Portico Quartet, l-r Jack Wyllie, Nick Mulvey, Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick
I’m sitting at the Riverside Terrace Café at the Royal Festival Hall with Milo Fitzpatrick, the double bass player from experimental Jazz outfit-extraordinaire Portico Quartet. We’re waiting for fellow band member and saxophonist Jack Wyllie, who’s running late. He eventually arrives mid-interview, apologetic and sporting the most earnest of smiles. It seems fitting that these two should be the band’s interview delegates for the day having been friends since childhood.
It’s maybe just as significant that we should be meeting at the Southbank Centre, where, a mere three years ago, before things started to really take off for the Quartet, I would come and watch them on the occasional Saturday afternoon busk their way into the consciousness of Londoners and tourists alike. I first became enamoured with their music when I was present at the live recording of a show for the now defunct digital channel, RMusicTV and they were part of the line-up. Back then the Quartet was a regular feature of the prestigious OneTaste Collective whose other alumni include acoustic-soul/folk singer Jamie Woon and award-winning spoken word artist, Inua Ellams.
The Quartet, formed in the mid-noughties, is comprised of Wyllie, Fitzpatrick and percussionists Duncan Bellamy and Nick Mulvey. The latter two play the Hang – a peculiar instrument akin to the steel drum and the brainchild of Swiss pioneer sound designers Felix Rohner and Sabina Schaerer, back in 2000.
The terms futuristic and otherworldly, as often used to describe the Quartet’s output, are only too accurate. There is something almost celestial about Portico’s music; composed and played as God intended, remaining somehow unsullied by this cruel and crazy world. Yet the Quartet’s soundscape is incredibly evocative. On hearing them play, a cornucopia of emotions assails the listener; from ecstatic heights to pensive melancholia settling into complete serenity. On stage, the joyful energy with which the band plays is projected and absorbed by their rapt audience.
In less than half a decade, the band have achieved more than many. A critically-lauded debut album, Knee Deep In The North Sea (on its release it rode high on the ITunes album chart), national and international tours, a Mercury Prize ‘Album of the Year 2008’ nomination, a follow-up album Isla in less than two years and the respect of their peers and press alike. No wonder the Big Chill website hailed the Quartet as “The darlings of the…leftfield jazz scene”.
This is intelligent music made by intelligent young men. Yes, it has universal appeal but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come correct. Milo doesn’t hide his mild chagrin at a journalist from a celebrated urban lifestyle publication, showing up to interview the group without having done her homework. He recalls incredulously, “She didn’t even listen to the record or anything. She just turned up and asked us these inane questions about what it was like to be in a boy band…and it was like, what?! Seriously missed the vibe.”
It’s not that the Quartet are a bunch of aloof prima donnas. Far from it. Despite the media whirlwind since the release of Knee Deep… the lads are taking it in their stride. Certainly, they stay grateful for their success, but they are not about to take their audience for granted or sacrifice high quality music on the altar of hype.
Milo reflects on the past year and a half for the band. “Since the Mercury’s we’ve had quite a big boost in the public eye and that was great. We had a lot more momentum getting shows; great crowds at all the shows. We did a really fun tour and then it was like what do we do next? There’s always that question… It’s always just more music. The main thing that drives us is searching for something new all the time. So album number two [was] definitely moving pretty soon. Between the months of December and April we just went to the bottom of our garden [the band share a house] where we have a studio.
“We basically had to gel our minds together and hammer away for ages. You get a lot of crap but you get some good stuff as well. It took about five months. We did the first album; pretty much stopped writing much music and just worked on touring. Then it was like suddenly, we have to write a whole new set of work and that is quite a daunting prospect. We are experimenting a lot with new, more electronic sounds. We’ve got new palates to play with. In the making of the album there wasn’t any narrative to it; we just literally went with what we think sounds cool now.”
There’s very little that is conventional about the Quartet. Even their song titles (“Monsoon Top To Bottom”, “The Kon Tiki Expedition”, “Life Mask”) and the band name resonate with originality. Milo explains how they came across the group’s moniker.
“We were in Italy before we were a band as such and we were touring this beautiful festival in Bologna. We were playing outside and it started to rain. The organiser said, ‘Go and play under the Portico’. It was a beautiful experience…really intimate, pouring down with rain, loads of people with candles and music, really great. We just got obsessed with the word Portico, started screaming it around, I don’t know why. We were looking for a name and we went through some terrible ones! We looked in a book and saw Portico and thought, ‘Why not?’”
It is equally interesting how the group’s diverse musical tastes bring to bear brand new creations in audio that can’t be traced to their exact origins. Milo explains, “In terms of musical influences I think the list gets broader and broader all the time. Duncan is definitely into his Hip Hop, people like J Dilla. Through that he’s got me into more wonky Hip Hop like Flying Lotus which is almost like Jazz but with a dance, dub step, hip hop angle to it. On the other side you’ve got contemporary classic musicians such as Thomas Hayes, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass. Rock music… whatever’s going on.”
The one half of the Quartet sitting before me strikes me as the proto-‘odd couple’ double act; Milo’s measured intensity complemented by Jack’s endearing enthusiasm. It’s almost as if their respective instruments have anthropomorphised into their players. Evidently, all four members bring their distinct personalities as well as musical predilections to the composition process.
“We’re like four separate dictators in a room each fighting for our corners,” Milo smiles. “So it ends up being always a bit of a tussle but I like that. Everyone pulling their own corner adds such tension that the middle always ends up being somewhere quite interesting. You have to give way and have faith that your co-workers are actually onto something. A lot of the time we just fool around, jam, musically find a pocket or a sound wall that we haven’t been to before. That dictates the melody and the structure and the groove as such. It’s often very democratic and we just sit down and make a sound. Because there are no lyrics or no front man, everything heads up to be quite evenly balanced. You can see that physically when we’re playing on stage; we play in an arc rather than a line. And that is how the music is as well. Four separate elements all coming at you at once.”
On listening to Isla there’s a strong sense of something sombre lurking in the background, compared to their previous work. Milo and Jack agree. “I find it kind of disconcerting sometimes,” admits the bass player, “the music does that. It switches very dramatically in a few tracks from quite an ambient, lucid sound world and then it will go very intense and chaotic. We’re definitely playing with those emotions. I listen to the album and I get quite exhausted, it’s emotionally draining.”
Jack sheds some more light on Isla’s darker mood. “I think partly that’s down to the way it was composed. With the first album we pretty much composed it busking. You have to have a quick fix and a lot more catchy crowd-pleasers. But we composed Isla in winter. We’d all just piled into the studio. We had the chance to go much deeper, be much more critical, we didn’t have to draw people in so quickly. We weren’t performing as we were composing and so partly, not entirely, that’s one of the reasons why we’re maybe not quite so hook based.”
Milo continues, “Rehearsals were intense and that’s why the music has come to be so intense. Now in retrospect it starts to crystallise into a chapter. You get four guys in a tiny little room for months, locked up. It was a new way of writing we hadn’t experienced before. You learn all the time…”
Perhaps maybe that’s why Isla is not the most immediate of albums. It does require the listener’s commitment to understand the progression in sound from Knee Deep… but it’s a commitment that pays off.
Milo agrees once again. “You have to actively listen to it. It’s not something that gives you everything, all those grooves, melodies and throws them at you. It’s a lot more gratifying for the listener if they have to meet the music half-way and in that space they get a lot more from it.” He smiles wryly: “Maybe next time we’ll have a pool and a bar. It’ll be really fun, easy listening music.”
As the discussion moves on to how, if at all, the recent success has changed their day to day, the two band mates share their experience at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2008.
Milo: “It was kind of weird and surreal the whole day. We were all surviving on no hours sleep, because we got kicked out of our house and then we couldn’t move to our new house. We were all sleeping on sofas. A couple of us were going to Africa the next day. So from there you’ve got this big [Mercury Prize] media circus. You’ve got to run through this gauntlet of interviews and photos and the whole thing is really surreal. You realise how superficial everything really is and how much is made up for TV.”
To illustrate Jack recounts the story of how the Quartet had to pretend for the cameras to show up to their hotel in a plush car. However, he sees the method behind the madness. “I suppose they’ve got to do it to make it look interesting. It’s probably to boost the band’s profile as well, not specifically for self-indulgence.”
Surely the prospect of working with a maverick band such as Portico Quartet must be as enticing as it is daunting for any potential collaborators?
“We did do a collaboration with a choreographer called William Tuckett who is pretty prolific in way of what he does,” Jack reveals. “We did this really cool thing at the Royal Opera House where he took one of our established tracks and choreographed a piece of dance. It was based on improvisation within structure… very interesting. That track always changes as well so he built that into his dance. I think that definitely sowed the seeds for more cross-pollination, particularly in different genres like dance or art. But no concrete ideas at the moment.”
What about vocal collabos? “I think the charm of the music is sometimes the absence of that space being filled [vocally],” Milo proffers . “[It] actually lets it be filled with much more imagination from the listener and also the musicians as well. If you have something as direct as vocals it can sometimes pull (the music) down to earth a little too heavily. If we were going to collaborate with someone I’d like to do it with some kind of foreign voice, maybe Icelandic, or Malian. I’d like to play with someone like Oumou Sangaré or Farka Touré… Someone whose voice stretches out from the popular [tradition]. Even a group of voices; choral work which we’d really like to use.”
Jack: “We’ve got nothing against (collaborating). It’s just finding the right thing and a quite natural way for it to happen. We’ve tried before covering someone else’s tune and that didn’t really sound very good. The process by which it’s done will have to be good… It’s quite hard to fashion together.”
The lads aren’t just open to new and wonderful musical partnerships but also returning to their humble beginnings: busking.
Milo reminisces, “[The tourists] that’s the best thing about it. I think everyone goes: ‘Wow, who are they?’ I always like that, playing to completely new people. They’re not really sure what to think about it but they stick around…it’s a nice feeling.”
“We’ve just started to get into more European gigs,” adds Jack. “It’s quite nice developing our grass root foundations; to do loads of smaller gigs again and that kind of busking as well.”
So, as is often the way in life, things do indeed come full circle… or in the case of the Quartet’s preferred stage formation, semi-circle.
Photos by Toby Summerskill
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