Bleeps, beats and Blue Note – experimental band GoGo Penguin on blending modular synthesis and jazz music
Electronic outfit GoGo Penguin have been infiltrating mainstream musical minds by stealth with their captivating records. For their next move, they’ve flipped the script once again and found light in the dark with ‘Everything is Going to be OK’
A brace of fresh equipment, a new drummer, and the records of DJ Shadow and Mo’Wax are among the aural ingredients Mancunian future-jazz band GoGo Penguin have taken and blended into their buoyantly-titled new album, Everything is Going to be OK’
“We’ve been bolder and braver in what we’re trying to do with our music than ever before,” says GoGo Penguin pianist Chris Illingworth on the new record. “It marks a big step forward for us.”
Everything Is Going to Be OK is the Mancunian band’s sixth album and one Chris, alongside long-term sound engineer/producer and unofficial fourth member Joe Reisner, are discussing on Zoom. The record – made with bassist Nick Blacka, and new drummer Jon Scott – was borne of what Chris describes as a tough and challenging time. The shadow of COVID-19 and lockdown loom, yet the title and musical delights offer some light out of this darkness. Warm and glitching, the tracks move heart and mind and nimbly skirt melodic rings around the ‘jazz tag’ the band have had pinned to them.
“As GoGo Penguin, the concept has always been about making electronic-sounding music with acoustic instruments. That was the band for a long time,” says Joe.
Chris agrees: “The idea of emulating electronics on acoustic instruments, by this record, we felt like we had that and it’s what’s expected from us. So when we started experimenting with modular synths, there was this voice in the back of our heads saying: ‘Can we do this? What are people going to say?”’
“In the past, we’ve been guilty of slogging at our music but this time, we had the faith to realise that it felt right and to walk away from it.”
With more machines and musical ideas at their disposal than ever before, GoGo Penguin in 2023 are moving forward confidently, full of ambition.
“It felt right, the music was great and we just went with it,” Chris says of the album. “I don’t think we’d have had these ideas a few years ago. And if we had, we probably wouldn’t have embraced them in the same way.”
Emerging in 2012 from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, GoGo Penguin’s ascent has been propelled by their studio ingenuity and captivating live show. Obscuring musical lines between jazz, breakbeat and classical concepts, their songs are beautifully crafted but continue to nip and pull at the frays of various styles.
Their artistry has seen a devoted global following continue to gather around them. In September 2014, their second album v2.0 was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize Album of the Year. Then, the band signed to the legendary Blue Note Records for their critically-acclaimed Man Made Object record in 2016. Now with a new drummer Jon Scott and an enhanced electronic sensibility, the band are working closely with Joe and producer Brendan Williams to refine how they operate in the studio.
“The changes have seemed gradual as we’ve been constantly working with our music,” says Chris. “Nick has had a lot more input, we’ve always been close with Joe and Brendan who produce us. They not only work on how we approach the technical side, but they allow us more perspective and help us take greater risks.”
The new album has seen the band collecting fragments of ideas from different sources, then gradually fitting them together into a whole. Inspired by the smoky, sample-driven records of DJ Shadow, a love for Mo’Wax and Manchester’s Grand Central record labels made up one of the pillars supporting the new record. Another was a renewed focus on incorporating more beats and synthesis.
“I really wanted to explore Eurorack modules – but finding my way was tricky,” Chris explains. “I wasn’t sure how to use them until I saw these videos of Alessandro Cortini talking about his setup with Nine Inch Nails. He talked about it as a musician using these tools to make music rather than someone who was just very knowledgeable about gear.”
“People have always got to find their own things from it and take what they need. It’s nice that the music makes them feel positive although from our side, nothing is ever too rigid. There’s an openness to our music which we like to explore and evolve.”
Integrating the technology seamlessly into their piano and bass arrangements was a key part of the record. This approach also came amid a slew of material where the presence of the unofficial members really reaped rewards in editing and arranging.
“Saturnine is the perfect example of their input,” says Chris. “All of the pieces were there but it took us a long time to find the best combination. That’s where Joe and Brendan have been important – having these extra pairs of ears and offering great input.”
Another track, Glow, emerged out of a sketched loop and bassline. After the beats were added, the meat of the track was rapidly completed.
“We kept thinking there might be something else to it – but in the end, the beats were the finishing touches,” says Chris. “In the past, we’ve been guilty of slogging at our music but this time, we had the faith to realise that it felt right and to walk away from it.”
Glancing at the song titles, there’s a clear thread of optimism running through the record.
“We’d been through a very tricky couple of years and absorbed that into the music,” Chris explains. “Still, there’s a lot of brightness there, too, born out of being creative in the studio, a new lease of life with the band and getting back out and playing live after COVID.”
Despite the release being among their most personal, the band prefer to cloak their music in a layer of abstraction rather than making anything too obvious. The emotion is in the foreground but listeners are invited to interpret GoGo Penguin tracks however they want.
“People have always got to find their own things in it and take what they need,” says Chris. “It’s nice that the music makes them feel positive although, from our side, nothing is ever too rigid. There’s an openness to our music which we like to explore and evolve.”
This flexible attitude to perceptions surrounding their musical creations is similar to their approach to tech with a love for experimenting born out of pandemic lockdowns.
“I have gone a little bit crazy buying gear,” admits Chris.
“He might need to remortgage his house to fund his modular habit,” laughs Joe.
Out of the many different bits and pieces GoGo Penguin have utilised, Chris cites his Eurorack rig – specifically Make N0ise’s Strega – as essential gear.
“It’s nice to explore everything, then choose what we want to use and limit it with the Eurorack,” he explains. “Again, Alessandro Cortini from Nine Inch Nails talks about how he puts a rack together, then that remains as an instrument rather than just a wall of modules and chaos.”
The group’s studio time is dedicated to building and sculpting the sound of each album. With Everything is Going to be OK, the material was mainly written in advance, and then they entered this process at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios.
Joe says, “The studio is really about me and Brendan finding the sonic world that these tracks live in. It’s not just capturing the songs but creating everything around it.”
Listen to a GoGo Penguin record and you’ll hear the pristine quality in the arrangements and writing. Yet Joe is at pains to emphasise that as much as they love the songs to sound amazing, the performance is the most crucial element.
“It’s something producers and engineers forget as they get so focused on the sound,” he says. “I was listening to Deja Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the acoustic guitar on the opening track is so over-compressed. But it’s an amazing tune and a wicked performance.”
Preparation is another piece in the jigsaw of constructing a record. Chris underlines the importance of being ready to work before getting in the studio as well as having total faith in those in your creative circle.
“You need someone great as a producer and engineer,” he says. “If you can find collaborators who you trust as we do, then it can make all the difference in the quality of the performance. We got very lucky and found amazing people to work with.”
“It’s definitely about building effective relationships as musicians and artists,” Joe continues. “Forming them can have a great influence on the finished output.”
Chatting with the duo shows that the band has never felt more excited about a record. New approaches have breathed renewed life and vigour into the group at a point in their career where others have become creatively stale.
“I love so much of it. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with the new album,” smiles Chris. “It’s GoGo Penguin but there’s so much in there too. There is a track called Last Breath, which is one of the darker moments on the album but I loved the approach with Nick improvising without piano or drums. The results sound really interesting.