GoGo Penguin Re-creates Electronica With Acoustic Instruments

GoGo Penguin performs at the Boulder Theater on Wednesday, September 6.
GoGo Penguin performs at the Boulder Theater on Wednesday, September 6. Courtesy of Blue Note Records
The forward-thinking Manchester, England-based trio GoGo Penguin is a squarely acoustic act with a piano, an upright bass and a drum kit, but the group's songs are interpretations of electronic-music projects the act first builds on a computer using software like Logic or Ableton.

Take “Initiate,” from last year’s Blue Note album Man Made Object. When drummer Rob Turner brought an electronic-music project he had built to pianist Chris Illingworth and bassist Nick Blacka, it had African and tribal samples and wild percussion, but no drum kit or piano.

“It had really weird synth sounds and then just loads and loads of really sine-wave sub-y kinds of bass,” Illingworth says. “I remember just thinking, ‘I can do that.' I was saying to Rob, ‘Give me that tune. I’ll go out and do some work with it.’

“I sat at the piano and worked all these layers and patterns and things I could hear in there, yet a lot of them weren’t actually in there, exactly," he continues. "I was finding lines that I could hear that weren’t actually being played in that project. It’s definitely a way of kind of starting, and then we interpret that, and then we’ll develop it from there.”

As with “Initiate,” Turner might start a song in Logic and bring it to his bandmates. “Then we’ll deconstruct that, pull it apart and take the essence of it and take the ideas and then turn it into something for the trio," Illingworth says.

Even when the songs are reinterpreted on acoustic instruments, they sometimes sound like electronica songs thanks to Turner’s inventive drumming and percussion. The music evokes Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Orbital and Massive Attack, all bands the musicians admire.

Since the players also have backgrounds in jazz, there’s an organic warmth that buoys many of the songs on Man Made Object. While their brainy combo of electronica and jazz is more polished on that recording, as well as on early albums v.2.0 and Fanfares, Illingworth says there’s more of a rough edge on this year’s four-song EP, Live at Abbey Road, which was recorded at the legendary studio where musicians from Paul Robeson to the Beatles once recorded.

Illingworth says it was a big deal to play there, even through there were just roughly twenty people quietly watching the trio.

“But we got really into it,” he says. “It was actually kind of fun. We decided to record it just to see what came out of the session, and luckily in the end, it was quite cool. But we wanted to keep it quite different than what we’ve done before. We didn’t try to edit things. There’s a bit more of a rough edge to the music. We were quite happy to leave it like that, because obviously, it’s a very different kind of recording to what we do if we we're going and recording an album.”

Live at Abbey Road includes three songs from Man Made Object and “Ocean in a Drop,” a song that’s part of the group's alternative score to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (the original was composed by Philip Glass).

In 2015, the musicians were asked to write a soundtrack for a silent film of their choosing for HOME, an art, theater and film complex in Manchester. At first they wanted to score the 1926 Japanese silent film A Page of Madness, but since they couldn’t secure the rights, they approached Reggio and Glass, who both gave the band the green light to write its own score for the film.

“I must have watched the film from start to finish hundreds of times by now,” Illingworth says. “I made sure every single time I wasn’t listening to the score. Silence. I just watched the images. And we took what we could from that. We really wanted to make sure that we were doing our own thing. It’s the same with the music that we write for our albums that we perform."

GoGo Penguin, with What Young Me Do, 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 6, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $20-$25.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon