Death and the Penguin are four noisy dudes from London. And they play a bit of everything. Their debut EP Accidents Happen is a rollercoaster ride through everything that was good about the 90s, indie guitar pop without the bullshit and experimental post-rock, all slapped together with some outstanding harmonies and very clever lyrics.
It’s extremely hard to put them in a box, or fit them in a RIYL tag, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, Accidents Happen speaks for itself. ‘Snuffed Out’ dances gently around time signatures with some mathy-as-all-heck riffs and soaring Smashing Pumpkins-esque vocals, while ‘Space 1998’ features plenty of cheeky keys and la la la’s. Don’t even get me started on the bass – it’s complicated. ‘An Opening’ serves almost as an interlude, building up a dream-like atmosphere, but with lots of punchy pauses. Lead single ‘Strange Times’ is more your typical indie rock, but even so, the guitars have got a far meatier tone to them, rather than any of that jangly bollocks. A really intense instrumental ties together all the interrupting harmonies before leading into the metal-ish stormer ‘Bitumen’, which starts off with some crazy chanting and doesn’t let up until the EP comes to a stop.
Be assured, this is a record where anything goes, but accidents certainly didn’t happen in its creation – lots of experimentation perhaps, but Death and the Penguin know exactly what they’re doing. Recently, the band took the time to tell us a bit more about how Accidents Happen came together, what they’re up to next and just whereabouts all those clocks come from …
How did you guys get together, and where the heck does that band name come from anyway?
Three of us met at University. After moving to London in the post-graduate malaise, we met Tim and Death and the Penguin was born. The band name is the title of an Andrey Kurkov novel about an obituary writer and his pet penguin. The book has a perfect harmony of the dark and the silly which is something we felt matched our musical and lyrical content.
Accidents Happen sounds HUGE. Like, as if there’s tons of instruments on there. How much stuff is actually really going on there, and how do you achieve such a diverse sound?
Most of the sound comes from our live set up: drums, bass, two guitars, two keyboards and four vocals. We’d happily wager that we sound as (if not more) huge live as we do on the EP. Having said that, we did use some unusual techniques to record the EP, including a prepared grand piano, sonar samples, a 2-by-4 hitting an antique fireplace, a chicken feeder and even the pitter-patter of a dog wandering around the studio.
Bits of the EP sound pretty metal (there’s a riff in Bitumen that’s really reminiscent of CKY), there’s the obvious indie stylings, and a couple of tracks have a very early-90’s sound. Where did you take influence from when writing?
Our influences and tastes are pretty diverse. Looking at the EP tracks in particular, the melodies of ‘Bitumen’ and ‘Strange Times’ came from a collection of recordings made by the great musicologist Alan Lomax of songs sung by black prisoners while working, breaking rocks, or felling trees. ‘Space 1998’ was inspired by the huge bass and punk energy of Death from Above 1979. ‘Snuffed Out’ was inspired by the driving energy and rhythms of bands like At the Drive-in. It’s fair to say as well that there’s a little bit of Radiohead in everything we do…
What’s the most important thing when writing a song to you?
We demand a lot from our songs and scrutinise every second. We love to pack our songs with strong melodic ideas, strong instrumental ideas and interesting sounds and textures. The most important thing to us however is that, with everything else we have going on in our tracks, there is actually a song in there. A lot of bands are technically great but forget that there is a big difference between stringing together a collection of ideas and writing a song. Melody is key – whether vocal or instrumental – and if there isn’t a melodic idea what is there must be pretty fucking cool to compensate.
Lyrically, each song seems to have a bit of a story to it. Are there any concepts there, or is it all just metaphoric?
We sometimes like to hint at a story – sometimes, the songs are about specific things, but often they’re as much about an idea, a place or an image.
All of these tracks (except, perhaps, ‘An Opening’) have a real frenetic energy behind them. Do you look to create songs that would come off well live, or is that just a natural thing?
We love the energy of bands like Future of the Left, Blood Brothers, the Dismemberment Plan and Dillinger Escape Plan and so incorporating this into our songwriting comes naturally. The fact that this lends itself to an exciting live show is obviously a plus!
There’s a lot of clocks appearing – in the promo shots, in the video for ‘Strange Times’… is there some kind of conspiracy we should know about or is this just a nice little visual signpost to how mathy a few of your riffs are?
The large damaged clock face was a really interesting feature of the space where we shot the ‘Strange Times’ video. We loved the idea that time itself might wither and decay. Maybe that’s why we use the weird time signatures…
The new EP is out now, so what’s next for Death and the Penguin? Any tours on the horizon?
There’s a lot going on for us at the moment. The video for ‘Snuffed Out’ is going to be landing any moment now – we think we’ve produced something pretty special and cannot wait for people to see it. We’re also busy working away on the next batch of songs ahead of going into the studio in June and then hitting the road for our debut UK tour in July.
Death and the Penguin are Tobias Smith (vocals, guitar); Christopher Olsen (guitar, keyboard, vocals); Andrew Acred (bass guitar, keyboard, vocals); and Timothy Brennik (drums, percussion, vocals).Their debut EP, Accidents Happen, was released on 5 May via Best Before Records. You can pick it up here.