'Did I sell out because everyone bought the tickets?'
Interview Cameron Cook
Photography Milan Zrnic
Pop music is a fickle thing. As soon as someone becomes popular, or well regarded, or critically acclaimed, the next artist is hot on their tails, ready to snatch the proverbial crown straight off their heads. Contrary to popular opinion, being a pop star puts quite a strain on one’s creativity. Pop artists constantly have to declare themselves one step ahead of the curve, if only to survive the next culture-gripping trend wave. New York-based outfit Penguin Prison churn out brilliant, scintillating, ’80s-inspired pop hits with the edge of an indie band whose been honing their craft for years. The songs burrow into your brain and hatch into a million earworms, feeding off your endorphins until you realize you’ve memorized every lyric and you’ve been dancing for a solid hour.
Penguin Prison is, for all intents and purposes, Chris Glover – a slender, shock-haired resident of Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where he inhabits a spruced up house in a row of colonial tenements left over from New York’s very first settlers (right next door is the Morris Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest standing house). It’s in this picturesque setting that Chris writes in his home studio (where a giant stuffed penguin guards watch under one of his many keyboards).
Musically, Chris wears his influences on his sleeve: the smooth grooves of Hall & Oates, the studied control of Michael Jackson, and, above all, Prince, whose knack for the grandiose is almost palpable in Chris’ work. In “Don’t Fuck With My Money”, it’s as if Chris channels all of the spunk associated with classic ’80s pop and thrusts it squarely in the dour face of the ’10s. A joyous middle finger to all the haters, “Money” might be Penguin Prison’s shining moment, but other tracks like “A Funny Thing”, with a chugging synth line and dexterous wordplay, and “The Worse it Gets”, with it’s undeniably Knight Rider chorus of ‘I’ve got a car that I call Jenny/I take her out when there’s too much noise in my head’, elevates the band from a retro throwback to a genius all their own.
I took the A train all the way to the top of Manhattan to hang out with Chris in his studio, and we talked about his life before Penguin, joining a draconian youth choir with Alicia Keys, and why, if all goes well, his band will be massive in 2011.
Your live show is amazing. How did you find the guys in your band? Did you hold an audition?
I didn’t audition. I didn’t want to (laughs)! I didn’t want the band to seem put-together or staged. They’re just all my friends. I didn’t even want to give myself any options. I was just like, ‘I want that guy to play the drums.’ And I just called him, and he said he couldn’t do it, and I was like, ‘No, you have to do it!’ (Laughs) I kept telling him about what I was doing and kept sending him stuff, so he finally called and said he could do it.
What’s the idea behind bringing the songs to a live setting?
The idea behind it is to just have as much fun as possible, have it sound as good as possible, and to have it be as human as possible while playing something that has a lot of electronics in it. So, human beings playing kind of futuristic stuff, but also funky stuff. Not taking ourselves to seriously, but taking it really seriously (laughs).
Its cool that you’re trying to keep it ‘human’. Electronic music definitely seems to be swinging back towards incorporating more human elements into performance. I admire electronic musicians who go out of their way to play a bunch of instruments instead of just pushing ‘Play’.
One of my things is, I don’t use the computer to play things, I use it as a blank slate to record things into. I use analog synths and actually play them.
How do you create a song? Do you just experiment in the home studio?
Yeah. I don’t know how I make a song, I make it different every time. Sometimes I sit down in my chair and I’m like, ‘Okay, I have to make a song,’ and it’s like, what am I going to do? I have no idea. The best way to do it is like, I sleep, and then wake up, and have a melody in my head. I have a tape recorder next to my bed, so I just sing it into that, and build the song around that. That’s the best way to do it, honestly. It’s like, ‘Thanks, whoever just gave me that melody!’ Other times it’s not fun. Really not fun at all. It’s work. Like, pounding stuff out, and a lot of the time it’s bad. When I make something bad, I just abandon it.
You don’t try and work it out?
No. I just toss it.
It’s important in the creative process to be able to cast things aside and not feel bad about it. No one has a perfect first draft. In the past few years, a lot of popular dance music has been disco-influenced or house-influenced, whereas your songs are just straight-up ’80s pop and very well recorded. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Well, there are different ways of saying ‘well recorded’. Like, what is well recorded? Is Britney Spears well recorded, is Miley Cyrus well recorded? Or is Al Green well recorded? Because that kind of sounds bad, in a way, and that’s what I want to do, make stuff that’s well recorded, but in the sense that it sounds like old samples and old ’70s stuff. I want the drums to sound like they’re from the ’70s. I’m sure that’s what you mean.
I feel like a lot of bands are really into having a very bedroom quality to their recordings, which works for some people, but it’s gotten to the point where it sounds very gimmicky. Your music actually sounds like—
It was recorded in a studio.
That’s what I want. I was talking to different labels, like XL and stuff, and they were trying to understand, like, ‘What’s going on? You made this in your home? It doesn’t sound like it.’ It’s almost like accusing me (laughs)! Not really, but it’s like, ‘Did you really do this?’ Yeah, I did (laughs). I don’t know how, just over years of experimenting and just meticulously working on something for a long time. I’ve just made the best with what I have, and I don’t have that much
stuff. I just try to make it sound like it’s coming out of some fancy studio, even if it’s coming out of my studio. The whole ‘bedroom’ sound, I don’t want to insult people who like that, but I don’t totally understand it. When I make music, I want a lot of people to hear it. Like, millions of people, ideally. Not that I have illusions of grandeur.
No, totally! One of the quotes I hear bands say the most is, ‘We never thought we would make it this far,’ and it’s like, ‘Really?’ Don’t you want to?
I want to go that far!
If you want to be number one, why deny it?
The whole selling out thing, that’s just not how things are defined. What is selling out? Is selling out, like, selling out a show? Like, ‘My show’s sold out. Did I sell out because everyone bought the tickets (laughs)?’
I don’t really believe in selling out, but I guess the most general definition would be changing your convictions or ideals for money.
That’s a good definition, and I don’t want to do that. I want to sell out as in, ‘no more available.’ ‘The albums are all gone, the tickets are all sold out!’
Are you a really big Prince fan?
Well, Prince and Michael Jackson. I have one song in particular called “Don’t Fuck With My Money”. Over the years I have been struggling with making my lyrics more fun and clear, and making bold statements, and that song is the one I came close to doing that with. It’s based on Prince. He’s like, ‘I’m going to say this, and it’s going to be really crazy. I’m just going to say it over and over again, and you’re all going to have fun.’
“Don’t Fuck With My Money” is definitely the song that made me think of Prince. I was feeling the ’80s pop vibes, and then there’s that part at the end where your vocals go all freestyle and funky.
It’s kind of influenced by “Kiss”. It doesn’t really sound like “Kiss”, but you can tell I was listening to it and wanted my song to sound like it, thought it’s obviously different.
“Kiss” was such a big moment for me in my musical upbringing, because I remember when I was little my mom would play it or I would hear it on the radio, and that part at the very end where he screams ‘Ain’t no particular sign I’m compatible with’ completely blew my mind. I remember being like, ‘Wow, you can do anything.’
And yet, that was really big. That’s what I want to do. When people say ‘pop’ they think of Britney Spears and stuff like that, but that’s not what I think about. I think of Prince, Michael Jackson. They made hits, they made cool hits. It’s fucking cool. It comes on the radio and you’re like, ‘That is fucking awesome.’
It’s just a question of being confident. All those guys were like, ‘Guess what? This is now acceptable,’ and people were like, ‘Okay.’ If you’re amazing, you just are. There’s that story about how Prince was getting booed off stage when he toured with the Rolling Stones early in his career. But he was just like, ‘Fuck you guys, I’m Prince.’
He does his own thing. I’m not really going to be doing stuff like that (laughs). You just have to find your audience. I’m friends with Girl Talk, and he likes that kind of stuff. What I like about his is – I’ve been friends with him for years, since before he got big – and he’s been doing the same thing all those years. He actually likes to play to people who don’t like him. It’s his favorite thing. He doesn’t do it as often anymore, obviously, that’s what I’m talking about, playing to an audience who you know aren’t going to like you. The Beastie Boys did it when they opened for Madonna in the ’80s. That’s the most fun. That’s the best (laughs)!
What exactly is your musical background? I know you were on Interscope as a solo artist and got dropped a few years ago.
I mean, I started singing in a choir. I went to a professional performing arts school. I was in a gospel choir, we had this teacher, her name was Aziza. She was really strict, really disciplinarian. She wrote all the songs, we sang her original songs. (Laughing) It was crazy. Alicia Keys was in the choir. It was for really good singers. We’d stand up and do drills. We performed all over the city. That’s how I started singing. Then I started playing guitar, I was in punk bands. I went to high school with the people who were eventually Holy Ghost!, so we were in a bunch of bands. I went to college and started making poppier songs. I was in a fake boy band (laughs).
Tell me more about that!
It was me and these two guys, and I had a good voice and they didn’t (laughs). They would rap. It was like an *NSYNC-meets-the-Beastie-Boys type thing.
That sounds amazing.
We got really big at my college. Like, really big (laughs). Everyone in the whole town would come to our shows. We were called Smartest People at Bard. I went to Bard College (laughs). It was really crazy. So I feel like I’ve already experienced a micro version of—
Yeah (laughs)! I was like, walking around campus and everyone knew who I was. We talked about Bard, all of our songs were about Bard. I sent a song to Q-Tip, and he actually got back to us. He wanted to sign us to some label he was starting, but it was a sub-label to a major label, and they met me and thought I was crazy. At the time I was making like all different types of songs, completely unrelated – hardcore rap, bubblegum pop, gospel, Paul Simon Graceland songs, and they were asking me which direction I wanted to go in, and I was like, ‘This IS the direction.’ They’re like, ‘Which one do you want to be?’ And I’m like, “Naw, you don’t get it. I want to do all of those things.’ They were like, ‘Cool, good luck!’ (Laughs). Then, a little later, I got signed to Interscope. Jimmy Iovine signed me. I made an album and it was just crazy. It didn’t sound like anything. It was all over the place and every song sounded different. I handed it in and they were like, ‘It’s amazing!’ and nothing ever happened (laughs).
What was the album called?
It was called Hell Isn’t Even That Funny (Interscope, 2005).
It sounds to me like you’ve always sort of done your own thing.
The music I was making back then, when I listen to it now, I can see why [Interscope shelved the record]. If it came out, it would have been whatever, some people would have liked it, I would have found an audience, but now the music I’m making is 10 times, 100 times better.
The Penguin Prison stuff seems very well thought out. Conceptually, it’s a very fleshed out idea. Even when I was listening to the music for the first time, and I was ignorant of your background with Interscope and all that, I got the feeling that you knew what you were doing, that you weren’t all—
[Shurgs sarcastically while adopting a hipster drawl] ‘Eh, this thing’s good, maybe you like it, maybe you don’t.’
(Laughing) Totally, which I feel is how a lot of people are.
It’s well thought out, but when you make a song there’s no way to be like, ‘I’m just going to think until my brain starts exploding and the song’s gonna be done.’ Music has to be a mixture of everything: brain power, heart, soul, sweat. Even a song like “Animal Animal”, ‘I don’t want to think anymore about something I can’t see.’ I’m singing ‘I don’t want to think anymore,’ I want to be like an animal. I came up with that in a really primal way. I made the music then just put a mic up and went crazy, ran around the run screaming, just made it really fucking loud, and sang that lyric. It’s all about finding a mix between the primal and the intellectual.
You’ve worked a bunch with Holy Ghost!. Is there anyone else you’d want to collaborate with in the near future?
Yeah, definitely. I love Hot Chip, I mean I would be into collaborating with them. I’m into a lot of people. Prince would be awesome, but I don’t know if he’s good anymore (laughs).
Really? You don’t think he’s good anymore? I loved
3121 (NPG, 2006), and “Black Sweat”, I thought those were pretty out there.
Yeah, dude! It’s kind of on another level.
I dunno, I feel like he just lost his mind (laughs).
(Laughing) I mean, he did say that the Internet was a fad six months ago, and proceeded to release his new album exclusively as covermounts on European newspapers, so there’s that.
(Laughing) That’s so crazy.
That’s why people still revere him, I guess, because he’s just doing his own thing that no one really understands.
It would be interesting working with Quincy Jones, to see if he could still produce like he did when he did Thriller (Epic, 1982) and Off the Wall (Epic, 1979).
Has he produced anything recently?
I have no idea, but it would be interesting to see if he could still make stuff sound like that.
Where do you think your brand of hi-fi, mainstream pop fits in in today’s musical culture? I feel that a lot of huge pop singles right now are almost novelty, almost to the extent of the Auto-Tune the News guys doing “Bed Intruder Song”. It’s almost like people are famous before becoming actual pop stars, whereas I feel that Penguin Prison are trying to become big in an almost old-fashioned way.
I think novelty always happened, even if the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, you know? But there are definitely still always bands who are actually good and have careers, like Radiohead, Wilco, Arcade Fire… Weren’t Arcade Fire number one a couple of weeks ago?
Yeah, the new album went to number one for a week, which was pretty cool. But those bands aren’t really pop bands, they’re more indie rock bands.
That’s true. Though, I feel like some of my songs could achieve some sort of Internet-based success. When “Don’t Fuck with My Money” comes out, I could see that creating some kind of Internet buzz.
Speaking of the new songs, when we were in your studio you played me the last track on the album, and it was this super-slow, mellow comedown. Could you tell me more about it? It’s such a different vibe from everything else I’ve heard.
It’s called “Someone Got Everything”. Basically I just wanted to have the last song on the album be not quite as pop, more a Radiohead-ish thing, slower and dark. That song’s a version of an older song – for the past few years, after I got dropped from Interscope, I was making a living making music for commercials and TV shows and stuff. I did a demo for that show Dexter, a commercial for an upcoming season or something, and they didn’t end up using it but I liked it, so I just kept working on it and made it a real song.
Penguin Prison is sort of a comeback for you, in a sense. For people who hear it for the first time it might not be obvious, but its definitely well constructed. It’s kind of like Andrew WK, like people think he’s this party dude that came out of nowhere, not realizing that he’s been making underground experimental music for years.
Yeah, most people don’t know about my first incarnation, or whatever. They just think I’m a new artist, which I am, in a way. But in another way, it is kind of like a comeback. Or getting revenge. I’m not sure against what though (laughs). I’m glad that my first album didn’t come out, because I don’t really like it anymore. I mean, I think I did a good job, but I’m glad it was never released.
You do a lot of remix work as well, what do you have coming down the pipeline?
Well I just did one for Passion Pit where I was really inspired by the Friendly Fires remix that Aeroplane did of “Paris”. I just wanted to use a really pure female vocal. Oh, I just did a remix of a Jamiroquai song (laughs)!
Wait, a new Jamiroquai song?
Yeah, he’s coming out with a new album!
(Laughing) It just came out on the Internet the other day. The song’s called “White Knuckle Ride”.
You can’t really hate on Jamiroquai.
I know, man.
Chris wears black tank by Robert Geller