“I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves as a jazz band – although people like to put us in that box” is an oft-heard line from one of the UK’s foremost jazz-but-not groups. Famed for their transition from South Bank buskers to the Mercury-nominated fame of their debut album, Knee Deep in the North Sea, Portico Quartet are also notable for “the band that had the Hang” – a handmade delicate-sounding “mesmeric” steel drum with a 20 year waiting list for a new one.
Keir Vine tells me the media’s obsession over it has “frustrated” them in the past; “it does have its limitations tonally.” Perhaps that’s why their new album sounds so very different – and with markedly less Hang. Or perhaps it’s due to their new member. Keir joined “about a year ago” through knowing the bassist from uni, after Nick Mulvey, their previous hang-ist, left to pursue a singer-songwriting career. Speaking to me from his London home prerehearsal, his down to earth tone and “how you doin’ mate” opener sets me at ease for a chat covering the band’s sound and its evolving sound. As to whether this change is natural or inspired by him, he says that “I’ve facilitated what was always going on – a new variant in the band helps find a new direction”. Whilst Portico Quartet have always been known as the jazz boys who like Radiohead – this new album really embraces the new electronic tastes that are circulating London and beyond. “Oneohtrix Point Never, Grouper, droney ambient stuff, as much as dance floor stuff like Zomby” are all a part of this record, and their influence is apparent. The self produced, self-titled album uses pads and synths to create songs that sound different to any of their previous output. Whilst Knee Deep in the North Sea was “almost 100% acoustic, ‘Ruins’ and ‘Spinner’ could have been recorded by Bonobo or produced by the Brainfeeder crew.
But what stands head and shoulders out of the album is ‘Steepless ft. Cornelia’. As the only Portico track ever to feature a vocalist, it harks the minimalist production of ‘Mount Kimbie’ and ‘SBTRKT’ in its focus around an effortlessly commanding voice to create a track that will surely attract attention. Keir sounds reserved when I mention my predictions of success, but states the band are “interested to see how people react – I’m excited for one.”
The album is not the only changing feature of the band – the live act is too. Jazz seems to be taking more of the backseat. “There’s a lot less improvising – we still do improvise live…we incorporate more as the tour progresses…but there aren’t any ‘solo’ solos in the set anymore.” So those expecting wild sax shrieks may be disheartened on 6th March, when they’re coming down to the Duchess for a gig.
Currently, the band are just about to set off on a European tour, starting in Belgium. “We’ve got a nice little run of dates… In France and Germany we’ve always had strong support – you can always expect a good crowd there… we’re lucky we have a nice spread of fans as much as [there is] in the UK.”
However, the creative cogs have not stopped turning. “There’s such an amazing amount of stuff that we’re inspired by right now…it’s a really productive period. We’re writing right now – there’s always a little bit of writing – keeping our ears out”. Portico Quartet seem to be a band on a mission, eager to develop their sound for the modern all-encompassing electronic genre. “It’s more aesthetic about sound than writing tunes – that’s definitely the realm we’re very interested in right now – music as sound that you’re sculpting”. But they haven’t forgotten their roots.
“Taking repetitive strains and then breaking them down – that’s as much old Portico as it is new.” In particular “Lacker Boo,” one of Keir’s favourites, couples the band’s “minimalistic approach” and electronic influences with a sound reminiscent of their first two albums. And whilst the Hang is present, Keir says “The compositions are what we want to be known for – not the instrument.”