By Lisa Mychols
Mychols Fabulous Playground – (MFP)
Meet Emperor Penguin! These are four fabulous friends of mine whose music I am positively and absolutely in LOVE with! The boys agreed to be interviewed by me, and so I prepared my questions to be as well thought out, and as entertaining, as they could be.
And now….I introduce you to….a peek Behind The Curtain interview with….Emperor Penguin!
🎶 MFP: First off, who are ALL the official members of Emperor Penguin and what roles do you/they have in the band?
JT: “Neil – Noddy Holder, Nigel – Dave Hill, Rich – Don Powell, JT – Jim Lea”
Nigel: “Neil – guitar, vocals, keyboards; Nigel – guitar, lead guitar, bass, vocals; Rich – drums, piano, JT – guitar, lead guitar, bass, vocals”
Neil: “Rich – drums, piano, making things shorter; JT – vocals, bass, guitar, tractor maintenance; Nigel – guitar, vocals, design, general responsibility for increasing guitar volume at all times; Neil – rubbish guitar, vocals, computer stuff”
🎶 MFP: Where did it all begin? Where and how did you all meet?
JT: “I first met Rich countless years ago in a cellar and have been irritating him ever since. He introduced me to the others.
“Nigel: “Rich and I met age 14 at school and formed a covers band with his older brother. After graduation from university we shared flats in London. At this point Rich was in two bands – one with JT, and another with Neil. I was asked to join both.”
Neil: “Before the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. Barnsley with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Cudworth with its shadow-guarded tombs, Aberdeen, silver city of the frozen north, whose riders wore steel and furs and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was London, reigning supreme in the dreaming south. Hither came the Penguins, shaggy-haired, sullen-eyed, guitars in hand, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under their Doctor Martened feet.”
Rich: “I met Nigel at school in Yorkshire in 1977 through my brother, Vince Berkely, who knew him from the school production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. My brother’s mate had a drum kit but his mum wouldn’t allow drums at their house, so my brother got hold of them and made me play them. We formed a band with Nigel, playing instrumental versions of chart hits. Few of the eight-year old schoolchildren present at our first ever gig at Stockingate Primary School would forget our version of ‘Rockin All Over The World’.
I met John from Devon in Oxford in 1981, when he joined a nerdy Wire-sort-of-band I was in (Agent Orange) that had advertised for a keyboard player. John said he didn’t have a keyboard but could play his guitar with a screwdriver, in the manner of Godley and Creme’s Gizmo. John soon went off to found his own post-punk Magaziney/Echo and the Bunnymen-y-style band called Ears To The Ground but by the time I met him again in ’83, Ears To The Ground had developed a busking 50’s/60’s covers alter ego, called The Rockin Raja Brothers, who needed a snare drum.
We moved to London in 84/5 and while John was kipping on a sofa in my lounge he met my flat-mate Nigel and we drafted him into the Rockin’ Rajas, as his mastery of all the Shadows hits would widen our repertoire considerably.
Meanwhile I’d met Neil at the ad agency where we both worked. He’d brought with him from the wilds of Aberdeen the remnants of a punk band called He’s Dead Jim but he had no drummer and a large bedroom with a drumkit-shaped space in it. Luckily I needed somewhere to keep my drums at the time, so in return for storage space, I joined his band called The Waltons – in our better moments a hybrid of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crowded House and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. As often happened, people noticed Nigel was quite a good guitarist, so we stole half of him from the Rockin Rajas and expanded The Waltons into a five-piece in 1987.
After 10 critically-acclaimed but commercially disastrous years, The Waltons (briefly The Treens) all got married and jacked it in. The Rockin’ Rajas continued to play 50s and 60s covers at weddings until even the parents of the happy couple were too old to remember any of the songs and they also ground to a halt.
In 2000, somebody had the idea of forming Emperor Penguin – a power-pop combo of Neil, Nigel, me and Adrian from the Rockin Rajas. Adrian’s brother was a tip top BBC sound engineer and snuck us into Maida Vale Studios to record several tracks which became product number 1: Crumhorn. The arrival of babies restricted Emperor Penguin’s live work to one gig at a rowdy ad agency party where the sound man was skunked to the eyeballs and I was likened by hecklers to the sitcom character Father Ted. Adrian eventually left London for the West Country and Emperor Penguin went into hibernation, although of course penguins don’t do that, do they? Let’s say we sat on an egg.
Many years went by until someone suggested an idea which had been staring us all in the face for a long time – get John in. So in 2015, or was it 2016 we began rehearsing covers of bands we liked – Fountains of Wayne, BeBop DeLuxe, Dave Edmunds, and er The Beatles – until one day, Neil turned up with a song called Moth Meet Flame. All of a sudden no-one could stop writing great songs (except me – I don’t do that) and here we are, three albums later. A fine musical and geographical journey was had by all.”
🎶 MFP: What made you all start Emperor Penguin, and is there a story behind the name?
JT: “I always wanted to be in the band, but pride made me wait until they asked me – It only took 14 years.
“Neil: “We noticed that there was a shocking shortage of groups composed of four middle-aged white men playing Beatles-inspired guitar pop and thought we’d fill the gap in the market. I don’t think there’s a story behind the name but many other names were considered and rejected, including: Fishy Wishy; Egg the Egg; Draw My Dog; Cheesequake; Roast.”
Nigel:“The current line up is an evolution of several earlier versions with different personnel. The name also; previous names being The Waltons, The Treens and Roast before (I seem to recall) we decided that everyone loves penguins, so let’s name ourselves after the grandest sounding one.”
🎶 MFP: Has Emperor Penguin continuously been active since the beginning, or was there ever a break in between?
Neil: “Emperor Penguin went into hibernation from about 2001 to 2016 after original member Adrian Long moved out of town. Like King Arthur’s knights, the remaining Penguins fell into a sleep under a mountain somewhere in Avalon, with our guitars by our sides, until the hour of Britain’s need (2017), when we returned to claim our kingdom.”
Nigel:“The initial activity began in the late 1990s with sessions that became ‘Crumhorn’. The original bassist then moved out of London, we became quite busy with our covers/function band ‘The Rajas’ and life got in the way until we picked it up again about 5 years ago.”
🎶 MFP: Do you remember when it all just clicked, and when you knew your chemistry was spot on?
Rich: “Rehearsing ‘Maid In Heaven’ and it not sounding at all bad”
JT: “When I heard the first mix of (The Theme From) Falling Tree with Nigel’s lead vocal”
Nigel: “For me it was the first time David Bash invited us to play The Cavern at the Liverpool IPO and the release of second album Rum Pop Engineer.”
🎶 MFP: Have any of you ever fought over a girl?
Nigel: “No but plenty of girls continue to fight over us. Shameful really but they’re only human.”
JT: “Not with each other.”
Neil: “I’m a lover not a fighter.”
🎶 MFP: What was the original goal you all shared for Emperor Penguin?
JT: “To sound like the missing link between the Ramones and XTC produced by John Barry.”
Neil:“To reach the toppermost of the poppermost. Still working on it.”
Nigel:“To combine our shared influences, see how far we could push ourselves musically in an attempt to sound like no one else.”
🎶 MFP: Hardest lesson you learned as a musician would be…?
Nigel: “Putting new strings on your guitars is never fun until you hear them.”
Neil:“The location of ‘F’.”
JT: “Your hands are important, be careful with power tools in the days before a gig.”
🎶 MFP: Have you ever shown up to a gig accidentally wearing the same exact thing?
Nigel: “No but we all have secret tattoos of Partridge Family-era Shirley Jones, but will never reveal where they are.”
Neil: “There is very little sartorial variety amongst Emperor Penguin. At most gigs it’s entirely likely that most of us will be dressed in a uniformly dowdy and drab manner.”
Rich: “When we were in the Rockin Raja Brothers we were supposed to do this on purpose, but usually someone would forget that the dress code this week was black shirts and turn up in a white on.”
🎶 MFP: What is the weirdest gig you have ever had?
Neil: “That time we supported The Wombles.”
JT: “Three members of the band once played at a Christmas party in bear costumes…
“Rich: “In the goods van of a train (a la Beatles “Should’ve Known Better”/Hard Day’s Night) with the Rockin Raja Brothers”
Nigel: “A rooftop gig at Kensington Gardens in London, where halfway through our set they announced the Casino was open in the next room. Virtually the entire audience disappeared in seconds.”
🎶 MFP: What is the coolest thing you have ever bought using money you made from music?
Nigel: My new Korg midi keyboard – just arrived a few days ago. But that was bought with wages from my day job as a coal miner. Not sure we’ve made any money from music. Yet.”
Neil: “A plectrum.”
Rich: “Money made from music…?”
🎶 MFP: When writing lyrics or music parts does it feel more strategic or is it more based on instant inspiration? (Or is it a little of both?)
Nigel: “Personally I have to have a musical or lyrical idea buzzing around my head for quite a while before I pick up an instrument. Once I do, it’s usually a quick process to get an entire song down.”
JT: “The best bits start like the ghosts of ideas that you half-see out of the corner of your eye when looking for something else.”
🎶 MFP: Who was your musical hero when you were a kid?
JT: “Mike Nesmith”
Nigel: “Hank B. Marvin and Bert Weedon in equal measure.”
Rich: “Tough choice……Gerry Shepherd from the Glitter Band or Roy Wood from Wizzard or Les Gray from Mud, or Alan Williams from the Rubettes.”
🎶 MFP: Is there another instrument you wish you had learned?
Nigel: “Drums. But you need both sides of the brain to work in harmony for that. Both sides of my brain argue constantly.”
🎶 MFP: What do you wish to accomplish in Emperor Penguin that you feel you have not accomplished yet?
Nigel: “Play live at Glastonbury. That may actually be a possibility next year…”
JT: “Record one song that is 10% as good as anything on Revolver.”
Rich: “Over 1000 listens of any song on Spotify.”
🎶 MFP: What is your favorite Emperor Penguin song and why?
JT: “At the moment, The Way the Cookie Crumbles – great concept, a joint effort with everyone playing at the top of their game.”
Neil: “It’s usually any song that I haven’t listened to for a while. And it randomly comes up in a playlist or on something I’m listening to, and I think , ‘This is good. Who is it? Oh, it’s us.’ That’s a good feeling.”
Rich: “Only Love – very simple, good tune, good lyrics, good fun to play live.”
Nigel: “Usually the most recent ones are favourites. If I had to pick one overall for the band I’d say Jensen Interceptor. One written by me I’d go for Tuesday’s World.”
🎶 MFP: What do like to write most about when it comes to lyrics and why?
Neil: “Medieval catholic saints, outer space, time travel, British foreign policy during the second world war – just the everyday, universal themes that really matter to people today.”
Nigel: “Anything goes for me apart from straightforward boy/girl songs. If we do stray into that territory it has to have a lyrical twist to make it something more interesting other than just ‘ooh baby I want you back…”
JT: “Unlikely or forgotten heroes; films and obscure TV series; idiots; flying saucers; beautiful places, people and things.”
🎶 MFP: To you, what is the BEST part about being a DIY artist or band? What is the worst part?
Neil: “Best: we can do whatever we like. Worst: we can do whatever we like“
JT: “Having to please absolutely no-one except occasionally the other band members.”
Rich: “Best part is I can make the drums sound a lot better than they would be if I had to play in real time.”
Nigel: “Best part; complete freedom to write and play what we like. If anyone else likes it too, that’s brilliant. Worst part; don’t think I’ve ever had a long enough soundcheck playing live. Ever.”
🎶 MFP: You’ve released a few EP’s and made some of your music available as free downloads. What was the purpose of giving your music away for free?
Nigel: “Particularly with the Covid restrictions of last year (we haven’t physically seen each other since last February) we wanted to keep engaging with our audience regularly. Otherwise they’ll forget about you.”
Neil: “Spreading joy to the kids of the world.”
JT: “To get someone else to listen.”
🎶 MFP: Your new album logo (that I’ve been seeing on your social media pages) is SO COOL! IT MOVES!
Nigel: Thanks a lot! We just wanted something eye-catching… pleased it caught yours!
🎶 MFP: Your new release, Corporation Pop! Can you share with our readers more about this album?
JT: “It’s full of useful advice, poignant nostalgia, sarcasm spite and fun.
“Neil:“It’s pretty good, I reckon.”
Nigel:“This is a kind of compilation of last year’s three 4 track EPs but including previously unreleased tracks. We’ve also been collaborating with other artists more so than previous album releases, which has been a lot of fun!”
🔴 🟠 🟡 🟢 🔵 🟣🔴 🟠 🟡 🟢 🔵 🟣🔴 🟠 🟡 🟢 🔵 🟣
😜 FUN QUESTIONS TIME 🤓
🟠 MFP: The beach or the woods?
JT: The sheltering pines just inland from the beach
Neil: The city
Nigel: A log cabin on the edge of the woods with a view of the sea beyond
Rich: The woods
😋 MFP: I’m ordering pizza with Emperor Penguin. What toppings am I going to ask for?
Rich: Artichoke, anchovy and black olives
Nigel: Lobster Thermidor
Neil: No pineapple. No fruit ever on a pizza
🟢 MFP: Favorite late night snack after a gig?
JT: Peanuts (salted)
Rich: Doner Kebab
Nigel: Tempura King Prawns, sweet and sour sauce dip.
Neil: Bacon sandwich
🟣 MFP: When you are not playing music, what might we find you doing instead?
Nigel: Doing my bit to ensure Donald Trump is never allowed to run for office again
Neil: Reading a book
JT: Repairing guitars and riding a motorcycle (Not at the same time)
Rich: Making a 1/24 scale model of a Messerschmitt BF109e
🟡 MFP: Most emotional song of all time for you would be?
Neil: Who Knows Where The Time Goes – Fairport Convention
Nigel: Don’t Worry Baby – Beach Boys
JT: Some Fantastic Place – Squeeze
Rich: Harvest Festival – XTC
🔴 MFP: If you could make a music mixtape for someone you were trying hard to impress, what would FIVE of those songs be?
Rich: Alfie – Dionne Warwick; Hounds of Love – Kate Bush; A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell;This Boy – The Beatles; Are You Ready To Rock? – Wizzard
Nigel: Jump Rope Gazers – The Beths; Queen Of My School – Lemon Twigs; 20 Seconds – The Real People; Helter Skelter – The Beatles; Season Cycle – XTC
Neil: The Fall – Jawbone and the Air Rifle; Gang of Four – I Found That Essence Rare; Captain Beefheart – Frownland; Neu! – Hallo Gallo; Material (Feat. William Burroughs) – Words of Advice
JT: To Sir With Love – Lulu; My Favourite Things – John Coltrane; The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead – XTC; It Might As Well Rain Until September – Carole King; Gone Shooting – AC/DC
🟢 MFP: What is currently being played on your car stereo? (CD…radio station…)
JT: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor – Mozart
Neil: No car. You don’t need a car in London.
Rich: All Quiet On The Noise Floor – Jason Falkner
Nigel: There Is No Light Without The Dark – The Stan Laurels
🔵 MFP: Name a song you are super embarrassed to admit you actually really like!
Rich: We Will – Gilbert O’Sullivan
JT: There are others who think I should be embarrassed for liking ‘When You’re Gone’ by Bryan Adams and Mel C. but I’m not.
Nigel: Xanadu – Rush (A Farewell To Kings). Like JT, everyone seems to be embarrassed by this except me.
Neil: The Osmonds – Crazy Horses
🟡 MFP: Have you ever worn stage makeup like eyeliner / lipstick, etc to a gig?
Neil: Back in the glam/punk days I used to wear eyeliner every time I left the house, never mind just for gigs.
Rich: A flesh-coloured rubber cone head wig. Everyone else was supposed to wear one but didn’t.
Nigel: Approach me with either and I won’t be responsible for my actions.
🟠 MFP: If I came to come visit you, where would you take me?
Rich: The Operating Theatre Museum, London Bridge
JT: Bodiam Castle.
Nigel: There’s a chinese restaurant in Scotland somewhere; apparently superb good food and the only one in a radius of 70 miles. It’s called Bon Appetit!
Neil: The pub! And Tate Modern art gallery
🟣 MFP: What dream concert would you LOVE to see this year?
Neil: I’d like to see the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City in 1969.
JT: An XTC reunion.
Nigel: XTC. XTC. XTC!
Media Links for Emperor Penguin
***Just want to add a quick THANK YOU to Neil Christie of Emperor Penguin for helping me with some of the more technical additions in our interview! ❤️❤️❤️ -Lisa