Arthur Jeffes picking up the baton from Penguin Cafe Orchestra
- Credit: Archant
Sharp-eared audience members at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games last month might have noticed the jolly drones of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Music for a Found Harmonium playing at one point in the celebratory evening.
In another lifetime, the sound of this now-departed band might have inspired a sad nostalgia, but for the last five years, the unique music of founder Simon Jeffes has been kept alive by a successor band entrenched in his spirit.
Penguin Cafe – which was started by Simon’s son, Arthur Jeffes – are in many ways as surreal a proposition as their namesakes. While the Orchestra were once known for bending their genre-defying, minimalist ethos into hits such as Telephone and Rubber Band and Perpetuum Mobile, Penguin Cafe eschew traditional band protocol by relying on a fluid and ever-expanding number of members.
Alongside about 10 bandmates, including Suede’s Neil Codling and former Gorillaz man Cass Browne, Arthur started the band as a way to keep his father’s music alive after Simon died in 1997, but since releasing their second album, The Red Book, earlier this year, he explains they are also keen to balance tribute with innovation.
“If you put a load of musicians together and play together, then ideas start to happen and develop,” says the 43-year-old. “I didn’t want to nail all my dad’s pieces to the floor and rigidly play them exactly the same as they were on the record, but, by the same token, I didn’t want to have this impulse to change things unnecessarily.”
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Younger audiences may also recognise some of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s hits: a cover of Music for a Found Harmonium notably gained popularity after appearing on the soundtrack of cult 2004 comedy film Napoleon Dynamite.
Within the new band, Arthur has amazingly been involved in sending music into space, after being asked by NASA to record pieces at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch to dispatch to exoplanets in search of life. “It’s a really nice idea to mix music and space,” he adds, “because you’ve got so much information, technical details and statistics about space with these big projects, so if you involve music, somehow it brings it back down to a human scale.”
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Back down on Earth, Penguin Cafe will be bringing classic Orchestra hits, as well as their own, to the Roundhouse Summer sessions this Sunday. For everyone involved, it represents a happy continuation of the two bands’ lineage.
“There’s something really nice about it, in that it was the first formal Penguin Cafe Orchestra gig that my dad did 40 years ago – they opened for Kraftwerk at the Roundhouse.
“Quite a lot of these things happen that make for a nice circularity. We went to play [music festival] Womad in Australia, I think, 30 years after the first Womad where my dad played. We were looking at the programme and it’s a really lovely coincidence. Some things stay the same even while everything else is changing.”
Penguin Cafe play the Roundhouse on Sunday. For more information, visit roundhouse.org.uk