"Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star in a lost galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."
This somewhat gloomy prognosis might sound like a line straight from Douglas Adam's surrealistic comic novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
(Pan Books, 1979). In actual fact, it's a quotation by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Curiously, it provided the inspiration for the title of GoGo Penguin's fourth album, A Humdrum Star
(Blue Note Records, 2018), although it's safe to say that there's been absolutely nothing humdrum about the Manchester's trio's trajectory since blast-off in 2012.
Reviewing the trio's vibrant debut, Fanfare
(Gondwana Records, 2012), The Guardian's esteemed jazz critic John Fordham noted the potential influences of piano trios such as Esbjorn Svensson
Trio, The Bad Plus
and Neil Cowley
, but also observed: "it's obvious why the Manchester clubs are jumping to this band." For despite the contemporary jazz trio alignmentor at least the perception as such by most jazz criticsGoGo Penguin has inhabited, from the very outset, a sonic universe wherealongside jazzdance-floor beats, classical romanticism, ambient vibes, indie-rock and minimalism are all sister moons orbiting the same planet.
"There are obviously jazz elements in there but we don't see ourselves as an out and out jazz band. We've never actually said that we were a jazz band at any point," says bassist Nick Blacka a little ruefully. Blacka, who replaced orignal bassist Grant Russell
in time for GoGo Penguin's Mercury Prize-nominated v2.0
(Gondwana Records, 2014), studied jazz at Leeds College and has firm roots in the tradition. "I spent a lot of time listening to jazz, all the great bass players like Ray Brown
, Paul Chambers
, [Charles] Mingus and Christian McBride
Co-founders pianist Chris Illingworth
and drummer Rob Turner
met at the Conservatoire of Manchester's Royal College of Music. It's no surprise therefore that jazz and classical music are both significant elements of GoGo Penguin's sound. They are, however, but two colors in the trio's sonic palette. "Actually, we seem to find most common ground in electronica." says Blacka.
"We're all into Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, Jon Hopkins and the processes involved," adds Turner, who also acknowledges Squarepusher as a formative influence. A little of all these influences, to greater or lesser degree, are to be found on A Humdrum Star
, the second release of a three-album deal with Blue Note Records. It is, perhaps, GoGo Penguin's most personal statement to date. "With this album we tried to approach it as organically as we could," explains Blacka, "so even if there are effects on the album we tried to generate them from the three instruments rather than using tons of studio effects."
Much of the creative process for A Humdrum Star
involved the collective development of sketches written by Turner on DJ/producer tech such as Logic and Ableton, but the time-honored method of writing at the piano and bass was equally important. Effects, where employed, included chains and a tape measure to dampen strings. "As with all the early sketches and ideas we always develop the track together as a group," says Blacka. "It's important that everyone brings their own individuality and contribution to the music."
Even for the modern incarnation of Blue Note Records, which embraces a fairly broad sample of jazz styles and related music, GoGo Penguin arguably represents a slightly left-field signing. The label, thankfully, has signed the band on its own musical terms. "It certainly hasn't changed our direction and what we want to do," says Blacka of the relationship with Blue Note Records.
"We're very proud to be part of a world famous jazz label with such a huge legacy," Blacka continues. "However, Blue Note is looking to the future and they were very aware that jazz is only one of our influences when we signed with them. Blue Note has been very supportive and encouraging of us being more experimental and incorporating other influences outside of jazz in our music."
"It's mind-blowing," says Illingworth. "You don't get many Manchester bands getting signed to Blue Note. We have to make sure that the priority is just making our music and the guys in Blue Note keep supporting that."
Another major element of GoGo Penguin's equation is the input of sound engineer Joe Reiser, often credited by Illingworth, Blacka and Turner as the fourth member of the group. "Joe makes playlists of stuff we've never heard of," says Turner. "He's always sharing new music."