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Our biography of GoGo Penguin – from the beginnings to the new album GGP/RMX
When a musical ensemble decides to title a mid-career album like June 2020’s “GoGo Penguin” with the band’s name, it usually means they’re convinced they’ve hit the mother lode, hit the jackpot, soared, or generally arrived at a point they always wanted to reach but never quite did until now.
For GoGo Penguin, that’s a bold statement: the Manchester, England-based instrumental trio have been garnering praise and rave reviews for their incredible creativity, inspiration and originality at every turn since 2013, when the dream lineup of Chris Illingworth (piano), Rob Turner (drums) and Nick Blacka (bass) emerged.
By merging jazz, classical and electronic influences among some other inspirations combined with an unquenchable thirst for innovation, the band was awarded the Mercury Prize award for one of the best albums of 2014 and has been successful with their productions and especially in the live arena in a way that only a few acts have achieved after the turn of the millennium.
“Once you’ve made a record, you often don’t want to hear it again for a while,” admits Illingworth, “but with the new one, we’re all very excited to hear it. For me personally, what I’ve been able to do on the piano is exactly what I wanted to achieve, what I can physically play and what I can do to express myself,” says Chris Illingworth (piano).
“And I know,” he continues, “that the other guys have the same pride in what they did in producing the album. We’ve all found our place, we all have the confidence to say, ‘This is how I want to play my instrument, and this is how we want to play as a band’ – and that’s the goal GoGo Penguin always had in mind, as Illingworth sums up.
GoGo Penguin’s music was always defying categorization. There are traces of more recent developments in jazz in their sound, such as the Swedish free-thinking Esbjörn Svensson Trio (aka EST) or minimalist classical composers like Steve Reich, John Adams and even Erik Satie. And yet you can always hear from their music that they’re all in their mid-30s and grew up in the golden age of electronica, with echoes of harsh techno (think Aphex Twin or even Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra) and the soulful melodies and crescendos of European house to Roni Size’s jazz-heavy drum ‘n’ bass.
Following the prestigious Mercury nomination for 2014’s v2.0 album, Chris, Nick and Rob worked hard and solidified their musical connection across two more albums written and recorded while they simultaneously were juggling hectic touring commitments.
For GoGo Penguin – their fourth album together (and the third to be released on the legendary Blue Note label) – they’ve decided to jump off the roller coaster and dedicate the majority of their working hours in 2019 on exploring the boundaries of their music. Drummer Rob says, “In the past we’ve had to go into the studio and finish the album in what felt like three days. This time we had six months to write and two weeks to record, so everyone had much more time to contribute his part to each track. There was more experimentation, many things were tried out and often discarded again.
“The result is that the album has become more sophisticated. In the past, we had a pretty easy life. We were younger, so there wasn’t as much drama, and there weren’t as many important events in our lives that went into the music. This time we are much more confronted with the reality of aging and mortality, and having to watch people we care about come very close to dying. At the same time, Chris became a father. The longer you live, the more complicated reality becomes, so we felt like our music had to reflect that.”
The advantages of being based in Manchester are now becoming abundantly clear to GoGo Penguin. Their hometown in Lancashire, with its lower cost of living compared to London and less circus-like media attention, has allowed the band to develop at their own pace. In the late 2000s, all three members performed in various bands around town, often with two of them playing at the same time.
Rob and Nick have been playing together continuously for 15 years now – the only break was when Rob formed an early version of GoGo Penguin with Chris, and Nick joined a funk band (he had also once played with late ’90s trip-hoppers Aim). He almost became the manager of GGP until the original bass player left the band and Nick became his obvious successor on that instrument.
“There’s a reason why it works with the three of us,” Nick says, “and that’s because it’s very difficult to reach that level of understanding if you haven’t been playing together – as we have for so long. Chris has a classical background, me and Rob are both into jazz, and we’re all very different in our characters – but there’s more that unites us than divides us – and that which each of us brings to the table is what defines GoGo Penguin.”
Nach einem Gespräch mit den dreien könnte man tatsächlich meinen, dass die drei unterschiedlichen Typen weiß Gott nicht in einen gemeinsamen Raum hineinpassen, denn Chris ist der gebildete, perfektionistische und doch gefühlvolle Pianist, Rob hingegen der weitsichtige Rhythmustheoretiker, der alle musikalischen Bemühungen mit den Lehren des griechischen Philosophen Pythagoras in Verbindung bringt, während Nick der erdverbundene Typ ist.
After finding their formula for success with the V2.0 album, their development was indeed not without turbulence, as they had to acclimate to the national and international recognition and the many tours.
The Blue Note Time
Their subsequent Blue Note debut “Man Made Object” (2016) was made under extreme pressure (both in terms of time and self-induced creative rigor), but by the time “A Humdrum Star” came out two years later, they had found their inner balance and finally possessed a clear vision of what they were about without being pinned down to a particular genre.
But perhaps it is also due to the choice of label that GoGo Penguin are primarily perceived as a jazz band who want to free themselves from this straitjacket, however. Blacka, however, saw this a bit differently at first:
“Since I play upright bass,” he says, “I think I always wanted jazz in our music, but as we put our albums together and produced them, I realized more and more that we really are not a jazz band. This new album is the one where I thought, “Fuck it, there’s no point in worrying about it anymore! That was liberating for me as well as for all of us.”
The seeds for the album “GoGo Penguin” were sown in the early months of 2019 when Blacka, Illingworth and Turner gathered at their Wellington House studio/rehearsal space in Ancoats, with the one respite they hadn’t enjoyed since Nick joined the band in pre-production for album V2.0. They had time not only to fine-tune ideas, but also to experiment musically, in a way of a motivating group dynamic.
Es gab Pläne, im Frühsommer durch Australien zu touren, aber der Termine im Mai und Juni wurden schließlich wegen der Geburt von Chris’ Sohn Luca auf Eis gelegt. Also wurde die Arbeit im Juli/September wieder aufgenommen, in den Wochen zwischen den Wochenend-Festivalauftritten. Danach folgten eineinhalb Monate intensives Schreiben und Formen des Materials für das Album in Ancoats, gefolgt von zwei Wochen Aufnahmen in The Chair Works, einem Wohnstudio in Castleford, West Yorkshire.
What came out, so the band agrees, reflects the inevitable twists and turns in their increasingly mature lives. “Most of the tracks are an amalgamation of different themes and lines,” says Rob. “We used to develop an idea over a fairly long track, but these often consist of three or four different melody lines. Sometimes this time we just took half a characteristic drumbeat out of a whole track and made it the basis for a section of a bigger more ambitious piece. The track ‘To The Nth’ is almost like a hybrid vehicle – we took half of one track and half of another and fused them together.
So the songs are no longer about just one theme or one feeling as it used to be with us, they have become more complex and complicated – just as our lives have become more complicated.
“This means,” says Chris, “that the tracks don’t have conventional patterns, like a verse-chorus bridge. We first started working with this approach on “Strid”‘ on the album “A Humdrum Star,” which means letting ideas flow together, with little transitions, to weave them into a narrative – or just squeeze them together, because the contrast makes it interesting.”
Unusually for them, these complex compositions were all worked out pretty much before they went into the studio in Castleford and conceived the whole thing as a self-contained album with the ten tracks that now make up the album “GoGo Penguin”.
The trio specifically emphasizes the help they received from their live soundman and album co-producer Joe Reiser and co-producer Brendan Williams during the album’s production phase. “While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they had an impact on the writing,” Chris clarifies, “they did have an impact on encouraging us to think in a different way, which then led us to write differently.”
He references Brendan’s suggestion to repeat a piano phrase in the second half of ‘Open’ to increase the dynamics of the track. Rob, in turn, raves about how their band’s own assistant helped him replicate the Autechre-style stuttering tech beat with “soft sticks on a microphone”.
A big part of GoGo Penguin’s aura comes from the way they use computer technology to compose, and then find ways to record and play it live using a surprisingly limited arsenal of effects pedals and delays and acoustic instruments. Rob confesses, “I spend a lot more time on my laptop than I do on my drums. The ratio is probably about 90% to 10%.”
Turner works obsessively with Ableton production software, a favorite of many electronic producers. Nick says that, for example, the slowing down of the sublime, uplifting piano lines of “F Maj Pixie” at minute 4:30 is partly due to this production process: “Chris had a cool idea for a track, which Rob then experimented with in Ableton,” he explains, “he was able to distort and stretch the track, which was sounding great. So we learned to play what came out of the software with acoustic instruments – but enriched with a few effects. Using software allows us to explore ideas that might otherwise be off limits, but Using software allows us to explore ideas that might otherwise be taboo, but we always strive to play everything as organically as possible on our instruments.”
Similarly, the opening passage of ‘Kora’ came about when Rob wrote a drumbeat and then used his computer to switch the sound of the drumbeat to piano notes, wondering to himself what that drumbeat would sound like on a piano. “Of course it sounded terrible at first, just a piano playing random notes, but then I changed it to a Japanese mode and everything came together.”
On this track he also used a drum system called “Polyend Perc”, which allows rhythms created with a hardware sequencer or computer to be played on real percussion instruments – or on household utensils, bulky waste, found objects from the flea market – the sky’s the limit. So you can hit a pad and the stick will hit whatever you attach it to. You can then layer sounds with that like you would with a drum machine, but it’s almost like having a little robot that plays back what you play.”
The methodology of searching is also found in Chris’ piano parts on “Open”: to spice up the ending sequence, Illingworth uses a delay pedal that plays the sequence just played from backwards. As Illingworth describes it, “Sometimes I would improvise lines and then improvise again in response to the sequence I had just played backwards, so that the piano creates a wafting sound – like waves breaking in different directions.”
A firm favourite of the band is standout track ‘Atomised’, with Chris on piano and Nick on bass gliding over Rob’s powerful UK garage drum beat. Again, this might not be a track for genre purists – but this combination of deliberate breaking of all rules and driving groove makes for another, especially live, extremely rousing classic in the band’s repertoire.
GoGo Penguin seem to draw from an inexhaustible source of energy that carries their sound ever forward.
Toward the end of the closing “Don’t Go,” another unusual technique is in operation, as co-producer Brendan Williams has brought a couple of binaural mic heads (Lou Reed was an avid proponent in the ’70s) to give the elegiac finale a rare sense of intimacy and presence.
Nick tells us, “We decided to have Chris play the piano loop at the end, and we grabbed the head mic and slowly stepped away from the piano to make it more distant, like a fade. Then I thought, ‘Why don’t we just walk out the door and close it?’ So that’s how the album ends: the idea was to remind people that even though they were lost in this soulful, otherworldly sound, it had been people who made it – people who were in a room together, in real time.”
Alle Gigs gecancelled – aber Rettung naht: Live from Studio 2 – A Digital EP
On October 29, the band broadcast GoGo Penguin Live from Studio 2, a virtual concert filmed at one of the band’s favorite studios, the legendary Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios in London. Globally famous as the studio of choice for the Beatles, Studio 2 is a unique space, part myth, part sacred space, and blessed with brilliant acoustics. For the band, it was the perfect venue for a live concert film.
Bassist Nick Blacka explains, “We didn’t want to perform in an empty venue, somehow it just felt so weird to create the energy of a concert in an empty room, but we had recorded an EP in Studio Two in 2015 and loved the space and somehow it just made sense to record a show here.”
Pianist Chris Illingworth agrees, “It’s a really special place and we wanted an intimate place where we’d love to work and get that feeling of excitement that you get at a live concert.”
For drummer Rob Turner, it’s all about the sound of the room: “When we perform, we’re always reacting to ourselves, but also to the audience. The people and the energy in the room are as much a part of the performance as we are. Studio 2 is infused with the spirits of all the incredible music and musicians that have performed there. It has its own atmosphere. You can literally feel the expansion of time, forward and backward – how much has happened before you and how much will happen after you.”
But although the virtual concert was originally intended to be a live event only, the band were so inspired by the recording sessions at Studio 2, and so pleased with the performance and sound of the recordings, that they have selected seven of the tracks from the concert to release as a digital EP. Including the first single, Petit_a, which was originally released as a Japanese bonus track on their last album GoGo Penguin, but is a firm favourite of the band and also a track they were particularly looking forward to playing live.
This is GoGo Penguin Live from Studio 2 – the sound of a great band playing live in one of the most iconic studios in the world.
7 tracks from the gig were then released on November 27, 2020 as the “Live from Studio 2 EP” – balm to the wounds of fans who were unable to attend any of the original scheduled gigs during the cursed pandemic.
A GoGo Penguin remix album feels like a natural progression, but nothing actually sounds like a predictable move for the guys.
GGP/RMX” (Release am 07. Mai 20221) ist ein Konzept, das die Gruppe seit Jahren verfolgt. Als lebendige Neuinterpretation ihres meisterhaften, fünften Albums “GoGo Penguin” vom Juni 2020, erscheint dieses Album überaus brillant in einer völlig neuen Interpretation.
Every track on the album has been reinterpreted, as well as a fascinating new version of the previously rare gem “Petit_a” (which was initially released only in Japan before appearing on GGP’s digital EP “Live From Studio 2”). The group has personally enlisted a number of the world’s best artists, producers and remixers and conceived this work at the Blue Note Lab to extend the legacy of the legendary jazz label into the 21st century.
But more than anything, this album expands the scope of GGP’s own acclaimed catalog. ‘GGP/RMX’ bears witness to the transformative art of remixing. It also reflects GGP’s original musicianship and global reach, as well as strong bonds of friendship and respect with each other and the producers of the remixes. The album also reinforces the glorious belief in creative adventure. The new visions on ‘RMX’ feel intuitive, even symbiotic.
The most impressive remix is delivered by the cinemascope minimalists Portico Quartet, and their stunning reconstruction of “Don’t Go” is a haunting finale to the remix album.
GGP/RMX” keeps pushing us towards the dancefloor, but it never stops there – the music pulsates and flows, transporting us to completely new realms.
Chris Illingworth (Piano)
Nick Blacka (Double Bass)
Rob Turner (Drums)
GoGo Penguin Website