Blue Notes – An Interview with GoGo Penguin

For a young group with a seemingly colourful, irrelevant name, GoGo Penguins seem sensible enough. At a broadcasted performancein Paris, the only words the group’s well-dressed bassist Nick Blacka speaks to the crowd are an apology for his lack of French skills. Their music is the antithesis to such sensibilities. They have confounded expectations of an old genre by signing to the venerable Blue Note label, releasing three critically aclaimed and hugely popular albums, and were nominated for UK’s highest honour, the Mercury Prize, in 2014.

I spoke to Nick recently, starting off by asking him to introduce his relationship to the band as their second bassist:

I guess I should say I wasn’t on the first album. These guys have been really good friends of mine for ages. They just got together to try and make music really. They just wanted to try out some ideas, had similar interests, and it more about getting these ideas out. There was no intention of going and getting gigs at that point, it was just ‘let’s get together and write some tunes’, and investigate more influences like electronica… Just their shared influences. 

A band had dropped out on that faithful night at a bar in Manchester, as bands want to do when they make room for future stars. The trio went on stage as GoGo Penguin “for a laugh”, a name which stuck with them through their fast rise to the forefront of modern jazz. 

If Blacka seems eager to clarify his position in the group, it is probably because it was their second LP, V2.0, that cemented their strength as composers and performers. 

That’s kind of why we called is V2.0; it was a bit like starting from scratch. It was almost like a new band in a way. I joined, we started writing, within three months we had recorded it, and it just kind of took off after that point. If you change 1/3 of a trio, it’s inevitably going to be different, isn’t it? We all had similar interests and we all wanted the same thing when I joined. And Rob’s been my best friend for years, and we’ve played in so many different bands, when I joined it wasn’t really a new thing, it just felt like ‘well, let’s get on it’. 

The group is difficult to pin down. Pianist Chris Illingworth plays ambient, yet highly technical prepared lines, drummer Rob Turner does not have a background in jazz, whereas Blacka got started on the bass guitar at age 13. 

I just fell in love with it immediately and then started playing in indie-type bands. Then I got more interested in things like funk, hip-hop, then jazz. I studied jazz at Leeds College, eventually.

On the difficulty of being pigeonholed, he is pragmatic and grateful for the support they have received. 

I think we’re just a band that improvises. If there’s any improvisation in your music at all, the only place in western music for it is jazz. We’re not trying to deny that influence – I have a degree in [jazz], and I’ve been playing on the jazz scene in the UK for years. So I can’t really say we were… Or were not influenced by jazz. We do improvise. 

But that then opens up this whole murky question of “what is jazz” which I don’t even want to get into. We are signed to Blue Note, we do improvise, and we are on traditional jazz instruments, so to say we’re not a jazz band is difficult. But to say we are as well… We don’t mind being called jazz, but people will expect us to do certain things if we say we are.

And are they part of a larger jazz revival?

Maybe. I think it’s always there. You get this a lot: “Is this a jazz revival? Are guitar bands on the way out?” At any point, all of these things are going on, but every now and then in certain genres, a group will raise their head to the top and everything will come into focus. I think it’s really good. There’s kind of the crossover thing as well. Young kids these days don’t get a lot of exposure to straight-ahead jazz, but if they get into through Flying Lotus or Kendrick Lamar, then that’s a good thing. I suppose it is having a bit of a comeback at the moment. 

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