HiFi Album of the Month

HiFi Album of the Month

This month’s HiFi Album is v2.0, the Mercury Prize nominated sophomore LP from UK newcomers GoGo Penguin. Read our review of the album below, followed by an immersive in-depth interview with bassist Nick Blacka. 

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Interesting bands are often described as “unique,” but with GoGo Penguin you really mean it.

Their skittering break-beats, telepathic interplay and a penchant for anthemic melody all contribute to a sound that’s wholly their own. GoGo Penguin has no leader. Chris Illingworth’s classically filtered piano melodies are cross-sectioned by the palpitating energy of bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner.

You can try define it, but no putting GoGo Penguin in a box only serves to limit the boundless philosophy of their sound.

Ideologically drawing on a heady brew of influences from Brian Eno, John Cage and Squarepusher, there is no constraint to the sounds the band feed on. Their instrumentation might be that of the archetypal piano trio, but the band freely sources melodic, harmonic and structural ideas from classical and jazz, while drawing rhythms from the modern landscape of electronica. It’s this meeting of ostensive opposites that makes their singular “acoustic electronica” sound so fantastically rich.

Though it is technically the second release from the Manchester band, v2.0 is the opening salvo from the new GoGo Penguin. Nick Blacka, who previosuly played in a jazz trio with Illingworth, joined the band at the close of 2012 after founding member Grant Russell left to pursue other projects. Blacka’s integration formed a new cohesion to the band, in terms of function, awareness and sound. If their earlier breakthrough LP Fanfares offered a band prototype, then the appropriately titled v2.0 is GoGo’s wildly successful reboot.

It’s the sound of a band increasingly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent of the sonic world they have created.

Album opener “Murmuration” could almost be a manifesto, clearly improvised but influenced by the likes of Jon Hopkins and Massive Attack. It’s named for the way bird’s flock together – a powerful, beautiful whole where there is no leader and no one bird is more important than another.

The anthemic, pulsating “Garden Dog Barbecue” also brilliantly illuminates the band’s world, influenced by Aphex Twin but driven by jazz and bebop language. “Kamaloka” features a beautiful melody that nods to Four Tet, while “Fort” moves from Arvo Part style piano to techno-rhythmic drums – an effect achieved with live techniques instead of effects units.

“One Percent,” a reference to current state of the financial world, helped earn the odd-but-loving description of a band that “sounds like a CD skipping – but live.” The first piece the new band wrote together was the hip-hop flavored “Home,” opened by Blacka’s welcoming bass intro.

“The Letter,” recorded totally in the dark, is a slow, almost spiritual ballad that combines classic jazz voicings with a more contemporary feel and offers a moments respite before the intensity of the dub-step viber “To Drown In You” and the album’s most experimental point the gripping, sad, “Shock & Awe.”

The album closes with the beautiful “Hopopono,” which with it’s mixture of influences and nod to the theme of “Murmuration” brings us gloriously back to the start of our journey one that has taken in nods to ancient myths, spirituality, love and even contemporary underground political movements but a journey that like all the best music or literature allows the listener or reader to make their own story.

Brilliantly recorded by sound engineer Joe Reiser and studio engineer Brendan Williams, the band took full advantage of the increased resources the success of their debut afforded. It’s a technicolor snap-shot of a band finding their own voice as they bravely create a new sound all their own.

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Photo: Arlen Connelly

Is out fair to assume that the title of the new record, v2.0, refers that reformation of the band?

Yeah, absolutely. In some ways we kind of think of it as another debut album. That’s not taking anything away from the first – I think it’s great, and I know they were really happy with it. But by the time it was recorded they wanted to move in another direction, so it was fairly old from the start I suppose. They wanted to go in this direction that v2.0 is going, with electronica, or, rather, sounding like electronica.

So that’s what the title referring to – the concept of it being a digitized “version.” In our process a lot of ideas were recorded and shared with our laptops, so we were sharing files, and reworking versions. It came from that sort of process.

So is it this more electronic direction that’s the most pivotal change for the band since you came along?

Yeah, I think so. I mean if you change one third of a trio, it’s going to sound different. And I think that everyone was aware of that.

I know this album was written more collectively than the first one. When the first one was written, the guys would bring complete ideas to the table, and then they’d play it. In this instance, tunes were brought forward at an earlier stage, and then we’d all work to contribute ideas and complete it together. Sometimes we’d isolate a very small part of it, and we’d be looping four bars for hours, trying to figure out the best way to do it before finally settling on the right sound.

It is a bit more electronica sounding – that’s definitely what we were consciously doing – but it’s still a paino trio, it’s still acoustic music. There aren’t many electronics or samples on it, except bits here and there, along with some pedal effects on my bass.

I should mention that although we are a trio, we’ve got a hidden fourth member – a guy called Joe Reiser. He’s our sound engineer and he co-produced the album, so it wasn’t just me joining the band at that time. That was a big leap forward, both sonically and in terms of the techniques we use to perform live.

How is that?

He’s contributed loads to the live shows. He’s had to become quite clever with the ways he amplifiers the bass and the piano, because it’s quite hard to do with an acoustic setup. If you see us live it’s almost more like a rock show. We’re quite full on with the bass, and the piano has to be amplified to match the drums.

Joe has come up with all these solutions, like building a special pickup for my bass. I’m getting a bit geeky now, but for the piano he’s got these special magnetic pickups that go inside, under the strings, to bring it up with the level of the drums. He’s been a big factor for moving the band forward.

You seem to talk about the band as being in a state of change or progress. 

It’s hard to say, we’re just starting to work on new stuff now. We’ve got a gig coming up in Paris, and after that we’re just going to lock ourselves up and start writing the third album. I like to think of albums as being a snapshot of a band at a particular moment, so it’s quite difficult to say at this stage how it’s going to come out.

It will change though, won’t it? We’re quite cohesive as a band now because we’ve been out on the road playing the stuff on v2.0 for 18 months now. But to be completely honest I don’t know what’s going to happen.

That’s fair. Maybe a better question is: what’s going to stay the same?

We’re not going to break out a lot of synthesizers. We’re not going to get silly with electronics and lose our acoustic nature. We still want it to be the three instruments: piano, bass, drums.

That said, this sound you guys have going on does seem to be largely defined by its resemblance to electronic music. It’s frequently been called it “acoustic electronica.”

Well, in a way “acoustic electronica” doesn’t really make any sense – it’s a bit of an oxymoron if you ask me. The basic idea is that we are an acoustic piano trio who’s looking at the styles of electronic music, seeing how we can incorporate that into our language and play it live.

On top of that have this identity that’s informed by jazz and classical. How do you mediate all these different schools of music? 

Well, Chris is a classically trained pianist. He and Rob both attended the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, so they both studied classically for four years. Me and Rob met on the jazz scene in Manchester, so you’re right on both counts.

The thing is that if we just say we’re a jazz band, there are traps. It’s not that we want to distance ourselves from jazz. We just don’t want to define it as that, because it becomes quite limiting when you call it one thing or another.

It’s almost not fair to the people who come see us because they have preconceptions of what a jazz band is and what a jazz band does. We’ve had experiences, not many, where people come see these gigs and say: Hey, why is there not more improvisation? Well, it’s because we didn’t want it to be like that.

We’re searching for creativity wherever we can find it, so we’re taking little bits from various places. If we like the style of a classical composition then we can take it, and if we like elements of jazz and improvisation then we can take that, but we don’t want it to be classed as this one thing. It becomes quite limiting for us – and confusing to people. [laughs]

I’m glad you answered it that way. I recently asked Bill Frisell whether there is a misinterpretation of what jazz is, because, like with you guys, when I hear his music it doesn’t sound like what I think of as jazz. His answer was that jazz is not a style, but rather a process, a way of approaching the music. Does that ring true to you?

Yeah, I think I’m inclined to agree with that. It’s such a tough one these days because I can’t even really say what jazz is anymore. I think it’s many things, and it’s become quite convoluted.

Some people will say we’re jazz: we’ve got jazz instrumentation, we improvise occasionally, and those elements are definitely present. But still, I really don’t know if it is jazz. I guess that’s up to the listener to decide.

Labels can be counterproductive in explaining art. By trying to define something you’re also limiting how it can be understood. 

Yeah, there’s a lot of that. People seem to desperately need that categorization for some reason. I guess it’s a way to try and understand the music. It’s just that we don’t see it like that. Music is just music – it’s notes and rhythms. You can take whatever styles excite you, and incorporate that into what you’re doing. There’s no limits.

Photo: Arlen Connelly

You guys were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize this year. What was that like?

It was amazing to be picked – a really humbling experience. I think we got more out of it than any of the other bands, in a way, because we were the least well-known. By the end of it people were checking us out and that’s all we could have asked for from the experience.

No one ever thought we were going to win it. But to have v2.0 included in the list was brilliant. It opened up our music to a lot more people who wouldn’t have heard of us otherwise.

What do you think of some of your other shortlisters? 

To be quite honest I didn’t get a chance to hear most of the things that were happening around us. We were so busy at the time. We did like East India Youth. There’s one track in particular, an instrumental called “Glitter”. Polar Bear are really cool too – I quite like what they’re doing.

In general what trends in music that excite you?

Speaking for the band as a whole we’re into different stuff. We find common ground in a lot of electronica – perhaps that would explain why our own music has that influence.

Chris listens to lots and lots of obscure electronica. We all like a guy called Frederik Robinson, who’s Swedish I think. We listened to a lot of Jon Hopkins when we were doing to album, along with Burial, Radiohead, and the other things Thom Yorke is doing.

How do you feel about the digitization of music.

It’s a big debate, that one. Some artists seem to be really scared of it. Everyone is concerned about album sales, and rightly so that they’re concerned about how much money they are going to gain or lose if people aren’t buying it.

I don’t think it effects us much, especially in a niche like ours. I think that’s just the way music is changing and you’ve got to move on with it. Even downloading is becoming outdated format. As a fan of music I think having that access to that source of music is incredible.

I have to ask, is there any story behind the name?

[laughs] There is a story, and I usually leave Chris to tell it since I wasn’t there. When the band first got together to make music, there wasn’t any intention to make records or play gigs. It was literally just to get together and make music they wanted to hear.

So there was a cancelation of a small gig at a bar in Manchester called Sand Bar, and it was run by a friend. He calls them up and asks if they can fill in, but they didn’t have a name.

While they were rehearsing there was this stuffed penguin on the wall, so when somewhat asked what they were called they said, how about “Penguin”? Then, how about “Go Penguin!”? And then, “GoGo Penguin.” That was it. It’s stuck ever since.

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