Gig preview: Penguin Cafe at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Arthur Jeffes of Penguin Cafe
Arthur Jeffes of Penguin Cafe
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THOUGH Arthur Jeffes may have studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, it seems he was always more likely to follow in his father’s footsteps into the musical world.

After Cambridge he headed to Goldsmiths College to do a Masters in music and finally in 2007, a decade after the death of his father Simon, he decided to pick up the mantle his dad had laid down with the much-loved chamber folk ensemble the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

“I knew that I loved the musical world that he had created and discovered and inhabited for so long,” says Jeffes of the decision to initially perform three concerts with members of his father’s old band under the PCO banner.

“It was not with a mind to carry something on; it was to mark ten years since he died. But it was a powerful experience, hearing the music live again in the context with an audience. It takes on a quicksilver quality – the simplicity of the music allows it to breathe.

“Even then it was not something I wanted to continue in that form. It did not quite work. At the heart of my dad’s pieces was a disciplined simplicity – in order to do that there has to be a benign dictator saying no to certain things. It would not have worked if I was trying to work my dad’s musicians – there was no one with the authority to do that.”

Hence a year later when invited to perform at a festival in Italy Jeffes decided to take three of his own friends – Rebecca and Andy Waterworth and Neil Codling, keyboardist with the band Suede – with him. “I chose to play a couple of my dad’s pieces – I knew them quite well – and from that the new incarnation spawned.”

Renamed the Penguin Cafe, the band has gradually swelled to a 10-piece. They released their first album, A Matter of Life..., in 2011; this week comes its successor, The Red Book.

“It’s probably more organic,” Jeffes says of the new CD. “It started with this commission that I got in September 2012 to go and work with Nelly Ben Hayoun in San Francisco. She was arranging all the space scientists who played the instruments. They’re geeky science dudes who play ukulele, brass and strings. The idea was to get them all together to play specially commissioned pieces. They commissioned me and a couple of other composers to do it.

“That formed the pearl around which the rest of the album emerged. It has a spacey theme, rather than the swamps of Louisianna.”

In keeping with his father’s interests in ethnic folk music, Jeffes likes to spread his musical wings. “I find little nuggets from around the world and hypothesise,” he says. “There’s slightly more Apollonian systemic minimalism stuff. It felt natural to do it like that. I don’t think we would be happy to go in one direction.”

Jeffes has his father’s record collection for inspiration. “Just yesterday I was showing everyone [in the band] one of my dad’s old records – it was of Venezuelan Yoruba, he used it in Giles Farnaby’s Dream [from the PCO’s 1976 album Music From the Penguin Cafe]. You can find these little nuggets in folk music from somewhere you have never been. That it comes from a remote part of Venezuela is great but it’s an amazing musical idea irrespective of where it comes from.”

On Saturday Jeffes and his band visit the Howard Assembly Room. The set, he says, will feature most of the new album, a couple of tracks from its predecessor and old PCO favourites such as Telephone and Rubberband and Perpetuum Mobile.

“We love them,” he says. “They’re great big things that my dad did.”

Simon Jeffes’ music was always infused with joy. His son still feels it when performing. “When we start it’s always amazing to play but playing something quite tricky in front of a large audience there’s a nervousness. Once you are up and running it just takes over. We find ourselves smiling all the time. You see photos that have been taken and we had no idea we had these grins on our faces.”

February 22, Howard Assembly Room, Upper Briggate, Leeds, 7.45pm, £22.50. www.operanorth.co.uk

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