Portico Quartet enjoyed a decade long career, one strewn with accolades and no small measure of experimentation. Gradually, though, the musicians involved began to feel that the project had, simply, run its course. Keir Vine departed, leaving the remaining trio – Jack Wyllie, Duncan Bellamy and Milo FitzPatrick to soldier on.
“Our tastes in music had changed quite a lot between albums,” Jack admits. “We were struggling to write for about a year. We tried out a lot of different stuff, so we kind of got to the point where we were potentially about to stop doing it.”
“That's the point, really, where we drew the line and we just thought 'right, well let's try something completely new'. Let's not be particularly restricted by our history, do something really new and make it fresh. Make it exciting again.”
Plunging head first into recording sessions, the newly re-christened Portico found themselves energised, renewed. Often categorised as a jazz group, the band often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly, embodied the best traits the genre has to offer: it's commitment to the new, to embracing fresh ideas and never, ever repeating oneself.
It's a process which the band admit could have pulled them in any one of a thousand different courses. “We had a year of experimenting,” states Duncan, before Milo interjects: “We had certain points where we thought, can we make an album or should we just call it a day? Then we thought, let's give it a go but be bold and brave. Not worry too much about making the parts.”
“I guess, we were just kind of getting on with it,” he continues. “That took the pressure off in a way, because you're not worried too much about the music. It was evolution instead of revolution. It was a chance to get into the studio and make something which felt personal and in line with where our heads were at – on a personal level and also on a musical one.”
The resulting album is an enormous re-affirmation of faith in the bonds between these three musicians. 'Living Fields' often touches on electronic climes, while retaining the organic, fluid playing which categorised their earlier work. A distinct break with Portico Quartet, the renewed trio embraced digital production while also seeking their own, highly idiosyncratic path.
“I mean, there's nothing really that matches up,” insists Jack. “Nothing that really matches up to the style of what we're doing. Nothing that's directly influenced it. Maybe in a more subtle way. We really liked the Actress album 'RIP', all the Oneohtrix Point Never stuff. Some Tim Hecker. A lot of that stuff is maybe more conceptually driven than us.”
“Providing some of the sensibility of those guys but with, I guess, more structured pop songs,” he muses. “Nothing that I can point to and say, that was an album that influenced us. A lot of it just came from making music together again.”
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It was evolution instead of revolution
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'Living Fields' is very much an 'album' in the sense of a cohesive, two-sides-of-vinyl statement, with the narrative under-pinning it heavily influenced by South American documentary 'Nostalgia For The Light'.
“Basically,” explains Duncan, “we developed a sort of system whereby we got together, we pooled our thoughts on what we wanted the album to be about. The documentary really ended up summing up a lot of the ideas that we were having. So that was how we developed thematic, conceptual content. Not that it's a really conceptual albums but that's where it came from.”
Not that 'Living Fields' should be understood as an accessory, a complimentary document to the award-winning documentary – Portico wrap the personal around the polemic, the individual around the objective. “I think there were certain things going on in all our lives, but that's also tied into the change within the band,” Milo muses. Probed on this, the musician responds simply: “break ups.”
Musically gorgeous, 'Living Fields' is marked by the work of three guest vocalists. Jono McLeery took part in sessions, while Jamie Woon and alt-J's Joe Newman also take lead roles. Curiously, all three have long personal relationships with the band, which perhaps allowed them to be so open with material which is – at times – utterly personal.
“We ended up with the three people that we already had a friendship with,” says Jack. “I think the personal connection really helped when we wanted to explore some of the issues on the album. Working with someone you know well and understands where you're coming from is quite important, I think. That's how we got to that point.”
With its varied cast, 'Living Fields' could well have emerged fragmented; instead, Portico are able to impact a remarkable sense of cohesiveness to the record. “Partly it helps that they're all male singers, I think,” says Duncan. “That wasn't anything intentional but it lends cohesion to it, whereas having a mix of male and female vocals meant that it might jump around a bit.”
“Also, we sent the film to the singers and that lends a conceptual bent through the whole thing. The intention was there. There wasn't just three different singers talking about their own personal stuff because we wanted to have some control over that, so we could show a lot of the things that we'd been going through or wanted to talk about. The film was a way to harness that.”
'Living Fields' is, by the group's own admission, the most directly personal album of their careers. “I think we certainly did that a lot more on this album,” says Milo. “Particularly because we're using lyrical content, so you can make direct statements. You can't get across meaning in the same manner if you're working purely in sound. Any musically-based statement will reflect what it's about to some degree, but also we're dealing in words.”
Closing, Clash asks if Portico had considered fully breaking down the project – releasing a string of 12 inches, for example, or even a mixtape. “I guess for one thing we wanted to write an album,” Jack admists. “The tracks don't necessarily lend themselves to any other format, I think. It needs the breadth of an album to let you think.”
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'Living Fields' is out now. Catch Portico at the following shows:
20 Dublin Whelans
21 Leeds The Wardrobe
22 Sheffield O2 Academy
23 Norwich The Waterfront
25 Nottingham Rock City Basement
26 Manchester Academy 3
27 Liverpool Kazimier
28 Birmingham Hare and Hounds