INTERVIEW: GoGo Penguin | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When it comes to the Mercury Prize, there’s a term that gets thrown around a bit too much. That phrase is ‘token jazz band’. In 2014 the phrase was applied, all too unfairly, to two bands: Polar Bear and Manchester trio GoGo Penguin. Before their nomination, I have to admit that I’d never heard of the band, something that bassist Nick Blacka recognises was a problem for many critics: “We were completely unknown in comparison to all of the other acts, so initially the press were talking specifically about us as if we were some wacky comedy band.”

A short while, and a blinding performance of the frenetic Garden Dog Barbecue on Jools Holland later, GoGo Penguin were looking like a dark horse worthy of a cheeky punt at the bookies. Blacka reflects on this turnaround of events: “By the time we reached the awards night itself, a few people in the press were saying they thought we might win.” Despite the upsurge in interest, the band still remained incredibly humble. “We never thought we would win, but we took it as a testament that the record stood up well in the shortlist.”

Indeed, V2.0 is anything but your typical jazz album. Though Blacka and his bandmates (pianist Chris Illingworth and drummer Rob Turner) are highly accomplished musicians in that field, the album consistently feels like it’s battering down the walls into other genres. Its rhythms have much in common with electronic beats, skittering along next to the brilliantly immersive piano licks. There’s a wonderfully free-form and loose feeling to many of the songs but these cuts were all fully planned. Perhaps this is to be expected from a band who don’t even consider themselves to be sitting in a single, defined genre. “It wasn’t as if we said ‘right let’s make a jazz trio,’” says Blacka. “In fact, we don’t see ourselves as a jazz trio at all; we’re a band that don’t view music within strict parameters either. The band got together to make music which culminates in our different influences.”

Unsurprisingly, those influences are many and incredibly varied; Blacka explains that the band never even bonded over jazz records. “We’re more likely to bond over electronica and other forms these days, but our influences are constantly changing as we’re always checking out different music.” The inspirations behind V2.0 are typically diverse: “We were listening to quite a lot of Avro Pärt, Radiohead, Burial, Jon Hopkins, to name but a few.”

There’s a bit of a running theme tying many of these artists together: electronic beats. Bearing in mind the band’s focus on rhythm, I wondered if this was more than just a coincidence. “The beats were undoubtedly a big part of it,” Blacka muses, “but generally there seems to be a wide scope for artistic freedom within electronic music. It feels as if there aren’t the same strong parameters that you have to adhere to like there are in some other forms of music. As a band, we like to take whatever aspects of music that we like and incorporate them into our own sound. Electronica is an inspirational source for us.”

GoGo Penguin by Arlen Connelly 2

“we don’t see ourselves as a jazz trio at all; we’re a band that don’t view music within strict parameters”

Ever-interested in how the environment shapes a band’s sound, it occurred to me that the diversity in Manchester’s music scene might also have moulded the often undefinable sound of GoGo Penguin. In a roundabout way, it seems as though the city has had a positive impact on their sound. “There is a Buddhist principle that talks about the oneness of life and its environment, or two but not two,” Blacka explains. “Basically it’s referring to how you are a product of your environment and in turn your environment is a reflection of yourself. They can’t be viewed as two separate things, you shape your environment and your environment shapes you. With that in mind then I suppose Manchester must have influenced us as a band. We might sound completely different if we came from Cambridge for instance.”

With two alt-jazz bands being included in last year’s Mercury Prize shortlist and artists like Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces embracing the genre in their own work, is jazz making a comeback? Blacka is a bit sceptical. “I think every few years people say ‘jazz is making a comeback’ or ‘guitar bands are dead’ or whatever. I think these styles of music are always going on but every now and then an artist or a few artists from a particular genre will rise to prominence… I’m not sure jazz will make a widespread comeback in the current age of pop music and TV talent shows.” He is, however, optimistic about what the future of multi-genre music. “It’s good that people like Flying Lotus are turning a new generation on to an alternative musical world outside of the mainstream.” With this increasing interest in jazz, it’s difficult to imagine that the band will continue to be one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Even with their own scepticism on the potential rise of the genre, GoGo Penguin could be well on the way to shaping a new world outside of the mainstream.

GoGo Penguin play at Independent, Sunderland on Thursday 5th March.

Photographs by: Arlen Connelly

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