The Australian MARCH 2, 2012 - by Jane Cornwell


As a boy, Arthur Jeffes could get out of doing almost anything - chores, homework, after-school sports - simply by playing the family piano. His liberal, musically minded parents loved nothing more than to hear arpeggios and glissandos summoned by the hands of their only child; even when he took a hammer to the instrument, bashing its underbelly and whacking its lid to explore new sounds, they sighed and smiled indulgently.

What could they say? Arthur's dad, Simon Jeffes, a cellist and composer, was renowned for his creative experiments. Jeffes Sr found music everywhere: in dripping taps; engaged telephone signals; a rubber band attached to a chair. But while the older man pursued such tangents with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, a fabled neo-classical ensemble that drew on everything from pop and rock to minimalism and world folk traditions, Arthur grew up with academic dreams. He studied archeology at Oxford, and dug in the Sahara outside Timbuktu.

"We never discovered anything very ancient, only a lot of sixty-year-old clay pots," says the bearded Jeffes, thirty-three, tucked into an alcove in a wine bar in west London's Holland Park, not far from the auto garage his father turned into a music studio in the 1970s. "The interesting stuff was buried way underneath. Archeology is a bit like music." A grin. "You do it for the love, not the money."

Jeffes Jr maintained a relationship with music, nonetheless, playing guitar, ukelele, dulcitone and percussion. He tooted penny whistles, squeezed harmoniums, banged the occasional prayer bowl. In 2007 he re-formed The Penguin Cafe Orchestra for three memorial concerts in tribute to his father, who tragically died ten years previously, aged forty-eight.

In 2009 he founded Penguin Cafe, a ten-member collective of young musicians - including former members of indie acts Gorillaz and Suede - bent on reinterpreting the original PCO repertoire and adding fresh material of their own.

"It happened almost by accident," says Jeffes of an ensemble that has variously released an album (last year's A Matter Of Life), played the British festival circuit and the BBC Proms and is about to embark on its first Australian tour.

"After the reunion concerts I had numerous requests to play my dad's music at parties and festivals, and it snowballed from there. We were borne along by the sense that people were happy to hear it played," he says. "I'm always finding new aspects of familiar pieces."

So what was it that made The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1972-97) so special? What got it signed to Brian Eno's Obscure label, had it supporting the likes of electronica gods Kraftwerk, led to Simon Jeffes being compared with Pierre Boulez and Erik Satie? What made their music so soundtrack-friendly? Telephone And Rubber Band was used in Oliver Stone's 1988 film Talk Radio.

The looping Perpetuum Mobile is the radio theme tune for ABC Radio National's The Music Show (if you hummed it, you'd know it), and has featured in films including the 2009 Australian animation Mary And Max and last year's documentary, Project Nim.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra toured Australia in the early 1990s ("Dad told me about audiences jumping up and down and the band playing as rowdily as possible"). They are still probably the most famous band most people have never heard of: "Given his non-allegiance to any particular musical category, Simon Jeffes could be marginalised as an English eccentric and thus sort of overlooked," Eno has said of a man who was variously Malcolm McLaren's world music adviser, Adam Ant's African drumming teacher and arranger of the cloying strings on Sid Vicious's version of My Way. "The truth is he discovered a huge musical territory."

Eno remains a close friend of Jeffes's mother, renowned sculptor Emily Young - a woman for whom Syd Barrett wrote Pink Floyd's second single, See Emily Play, and who separated from Arthur's father when their son was ten years old. Jeffes Sr eventually moved to rural Somerset with his new partner, cellist and PCO co-founder Helen Liebmann, and his armoury of instruments (many of which Arthur Jeffes plays today) and a framed thankyou telegram from avant-garde American composer John Cage (who he'd once helped on a performance).

"I remember my dad's musical intrepidness: it was worth trying things even if they didn't work. He loved Venezuelan joropo (folk) music as much as he did, say, elegant Renaissance pieces. He had a great reputation; people like Alex Paterson from (early 1990s ambient house pioneer) The Orb used to come around for dinner." He pauses. "I never went through a phase of thinking my dad's music wasn't cool."

The Penguin Cafe offers a timely reminder of how delicate and clever, warm and accessible - and how resolutely unclassifiable - The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was. It also offers more than slavish imitation: dressed in waistcoats, fezzes, top hats and a couple of giant penguin heads, Penguin Cafe breathes new life into tried and tested PCO pieces such as Music For A Found Harmonium, which Simon Jeffes composed after stumbling over an abandoned harmonium on a street in Kyoto, Japan (where he spent four months studying Zen Buddhism). Its big "hit", Telephone And Rubber Band, composed originally to an engaged tone, is updated using an iPhone.

"My father wanted his music to move you, make you think and want to dance," says Jeffes, who tells the story behind each piece as part of his onstage chat. "There's something in the process of repeating a sound and adding tiny changes that jump out like in a (Steve) Reich piece, that makes it beautiful, meditative and playful."

Jeffes has begun exploring romanticist-minimalist ideas on solo piano, performing compositions that nod to the gently surreal musings of the PCO while being strong enough to stand alone.

In Coriolis, the final track on A Matter Of Life, Jeffes explores this new soundscape with violinist Oli Langford. The concept worked so well the two musicians decided to extend it to a side project they've called Sundog, in which guise they'll be performing in Perth and at WOMADelaide.

"Sundog gives us the freedom to do stuff we couldn't do with Penguin Cafe," Jeffes says. "The rules are that we're only to use keyboard and violin. We're after a cool electro sound using just chamber instruments; we're building textures by layering wood and strings. I experimented with the piano, for example: I put a brick on the pedal and then went underneath and hit the bottom. It all went through a feedback loop".

He sits back, pleased. "It's the punk sense of do-it-yourself, but done in a subtle and unusual way."

It's the sort of thing he did as a kid, and that his dad did his entire life.

Does the younger Jeffes grow weary of being compared with his fantastically inventive father? Isn't he inviting such parallels by assiduously mining Penguin Cafe Orchestra's back catalogue?

Jeffes strokes his beard and smiles. "Nope," he says. "I've heard each piece a thousand times, in a thousand contexts, and I still love them all. I still think it's the best thing ever."