Even if you never find out what a Penguin Prison is, there’s no denying Chris Glover aka Penguin Prison has made a brilliant record. If you’re a fan of New York disco, as accessible as it is angular, all burbling bass lines, resonant rhythms, shimmering synths and heavenly melodies, then you’ll love the new Penguin Prison album. Read More...
Even if you never find out what a Penguin Prison is, there’s no denying Chris Glover aka Penguin Prison has made a brilliant record. If you’re a fan of New York disco, as accessible as it is angular, all burbling bass lines, resonant rhythms, shimmering synths and heavenly melodies, then you’ll love the new Penguin Prison album.
Imagine, if you will, Chic produced by James Murphy, or a collaboration between Prince and The Human League. It is some measure of Penguin Prison’s skills in the studio, on vocals and in terms of songwriting, that such illusory marvels have been achieved on this superb self-titled collection, that some critics have gone as far as to hail it a modern day Off The Wall masterpiece.
“It’s not a concept album about Michael,” says Prison, or maybe we should call him Penguin, of his all-time hero “But it’s definitely been influenced by him.”.
Penguin was born, appropriately, at the dawn of electrofunk, in 1983 – the postdisco era of Peech Boys’ Don’t Make Me Wait and D Train’s You’re The One For Me – and grew up, an only child, on New York’s Upper East Side with his mother, a business coach, and father, who writes handbooks on running. “It was cool,” he says of his upbringing. “The best thing about growing up in New York was being around all the other people who later turned out to be successful in the same field as me.”
These childhood friends included everyone from fellow contemporaries electro-disco exponent Holy Ghost!, who appears on and co-wrote tracks for the PP album, to R&B goddess Alicia Keys – the latter who attended the same performing arts school on Broadway, where he majored in vocals, even appearing in the same plays as PP.
Whilst his father wasn’t into music at all, his mum preferred country – as a result, Chris loves Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams as much as he does electronica or rap. “If I had to choose one kind of music to listen to,” he says, “it would be country.”
To say he was an early starter would be an understatement. From the age of 10 he was singing in the local gospel choir. When he was 11, he got an agent and began recording jingles. By 12, he had learned to play guitar and was into punk rock, the American variety – bands such as Green Day, NOFX and Bad Religion. He even performed as a teen at the legendary CBGBs with his band The Museum.
When he was at NY’s prestigious Bard College he had an early brush with fame when he formed a “crazy, fake boy band” called The Smartest People At Bard, which Chris describes as “a cross between Backstreet Boys and Beastie Boys”. It was, he says, “a boy band format, only with rapping and singing. The lyrics made fun of that music, but hundreds of people would come and see us play live on campus. It was wild.”
Encouraged by this success, he sent a CD of hip hop-inflected tracks to Q-Tip of acclaimed rappers A Tribe Called Quest, who invited Chris to meet with a label in Los Angeles. He recorded a solo album under his own name that indulged his eclectic tastes, comprising as it did every type of music under the sun, from country to African to rap. “It was pretty crazy,” he laughs, “a mixture of everything. The label [Interscope] liked it but they didn’t know what to do with it. It should have been filed under ‘pop’ – it was all catchy choruses.” see over leaf…
Chris became Penguin Prison at the start of 2009. It wasn’t long before he earned a reputation as remixer du jour for the likes of Marina and the Diamonds, Goldfrapp and Passion Pit. He agrees that he conferred NY kudos especially on the British artists, and admits his favorite remix was for Jamiroquai, adding that the secret to a good remix is “to throw everything away from the original track and start from scratch”.
It was inevitable that Chris would then make music of his own, which he began in late 2009. You can hear the spectacular results on the debut Penguin Prison album, which sounds to all intents and purposes like a Greatest Hits collection, so chock-full it is of catchy hooks and classic pop choruses. There is Multi-Millionaire, which is about “being rich even if you’ve got no money” and one titled Don’t Fuck With My Money that features Jackson-style percussive gasps and a lyric that pushes the envelope. “I was worried it was too crazy – ‘Can I really say that?’ People said leave it in, so I did. “All my lyrics are sarcastic but serious as well,” he adds. “So I’m really saying ‘don’t fuck with my money’! Because if you try to, it’s not going to be good…”
A Funny Thing manages to be propulsive and poppy, somehow club-conscious and cerebral, evoking NY avant-disco acts past and present, from Talking Heads to LCD Soundsystem. On Golden Train what sounds like a sample from Kraftwerk’s immortal Trans Europe Express is actually a late-70s toy, a little seven-inch keyboard that Chris stumbled across, called a Bee Gees rhythm machine. This was the genesis of Penguin Prison, the first track Chris wrote for the project, and it features not just the Bee Gees gadget but also drum parts sampled from Boney M. Yes, this miraculous slice of shiny, infectious, fabulous future-dance comes from those two giants of disco cheese, Bee Gees and Boney M.
Chris clearly knows what he’s doing, and is in his element in the studio. The music is both programmed on computers and played by real live human beings, including Alex from Holy Ghost! “Most of it is me,” explains Chris. “I tried to keep an element of the human, only using modern technology. I use ProTools as a canvas, a place to put things, but the synths I use are analogue.”
The album was mostly recorded in Chris’ home studio and completed in London, at State of the Ark, with producer/engineer Dan Grech-Marguerat, who has worked with Radiohead and Paul McCartney. “He tied up all the loose ends,” he explains.
Throughout, Chris put his vocal training to good use, his flexible tones able to reach as high on the scale as Barry Gibb and as low as Barry White. “I treat my voice like an instrument,” he says. “It’s about entertaining people, really.”
Penguin Prison is the album you get if you have lived your life believing that the Holy Grail in terms of pop songs is one or all of the following: Billie Jean, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, When Doves Cry and Fast Love. It posits Penguin Prison as an American cousin to Hot Chip. It is an album about relationships, love and loathing that you can dance to. Its hi-tech rhythms and lyrics definitely place it as a pop album but the heartache might conceivably be found on a country record.
“I definitely wanted to make a pop album where every song was good and catchy and people could dance to it,” decides Chris, who aims to perform his songs all over the world like a strange little impish hybrid of Jackson and Prince. “It was hard work to make, but I tried to have fun. I made sure of that. If I didn’t jump around the room while I was recording a song, it didn’t make the cut. Fun is the key.”
Penguin Prison just released his debut self-titled record on Downtown Records (US) and Stranger Records (UK) in the Fall 2011. Penguin Prison will be touring in the Spring of 2012 supporting Miike Snow in North America
- Penguin Prison joins Viceroy on 'The Life" featured on Kick Kick Snare.
- Penguin Prison's live performance at Echoplex reviewed by Thread Sence
- Penguin Prison featured on Virgin Mobile's Mixtape Madness Week
- Penguin Prison's New York show deemed "original" and "enthusiastic" by Virgin
- Penguin Prison on Hype Machine's favorite tracks of 2012
- Penguin Prison on KCRW's Morning Become Eclectic
- Penguin Prison meets filmmaker Lucas Leyva
- Penguin Prison live on KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic
- Penguin Prison's video for "Don't Fuck With My Money" featured in The Village Voice
- Penguin Prison Remixes Lana Del Rey's "Blue Jeans"