Interview: Portico

Portico are a fascinating group. They came onto the scene as a fresh, contemporary jazz quartet and were immediately lauded as potential saviors for the (statistically) least-appreciated genre in music. After three albums of technically stoic, atmospherically brilliant instrumentals, the former quartet is now simply Portico. Looking to solidify themselves as an electronic band with experimental ten- dencies to match their past efforts, saxophonist Jack Wyllie explains his humble rise, and how this has led him to pursue an altered form of musical expression.

SMS: What’s up?

Jack: Literally right now, sat at a café on the Thames. Generally, we’re writing a new album and doing a rehearsal tonight for our tour. Hopefully we’ll release an album next year.

Who performs the vocal parts on your last album, Living Fields, live?

With live stuff, there’s a guy called Jono McCleary who sings a few on our album. He sings all the other songs from the al- bum live. There’s three singers on the al- bum – Joe, Jono, and Jamie – and Jono sings Joe and Jamie’s tunes, so there’s four of us going out on tour.

How is your approach to song writing different now that you’re a trio?

It has changed. Everyone’s got their own influence on how the process works and their own input. I suppose more of a change came about when we moved from being a “live” set up to working with sing- ers and writing [songs] on a computer, and that was a huge change for the three of us. We went from being a live band

that based all our songs around saxophone, double bass, and drums, to all of us writing lots of different parts, and also producing it more; having a much more varied palette of textures and instruments we worked with. Recording into a com- puter and figuring it out digitally before we played live. It’s been a really big shift in process.

Are you still a live band in the sense that you try out new ideas live and flesh them out on tour?

We’re generating a lot of ideas by play- ing live and improvising, which is what we used to do a lot, actually. There’s going to be some saxophone, and more acoustic instruments. But we’re also trying to inte- grate some of the more electronic sounds […], but from ideas that we’ve generated from playing live. It feels a bit more dy- namic, I guess. We won’t really be playing that live on tour, but it will be played live when we record it. And then there will be additional production work done after- wards, but the crux of it is live.

Do you think the attention you received as a “new, contemporary jazz band” has had a positive effect on the direction you’re taking now?

It was great in a lot of ways, because it’s great to be known as… that [a modern jazz act], and we felt like it reflected what we were doing. It was kind of a comple- mentary description of the music we were making. Now that we’re doing something else there’s a bit of weight to that. It’s

quite hard to get people to not contextu- alise it like that when they see our music. We still get reviews saying we’re a jazz band. We still get booked for jazz festi- vals, which is fine, but it also means it’s difficult to break out of that. I think in the past year we’ve made people understand that [Portico] is a different thing.

Now that you’re using more electronic manipulation on your saxophone, do you feel like you can express yourself more musically, maybe in a more individual way?

I felt for quite a long time that the sax- ophone is such an idiomatic instrument. It’s so jazz. […] It’s quite hard to play sax- ophone and not sound like you’re playing jazz music, regardless of what you do with it. People broadly understand it as being in that genre […]. I guess we kind of went outside of it […]. But it’s very heavy with connotations, and it’s quite nice not to have that now – to make mu- sic that I felt reflected me a bit more, and what I was listening to, and what I liked, rather than a specific genre or history of certain music. In that sense, it was really exciting switching over. And it’s not like I don’t play the saxophone anymore – I love the saxophone and it’s a beautiful in- strument, but I did find it quite difficult to play it and have an original voice in some ways.

It’s almost paradoxical – the more you can disguise your instrument, the more you can reveal yourself through it. 

Yeah, I think so, by disguising it, or layering it up.

You’ve named yourself after a portico you played under in Italy once. Have you played any other interesting venues on the jazz festival circuit?

It’s a mix of playing jazz clubs in Ger- many to a bunch of 50 year-olds, which is a lot of how the subsidised music in Ger- many and France works. There are lots of art centres on the outside of town – they pay quite well – and we’ll go and play for a slightly older audience. It’s great, but not very vibey. We’ve also played a handful of really wicked festivals. […] One done by Giles Peterson [Radio 6 DJ]. […] A festival in Marsaille, and we played in a Roman amphitheater that was sort of set into the side of a cliff. […] It was pretty special. Croatia, at Dimensions Festival, which was in a large amphitheater as well, I reckon about 5000 capacity, and we opened for Bonobo.

What are your plans for the new album? Are there going to be more guests?

We’ll see. We might try to do a bit of singing ourselves, and maybe have some more sax and melodic lines in it. We’re trying to keep it in-house at the moment, but that might change. I could see us do- ing one or two songs with other people. If we did use singers again, I reckon it will be the same people [as Living Fields]. We’d like to give it more of a “band” feel, and less like a song that happens to feature a singer in it.

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