It’s always been hard to classify GoGo Penguin — and they’re fine with that.
With some calling them “the Radiohead of British jazz,” the trio have placed themselves at the blurry nexus of classical, jazz, rock, electronic and experimental music.
The band’s second album v2.0 was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2014, and the next year they signed with Blue Note and released two albums with the prestigious jazz imprint in 2016 and 2018.
Now, the band is ready to share their self-titled fifth album. With it, we’re hearing a version of GoGo Penguin that’s more emboldened than ever, as the band continues to find new ways to express their collaborative creativity and push the limits of their music.
Pianist Chris Illingworth joined us for a conversation about that record, and how they gained the confidence to make it.
Your group has been very hard to classify — is it jazz, is it classical, is it electronica? — but with the new record there’s a certain level of confidence that seems to say, “Call it whatever you want, it’s GoGo Penguin.” Is that a fair assessment?
Absolutely, yeah. You’ve got it bang-on. It’s what we’ve always tried to go for, really. But it’s difficult because … I wouldn’t call it outside pressure, but … it’s hard to not hear those voices saying these different names and describing it in different ways. When we were younger and maybe not quite as confident about what we were trying to do, it was a little bit more difficult to filter that out and keep it out of mind while we were writing. But as we’ve gotten more along the line and we’ve developed ourselves as a band and individually as musicians, we’ve gotten close to realizing what we originally set out to do.
That must bring a sense of freedom. Being older and more secure in your ideas, it must be freeing.
It is. But the thing with anything creative, there’s no finish line. It’s infinite. There’s always going to be that second-guessing, and that striving to be better, and knowing there’s other things that we can do. There’s always that idea of what we’re going to do next. Absolutely the confidence has been growing, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve reached a point where we necessarily know what we’re doing. We’re just maybe a little bit better than we used to be.
On this recording, you had more time to write and more time in the studio. On paper, it seems like that would help a lot. But I’m wondering if that also has its challenges, because you have more time to overthink the music sometimes before making a decision.
Definitely. We all write together. Somebody brings an idea, and it’s usually something very, very small. We start with tiny fragments that develop into bigger things. Some are ideas that start as different tracks and then fuse into one thing. It’s difficult to draw a line under it at some point and go, “This is now what this album is going to be. This is where we finish for now.” That’s always the challenge — being perfectionists and having to leave it there and move on. But we’re really happy with how this one has turned out. Fingers crossed that people will enjoy it as well.
When you listen to it now, are there places where you think you should have done something different, or do you think you were right to stop at that particular place?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t listened to it since. Around now, we were going to be on tour, so I wouldn’t be listening to it [since] it’s nice to go into rehearsals a little bit fresh, and then keeping that element of something impromptu when we get to gigs. We want it to not be overly played. We’ve rehearsed it and we know we can nail these tunes, but there’s still that element of chance and freedom that we can add to the music.
A lot of the tunes don’t have a conventional structure. Was that a conscious decision, or just the creative process that pushed you in those different directions?
To an extent, we’re always trying to do something different, keep pushing forward and expand what we’re capable of. On the last album in particular, A Humdrum Star, we started trying to experiment more with structures, think outside the box and get outside of our comfort zone. That happened on this album a lot, but in a more natural way. In the process of working together, it just happened that way. It happened more naturally, but in the back of our minds we were always trying to extend what we’ve been developing over the past few years.
I like this line from your press kit: “There’s more that connects us than disconnects us, and what we’re each bringing to the table is what makes GoGo Penguin.” It seems like that’s a microcosm of the planet right now. If we started to look for the ways in which we’re similar rather than the ways in which we’re dissimilar, we could find a sweet spot of creativity and better ways of doing things. That seems to be indicative of the band itself.
There’s probably going to be examples of that right now, in developing vaccines to combat something that doesn’t discriminate. It’s going to take anybody it can. It’s not going to pick and choose based on race, culture, sex, gender or anything like that. It’s independent of all those things. Fingers crossed that it can be an example of how we can come together as a species, and hopefully that’ll filter into normal, everyday life after all of this is over.