"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sounds APRIL 27, 1985 - by Peter Culshaw
PENGUIN CAFE SOCIETY
Simon Jeffes is a brilliant classical guitarist, an accomplished string arranger, he's above average on milk bottles and passable playing a rubberband with a screwdriver. He's a genial obsessive and perfectionist, and a student of Zen and Dada. Perhaps the sort of person who spends years trying to discover the secret of perpetual motion or building cathedrals with matchsticks.
He's also the composer and leader of The Penguin Café Orchestra, whose latest LP, Broadcasting From Home, is an addictive mutant hybrid of classical, folk and pop idioms, using a vast array of instruments ranging from ukelele to the harmonium featured on their new single Music For A Found Harmonium (he discovered it abandoned in a back street in Kyoto, Japan).
Jeffes is one of those elusive characters who crops up in the most unlikely places. Were he a name-dropper, he could mention collaborations with Riuchi Sakamoto, David Sylvian, Rupert Hine, André Gregory (of My Dinner With André) and Joe Strummer in his 101ers' days. Jeffes was also responsible for the strings on Sid Vicious' My Way and was paid to tutor Malcolm McLaren and Bow Wow Wow on the finer points of Burundi drumming and other ethnic musical delights.
The first Penguin Café LP was released on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1976, and there have been only two LPs since.
"I can't sit down and say I'm going to make a record. I'll spend the time researching, trying out rhythms and tunes and something will pop out of its own accord, it doesn't seem to be a process I can hurry. Sakamoto told me I had a much more Oriental approach than him." Perhaps this is one reason why the Penguin Café are that contemporary cliché Big In Japan. Their records go Top 20 there, and Jeffes is stopped in the street in Tokyo by fans.
He makes his records on an eight-track machine in his minute studio in Holland Park.
"I tried working on a twenty-four-track once, but got better results with a Revox in the garden. Sound quality is not the most important thing provided you have reasonable clarity."
He started his career as an avant-garde composer but became disillusioned.
"I always wanted to leave before the end, apart from one or two priceless occasions, it didn't make me feel very good."
He has retained some of his intellectual interests from that period, such as using mathematical elements in his music.
"I might use a harmonic or number series worked out by Pythagoras, for example. One reason why ethnic music sounds like my music is that they both use these systems, but in fact they come from nature rather than a specific place."
Trying to pinpoint sources for the Penguin Café's music is a reviewer's nightmare - "one track on the last album different writers said came from the Andes, Ireland and Venezuela. Actually, it was more like a tune from Zimbabwe."
The genesis of the Penguin Café came in 1973 when Jeffes, suffering from food poisoning, had "terrible dreams of a world where everyone lived in little cubicles and no one talked to anyone else." The Penguin Café was to be a place where people would gather and enjoy the random nature of life." The music for the mythical Café only came later. Jeffes decided to reject conventional forms - "jazz seemed over-manneristic, English folk music is a dead loss and pop is too often negative and banal. I went back to one note and started building it up from there."
Behind the innocuous and whimsical facade of Jeffe's music is a highly original voice and, especially live, the Penguin Café pack a surprising emotional punch.
"It's warm and affectionate music - it's about the survival of the heart in a harsh life."
Slowly, and deservedly, the Penguin Café are crawling out of their cult ghetto in this country: they're even appearing on Terry Wogan's TV show this Friday. Dada Afro-Irish, anyone?