Occupation: Pianist, composer, songwriter
Recent release: Penguin Cafe's 10th anniversary reissue of their debut album A Matter of Life… 2021 is out via Erased Tapes on 29th April 2022.
If you enjoyed this interview with Penguin Cafe and would like to find out more, visit the ensemble's official website. They're also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I think for me the impulse is always there, and it's more a matter of arranging all the other elements of life in such a way that there’s the space, time and people in the right place all at once that allows for something elaborate to emerge …
I like to think that all the aspects of life you mention all flow in to a continuous creative melting pot way back in the subconscious - so that when you find the chance to delve in there’s a load of ideas waiting for you ready to go.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
My process is iterative I think - I start with ideas that take form as we try them out and then that result suggests more ideas or structures … for me the music is already there and our job is to tease it out, or uncover it like a fossil … the better your detail and care the better and more detailed your endpoint.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
In the period between albums I’m always putting down little ideas - I’ve got a simple recording app on my watch which is actually pretty useful for this.
Then, when its time to start pulling together an album, we go through this bank of ideas and pick out the ones that seem to fit together and have some kind of spark.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Running is a big part of things for me. Not just in terms of starting the day and getting into right mood - but also for listening back to what we did the day before and planning how to move forward.
Also I have a coffee machine on the desk to the left of the keyboard.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It's usually something already started but not yet developed, though a few of these tracks we’re currently doing did actually more or less arrive all in one piece - fully fledged.
It's great when that happens - it's like hearing a new tune by someone else.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
We don’t actually do lyrics - not because there’s any problem with them, rather I just like the way the music can speak directly without mediation.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Not speaking for us of course, but for me a good lyric is one that doesn’t need to be followed explicitly - so it can imply a sense without one having to hang on every word… if that makes sense.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
For us its a bit like sculpting I think. We record a wave of parts, and then carve them down in to a likely shape and then add more parts … and then repeat as necessary.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I'd say the latter … it means you’re free to follow the material in terms of how it presents itself. It allows for a nuance that I suspect would be lost if you apply to many rules or pre-judgments.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I certainly get that - and it's sometimes quite a shock to suddenly think that an entirely different approach might be way better and then you worry about having wasted all that time and effort on the wrong thing … but in general you end up somewhere in the middle and you can use a lot of what’s there.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think for me it sits somewhere between a kind of internal balance on the one hand and then sometimes something more like showing off or having fun.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I remember the old saying that if you spend too long on this piece of work, you’re insulting your next one …
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I tend to find that it's more like a setting it loose kind of feeling. Once it's done and released in to the wild, I tend not to think of it as being still mutable.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I think i tend to treat them all as part of the same central process. I trained first as an engineer and then later on as a composer - and since we don’t tend to write the music down before we record, the studio really is the canvas we’re working on.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I like the sense of the wheel turning and moving in to the next phase I think. Once we’ve finished the album then there’s the job of working out how to play it live - not always as straightforward as one might hope … and then there's touring it which again is a whole other thing. I like the rhythm of if all.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think the more information is being processed in a work of art, the more thrilling it can be to experience.
So yes, coffee can have many creative aspects but I suspect that music in its abstract form probably has a higher bandwidth… I say that as a huge coffee fan.