The Portico Quartet are ‘indie’ in the truest sense of the word. Frederick Bernas talks to the Mercury-nominated post-jazz ensemble.

It is a genuine musical fairytale. In 2004, the Portico Quartet was just one of countless acts busking the hallowed walkways of London’s South Bank. Four short years later, the group finds itself nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, with a long list of gigs and festival appearances to its credit, and a fair degree of critical acclaim. The imminent question on the minds of all aspiring bands will be: how did they do it?

Talking to Nick Mulvey, Jack Wyllie, Milo Fitzpatrick and Duncan Bellamy before their gig at Rough Trade East, it becomes obvious their feet are firmly on the ground. Although none are originally from London, the four met in the capital when studying various courses at university and started jamming in public – “we got a really positive reaction,” says drummer Bellamy; “it was one of the things that spurred us on at first. We didn’t really know each other that well but we just started busking and everyone loved it, from little kids to old grannies and everyone in between.”

“We sold 10,000 copies of our debut album like that, about 200 a day,” Mulvey continues. “We had an industrial CD burner, so we would spend Friday nights getting them ready to sell that weekend.” In true DIY band tradition, the money was put straight back into recording time – and this notion of hard work has been a key factor in the Quartet’s rapid rise. At the end of 2007 they were rewarded with the Vortex jazz club’s Babel label releasing Knee-Deep In The North Sea, which has gone on to receive the Mercury nomination.

Another important facet of the group’s appeal is use of the Hang, a percussive steel instrument created in Switzerland by two master metallurgists and only available from this single source. “Since we’ve been selling CDs busking, people have been sharing them, showing their friends, who have been wondering ‘what’s that?’,” Duncan explains. Its mystical reverberation, which catalyses a similar trance-like aesthetic to Indonesian Gamelan music, is a hallmark of the Portico sound.

“It’s a different sound, it’s unusual,” says Mulvey, the main Hang player. “It’s a bit of a gimmick in a way, but it has a different character. It also encourages you to compose in a very different way: there are many more limitations than if we had drums, bass, sax and I was playing piano or guitar, a more standard quartet. You don’t have chromatic options, you have to work within these confines that have made us develop an unusual sort of sound.”

So how can the music itself be described? This question has the potential to open a giant can of worms, as happens here – it’s more of a group discussion than an interview. Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with the work of contemporary classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but bassist Fitzpatrick doesn’t really go along with this – “Some of the earlier stuff was most closely paralleled to Steve Reich, but it doesn’t really sound Reichy or Glassy to me. It’s definitely patterns and cycles, changed by different harmonies on other instruments. But, to be honest, I hear hip-hop and rock rhythms, and some more experimental playing from the sax.”

According to Mulvey, the reference is related more to method than outcome – “the link with Reich is more relevant to our processes than the actual end sound, using cyclical refrains on the Hangs that build in texture rather than harmonic progression, which I suppose is arguably minimalist. But the end result is not minimalist.” At certain points in the album it would appear to be anything but, with dense layers building up gradually to a climax and sweeping angular saxophone melodies piercing through.

A multitude of influences is evident, in a manner akin to so many new bands which have often been hastily bracketed as ‘jazz’ due to difficulty in placing them anywhere else. “This is the first era where you’ve been able to grab music so quickly from all different sources using the internet,” is an explanation offered by the saxophonist, Wyllie. “Everyone’s absorbing everything, it’s part of globalisation. It’s not rigid anymore, people are crossing borders, the lines are blurring. It’s all grouped as post-jazz, although a lot of it is moving out of the jazz idea as well.”

The conversation went on for some time. Duncan came up with perhaps the best summary in that “more than anything, it’s just post-modern music. It all draws from so much different stuff that you can’t put it down – everyone borrows all the bits they want and puts it together.”

Advanced (or confusing) as the group’s musical concept may seem, it has succeeded in traversing boundaries and developing the foundations of a cult following. At the Rough Trade gig it was refreshing to see only one grey-haired devotee, surrounded by a plethora of young faces, all looking equally mesmerised by the hypnotic nuances of the group’s collective soundscape. If the Mercury prize was to be judged on the sole criterion of fostering a new open mentality in the minds of music fans, the Portico Quartet would win hands down.

But did they really expect it would all go this far? The answer is, intriguingly, a rather confident affirmative: “It’s amazing and a great excitement, and surprising on some levels, but also on other levels not surprising because we’ve always believed in the music,” says Mulvey. “I don’t think you project that far ahead, you just play music, but the belief has always been there. We play music that draws from jazz, but we operate with much more of an indie ethos. Everything that’s come our way is a result of that.”

If the 10/1 outsiders defy the odds and take this coveted award, it will be a victory not only for London’s rich progressive jazz scene, but that whole philosophy of do-it-yourself independence which permeates the modern music industry. “More people are realising that’s the best way to do it now,” says Wyllie thoughtfully. “We’ve done the DIY approach in a really hardcore way with busking, making the CDs and all that, and it shows you don’t always need record companies to do well.

“Also, I don’t think a ‘jazz’ band has won in a while, so I think it would mean a lot for opening people’s minds to this kind of music. When Roni Size won, it did a lot for drum‘n’bass, so maybe we could do the same for jazz. It’s been a really good year for British jazz, or post-jazz, with loads of bands doing things people might like. They deserve to be recognised and people should be aware of them – if we won, it could be like a gateway to new audiences.”

A Portico triumph would continue the ultimate fable for these four recent uni graduates who really are living the dream. And you never know, they might just do it.

Published in London Tourdates, 22/8/08.