8 Jul 2017

Inheriting the Penguin Café

From Access All Areas, 2:45 pm on 8 July 2017
Penguin Café's Simon Jeffes

Penguin Café's Simon Jeffes Photo: Alex Kozobolis

Simon Jeffes was the classically trained guitarist, composer and arranger for the Penguin Café Orchestra who were active from 1976 to 1993. Their music appeared to have come to an end with the passing of Simon in 1997. But it has found a new lease of life as The Penguin Cafe, a 12 piece collective formed by Jeffes’ son Arthur.

Arthur Jeffes talked to Trevor Reekie about the Penguin Café’s new album and the musical legacy he has inherited from his father.

Simon Jeffes has been described as “one of the most famous composers no one has ever heard of.” Besides forming the Penguin Café Orchestra he was also was a classically trained musician who scored the string arrangement for the Sid Vicious version of "My Way", introduced Adam Ant to Burundi drumming and was involved in world music collaborations with such artists as Baaba Maal.

The Penguin Café Orchestra released their debut album on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1976. Eno said:  “Given his non-allegiance to any particular musical category, Simon Jeffes could be marginalised as an English eccentric — and thus sort of overlooked. The truth is he discovered a huge musical territory”.

It might not have been in the same conversation, but Simon said: “I wonder if anyone is looking at us the way we look at penguins, fondly observing all their struggles and idiosyncrasies?”

Arthur was 19 when his father died and wasn’t intending to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was pursuing a degree in archaeology, but every time he tried to not do music, he just “found myself being brought back in.''

Arthur’s first professional musical experience came when he joined the reformed Penguin Café Orchestra in 2007 to do a few shows playing percussion and keyboards. In 2009 he formed The Penguin Café with a completely new line up including musicians from the likes of Suede (Neil Codling), Gorillaz (Cass Browne)  and Razorlight. The group currently has a rotating membership of 12 musicians.

Arthur’s continues many of his father’s ideas in his own approach to composition. “My dad always said he wrote for musicians, not instruments, and that is the start point for his original music. Depending on who is playing it, there will be changes. The point is that the music has a kind of controlled wildness.”

The new album is called The Imperfect Sea, after a phrase Arthur’s father’s - “We wade in a sea of imperfections” - and is released on the Erased Tapes label, who seem like the perfect partner to present this new music to a whole new audience (while keeping much of their original listenership.)

The album includes a cover of the track ‘Franz Schubert’ by Kraftwerk, who the Penguin Café Orchestra actually supported when they played London in 1977, a year before Arthur was born.

It’s reputed that Arthur’s mother Emily not only designed and painted the penguins used in the artwork but is also the inspiration for Syd Barrett’s only Pink Floyd top ten hit ‘See Emily Play’.

The Penguin Café album The Imperfect Sea is distributed NZ by Southbound Records.