Music Interviews

Q&A: Penguin Cafe

Penguin Cafe

Penguin Cafe (Photo: PR)

From 1976 to 1993 the Penguin Cafe Orchestra established themselves as an inventive ensemble that incorporated elements of classical, folk and world music into their unique soundworld. The music appeared to have come to an end with the death of leader and creative force Simon Jeffes in 1997, but over recent years it has found a new lease of life under Penguin Cafe, the collective formed by Jeffes’ son Arthur.

They released their second album The Red Book earlier this month. It sees them successfully build on the themes and attributes of their debut album A Matter Of Life as well as the music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (which still finds a welcome place in their live shows). Penguin Cafe’s music remains difficult to categorise but easy to admire, with moments of joyful celebration sitting next to beautiful poignancy, all reflected through a myriad of styles.

We caught up with Arthur Jeffes to talk about the new album, his writing processes, his relationship with his father’s music and their plans for the future.

What is the background to the new album? Did you start work on The Red Book soon after your debut?

Not that soon after – we pretty much went straight from the studio into two years of quite a lot of touring and also I was doing the Sundog album with Oli Langford too. It wasn’t really until autumn 2012 that we started really talking about the new album. We played an early version of Aurora in Japan in October 2012… that was the first element of the new album taking its first breath I think. Then once we got back I moved house and we started work in November.

Did the writing/recording process differ much from A Matter Of Life?

It did differ in that with Matter Of Life we had the pieces largely written and we’d been playing them live before we went in to the studio. We did Matter Of Life in three months for recording, mixing and mastering, whereas with the new album we quite consciously gave ourselves as long as it was going to take. So from the end of 2012 we were working a few days a week with different small groups from within the larger group, and a lot more re-writing, tweaking and layering went on. It was iterative in the sense that we’d record and then sit with a piece for a while and then move forward from there. I think this is why it feels more sanded-down as a record – I’d hesitate to say ‘polished’… but certainly more considered.

Several tracks on The Red Book have a space theme and Aurora and 1420 were projected into space as part of NASA’s Kepler Project. How did you become involved in this and the International Space Orchestra?

I think it was in July 2012 that I got a call from an old friend who was working with the artist Nelly Ben Hayoun on the ISO at NASA Ames. We’d just finished doing a couple of projects for London 2012 – the BT River Of Music – and I think it was the one where we’d taken the shape of the river Thames and put it onto a musical stave to generate a theme that seemed to gel with the kind of thing they wanted for the ISO. I’d been toying with the idea for 1420 for a while, and this felt like the perfect forum to develop the idea. It was a truly amazing thing to come out of the blue like that…

1420 in particular seems to be more of a concept piece based on the Wow! Signal – could you explain more about how the track came together?

The idea of taking the Wow! Signal and making it into a tune was something I’d thought about doing along the same lines as From A Blue Temple (from Matter of Life, which takes the Fibonacci series as its main theme). Briefly, the Wow Signal is a signal received in 1977 from an empty spot in space, at exactly the resonant frequency of Hydrogen – the smallest element – and what makes it all the more elegantly amazing is that we were thinking of sending exactly that signal out into space to let anyone out there know we were here. So taking the note C to be 1, you then get a four-note theme of C (1), F (4), D (2), B (0) (here I took 0 to be one less than 1, which isn’t strictly obeying musical theory but works for our purposes). All the instruments play that in some form, and the harmonic progression follows it as well – in a theme and variation. We’ve played it a few times now with church organ and that works really well as well as being excellent fun.

I believe some of the tracks were recorded at Skywalker Ranch, the studio of George Lucas. How was that as an experience?

Having grown up thinking of ‘Skywalker Ranch’ as being a sort of semi-celestial place where they recorded Star Wars and Indiana Jones, this was obviously hugely exciting and since I didn’t actually have that much to do on the day except play some piano and percussion and do a bit of conducting I did wonder off with a vague hope of finding Strormtrooper suits or meeting George Lucas. None of that happened but it is a very beautiful place and the people who work there are effortlessly good at their jobs. I think the guys from NASA were just as excited to go to the ranch as the guys from Skywalker were to meet all the NASA people. It was really very sweet.

At the Union Chapel you mentioned that Radio Bemba originated from an idea Des Murphy contributed. What is your composing style? Do you mainly write/develop ideas alone? To what extent do you incorporate the ideas of others?

I think this album was probably more collaborative than our last in the sense that everyone was writing their own parts gradually. I’d have a general idea of what was needed and then each player would work within that frame and bring their own thoughts to the part. And then yes, Des brought a couple of ideas in one day and we put them together – playing the piano line from one over the uke line from the other. Cass, our percussionist, brought in a very large log-drum the size of a sofa and we spent a week or so playing with that – Bluejay and Silent Sun in particular came about at that point.

In some ways Black Hibiscus seems a defining track on the album, particularly how the sound progresses. Do you set out with clear ideas for tracks like that or do they change/develop over time?

The idea of putting Nocturne 20 against a Jalisco rhythm is one I’d been toying with as long as I can remember – but oddly it never occurred to me to actually record it or do anything with it until one day Vince Greene (our viola player and MD) and I were at the hall, where we recorded 95% of the album, and I remembered the idea and we tried it out a few times and then it was largely done. After that day we tweaked the arrangement a bit but not much The trick with that one was to keep it a little bit toned down really, the temptation to go all-out early on is quite strong in both studio and live.

It’s always striking how Penguin Cafe tracks share close characteristics with Penguin Cafe Orchestra tracks. How hard do you have to work to achieve that? Or does the variety and balance of styles something that comes naturally?

For me, in some ways, this is the heart of the whole enterprise. I’ve always had a strong sense of the flow and texture of my dad’s music – having grown up immersed in it – and that’s a musical world I think still has lots of offer up for exploration – and so being free to work within that is how we end up with the shared characteristics. I think something important would disappear if we ever actually directly tried to make things sound like a Penguin Cafe Orchestra track – it’s something you hear from time to time when TV ad’s do sound-alikes of PCO tracks… you lose something delicate when you try to do it on purpose. Of course it’s also quite an unusual line-up of instruments – and the plucked strings of ukes against bowed strings is a very distinct sound.

In 2007 you performed alongside original members of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra at Union Chapel to commemorate the 10th anniversary of your Dad’s passing. How big a part did those shows play a part in you deciding to carry on the Penguin Cafe name?

I think the new Penguin Cafe wouldn’t have happened if we’d not done that series of concerts – but at the time I wasn’t thinking of starting a new chapter at all. It was very much the closing of a book for me. Discovering the other side of the music and process of actually doing a concert was fascinating for me and also quite comforting because it showed me a whole side of my dad’s life that I’d not been particularly aware of when growing up. So we did those concerts and that was that as far as I was concerned. It was amazing to hear the music in the live context again – feeling the music change after only having the records for ten years was a beautiful thing – but by the same token the main reason we couldn’t have carried on was because no one of us would have had the authority to say what changes should happen and which shouldn’t…

How did you go about assembling the group?

It was nearly a year later that a friend asked me to come out to Italy to a small festival they were organising to do ‘something musical’. I took Darren Berry, Tom CC and Andy Waterworth – all music friends with whom I’d been doing various projects – and we played 8 or 9 of my dad’s pieces. The festival was happening in a vineyard so we had an excellent, chaotic, noisy and very happy weekend after which we had some people ask us to come and play at their Christmas party back in London. It seemed that it was so much fun and felt so good that we could only say yes. Andy’s sister Rebecca came along that time on cello so we could do one or two new ones. Then Cass Browne, Neil Codling and Des Murphy got added in as we did more and more gigs getting gradually bigger and that just carried on. We were playing Glastonbury by the next summer – it all happened almost by mistake but always organically – each new member was brought in because they were a friend who could help do a particular tune.

How aware were you of your Dad’s music when you were growing up?

I think that growing up I wasn’t aware that my Dad’s job was different to anyone else’s Dad. He’d go on tour and would send postcards and then come home with presents – which I think probably made a lasting positive association in my mind with music, touring and especially Japan. I used to think that the Penguin Cafe was an actual place in Japan – in some ways I still do.

Did he ever talk about his music?

Sometimes. I remember on the school run we’d pass the time tapping out poly-rhythms 2/3, 3/4, 4/5 etc. Also tapping out triplets to Perpetuum Mobile I remember quite vividly. When I’d be trying to work out to play particular pieces he’d often walk past and lean over to show how the trick was done… there’s often a little thing at the heart of the idea which is easily missed but without which it’s impossible to play.

Was music always present at home in a wider sense? I imagine you were exposed to some interesting stuff…

There being a piano, dulcitone or Rhodes about almost all the time, along with my parents having said that playing piano was a valid way to get out of doing homework meant that one or other of us were very often experimenting. Of course, when musicians came to visit they’d play in the front room and me and my mum would sit and listen or be in the kitchen listening from there…

Are there other artists that inspire/influence you or are important for you musically? Is there any music you have particularly enjoyed listening to lately?

I think Wim Mertens is brilliant – I’ve always liked the minimalists like Glass, Reich and John Adams. Professor Longhair is a love I inherited from my dad, also Arvo Pärt, Satie and Messiaen.

At the moment I keep playing Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – Pizzica Indiavolata – They’re an amazing tarantella band and there’s something fascinating about the percussion and the tonality of the singing.

Harry Piers is always one of the most poignant, beautiful moments of PC shows. What is the background to that track?

I wrote it for my dad’s memorial service in 1998. I wrote it in over Christmas in Somerset and then carried on working on it when I went back to university. I try to play it whenever we play the penguin music – and it changes every time.

Is the Sundog project you see yourself returning to in the future?

I think so yes. We have a general plan at the moment to do something this year – but having said that I’m getting married in the summer and we’ve got a certain amount of touring etc so we’ll see how we got on…

Looking forward, in the tour programme you mentioned future plans to work in film soundtracking and play shows with a greater visual aspect. Can you tell us any more about these at this stage?

This year I’m writing my first film score – which we’ll do with Penguin Cafe as things stand – I can’t say much more about it at the moment but I’m very excited about it…

The visual aspect is to do with an animated world we’ve been pondering for a few years now. We’re still working on how we could do it but I love the idea of the Penguin Cafe world having a window into ours… the inhabitants can look back at us as we look at them…

Penguin Cafe’s The Red Book is out now through Penguin Cafe Records.

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