GoGo Penguin Man Made Object on 2LP
It’s been an astonishing couple of years for Manchester based trio GoGo Penguin (drummer Rob Turner, double bassist Nick Blacka and pianist Chris Illingworth). Their trademark mash-up of minimalist piano themes, deeply propulsive bass lines and electronica-inspired drums has seen them shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and fueled their exhilarating live shows from Manchester to Montreal and Paris to London. They’ve written and performed a new score for Godfrey Reggio’s cult film Koyaanisqatsi and collaborated with noted choreographer Lynne Page for a Gilles Peterson-curated night at the Barbican. And in the midst of all this they've signed a multi-album deal with Blue Note Records, the most famous jazz label on earth.
Their new album is called Man Made Object. "That title is partly inspired by my fascination with ideas of robotics, transhumanism and human augmentation," says Illingworth. "Like when someone loses a limb and it's replaced by a prosthetic. Sometimes that prosthetic ends up becoming so lifelike, so integrated into the body, that the person actually starts to imagine sensation and touch. And, in a weird way, that resonates with what we're doing. We're recreating electronic music on acoustic instruments. It's like a man-made object that has become humanised and it seemed like a good album title, one that also means something different to each of us, and hopefully to each listener."
Although they're an acoustic band, GoGo Penguin's music draws from many areas of contemporary electronic music, one where you can hear arcade game bleeps, glitchy breakbeats, hypnotic Aphex-style melodies, grinding basslines and a rumbling low-end. It has been described as "acoustic electronica," which perfectly sums up the writing process. "Many of the songs on this album started out as electronic compositions that I made on sequencing software like Logic or Ableton," says Turner. "I'll then play it to the band and we'll find ways of replicating it acoustically."
For instance, the oriental-sounding "Branches Break" started life as a FourTet-inspired laptop piece with bassist Blacka playing through an effects pedal and Chris playing harp-like flourishes. "Initiate," a delicate, low-volume rumination, sees Chris and Blacka replicating an Amon Tobin-inspired electronica track written by Rob. On the triumphantly, defiantly martial closing track, "Protest," Rob and Nick recreate a fiendishly difficult Roland 808-style beat fused with a siren that Chris had programmed into a drum machine on his iPhone.
On "Smaara," a song inspired by the Hindu idea of sleep demons, Chris dampens the strings on his piano with kitchen roll to try and replicate a synth ("it's like the sound of adjusting the oscillators," he says, "playing with the filter, attack and release, you get that muted electronic tone without using electronics"). "Weird Cat" is based around a recording that Rob made of a stray cat wailing one night ("it was a really great melody that this cat came up with," he says. "It sounded like a Burial track. Then we started going a bit Squarepusher towards the end.").
Other tracks are inspired by more spiritual concerns. The hypnotic minimalism of "Quiet Mind" and "Surrender To Mountain" both take their cue from "I Am That," a book of conversations with the Hindu mystic Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj; the cryptically titled "GBFISYSIH" is a heart-breaking lament that serves as coded tribute to an old friend, while the album opener "All Res" is inspired by the simple image of sunlight streaming through the clouds.
The album, like its predecessor, was recorded at Giant Wafer residential studios in Mid-Wales, and completed at 80hz in Newton Heath, Manchester, with engineering and production by Joe Reiser and Brendan Williams. "Joe is a crucial part of the set up, both live and in the studio," says Blacka. "He uses a ton of microphones on each of us to ensure that every sound is captured and manipulated. It's quite different from the way in which a jazz trio would be mixed – a much heavier bass and more of a mid-range punch, to ensure that the tunes kick through."