Here at Backseat Mafia, we caught up (socially distancing of course!) with GoGo Penguin member, Pianist Chris Illingworth. Talking about their new self-titled album set to be released in June, how he is spending his time during lockdown aswell as delving further into any gigs and concerts they have planned and just a general catch up on all thing GoGo Penguin.
Difficult times, how has this crisis affected You? Gigs/plans cancelled? What are you doing with the time?
It definitely is a strange and difficult time for everyone right now. We’re all safe and well thanks, just absolutely gutted we’ve had to postpone our touring. We’ve been really excited about getting out on the road again and playing tracks from the new album for everyone. We just managed to fit in a day of filming before the lockdown started, we recorded some live performances of a few tracks from the new record. We had the full crew with us that we would have been touring with, we work together so much that we’re like a family so there was a strange and sad moment at the end of the day when we all just said goodbye to each other not knowing when we’ll be seeing each other properly again. All we can do is wait it out, it will all come round eventually. As crazy as it is at the moment I have to admit I’m enjoying my time at home with my wife and son. He’s now just over 10 months so getting to see how much he’s developed over the last few weeks in particular is incredible. I’d got myself psyched up ready to be away from home for a while so I’m lucky to be able to be with him so much around this time. You can really see him exploring the world around him, always learning. Aside from that I’m cooking loads. I love to cook and it’s one of the main things I miss whilst being on tour. We’re all obsessed with hot sauce in the band and I just made some Sichuan chilli sauce the other day and my neighbours just gave me some rhubarb so I’m making a crumble later.
Tell us about your new Self-titled album?
Being busy touring isn’t really something we can complain about, we’re really thankful that people want to hear our music and that we’ve been able to travel and play so much over the last few years, however it has made it very difficult to find time to properly rehearse and explore ideas together as a band. Luckily, early last year, we were able to find some good time between tours to work together and write but also, more importantly, just to play and try things out without any pressure. I think that because of this we were really able to express what we wanted as clearly as possible with every track, even more so than I think we’ve been able to in the past. We recorded in September at a studio near Leeds called Chairworks. Joe Reiser (our live sound engineer) and Brendan Williams were with us as producers (they’ve recorded and produced all our records since v2.0) but that was it, just the 5 of us. It was a residential studio and there was nothing really around or nearby so it was the perfect kind of isolation, no distractions and loads of time, a great experience.
We loved Kora here on Backseat Mafia. How did that track come about? Is that typical of the new record? Is there a meaning behind it?
I’ve always been trying to find ideas for the piano from places that are a bit different. I’ve loved electronic music since being a kid – bands and artists like Underworld, Nine Inch Nails, Aphex Twin – so early on I started playing around with techniques that could make an acoustic piano sound more electronic or have the abilities of a synth. More recently I have looked at how Kora patterns are shaped and formed and played around with these sort of ideas on the piano. The inspiration for this came from hearing the Kora player in the centre of Manchester. As long as the weather isn’t absolutely terrible he’ll be there playing, it’s a beautiful sound that somehow, even though the instrument is gentle and the music he plays is peaceful, cuts through the crowd noise. The start of the track originated from a beat that Rob wrote which he then copied onto the piano to create that synced up loop, I added some Kora-like patterns on the piano which led to the improvised middle section and Nick found that beautiful melodic line on the bass that became the foundation for the chilled out section at the end. As with all of our music we took these small ideas and sketched and developed them together until they formed the complete track so I guess in that way it is typical of the record. Aside from that every track is different and has it’s own foundation and character.
How do you write? Collectively or do people have specific roles within the band?
Everything is written together and there are no hard and fast rules or templates we stick to. Generally a track will start with an idea from one of us but this can be anything from a couple of chord changes to a short melody or beat to something more formed. Sometimes the idea is acoustic, maybe a line and some loops on the piano, sometimes it’s a completely electronic sketch written on Ableton, other times it starts from something completely different. The one constant is that we always explore and develop the ideas together. A lot more of this album came together through jamming ideas in our studio in Manchester, as always we try everyone’s ideas so it can be a long process but hopefully always leads to the best result. Our music is never a reflection of just one of us that we then play as a band, it’s always a combination of the three of us and that’s what makes it sound like GoGo Penguin.
And its out on the iconic Blue Note label. How did that deal come about? Had you always been fans of the label?
It’s quite a few years ago now, we were playing at a festival in Hamburg called ÜBERJAZZand found out the day before that the bosses of Blue Note and Blue Note France, Don Was and Nico Pflug, were coming to see us. Turns out they loved the show, we met up with them after the gig and chatted for ages and within a week there was an offer on the table. It’s crazy how quick it all happened. With our first record for the label (Man Made Object) we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and not in a particularly healthy way, but we never felt any pressure from the label. They’ve always been very supportive and seem to have a lot of trust in what we’re doing as a band. They’ve literally said to us when we head to the studio to just do our thing, experiment, make our record. It means a lot to us to be part of the history and legacy of a label like Blue Note but I think it means even more to us that they support us and give us the freedom to make the music we want to make.
There’s elements of all sorts of things in your music as well as jazz. How would you describe it, and does the music you like / admire feed into the music you make?
We get asked this a lot and the truth is we don’t call it anything. We don’t mind what other people call it, it’s up to them to come up with labels or genres that they feel best describe it but for us it’s important (especially when we’re writing new music) that we have complete freedom and don’t limit ourselves with definitions and genres. Yes, there’s jazz in there as an influence but we draw inspiration from everywhere we can, not just music. We share plenty of similar tastes and opinions but we’re very different and individual people. We each come from different musical backgrounds, we each have different interests and ideas and it’s the combination of these that makes the music a perfect blend of the three of us but also something separate and independent from each of us as individuals.
I suppose you always get asked this, but where did the name come from, or what is a Gogo Penguin?
Yeah, we have been asked this quite a lot! We first started the band about 7 or so years ago now and in the room we rehearsed in back then there was a prop that had been used for an opera that looked like a penguin (turns out it was supposed to be a magpie) and we sort of got the idea from that. The main reason was that we wanted a name that didn’t focus on any of the three of us in particular. Although the band has always had many influences other than jazz we started from a jazz foundation with the line up – piano/bass/drums – and a common way of naming the band is after the leader – the Chris Illingworth Trio, or Nick Blacka Trio or Rob Turner Trio. We wanted something that completely avoided this and made it clear this is a band, a combination of the three of us as equals and not a group led by one. All bands have pretty daft names when you think about it though, don’t they?
Difficult to answer at the moment, but are there plans to tour the record, at some point? Where are your favourite places to play?
Absolutely. As soon as it’s safe for our fans and for us and our crew we’ll be straight out on the road. We’re lucky that our music seems to suit a whole bunch of different venues so it’s difficult to say which is my favourite. I think the variation is the best part; one day we’ll be playing a festival where everyone is up on their feet dancing and partying and the next day we might be in a concert hall or a basement club. It changes over time but I do love when we play the sort of venue where you feel connected to the crowd. It makes a big difference to us when we’re playing, the crowd feed off what we do but we feed off the crowd too. It’s great when we can come back from some big shows to then play a really intimate venue.
Whats next for Gogo Penguin? Either collectively or individually
The new album will be out on 5th June but apart from that I’m not sure to be honest. With everything the way it is at the moment we’re having to take each day as it comes.
So, we’d like to thank Chris for giving us his time answering our questions and we look forward to hearing the new album GoGo Penguin on 5th June.
In the mean time, you can check out GoGo Penguin’s earlier music on Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, read an earlier interview we did with the band. We are hoping to see GoGo Penguin back to doing what they do best in a town near you – hopefully very soon!