some of the tunes, the bass is made from something played on the hang, pitched right down, played on the drums, then looped.  The hang has a very pure tone so you can pitch it down to make a beautiful, rich bass sound… I first chucked the notes from the hang on an MPC sampler,” he explains. ‘It’s a great old sampler, which most old hip hop was made on. It has 16 pads, which you play because it has a very dynamic response.  Putting the samples on there rather on a keyboard made sense because the hang kind of looks the same. You feel your way around it – and it’s the same with the MPC.  It keeps the flavour of the hang.”

New member Keir Vine has brought skills not only as a keyboard player but also has a taste for vintage synthesisers. “When we were recording the album,” Wyllie recalls “in the studio they had this wicked old Prophet-10 – actually it used to be Gary Numan’s – which we got out an played around with and used to replace some of the sounds we had already recorded.”  “We left it till almost the last day, but I had my eyes on it from the beginning!” Keir says. “It’s an old-school really ubiquitous, big analogue synth made by (legendary Californian synthesiser pioneers) Sequential Circuits.  Proper deep,” adds Bellamy.

(with thanks to Jazz Wise magazine)

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