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INTERVIEW: Penguin Cafe's Arthur Jeffes
Richie Troughton , June 5th, 2017 10:55

With Penguin Cafe's third album recently released, we catch up with Arthur Jeffes to discuss continuing the legacy set out by his father's band and covering Kraftwerk. Photo courtesy of Alex Kozobolis

Three rows deep, huddled in groups of percussionists, string players and a trio of ukulele and cello players, fitting the 12 members of the Penguin Cafe group on the tiny stage at intimate underground venue Omeara, near London Bridge, was no mean feat. But there is a celebratory mood both on stage and in the audience, also tightly packed in, as the group performed their new album, The Imperfect Sea, led by Arthur Jeffes on piano at stage right.

Like the music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the group formed by Jeffes’ father Simon in the mid-1970s, the songs inhabit their own unique sound world, of contemporary minimalist, classical and chamber music with the surrealist otherness of a dream world, taking the listener to somewhere else entirely.

After Jeffes’ joined his father’s former bandmates to mark the 10 year anniversary of his death in 1997, he put together a new group, including members of Gorillaz, Suede and Razorlight, under the shortened name Penguin Cafe, to carry on his father’s vision and release new music of their own, including 2011’s, A Matter Of Life and 2014’s The Red Book. Their third album, The Imperfect Sea, sees them continue to create their own identity musically while continuing to work on the path envisaged by his father, with several Penguin Cafe Orchestra songs still included in their live shows.

Jeffes said: “It all began with a dream my father had, where he had a terrible bout of food poisoning in the south of France. He had a waking fever dream about a dystopian near future, where everyone was living in concrete blocks. It was a very dehumanised future. The antidote was to go to the Penguin Cafe, where everything is chaotic and there is a band playing in the back, and lots of noise and the sound of glasses breaking. And the music in the back was this Penguin Cafe Orchestra. When he woke up he decided to write music that would fit that band.”

And with the Penguin Cafe, Jeffes is working to keep that band in business, with the same spirit of musical experimentation that inspired his father’s work. “That’s the lovely thing about music, it is iteratively true, that it does keep feeling fresh,” said Jeffes.

We spoke to Arthur to find out more about the making of the new album, and what kind of place the Penguin Cafe would be today.

How was it to finally share the new music with people at the album's launch?

Arthur Jeffes: It was really good fun. Obviously there’s a crowd who knows my dad’s music from the old days. But what is exciting at the moment is playing the new stuff to people that have come to the Penguin Cafe from the Erased Tapes side, so it’s a whole new audience as well as our traditional audience. I think that the challenge is to keep the balance right between my dad’s music, our new music, and our old music and it felt like we got it right at that show.

What does the meaning of the Penguin Cafe represent today in terms of what you are performing and how you stick to the original vision that your father created for the group?

AJ: What I end up thinking about it is that my dad kind of invented/discovered this musical landscape, and a set of approaches and instruments and a playful, but, at the same time, quite interesting idea of what music could be. It is quite difficult to predict all those. But it is very easy to tell when something is hitting the mark or going wide. It felt important that we explored some new ground, otherwise it would almost be too familiar, to revisit stuff we have done before.

The idea of doing an electronic album with acoustic instruments, obviously we are not the first people to do it, but putting it within a Penguin Cafe setting was, not tricky exactly, but it was a delicate balance to get it through without it becoming naff, or too electronic.

What is the idea behind the new album title, The Imperfect Sea, and how that fits with the music?

AJ: Well, The Imperfect Sea is something that my dad always used to say. I always assumed he came up with it, but it may be something that he got from somewhere. I take it as meaning that to get anything done, you have to compromise, and almost every identifiable step needs to be in some way modified and mediated. But once you accept that that is the case before you even start, then the process can become quite creative in itself and you’ll often end up somewhere that you didn’t perhaps plan to be, which is fine. It’s just accepting the imperfections.

Can you explain what the title of the opening track, ‘Ricercar,’ means?

AJ: ‘Ricercar,’ is old Italian. It’s a Renaissance music idea that you often get at the beginning of canon fugues. It’s when you have an idea that becomes central later on, in the piece and you refer to it early on, so it becomes a retrospective musical joke and I really like that. It’s this idea of misappropriating, or re-appropriating ideas from other ghettos of music, so quite niche Renaissance fugue music, or post-Renaissance. Putting that into our thing, ‘Ricercar’ itself, is more of a stylistic reference to later on, but then in ‘Control 1 (Interlude),’ track three, the melody is actually [Penguin Cafe Orchestra song, also covered on the album] ‘Now Nothing’ played incredibly slowly, but it’s far too slow to recognise it, so unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t know it is there. I like the idea of the pieces referring to each other on an album, it is quite fun.

For ‘Now Nothing’ I was sticking rocks on a contact mic inside the frame of a grand piano and getting it to resonate and just playing with arpeggios on D flat and then all of a sudden, even though the original was not in that key, it just reminded me really strongly of ‘Now Nothing’, and so we did a couple of takes and it wasn’t necessarily for the album at that point. But it felt like it fit within this idea. It’s the first time I had recorded one of my dad’s pieces for one of the new albums, so there was a mixture of feeling new and at the same time with an eye to the past, and when it came time it made sense to put it in there.

You talked about the time taken to create the new music. What different things have you brought in on the new songs?

AJ: Towards the end of the end of the album, between the tracks, ‘Rescue’ and ‘Wheels Within Wheels,’ the Simian Mobile Disco club anthem, we used a floor board at my old house that when you put a microphone on it, it sounded exactly like a 808 kick drum. It echoes, kind of like house drums. Starting with that, we went to thinking that pads were the next obvious thing for an electronic texture, and we recreated that by putting a pretty damp piano into a strong reverb and then running that through a compressor, so that you get the attack of a piano note, but no decay, so it becomes sort of synthy. Then, for string pallettes, we recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who had a 60-strong string section playing these parts, which would normally be played on a stage pad or something, as a misappropriation of familiar ideas and putting them together in a familiar structure. This makes it feel quite pleasing and, at the same time, new.

You mentioned the Simian Mobile Disco track included and you have also covered Kraftwerk on the new record. I understand Kraftwerk where the first group the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra supported back in 1976. Can you explain a bit more about that and why you chose to cover them on the new record?

AJ: We thought Kraftwerk would be great to cover, because they were there at the beginning of PCO. They also made that transition between analogue and digital. But to go from acoustic, to electrical, to electronic and then back to acoustic, is quite satisfying, there is symmetry. We were going through their tracks and ‘Franz Schubert’ jumped out. It is quite funny that idea, as we are using the classical instruments to cover their homage to Schubert. There’s a bit of a loop there.

The world today represents more and more something along the lines of what your father was talking about in the vision he had before forming the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra, of a dehumanised society with electronic eyes looking at you and people interacting with screens. Perhaps far-fetched then, today it is more and more the reality we are living with.

AJ: I know! It’s just extraordinarily prescient. I think it’s such a visual approach, that way of describing a social connection, or disconnection and I think expressing a reaction to that musically, that in itself is a very unifying process, so the lack of lyrics, or anything like that, once you get that idea of the context, then it becomes very easy to understand what the music is about. And the fact that it is all coming true. My dad’s music is incredibly familiar to me, but for me it doesn’t date at all. It feels relevant still and because people are reacting to it, it is still true.

In terms of what you are doing now, you have some music that has perhaps had some space themes, are you looking yourself to another kind of future for influence or inspiration?

AJ: (Laughs) Well, I hadn’t thought of it like that! The next, er, frontier… The space thing, was again, something I was doing in parallel and then it merged and blended over into the Penguin Cafe album, The Red Book, and it ended up making sense, because that Penguin Cafe album was about this idea of some imaginary places, from which to go and find musical ideas and bring them home, and space is quite a good place to do that, if you are going to start thinking about imaginary places to steal music from. This album itself has been fairly self-contained in that it hasn’t had any other projects that have bled into it, well, not yet.

You recently collaborated with Nils Frahm. What was the story behind that?

AJ: We did a gig at the Barbican last summer, where Nils was curating a mini festival, called Possibly Colliding, putting two acts together on the same night, so audiences would see something they would not normally see. We were playing with an amazing artist called Anna von Hausswolff and at the gig Nils played with us on a couple of our tracks. We also met up with Nils’ record label, Erased Tapes, and we had pretty much finished our album at that point and were starting to think about how to release it. They were such lovely people we signed with them. Part of what they do is encourage their artists to collaborate with each other. It is the first time we have done anything with a label that isn’t us and it has been a hugely positive experience.

Are the Penguin Cafe Orchestra songs you play today your favourites, or do they work with the group you are playing with? What influences your decision to perform certain songs?

AJ: I wouldn’t want to do a concert that was just new material, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to do a concert that was just old material, or just my dad’s. I think it is having the courage of our convictions about doing the band iteration of the Penguin Cafe idea and we do stand in that slightly vague bit between being a new band and being a continuation of the old band.

I do like playing the [new] album in its entirety, and once you have done that, then I do feel that the second half [of the live set] has to be quite PCO heavy. I wouldn’t like to feel that we have to play them, but it would seem churlish to hardly ever play them. And so if it is a special night, then we have to play them. But then hopefully every night is a special night to some extent.

Since the beginning of this project, how has the group grown and what made you decide to continue with your own music?

AJ: In 2007 I got together with my dad’s original musicians and we did a series of concerts at the Union Chapel in December and that was the first time I think any of us had heard the music, in a live concert context, for 10 years at least. It was just like seeing old friends that you thought you would never see again. It had this really lovely, poignant feel. But it also felt like it was the closing of a chapter, rather than the opening of a chapter. It was also the first time I had been onstage and I was 27 or something, and I didn’t really have the authority to lead that band, they are much more experienced musicians than I was and it didn’t really feel like there was room to grow and so we gently put it to rest.

About a year or two later later, I got asked to play at a friend’s music festival in Italy and went out with three friends that I was working on music for film and TV and we ended up playing some of my dad’s tunes in a very informal way. Then we got asked to play a few friend’s birthday parties and we just kept getting asked to do more and more gigs, and every time we would add another person, so we could play more of my dad’s tunes. It snowballed very quickly, and it felt like it would be churlish to put the brakes on when it felt so nice. It was a kind of accidental instigation.

If you had a Penguin Cafe at the end of your road and you could go and visit and see what is going on, what would be the scene today?

AJ: I think it is a faintly magical place. I remember my mum and dad telling me about it. It’s the kind of idea that takes on different aspects for different people. My mum’s explanation was that when you have a cup of wine, and you’re tired with your cup of wine, it helps you by making itself lighter, so that when you lift it to your lips it’s giving you a hand. I hesitate to use the word punk, but there was a punk aesthetic there in the ‘70s, definitely.

You find your new music and you don’t worry too much about doing it perfectly, or being a virtuoso exponent of a particular thing, just jump in with both feet and see what sounds nice. I think that’s what we take forward.

The Imperfect Sea is out now via Erased Tapes. For upcoming tour dates click here