FOCUS // Death And The Penguin: The name, the road, the UPGEFUKT festival

The mathy pop proggers Death and the Penguin released their long awaited debut full-length album, Anomie, earlier this summer in partnership with Lonely Voyage Records. Since forming in 2013, the band has established itself as a must see live act and made their ArcTanGent debut this year as well as playing WRONG Festival. The band is hitting the road this Autumn and in addition to all that, guitarist Chris Olsen, is organizing a new all-dayer festival in London called UPGEFUKT on October 20th. In the brief moments of free time they had we were able to get Chris and lead vocalist and guitarist, Toby Smith, to talk about their new album Anomie, touring, and some details of what to expect at UPGEFUKT.

FB: How would you describe the music of Death and the Penguin?

Toby: I would describe it as pop music – but I appreciate that no one else would! I think we’re a bit like Queens of the Stone Age or Radiohead in that the core of the music is straightforward indie or rock songwriting, but we incorporate some elements from leftfield. We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the math-rock and contemporary jazz scenes.

FB: Your debut EP Accidents Happen hit the scene in 2014, and now four years later the debut full length LP Anomie is out in the world. Can you give a little insight into how Anomie came to be and has the song writing process changed much on this album compared to your previous EPs?

Toby: We put two songs from the EP on the record that we thought deserved to be heard by more people, and three songs (Bones, Colour in Me, and Misha Lives”) were recorded about a year or two after Accidents Happen. The process hasn’t changed too much over that time. Usually either Chris or I will write the core song to various levels of completion, then we’ll demo it and bring it to the rest of the band to work on the arrangement and structure, and add the detail. Separately, I’ll slave over the lyrics until I’m happy.

With the later stuff we’ve tended to do more of the writing and arranging at the demo stage. There’s not too much difference, from a songwriting standpoint, between the demos and final versions of a lot of the later songs. I think that was partly down to the fact we all have “real” jobs and rehearsal time is pretty limited. But once the song is down we’ll all work hard on nailing the arrangements and performances, as well as those little extra things that make a song pop.

FB: The band name I assume is taken from the bleak and satirical Andrey Kurkov novel of the same name, and the album title Anomie is also a literary word being first coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim to describe a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals and has been a literary theme in works by Albert Camus and Dostoyevsky. With all that in consideration, would you consider yourselves a literary band? Is there any concept or narrative to the album behind naming it Anomie?

Toby: Forgive the long answer, but there’s a lot to unpack! As a lyricist, I don’t feel like I am self-consciously a “writer”, like a Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen. Although I do spend a lot of time on lyrics and trying to say something interesting, lyrics are as much a musical as they are a literary one. If the sequence of vowel sounds or the attack of the consonants doesn’t fit the melody the song is not going to feel right, even if your message is profound. I usually start from that point and build up to some kind of broader meaning letting the feel of the song inspire me.

I am attracted to ideas I find interesting and some of those have come from, or been inspired by, books we’ve read – I happen to be a social and political theory nerd. There’s probably some Guy Debord, Zizek, and Gramsci in “Kill Saatchi”. I think the core ideas of “Misha Lives” comes from studying the construction of historic memory on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict and how this impacts on the present conflict, albeit these are applied to personal romantic memory rather than public memory. But I don’t think any of that has happened deliberately!

The title “Anomie” for me was about two things. It was the feeling of getting out of university having followed the exact route laid down for me. Being in your 20’s in the 2010s was a pretty directionless, confusing experience. A prolonged period of having your attitudes, relationships, and, ultimately, your values challenged. I felt that this uncertainty was mirrored in the body politic. Durkheim, the originator of the term, was writing at a time of radical social change with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, these changes broke down societal norms and bonds leaving confusion. I think we in are in a similar condition. In terms of the way we manage the economy, to gender and racial politics, nativism and globalism, the environment – there is a sense that the old world is dying and a new one is not yet born.

FB: You guys are a guitar heavy band, but also incorporate elements of keys and synths not just on the album, but also in the live show. What was the process like of incorporating keys into the band when everyone is already playing another instrument?

Toby: I think it just kind of came about naturally pretty early on. When we wrote “Space 1998” we put keys on it as we just wanted the bassline to sing out. “Colour in Me” started out life as an electronic loop of some prepared piano we had recorded for another track. We usually demo tracks pretty early on in the process so it was just a case of who would play the keys. My only issue is that sometimes that means I have to play the bass, which I find really difficult.

These days, when we’re writing we’ll tend to write with whatever instruments we have to hand. I am terrible at the keyboard, and don’t play it live, but I know enough about music to write a song with a keyboard if I feel like it. I wrote “Hospital Song” on the keys, and Chris wrote “Was it Kindness?” on a piano. We tend to give the proper keyboard parts to our bassist Andy to actually work on the parts and sounds properly. Our guitarist Chris is annoyingly talented and can play the keys and the guitar at the same time.

FB: How would you describe the London music scene currently? Can you tell us a little bit about the music fest you’re putting together in London?

Chris: The London music scene can be great, it’s just a case of finding your place in it. I think when we started out we struggled with finding the promoters who weren’t just in it to make a few quid at our expense. Thankfully though there are some incredibly passionate promoters (and loyal fans!) who really support the local scene and never fail to put on a good show – promoters like Portals and Chaos Theory are great examples of this. There are also some venues which devote themselves to supporting new music, like the Windmill Brixton (our local), where I’m putting on the first ever UPGEFUKT FEST on Saturday 20 October.

Having put on shows for Death and the Penguin before, I thought I’d try something a little more ambitious, with 14 acts across two stages. All of the bands do something a little bit different – there’ll be math-rock, post-rock, folk, punk and everything in between, so there should hopefully be something for everyone!

Where possible, I wanted to get bands involved that I have a personal connection with. We’ve been lucky to make friends with a lot of very talented people over the years of touring, so this was a great opportunity for me to get a lot of them together on one line-up (the likes of A-Tota-So, Codices and The Mantis Opera to name just a few). I was chuffed to also get some more established acts like False Advertising (who’ve just played Zandari Festival in South Korea!) and VASA on board.

upgeFB: Where did the idea of doing putting together an all-dayer festival come from? How long did it take from the conception of the fest to announcing the lineup and venue?

Chris: The initial idea came about back at the start of 2018. Having put on a few smaller shows before, I decided (probably having had a beer too many) that I’d try something a little more ambitious. Playing as part of Death and the Penguin, I’ve played all over the UK over the last few years and have played on lineups with some incredible bands, making a lot of friends in the process – the idea of the festival was to bring a lot of those people together.

There was around 4 months of organisation before the initial lineup announcement back in June. Choosing the venue was the easy part – the Windmill Brixton (home of roof dog) is my local venue and it’s much-loved by bands and music fans alike. They were happy also to take a punt on me as a fairly inexperienced promoter and give me a Saturday at the venue. Pulling together the line up took a lot more work, but I finally got there and I could not be happier with the result! Given the year that False Advertising have had for example, having played Meltdown Festival and South Korea’s Zandari Festival, I’m really excited to bring them to Brixton to headline.

FB: Why the name UPGEFUKT?

Chris: Upgefukt is slang-German for fucked up – I just though it was fun, reflected the style of music and was a name that no one else had already coined (or taken the twitter handle…)

FB: There have been quite a few different all-dayer festivals popping in cities all over the UK in the past couple years since ArcTanGent made its debut in 2013. Do you have any thoughts on why math rock and all-dayer and weekender fests seem to mesh so well together?

Chris: I think because there is such an incredible community that’s been built up around this scene. I was initially drawn to the scene because of my love of technical rock music (popular at school, I was) but after attending the first ArcTanGent back in 2013 I soon found out that this scene was about so much more than that. I’ve heard ArcTanGent described as “Christmas for Nerds” and I think that’s the perfect way of describing it – it’s a safe place where a family of introverted music geeks all get together….and we all end up singing the Jurassic Park theme tune with thousands of other people in a muddy field in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s not like Christmas after all. Anyway, it’s definitely fair to say that UPGEFUKT FEST would not be happening if it wasn’t for the festival, so I owe a big thank you to the organisers James, Goc and Si.

There are also certain bands that have helped to make the community what it is today – Cleft are a great example of that. The passing of Cleft’s Dan Wild-Beesley this last week after a long battle with cancer brought about a mass outpouring of grief from the community as a whole – we lost someone whom I think we all consider a friend as well as a musical hero. I’ll be naming a stage after Dan at UPGEFUKT FEST, and we’ll be doing our best to celebrate his memory.

FB: Portals and Big Scary Monsters Big Day Out were also held in London this year. Do you think all-dayers like Portals, BSM Big Day Out, and now UPGEFUKT are filling a festival void that other promoters weren’t filling in London previously?

Chris: I think Portals Fest was a big influence in me deciding to give this a go (and the Portals team have been super helpful giving me advice). Portals Fest was in June and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t treading on their toes, so had the idea of an October festival. At the time I was pulling together ideas for UPGEFUKT, events like the BSM Big Day Out, Blood & Biscuits 10th birthday party and Big Pond’s Enjoy Sugoi hadn’t yet been announced – I thought I was being very original but it turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought a London all-dayer in the autumn was a good idea! When it comes down to it though, the more gigs there are celebrating this kind of music the better, and it helps to fill the void that used to exist between ArcTanGents…

FB: You have 14 acts on 2 stages throughout the day. Can you describe the lineup a bit and what someone should expect to hear throughout UPGEFUKT?

Chris: The UPGEFUKT lineup is deliberately varied, with bits of alternative, math-rock, post-rock, hardcore, electro and folk; a lot of the acts blend one or more of these styles to create a sound that’s uniquely their’s. I want people to turn up for the first band at 2p.m. and leave at the end of the night having enjoyed every act and seen no two bands that sound the same…whilst hopefully it all still makes sense as a cohesive lineup (one of the reasons pulling together the line up took so long!). There are a lot of bands playing that I expect won’t have been on the same lineup before, so hopefully it’ll be a day of discovering new music for everyone.

FB: Is there anything with UPGEFUKT that you’re trying to do that’s different from other all-dayer festivals?

Chris: As well as the variety one of the big differences is the inclusion of the solo/acoustic stage, headlined by Natalie Evans, in an intimate setting in a small room at the back of the Windmill. There’s also a great outdoor space at the venue (forecast looks good!) and curfew isn’t til 2 a.m., so the party will be going on late!

UPGEFUKT will take place this weekend at Windmill Brixton in London. Tickets will be available on the door for £12, or you can save a little cash by getting them in advance here.