Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin have been plotting an uncharted course through new musical territory since the release of their debut album Fanfares via Gondwana Records in 2013. Toying with people’s musical expectations ever since, the band have been making waves in the contemporary British jazz scene as they continue to effortlessly transcend the boundaries of genre by seamlessly fusing the traditions of modern jazz with those of contemporary classical and electronic compositions.
Their unique and innovative sound flirts with a myriad of influences ranging from rock and jazz to minimalism, game soundtracks and glitchy electronica
Their unique and innovative sound flirts with a myriad of influences ranging from rock and jazz to minimalism, game soundtracks and glitchy electronica. Clearly doing something right, the band’s second album v2.0 was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2014, which led to them being signed to iconic jazz label Blue Note Records, famous for its ground-breaking recordings by artists such as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins, to name but a few.
To say this was a huge breakthrough for the band is an understatement, as they began to gain recognition from some big names in the business such as Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum, earning them a level of popularity that few of their contemporaries have achieved. Rapturous responses hailed from all four corners of the globe, including The New York Times who named them as one of the 12 best bands at SXSW festival in 2017, proving that they’re just at home performing to muddy festival goers as jazz fans.
Brimming with sonic ambition, the trio released their hotly anticipated fourth album A Humdrum Star earlier this year, alongside a UK tour that stops into Bristol’s SWX on 14 November. Nitelife had the pleasure of chatting to pianist Chris about the album and its influences, as well as what’s in store for 2019.
With its predecessors having set the bar pretty damn high, we were nothing but excited to hear what this new release had to offer. The album’s title takes inspiration from American astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s TV Series Cosmos, the quote reads: ‘We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.’
Sagan illustrates just how vast our universe is and, by extension, how insignificant our daily trials and tribulations seem to be. Taking inspiration from this deeper perspective on life, the album’s trance-like state induced by fast-paced rhythms, syncopated piano lines and cosmic atmospheric sounds guides the listener into a music-led journey like no other.
the album’s trance-like state induced by fast-paced rhythms, syncopated piano lines and cosmic atmospheric sounds guides the listener into a music-led journey like no other
‘We thought it was really beautiful how he talked about this huge, powerful immense thing’, Chris explains, ‘that can give light to the planet and means so much to us, yet at the same time, it’s just a tiny dot in the sky like any other star. Depending on where you are and where you’re looking from it can be two completely different things. So, it was kind of that idea that overarches the album, with each track having its own individual background and story.
One track on the album (…) was inspired by a dream that I kept having a few years ago about playing chess against a raisin
‘One track on the album called Raven’, Chris continues, ‘was inspired by a dream that I kept having a few years ago about playing chess against a raisin. No idea where it came from or what it really means’ he says laughing, ‘but it was just really vivid and really spoke to me, so I wrote this little sketch using lots of synths and electric drums and we started the track from there.
‘Transient State is based on an experience that I had in Tokyo a few years ago when we travelled with the band’, says Chris. ‘It was just a completely new experience for me, somewhere totally different to anywhere I’d been before. We barely have any time on tour to do any sightseeing, but I had one day where I tried to pack as much as I could in and it was about those experiences. It’s about never being in one place very long, a transient state, you’re always changing, always moving. I think that really represents how we are on tour. It’s very exciting and fun but at the same time it’s very tiring and you miss home and your family. So, there is a flip side to it and, again, this ties in with dual perspectives and Carl Sagan’s quote about the humdrum star.’
With the album rooted in this idea of dual perspectives, Chris explains that during its process the band explored how two different people might perceive or interpret the same situation in different ways and how this can be affected by factors such as your background, culture, opinions, experiences;
‘You know, an argument can happen because two people have different opinions about the same thing and people can have different views and beliefs and cultures even though they exist in the same space in the country or the world. We love the fact that people can interpret music how they want, so we experience this multiple perspective concept all the time. There might be someone who experiences a track that makes them feel happy, whereas someone else may feel tense or anxious.’
We love the fact that people can interpret music how they want (…) There might be someone who experiences a track that makes them feel happy, whereas someone else may feel tense or anxious
Consisting of pianist Chris, bassist Nick and drummer Rob, the band is an eclectic cocktail of varying musical interests, yet, similar to their previous albums, they make sure everything is written together. Chris comes from more of a classical background, whereas Rob has done quite a lot of jazz and is very much into his electronica. Nick also draws upon a jazz background, but is also very into hip hop.
‘We tend to argue’, says Chris, ‘they’re not really arguments – that’s the wrong word – disputes is better. We are very different people and we’ve come from very different backgrounds, so it’s inevitable that at times we’ll agree and other times we’ll disagree. Also, as there is three of us you get that weird time where two people will like an idea and the other person won’t. It can be tricky one, but it seems to come together quite naturally.
‘One person might bring an idea to the table, but we’ll then develop that idea together,’ Chris continues, ‘we want to make sure that our music is the sum of what we can do together as three individuals and three very different people – this unique thing that sounds like GoGo Penguin.’
we want to make sure that our music is the sum of what we can do together as three individuals and three very different people – this unique thing that sounds like GoGo Penguin
In contrast to their previous albums’ recording process, the outfit ensured that for their fourth studio album they would be recorded solely in their hometown of Manchester. Normally, the trio would venture to a recording studio in Wales, but for A Humdrum Star, the trio were able to stay in their homes with their family and were able to stay in the studio for as long as they liked. This enabled the band to have more of an organic approach to the album, as they gained more autonomy.
‘We were definitely more liberated with this album, for sure, which enabled us to make it as organic as possible. v2.0 was exciting because Nick had just joined, but it felt more like a practice run to us all really, it was the first one we made and we were still learning how to play together. v2.0 felt quite fun and easy in comparison to Man Made Objects because we had just signed with Blue Note, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. They were very encouraging and really positive about having us as part of their team, but obviously it was such a big deal for us, three guys from the North of England having the opportunity to be a part of a label like that was quite a shock and we were massively humbled.’
We were definitely more liberated with this album
Not only do GoGo Penguin have four impressive studio albums to their name, they are also well known for their truly compelling live shows and it’s fair to say that they’re up there with some of the best music projects in the contemporary scene. Though unlike many live bands, the trio don’t have a frontman and play collectively on stage. I asked Chris if this impacted their ability to connect to their audience;
‘We’ve heard a lot of people say that they love the fact that their attention is drawn constantly to different points within the band when we perform live. We make sure that everything that we’ve included tries to create this bigger thing, rather than being about one person. People say it’s more exciting having your attention pulled in so many different directions and not necessarily knowing where some of the sound is coming from.’
GoGo Penguin might not have a leading man or lady, but they certainly make up for this in other areas. They work closely with their light engineer Lewis Howell, who travels with them on tour to create stunning light shows that enhance the trio’s performances, making the whole experience completely mesmerising.
we know that we’re not the most exciting three people to look at on stage – it’s about the music that we play
‘It’s a big part of our live shows and really adds something to the performance,’ Chris explains, ‘because we know that we’re not the most exciting three people to look at on stage – it’s about the music that we play.’
A Humdrum Star could scarcely come at a more opportune time for British jazz. Countless press inches have been afforded to the scene’s so-called resurgence, with new prominence given to a fresh generation of musicians, with the likes of Yussef Kamaal, Alfa Mist and Ezra Collective.
‘I think it’s great that people are starting to explore a little bit more musically’, says Chris, ‘we’ve been asked a lot about the genre and what we class ourselves as and how we feel about being classed as jazz and things like that. To be honest, we’ve never thought of ourselves as a jazz band, we obviously know that there are elements of jazz in there, but we’re just a band.
we’ve never thought of ourselves as a jazz band, we obviously know that there are elements of jazz in there, but we’re just a band
‘I think it’s great that all these acts are coming along that are breaking down those boundaries that were created by genre and we definitely have people coming to our gigs that say they don’t really like jazz, but they like what we are playing and that’s great. Alternatively there are people who are into all kind off jazz that also enjoy what we do, so it’s meaning that more people can listen to more people’s music and I think that’s healthy thing – exploring more and trying more things and not being too limited in what they experience in terms of any kind of art.’
The band will be stopping into Bristol’s SWX on 14 November to perform the new album, alongside some previous material and, of course, their infamous light show courtesy of Lewis Howell.
‘We’ll be playing plenty of the new album, but also some of the old stuff. We’ve been digging out things that we’ve even forgotten about ourselves. I had to dig out a YouTube video of us to remember how to play one of the tunes, it was so long since we’d played it! It was a bonus track on a Japanese edition, so there are a few things that people probably won’t have heard or expect.
We’ve been digging out things that we’ve even forgotten about ourselves. I had to dig out a YouTube video of us to remember how to play one of the tunes
‘We take each gig as it comes, we feed off the audience, which really changes the way that the performance is, as well as the venue. We’re really looking forward to the Bristol show as we’ve had a great time every time we’ve been down there, so it’ll be really cool to come back.’
Words by Georgie Partington
Photos by Emily Dennison