Interview: Q&A with Nick Blacka, GoGo Penguin – A Cinematic Trio (September 2017)

When talking about some of the best music projects in the contemporary scene, one cannot fail to mention GoGo Penguin, the Manchester-based trio that brings jazz and electronica together in highly rhythmical, climatic compositions and truly compelling live shows.

The band formed in Manchester in 2012 and has published three studio albums since then, all of which received positive reviews and strong acclamation. After an intense tour of festivals and gigs around the world, the three spent the summer in the studio recording their fourth album that will be released in early 2018. We reached the band’s bassist, Nick Blacka, to find out more about their unique sound, the new jazz scene, and the special performance they have planned for their upcoming London show at Barbican Centre.

Rhythm Passport: What was the first thing that drew you into music?

Nick Blacka: Well, for the three of us as individuals, each story is slightly different but I think the one experience that we all share is that music gripped us unlike anything else in life and we were all compelled to pursue that thing no matter what the outcome. For me, personally, it was hearing my older brother’s friend’s band performing at school and, for whatever reason, I was drawn to the sound of the bass guitar. I knew immediately that I had to get one and see where I could take it. 

RP: How did you three meet?

NB: We met in Manchester on the jazz scene. We’ve all played together in different people’s bands but GoGo Penguin was the first time the three of us got together at the same time and it just worked. 

RP: How did the sound of GoGo Penguin develop?

NB: Well, the band first got together to try out some ideas and just to write some music. There wasn’t really even an intention to go out and perform live at that stage. That was with a different bass player and the music ended up becoming the debut album, Fanfares. Shortly after it was released, it was clear that a different approach was needed. I was invited to join the band along with Joe Reiser, our live sound engineer who also records and co-produces the albums and we wrote V2.0 together. After the success of v2.0, we started touring a lot which really brought the live performances together. The sound of GoGo Penguin is really just the sound of the three of us together and the combination of our different influences. Electronica, jazz, and classical being the most heavily referenced, I guess.

RP: What’s your secret recipe for mixing jazz and electronic music?

NB: There’s no secret recipe. We just take some of the things that we like in electronica and try to play them on our instruments as best we can. We play piano, double bass, and drums because they are our first instruments so that’s simply where we all feel the most comfortable. As I mentioned earlier, we all met on the Manchester jazz scene and Chris and Rob studied classical music so it’s inevitable some of those influences will also come out in the music that we write. 

RP: Which artists have been most influential for you, as a band and as individuals?

NB: Aphex Twin was a big influence, particularly in the early days, the same goes for EST but it’s not something we reference consciously too much anymore. Four Tet, Squarepusher, Radiohead, Jon Hopkins, Beastie Boys, Queens of the Stone Age, to name but a few. To be honest, our influences are always changing depending on what we’ve been listening to at that particular time. 

RP: How does your creative process work?

NB: It really depends but, as a general rule, someone brings an idea to the band, be it an almost complete tune, a two-bar loop or a bass riff and then we all work on it together to make it our own. Sometimes ideas start as projects on a laptop or written on the piano or the bass. There’s no hard and fast rule to it, but we all contribute our own individual stamp to each piece.

RP: In 2016, you published your third studio album Man Made Object. What work are you most pleased with so far?

NB: I think we’re pleased with all of them for different reasons. Obviously, I can’t comment on Fanfares other than that I think it’s a good record. v2.0 was my first record with the band so I have a soft spot for that one but I think on Man Made Object, you can hear that we’ve been together as a band for longer and the playing is perhaps a little more cohesive. Certainly, my favourite at the moment is the one we’ve just recorded which we’ll be releasing in early 2018.

RP: What do you enjoy more, playing live gigs or being in the studio composing new music?

NB: They’re entirely different processes and you kind of have to change your mindset for each one. I find it exciting when we’re writing new music but sometimes the process can be difficult and laborious. I think playing live is often more instantly gratifying because you get to connect with the audience in that moment. I really enjoy both aspects but playing live can be a lot of fun. 

RP: GoGo Penguin is one of best contemporary projects that are making jazz music mainstream again. What do you think about the rising popularity of jazz music?

NB: I think it’s interesting that people say that’s happening. We don’t really think of ourselves as being part of a scene or even as a jazz band really. However, I think to shine a spotlight on any creative music for younger people and mainstream society, in general, is really positive. There are a lot of people who may not have known a lot about jazz previously so it’s good to perhaps turn their heads onto something different to what you find in the mainstream. In modern society, we are saturated with generic, watered down pop music dominating the mainstream, music that is sold as a commodity like any other with no real feeling or sentiment except for the desire to acquire money and a celebrity status. I think, to bring a different type of music into focus where people are doing it for the love of it with no real guarantees of anything other than a desire to share a passion and commitment to music, can only be a good thing. 

RP: How do you relate to the Manchester and UK music scene? Can you describe it in a few words? Is there any up-and-coming artist/band we must have a listen to?

NB: Manchester is simply a great city to live in for music. Not just guitar bands but electronica, folk, hip-hop, whatever, it’s a really creative place to be and we love it. There are so many good acts in Manchester that we’re friends with or know about. They’re not specifically related to what we do but check out Honeyfeet or any project that their singer, Ríoghnach Connolly, is involved in. She’s a force of nature. We also like Everything Everything, but they’re already very well established. They rehearse just downstairs in the same building as us in Manchester. 

RP: In October, you’ll perform your own reinterpretation of the 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi‘s soundtrack. How did this opportunity come up?

NB: It came about because a new center for art, cinema, and theatre was opening in Manchester a couple of years ago, a place called Home. At the time, to celebrate the opening, they were commissioning various Manchester acts to write and perform a unique live score to a silent movie. We were asked if we were interested in doing something for it. At first, we picked an old silent Japanese film but we couldn’t find who owned the rights to the film and, therefore, couldn’t get permission to use it. Rob had always fancied doing a different take on Koyaanisqatsi and mentioned it, not really thinking we’d get permission to do it. Anyway, they asked and we got permission so we wrote our own live score to be performed for two nights in Manchester. That was supposed to be the end of it but as we’d written the music and put so much work into the project, we decided we should try and do a few more performances of it if the opportunity arose.

RP: Your music has always had a strong cinematographic charge, even though it was not composed and meant for the screen. How do you feel your music now relates to this movie?

NB: Well, the music for this film was written with each different scene in mind rather than just writing an individual tune. It was a lot of work and was fairly demanding for us at the time. We had to think a lot about tempos, scene changes, and linking everything together. I would dare to say that perhaps in some scenes we’ve conveyed a more emotional aspect in the music. In the original, Phillip Glass’s score feels a little more impartial, almost like an observation. Obviously, I can only guess Phillip Glass’s intentions in his score but that’s the way it feels to me personally. We’re all proud of the score although it is different to just write a tune or song. 

RP: In the past months, you focused on recording your new album and we’re looking forward to hearing it. Can you tell us something about it?

NB: Yeah, all the music has been recorded and is finished. We’re still working on finer details such as mixes, titles, and the track order at the moment. It’s difficult to tell you too much about it at this stage but we’re all very happy with how the music has come out and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you early next year. 

RP: What are your plans for the future?

We’ll be touring a lot next year when the new album comes out and announcing new shows as we go. Hopefully, there will be a chance to travel to some countries and cities that we haven’t had the chance to perform at yet.

Photo ©: Emily Dennison