Mark Perkins meets Arthur Jeffes from the The Penguin Cafe, and talks through their new album, track-by-track

 

You may remember The Penguin Cafe Orchestra from when they were big news in the eighties and nineties. Their list of admirers was like a who’s who of the music world with the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie lining up to sing the praises of what was once described as ‘modern, semi-acoustic chamber music’. Their music can broadly be classed as neo-classical, sometimes using folk and other acoustic instruments, and drawing on a wide range of ethnic influences. Their concerts sold out and their CDs were big sellers too, but tragically founder Simon Jeffes died in 1997, at the age of only 48. An intended one-off re-union concert in 2007, led by his son Arthur, was such a success that they’re back. Mark Perkins was so excited to hear about their return, he grabbed a chat with him ahead of their Sheffield concert in the City Hall Ballroom.

 

 

 

 

 

How did the re-emergence of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra come about?

 

It started when I decided to get some of dad’s old collaborators back together to mark 10 years since he died and to celebrate what he achieved. Playing the music in a live environment once again was such a beautiful, magical thing, bringing it to life, but that was all it was meant to be-just 3 nights of live music. 

 

 

 

 

Despite only intending it to be a one-off, it’s taken on a life of its own and proved impossible to stop. After the shows I kept getting asked to do more and more performances and was having to add more musicians. It just grew organically out of friends who were living nearby. We never auditioned anyone; it just grew from the demand.

 

 

 

 

What can we expect from the forthcoming concert?

 

We’ll be playing material from our two recent albums, but there’s such a massive back catalogue to draw from with dad’s music that there will be something for fans of the Orchestra from years ago. It should be a celebration of everything the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s achieved up until now.

 

 

 

 

What’s this I hear about your music being beamed into space?

 

That’s right. I was asked to take part in a project with NASA, working with some of their scientists who were also musicians and we recorded two tracks at the incredible ‘Skywalker Ranch’, which is George Lucas’ soundstage! The new album tracks ’Aurora’ and ‘1420’ came out of that, and since then they’ve been broadcast into space as part of the Kepler Project. Some other music on our new album, ‘The Red Book’ was first performed at the David Bowie exhibition at The Victoria and Albert museum. We also played our re-workings of two Bowie tunes, which went down so well we might release them at some stage.

 

 

 

 

I then asked Arthur to talk me through the new album, track by track. I started by asking where the album title came from.

The name ‘The Red Book’ comes from the book by Carl Jung of the same name. One day early on in the recording process Rebecca (our cellist) asked me what the album was going to be called and as I glanced over I saw this book on the desk next to where she was and it popped into my head to say ‘The Red Book?’. The book is about, amongst other things, the way our sub-conscious interacts with and intrudes into our daily lives. I thought this fitted with what we were trying to achieve with the second album quite neatly – namely exploring musical worlds that are at once both familiar and strange. There is another meaning which is that the main mastered disc you end up with, the one from which all other copies will be made, is called the ‘Red Book Master’ – so somewhere at some point there will be a disc on which will be written ‘The Red Book Master – Red Book Master’.

 

 

1. Aurora
This piece was originally written in the Summer of 2012. It’s quite a minimalist idea with a repeated pattern and was originally a piece written for a friend’s wedding, which then got developed and morphed into part of a project we did with NASA. On this, an orchestra consisting of space scientists played specially commissioned pieces which were then beamed into space as part of the Keppler project.

 

 It has a very even tone to it, which I felt fit quite well with the space theme. It was written for mixed choir – at that point it was called ‘Aurora Choralis’. ‘1420’, also on this album, was the other piece a version of which we put into the NASA programme. ‘Aurora’ works by very mechanical extensions from the first quite simple idea. To play this on the piano feels almost like doing exercises in the sense that its similar movements with small developments all then repeated and an extra bit added each time.

2. Solaris
This is based on the repeating right-hand pattern in the piano being constant throughout – given strength and context by the gradual layering of strings and drums. We wrote and recorded to feel more like electronica than the more chamber-style orchestration might imply. Also ukulele and drums aren’t very chamber-music. This forms the second part of the space-themed triptic on this album. It’s about the sun coming up, or daylight coming through, Solaris being both one of the oldest names for the Sun and also the amazing Tarkovsky film. It revisits the idea of a repetitive motif played with the right hand, or in a higher register, with a low movement of harmonic progressions underneath. Perpetuum Mobile by my dad is sort of where the piece inhabits.

 

 

 

3. Black Hibiscus
This piece came about because the melody of Nocturne number 20 in C♯ Minor by Chopin has always sounded faintly Mexican to me. So we took an albeit simplified version and put into a traditional 3/8 Mexican rhythm. The idea of South/Central American folk-music being mixed up with more classical European traditions comes from Giles Farnaby’s Dream. It’s great fun to play, being a bit like a Zorro theme tune.

 

4. Bluejay
Bluejay is a simple little piece exploring the chord transition down from the tonic to the dominant minor 7th. I placed this in a Madagascan Zither-music rhythm, which was something I found in my dad’s record collection and we ended with a 15/4 (4/4/3/4) beat structure. That means that the third bar misses a beat and tumbles forward in a rather nice way, but it still sounds peaceful. We used an African log-drum which Cass our percussionist found, which is as big as a sofa,  as well as double bass to establish the bottom end. The idea in many of the tracks on this album was to conjure up a kind of imagined folk music, the texture of which makes sense within the album but doesn’t hold to any particular tradition or area of music from around the world.

 

 

5. Radio Bemba
This is a mixture of two ideas from Des, our ukulele player which he brought back from Cuba. It’s in 5/8 for the verses and 5/4 for the chorus. Once nice thing about this is that the shaker is in 4/4 so every bar it shifts from being on the downbeat to being on the upbeat. "Radio Bemba" is Cuban slang for word of mouth, rumour or hearsay. I wanted this piece to feel like it’s from somewhere between Africa and South America.

 

 

6. Catania
This was originally just a very beautiful guitar piece with percussion but we replaced the original percussion lines with cello and violin arpeggios – the top notes replacing the kick drum and the middle and lower being snares and hi hats. Then on top of this we added new percussion using some reggae kit and patterns. The pattern suggested by the guitar then moves gradually up through a fugue development towards everything falling back down and disintegrating. It’s one of those experimentations of slashing styles together.

 

7. 1420
The idea for this piece came from something called the ‘Wow Signal’ I’d been reading about when I was approached to do the project with NASA in San Francisco. The Wow Signal is fascinating, well worth reading up on, and based around a radio signal at 1420.0556 MHz received in 1977 from an empty bit of space.

 

The basis for this piece is repeating 1420 taking 1 to be C, 4 to be F, 2 to be D and 0 to be a wildcard. This describes the chord progression on the harmonium, the bass line, and the melodies (on piano, ukulele and cuatros) at various speeds and octaves. This image of the same processes taking place on different scales and at different rates and speeds recalls the idea of massive bodies moving slowly in space alongside tiny, fleeting signals and activity on completely different scales.

 

 

 

8. And Yet…
This piece is a piano piece I’ve been working on for a few years and is a study alternating between the more natural-sounding 12/8 and the irregular-sounding 11/8. This means the push in the piano line at the end either starts the new bar or ends the current one. It started out as a way to be able to play in 11/12 just by using all your fingers and then having to turn back down the scale. In order for it to work you have to not use your right 4th finger. I think it ends up as a really optimistic piece.

 

9. Moonbo
This is about George Martin’s string arranging. I really love the balance and feel and the Englishness of the way he arranged a string quartet so it’s a nod to him. A moonbow itself is an optical phenomenon that occurs at night when you have the right atmospheric conditions for the light from the moon to refract differentially on its way to the eye giving you a night-time equivalent of a rainbow. The piece works by swapping the parts between the strings every four bars. They’re all playing cross-rhythms of each other: ¾, 6/4, 6/8 and 2/4; and all the while the piano is playing 4/4 with a 2/4 added on the end of each bar. The pattern takes off only when you find the right beat to count against the strings we’ve found…

10. Odeon
This one is based around an old New Orleans drum pattern mixed with a cuatro-based yodel (or hammer-on) riff we’ve been playing around with for a few years. The image we wanted to go for was a group of musicians sitting on a porch somewhere hot and humid – in the end we used the takes where we had the most fun recording it – hence a slight looseness in some of the details. This is the most distinctly ‘imaginary-folk’ track on the album.

11. (the roaring of a) Silent Sun
I wrote this with Cass. We borrowed a huge log-drum for a few weeks of the recording of the album and both this and Bluejay came about while playing with that. We recorded the violin line in one take – Oli ends up sounding more like a bagpipe at points – which when added to the damped-piano melody makes for a strange mixture of space and highland mists… The triangle sound we got by swinging a struck triangle between two mics hanging from the rafters. The idea for the swinging triangle comes from Wildlife from the 1987 Penguin Cafe Orchestra Signs Of Life album.

 

 

The tracks on the album all fall on some point along a scale going from gently Apollonian at the one end to perhaps a bit more Dionysian at the other. For our purposes this would be the ‘spacey’ end – with tunes like 1420 and Aurora – and the ‘imaginary folk’ end – with tracks like Odeon, Radio Bemba and Black Hibiscus. The tracks between these extremes are, perhaps with ‘Silent Sun’ in particular, an attempt to blend these two parts.

We recorded almost all of the album in St Jude’s Hall, an old church hall in North West London with vaulted ceilings and a huge open fireplace – which is audible on various of the tracks in the quiet bits.

 

 

 

 

 

The Penguin Cafe are playing in the City Hall Ballroom on February 26th and the CD album, ‘The Red Book’ is released on 17th February.

 

 




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