Ever been so wowed by group of street musicians that you wished someone would just walk up and offer them a record deal already? Five years ago, London’s Portico Quartet was busking on the South Bank of the Thames. One thing led to another, which led to a debut album, Knee-Deep in the North Sea, which led to all kinds of critical swoons (from the London Times and the BBC, no less) and a 2008 Mercury Prize nomination. As they say, the rest is history.
Last year’s Isla features the same mellow, moody hybrid of jazz and modern classical music that characterized the band’s first effort, though they’ve upped the ante a bit. “Knee-Deep was composed while busking in a very relaxed atmosphere, and as such the tunes are quite charming, lighthearted, and acoustic,” explained saxophonist Jack Wyllie. “Isla was written over the course of a month in mid-winter in a shed at the bottom of our garden – it was a much more intense atmosphere, and I think that comes across. We went much deeper into the musical ideas and were able to introduce electronics.”
But new technology hasn’t led them to drop their signature instrument, the Hang. A more placid cousin of the steel drum, it lends their sound its distinctive shimmer. Too distinctive, at times. “It can be quite frustrating when you’re seen as being all about the Hang at the expense of the music,” Wyllie said. “This is partly why we are keen to move away from it.” He added, “If it were a person, it would probably be Jennifer Aniston: very attractive, and great in Friends, but unable to grow out of that first role.” Whether they hang onto the Hang or not, it seems unlikely that they’ll go back to collecting one-pound coins in instrument cases anytime soon.