It’s been an astonishing year for GoGo Penguin. Their last album, v2.0, ended up on the Mercury shortlist. They’ve been touring the world to increasingly large and absurdly enthusiastic audiences, at venues as diverse as Koko, Union Chapel and the Barbican in London; Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Festival in the south of France, La Vilette in Paris, Über Jazz in Hamburg and at Dimensions Festival in Croatia. A first foray to North America saw sold out shows across Canada and a double-standing ovation at the Rochester Jazz Festival in upstate New York. In October they provided a live soundtrack for Godfrey Reggio’s cult film Koyaanisqatsi at Manchester’s new arts centre Home; in November they collaborated with noted choreographer Lynn Page for a Gilles Peterson-curated night at the London Jazz Festival. And in the midst of all this they’ve signed a multi-album deal with Blue Note Records, the most famous jazz label on earth. It’s a signing that was triggered when Blue Note president Don Was was played v2.0 by the label's French head of A&R Nicolas Pflug. Just two days later they were in Hamburg together to see the band play a barn-storming set at Über Jazz and everything flowed from there.
Their new album is called Man Made Object. “That title is partly inspired by my fascination with ideas of robotics, transhumanism and human augmentation,” says pianist Chris Illingworth. Say what?
“Like when someone loses a limb and it’s replaced by a prosthetic. Sometimes that prosthetic ends up becoming so lifelike, so integrated into the body, that the person actually starts to imagine sensation and touch. And, in a weird way, that resonates with what we’re doing. We’re recreating electronic music on acoustic instruments. It’s like a man-made object that has become humanised and it seemed like a good album title, one that also means something different to each of us, and hopefully to each listener.”
Although they're an acoustic band, GoGo Penguin’s music draws from many areas of contemporary electronic music, one where you can hear arcade game bleeps, glitchy breakbeats, hypnotic Aphex-style melodies, grinding basslines and a rumbling low-end. It has been described as “acoustic electronica,” which perfectly sums up the writing process.
“Many of the songs on this album started out as electronic compositions that I made on sequencing software like Logic or Ableton,” says drummer Rob Turner. “I’ll then play it to the band and we’ll find ways of replicating it acoustically.”
For instance, the oriental-sounding "Branches Break" started life as a FourTet-inspired laptop piece with bassist Nick Blacka playing through an effects pedal and Chris playing harp-like flourishes. "Initiate," a delicate, low-volume rumination, sees Chris and bassist Nick Blacka replicating an Amon Tobin-inspired electronica track written by Rob. On the triumphantly, defiantly martial closing track, "Protest," Rob and Nick recreate a fiendishly difficult Roland 808-style beat fused with a siren that Chris had programmed into a drum machine on his iPhone.
On "Smaara," a song inspired by the Hindu idea of sleep demons, Chris dampens the strings on his piano with kitchen roll to try and replicate a synth (“it’s like the sound of adjusting the oscillators,” he says, “playing with the filter, attack and release, you get that muted electronic tone without using electronics””). "Weird Cat" is based around a recording that Rob made of a stray cat wailing one night (“it was a really great melody that this cat came up with,” he says. “It sounded like a Burial track. Then we started going a bit Squarepusher towards the end…”). Other tracks are inspired by more spiritual concerns. The hypnotic minimalism of "Quiet Mind" and "Surrender To Mountain" both take their cue from I Am That, a book of conversations with the Hindu mystic Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj; the cryptically titled "GBFISYSIH" is a heart-breaking lament that serves as coded tribute to an old friend, while the album opener "All Res" is inspired by the simple image of sunlight streaming through the clouds.
The album, like its predecessor, was recorded at Giant Wafer residential studios in Mid-Wales, and completed at 80hz in Newton Heath, Manchester, with engineering and production by Joe Reiser and Brendan Williams. “Joe is a crucial part of the set up, both live and in the studio,” says bassist Nick Blacka. “He uses a ton of microphones on each of us to ensure that every sound is captured and manipulated. It’s quite different from the way in which a jazz trio would be mixed – a much heavier bass and more of a mid-range punch, to ensure that the tunes kick through.”
GoGo Penguin have strong ties with Manchester’s jazz scene – their first two albums were released through their friend Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records, while Rob and Nick both cut their teeth playing at the intimate Matt & Phred’s jazz venue in the Northern Quarter, Chris meanwhile studied classical music at the Royal Northern College of Music, but they also have links to the city’s broader cultural life. Their rehearsal space is in Wellington House in Ancoats, a former fabric mill with units that are rented out by hundreds of artists and designers (including art rockers and fellow Mercury nominees Everything Everything).
The band have also headlined at the city’s more eccentric club nights, like the Soup Kitchen, Antwerp Mansion in Rusholme and Norvun Devolution at the late, lamented Roadhouse. Bassist Nick even puts on an occasional club night himself at the Klondyke, an old bowling club in Levenshulme, which might feature DJs, eccentric rock acts and contemporary classical composition.
Man Made Object is the band’s first recording in a prestigious three-album deal with Blue Note. It puts them in a tiny elite of Brits – one that includes Stan Tracey, Andy Sheppard, Orphy Robinson, Us3 and Van Morrison – to have signed to the world’s greatest jazz labels. Not that GoGo Penguin consider themselves a jazz band in the truest sense:
“Jazz is a category system that includes everything from Ornette Coleman to Robbie Williams doing big band swing,” says Rob. “So the category system is neither accurate nor useful – it’s like ‘mammal’ including everything from a whale to a hamster. People then invest so much in that category system, and get into huge arguments, and whatever line you take in that argument, you’re already wrong, because you’re arguing! We’d rather concentrate on writing great music.” —by John Lewis