BN1 Chats to Gogo Penguin

Penguins are pretty cool creatures. For every problem presented by their hostile environment, they have developed a solution. They also have an awesome walk and a pretty neat colour scheme. But for their cute demeanour and belligerence, they’ve adopted a ridiculous migration cycle and exist in some of the most hostile place on the planet. Similarly, Manchester band Gogo Penguin are surrounded by all kinds of contradictions. They’re embracing both acoustic music and electronica; they blend jazz and rock, and then throw some dancefloor-worthy grooves to keep the audience on their toes. In the hands of less talented musicians it could all dissolve into a frustrating mess. But this three-piece seem to make it work effortlessly. “It can be difficult,” concedes bassist Nick Blacka. “…especially when you’re playing in front of festival crowds – they tend not to like 15 minute improvisation sessions!” Together with pianist Chris Illingworth and drummer Rob Turner, they’ve carved out a particular niche in popular music. It slides around the point where classical music, electronica, jazz and rock all converge. There’s a hint of broken-beats through the soaring piano melodies, with thrusting basslines keeping the whole affair lively and compelling.

Receiving some decent critical acclaim with the release of debut album Fanfares, they went on to score a Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize album nomination with its follow-up v2.0 in 2014. “There are always a few bands on that list that no-one has heard of. I think a few people judged us by our name and thought we were a bit of a joke. But by the time the ceremony came around a few were saying we could actually win it!” What the experience did do is expose a whole new range of people to their music. Then 2015 saw them signed to legendary jazz label – Blue Note Records. In a way this consolidated their status as the standard-bearers for a new wave of progressive music. They promptly lived up to expectations, with the release of Man Made Object. It brought a groovier and deeper side of the band into the public domain. “We like to view it as a complete work. We know there’s a trend for listening to just tracks now, but this is something which will take the listener on a journey.” Taking sequenced tracks and layering them with live improvised wig-outs, throughout Illingworth’s almost anthemic piano prowess, leaves them shining brightly with nods to the classical greats. Underneath it all, Blacka’s bowed bass and Turner’s hustling drums give everything a contemporary club-like feel.

Without doubt, they’re a band which build and improve upon their innovative recordings in a live situation. From chin-stroking aficionados to proper party-heads, the trio attract a diverse crowd, all dragged in by the allure of a band standing apart from the mainstream. This fearsome live reputation has taken them all over the world. Soon they’re off for their European tour, which calls in at Brighton’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on Weds 2 Nov. But all this travelling and playing occasionally has its cost. Blacka has just flown back into the UK, to discover his beloved double bass was broken during transit. Something he’s not massively happy about.

He began playing bass when he was 11, starting a rock band with some school mates. He and his fellow Penguins had drifted in and out of each other’s musical orbits, and when they eventually hooked up as a trio something simply clicked. “It was a bit strange at first, but it just worked straight away. I think we all had a similar idea of what we wanted, and that came through.” Listening to their work, their constantly shifting tableaux of influences range from the esoteric to the atmospheric. Shades of Aphex Twin and Brian Eno stand out, although their love of the classical greats is evident throughout. How they push all these diverse strands together is a truly collaborative affair. “Rob uses Ableton or Logic to create his ideas, we then interpret these acoustically with our own instruments. I think it’s a mixture of all the things we are into.” They also put plenty of wok into their visual identity, with amazing light shows adding to the drama of their captivating live performances. So it’s another contradiction that this trio haven’t ventured further into film-making. “We have done a few things, but it all comes down to time. We’re so busy with touring and everything that we barely get enough time with our family and friends at the moment.”

Gogo Penguin plays Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in Brighton on Weds 2 Nov.

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