Sense Of Hope: GoGo Penguin Interviewed

How fatherhood and grief sparked their latest evolution...

The title of the sixth GoGo Penguin album, ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’, conveys a sense of hope, reassurance and calm. Following releases named after manmade objects and the inconsequential unimportance we all share when compared with the vastness of the universe, it is unquestionably the trio’s most human title to date. Its six words embodies human emotions, human feelings and our basic human needs to feel safe, loved, looked after and cared for.

It also acts like a much-needed mantra, something that the members could utter to themselves during the shared times of grief and loss that provided the background to the album’s creation. Don’t panic. Don’t worry. Everything is going to turn out just fine.

“There always has to be that sense of hope,” reflects bassist Nick Blacka. “We were trying to send out that message that there is a lot of shit stuff happening but, in spite of everything that we go through, it’s going to be okay, whatever it is, even the fact that people die. That is unfortunately part of life, and it’s kind of an okay thing. It has to be because what’s the choice, really?”

Blacka pauses. The atmosphere feels subtly changed, as if deeply philosophical waves of transcendence and acceptance have washed over us. He offers a wry smile. “But, you know, the reality is that the title came from a sticker that was stuck on my amplifier by an engineer.”

If that feels like a contradiction, it is emblematic of a trio that have always embodied that space – a space decisively and deliberately poised between the electronic and the acoustic, a space where they find themselves signed to Blue Note but who don’t feel a sense of connection with the genre that is synonymous with that venerable imprint.

GoGo Penguin are a trio, but they are not the same trio of Blacka, pianist Chris Illingworth and drummer Rob Turner that recorded their self-titled fifth album in 2020. After the band were forced into hibernation as the pandemic prevented them from gigging, Turner decided to leave the band. 

“I’m not going to lie, the dynamic had got quite difficult,” admits Blacka. “Working together brought a lot of anxiety with it. Writing music had become quite a difficult process. It was suddenly something I didn’t look forward to. I think it got to that point where it wasn’t working for anyone involved. I think we all tried for a long time, like people do in any relationship. You probably try longer than you should to make it work. I think we just all came to the conclusion that we wanted different things, so Rob’s gone off to do whatever he wants to do.

“And it’s sad, because obviously everything’s about a moment in time,” he continues after a heavy sigh. “You start together. You’re very much all heading on the same path. You’re really invested in it. Unfortunately, life changes. People change. It’s a difficult thing to go through. You can’t really change that. You can try, and we all did. But the reality is me and Chris were more destined to carry on and Rob wanted to go somewhere else. It was like a phase of grieving, because this thing that you’d started together is not a thing anymore, and that’s difficult to accept at first. It’s certainly been the right decision, though. And I’m pretty sure it’s the right decision for all of us.”

The feeling of grief of separating from Turner was just one of the tumultuous events that happened in the year before they set about working on ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’: Illingworth simultaneously became a father and lost his grandmother, while Blacka lost both his mother and brother to cancer. The effect of those shared life experiences would, ultimately, bring them closer together.

“We’ve always been close, but that bond really strengthened through the things that we’ve gone through at the same time,” says Illingworth. “My dad used to be a fireman. He’d occasionally say that he saw similarities with us in the band to how he was with his crew. It seems like a really mad thing to say, because they’re risking their lives every day, and we’re obviously not doing that. But it’s the trust that you put in each other, and knowing that you need to be with people who’ve got your back if you need it. When we’re doing music together, when we’re writing or when we’re performing, when you’re putting yourself out there, it’s a bit of a risk. In a gig, you might push yourself to a point where you can’t physically do something, and you fall off it, but you know the other guys are there.”

The studio that Blacka and Illingworth share in Manchester became the safe environment in which to work through their grief. “Coming to the studio every day working on music became the release,” says Blacka. “That was where we could get into a space where we weren’t thinking about the outside too much, obviously. One of the tracks on the new album is called ‘Sanctuary’. It became a refuge, a place outside of everything else, where we could really get into the music. Because of that, I think this album has a more of a personal stamp for me, and means more to me than anything we’ve ever done before.”

The departure of Turner was always going to bring about a change in the dynamics of GoGo Penguin. His drumming style – a glitchy, pointillist spray of complex polyrhythms – was a definitional contribution to the GoGo Penguin sound. Blacka points out that there’s nowhere to hide in a trio, and that changing any one of the members would inevitably bring about some sort of difference in their sound. London-based Jon Scott initially joined the band for gigs to replace Turner.

“It was a lot to expect Jon to fit in as well as he did,” says Illingworth. “He really did settle in quickly, live, but I think to expect someone to be able to just immediately fit in, in terms of writing, is a lot harder. There’s that kind of subconscious connection you have as musicians, where you kind of able to communicate with each other, but it feels like that clicked really quickly with Jon. We had that more or less instantly when we started playing.”

Blacka and Illingworth admit that it would have been relatively logical to go out and find a drummer that could play just like Turner in an effort to keep their sound the same. However, Scott brought something different to the sessions for last year’s ‘Between Two Waves’ EP and ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’.

“We wanted his personality, and we wanted that different thing that he could contribute,” explains Blacka. “We really like the way Jon plays. He’s got a really good feel, has a really good sense of groove and just brings a nice energy to the band.”

Illingworth agrees. “We just thought it was important to let Jon do his thing,” he says. “We were completely aware of what kind of drummer we were asking to join the band. Jon’s an incredible drummer, and we wanted things to be different. And there are things that we haven’t been able to explore in the past as easily. For example, we both love hip-hop. We’re both really into a lot of that stuff – a lot of instrumental hip-hop, all the mid to late 1990s stuff like DJ Shadow and Mo’ Wax and that type of thing. That was a big part of us when we were young and learning our instruments, so it is nice to actually flex that a little bit and get that opportunity. It’s not like Rob was going, ‘I won’t play any hip-hop.’ It wasn’t anything like that. It’s just a different dynamic. It’s three people and now one of the elements has changed. It’s just that, really.”

The introduction of Scott brought about other changes, particularly as Illingworth and Blacka became closer. Blacka reflects that in the past he was the one who didn’t contribute to the band compared to Turner and Illingworth, whereas now he and Illingworth are driving the writing of GoGo Penguin pieces. Their Manchester studio is close to where they both live, allowing them the freedom to convene there and work on ideas as often as they want. 

“We started trying new things,” says Illingworth. “We were really quite bold in what we were wanting to try, compared to what we’ve done in the past. Those feelings have always been there, but different things get in the way. Sometimes it’s fear. But I think this time, there was that bond and that kind of looking out for each other, to give us that space as well. So, space as in the physical space of the studio, but also that feeling of, ‘We can do this. And if we fall off it or it doesn’t work, or wherever, it’s cool. It’s fun.’ It’s nice to have that feeling.”

Illingworth was also keen to adopt an approach not dissimilar to scoring for an orchestra, where you’re less focused on individual instruments and more focused on the overall sound. “I remember hearing stories about composers that were literally trying to create a new sound by combining the instruments in a certain way to make something new,” he says. “That made me think about what we could do that would make the band sound a certain way, instead of how can we make me sound a certain way or Nick sound a certain way. That was something I was always really interested in. And when we did that, I think it was really cool. It’s difficult to tell because we’re inside it, but as you listen, hopefully it’s hard to hear the individual elements. You have to listen to it as a whole.”

Over Illingworth’s shoulder in the studio is a table piled high with synth modules and patch cables, and the introduction of electronics on ‘Between Two Waves’ and ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’ is one of the biggest evolutions of the GoGo Penguin sound. Until ‘Between Two Waves’, GoGo Penguin were resolutely acoustic, but their tracks would first be written using electronics and software. Once written, no matter how complex those pieces were, the goal was to recreate them as closely as possible, acoustically. It was that attitude that gave their music a tonality and presentation that felt like you were listening to some sort of vintage Warp album rather than a relatively traditional trio formation of piano, bass and drums.

“That was primarily because it was kind of fun to do,” says Illingworth. “It was that idea of, ‘Can we do it?’ If we hadn’t used the techniques that we used to write stuff, we wouldn’t have learned to sound like we do, or play our instruments the way we do. There would be moments where we’d write something that I knew I physically couldn’t play it yet, and then we’d be like, ‘That’s cool. Let’s work out how to do it.’ There’s a lot now that I think we can do, where the ideas come to mind and you can go, ‘Well, I know that I’ll use some muted piano technique,’ or ‘We can combine these contrapuntal lines between the bass and piano and it’ll create the effect we want to create.’

“Wanting to use electronic sounds directly this time around was a leap of faith, though,” he continues. “There’s always been a part of me that’s wanted to get a lot of synths or drum machines and just not worry about whether it’s going to work. If it doesn’t lead anywhere, that’s also okay, but I want to have fun with it.”

That more broadminded approach to the use of electronics can be heard on tracks like ‘Saturnine’, ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Soon Comes Night’ from ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’, but in a way that feels natural and unforced, almost as if those obviously electronic elements were always there. On tracks like ‘An Unbroken Thread Of Awareness’ and ‘Glow’, synths offer up textures and enveloping washes of sound that circle Blacka’s expressive, plaintive bass playing. On the harrowing ‘Last Breath’, his playing takes on an inevitable sense of finality, offset by a synth that sounds like life support pulses.

GoGo Penguin have always been at the cutting edge of instrumental edge since they arrived with 2012’s appropriately-named ‘Fanfares’. Their sound has always been unique and and their approach has always been brave and progressive. Nevertheless, they are an instrumental trio of piano, upright bass and drums, a formation that leads to certain shackles of perception.

“We’ve all come from either classical or jazz backgrounds, so we’ve had all those influences,” says Illingworth. “That stuff is ingrained in us. When I play the piano, when Nick plays the bass, we try to just have some fun around that, and not feel locked in by it, but the music always keeps getting chucked under that umbrella of jazz because people can’t think of anything better to describe it. That means that it’s hard for us not to go, ‘Am I allowed to do this? Can I get a Strega synth out instead and play a tune on the record where I don’t even touch the piano? Is that allowed?’ You start thinking about where that voice is coming from.

“As soon as we started shaking that off a bit, it was cool,” he concludes. “We want to stay true to what we do as GoGo Penguin, but also just give things a go and see what happens. And you know, what’s the worst that’s going to happen when you take a leap? You realise it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work, but on ‘Everything Is Going To Be Okay’, we think it definitely has.”

‘Everything Is Going To Be OK’ is out on April 14th.

Words: Mat Smith

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