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British band GoGo Penguin brings ‘acoustic electronica’ to the Dakota

Photo by Emily Dennison
British band GoGo Penguin from left to right: Nick Blacka, Chris Illingworth and Rob Turner.

One day in 2012, not that long ago, there was a Manchester, England-based trio with no name and no real aspirations to perform in public. They just wanted to hang out, write music and play together. Then they were talked into a last-minute gig, made up a curious name on the way, recorded their debut album, “Fanfares,” and released it on the indie label Gondwana. They switched out bass players and made their second album, “v2.0.” Then “v2.0” was shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Prize.

A prestigious and lucrative award given for the best album from the UK and Ireland, the Mercury is unknown to many Americans. Think of it as the music equivalent to the Man Booker Prize for literature. Even if you don’t win it, you’re famous overnight for being in it.

GoGo Penguin – drummer Rob Turner, double bassist Nick Blacka and pianist Chris Illingworth – didn’t take home the Mercury, but they toured all over, winning fans and rave reviews. Then their manager called to say that some guys from Blue Note, the most famous jazz label in the world, would be checking out their Hamburg show. The band met with Blue Note President Don Was and Nicholas Pflug, head of Blue Note France. Soon after, they signed a multialbum deal. Their third album, “Man Made Object,” came out on Blue Note in 2016; their fourth will be released in February 2018.

Turner, Blacka and Illingworth are all in their early 30s. They’re currently on a monthlong tour of the U.S. that will bring them to the Dakota on Sunday night. We saw them last Friday at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where they played for a full house – about 700 people – in one of the festival’s venues. People were moving and grooving to the music, a driving, danceable, accretive and infectious mix of jazz, classical, and electronic elements, with minimalist melodies and crescendos that bring crowds to their feet.

The label the band feels most comfortable wearing is “acoustic electronica.” Their sound has been compared to Aphex Twin, the Bad Plus, Massive Attack and Brian Eno, among others. Their approach – fusing jazz with all the other music they have on their iPods – has been likened to Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus and David Bowie. They cite Shostakovich, Debussy and Arvo Pärt among their influences; Illingworth has a classical background.

On first hearing “Man Made Object,” we immediately thought of E.S.T., Sweden’s Esbjörn Svensson Trio, a band that came to the Dakota at least four times before Svensson’s tragic death in a 2008 diving accident. We’re not saying they’re derivative, just that if you loved E.S.T., you should definitely see GoGo Penguin – for the nostalgic rush and the satisfaction of knowing that part of what made E.S.T. special is going forward in good hands.

We spoke with Blacka on Friday afternoon, on the back patio of the Hyatt Monterey.

MinnPost: I hear a connection between you and the Swedish trio E.S.T. Are they part of your sound?

Nick Blacka: Yeah, absolutely, especially for Chris, the piano player. I think the first thing that turned his head toward wanting to do a trio was hearing E.S.T., because of the crossover nature of their music. Certainly, they were a massive influence for Chris, and I remember independently being into them as well. … On “Fanfares,” our first album, the first track, “Seven Sons of Björn,” is an homage to E.S.T.

MP: How did you come up with the name GoGo Penguin?

NB: I should say I wasn’t actually there – that was the first bass player. He and Chris and Rob were all studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. The bass player and a friend bought a big papier-mâché bird at a charity auction. It was supposed to be a magpie, but it looked like a penguin. They had it in the house where they used to rehearse. Then one day a friend was running a gig in a bar, and a band dropped out at the last minute, and he said, “Come and do this gig.” And they said, “We don’t feel ready, and we don’t have a name.” And he’s like, “Just pick a name and come and do it, because I need you.” So they saw the bird and thought “Penguin” would be a good name, and then the “GoGo” got added, and here we are, five years later.

MP: Any regrets?

NB: Not really. People comment on it and say it’s a stroke of genius because it’s memorable and different. I don’t think anyone was thinking in those terms. It was just a name. The other thing is, they wanted to get away from the band being the Somebody Trio. It’s more of a collective. That’s something we’re really keen on putting across. It’s democratic, and it’s quite chaotic a lot of the time. Everyone gets his say in everything, and we have to try everyone’s ideas when we play live and when we’re writing.

MP: How did you meet? What brought you together?

NB: I met Rob first, in a jazz summer school when we were really young. He’s a couple years younger, and I remember thinking he was good for his age. We didn’t meet again until after he graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music. I went to the Leeds College of Music, but I’d moved back to Manchester by that point, and I was just trying to get gigs around, and a mutual friend said, “Do you remember that young lad? He’s around, and he’s really good.” So I got Rob on a gig, and we’ve done so many bands together it’s ridiculous. I’ve played with Chris as well. When they were looking for a new bass player, I think it was just the natural choice to get me in, and this is where my head was at the time, so it just locked together really well. I was asked to join at the end of 2012.

MP: And your first album together got nominated for the Mercury Prize.

NB: Yeah. There’s a big thing in the British press where they say there’s always a token jazz nomination, a throw-away thing. That year, there were two jazz bands. It brings you so much mainstream exposure. Nobody knew who we were before then.

It took us by surprise, because you enter into it – lots of people do – and then you kind of forget about it. We’d just come back from doing a festival in Croatia when we got an email off our manager. We had to keep it under wraps for two weeks and make sure to be in London for the announcement.

MP: And not long after, Blue Note happened.

NB: It was really fast. It took me quite a while to register it, actually, because everything with the band has happened so quickly. It sort of just took off. When we were making “Man Made Object,” everyone was still trying to get their head around it. We’re more comfortable with it now.

MP: Talk a bit about Blue Note.

NB: We had played a gig [the year before] in Hamburg at a festival called Überjazz, one of the first big rooms we played to, and got a great response. We were looking forward to going back when our manager emailed us and said some guys from Blue Note were going to be coming down. He played it quite well – he didn’t say they were thinking of signing us, and we were already signed to Gondwana. He said to just do our best and maybe speak to them afterwards. So that’s what happened. Don Was and Nicholas Pflug were both there, and we were just having a chat and a beer. Don Was is a bass player, so he was asking me questions. It was just like chatting with anybody, having a drink and not really thinking much of it. And then, the next week, there was an offer on the table. Obviously, we didn’t hang around.

MP: You call GoGo Penguin a collective. What is your process like?

NB: It depends on the composition. For “Man Made Object,” a lot started out on the laptop. Rob writes on the laptop, using Logic and Ableton [sequencing software], and they’re often just sketches and ideas for things, and we adapt them with the band. Sometimes I’m trying to play things that aren’t really double bass parts, trying to put them into my instrument, and they’re weird vocal samples that he’s slowed down. Chris writes from the piano, because that’s his first instrument. We all play a bit of piano. I do a lot of things as bass lines. Some are fully-formed ideas – almost.

Sometimes we collaborate and write something all together in a room. Other times, it’s just adding little bits. For the new album, we all contributed quite a lot collectively.

MP: You’re sometimes called a jazz trio, and you’re here playing at a jazz festival, but you prefer the term “acoustic electronica.” What does that mean to you?

NB: I think a journalist in Istanbul first came up with that. It’s just a way to try and describe what we’re doing. It makes a lot of sense. We really go for electronic music, and we’re trying to take some of the techniques we hear on records – the electronic glitches and stuff – and transfer them onto acoustic instruments. Obviously, we have jazz instrumentation – piano, bass, and drums – and we have a jazz background. Rob and I spent years playing straight-ahead jazz. I was completely obsessed by it.

MP: Do you have a lot of standards in your head?

NB: They’re kind of going, because all I do now is play this music. The other night, I was trying to remember the chords to a tune I used to play all the time – I think it was “Stella by Starlight.” That was the bread-and-butter thing. Now they’re gone.

Jazz is just one of our influences. It’s quite a big one, but it’s only one. Electronic is a huge influence for us, and rock – bands like Queen of the Stone Age. So it’s not really fair to say we’re just jazz, because then people expect a certain thing from us, which they might not necessarily get.

MP: What are you listening to now?

NB: [Long pause] I’m trying to think what’s on my iPod. … there’s always a lot of electronic. I used to listen to Radiohead quite a lot. I’ve been checking out the new album by the National. I still listen to a lot of jazz – recently, a lot of Charlie Haden.

MP: Do you play any covers?

NB: In the early days, we used to, but that was just for not having enough material. I think people generally play covers when they need to make up the time. We used to do a Massive Attack tune, “Teardrop,” but we dropped it as soon as we could.

MP: What’s next for you? Does GoGo Penguin feel like a long-term thing?

NB: Yeah, it does, for as long as we can all stand each other.

GoGo Penguin will perform at the Dakota at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24. FMI and tickets ($30-35). 612-332-5299. The California jazz duo the Mattson 2 – identical twins Jared Mattson on guitar, Jonathan Mattson on drums – are also on the bill.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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