GoGo Penguin: Just Another Band From The Small Blue Planet

Ian Patterson By

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We’re very proud to be part of a world famous jazz label with such a huge legacy. However, Blue Note is looking to the future and they were very aware that jazz is only one of our influences... —GoGo Penguin's bassist, Nick Blacka
"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 alignment—or at least the perception as such by most jazz critics—GoGo Penguin has inhabited, from the very outset, a sonic universe where—alongside jazz—dance-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."

Reiser joined GoGo Penguin around the same time as Blacka. Each, in their own way, impacted greatly on GoGo Penguin's sound. "When there are three people in a group and you change one person it's going to affect everything dramatically," says Turner. "When Nick joined it felt like the last piece of the puzzle. We seemed to start writing more as a group and improvising more as a group."

With a new bassist and sound engineer on board the music was bound to go to new places. The band saw the transition as a new beginning, hence the title of the second album, v2.0—the second version. That album was co-produced by Reiser, who also co-produced A Humdrum Star with Brendan Williams.

"Joe's absolutely essential," says Illingworth. "We get to a gig and it can be any sort of venue and we know it's going to be okay because Joe is there. We can be quite loud and quite full on but we can also play really quietly and it can be really difficult to manage that dynamic range but Joe gets it. We know when we play like a punk band Joe can handle that. It's good to have him there, definitely." Blacka agrees. "Joe's a really important part of it. He's got more so the more we've gone on. I don't think another sound engineer would be able to step into his shoes now."

Listening to A Humdrum Star there's perhaps no radical departure from Man Made Object (Blue Note Records, 2016), but rather a subtle evolution in GoGo Penguin's sound—a refining of the processes. "We weren't actively going out to make it significantly different," says Blacka. "The only thing we were trying to strive for was stepping up. I think we sound more like a band than we did. Now I think we sound like a much tighter unit really."

There have been, however, important differences in the approach to the music this time around. "We road-tested a lot of the material in London at a bar called Echoes," says Blacka, "which is run by the London-based promoters Soundcrash. It was the first time we've had the luxury to do this. It was a bit stressful to play so much new material that wasn't quite ready in front of an audience but it was also a lot of fun and the response from the crowd was great."

Significantly, A Humdrum Star is the first GoGo Penguin album to be entirely recorded in Manchester. "It was important this time around," Blacka expands, "mainly because we've spent so much time on the road over the past four years. When we recorded v2.0 we were excited to go away and stay in a residential studio for the first time but now we're excited to be back home. It means that we can all go home for some sleep after a long day in the studio and recharge. The main thing that has changed is that we now have the luxury of a little more time in the studio. v2.0 was made in three days but this time around we had a couple of weeks, which made the process a lot more comfortable."

The studio where GoGo Penguin recorded A Humdrum Star was Low Four, part of the old Granada Studios where The Beatles recorded its first ever TV performance, in 1962. Joy Division also did its first ever live TV appearance here on Tony Wilson's show. "We were amazed at the size and space of it," Blacka relates. "There is also so much history in that building. It was a pretty easy decision for us to record there. For many reasons it felt like the right call."

The city of Manchester, which has spawned a plethora of iconic bands like The Hollies, Van der Graaf Generator, Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Chemical Brothers, Oasis and The Stone Roses, has been an important catalyst for GoGo Penguin. "Manchester has a rich musical history," acknowledges Illingworth. "What's nice is that there are no borders to it; everything overlaps. I studied classical piano and got to meet guys on the jazz scene and I played in bands that were more rock oriented. Manchester's great for that. You get ideas and inspiration from all over the place, rather than sticking yourself into one little square box where you have to follow the rules."

It's precisely GoGo Penguin's openness to all music and its refusal to conform to other people's notions of convention—for example, what it means to be a jazz trio in 2018—that makes its music so vital. Electronica and dance-floor rhythms permeate A Humdrum Star, but the shadows of Brian Eno and Philip Glass also fall over the music at times. Blacka's energetic bass veers between pulsating electronica-type rhythms and bustling Charles Mingus-esque lines. On the epic "Reactor," the spirit of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio looms large.

"The Esbjörn Svensson Trio was one of the first jazz groups I got into," says the classically trained Illingworth. "I was about twelve when I first heard them. Up to that point in terms of piano it was all classical so hearing e.s.t. was mind-blowing. As Rob says, it's not necessarily the music but the attitude. I think e.s.t. had great music but they also had a really great attitude. Like Radiohead they were always pushing within their kind of genre. When you look at the things they did on Leucocyte (ACT Music, 2008) it was amazing to see how far they were going and what they were able to do with their sound.

"Probably when we first started out the early stuff sounded a bit like the Esbjörn Svensson Trio but now it's an influence among many." However, just as e.s.t forged its own identity, so too GoGo Penguin is plotting its own course, irrespective of whatever boxes music critics might try to fit them into.

"It doesn't really matter what people call us—jazz or electronica or whatever," adds Illingworth. "It's a way of understanding the music. I can understand where the jazz idea comes from. We are a trio and there's obviously improvisation in there and that kind of jazz sound but the ideas come from all over the place. We can't call it electronica because we play acoustic instruments. We try not to think about any of those labels. We want to be free to make whatever kind of music we want to make. A soon as we think, oh, it's not really jazz, is that ok? we start putting restraints on the music."

Outside of its discography, GoGo Penguin has shown a willingness to experiment and take risks, notably with its original score to Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio's hypnotic slow-motion/time-lapse documentary about the uneasy relationship between nature and technology. The memorable score for the 1982 film was written by Philip Glass, whose influence can also be felt in GoGo Penguin's music. GoGo Penguin's score for the film was originally a one-off commission for Home—a multi-arts Manchester venue. The project, however, was meant for an extended lifespan. "It was definitely a really good experience," says Blacka. "After all that work we decided that we should tour it so that people outside of Manchester could also hear it."

The Koyaanisqatsi project posed fresh challenges for the trio, as Blacka explains: "It's different to playing a gig because we had to use in-ear monitoring with cues and a click-track so that everything lined up with the film properly. It takes a huge amount of focus and concentration over eighty minutes but we were really pleased with the response from the audiences. Hopefully we'll get a chance to tour it again in the future or another opportunity to compose a film score. It's definitely something we'd be interested in doing more of in the future."

Apart from jazz festivals and jazz venues, GoGo Penguin has also been invited to play for entirely different audiences. There was—much to the trio's surpise—an invitation to the Beethovenfest Bonn and they went down a storm at South by Southwest (SXSW). The trio has also played at Giles Peterson's World Wide Sette in France and Dimensions in Croatia. "The Dimensions festival was a proper dance festival," says Illingworth. "We wondered if people would turn up to it but we went down really well. We played the beach stage and people were dancing to the tunes." Clearly GoGo Penguin's music means different things to different people, which can surely only be a good thing.

The trio has been in heavy demand, with its touring schedule looking busier than ever on the back of A Humdrum Star. "The extended periods of touring and being away from home for quite a long time can be really tough," says Illingworth, "but an incredible experience and one we've all wanted for so many years." Blacka concurs: "It's great traveling the world doing what we love."

GoGo Penguin's music is evidently a labor of love. Trying to stick a label on its multi-layered music, however, is possibly a fruitless exercise. Acoustic electronica-influenced jazz? Better perhaps, as Blacka suggests, to let the music speak for itself. "It's up to the listener to decide. We're just a three-piece band.

Photo: Courtesy of Linda Bujoli

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