Different worlds have always collided, vividly, in the sound of GoGo Penguin. The Manchester-based trio conjure richly atmospheric music that draws from their shared love of electronica, their grounding in classical conservatoires and jazz ensembles alongside indie bands, and a merging of acoustic and electronic techniques. Over the past few years, it has earned them rapturous responses all over the world—The New York Times highlighted them as one of the 12 best bands at SXSW 2017—and proved that they’re just as at home playing to muddy festival goers as jazz fans. Their latest album, A Humdrum Star, builds on the heady momentum of its acclaimed predecessors—the 2014 Mercury Prize-nominated V2.0 and their 2016 Blue Note debut Man Made Object—and transports it to new realms.
“I think we felt even more liberated on this album—and I think there’s more of each of us on it,” says bassist Nick Blacka. “When we were making V2.0, we were just getting together as much as we could, hustling spaces to work. Man Made Object definitely had more of an immediate sense of pressure.
“Having been through those experiences, the most difficult thing about making this album was that we tour so much. But when we do find time to record, there’s never a shortage of inspiration. That’s what’s great about this band; someone brings an idea, then it snowballs into this other space nobody was expecting.”
The band have gathered in the bar at HOME, the buzzy Manchester multi-arts centre where they originally premiered their 21st-century score for Godfrey Reggio’s cult doc Koyaanisqatsi (a 2015 experiment which yielded an extensive live tour). On A Humdrum Star, their latest material reveals both native turf and far-flung influences. They evoke the symbiotic flow between Nick, pianist Chris Illingworth, and drummer Rob Turner, as well as their seasoned relationship with producer and sound engineer Joe Reiser (credited as the “fourth member” of GGP, both on tour and in the studio) and co-producer Brendan Williams. As with previous albums, these tracks stemmed from a love of electronic music, whether collectively developed from “sketches” written by Rob on DJ/producer tech including Logic and Ableton, or composed on the bass or at the piano. That electro-acoustic tension pulses throughout the new album, from the beautifully brooding piano melody and dissonance that makes opener “Prayer” so soulful yet unsettling, to the stirring, house-y reverb that gives way to Rob’s propulsive beats on “Bardo.”
“We started with this idea of ‘inner and outer’, and opposing things that are essentially the same,” says Rob. “A lot of the textures and sounds do come from the electronic writing, but Brendan also wanted everything to be made as organically as possible.” This provoked various DIY twists, such as chains and even a tape measure held against Nick’s bass strings to create the rustling rhythms on “Prayer.”
Rob elaborates: “’A Hundred Moons’ started out as a kind of early Brian Eno ambient vibe; the beat actually came late one night when I started listening to a Caribbean hymn—I had no idea what it was, but it was so hypnotic, I played it for days. The two forces came together from nowhere.” His eyes widen, humorously: “You could think of it as really cosmic…”
“Transient State” sounds both restless and reflective; it’s infused with the spirit (and surrealism) of life on the road, as Chris explains: “We had a day off in Tokyo last year, and Nick and I wandered around the Shibuya district; we saw a Shinto shrine in Yoyogi Park, which was mind-blowing. The entire day was an amazing mixture of different things: rockabilly dancers outside the park, a traditional wedding procession…”
Chris began reading into the Shinto belief in kami spirits: embodied in nature, and embracing equally good and bad. “It relates to the idea of being on tour, in that constant flux—and experiences that might be positive or negative, but are all part of a bigger thing.”
Elsewhere, Chris likens the interplay on “Strid,” between the edgy funk of Nick’s bassline, Rob’s loops, and his own more chilled-out chords to “the fader on record turntables, where you flick it to another groove and then back again.” This track is named after a beautiful yet perilous stretch of the river Wharfe in Yorkshire, where Nick grew up. Nick recalls: “We’d go for picnics there, by Bolton Abbey, and I used to look at this innocuous-seeming river, which apparently turns on its side out of sight, and which has killed loads of people. It’s just the idea that you could be happy and safe in your life, then – game over; things don’t always appear as they are.”
While the band forged the new material’s intensity through a string of “secret” live dates in East London, they were also intent on recording entirely in Manchester, for the first time – at Low Four, located within the historic Old Granada Studios. All three had gravitated towards the city as young students (Chris and Rob originally attended the Royal Northern College of Music) and stayed on, crossing paths across various local groups, throwing parties (Nick ran ad hoc nights at the Klondyke, a former bowling club in South Manchester), and signing to Gondwana records (run by Mancunian jazz musician Matthew Halsall) for their first two albums. Nick was invited to join GGP following the 2012 release Fanfares; his arrival sealed a thrilling dynamic.
“It made things fresh again, the way we were able to develop ideas together, on top of what we already had to start with,” says Chris.
“The band, in this format, was relatively inevitable,” adds Rob. “Maybe we’re the only lunatics that are prepared to do it; we’re too far in it to give up.”
They’re now settled into their rehearsal space in Wellington House, Ancoats: a converted fabric mill that now houses hundreds of musicians and artists; art rockers and fellow Mercury nominees Everything Everything are in the room below. “I’ve never stopped loving Manchester: the scene, the players, the people, and maybe the legacy of it all,” smiles Nick. “It’s just big enough and just small enough; the city’s creative output means that you’re never really pulled away.”
There is poetry and precision in GGP’s new work—and intimacy and vastness. Their titles tend to speak volumes, in tandem with their evocative instrumentals. They’d actually completed the new album’s track-listing before settling on the name for A Humdrum Star—yet it captures a distinctive tone. It’s taken from a quote by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, on his 1980 TV series Cosmos, which Rob reads aloud:
“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”