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GoGo Penguin: The Humble Men Behind 'A Humdrum Star'

Monday, 12 February 2018 Written by Tom Seymour

Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle

On a cold, dark evening in February, 2016, GoGo Penguin were preparing to play a sold out Village Underground in Hoxton, east London. It was, at the time, probably their biggest headline gig to date. Most bands - particularly instrumental, experimental three-piece jazz bands - would feel some creeping nerves at the size of the task ahead.

About an hour and a half before they were due on stage, though, Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (percussion) were hunkered in a corner of the local Itsu, chowing down on an industrial amount of sushi. It was rush hour, and the joint was full of Londoners leaving work, about to meet friends, and intent on quickly lining their stomachs. Maybe they were even heading to the gig. These young lads from outer Manchester, with their jazz-legit shaggy hair, baggy shirts and bootcut jeans, garnered not a single sideways glance.

In their cramped Village Underground dressing room, the trio authentically gave the impression of being normal, northern, suburban people, who, after many hours crammed together in cheap rehearsal spaces, were still rubbing their eyes at the breakneck speed and vertiginous arc of their success.

Their second album, ‘v2.0’, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2014, and many in the music press thought they deserved to win. Blue Note Records, the former label home of Miles Davis and a byword for serious quality in the jazz world, had just taken them on and put out their third LP, ‘Man Made Object’. After that night at Village Underground, an international tour beckoned.

The band’s name - borrowed from a terrifying stuffed penguin one of the trio bought for their then girlfriend - remained pretty silly, but their credentials were suddenly serious. Discussing these developments, the band were exacting in their self-deprecation and humility.

“We lived together in a flat that was cheap as hell, so we never had many outgoings,” Illingworth remembers of the early days. “If we toured, we’d do it on a shoestring, sleeping in the car or a floor or sofas. We all spent a lot of time teaching our instruments, giving music lessons to kids, and gigging on top of it. When enough started coming through to cover our costs, so we didn’t have to teach anymore - that was a massive moment for me. I hadn’t really thought about it or expected it to happen, to be honest."

Spending time in their company before they go out and play, it’s noticeable how relaxed they seem. Some bands bounce off the walls in the hours before a gig, their nervous energy stopping them from sitting still or shutting up. These three could have been sat with the TV on after a night at the pub, or arguing the finer points of Thelonious Monk after a couple of glasses of rye. They treat the coming evening as if it ain’t no thing, just the next step along the way. It helps to know you are prodigiously talented at your instrument.

Turner and Illingworth met at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, studying classical music composition. With a different bass player, the pair started gigging in the city’s jazz rooms, and soon came to the attention of the brilliant trumpeter Matthew Halsall.

“Matt saw us at Norvun Sunday, a night run by a friend of ours - Blain Norvun,” Illingworth says. Halsall runs the respected Gondwana label, and he promptly signed them up for their first album, ‘Fanfares’. He then helped them get a slot at the London Jazz Festival in 2013. They played at Ronnie Scott’s, were on the bill that opened the festival and were broadcast on BBC Three.

Yet recognition of their true sound didn’t come until the release of ‘v2.0’, on which Blacka was drafted in to play bass and Joe Reiser was brought on as their long-term sound engineer. They knew Nick from the scene - he was part of an indie band that ripped off Joy Division, and would put on a night called The Mix-Up, a party of three bands playing wildly different styles of music at the city’s Antwerp Mansion, and at Klondyke, a former bowling club in the south of the city. Joe was known to them as a guy capable of creating big, anthemic live sounds in the studio.

‘v2.0’ showcased that fluency in, and ability to mesh, seemingly disparate genres - they are as much influenced by Aphex Twin and Autechre, and by composers like as Shostakovich and Debussy, as they are by jazz doyens like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

It immediately made them stand out, and still separates them from the pack. These musicians are equally at home and adept in classical conservatoires, or jazz ensembles, using electric synths and beats on Logic and Ableton, or channelling the live energy of a post-punk band.

Illingworth recalls an early gig played at Worldwide Festival in the south of France. “The programmer had put us between two well-established DJs,” he says. “The crowd weren’t sure what to make of it at first.” Safe to say the French partiers fell for the textured, melodic sweep and vitality of the band.

For all their lowkey Zen offstage, onstage they are something different. As it was that night at Village Underground, so it was at Camden’s Roundhouse last week. They returned to London to launch their new album ‘A Humdrum Star’, which has just been released, and are now setting off on a world tour.  

The band worked on the new material through a string of unpublicised dates in east London, honing the sound in front of tiny live audiences before recording the album in its entirety back in Manchester - for the first time – at Low Four, located within the historic Old Granada Studios.

“I’ve never stopped loving Manchester: the scene, the players, the people, and maybe the legacy of it all,” Blacka says when I briefly caught up with them again before the Roundhouse gig. “It’s just big enough and just small enough; the city’s creative output means you’re never really pulled away.”

The band open with Raven and Bardo, the singles from the album. Both are big, electro-inspired power epics. They then return to the better-known tunes of the ‘v2.0’ era - the lovely, pensive To Drown in You - before working through the rest of ‘A Humdrum Star’.

Watching them at the Roundhouse, it’s remarkable how GoGo Penguin don’t feel the need to look at each other; no visual cues are needed to keep the tune coherent and harmonised. Illingworth’s piano and Turner’s drumkit are angled towards the audience on opposite sides of the stage. Blacka, on bass, is positioned in the yawning space between the two. Each spends the gig forensically focused on their tasks, often barely acknowledging each other during or between songs.

Their hands fly over their instruments. Illingworth has the capacity to play three separate melodies on the piano simultaneously - yet, like a brilliant footballer, he seems always able to find time, even in the tightest and most congested of spaces. Turner is more frenetic as he swoops around the drum kit, his comping and broken beats played with relentless precision. Comparable to the manner in which Noel Redding laid the foundations for Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell, Blacka’s bass is the calmest element of the sound, purring and shuddering beneath the melee.

Yet, while a certain lineage exists, this certainly isn’t free jazz. Many conventional solo-based trios focus on the piano as the centrepiece, using it in lieu of a vocal line. Here, the three players and instruments meld equally in status, and they do so with something like telepathy.

In that vein, ‘A Humdrum Star’ is remarkable for the way all three musicians can appear to be playing independently, yet somehow, against the odds, managing to create a melodic whole. While the time signatures and general rhythmic syntax remain unusual and unpredictable, they are together and coherent. They craft something reminiscent of Brian Eno’s back catalogue, but with the dexterity and in-the-moment creativity of some of the Blue Note legends. Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith or Herbie Hancock, perhaps.

This is showcased perfectly on Strid, named after a beautiful yet perilous stretch of the river Wharfe in Yorkshire, where Blacka grew up.“We’d go for picnics there, by Bolton Abbey, and I used to look at this innocuous-seeming river,” he says. “It turns on its side out of sight, and has killed loads of people who swim in there. It’s just the idea that you could be happy and safe in your life, then – game over. Things don’t always appear as they are.”

The gig comes to a crescendo with a rendition of Transient State, a tune that makes you want to get up and run, yet also has a reflective calm to it.  It was written on the road in Japan, when these quiet boys from up north were struggling to breathe it all in. “We had a day off in Tokyo last year,” Illingworth says. “Nick and I wandered around the Shibuya district. We saw a Shinto shrine in Yoyogi Park, rockabilly dancers outside the park, a traditional wedding procession…”

He began reading into Shinto’s Kami spirits. “It made sense to me when I was on tour, in that constant flux,” he says. “Experiences that might be positive or negative - they are all part of a bigger thing.”

'A Humdrum Star' is out now on Blue Note Records.

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