GoGo Penguin starts a new chapter with ‘Everything Is Going to Be OK’

Interview by Varun Swarup
Genres and styles : Electro-Jazz / Electroacoustic / Jazz Rock

Additional Information

GoGo Penguin has been captivating audiences with their innovative and eclectic sound since they first formed in 2009. Citing a diverse range of influences, the trio’s music defies easy categorization but consistently makes for an enthralling experience. 

Everything is Going To Be OK, the group’s sixth album, sees the band coming to terms with the departure of longtime drummer, Rob Turner, and personal losses in the families of bassist Nick Blacka and pianist Chris Illingworth. However, the band find a worthy replacement in drummer Jon Scott and Everything is Going to be OK serves as an optimistic gesture and a reassurance to fans that the band remain inspired, and are here to stay. 

Chris took the time from his hotel room in Portland to discuss the latest record, their current tour, and more than 10 years of GoGo Penguin. 

PAN M 360: First of all congratulations on the album Chris. You’re touring it now. How are you finding it so far? How do you feel the new material is being received?

Chris: Oh fantastic. I think we’ve done five shows so far and a little radio spot in Seattle as well the other day. It’s been great, really fun playing the new stuff, I feel like it’s been a while since we went out on tour and played a lot of brand new material like this. But we’ve obviously got a lot of the differences with the setup now. We’ve got synths and we’ve got more effects and there’s still that core acoustic thing there, but there are a lot of things that we’ve had to incorporate to be able to play the music live. So it’s been really exciting, if a bit nerve wracking, going on stage when there’s a lot more that could go wrong than just having a piano, bass and drums on stage. But it’s been great. The crowds have been good, really nice venues. It’s nice to be feeling like we’ve still got energy. Wish we didn’t have to fly though. 

PAN M 360: Is it fair to say then that this is GoGo Penguin’s ‘electronica’ album?

Chris: Yeah, it’s an interesting question, it is technically, but the approach we’ve used and the style of composition don’t actually feel too electronic. Those elements are there and we’ve got things like the Strega, which is just an incredible sounding instrument, but it’s used more on the processing side of things. The acoustic instruments are still there and you can still hear in “Last Breath” as an example, it’s the double bass that’s going through it, but it’s what the Strega adds to the bass that takes a new shape. On the modular side of things, the main one that I’m using is called Rings, and it’s beautiful. It sounds like some kind of percussion plucked instrument, and when I do the kind of muting thing on the piano, it’s already not miles away from those kinds of sounds. 

I was listening to electronic music before I was listening to most other kinds of music, other than probably classical and some rock music that my mom listened to. There’s always been that thing of wanting to play with synths and electronics and effects just because I was blown away by what bands like Underworld, Prodigy and Massive Attack were able to do with them. 

With GoGo Penguin it never felt like that opportunity was there in a kind of perfect ‘this is going to work’ way. This time, Nick and I, we just got back in the studio and we were like, ‘You know what?., Let’s just get everything out and just play. Let’s just have some fun and just see what happens.’ And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There wasn’t any fear there.

We tried a lot of things that didn’t work. We cut out a lot of different synths because we just thought, these don’t feel right. We had some sequencers that we were playing around with and it just didn’t feel like the right approach for the compositions. But the things that we kept, it felt like they found their places within the instruments. 

PAN M 360: Now that the band has been playing for well over a decade, you must be finding yourselves playing to a new generation of fans. Would you say much has changed with regards to the concert experience, or perhaps in the way people relate to music, especially instrumental music these days?

Chris: Well we’ve been chatting with quite a few people on this tour already about it, it’s still that very diverse, mixed audience we attract. There’s a lot of people, young and old, from different kinds of tastes of music and backgrounds and everything, and it just feels like that’s continuing. I think there’s probably the fans that are sticking with us, that like us, got a bit older, and then there’s this younger crowd coming in as well. 

It feels very much like a lot of the younger listeners don’t seem to be concerned with genres and boundaries. It’s not so much a thing of is it jazz? Isn’t it jazz? Is it this, is it that?  Check it out on Spotify or YouTube or whatever and make your mind up if you like it and come and see the show. 

We really love that the music seems to speak to a lot of different people. It means a lot to us. We never want the music to be just for a particular kind of person, we want it to be that anybody can listen to it and then decide if they like it or not.

PAN M 360:  Part of the charm of GoGo Penguin is that the band can play at a rock, jazz, or electronic festival, and fit the bill. How do you explain GoGo Penguin?

Chris: It’s such a tough one. Yeah, I honestly don’t know. I want to just say it’s just a band playing instrumental music, but that’s so vague and doesn’t really describe anything. The thing that we’re wanting to do with all of it, that we’ve always wanted to do is try and connect with people just by telling them stories. But you keep them abstract enough that everyone can listen to it and read something into it and it’s what we want. And I think then that means that we have to draw from everywhere.

PAN M 360: I remember living in the UK and seeing that first wave of jazz-inspired rock/electronica/instrumental outfits emerge sometime in the early 2010’s. A lot of what came out on Gondwana helped establish that ‘post-jazz’ sound, I called it ‘Radiohead Jazz’ back then, ha. Would you say that sound has become somewhat saturated now?

Chris: I don’t know. I mean, I think there are people who are taking those elements because it’s the way things always tend to go. Some people will do it because they see that it’s worked and they’ll have a go. But I think there are some people, Mammal Hands and Floating Points are great examples, where it’s still very individual. It’s not like a copy of a copy. And it’s the same with us. I think there are a lot of people kind of doing that, but I think the great ones do it with their own individuality, and that’s what really makes it stand out.

PAN M 360:  What do you think makes Everything is Going to be OK feel like such a singular release in your discography.

Chris: I think really it’s the first time where we’ve been far more open. Right from the beginning with the press release, with everything really, the artwork even, had that feeling of let’s be as open as possible. Not trying to be too cryptic, not trying to use minimalist illustrations on the front that don’t really make you think of something immediate. We were like, let’s just be honest. Let’s just tell people. Let’s say what we’ve been through and say what this is all about, because obviously it’s got to be a personal thing because we made the record, but we made it for everybody who wants to listen to it. And all of these things that we’ve experienced, they’re not exclusive to us. These are things that everybody goes through, and it’s just that we’ve gone through that point in our lives where it’s like the spotlight has been put on that experience of you’re going to start losing people because we all get older and that’s what happens. 

Of course it was our first album after Rob left, but he was just one part of the band. The bond ended up strengthening between Nick and myself. We’ve been friends for a long time and we worked together for a long time, but it was great to see things like the way he opened up and was able to contribute so much more than I think he’s ever done in the past. I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. Of course he’s always contributed, he’s always been a part of it, he’s always had ideas, but it felt like some sort of weight had been lifted where he was suddenly able to bring so much more to the table. And in turn, that’s a really exciting thing for me to have to react to and it was nice to be on the back foot listening to these ideas that Nick’s bringing and going, okay, how do I react to that? Where do I fit in with that?

With the recording process we were able to say in a way that felt natural that we’re still us, we’re not trying to change who we are, but we’ve changed as people. We’ve grown like everybody does. 

PAN M 360: What was your approach to incorporating Jon as part of the trio?

Chris: He’s really fitting the touring well. He’s a great character to have with us. Like we said right from the beginning, we didn’t want a copy. We wanted somebody individual. We didn’t want to just try and replace Rob. It was important that drums are an essential part of the sound of GoGo Penguin, but we wanted it to be somebody with their own personality joining us. John’s done that and fair play to the guy. I mean, it’s not going to be easy to step into something that’s got all that history and all of that kind of foundations that we’ve built. It must have been a challenge, but he’s really stepped up and done a fantastic job.

PAN M 360:  What might we expect from GoGo Penguin in the time to come?

Chris: Well, I think as soon as we can we definitely want to get back in the studio. There are ideas bubbling away. We keep sketching things and we were having beers in the hotel bar just last night chatting ideas. There’s definitely going to be some stuff along the way but at the minute, I think we’re just enjoying touring. It feels nice to have this album. It still feels kind of fresh because it was a while ago that we recorded it. We’ve got Japan coming up again, and we haven’t been there for a while, so that’s going to be fun. Some talk about Australia and New Zealand, where we’ve never been. Hopefully a lot of good things will come.

GoGo Penguin plays Theatre Corona on May 11. TICKETS HERE

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