"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 usjazz 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 Homea 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."
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 wasmuch to the trio's surpisean 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