Portico: from Mercury nominees to ‘experimental pop’


By Graham Chalmers

When is a band’s fourth album actually it’s first album?

When the band in question used to be a four-piece called the Portico Quartet but is now a three-piece called just Portico.

But, talking to founder member and pianist Jack Wyllie, it doesn’t seem quite as simple as that.

“When we play live now, there is the three of us but we asked Jono McCleery, who sings on some of the album, to join us on tour. It’s all kind of changed since he got involved.”

The arrival of vocalists such as McCleery and Alt-J’s Joe Newman on new album Living Fields, their first or fourth, whichever way you chose to look at it, isn’t the only thing fans of this Mercury Prize nominee ‘veterans’ will notice when they see them on stage at The Wardrobe in Leeds on April 21.

This London-based band’s melancholic sound has evolved into melody-infused dubstep and electronica, far from the contemporary jazz meets world music of their successful debut.

It’s a world away from the contemporary jazz meets world music of their debut which first shot them into the limelight.

New album Living Fields, Portico’s first – or fourth – album sees this most intelligent collection of London-based musicians embrace fully the sounds of dubstep and electronica – as well as featuring vocalists such as the afore-mentioned McCleery, Jamie Woon and Alt-J’s Joe Newman.

Jack said: “In retrospect being nominated for a Mercury was more of a big deal than we realized at the time. We’d come straight out of university and hadn’t been trying to ‘make it’. I bonded with the other band members over our love of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and world music.”

Jack and fellow esoteric music fans Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick and then member Nick Mulvey, developed quickly after the success of the Knee-Deep in the North Sea album in 2007.

But, after their strains and stresses of their third and last album together, something had to give and, as Jack now admits, it was nearly the band itself.

“We felt lost musically. We got to the point where we wondered if we should just called it a day. But recording the new album for the Ninja Tune label was really liberating.

“We decided not to do it in the lineage of our previous albums. Just to be free to be creative in any way we wanted was quite a relief.”

Laden with atmosphere and strong melodies, the use of lead vocalists from a collective normally associated with instrumentals, forced the band to sharpen their game.

Jack said: “I think out new album is our most coherent. Having lyrics made us consider what the concepts should be. We had to have string ideas.

“But as well as lead vocalists, we’ve also got field recordings on a lot of the tracks. I would call it experimental pop.”

Experimental pop or not, Portico remain a potent force live, possibly more so now that they have, in affect, a lead singer.

Jack said: “There’s a lot of energy live. Duncan’s got his drum machines and triggers. It’s a beefy sound and a bit more dancefloor. But Milo’s still on live bass and guitar. Unlike producers, we have a background playing live on real instruments.”