Mammoth Penguins // Interview

mammoth penguins

“…that first gig he came to, he was sat outside and we were going to talk to him, as we went over these two girls ran over and were all ‘you guys are so amazing on stage!’ and it looked totally set up” laughs Mammoth Penguins’ Emma Kupa, reminiscing on the gig where current drummer Tom Barden first saw the band play live and which would later facilitate his recruitment. “I was completely sold from that point on, really!” retorts Barden “The first time I saw them was a year ago this week, and then I first played with them about 8 months ago. One of my first thoughts when I saw them live was ‘this band are really good – I can listen to Mark’s basslines and imagine what I’d play to compliment them.’ It’s just been so easy to work together.”

The Cambridgeshire trio come with a wealth of musical experience and adaptability: Boxall can also be found playing in both Violet Woods and Puncture Repaid Kit, Barden in Pony Collaboration and Jacqui And Geoff, and Kupa recently released a solo EP and has also joined forces with the inimitable Darren Hayman to form – but of course – The Hayman Kupa Band. Despite Mammoth Penguins undoubtedly gelling as a band in an impressively short space of time, you can’t help but wonder how they keep track of ideas and compartmentalise projects. “I think it’s harder for Emma,” offers Boxall “because I play drums in Violet Woods and bass in Mammoth Penguins so with it being a different instrument it’s easier to differentiate.” “It can be tricky,” concedes Kupa “the good thing with these guys is that they’ll push me to write more and more ambitiously, because the solo stuff was a case of me deciding to write some acoustic songs about family, and the things I’ve done with Darren Hayman were really raw ideas that we then sat down and worked on together. With our songs I think generally there has to be some form of riff to it so I usually have to do quite a bit to it from my initial idea before I can bring it to the guys.”

Talk soon moves to processes, and how they might be different from other works they’ve made. “I only contributed to half of the songs because half of the songs had already had drum parts written for them” admits Barden, honestly “with the newer songs – and it was usually a completely new song that Emma was bringing in – we’d all add bits to it or make suggestions. It’s quite collaborative, but I don’t think it’s any different from the other things I’ve been working on. I think that bit going well in the first couple of months was important to me when I joined the band – the fact that it gelled properly.” It’s something Kupa agrees with, “It’s the same with recording. When you’ve all got full-time jobs it’s always a case of booking a couple of days and record six songs and then wait a couple of months and write some more and go back to record those, and spend a couple of evenings going back to mix things.” “We had two goes, didn’t we?” recounts Boxall “We had one lot with the first batch of songs written with our old drummer, and then the other half of the album.”

Listening to the finished product – blessed with a certain muscular melodicism – the results feel like a band not only continuing to learn both generally and from each other, but also who are having an utter blast doing so. Almost as soon its mentioned, Boxall’s face lights up, followed by a sheepish chuckle. “ I’d never really done any singing before,” he recounts “and in one of our first practices Emma asked if I fancied doing some backing vocals, I didn’t want to let her down – my inner monologue was all “for God’s sake Mark, don’t tell her you can’t sing!” – so I did it” Having looked into the middle distance pondering the question, Barden, chimes in with “For me it’s about that fluidity and being able to regularly practice and spend a lot of time playing the drums and getting everything to work together. I definitely feel there’s greater space for experimentation compared to other bands I’ve been in. In a way it still feels like we’re looking around and honing our sound and that’s quite exciting in a three-piece where you’ve got that space to be able to do that.” “I’ve just really enjoyed playing with these guys,” reflects Kupa “and listening to interesting basslines. In Standard Fare I was having to sing and play my bass so I couldn’t always write the basslines that I wanted. Mark isn’t singing as much so he can write some really interesting basslines as a result.f. The guitar parts aren’t going to be as good as Standard Fare, I imagine, because we had a really amazing guitarist but I’m trying, and I’m learning, and it’s exciting for me to be doing that.”

Ah, Standard Fare. In the short-term at least, there will be parallels drawn between Mammoth Penguins and Kupa’s much-loved (for a window into just how much, you need only witness the scenes at their last-ever gig) former project, which called time in 2013. Such parallels aren’t wholly unfounded – both feature Kupa as a frontperson alongside two others, playing a brand of melodic guitar-music melded to personal lyrics. It’s a point not lost on Kupa, who laughs as she protests/explains “I didn’t mean to do it! I contacted Mark when I moved across the country, and we were going to get someone else – maybe even two people – and it just didn’t work out like that. There’s something about three-pieces that I really love, especially as someone who used to play bass as it’s so nice to have that space to be able to write something really interesting, while it’s good to play in a four-piece like I do with Darren Hayman; there’s less pressure, there’s also something really great about three-pieces to me. I’m a bit older, and these guys are a bit older so it’s a more mature band than Standard Fare. Also, our musical influences are a unit are different to what those in Standard Fare were – I’m not sure how to describe it but I definitely feel that what I’m going for musically is different to what I was going for then, lyrically it’s different in that I’m writing about different subjects too.”

Then you realise that whether you make it or not has nothing to do with how much you stress about it.

“It’s really hard to talk about us in respect of something else without sounding really harsh or selling ourselves short. Should that comparison necessarily be dissuaded?” she muses “I don’t think a lot of people will come to us from Standard Fare – the music scene has changed and people’s favourite bands change all the time. If people liked me in then, there’s a chance they might like this because it’s still quintessentially me. I’ve not lost any sleepless nights worrying about it. It’s like relationships – you’re probably going to go for the same kind of person, be it gender or age range or hair colour or whatever. Ultimately, I learned so much from Standard Fare and I see it in new bands now – that sense that you’re wondering if you’re going to make it, so your whole focus is on making it and there’s this pressure and stress. Then you realise that whether you make it or not has nothing to do with how much you stress about it. You just need to focus on playing with people you enjoy playing with, making good records, playing shows when you can and love it. So my attitude towards it is very different compared to how it was back with Standard Fare.”

Kupa’s songwriting has always been at once very personal, meaningful and transcendent, a trait which has resulted in it being much-loved and admired by those who’ve had the pleasure of spending time with it. Although tackling a variety of subjects (“There’s a song on the album about being in your late twenties and looking back on what you’ve achieved, which isn’t romantic at all” she’ll concede), it still possesses the key characteristics that has won it its many fans to date. “Do you want me to introduce metaphors to my songs?” she asks mock-defensively as the topic is raised “Because I can’t really do that…” Boxall chimes in, “You’ve written from other perspectives, though. You wrote that song about when we had a disagreement and then put in some lines from my perspective, didn’t you?” “Yeah, I wrote a few words from his perspective. It didn’t make the album, though…it’s a b-side!” the pair collapse into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Composure duly regained, she continues “but it was pretty personal before, and it’s still pretty personal now. I don’t know how else to write, even if it’s only a split-second. They might not be things I necessarily stand by now but I felt them at the time. I write when I feel or think something and that’s how the songwriting process starts – the impetus comes from. I’ll always write about what’s on my mind and it’ll always come from what I’m thinking of at any given time.”

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With each band member well-versed in the relase of records and the management of expectations, you can’t help but wonder how they’re approaching the impending release of their latest creation. “After this record comes out,” begins Boxall, the corners of his mouth curling upwards to signify an impending good-natured ribbing “I’d quite like it if gig listings stopped having ‘ex Standard Fare’ after Mammoth Penguins” “At least have ‘current Violet Woods’ too in the interests of balance!” adds Barden with a bark of laughter “I’d like people to know some of the words. I want people to listen to it and come to shows and think about it” “That’d be awesome if people knew the words,” concurs Kupa, visibly excited at the thought “having people come to shows and getting excited when you start playing a particular intro is pretty special.”

She stops briefly, musing on the contents of our encounter thus far “Going back to your earlier point, I think I’m more relaxed than I was in Standard Fare as I’ve gotten older, and I think we’re maybe more communicative. I don’t think I’m above putting my foot down on certain things, though.” “ I think that’s good,” agrees Barden “I’ve never been in one but I’m not sure bands that are total democracies ever really work. You need someone with a vision and to pick a direction” “Yeah, I can’t think of any that I like.” says Boxall, to paint a picture on unequivocal unanimity “I like singer-songwriters and although I don’t writer songs I do write basslines so I like to find a good singer-songwriter and attach myself. I think I found that in Emma, in the literal sense rather and not a shoddy open-mic night sense. Someone with a great voice and who can write good songs. Then I don’t have to worry about that stuff and I can focus on writing good basslines. It’s a happy dictatorship and the buses run on time,” the trio collapse into laughter once more “that’s the main thing.”

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Live: The Lexington – July 21st

Buy: Mammoth Penguins – Hide & Seek