Defying Automation: Clash Meets Portico Quartet

Technology, art, and the energy surrounding UK jazz...

Since their formation in 2005, Portico Quartet have been a band of many guises. Initially centring their sound around jazz-folk influences and the soft, rhythmic repetition of the hang drum, their 2007 debut LP ‘Knee Deep In The North Sea’ earned them a Mercury Prize nomination for its quietly intricate, yet expansive compositions. Over the last decade, the Quartet have released two more records, 2009’s ‘Isla’ and 2012’s eponymous work, both delving deeper into the intersections of the electronic and acoustic, moving away from the etymological weight of the ‘jazz’ genre and inhabiting a new space between the ambience of the concert hall and the introspective intensity of the club.

With a brief reshuffle to form the trio Portico and make 2015’s ‘Living Fields’, a Ninja Tune effort which highlighted the core members’ dancefloor influences, the Quartet have now reformed to produce their fourth LP, ‘Art In The Age Of Automation’. A mature work of modernist jazz-electronic fusion, over its eleven instrumental tracks the LP muses on the confluence of the human and mechanic, as conjured by its title.

We spoke with saxophonist Jack Wylie and drummer Duncan Bellamy – who designed the album artwork under his Veils Project moniker – about the current jazz resurgence, the group aesthetic, and staying sane on tour.

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What made you decide to go back to being a quartet after making ‘Living Fields’ as a trio?

Jack Wylie: We wanted to explore something totally different with ‘Living Fields’ and with that came some space to reflect on what we were doing before. We always felt Portico was a different style of music and really a different band to Portico Quartet and making ‘Living Fields’ felt like an exciting break. In a sense, we wouldn’t have been able to make this new record as Portico Quartet if we hadn’t had that time doing Portico.

What’s it like working together as a four-piece again?

JW: It’s really nice. I’ve especially liked working on getting some of the old music ready for the live show. Some of the tunes we’re playing we hadn’t touched for four years, so they’re there in the muscle memory. We were playing these complex tunes with all the breaks and gaps in the right places almost first take; I was really surprised!

How do you feel the electronic influences of ‘Living Fields’ have affected ‘Art in the Age of Automaton’?

JW: We became much better producers when we were making ‘Living Fields’, and so were able to bring a lot of that to the new record. Many of the sounds on ‘AITAOA’ are electronically-treated acoustic instruments; there’s a lot of textures we wouldn’t have been able to create had we not made that record.

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We wanted to explore something totally different…

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What were you listening to while making this record?

JW: While we were working I didn’t want to listen to much when I got home, since I was making music all day. I enjoyed putting on some ambient albums that you could kind of drift in and out of though – amazing artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura, John Hassle, and Mid Tadaka.

What are the themes behind the new LP? How does the title work with the music?

JW: ‘Art In The Age Of Automation’ is more of a question than a statement. What does it mean to be human in this age we’re entering? Making art is an inherently human act and yet automation is the opposite. So, one of the themes on the record is how we go about reconciling these differences. More broadly, that convergence of the human and the automated is something society will increasingly experience in the near future and we wanted to position the record in that context.

How does the album cover fit into this concept also?

Duncan Bellamy: The artwork was made by scanning films whilst they were playing on a tablet. In some ways this was quite an automated process; beyond choosing which film or images to play, I had very little control over the result. The results were quite unexpected and in effect, created by the scanner itself. The fingerprints and smudges on the screen then make visible the human connection between these uncontrolled images.

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Making art is an inherently human act…

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How do you feel about the umbrella term ‘jazz’ being used to describe your music?

JW: I’m not actually sure to be honest! I used to hate it and felt that it was a lazy way to contextualise the music. I think people generally saw it as jazz because we had a saxophone a double bass. In a lot of ways, it’s not jazz at all, it doesn’t really come from that lineage any more than it comes from rock or electronic music. Also, when you define jazz too widely it starts to lose meaning and I definitely don’t wouldn’t want try and claim any ownership of the term.

Yet, if people want to call our music that, I’m ok with it, and it can make it a more interesting listen as it sounds like a unique form of jazz- largely because it doesn’t have many of the same features!

Jazz has been reaching newfound levels of popularity in recent years, yet you’ve been making jazz-influenced music since much longer before; how do you feel the scene has changed, and is it a welcome change?

JW: We’ve never really felt part of that scene but have kind of been included in it! It is interesting how people are taking an interest in jazz again; I think it’s part of people being interested in live instrumental music more broadly. Chris Sharp, the programming director at the Barbican, has spoken about there being an increasing audience for non-classical, serious-listening music.

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Listeners don’t need as many specialist reference points or knowledge of the tradition to enjoy it…

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People who grew up on techno and electronica who like music that is moving and intelligent but doesn’t come with the baggage of traditional classical music and its audience. That’s definitely a demographic a lot of the popular new jazz bands appeal to. They look to other current music rather than the tradition.

So, you can see it with BadBadNotGood using hip-hop or GoGo Penguin with electronic music. Through being more connected with contemporary music, listeners don’t need as many specialist reference points or knowledge of the tradition to enjoy it. You can see exactly the same thing in classical music at the moment too with the increased popularity of Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and Erased Tapes.

You’ve mentioned how this record contains a dense layering of different sounds and production methods; how are you aiming to replicate or approximate that live?

JW: We’ve already done a handful of gigs with the new material and we try and do as much as possible live, so that means manipulating the acoustic sounds with effects pedals and using sample pads. We always leave a bit of space for improvisation too. It’s important to keep that element in there so every show is unique. It also helps keep us sane when we’re touring so we’re not playing the same thing every day!

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Portico Quartet will release 'Art In The Age Of Automation' on August 25th.

Words: Ammar Kalia

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