How GoGo Penguin found their light in the darkness
By Walter Venafro2023/04/24
Over the course of just over a decade, GoGo Penguin have become known and acclaimed for their refined, innovative take on jazz, modern classical and electronic music.
The Manchester-based trio’s new album Everything Is Going to Be OKwas recorded during a difficult period for the band: Bassist Nick Blacka lost his mother and older brother to cancer only months apart, and pianist Chris Illingworth lost his grandmother. Meanwhile, the band was also dealing with the amicable departure of their longtime drummer Rob Turner. Blacka and Illingworth drew closer together during this time of loss and upheaval and welcomed new drummer Jon Scott.
Getting to this point was a bit of a process. I read that the studio offered the band a “sanctuary.” You’ve had to deal with a lot of loss recently. When you look back on this period in your life, what will be the lasting impression?
To be honest, what we’ve begun to realize — particularly in being in the studio together, making music, and chatting about things that were going on — is that this is just a part of life. It’s not something that’s exclusive to us; it’s something that’s very universal. We know from chatting with friends and family that the last couple of years have been particularly tough for a lot of people in a lot of ways. We were very lucky that we had the studio, that we had an outlet to put out energy into — and also find some energy to take from. In music, when things go well, it’s something that can really feed you. We just tried to be really honest. We’ve always tried to be honest with our music, but particularly this time, we thought that this would hopefully be something we could tap into, something that could guide the music and give it inspiration. It was almost therapy for us. It helped us get through a lot of those things that we were going through in our lives. It’s something that everybody can relate to. This is something that everybody in life will have to go through. The flip side of having people that you love is that one day, you’ll have to lose them. We wanted to write an album that would have some of that in it, but also a lot of positivity. It sounds like there’s a lot of this darker element in the music, but it’s been a really positive record. There’s a lot of warmth, there’s a lot of happiness, there’s a lot of hope. That’s what we wanted to give to people. We wanted to say that things aren’t always going to go well, but when you have somebody who tells you, “Everything is going to be OK,” it reminds you that people are there for you, who love you and care for you.
It seems to be a more joyful record than previous ones.
I think so, yeah. Reflecting on things that are harder to deal with, you recognize a lot of the things that are good. You’re able to see the beautiful things that are going on around you. It’s very rare that everything is really bad at one time. There’s always going to be good and bad. The pandemic was a terrible situation for a lot of people, and for me as well, there were moments that were very, very difficult. But the flip side was that I got to spend time with my son; he was born about six months before COVID-19 kicked in. If the pandemic hadn’t have happened, I’d have been out on the road and I wouldn’t have had those early couple of years that I got to experience with him. I think there’s a lot of those dualities in life. There’s a lot of warmth and happiness in that album, alongside the darker, more introspective moments.
The music of GoGo Penguin has always had a cinematic element to it. On the new album, there’s even a track called “Friday Film Special.” What draws you to that cinematic aesthetic?
Inspiration can come from all these different places. Within the band, we’re very much into reading, poetry and different things that we can find ideas from, and one of those things is film. We’ve been lucky to have been able to work with some filmmakers in the past, and obviously watching films has always been a pastime of ours. It’s incredible when you see a really good film and the music supports it perfectly. That’s always something that I’ve been intrigued and impressed by, when musicians are able to complement what’s happening in a film and enhance those images. We always keep these ideas in mind, because we never want to be too specific about what a tune’s about. We’re never trying to tell people, “You must think about this.” If we think visually and we have these ideas when we’re making the music, it ends up becoming something that can translate to people. Those abstract ideas get into the music, and hopefully people can take the emotion and the character form and generate images in their minds.
You grew up in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which was a really interesting time in music. You had the rise in hip hop, grunge, the electronic dance music scene, and jazz was kind of languishing — it was looking for a new identity. What kinds of music were you listening to during your formative years, and what album from that era had the most enduring effect on you as a person and as a musician?
In those early days, my mom got me into a lot of Led Zep, Deep Purple, a lot of that era of rock music. But then I soon met people at school — not just students, but teachers — who would hear my playing piano and they would pass records to me. I was influenced quite early by a lot of dance music and hip hop — Underworld, Massive Attack, the Beastie Boys, a lot of that. I put a band together when I was 11 or 12 and we were doing New Order, Gary Numan, Bauhaus, all sorts of covers. And a lot of the grunge stuff, like you said: Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, so many great bands that were making a lot of good music. Radiohead were in there, as well, and they’re still a favourite to me. I think two albums that stick with me [are] Mezzanine by Massive Attack and Beaucoup Fish by Underworld. Even listening to them today, I just think they’re absolutely incredible works of art. Really good tunes, really good artwork, really good live performances. Even now, you can listen to them and they could have been made last week.
Were you a fan of Rod Stewart? The reason I’m asking is we listened to “Branches Break” from Man Made Object and I swear I hear a quote from “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
[Laughs] Yeah, we’ve heard that a few times from people. That was one that [former drummer] Rob [Turner] originally came up with, that piano line. We had no idea, and then it started getting mentioned. But we’re not really Rod Stewart fans, to be honest.
What kind of venues do you find yourself performing in? I doubt you’re playing very much in traditional jazz venues.
Occasionally we do. It’s kind of surprising because we don’t fit very well into that category, but I’m not sure we fit into any category, particularly. There are a lot of bands like that these days. It’s quite tricky to put people into just one label or genre in a neat way. We end up playing everything. We’ve played concert halls, festival stages, clubs. [We’ll play] little basement rock venues, and then the next minute maybe we’ll be playing a classical concert hall. It’s absolutely amazing. It means so much to us that the music can do that. It’s really fun for us. The audience is different. It gives different people different environments to see the concerts, as well. We have people who have come and seen us at a classical venue, and that’s very comfortable, that’s their kind of space, but they wouldn’t really feel comfortable coming to see us at a rock club. It’s really nice that we’re able to fit into these places and be able to play the music for these audiences. We sometimes see little kids, and then there’ll be someone who looks like they’re in their eighties, and everybody in between. We’re very lucky that we can get that kind of response, not just from audiences but from promoters who are confident in putting us into these kinds of venues.
You mentioned that you don’t really fit in perfectly with the jazz category. Listening to the sounds that are coming out of the U.K. these days, there’s the Ishmael Ensemble, Snazzback, the Ezra Collective, Emma-Jean Thackray, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia. What’s happening in the U.K. right now that’s spawning all this wonderful talent?
I’m really not sure, you know. There seems to be a lot of freedom, and I’m not sure whether that’s part of the culture or what, but it seems to be people worrying less and less about where they fit in. I don’t know whether that’s something happening universally or whether it’s a byproduct of platforms like Spotify where people can hear and kind of music from any kind of style. When I was a kid, you heard the music that friends had bought on CD and were able to pass on to you, or you heard stuff that was on the radio and the stuff that was on the radio was in its own box. The experience of being able to listen to all of that music [now] and letting it feed into the culture, I think that plays a part. And the venues… There’s always been a great DIY scene in Manchester, and I think it’s the same down in London. If there isn’t a venue already where you can go and play a gig, you and your mates put something together. You make it happen. Nick, the bassist in the band, used to run a night where I’d play classical piano, and then there’d be an Afrobeat band on after that, and then there’d be a rock band finishing the night. It was great. The crowds loved it, because it was totally different. It didn’t feel like it was elitist. Everybody could do their thing and take what they wanted from it.