Interview: GoGo Penguin

The British experimental electronic jazz trio GoGo Penguin have experienced a busy post-pandemic period. They had a change of lineup, then released an EP (Between Two Tides) and -most recently- came with a single (“Erased By Sunlight“) off of their upcoming record. We contacted pianist Chris Illingsworth and bassist Nick Blacka ahead of their next Istanbul gig and did a lovely chat.

How are you doing these days in the middle of your latest tour?

Nick Blacka: Really good. And very tired. We were in Hamburg last night and just arrived in Cork, Ireland. We are tired, but the tour has been amazing. 

Chris Illingsworth: Definitely. It was a long traveling day, and we are just in time for this interview. It’s been a rush, but it’s all good.

You’ve been spending 2022 with a more single-based approach. First one by one came the songs that made up your first EP Between Two Waves, and now comes “Erased By Sunlight”, which you say to be the mark of a new era. Let’s elaborate on that.

Nick: In the lockdown, we released an album (GoGo Penguin), then returned home, and after that whole cycle had passed, we had a change of lineup. Rob (Turner) left and Jon Scott joined us. The new label we are signed to (XXIM Records) was just a way for us to explore and do something we hadn’t done before. We just wanted to have fun, be free, and try some stuff out. With the instruments too. We tried out a few synths. It just felt like the beginning of a new chapter, which will be part of our next album that arrives next April.

Chris: With the singles as well. Before this year, we had only made singles for the albums that were coming out soon. With the singles that led to our new EP, I agree with Nick: We had just signed to a new label, and we wanted to remind people that we got back out again, making music. We had a lockdown in 2020 just after we released our last album, and we didn’t get to tour it. Everything went quiet for a lot of musicians. We just wanted to let the fans know that we were making music and were super excited about it. It’s an interesting method, putting out songs one by one. As you mentioned, it also points to a new start. This is what we are trying to do now.

Among these songs of 2022, if you were to choose two songs that were the easiest and hardest to create, which two would they be?

Chris: For the hardest…

Nick: “Badeep.”

Chris: Yes, “Badeep.” definitely. (both laugh)

Nick: That song is really complex, it has some really intricate piano and bass parts. Chris always comes up with the wildest bass parts, it’s really challenging sometimes. Some bass parts in the second part in particular are very hard. So I’d say that one was quite intricate.

Chris: None of them were particularly easy, because they take time to develop and get to the bottom. But I think the one that was different and relaxing to develop in a way is “Lost in Thought.” We hadn’t done that sort of thing before, exploring field recording ideas and going towards the more ambient side of things. Playing around with new stuff was still kind of tricky and difficult in its own way, but it was also relaxing. We recorded that pretty freely, improvising in the studio. There’s a sample of a train going past. We hadn’t planned that. It was only when we arrived in the studio that we saw there was trainline just outside. So we took some microphones and recorded the sounds. All of them came together in a natural way that felt easy in a sense.

Your next trip to Istanbul is less than two months away now. Your mates Portico Quartet recently performed here in Istanbul, and they also did a remix of your song “Don’t Go” in last year’s GGP/RMX album, which included a ton of other great names as well. My question is, what is a band or project of your dreams that you would love to collaborate with?

Chris: We were talking about this the other day, actually. And I think the main one is Machinedrum. He is in the GGP/RMX album, and a remix is a collaboration in a sense, of course. But when we did that album, we just reached out to the musicians we like and respect and asked them to do their thing. We didn’t have any input ourselves until we received their work. We were super excited each time we heard a new remix. (laughs) We kept in contact with Machinedrum after that and he was super keen on the idea of making music together. We are both really busy at the moment, but I think we’d definitely love to do something together in the future.

I know that you have been asked about your musical style and how you define it a lot in past interviews, so İ want to switch things up a little bit and ask: What do you think is the wildest, the most over-the-top definition you have heard as a description of your musical style?

Nick: Well… We have been called “free jazz”, actually.

Chris: Yeah! (laughs)

Nick: I think we are pretty far away from free jazz. That was definitely the wildest thing.

Chris: Definitely. The most interesting part is to see how different music can be seen by different people. All the other artists we remind them of… We have been compared to bands and genres like 65daysofstatic, Mogwai, the heavier side of rock music, the progressive stuff, and the experimental scene. We also have this big electronic element and jazz side. I think it’s just nice. Sometimes after a gig, it’s really fun for us to chat with other fans. One person will come up and say “Oh, I love them. They are my favorite jazz band,” and the other one goes “I don’t really like jazz, I’m more into rock, but they are great.” It just plays out very differently all the time, but I think free jazz was really off the mark. (laughs)

Nick: It’s a very difficult thing to describe for some people. I think it was Chris who said this to me in a rehearsal a few weeks ago: It’s just a band, it’s just instruments. (both laugh)

Let’s play a game now: What are the last three songs that come up in your streaming platform’s search history?

Chris: Okay! Let’s have a look. So I have got… That’s kind of interesting. I have “Vespers” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Then Nas’ album Illmatic. And then there’s a playlist called “Footwork/Juke.” There, I discovered an artist called Jlin. I found some music through Atlanta, the TV series, which led me to this playlist, so it’s kind of a weird mixture. (laughs)

Nick: Mine has Arctic Monkeys in it because I wanted to hear what their new album sounded like. (laughs) And then The Smile, the project of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. And then an artist called Alex G, who I recently discovered. So it’s all really guitar-based. In older searches, I also have Anderson.Paak and French podcasts. (laughs)

You will pay another visit to Istanbul this December. You have been here quite a few times.

Nick: Yeah. We have been there at least five times.

Can you share with us some fond Istanbul memories from the previous rounds?

Nick: You know, the first concert we ever played outside of the UK was in Istanbul. We came from recording v2.0, left the studio, drove to the airport, and arrived in Istanbul. I had a friend who lived there. His wife is Turkish. They moved back to Manchester now. That gig was great, and we got really drunk. (laughs)

Chris: Yeah. It was an exciting moment for us. We drank a lot of Efes. (laughs) One time, Nick and I went to a Turkish bath. I never had that kind of experience before. The guy that was gonna give Nick a massage was a huge, muscular guy, while mine was a skinny fellow. I thought, “Okay, he’s gonna be alright.” But it turned out to be the other way around. The big guy was more gentle, while the little guy hurt my arm and leg. He was cracking everything. (laughs) It was just an amazing experience.

Nick: In terms of the actual gigs, as we got more famous, the crowds grew more and more appreciative of what we do. They really got behind us. We always love coming back to play.

Chris: It’s always exciting for us to see Istanbul on the schedule.

You can visit the official GoGo Penguin website here.