The Irish Times - Getting the hang of a revolution

15 February 2010

ON A WEDNESDAY morning in January, the streets of the east London suburb of Clapton, in the borough of Hackney, are quiet, slightly grimy and entirely unassuming. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a musical revolution going on. But at the bottom of a small garden on a street called, appropriately, Nightingale Street, there’s a studio where four young men have been conjuring up music quite different from anything you’re likely to have heard before: shimmering soundscapes, shifting patterns, a subtly three-dimensional effect. It could be Steve Reich or Philip Glass if it weren’t for the rock-style drum kit, the up-front saxophone and an extraordinary instrument called a hang, which sounds like a visitor from another space-time continuum altogether.

The resulting combination defies classification – not quite contemporary classical, not quite jazz, not quite ambient, but with elements of all three, and more to boot.

Back on this planet, the Portico Quartet are sitting in an airy kitchen having breakfast. The four of them ply me with toast and coffee as they introduce themselves: on my left, Milo Fitzpatrick, double bass; on my right, Jack Wyllie, soprano and tenor sax and electronics; across the table, Duncan Bellamy, drums, and Nick Mulvey, hang and percussion.

“When we first got a manager,” says Wyllie, “he said, ‘okay, you don’t have a genre, so we’ve got to create one’. He suggested ‘street jazz’ because we used to play on the street sometimes.”

Bellamy looks up from his poached eggs. “Sounds awful, doesn’t it?” he chips in.

“And,” Wyllie adds, “we settled for – it makes me cringe a bit now – we settled for ‘an indie band that plays post-jazz’. “I like ‘Mingus music’,” Mulvey says.

“World music from the future” isn’t too bad, I suggest. There’s a chorus of nods.

“Yeah, but you know,” Bellamy says, “for us I don’t think it really matters. I mean, if you’re not gonna sell millions of records . . .”

Well, maybe not millions. But for a band that’s just five years old they’ve been doing pretty well. From busking and playing clubs and festivals, they graduated to the main stage at Glastonbury. Their debut album, Knee Deep in the North Sea , was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2008 alongside Radiohead and Elbow. And their recently released second album, Isla, found them recording at Abbey Road with a producer, John Leckie, who has worked with everyone from The Stone Roses to Rodrigo and Gabriela. Can they explain the speed with which they’ve made a name for themselves?

“I think our very different sound has meant we haven’t had to do . . .” Mulvey begins. “I mean, for an indie rock band, it strikes me you’d have to go a lot further and longer to just be noticed. Having the hang is certainly unusual. And then the different musics we pull together has accelerated the process a bit.”

“Yeah,” puts in Wyllie, “and we did a lot of busking as well. We’d go down to the South Bank Centre and play down there, and basically just make this big advert for ourselves right in the middle of cultural London. And we did it all round Europe as well.”

“Very bloody hard work,” observes Bellamy. “We played all the time. You forget how much you did when you’re sitting here now. But we did play every weekend for five, six hours for a couple of years, and then those trips round Europe, as well as playing proper gigs.”

THE WORD “HANG” has come up several times now, so perhaps it’s time to explain. It’s quite a story. In 2004 Mulvey and Bellamy were at the Womad world music festival – as punters, with a group of friends, not as performers – when, as he puts it, “we stumbled across a sort of percussion stall”. It had about eight hangs for sale. Neither Mulvey nor Bellamy had ever heard of the instrument before – indeed, the drum had only been invented a couple of years earlier – and it was love at first sight.

“I was completely blown away by it. It absolutely appealed to all my musical senses,” says Mulvey. “I couldn’t believe that something this seemingly simple could make this beautiful sound. Duncan bought one on the spot, and I ordered one which came about three weeks later.”

They recently acquired a third, tuned in a different but compatible key, and thereby hangs a whole other tale.

The hang was created by Swiss inventors Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, who live in Berne. The name comes from the Bernese word for “hand”, and the instrument comprises two metal hemispheres bonded together. The only way to get yourself a hang is to write to this duo – write, mark you, not e-mail or text – and wait until you get to the front of the queue. This may take some time. The hangmakers don’t work to a commercial production schedule, regarding each instrument as a bespoke product designed specifically for the musical – and, they say, spiritual – use of one person.

The Portico’s hangs (technically, the plural of “hang” is “hanghang”, but let’s not go there) sit in the studio, looking for all the world like a set of miniature flying saucers crafted by some superior race. Two of them glow turquoise, the other glows burnished brown, and they sound, when Mulvey gives me a quick demonstration, just as beautiful live as they do on CD. Sort of like a steel drum, but warmer and more resonant.

“Changed my life,” Mulvey says softly, running his hand over the elegant dimpled surface.

Would there be a Portico Quartet without the hangs? Possibly not. The instrument has provided them not just with a tonal world of their own, but with a terrific talking-point. As Wyllie puts it, “they don’t have any cultural connotations. It’s just this sound that people have never really heard before – and so they don’t associate it with any particular genre or sound or place. So the music sounds really fresh and quite interesting.”

But instruments don’t make fresh and interesting music by themselves. The Porticos take the traditional expectations of both the classical and jazz quartet set-ups, and . . . what? Use them? Confound them?

As the bassist in a jazz combo, Fitzpatrick would be responsible for holding the sound together. But not in this quartet. “The bass will always be the deepest instrument, so it will always hold down the bottom parts,” he says. “It’s a cool instrument because you can get some really interesting sounds with the bow and stuff, and become more of a voice, like the sax. But, for us, it’s always about combinations in the band, about trying to create a timbre which is new and different.

“We try to make it quite fluid, we interweave so that everyone has aims and goals beyond their instrument, so that you’re always trying to attain something.”

What I find fascinating is how four twentysomethings get to the point where their musical goal is to create an entirely new kind of timbre. In the case of the Porticos the explanation appears to be that none of them has taken the accepted classical route: music lessons in infancy, followed by a hothouse conservatory training. Nor have they gone the way of navel-gazing garage bands. Instead, what they seem to represent is the ability to get interested in music in one’s early teens, followed by the inclination to synthesise a wide range of interests and influences.

Wyllie and Fitzpatrick are childhood friends who grew up in Southampton, where they played in various musical outfits, including a big-band orchestra. Mulvey and Bellamy both hail from Cambridge. The paths crossed when Mulvey met Wyllie at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, where they were both studying ethno-musicology. Bellamy, meanwhile, did fine art at St Martin’s, while Fitzpatrick studied contemporary music at Goldsmiths College.

“I suppose there are some main streams of influence that we could pick out – and within that, there’s all sorts of blurring of boundaries,” says Mulvey. “There’d be the minimalist composers – Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley – and then a shared love of jazz from Scandinavia, or New York. And then there’s the different African tastes that we all have. Radiohead would be another. Broadly speaking, those are the different things.”

“I can tell you what’s on my iPod if you like,” Wyllie offers. He scrolls down, reading aloud as he goes. “I’ve got a handbell ensemble from . . . from Latvia, I think. I’ve got a guy called Arve Henriksen. I’ve got three of his albums on here. I’ve got a band called Supersilent, which he also plays in.”

“They’re really good,” Bellamy says.

“Yeah. Experimental ambient music,” says Wyllie, still scrolling. “Trentemøller – quite dark, well-produced Danish techno dudes. Two of them.”

“There’s just one of them,” says Bellamy.

“Oh. I thought it was two. I’ve got about six Matthew Herbert albums, I’ve got Kraftwerk, Tortoise, King Sunny Adé . . .”

WHILE WE’RE ON the subject of names, the new Portico Quartet album is called Isla , after “a friend who was round our house at the time we wrote the track”.

“I quite liked the human warmth of the name for an album of instrumental music,” says Mulvey.

“It’s also an island in Scotland,” says Wyllie. “And it means ‘island’ in Spanish. It means lots of things, so you don’t really know what it means, which is quite nice.”

Mulvey laughs. “Yeah. Titles are really hard for us all to agree on,” he says. “It usually ends up being the most ambiguous thing we can think of.”

They all laugh in an easy sort of way. They’re not just musical colleagues, but friends as well. They’re concerned about their carbon footprint and have given up eating meat in order to offset their forthcoming series of gigs at the Perth Festival in Australia. After that, they’re headed our way. “Summer in Australia, with a one-day break, to the winter in Ireland,” says Mulvey. “That’ll be quite a transition.”

Fitzpatrick smiles. His dad is from Blackrock. “There should be plenty of our relatives coming along to the Dublin show.”

He pauses just long enough to allow everyone to make polite “oh really” kind of noises. Then he adds: “About 40 of them.”

Ladies and gentlemen: the Portico Quartet.

The Portico Quartet begin a Music Network tour of Ireland at the Coach House, Dublin Castle, tomorrow, followed by Solstice Arts Centre, Navan (Wed, Feb 17), Anaverna House, Co Louth, (Thur, 18), Tinahely Courthouse Arts Centre (Fri, 19), Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge (Sat, 20), Lab na Mainistreach, Dingle (Sun, 21), Bank of Ireland Theatre, Galway (Tue, 23), Ballina Arts Centre (Wed, 24), Factory, Sligo (Thur, 25)