Descended from the esteemed Penguin Cafe Orchestra – founded by the incomparable Simon Jeffes – Penguin Cafe’s Arthur Jeffes reflects on his father’s legacy, making music on his own terms and being endorsed by Kraftwerk
Abalmy night in March 2022, deep in the bowels of the Barbican – London’s towering concrete culture bunker. As penguin masks dangle precariously from the walls, Arthur Jeffes perches at his grand piano to begin an evening of impeccably suave instrumental chamber music, combining avant-classical zing, rootsy twang and analogue drone.
This is the first British concert in more than two years by Penguin Cafe, the free-thinking ensemble created by Arthur in 2009 to build on the musical heritage of his late father, the composer Simon Jeffes, founder and driving force behind the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The Barbican set mainly consists of tracks from Penguin Cafe’s 2011 debut album, ‘A Matter Of Life…’, covering a broad stylistic sweep from the Philip Glass-style ripples of ‘Landau’ to acoustic glitch-folk gem ‘Sundog’ and the mournful ambient moodscape of ‘Coriolis’.
Like the original PCO, Penguin Cafe tap into a very British strain of avant-garde sensibility, manicured and mild-mannered, tinged with cricket-pavilion whimsy and Python-esque surrealism. Parts of this show conjure up a lost England of eccentric inventors, radiophonic workshops and garden-shed arts labs.
It may sound a little genteel to ears more accustomed to the noisy end of cutting-edge electronica, but this celebratory gathering is taking place under some very heavy storm clouds, with Covid resurgent and horrific revelations emerging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of which lends extra emotional charge to the warm sense of community, connection and continuity with the past running through this performance like a fragile golden thread. Earning rapturous applause, the Penguins deliver not just lightly experimental sounds but also a precious sense of shared humanity. A welcome flicker of light in dark times.
Initially self-released, ‘A Matter Of Life…’ has just been newly remastered and reissued by east London’s Erased Tapes, the band’s current label, as part of an ongoing repackage programme that also includes some lesser-known PCO albums.
Penguin Cafe’s experimental credentials were reinforced when they joined Erased Tapes – feted, of course, for its beautifully designed contemporary classical and electronica releases. The connection grew from a 2016 three-day mini-festival, also hosted by the Barbican, which was curated by German composer Nils Frahm. Erased Tapes label boss Robert Raths, aka electronic artist Ghostworker, was present too.
“We weren’t looking for a label. We just did this thing at the Barbican,” says Arthur. “Everyone got on very well, so it felt like a natural progression. Nils and Robert kind of grew up together, both very aware of my dad’s stuff – they’ve got their vinyl editions and everything. There are a few people on Erased Tapes that we would very comfortably share a stage with, like Peter Broderick or Douglas Dare. And Hatis Noit – she’s just amazing. For me, it feels really comfortable, because they keep a deliberately small roster so they can get everyone releasing often enough, with enough attention.”
Simon Jeffes may have died in December 1997, but his exploratory spirit is very much alive in Penguin Cafe, both on stage and on record. The Barbican show features some of PCO’s best-loved numbers, including the intricate yet infectiously catchy arpeggio workout ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ and the jaunty, whirling, much-covered drone-folk jig ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’, memorably described by Arthur as a “maypole banger”.
Another highlight, both of this set and the album reissue, is a reworked version of ‘Harry Piers’ – a musical voyage around his father that the 19-year-old Arthur wrote to commemorate Simon’s death from an inoperable brain tumour at the tragically young age of 48. The piece later evolved into a kind of unofficial signature tune for the successor band that Arthur would form more than a decade later.
“Harry Piers were my dad’s two middle names,” he explains. “I originally wrote it for his memorial service back in 1998 or whenever it was. I’ve played it probably hundreds of times since we recorded it in 2011, and it changes and develops every time, so it made sense to redo it. Normally I play it at the end, maybe as one of the encores. It’s a very nice grounding for me. It brings everything back to remembering what the original point was of doing the whole Penguin Cafe thing.”
Arthur Jeffes was raised in west London, surrounded by music, art and creative bohemian souls. Besides founding and running the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, his father Simon worked as a freelance producer and arranger, collaborating with a broad range of artists from progressive rockers Caravan and soul-pop singer Yvonne Elliman to punk icons Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious and Adam Ant. A thank-you telegram from John Cage to Simon for helping him with a New York performance piece was framed on the wall.
Emily Young, Arthur’s mother, a visual artist who reportedly inspired Syd Barrett’s lyrics for Pink Floyd’s classic ‘See Emily Play’, is now a world-renowned sculptor living and working in rural Italy.
Soaking up his father’s broad listening taste – spanning Abba, Erik Satie, Stockhausen, Wilson Pickett, Afropop, Cajun folk and beyond – Arthur was encouraged by his parents to follow his musical muse at home, but they warned him against financial expectations.
“In a fairly constructive, long-sighted way, I was allowed to play the piano instead of doing something I didn’t want to do, like homework or chores,” he laughs. “My dad said, ‘Of course do music, but don’t bank on it being a professional thing, because there are lots of good people who go nowhere and lots of very bad people who get all the money. You can’t guarantee any of that stuff’.”
The idea for the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra famously came to Simon Jeffes in a vivid dream, triggered by a severe attack of food poisoning in France in 1972. His feverish brain imagined a fantasy band fighting back against a regimented, soulless, disconnected world using randomness, spontaneity and joyfully messy human imperfection. When he and PCO co-founder, the cellist Helen Liebmann, began assembling the real band soon afterwards, free-form experimentalism was at the heart of the project. Tape loops, telephone signals, elastic bands, customised instruments and found sounds all formed part of their oblique strategies.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s debut album, ‘Music From The Penguin Cafe’, was released in 1976 on Brian Eno’s groundbreaking esoterica label, Obscure.
“Like any good explorer, Simon was both alert and humble,” Eno once said of Jeffes. “He had no trace of musical snobbery but delighted in the length and breadth of music, happy to experiment with all combinations.”
PCO gave their first major live performance in October 1976, supporting Kraftwerk at the Roundhouse in north London. It might seem an unlikely pairing, yet their shared musical terrain wasn’t too far apart. Although rooted in folk, classical and jazz, the Orchestra also borrowed the textures and rhythms of the analogue electronica scene as it blossomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arthur has fond childhood memories of his father tinkering with Korgs and Ataris, early samplers and an embryonic version of MIDI sequencer software Logic to make “rather beautiful, iterative, loop-based pieces”.
When Arthur began composing his own work in the 1990s, he used the same equipment to make his first stab at electronic dance music. This omnivorous, endlessly curious approach is a direct line between father and son.
“Someone once described my dad’s music as electronic music played on real instruments,” he says. “It’s not a bad way of describing Penguin Cafe as well. Sometimes, when people ask us what we do, I say ‘electronica-classical crossover, with a bit of folk’. Ha! The more words you put into that sentence, the less it means. But the electronic thing is definitely there. There’s a lot of dad’s Prophet-5 on the early albums, and I’ve still got it in my studio. We’ve used laptops in the past, as well as MIDI keyboards I was sticking chopsticks into to get held notes.”
Before founding Penguin Cafe, Arthur dabbled in dance music and hip hop production. With a degree in archaeology and anthropology from Cambridge, he also worked on various digs and research projects around the globe. In 2006, he joined the British team for ‘Blizzard: Race To The Pole’, a BBC Two show recreating the 1911 scramble to reach the South Pole that had ended in icy death for Robert Falcon Scott and his men. All this Antarctic monkeying had a personal connection for Arthur – his great-grandmother Kathleen Scott was married to the doomed polar explorer. Penguins run deep in this family.
“When Scott died and obviously didn’t come back, she then married my great-grandfather,” he reveals. “It was a very bizarre opportunity just to dress up in Edwardian gear and go and hang around the ice caps for a few months.”
A year after his South Pole adventure, Arthur played a trio of shows at London’s Union Chapel with the surviving members of the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra to mark the 10th anniversary of his father’s death. But it felt like an ending, not a new beginning. The idea of taking over the family business was never on the table.
“It was just a profoundly lovely thing to be involved with,” recalls Arthur. “But I was quite a lot younger than my dad’s musicians and extremely junior to them in terms of both competence and musicianship.”
Only later did Arthur feel confident enough to reclaim and build on his father’s musical legacy, forming Penguin Cafe with none of the original PCO members. Instead, he drew from a wide talent pool, with Neil Codling of Suede, Cass Browne of Gorillaz and Northumbrian pipes queen Kathryn Tickell joining the initial line-up and album sessions.
Soon afterwards, five players from the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra regrouped to play their back catalogue, first under the name The Anteaters, then as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. These veterans are still sporadically active, but Arthur insists they all remain on cordial terms and have not become rival Penguin factions.
“It’s not like UB40,” he laughs.
Since forming, Penguin Cafe have recorded four studio albums, with a fifth currently in gestation. They write and play original music, with Arthur as principal composer and self-confessed “benign dictator”. But they are also keeping the Penguin Cafe Orchestra canon alive, with plenty of throwbacks and echoes in the mix. They’ve even retained a distant connection to Kraftwerk, recording a sparse chamber-folk version of ‘Franz Schubert’ on their 2017 album ‘The Imperfect Sea’, which earned an endorsement from the secretive Kling Klang chieftains themselves.
“That was like playing electronic music on bass, cello and harmonium,” says Arthur. “Rebecca, our cellist, thought it would be cool to record herself digging her hand into a bowl of salt, which sounded like someone walking through snow… so we got in touch with Kraftwerk through their management and they sent back a corporate thumbs-up. Ha! But we’re not actually in direct contact.”
The Brian Eno/Penguins connection has also endured for half a century. The egghead pop professor remains a family friend, and Arthur is even an irregular guest at Eno’s informal weekly choir sessions in west London.
“He’s still great friends with my mum,” says Arthur. “Every now and then I’ve suggested a couple of things, but I think he’s the busiest person I’ve ever come across. The amount of stuff he gets involved in is incredible. His group is a movable feast of whoever happens to be in town. It’s purely for the joy of singing, and it’s fun to sing with a bunch of people. How often do you get the chance to do that in modern life?”
The past hangs heavy over Penguin Cafe for obvious reasons, but Arthur insists that they’re looking backwards to move forwards. While the band clearly began as a love letter to Penguin Cafe Orchestra, their founder and main composer tries to avoid self-referential pastiche. His father left him with “intellectual tools”, he says, not firm rules. “It’s about the approach rather than the elements.”
Keeping that exploratory ethos alive means finding a careful balance between imitation and innovation, tradition and reinvention.
“It is a slightly strange line to be treading,” agrees Arthur. “When I started doing this, I realised that there is a fine balance to be found in the middle. If you get to the end of the composing process and you realise, ‘Oh yeah, this is somewhere my dad has already been’, it’s a nice feeling.
“But I definitely try to avoid things in a straightforward sense that are too musically similar. We don’t want to end up aping particular pieces – that really wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t have that light touch that we seek out.”
The reissue of ‘A Matter Of Life…’ is out now on Erased Tapes