Meet: Mercury Nominees GoGo Penguin interview

Photo Credit: Arlen Connolly

Its been quite a few weeks for Manchester Jazz Trio GoGo Penguin. Fired skywards by their recent Mercury Barclaycard Album of the Year nomination, they followed it up with a spot on Live on Jools Holland the other night. After a couple of years skirting around the edges of public consciousness, which saw heavy support for debut album Fanfares (Gondwana Records) from the likes of Mike Chadwick and Gilles Peterson (gaining a nomination for Best Jazz Album at GP’s Worldwide awards), the Manchester Trio – pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner have made an album in V2.0 that can’t be ignored.

We caught up with the band to find out more

BM: Hey, thanks in advance for doing this. Its very much appreciated.
No problem at all.

So GoGo Penguin – things are taking off for you right now, has it surprised you, the last few weeks?
Definitely. It’s been a great year for us so far and these last few weeks have been incredible. I think we’re all equally buzzed and exhausted right now!

How, and when, did you find out about the Mercury nomination? Did you manage to keep it a secret, or were you ringing up people you hadn’t spoken to in years just to casually mention it?
It was all pretty hectic around that time so when we were sent a message about a week before we’d all forgotten about the nominations and it was a huge surprise. We kept it under wraps until the official announcement but it was tricky… especially when you get a call from your folks and they ask “so… anything interesting happening at the moment?”

And looking forward to that bash, hob-nobbing with music royalty – who are you going to try and snaffle a seat next to?
Whoever’s buying the drinks.

Going back, how did you get together?
We’ve played together as this trio since the beginning of 2013 but we’ve known each other for ages. We’re all based in Manchester, there’s a great music scene here and you get to meet a ton of musicians very easily. We had worked together before in different bands and sessions but when we got together to try out some ideas as a trio, it clicked and just built from there.

And the name?
Bit of a last minute decision… we we’re booked to play a gig and realised we hadn’t bothered to come up with a name. It had something to do with a taxidermied penguin and Inspector Gadget I think… or maybe dancers?

Listening to your music, although people describe it as broadly jazz, there sounds to be a lot of things coming together in there, in terms of influences and ideas – did you all come from different musical backgrounds? And influences, what were you all into?
Sure, we all definitely have different musical backgrounds. We’ve all studied music but with different focuses – Classical, Jazz, Indian – and we all listen to a wide variety of music, basically anything we can get our hands on. We all know what we like but for inspiration we try to stay as open as possible. It’s the same reason we try to avoid genres and labels. They can be very limiting and that’s the last thing you want when you’re trying to write new music.

Was there an artist, or a record, that you bonded over?
There are tons but I’d say the main ones are Four Tet, Arvo Pärt, Squarepusher, Hecq and Aphex Twin.

There seems to be a lot going on Jazz wise in Manchester right now – was it a good scene to be part of?
I guess it’s like any individual music scene, there are positives and negatives. It’s more a case of it being great to be part of the Manchester scene as a whole. There are overlaps everywhere which generate a lot of creativity and shared ideas and there’s a lot of excellent venues that all have their own individual vibe. It’s nice that our music doesn’t easily fit into one category so we’ve been lucky enough to play to a real variety of crowds from gigs at Band on the Wall right through to club nights at Antwerp Mansion.

Tell us about v2.0 – what was influencing you when writing the record? Was Manchester itself an influence?
That’s a tricky one. I guess subconsciously we’re influenced by Manchester – every city has its own atmosphere and that’s going to affect you as an individual – but inspiration came from all over the place. Anything we find of interest we share round with each other, whether its music, articles, books, films. You never know where an idea might come from.

How do you write? Is it largely improvised in rehearsals, or does everybody have a specific job/role within the band?
It’s very equal, the music is written together. There’s generally an idea that one of us comes up with but usually it’s only a couple of bars of music or even less, just something to introduce a bit of a vibe that we then work on collectively. Improvisation plays a big part in our finished music and performances and it’s very useful in rehearsals to be able to improvise until the track begins to form. We want to sound like a single unit and less like three individuals who just happen to be playing at the same time so writing together is essential in making that effect.

And how did the recording go? Fun, frustrating? I read that The Letter was recorded in the dark – was there any more tales of experimenting during the records making?
We had an amazing time. Of course it was tough, a lot of hard work, but it was also a lot of fun. We recorded at Giant Wafer Studios in Wales – it was the perfect place to record, right in the middle of nowhere, no distractions, awesome gear and it was residential so we could really immerse ourselves in the recording. There was plenty of experimenting, especially whilst recording Shock and Awe – we had metronomes in the piano and all-sorts – but I think one of the best moments was when Brendan (who co-produced the album with our engineer Joe) came running from the kitchen back to the studio holding a hand blender shouting “I’ve got an idea!” Unfortunately it didn’t work but maybe with some practice it’ll be on album three.

It’s a genuinely brilliant record, and its going to get a lot of attention because of its nomination – what do you think made the judges choose it? What moments on the record are you most proud of?
Thanks, glad you like it. It’s really humbling to have our album nominated but we don’t know what made the judges choose it any more than we know why anyone choses it. Everyone has their own tastes and opinions and we can’t worry about what other people think about our music, there’ll always be some who love it and some who hate it. We have to just write the music we want to write and we’re lucky that so many people enjoy the music we make. I’m sure we’re all proud of v2.0 but we don’t really look back. It’s always about where we want to go next. There’s no finish line with music so whilst we were happy with the record we made, there’s always new ideas to try, developments to make, more music to write.

Plans for the rest of the year?
Hopefully a lot more of the same. We’ve managed to gig in some incredible places over this last year and there’s talk of some really exciting visits coming up – New York, Japan, Australia. Also we’re hoping to finish building our studio in Manchester and we’re currently writing new tracks for the third album which we’ll be recording sometime next year. And if we can find the time I reckon we’ll finally build that bionic penguin – with laser eyes and everything.

Welcome to the official website for GoGo Penguin

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