The Deceptively Intricate Music of Penguin Cafe

Music Features Penguin Cafe
The Deceptively Intricate Music of Penguin Cafe

Nearly 20 years ago, musician Arthur Jeffes paid tribute to his late father Simon’s work as the leader of Penguin Cafe Orchestra with a 2007 concert of the group’s playful, genre agnostic music held at London’s Union Chapel. The experience, Arthur has said, was “life-changing.” He had never played on stage before nor led an ensemble before, having spent his university years studying archaeology and dabbling a bit in music.

But as more invites came in to perform PCO music at festivals, Arthur was inspired to start writing and recording music that felt like the natural progression of his father’s sound — a resounding blend of classical, jazz, folk and influences from Africa and South America. Released in 2011, A Matter of Life…, the first album by the group known as Penguin Cafe, held true to the elder Jeffes’ sonic playbook with repetitive melody lines played on string instruments and piano twining together that are augmented by unexpected rhythms and surprising instruments like the Northumbrian pipes and ring modulators.

In the years since that release, Penguin Cafe’s music has beautifully evolved both due to sensible lineup changes and more of Arthur’s personality and interests pouring into the music. The project took a sizable step forward with the creation of the recently-released Rain Before Seven… as, for the first time, Jeffes is sharing writing credits with longtime member, and now musical director, violinist Oli Langford. Langford’s help on half of the album’s 10 songs brought a sweeping beauty and mirth into the mix as heard best on “Galahad,” the tumbling ode to Jeffes’ beloved dog, and “Find Your Feet,” a pulsating track that plays like an acoustic arrangement of an early Aphex Twin track.

Though I’ve mentioned a bit in this intro, what shouldn’t be dismissed is the humor that is part of all of Penguin Cafe’s work. Though, as my first question reveals, I hear a somber tone in the music, Jeffes and the group lead with a sense of impishness. That should be clear from looking at the band photo above which finds the ensemble all wearing penguin masks. It came through most clearly in my conversation with Jeffes. Speaking from his part-time home in London (he and his family bounce between there and Tuscany), his answers were punctuated with much laughter and the smile that seems to be a permanent fixture on his face.

Paste: In the bio for the latest Penguin Cafe album, you talk about the music having an optimistic bent. While I hear that, something that has always struck me as a key element of this project, even when your father was leading it, was a melancholic streak that runs through much of the music. Do you hear that as well? Am I crazy to think that? 

Arthur Jeffes: No, I think that’s right. There’s something that I find really satisfying and I think my dad had this as well, but there’s a quality of being sort of optimistic and playful, but also at the same time kind of heartbreaking. If that starts happening in the studio, I get like, “Yeah, yeah, this is it.”

Looking at the credits for the album, it appears that Oli Langford has leveled up within the band, taking on the role of musical director as well as arranging the strings. 

Basically he took over from Vince Greene who is the viola player. After the lockdowns, he felt like he wanted to take a break, and then Oli moved into that role. Me and Oli have done a bunch of things in the past. We had a project called Sundog where it was me and Oli composing together. I think we very quickly fell into that routine because it’s quite iterative. I’d write the piece and then Oli will be putting strings in. Then I’d go and change it and reorganize it. So it felt like in order to honorably serve [the music] the best description we could come up with for the process was [as co-writer]. I think on five tracks out of the 10, Oli’s got a share of the writing. It’s always slightly unknowable who put how much of what into a particular piece. But it felt like this was the best way to describe it.

Is it good for you to have a musical director and cede some control of the creative process to other voices and perspectives? 

Yeah. I think collaboration at various stages knocks off the edges. It bounces around and there’s stuff that Oli will do that I would never think of. He’ll go off and come in with five ideas. And I’ll be, “I just really loved one or two.” Then again, you’ve ended up somewhere where we’re both making the calls. So at the end of the day, I’m still the benign dictator. Everyone in the band has that freedom to try stuff out. In the end, me and Oli, and, in the later stages, Tom Chichester-Clark who was mixing it, would be batting stuff around seemingly endlessly.

You have a pretty stable lineup for the Penguin Cafe now. That must feel good to have that peace of mind, knowing that you and Oli can write certain parts for certain players and knowing what their strengths are. 

Absolutely, yeah. You start writing for the instrument. “This is a Clem [Browne] line,” or “This is a Bex [Waterworth] line.” There’s a degree of comfort there. Then when I bring in guests, like Andy Waterworth who plays the [contrabass], he’s a fantastic jazz player and he’ll often bring things which I wouldn’t have been able to suggest. But I can kind of describe what I’m trying to get from a bassline, and more often than not, he’s liable to say, “Oh yeah, I know that. Somebody else did that in the ’70s.” Also with Avvon [Chambers], our percussionist, he’s, again, a really good jazz player and so there’s a tightness of execution, which is really lovely to work with.

It feels, too, like it helps distinguish Penguin Cafe from the Orchestra, which had people cycling in and out of the group. This is a more steady, secure proper group. 

I mean, there were a few people that we were playing with; we had the core of the strings and then the rhythm section — drums, bass, piano. Then we’d add another three or four people who played with us most of the time. But for this last album, it became a string quartet plus drums, bass, piano. So for this next bit of touring, and for this record because there’s a lot of balafon, which I acquired and ended up on a lot of the tracks, a guy called Darren Berry who isn’t on the record, but was there in the beginning of the Penguins and then did the last two years not doing that, he’s coming back in. So we’re going from six back up to seven. Who knows? Next year, we might actually start needing more of the old crew. So it’s shrinking and expanding but generally from the same pool.

Tell me more about the balafon. It’s one of the core instruments on the album. What led you to acquiring it and wanting to work with it? 

In 2019, Andy, our bass player, was playing with a really lovely Gambian band who had this female kora player. It’s very unusual that a woman would play that instrument because normally it runs through families and through the sons. She was over in London doing a show and she had a djembe player and a balafon and Andy on bass. It was this very nice guy playing the balafon and he makes them as well. He had come over with a big bag with a balafon in it, and his plan was to sell it and then buy lots of stuff in London that you can’t get in Gambia. He asked Andy if he knew anyone who might want to buy it. “I know one guy, actually.” It’s really an amazing instrument. The variety of tone… and mine is a very inexpert version of balafon playing. It’s a slightly punk approach to an instrument. “Well, I’ll probably get something out of it,” and then you build from that. You experiment and you make it up. Then you can go back and hone it and you practice it. I just loved it. It reminds me of the vibe of a lot of my dad’s stuff. He didn’t have a balafon, but I feel like if he did have one, he would have used it a lot.

I wanted to ask about bringing Alessandro Stefana, the lap steel player, into the mix for the song “Second Variety” because they add some very interesting textures to that piece.

Asha is an Italian musician who sort of knows everyone in the Italian music scene. He got in touch years and years ago as a fan of my dad’s. He just wanted to come and see the studio in London. He was over touring with PJ Harvey. He’s a very good multi-instrumentalist but he was just playing guitar. Last year, he got in touch between tours because he lives about four or five hours north of us in Tuscany. He was like, “Can I come down?” “Yeah, of course.” “I’m going to bring my lap steel,” and then just listed all these pedals. It really was like, “Let’s have a playdate in the studio.” We had two days of playing around. I was thinking of putting strings on “Second Variety,” but nothing was really clicking. In the end, I dropped it all and went with the lap steel. It’s got that sound halfway between a pad and an instrument.

In the notes for the song “In Re Budd,” it says you used some prepared piano elements. I couldn’t really hear what those were and was hoping you could explain what you were using on that track. 

Oh! It’s an amazing… I think it’s Belgian… either Belgian or German super short upright piano. I bought that from a guy called Carsten Schultz who is the piano tech for Nils Frahm and does this sideline with these amazing pianos. I’ve actually got two of them. There’s one in London and one in Italy and they fit in the back of a station wagon. They’re surprisingly good considering they’ve got much shorter strings than you might think. And you can put a magnetic electrical pickup inside. Carsten had this little lever that drops felt down between the hammers and strings to varying degrees. It’s not as prepared as other prepared pianos. But the piano line is full whack with that, and the pickup is coming through so you get a very different kind of attack on the piano. It sounds much more harp-like. And you can mic it up behind the action so you get a lot of the “clunk.” So you get kind of a felty clunk vibe. It doesn’t stay super in tune. It stays a little bit out. It made me think of a Havana tea dance in the ’40s or something. It’s pretty but it’s not.

When it came to the recording of Rain Before Seven…, were you doing much of the work on your own in Tuscany and then recording everyone else in Wiltshire?

I had the basic… I wouldn’t call them rough, but I had the basic idea for the tunes. I’d play bass up to a point and also the percussion. I spent months just getting this group of pieces together and then the whole band came out in March of last year. We did 10 days just blitzing it, workshopping string parts and getting the bass and drums tied down. Then it’s recording with everyone together. With some of the tracks, that was enough. With the other ones, it wasn’t quite sitting. I went back and did them individually. I’d say we got about 65-70% of the core elements of the album done. Oli came back out a couple of times and we recorded a certain amount of strings in this mega-shed in his garden that’s surprisingly good acoustically and not too noisy. When I was in Italy, I was able to fine tune everything. There are three different pianos that I worked with out there. It’s the sort of difference that only I would notice.

The music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Penguin Cafe has, to my ears, always been marked by a kind of minimalism. With instrumental music, there often is this tendency to pour as many instruments and lines into a piece as possible. But what I’ve long admired about your dad and your work is the empty space in each piece. Is that something that you have to keep in mind in writing music for this ensemble or is that something that comes somewhat naturally? 

I did have a sense at the beginning of this album that I wanted to… because the last album was quite cinematic — it had a lot of strings and quite a lot of reverb and drones — I felt like, “Okay, now it would be good to go back, do some tracks which have virtually no reverb and then get into the detail.” And for the detail, I wanted to go back to ukulele and toys. Just so you can get that vibe like my dad’s second and third albums where it’s minimal in the sense of, it doesn’t have very many elements. The detail is incredibly intricate. Sort of deceptively intricate. When I described that to Robert [Rath], the head of [Erased Tapes], he was like, “Yeah, that makes sense. You want to go back to the PCO thing as well?” “Oh yeah, I guess I am describing what I liked about the early albums from the PCO.” It’s really important that we try to continue the Penguin Cafe vibe that my dad invented. It’s this thing of finding subtlety and real moments of fun with quite simple ingredients.

You’ve certainly done a good amount of work outside of this project and even before Penguin Cafe began, but since this has been your focus for some time now, what keeps you coming back to Penguin Cafe and that particular sound you’re trying to achieve? 

I don’t know… It’s strangely compelling. It is those albums, but there’s an equally important live element. I’ve really learned how to do concerts with this band. So the idea of going on stage with just a piano or a lot of synthesizers, doesn’t sit quite right with me. There’s a collegiate vibe going on even if it’s just only six. It will be slightly chaotic not quite knowing what’s going to happen that particular night — not least because I’m incredibly dyslexic when it comes to reading music. I just remember everything but I don’t remember everything perfectly. There is something quite nice about that. It keeps a slight air of randomness. Hopefully not messy. Also because I grew up watching my dad do that, I kind of feel like that’s what music should be like. There are other great projects to get involved in, but I think that particular set of vibes, I don’t think I’d get it anywhere else.

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