GoGo Penguin are a band apart: performing a singular form of acoustic music (piano, double bass and drums) that’s structurally inspired by the electronica of acts such as Jon Hopkins, Aphex Twin and Death Grips. Pianist Chris Illingworth spoke to Joe Fuller ahead of their November concert, discussing compositional techniques, why they spurn traditional jazz solos and what's next for the band.
What can the crowd expect from the concert? Will it be loud or quiet, relaxed or intense?
To be honest I think it is going to be a real mixture of those things because we try, in the same way that we make an album, to give a lot of shape to it. Without spelling out any kind of story or telling people what they should think about the music or what the music means explicitly, you can create some kind of shape for someone who's listening to it from start to finish. You're taking them somewhere, it's not just random tune after tune or all on one level.
The way we did v2.0 - and we've kept it as a sort of foundation when we've worked on things since then - is imagining you're a character going through a story and returning to where you've started but you've changed through the journey you've taken. The path that you take is what develops and makes it interesting, and keeps people engaged. I think it will be that, we'll try to keep a good mixture in there.
There will be some stuff off the new album as well as some of the older tracks I'm sure. We're starting to work on some new material at the moment so you never know there might be something that we decide to have a little bit of a trial of. Can't promise anything, it depends if we can pull something together worth having a play then we might do that.
Could you tell me about how you create your songs? The second half of v2.0 in particular is a bit more downbeat whereas Man Made Object is more accessible. Was that a conscious choice?
Each album is sort of a snapshot of a moment of time, we don't plan too far ahead, we just take things as they come. That just happened to be the state we were in as a band and the mood that we were in as people so we let that get into the way that the music was written. Since v2.0 we've been trying new techniques and ideas. For example one of the tracks, Initiate, was written by Rob completely electronically, there was no piano, bass or drums. I then tried to interpret that and almost arrange it as if it was someone else's music. That was the approach we had with that track and once we started playing it together we arranged it even further so that it became something that we made as a trio.
Protest was written on a little 808 drum machine app on my iPhone and I screwed around with it until all the sounds were a little bit weird, so I ended up getting a sort of siren. I went to Nick and said “do you reckon you can play a siren with your bass?” and he thought I'd lost my mind. We were trying to go from a point of view where we weren't thinking so much about the instruments, we were trying to get the idea and the sound using whatever we had to hand. Whether it was written on Logic or a synth, we then then approached it from our instruments and kept it acoustic.
There might be things in terms of the way that we're feeling that make the album a certain way but I reckon that's very subconscious. I don't think any of that sort of thing is at the forefront of why we make that music. We just go with the way that we feel at the time and see how that goes.
Your music often has a very distinct melody, whether it's a bassline or a piano part, which the song then builds around. Was it a decision to be more poppy and have more crossover appeal?
It was just natural. It was more the way we wanted to be as musicians, the way we wanted to play and we've ended up being quite lucky that we've got this kind of crossover going on in the music so it means it's a lot more accessible to people. Not for any reason other than that we wanted to try and be ourselves and be the individuals that we are, but combine that into the band that we've become. It was never with any intention that “if we write this it will be more popular”.
There's plenty of improvisation in the records but not in the typical jazz sense of one person soloing and other people supporting. We didn't want to be a band where some people are in supporting roles and another person's at the front. We wanted it to be much more that every component reinforces each other.
It might seem at some points that your focus is drawn to one of the musicians but it's only because of the things that are supporting it that help create that focus, rather than it just being two people backing off and one person stepping up. It's been done enough, people have done that for decades. Even going back before that you look at the whole point of a piano concerto, or any kind of concerto: you have a soloist and then the supporting role of the orchestra. We wanted to do something different with the way that we improvise. We're still developing that, trying different things and different ideas out.
We've been looking at Indian styles of improvisation that are very communal. Everyone could be improvising at once in a sense where there is definitely no leader. Everyone adds their things to it because they know a certain kind of language and a certain way of working together, rather than it being this typical jazz thing of someone taking a solo then the next person has a solo. That kind of style didn't suit the music we wanted to play.
Do you jam on stage or is it generally more constructed than that?
It totally changes, it depends on which tune we're playing, how we're feeling that day, whether we've been trying out some new ideas in practice. There's tracks like The Letter, sometimes we'll go into that and it'll be incredibly peaceful all the way through, very reflective. Sometimes someone might not play for the majority of that tune since they want to give some space to what the other guys are doing. Sometimes it will be far more intense, even going down a Massive Attack route where it's much more trip hop, and other times it's a lot more upbeat because that's the kind of tune where the way we wrote it, we left it very open.
Then there's the opposite side of that, a track like Quiet Mind for instance where we can play it much more structured or like Hopopono that has much more of a framework. We kind of try to approach that from more of a classical way of improvising that is ad-libbed. It's not really improvisation in the jazz sense where somebody can take the underlying foundation and works their way over the top of it. It's where you take what's there and tweak it as many times as you possibly can.
Like a variations sort of thing?
Exactly, yeah. It could be that one tiny bit of the rhythmic idea changes or it could be something much more where we reharmonise it or something like that. It depends completely on the track and where someone decides to push it in the gig. We try to interact as much as possible with all these little variations that are happening all the time between the different parts. Sometimes those variations can be quite strong and affect what everyone else does.
With the ad lib thing I guess we've taken more from classical. I'm not saying this as a slight against jazz music but in terms of variations with dynamic range and using that as a tool for expressing something in music, it goes without saying in classical music that dynamics play a major part in creating an emotional idea in a piece of music. Sometimes in modern bands it can often be forgotten about in jazz: it's either a ballad played very quietly or it's loud bebop tune or something like that and there's not a lot of variation.
Something we wanted to take from the classical side of things is that sometimes it's just the way that you direct the energy through tunes. You can play the same notes that you played the day before but you might completely change the feel of it with different dynamics, different speeds, different articulation, those kind of tools that you can use in music and completely change it, even if the notes are exactly the same. I think that's something you find a lot in classical music, the way people interpret something, the music's the same, the dots are the same and it's how that person who's interpreting those dots sees it and feels that music. Sometimes we try to do that but with our own music, to take it somewhere different.
Do you see yourself going along more of distorted electronic path such as the ending of Smarra?
We already use that live. Over the last tour we've rearranged it, what it achieves in the album often doesn't translate live. The ending has a quiet chorale that comes out of the distortion and when people hear the ending and applaud they don't really hear it underneath. So we've flipped it around so it starts from that place then gradually becomes distorted.
We use effects live in the gigs and we're gradually developing it a little bit more. It's a difficult thing to do since the instruments aren't naturally suited to it. We're trying some stuff out with the piano where we're using guitar based effects that create unique sounds we haven't heard before. I might use that as a foundation to start writing some of the new stuff instead of the old ways of writing to see if something new comes out of it. It might be complete rubbish, I don't know yet!
Are there specific artists that inspire the compositions?
Over the last few years it's mostly been a lot of electronica, when we find out about a new artist we sort of share it between each other. The freedom that electronica music allows, you've got electronic artists who can build an entire orchestra inside whatever technology they use such as Ableton or Logic. They have infinite possibilities with the sounds so they can create some really interesting music.
Artists like Jon Hopkins, Death Grips, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin are all big influences. We have individual influences too, I've been listening to a lot of rock recently. Rob's been listening to a lot of really great Indian musicians playing instruments like sitar and tabla. We're always trying to listen to anything that we can get our hands on.
People like Radiohead and Björk are really good for influence, not necessarily the music (although that's obviously incredible) but the way they approach making music as well that is really inspiring. It's cool to look at the way other musicians work which can be just as inspiring as what they actually make as their final product.
Are there plans for a new album yet or any more live scores like Koyaanisqatsi?
We're hopefully going to be touring Koyaanisqatsi next year which will be really nice. There's a project we're doing for Hull City of Culture next year: we've been commissioned to write music inspired by a composer called Basil Kirchin for a project called Abstractions of the Industrial North. He lived in Hull for a long time and was seen by people like Brian Eno as being one of the pioneers of ambient and electronic music. It's hopefully going to be great for us because it's new techniques.
Brighton Dome and ACCA present GoGo Penguin at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts (ACCA) on 2 November.
This is the full version of the interview which appears in the third issue of Brighton Dome feat.
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