INTERVIEW: DEATH AND THE PENGUIN
Capitalism. Corporation. GREED. The longtime foes of artists everywhere. This is something Brixton band Death And The Penguin know all too well, and they are not standing for it. Having just released their new single ‘The Calving Shuffle’, which frontman Tobias Smith, with tongue firmly in cheek, describes the track as “The Calving Shuffle is the motion that occurs due to constant and repetitive clenching of the buttocks occasioned by watching an audience intervention on Question Time”, the band are on track to dominate 2018. I spoke to them about Kurkov, jazz, and the pitfalls of using silly quotes in in press releases:
KM: Firstly, I’d like to ask about your name – Death And The Penguin is a post-soviet novel by Ukranian author Andrey Kurkov. What was it about this book that captured your imagination?
DATP: It’s about a Kiev-based writer who is assigned to write obituaries for notable people before they die so that the paper can publish the piece as soon as each person expires. He adopts a penguin from the zoo which starts giving away its animals as pets after the Soviet regime collapses. Then the mafia get involved and things escalate. It’s dark, but funny as hell. I think it was the juxtaposition between the existential and the absurd that we identified with and felt like a pretty honest reflection of what you were going to get with us.
KM: Have you been inspired by literature in other ways in your music?
DATP: It’s hard to say, I think any use of language is going to inspire your lyrics to a greater or lesser extent. There was a time where I used to read a lot of philosophy, social theory, and anthropology. I’m interested in how our collective experience of the world is reproduced, through memory or through media, and how this impacts on the ways in which we interact with each other. I think some of those ideas have come across in the record.
More recently I’ve started focusing more on literature. I just finished “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It follows an eminent Colombian family through seven generations, with each generation taking on some of the same flaws and characteristics of members of the previous generations. As the story progresses through each generation the narrative wraps itself in ever-deeper layers of meaning. I think there’s something that I can take from that to help structure a song in an interesting way. Then again maybe that’s the kind of thing that you can only do in literature!
KM: How did you first start writing music together?
DATP: Chris and I met at university and bonded over a mutual love for Queens of the Stone Age. We eventually started a band and have been making music together in various guises ever since.
KM: Your music is quite angular in terms of rhythm and can often sound quite complex and mathematical – what drew you to this style of songwriting?
DATP: When I was growing up I used to play Jazz trumpet in a lot of fusion bands, and I know all the other guys have played Jazz to a greater or lesser extent. I think we’re all used to a degree rhythmic complexity. After a while the more unusual rhythms and grooves (5/4, 7/4 etc.) just form a part of your vocabulary.
For example, “the Calving Shuffle” has a 7/4 feel, which happens to be one of my favourite time signatures to play in. It just cuts off the length of the normal bar slightly to give a real sense of urgency to the groove. You can hear it all over film scores when they are trying to make you feel like everything IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
It should be said that we don’t go into the writing process intending to write something “mathematical”. I don’t think we’re a “true” math rock band, although there are many brilliant ones. We just use the melodies and rhythms that are in our heads and that’s how they come out! With our last single “Kill Saatchi”, the hook is in 21/16, but that just started with me singing a rhythm I liked into my phone and then playing it on the guitar. It took me another week for me to work out what time signature it was in so I could program the drums for a demo. That said, I think we are interested in using unusual rhythms in order to build tension for the listener. Music is all about tension and release. You can build it in all sorts of ways – through harmony, through repetition – etc. Metalcore bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, and I guess Meshuggah are masters of this sort of tension. But very few pop bands really use rhythmic tension, and I don’t think listeners are that used to it, so it’s fun to experiment and see what works.
KM: A while back, we reviewed your single ‘Kill Saatchi’. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the song?
DATP: The song’s title is a reference to the ad agency “Saatchi & Saatchi”. I think they’ve done the ads for the Tory’s election campaigns over the last few decades. As a monstrous lefty, this song is my small revenge.
It’s really a song about how capitalism, particularly through marketing and advertising, subverts our natural drive to search for our authentic selves. The opening line, “Your Buddha complex couldn’t beat desire/now it’s foaming up the beaches”, is my way of saying that even when something overtly rejects the consumption, wastefulness, and destruction of the natural world that comes with post-industrial capitalism, it can still be chewed up into marketable nuggets and spat back at us for profit (I’m looking at you “Mindfulness”). I think it makes that search more difficult, as no matter what kind of self you are trying to realise – unless you think really carefully – you’ll still end up just being a consumer. Thankfully no one pays for music any more so my conscience is clear.
I’m rambling a bit, so I’m just going to let Tim Robbins finish off this section:
KM: Did you court any controversy with the subject matter of the single?
DATP: Not intentionally, I just thought it was a great hook! I don’t think we’re quite famous enough to really court controversy. Maybe an underground rock music twitter flame war is more our level!
KM: You’ve just released your new single ‘The Calving Shuffle’, which was inspired by Question Time. Could you expand on this for our readers?
DATP: Note to self, never put an insincere quote into your press release – it will bite you in the proverbial come interview time! That said, interventions from the Question Time audience are the worst. (“What nobody is talking about here is immigration” – really Tony from Cirencester? I thought that we’d had three elections and a referendum where nobody could shut up about it.)
Seriously though, the song is a sideways look at how our individually tailored filter bubbles skew and dictate our views. I started writing lyrics around the time that the Dakota Pipeline had been approved in the states by “he-who-shall-not-be-named”. There were huge protests at the time, particularly by the Native American communities through whose territory the pipeline was to pass. This wholesale destruction was all just to help line the pockets of the shareholders of oil companies who complained that transporting oil by train was too expensive. I think that put the environmental themes at the front of my mind (‘calving’ is the name given to events in which melting sheets of ice break off into the sea).
I didn’t specifically set about writing with themes, but – as with “Kill Saatchi” – this song deals with how we as as social body perceive the world, and how that perception is heavy-handedly influenced by secondary sources. I think this gives a sense of unreality to our experiences of the world outside of our narrow frames of experience.
It’s easy to be smug about readers of the Daily Mail and Fox news-watchers being fed lies about this stuff, but my understanding of the world is just as mediated as theirs. The looming threat of Global Warming, is just as much “a Ghost, a Myth, a Fable”, to me as it is to the climate change deniers. I just happen to believe in it!
Okay, it’s happened again. I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go Tim Robbins.
KM: Did you watch Team America recently? You’ve been pretty busy touring up and down the country in the last couple of months. How would you describe your live show?
DATP: That’s a difficult question to answer as I’ve never seen it! All I can say is that we really give a shit about our performances. We’ll play the same to an audience of 10 as to an audience of hundreds. We all sing our guts out and I like to throw my body about. It’s quite intense! I think the idea is to let our audiences know that we care, and so give them permission to care about it as well.
KM: Can we expect more music from you soon?
DATP: Yes, we have a new album out later this year. We’re really proud of it. I think of it like a document of our 20’s. It features a real range of sounds and styles. We haven’t got a release date but it should be with you all by summer.
Although we’re still looking for a record label.
I’m going to put this here…