When a musical ensemble chooses to self-title an album mid-career, it usually signifies their conviction that they’ve struck upon the motherlode, hit the jackpot, stepped up and generally arrived at a point they’ve always striven for but never quite attained before.
Coming from GoGo Penguin at this stage in the game, it’s quite a bold statement: the instrumental trio from Manchester, England have fielded plaudits and rave reviews for inspiration and originality at every turn since 2013, when they settled on their dream line-up of Chris Illingworth (piano), Rob Turner (drums) and Nick Blacka (bass). Fusing jazz, classical and electronic influences (amongst others) with a thirst for innovation, they’ve been garlanded as makers of one of the Mercury Prize album of the year (in ’14) and have enjoyed success on record and in the live arena matched by precious few vocal-free groups post-millennium.
“Often when you’ve made a record, you don’t wanna go back and listen to it for a while,” confesses Illingworth, “but with this new one we’re all really excited to hear it. Speaking personally, what I’ve been able to do on the piano – it’s the sort of thing I’ve been trying to get towards, in what I can physically play and what I can do to express who I am. And I know that the other guys take the same pride themselves in what they’ve contributed. We’ve all found our place, we’ve all got that confidence of being able to say, ‘This is how I want to play my instrument, and this is how we want to play as a band – that thing we’ve always been aiming for.’”
GoGo Penguin’s music has always defied categorization. In their sound, there have been detectable traces of latterday developments in jazz, such as Sweden’s free-thinking Esbjörn Svensson Trio (aka EST), or minimalist classical composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, even Erik Satie. Yet, all in their mid-30’s, you can hear that they have grown up in the golden age of electronica, with echoes ranging from rarefied techno (think Aphex Twin; Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra), and the emotive melodies and crescendos of European house, through to Roni Size’s jazz-infused drum ‘n’ bass.
After that prestigious Mercury nomination for 2014’s v2.0 album, Chris, Nick and Rob worked hard, consolidating their musical bond across a further two albums, which were written and recorded while juggling hectic touring commitments. For GoGo Penguin – their fourth album together (and the third to be released by the legendary Blue Note label) – they decided to jump off the rollercoaster and devote the majority of their working time in 2019 to pushing at the limits of their music.
Says drummer Rob, “In the past, we’d have to get in the studio and finish the album in what felt like three days. This time we had six months of writing, and two weeks of recording, so everyone had a lot more time to contribute to each track. There was more experimentation, trying things out and often throwing them away.
“As a result, the album is more sophisticated. We had quite simple lives in the past. We were younger, so there wasn’t so much drama, and there hadn’t been so many important events in our lives that fed into the music. This time, there’s a lot more facing the realities of becoming older, and mortality, and watching people that you care about being very close to death. At the same time, Chris became a dad. The longer you live, the more complicated your reality becomes, so we felt our music had to reflect that.”
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The benefits of GoGo Penguin’s location in Manchester are now becoming dazzlingly clear. Their Lancastrian home city, with its lower living costs and less circus-type media attention than London, has allowed their band to foment at its own pace. Back in the late ’00s, all three members were gigging around the city in various bands, which often included a couple of them in the ranks at any one time.
Rob and Nick have been playing together consistently for 15 years now – the only hiatus was when Rob joined Chris to form an early version of GoGo Penguin, and Nick went off and joined a funk band (he’d also once played with late-’90s trip-hoppers Aim). He almost ended up as GGP’s manager, until their original bassist left, and Nick became his obvious successor on that instrument.
“There’s a reason why it works with the three of us,” reckons Nick, “and that’s because it’s very difficult to get that level of understanding without all those years we’ve had of playing together. Chris has had his classical training, and me and Rob both have a background in jazz, and we’re actually all very different in our characters, but there’s more that connects than disconnects us, and what we each bring to the table is what makes up GoGo Penguin.”
After talking to the three of them, on some levels one might indeed imagine Chris the bookish, perfectionist yet soulful pianist, Rob the wide-eyed rhythm theorist who gamely ties all musical endeavour to the teachings of Greek philosopher Pythagoras, and feet-on-ground earthing influence Nick to be too poles-apart to work together effectively in the same room.
Once they’d discovered their winning formula with v2.0, their progress indeed wasn’t entirely without turbulence, as they quickly had to acclimatize to the (inter)national recognition and touring that came with their Mercury props. Their ensuing Blue Note debut, Man Made Object (2016), was made under extreme pressure (both in terms of time but also self-induced creative rigour), but by the time of A Humdrum Star two years later, they’d found their inner equilibrium, and had a clear vision of what they were all about, which couldn’t be nailed to one genre. Perhaps due to their choice of label, however, there has been a perception that GoGo Penguin are primarily a jazz band fighting to break free of that straitjacket. Blacka sees it differently:
“Because I play the double bass,” he says, “I think I always wanted to have jazz in our music, but as we’ve moved through the albums, it’s been a very gradual thing for me where I’ve now finally come to accept that we really just aren’t a jazz band. This new album is the one where I thought, ‘Fuck it, there’s no point even worrying anymore!’ That has been really liberating and freeing for all of us”.
Playing devil’s advocate, though: Jazz or not, GoGo Penguin still live in much the same space. They compose and improvise collectively, and let’s be frank, they groove like hell.
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The seeds of GoGo Penguin were sown in the early months of 2019, when Blacka, Illingworth and Turner convened at their Wellington House studio/rehearsal space in Ancoats, with the kind of breathing space they’d not enjoyed since Nick joined the band in the run-up to v2.0. They not only had time to knock around ideas but also to play musical games, as a kind of motivational bonding exercise.
There had been plans to tour Australia in early summer, but May-June was ultimately put aside for the birth of Chris’s son, Luca. So, work resumed in July-September, in the midweeks between weekend festival gigs. Thereafter came a month and a half of intensive writing and shaping of material in Ancoats, followed by two weeks’ recording at The Chair Works, a residential studio in Castleford, West Yorkshire.
What they came up with, they all agree, reflected those inevitable convolutions in their increasingly mature lives. “Most of the tracks are an amalgamation,” says Rob. “Before, we would evolve an idea over quite a long track, but these ones are often three or four tunes rolled into one. We would sometimes take just half a drumbeat from one entire track, like that was the thing that really characterized it, and make that the basis for a section of a bigger, more ambitious piece. One, ‘To The Nth’, is like a hybrid car – we took half of one tune and half of another and welded them together. So the songs aren’t just ‘about’ one thing or one emotion like they used to be – just like our lives are more complicated.”
Says Chris, “It means tracks don’t have conventional patterns, like verse-chorus-bridge. It’s something we started on ‘Strid’ [on A Humdrum Star], flowing ideas together with little bits of transition to glue them together into a narrative – or else just ramming them together, because the contrast is the interesting bit.”
Unusually for them, these intricate compositions were all pretty much worked out before they went into the studio in Castleford, and conceived as a self-contained album – the ten tracks that make up GoGo Penguin.
The trio are keen to flag up the help they’ve had in the album’s genesis from their live soundman and album co-producer, Joe Reiser, and co-producer Brendan Williams. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they have got an input into the writing,” Chris clarifies, “but they had an input in encouraging us to think in different ways, which then made us write differently.” He points towards a repetition of a piano phrase in the second half of ‘Open’, which was suggested by Brendan, to heighten the track’s dynamic, while Rob raves about how their in-house wizard helped him replicate its Autechre-esque stuttering tech-beat using “soft sticks on a microphone”.
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A big part of GoGo Penguin’s impact derives from the way they employ computer technology to compose with, then find ways to record (and perform) the results on acoustic instruments, with help from a surprisingly limited arsenal of effects pedals and delays. Rob confesses, “I spend way more time on my laptop than I do on my drums. The ratio is probably about 90% to 10%.”
Turner obsessively works on the Ableton production software favoured by many electronic producers. According to Nick, the way the sublimely uplifting piano runs of ‘F Maj Pixie’ suddenly decelerate at around 4:30 minutes was partly down to that process: “Chris had a cool idea for a track, which Rob then experimented with in Ableton,” he explains, “he was able to warp and stretch the track down which sounded great.’ So we then learnt how to play what came out of the software, basically acoustically, but enhanced with a few effects. Using software allows us to explore ideas that might otherwise be off limits, but we always strive to play everything as organically as we can, on our instruments.”
Similarly, the opening passage of ‘Kora’ came about with Rob writing a drumbeat, then using his computer to switch the sound of the drumbeat to piano notes “like, what would this drum beat sound like on a piano?”, he says, laughing. “Obviously, it sounded dreadful initially, just a piano playing random notes, but then I switched it to a Japanese mode, and it all came together”.
Also on that track, he used a gizmo called a Polyend Perc, which, he says, “has a stick that pokes out and it’s attached to a solenoid, so you can hit a pad and the stick will hit whatever you attach it to. Using them, you can layer sounds like you would with a drum machine, but it’s almost like having a little robotic friend that plays whatever you play.”
The searching methodology carried over into Chris’s piano parts on ‘Open’: to spice up the end sequence, Illingworth uses a delay pedal which, in his words, “triggers what I’ve just played to play backwards. I was improvising lines sometimes, then I’d improvise in response to what I heard being played back at me in reverse, so the piano weaves around, like waves breaking in different directions”.
Another standout track ‘Atomised’, a firm favourite of the band’s, has them gliding over Rob’s powerful UK garage beat – again, not one for the genre purists – and that combination of habitual rule-breaking and propulsive groove makes for another hands-in-the-air classic in their repertoire”.
If GoGo Penguin throughout sounds like The Bomb, it’s down to the inexhaustible energy its creators put into making it that way. Towards the end of the closing ‘Don’t Go’, there’s another extraordinary technique at work, as Brendan brought in some binaural microphone heads (Lou Reed was a keen advocate in the ’70s), to give its elegiac conclusion a rare sense of intimacy and presence.
Reveals Nick, “We decided to keep Chris playing the piano loop at the end, and we actually grabbed the head microphone and slowly walked away from the piano, so it gets more distant, like a fade. Then I was like, ‘Why don’t we just walk out of the door and close it?’ So that’s how the album ends: the idea was to remind people that even though they’ve been lost in this emotive otherworldly sound, it was human beings that were making it – people in a room together, happening in real time.”
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After all those months of aural alchemy up North, GoGo Penguin are now ready to go back into the world again, and take the upward trajectory to its next stage, to a bigger audience again than they ever dreamt of. A run of dates in springtime takes in a stop at the iconic Brixton Academy – “which is like, fucking hell!”, summarizes a scarcely disbelieving Nick – before a similar step up the ladder Stateside, and another trawl around Europe’s outdoor circuit.
“We’ll get up on a festival stage and everyone’ll be dancing,” says Chris, in trying to sum up their band’s unique appeal, beyond the theorizing over technique and genre. “There’ll be people who are out of their mind on whatever, and then people who’re there with their family just dancing with a little kid – old guys and everybody in between, and we’ll be playing something like ‘Smarra’, where there’s distortion on the bass so it sounds like a synth, or Rob’s playing house beats…
“To be honest, that’s the thing that matters to us. As far as we’re concerned, people can call it whatever they like. It’s only the music that matters.”
A good word for GoGo Penguin, this wondrously ambitious new album, would be ‘masterpiece’.