GoGo Penguin are a Manchester-based trio made up of Chris Illingworth (piano), Grant Russell (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums), friends from The Royal Northern College of Music, all in their 20s.
They already have a cult following in the North West, and with their debut album – released on Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records – having hit the shelves in late November their star is set to ascend in 2013.
Crack caught up with the band to find out about Fanfares, the underground scene in Manchester and how they are setting out to change the perception of jazz.
Who came up with the name GoGo Penguin, and what does it mean?
Grant: Me and my mate Pete got drunk at the rag-week auction at the RNCM and Pete bought this weird looking stuffed penguin for £60. His girlfriend was terrified of it and wouldn’t have it in the house, so I put it up in mine. We got our first gig at Sandbar in Manchester and desperately needed a name, so we started throwing ideas about and the penguin telepathically gave us the solution. Hence ‘Penguin’, ‘Go Penguin’ and eventually ‘Gogo Penguin’.
How would you describe your sound?
Chris: That’s a difficult one. Hopefully, when people hear us they hear a unit, an overall sound more than three separate parts. As individuals we each bring something different to the group and it’s that mixture that makes GoGo Penguin sound the way it does.
G: Definitely. There are elements from a wide range of musical styles in the formation and execution of the music – combinations of classical performance, dance/electronica structures, jazz-like improvisation – and they all form a major part of our sound.
Rob: After gigs, we often get people coming up saying “this tune sounded a little bit like so-and-so” or “that beat was a bit like this guy or that guy” and it’s a different band or artist or tune every time. It’s great that people hear something familiar but yet completely new and different at the same time.
Your debut album artwork is very strong, but – as far as we can tell – has little to do with fanfares. What it’s all about?
C: It was designed by Daniel Halsall, the brother of Matthew who runs Gondwana Records, who produced this album. He’s an awesome designer. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that it’s like looking at the universe, from the outside.
R: And I think that resembles our perspective on music: to look from outside and embrace everything rather than identifying with one genre.
C: As for the title, it came from the track with the same name. It was inspired by the piano etudes of György Ligeti which I was playing when we were composing this tune and we all thought it was an apt name for a debut album.
How did Gondwana come across you?
R: Matt saw us at Norvun Sunday, a night run by a friend of ours called Blain Norvun. He puts on a gig at the Roadhouse in Manchester once a month – local bands and artists, awesome live visuals, DJs … and crumpets. It’s a great example of the underground scene in Manchester.
C: Antwerp Mansion is another good one. They’re gradually renovating an old Victorian mansion and putting on everything from life drawing classes to club nights. We’ve had a lot of fun gigging there, and even after they’ve had guys like Gza from Wu-Tang there, they still focus on promoting local art.
R: And we can’t forget to mention the Mix-Up. Nick Blacka puts on a great night, three live bands and it’s every kind of music you can imagine – and I mean every kind. Always a great vibe.
How pleased are you with the album?
G: The music on the album has been evolving over the last couple of years. The development was not rushed, it was cultured over many gigs and rehearsals and I think this is reflected in the sound of the album. There were many challenges, both technically and sonically to be dealt with and it needed time and experimentation before the music could take shape. We are very pleased with the album.
Who does the most composition / music writing?
G: It’s very even. The ideas that are the seeds of a tune are put forward by one of us but then the full growth is a shared experience.
R: After the idea is laid down, it’s then open to all three of us to develop with most of the work on the music being done together in rehearsals. There’s a lot of experimentation. As Grant said earlier, we didn’t rush the development of the music. The tunes evolved over time as we gigged and rehearsed them until they took the shape we wanted, then we took them to the studio.
C: If one of us wrote a tune, brought it to the other guys and said ‘play this like this’, it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be a GoGo Penguin tune. It’s the fact that we all contribute and bring our own ideas and thoughts to the music that makes it sound the way it does.
Who are the band’s main influences?
R: It’s difficult to say who the band’s influences are as we all listen to different music. And it’s not just music, inspiration comes from many places. I’m listening to a lot of electronica at the moment … Aphex Twin, Mu-Ziq, Four Tet. And also the tabla music of Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain, although this has to fit in between Bonobo: I’ve had them on loop recently.
G: Personally, I’m really into Acoustic Ladyland, Radiohead and Polar Bear … and bassy stuff like Portishead and Lamb. Jon Thorne’s double bass work with those guys is awesome.
C: At the moment I can’t stop listening to Scuba and Burial. Also Björk, especially her last album Biophilia … and Andrew Thomas Huang’s video for Mutual Core blew my mind – the most incredible art I’ve seen in a long time.
What was it like playing at the London Jazz Festival?
G: Terrifying and exhilarating. I hadn’t been so nervous since my final recital at college. It was a massive moment for all of us to play Ronnie Scott’s, never mind on the opening night of the festival and live on BBC Radio 3. It was amazing to be invited.
And in December you had your second concert in London, at The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, how was that?
C: We had a fantastic night at The Vortex, it was great to see such a good turnout – considering it was only our second gig in London the reception from the crowd was awesome. It was a real buzz to receive such a great reaction from the crowd, especially whilst playing away from home.
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Words: Oliver Pickup (twitter.com/CulturedClown)
Photo: Stephen Hunt