INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Herald AUGUST 12, 2009 - by Rob Adams
FAMILY TRIBUTE AIMS TO SPREAD SOME JOY
Arthur Jeffes has had to get used to his late father being known as "Trad Anon". As more and more versions of the Penguin Café Orchestra's Music For A Found Harmonium get posted on the internet labelling the tune as a traditional Irish reel, Jeffes might be excused for feeling that a crucial part of the family silver is being spirited away.
He regards this phenomenon, which began in the late 1980s when guitarist Arty McGlynn took the tune into Irish band Patrick Street's repertoire (although opinions differ as to who stole it first), as the ultimate compliment and feels sure his father, Simon, who died from a brain tumour in 1997, would agree.
"Dad always said that he wrote imaginary folk music," says Jeffes, who has reactivated his father's music alongside his own compositions in the touring band Music From The Penguin Café. "So I think he'd be happy to know that one of his compositions was being mistaken for real folk music. He was never precious about things he wrote. He actually really enjoyed seeing his music go off and have a life of its own and to have a tune played and enjoyed by lots and lots of people would have given him pleasure."
Jeffes Junior grew up listening to and often being lulled to sleep by the music his father created for a band named after a café that came to him in a vision while he was recovering from severe food poisoning in the south of France. By the time Arthur was born in 1978, the Penguin Café Orchestra had released its first album on the Obscure label, which was run by Brian Eno, an early champion and still a family friend (Jeffes' mother and Eno sing in a choir together), and his earliest memories are of sitting in his mother's lap in concert halls as his dad played.
"Even now, listening to the music feels like being wrapped in a big warm blanket," he says. "It's very comforting. But I hadn't realised what a major part of my musical education it was. When I went to Goldsmiths College in London to study composition for my Masters, I discovered that all the things that I take for granted about music are particular to the Penguin Café Orchestra.
"I also find myself doing the same things my father did when he was composing. He'd say, I'm just going off to write my new album' and disappear into his studio, where he'd spend inordinate amounts of time polishing the piano. I'm pretty good at displacement activity myself but the point is, when the idea strikes, you're in the right place to work on it."
It was two years ago, after a concert at Union Chapel in London to mark the tenth anniversary of his father's death, that Arthur decided to form a new band that would continue the evolution of his father's music and provide an outlet for his own. Music From The Penguin Café is not, he emphasises, a tribute band, although it does attract what he very diplomatically terms "some very keen people" who, after twelve years of inactivity by the original band, have been enthusiastically arriving at concerts with requests.
"I wanted to start from scratch and build a band from the bottom up, so the new music I'm bringing in gets a chance to settle and develop with time in the same way the original band's music did," he says.
There are some notable differences between the two groups, one being that, while the new one continues Simon's appreciation of the ukulele - and how prescient he was now that the ukulele has become officially cool - it has introduced what Arthur reckons could be the new ukulele in terms of popularity, the cuatro.
"It's funny now, seeing attitudes towards the ukulele changing," he says. "There's a shop down the road from me that sells them and they do Flying V ukuleles, which are great fun, although they don't sound all that good. But the great thing about the cuatro is, not only is it in keeping with dad's fascination for Venezuelan folk music, but it's also compatible with the ukulele. Its outer two strings are the same notes as the uke but an octave lower and the middle two are exactly the same, so when you play the same chord shape on the two instruments you get this lovely natural inversion."
The new group has been "road tested" at events over the summer including Glastonbury Festival, where transporting a harmonium, sundry other instruments and the mandatory stage gear - penguin heads - between sets at the Guardian Lounge and the Acoustic Stage will have prepared them well for the rigours of the Fringe, with its hasty stage turnarounds.
"We're actually looking forward to being in the same place for a few days because the past few weeks have been a bit hectic," says Jeffes.
"But the original intention of the Penguin Café Orchestra was to spread some joy, so if Music From The Penguin Café can do the same, then we'll be well pleased."