GoGo Penguin interview

Charlie Ensor spoke to GoGo Penguin ahead of Liverpool Music Week about their forthcoming Live at Abbey Road EP, recording a film score, the state of jazz music, their creative process and more.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 16th Aug 2016

Image: Emily Dennison 

GoGo Penguin is a band that knows no stylistic limits. The band have been building a name for themselves, effortlessly collating their compositions along the periphery of genres, lending from jazz, electronica and classical music.

Though they are part of a jazz revival of sorts, which has seen funk infused jazz influence the work of acts like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Anderson .Paak and Kamasi Washington or the piano-led jazz ballads of bands like the Esbjorn Svensson Trio or The Bad Plus, it is clear that genres are merely a springboard for the band’s creative process. 

Their music turns the minimalism of Philip Glass and ambience of Brian Eno into mesmeric ballads, and the frenetic and often schizophrenic electronica of Radiohead and Aphex Twin into foot-stomping drum beats led by the band’s bassist Nick Blacka. (Watch 'Weird Cat' live at Union Chapel, Islington, London)

Hot off the release of Man Made Object and with the band ready to launch a new tour and a new EP recorded at Abbey Road, we caught up with Nick to understand the band’s creative process and learn about some of the projects they have and will be working on. 

They play at Arts Club as part of Liverpool Music Week on Tuesday 1st November and at 02 Ritz Manchester on Wednesday 9th November

Recently GoGo Penguin was performing at the Cosmo Jazz Festival Mount Blanc. How was it, as an experience, performing your music there?

It was quite a unique experience for us. We are very fortunate that we get to do a lot of good gigs and play in a lot of great places, but that was one that we were looking forward to, and when we got there it surpassed our expectations in a way.

Just the way it's run. Corinne, who runs the festival, is really enthusiastic. But when we were on the stage, there was no cover, so they were constantly having to check the weather forecast to make sure that it wasn't going to rain and, if it did rain, I'm not actually sure what their plan would have been because there was a grand piano on top of the mountain and all this equipment.

When we played it was a beautiful day, there was a little bit of a concern about the rain but it didn't come. It's just amazing, you're stood on a stage with Mount Blanc behind you and then there's people all the way up the sides of the mountain right to the top to the side of us just looking down on us and people in front of us; it was crazy really. It was a really good experience and we really enjoyed it.

You’re starting your tour soon. Where are you looking forward to playing the most?

There have been so many already this year, some of the venues we've played in - when we were starting out, the kinds of places that we used to play and I think that we do now, it's really been quite an incredible run.

What's coming up? We're going back to Japan, which we all really loved. When we played there earlier this year, I think it was in April or something, we played at the Blue Note club there for two nights and all the gigs were sold out and the reception was just incredible.

We're going back there in September to play at the Blue Note Jazz Festival. We're doing the biggest UK tour that we've done tour that we've done so far, so we're playing at The Ritz in Manchester which way bigger than anything we've done before capacity wise and then The Roundhouse, which should be a good one because we're gonna have some visuals and it's just going to be a little different.

That is definitely our biggest headline show to date, the Roundhouse, which is a huge venue. So it's gonna be good.

Where do you feel more comfortable performing at as a venue? At jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's, the Blue Note Club or venues like Roundhouse and The Ritz?

It really depends. I've said before in interviews that a concert is a two way thing, there's almost an unspoken communication between the audience and the band, and everybody picks up on that and everyone is in the right frame of mind and everyone's on board it becomes a really good shared experience.

So the surroundings don't really matter as much when that sort of thing happens, you just sense it that everyone in the room is on board because it's a really good experience. 

It really depends. We do like concert hall gigs and we've played a lot of clubs. I guess I would say that I lean slightly more towards clubs because people feel like they can let themselves go a little more. When you're in a concert hall people somehow feel the need to be a little more reserved like it's some kind of protocol. But in general we have great gigs in lots of different venues.

This year you've been busy in general. But, interestingly, you worked on a rescoring of Philip Glass' score to Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. The film itself, as with a lot of his films, focuses on the connection between nature, technology and humanity. How did you find rescoring it?

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Well we've only done it the one time. It was just a special, one-off commission for a place called Home in Manchester which opened up last year. It's a venue with things like theaters and art-house cinemas and galleries all together in one space. So we were asked to do that as a special commission. We didn't get asked to do that film, we chose that film.

They did a series of projects with different bands, asking them if they would like to put music to silent film. I think, as a kind of joke, Rob, our drummer thought it would be great to do Koyaanisqatsi, not really thinking that it would ever happen and then Katy, the woman who's organising it said that they'd hoped we'd do a series about it because we'll commission you for it.

It was quite a big deal because it's quite a cool film. A lot of people felt that it was almost slightly controversial in a way doing a rescore of it, but we wanted to just to do our own angle on it and come at it from a different sort of space. It was a lot of work really, but it worked out well and we got great feedback from it. 

Do you have any plans to follow-up this with more film rescoring of films like Baraka and Samsara?

Not at the moment, no. It is new territory for us and we really enjoyed it. Like I said, it was a lot of work as well. I think there's plans, if we can make it work, that we might tour it next year, but it's a very vague plan at the moment, but we're looking into seeing even if we could maybe do a few shows of Koyaanisqatsi in places like London and some other places.

But at the moment I think we're more focused on what the next album's gonna be and we're really busy just playing live that it's difficult to fit anything else in at the moment.

What was it like recording at Abbey Road given its history? 

It was the first time any of us had been there and we were invited to do something because there used to be a TV programme called Live at Abbey Road on Channel 4 where bands came in and performed there. I think we were doing it really as a tester for whether they were going to make a show out of it with different bands.

So we got invited down to that and when you're in that actual room and you think about all the things that have happened there, you can't really quite get your head round it because, in a way, it looks like any room, it looks a bit like school gym from the sixties or something, but it's Abbey Road and all these things have happened there.

If you think about all this great music and I'm kind of in awe of that. I think that we did a good session and we'd just decided, because Record Store Day was coming up at the time, that we'd make it into an EP. We've got some good feedback off it so it's coming out, it's a digital release around the time that we're on tour in November.

And you're playing Liverpool Music Week, as part of the November tour...

The last gig we did there was at The Kazimier, which was right at the beginning of 2015. We really liked the crowd in Liverpool. That was when we were starting to realise how much of a following we have round the UK, so we did that gig and it felt pretty packed. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the band, which was great. We look forward to coming back. (Watch the band performing live at Old Granada Studios below) 

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You mentioned that you're developing a growing following in the UK. Jazz has had a bit of a renaissance in Europe at the moment, but not as many bands in the U.K. that are starting up. Why do you think that this, or would you contend that?

I'm not really sure of the state of jazz at the moment is what you could call ‘healthy’, but I definitely know what you mean, there's kind of a resurgence and there are bands that are coming more into the spotlight.

I think that's the key though. I think that all these different styles of music are always happening and there's always bands and always jazz musicians and things going on, it's just sometimes they brought it to the surface and they come to people's attention and then it's like "oh, rock is dead, jazz is back", all that stuff. It's not really true.

I guess when you get one or two bands that just seem to get a bit of attention at the same time then it becomes a scene, but we've not really thought of ourselves as being part of any scene or anything like that. 

I think it comes at a time when jazz is becoming fused with more wider, more disparate genres...

I guess that Flying Lotus has got that too. With all those examples, there's a lot going on and it's great. Jazz is obviously one of our influences, but I think it's probably quite clear that it's not our only influence either. So there's lots of other things in there and I guess a lot of these bands have the same thing.

It seems to be quite a Manchester attitude in a way, it's like "why can't you take this from this if you like it and use it here?" and there doesn't seem that attitude in Europe where they sometimes get confused as to whether you're a jazz fan or not. 

Why can't you just take something that you like from jazz and something that you like from electronica, something you like from classical music or rock or whatever and just put it all together?

On the European jazz scene bands like Esbjorn Svensson Trio have listed both jazz and classical as an influence on them, so it’s clear that you’re working in a space... 

Definitely. They were a huge influence on Chris [the band's piano player] in the beginning. I think that was a real game-changer for him when they came on the scene.

It's a comparison that naturally gets drawn quite a lot because it's a piano trio doing something a bit different but I think we've kind of moved away from that a little bit now. I think that they were absolutely amazing as a band.

As a bassist, and as an instrumentalist, who are your heroes? Are they taken from the jazz scene or the classical? Where do you draw your influence?

Well all over really. I did spend a lot of time being really into the jazz scene, like the really straight-ahead jazz scene [of the sixties]. I really still love all that, people like Ray Brown from the Oscar Peterson Trio. I think that any bass player who plays upright has gotta check out Ray Brown.

Lots of people from the bebop scene like Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, but I don't really listen to these guys so much anymore. I guess there are more modern players around that I like such as Avishai Cohen [an Israeli bass player], he's great, Dave Holland.

I also like a lot of the electric bass players, kind of the stuff that Pino Palladino does and even Aston Barrett from Bob Marley and the Wailers, the way he kind of plays a groove and plays around with it is really incredible. 

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Would you ever consider going electric as a bassist or are you happy with the way that the acoustic bass contributes to the overall sound of the band?

Well the thing is with the instrumentation of double bass and piano is that it's such a tried and tested formula, and we really love that sort of sound. So we get asked this quite a lot, about synths and bass guitar and that kind of thing.

I think we'll use it if the music requires it. There's no point in being really obstinate and saying that it must be on double bass, it must be organic. If we think that the music needs it then definitely. In fact, on the Koyaanisqatsi score, there's quite a big section that I play on bass guitar. I think that it sounds a lot better on bass guitar, and because the music required it, that's what we did.

Was that on fretless?

I'm not actually a fan of fretless. I think if you think of bass of one instrument, regardless of whether it's acoustic or bass guitar, if you're looking for certain sounds then you need to use a different instrument. If I wanted that kind of upright, fretless sound, then obviously I would play a double bass. But I think when I'm playing bass guitar it's funkier, choppy and precision sort of stuff. It's not really for me. 

I must be too big a fan of bass guitarists that use fretless and come from a line well-established by Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller and so on. But it's not your style, I guess!

It's not really for me. The thing with Jaco as well, once you go down the road of emulating him, which a lot of bass players do, I think you're almost boxing yourself in a little bit.

How do you arrive at your creative process when you're mixing different genres?

It's a lot to do with what we're listening to at the time. So when we were doing v2.0 - GoGo Penguin’s 2014 album which was nominated for the Mercury Prize - we were in a different head space than Man Made Object.

Not in that the albums are that different stylistically from each other. I think our process is that somebody has an idea and then it gets brought to the three of us and we work on it, and it's pretty much a case it being the best idea wins.

So sometimes a piece of music might be almost fully formed or it's really in its infancy and it goes off somewhere that nobody really thought it was going to go to, before we got together and that's what's quite exciting. There's no real set process. 

When you write your music do you start off from the electronic end or acoustic end, or both ways?

It really doesn't matter. It's either. It just depends on the technique that we're going for, the compositional idea - if it's more of a slow tune then we want to sound more jazz or something then it's not really done on the laptop.

If it's something like 'One Percent' - off their album v2.0 - where the track glitches at the end: we actually made that on a laptop and then had to learn it quite laboriously afterwards to get that really electronic skipping sound. We couldn't really figure out a way to write it or do it without making it on a computer first. So again, it really does depend on the technique.

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