Into The London IndieGround: Death And The Penguin
If only all interviews could happen over a few pints of ginger beer at the pub down the road. Though perhaps, in the interest of protecting one’s liver, it’s better they didn’t.
This one however, did. On this warm Tuesday evening, I sat down for a chat at the pub with the four lads of Death And The Penguin – a four piece indie rock act from Brixton, London, who draw their melodic influences from old slave songs and rhythms, with distinct influences of punk, hardcore and occasionally jagged shards of math rock. Their gig at The Garage London that night marked the end of their tour across the UK, where they’d spent the past eight days trapezing through the country in a camper van.
Instead of an evening of typical London bar banter, the conversation offered an insightful deconstruction of how a couple of Cambridge graduates strive to find a balance in their music between the more complex technicalities of intellectualised instrumentation, and the straight up raw, catchy draws of a good ol’ hook. “That’s why I’m the song guy basically,” says lead vocalist/guitarist Tobias Smith in between a gulp of ginger beer, “I become the ‘pop sensibility’ guy. My first love in music was punk music, so it has to be hooky, it has to be catchy, it has to get to its point – so hopefully that tempers [guitarist/vocalist] Chris’ tendency to enjoy the more technical meandering things sometimes, and Andy’s more about textures and sounds”.
“I tend to think about sounds, rather than instrumentation,” adds Andy – the band’s bassist and keyboardist – “We only use the keyboards and electronics a little bit in the music, but it’s nice to have extra sounds.”
Though they’ve only played together for a year or so, the act’s tightness speaks of a band that has been playing together for much longer. The strongly rooted fluid grooves of the rhythmic element provided by their drummer Tim Brennik acts like an anchor – enabling the angular melodies and quirky time signatures to safely soar into whimsical flights of fancy, without getting messy. A feature that makes for the act’s fresh and truly forward thinking sound.
Nirupama: Tell me about more about your debut EP ‘Accidents Happen’?
Tobias: The main influences on this EP – it’s a lot of American slave songs, so a lot of the melodies in Strange Times and Bitumen – they’re inspired by the songs that were sung by prisoners in the Southern states who had been put to work on the sides of roads and breaking rocks, felling trees things like that.
Nirupama: That’s why the call and response structure of ‘Strange Times‘?
Tobias: Yes, that’s the kind of style we were going for! And the rhythms that we used. The other influences as you can tell from Strange Times are the punk sounds, big chords, big melodies and things like that, and apart from that it’s just what we’ve been listening to. [Our track] Space 1998 – we weren’t intending to put it on the EP originally, but it kind of worked in there. That’s Death From Above style bass lines, with spacey keyboards that we just liked.
Chris: It was nice to have something that just came together organically because otherwise we tend to think a lot, in too much detail.
Tim: It generally feels like I’m in a band with three professors. All the time. [everyone laughs]
Tobias: It’s all coming out now! [laughter] Well…we do over analyse quite a lot – we’re quite passionate about what we do.
Chris: Tim’s the chilled one – who provides the balance, and the bow ties. The anchor – both personally, and in terms of the rhythm.
Tobias: Tim is a drummer with an incredibly unique style – there are so many drummers that just play a very solid groove to a click track, and I find that so boring.
Tim: Enough about me, stop it [appears to blush].
Chris: This is turning into a bit of an I love Tim session isn’t it? [everyone laughs] Actually the best thing about the band is that we’re four musicians that write music together, rather than three guitarists and a drummer.
Nirupama: Tell me more about how that works?
Andy: Well, we’re not just interested in our own instruments – we’re very interested in what it all sounds like together.
Tobias: In fact, the best songs tend to be where we’ve all written each other’s parts! Andy will write guitar parts, I’ll write bass lines, Chris will write bass lines and often drum beats.
Tim: I’m late to practice, Chris will be smashing the drums – and he’ll be like, ‘Hey I wrote a new part!’
Nirupama: Do you guys work day jobs too?
Chris: Yeah we all have other…[pause] ‘forms of employment’. We’ve got a future lawyer and accountant amidst us.
Tobias: In a few months he’s [points at Chris] going to be a doctor!
Nirupama: A doctor?!
Tobias: Yep! Well not a doctor that actually operates on anyone, but a PHD. Tim here runs his own menswear business, at the moment it only deals in bow ties. But it’s expanding.
Nirupama: That’s where your bow ties come from?
Tim: I’ve pegged them as my advertising models.
Tobias: You couldn’t have picked a more sexy one than me. [everyone nods in agreement]
Nirupama: Ok so finally – tell me more about being an independent band in London, and more about the musical landscape that you’re emerging from?
Tobias: It’s a very difficult place to be as an unsigned band – I don’t mean in terms of the quality of music, because there are so many great bands in the city. It’s just become much more fragmented now, there are so many venues shutting down because overheads are so costly, and live music isn’t necessarily the draw that it once was. It’s hard to find good venues and they’re getting further and further out of the city so it’s harder to get big concentrations of audiences.
Andy: They’re also getting pigeon holed into niches – where only a certain kind of music is getting promoted at a certain venue, depending on how the scene is doing at the time.
Tobias: The best scene I think in London at the moment is the technical math indie scene – which has a pretty coherent community, with a lot of great bands!
Chris: We live down in Brixton and our local venue is The Windmill, and there are nights on there quite regularly that are math technical scenes. It looks like a bit of a dive but is a really friendly space. And there’s a movement towards bands working together and putting on their own shows – which is good!
Andy: So I guess the key is trying to build a little community with other bands, and support one another.