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Interview: Portico

18th March 2015

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The conversation is about rebirth and new identities.

PorticoSpecifically the news that Sweden is renaming ten species of birds because they have “racist” names, giving them a new identity that fits more with the country’s modern thinking.

How exactly does this fit a discussion with electronic trio Portico on a Tuesday afternoon at Ninja Tune HQ?

Well, the band were hatched from the remains of critically-acclaimed, Mercury nominated jazz group Portico Quartet. But what their reduced personnel and reduced name offers is wildly different from jazz – the horns and hang drum have been replaced by ethereal electronic soundscapes.

Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick and Jack Wyllie became three with the departure of Keir Vine in July/August last year.

It suits a narrative to see the new name and the new sound as a phoenix like rise from the ashes (we have a full album about to drop already), but reality shows a much longer gestation period for their change.

Wyllie explains, “It feels quite long. We were writing stuff as the three of us before Kier properly left. He officially left in July last year, when we put out a note about it. It had been happening before that and we had already been writing stuff.”

“I think we just felt that we wanted to do something quite different. Between us the music we were making didn’t quite match what we were into. We went away for about a year to find a way of working and we did a few bits and bobs, but nothing we were that satisfied with and then we got to a point when we nearly stopped doing it. But we decided to give it one last shot and start again with something fresh and a completely new approach.”

Comparing the two sounds, “fresh” is one word that is entirely apt. This is a new world of production-based electronic sound completed by a series of guest vocalists.

“We have been quite lucky to have these close personal connections with Jamie and Joe, who we have known personally for quite some time. There was a period of trying things and it just not working and we had to go out and try people, mess around and experiment,” says Fitzpatrick.

The ‘Jamie’ of which they speak is former housemate Jamie Woon, and ‘Joe’ is Alt-J front-man Joe Newman. The trio of vocalists is completed by new label mate Jono McCleery.

The close personal connections may go some way to explaining the sheer ease with which the collaborators fit into the whole sound of Portico. Each vocalist is distinct but similar enough to make forthcoming album Living Fields feel like a complete work.

Fitzpatrick elaborates, “We wanted to make it into a body of work that flowed and didn’t feel disjointed and it needed the right singers and right approach, and you always come back to the people who are nearest and dearest. Jack knows Joe, and Jamie who we lived with and even Jono we’ve known from a long time ago. You realise you’ve got a lot of it right in front of you.”

Despite the album being a fairly equal affair, it is McCleery that is central to this new band, as the man they started the creative process with and as a fourth member for their live outings (ironically making them a quartet again).

But in the scheme of things there is something that really gels with Joe Newman, as if his vocals were made specifically for Portico (causing some errant Youtube commenters to wrongly argue this is an Alt-J side-project).

Bellamy explains how Newman fits into the project, “He wrote the first tune ‘101’ and it just worked, it was really good. It was the easiest to do, he sent back the lyrics and the way he wrote them, the phrasing, it seemed to have the tune etched out in it, so we just had to fill in the blanks. We were like ‘cool that was easy, can we get another one?’”

It is clear from the first listen that the album developed as it went along, with all people inputting into a central concept. As a framework for the album’s themes the band used Patricio Guzman’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light.

Fitzpatrick explains what part the film played in the creative process,“A lot of the themes resonated with what we were going for and it was a really beautiful and thought-provoking stimulus to give to different writers. I think every one, except maybe ‘101’, comes from that film.”

“The things we drew on were the more universal themes. There were a lot of political things in the movie, but I don’t want to make it out like we are making an album about the atrocities committed under Pinochet, because that’s not our place to do it,” adds Wyllie.

“The film just cemented together a lot of things we were thinking about, so don’t take it to literally.”

With universal themes, a stunning new sound and the benefit of some high-profile collaborators, Portico have some seriously help on their side. But this is the music business where pigeonholing comes with the territory, so when a band decides to break their jazz mould there’s bound to be some negativity from fans who have their own in-built expectations.

“The jazz thing in general can be quite competitive, especially the more conservative side of things. Some people just didn’t like it, which is fine. They just didn’t like the lack of hang-drum and saxophone. People associate a certain sound with a band, which is fine, if that band has a sound and they change people aren’t always going to like it. I think if people identify a sound quite strongly as well, they might get a bit offended. Some people seem to have taken a bit of offence to it,” says Wyllie.

“The world in general is getting more extreme, more extreme views are becoming mainstream. Everyone has an opinion these days and now there’s this platform, always a platform from which they can air that. It doesn’t mean that you get any opinions that are worth listening too,” add Fitzpatrick.

But these ‘extremes’ are not really an issue for the band, as Bellamy explains, “Arsene Wenger said ‘everyone’s a specialist these days, everyone’s an expert’. But it’s not really true. Everyone has an opinion and they think they are an expert, but really they just have a laptop.”

Portico come into this new album both buoyed and burdened by their past, with the benefit of recognition but pushing the difficult concept of change. They are a band outside their comfort zone working out what this means for their future.

“It’s be hard but fun this album, to produce something outside of our normal routine. If we tried to do the same thing again it might just come across like a really shit sequel. Like a really bad Star Wars. Even when it dies they’ll carry on and introduce Pinocchio in to space or something – when Chewbacca met Pinocchio,” explains Fitzpatrick.

Like those aforementioned Swedish birds Portico have a new name, and a changing identity to forge a different concept of what they are – in many ways the same but also completely different.

And because the bird analogies are being shoehorned in, Wyllie has an ornithological story of his own.

“We have a flock of parrots that fly past our studio, which is quite nice,” he says.

“There’s a lot of wildlife actually. The best thing I have seen out the window is a heron closely followed by a flock of parakeets.”

Living Fields is released 30th March on Ninja Tune.

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