Swing Time: GoGo Penguin

Ryan Reed on July 1, 2020
Swing Time: GoGo Penguin

Even though they’re signed to Blue Note and certainly look the part, this Manchester trio
draws just as much inspiration from indie-rock, electronica, classical minimalism
and Netflix’s Chef ’s Table as they do traditional jazz.

Chris Illingworth’s fingers were once at war with his spirit. The classically trained pianist, one third of U.K. instrumental act GoGo Penguin, spent much of his youth studying formal musical techniques. But, now that he’s absorbed those lessons, he wants instinct to take over. For recent guidance, he consulted a rather unorthodox inspiration— the Netflix documentary series Chef ’s Table.

“I love cooking,” he says. “Some of the ideas I’ve picked up through that show are better than a lot of the stuff I’ve found through music. This one guy talks about studying French cuisine, which is what everyone stereotypically thinks you need to do: ‘If you want to be a great cook, you go learn in France.’ He’s done all of the technical side of it. And then he says, ‘It’s all well and good looking at these people who are masters. But, one day, you have to start treating yourself as the master. You have to look at what you want and listen to your own process and trust yourself.’ It’s true. It [isn’t helpful] to keep looking at what everyone else is doing.”

That’s been a difficult lesson for Illingworth, who has often struggled to pinpoint how his genre-blurring band fits into the parameters of the various descriptors thrown at them. The Manchester trio’s selftitled fifth LP is their third for famed jazz label Blue Note, an association could that could have easily pigeonholed them for the uninitiated. But, while GoGo Penguin certainly looks like a traditional jazz trio— thanks to their configuration of acoustic piano, double-bass and drums—their music is its own beast: Illingworth’s elegant melodies draw from the minimalist hypnosis of Steve Reich, and the relentless grooves of drummer Rob Turner and bassist Nick Blacka tap into their mutual love of electronica.

“We obviously still get that jazz label put on our music, and that’s fine,” Illingworth says. “We don’t care what labels people put on it. It’s up to people to call it whatever they want. But it doesn’t help us to [focus on it].”

Instead, with GoGo Penguin, they continued to subtly expand their range during an intuitive writing process that’s difficult to describe: The members flung ideas at each other, either together in a room with their instruments or by swapping digital files, loops and fragments until a symmetry started to form. Despite the often-computerized origins, the end results are always consciously organic—adhering to the principle that they must be able to replicate any sound onstage as a trio.

“We try to keep our music as compact as possible,” he says of their succinct yet enormous-sounding pieces. “We only want to use what is necessary for us to say what we want to say. And, we get rid of everything extraneous. It’s really important for us: We’re trying to push ourselves and what we can do with our instruments.”

But the band experiments a lot within that tight framework, using instrumental restrictions as a launching pad to try out new ideas. Instead of playing a synthesizer to achieve the electronic-styled tones on the driving “Kora” or atmospheric “Don’t Go,” Illingworth prepared his piano with materials like nuts, bolts, gaffer tape and foam—a technique that extends back to his classical training. (Using an actual synth, he says, would “feel like cheating.”)

“It’s something I’ve tried doing in different ways for years now, since I was quite young,” he says. “I originally studied classical piano because I wanted to be a classical musician. But I’ve also been interested in being in a band since I was a kid. When I was about 10 or 11, I started listening to Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack and Nirvana, just because the people I met at school got me into these different things. It’s that conflict of ‘I want to be in a band, but I play the piano.’ There are limited [opportunities], especially when you’re a kid and everybody wants to get a guitar band going. It was difficult trying to find a way to incorporate that. I started playing bass guitar just so I could be in bands, and then I got into jazz. That helped me play piano in this environment.”

He continues, “But at the same time, jazz never felt like the place for me—the place where I was comfortable. With classical music, I was able to experiment more through things like John Cage’s prepared piano works, where you put nuts and bolts and all sorts of things inside the piano. But it never felt right. When we got the trio together and were able to make the music we were making, it felt like I could finally explore some of these ideas. Rather than going, ‘I like playing synths— I’d like to incorporate some synths,’ it was, ‘How do I make the piano sound like a synth? Because I want to play the piano in a band.’”

That’s been the through line of Illingworth’s career. Whether you call it jazz or indie or “acoustic electronica,” he just wants to set the menu for his own inner chef, based on curiosity rather than the ingredients of others. “The less I’m analytical about myself in a comparative way—looking at what other people are doing and thinking about how I fit into that—the better,” he says. “Like everything, it’s taken practice. One of the main things is trusting yourself.”