It seems strangely apt to be meeting Essex/London-based Penguin Party at the iconic South Bank Centre on the banks of the River Thames, overlooking a cold, but glistening Waterloo sunset. Reviews of the band’s second album, the cheekily-titled Sex Furniture Warehouse, have compared songwriter Dave Milligan’s spiky, character-based, pop vignettes with both Ray Davies and Kinks aficionados, Blur.
“That’s very, very kind of them,” says Milligan, a tad embarrassed by the major namechecks. “I suppose I can see what they’re getting at. I’ve tried to capture a certain feeling of chirpy Englishness and, er, melancholic nostalgia. If that makes sense.
“It’s an album about people. The people we see everyday… on the train, on the bus, the bloke standing outside a shop window talking on the phone. Who are they? What are their lives like? Who do they love? Do they dress up in women’s clothing late at night? Everybody’s got an interesting story to tell.”
Believe it or not, Milligan has been guiding various incarnations of The Penguin Party since he was about eight years old. “My dad bought me a load of Action Men toys,” he remembers, “but me and my brother weren’t interested in wars or guns. We just used to dress them up as rock stars. We’d make little amps out of matchboxes and give them cardboard guitars. The name I came up with was Penguin Party, after a daytrip to London. I saw all the people in suits, marching to work and, in my eight-year-old’s mind, they looked like penguins.”
Although he finally formed a real Penguin Party band in his teens, it still took many years – not to mention a swift kick up the backside from various friends and family – before Milligan was finally persuaded to put out a ‘proper’ album, 2008’s See Thru Songs, released on the Essex indie label, Sitting Target Music.
Buoyed by the album’s critical success – Not Lame likened its, “distinctive British take on pop” to Nick Lowe, Squeeze and even Martin Newell – Milligan began work on a follow-up with the help of drummer, Dave McGrath; bass player, Gareth Hall; and guitarist, Jake Milligan. McGrath and Hall have played in various club and covers bands with Milligan (McGrath also featured in an early, 80s version of Penguin Party), while Jake is actually Dave’s son, who was 17 at the time the album was made.
“I’m sure a lot of 17-year-olds would feel weird being in a band with their dad,” says Jake. “But I’d heard him recording the songs and I knew they were good. I’ll admit it was a bit strange seeing my dad at the front of the stage, but, after a while, I thought, ‘He’s not bad’. When I played a gig with my own band [Essex’s Curbside Hotel], I realised I was actually nicking a few of my dad’s moves!”
“Penguin Party was never meant to go much further than my bedroom,” says Milligan. “But after I released the first album, I started getting offers to play gigs and festivals. That was when I realised I had to start taking things a bit more seriously.”
The all-new, four-piece Penguin Party played their debut show in 2010 at some place called the Cavern Club in Liverpool. “I think that was what convinced Jake to join us. He’s a huge Beatles fan,” laughs Milligan.
With the addition of McGrath, Hall and Milligan Jr., the new album sets its sights far beyond the chiming power pop of See Thru Songs. “I was probably listening to a bit too much XTC when I made that album,” admits Milligan. “The new one still has that 80s, English pop feel, but there’s a whole host of other darker stuff in there… bands like Monochrome Set, Jazz Butcher and the Smiths.”
“Not to mention Panadol, Berocca, Guinness and Jack Daniels!” chips in Hall.
A self-confessed hard-living, hard-loving, hard-drinking, hard-nosed, hard-hatted Welshman, it was Hall who first spotted the Southend shop that gave the Sex Furniture Warehouse its name. “Obviously, it was called the Essex Furniture Warehouse,” he grins, “but somebody had nicked a couple of the letters, which made it far more interesting.”
Milligan’s lyric for opening track At Home With Mr Trebus was inspired by the idea of somebody living in a cluttered house, but it’s Hall’s grizzled, breathless asides about motorised attachments and wipe-clean surfaces that really suck you in (so to speak!).
From there, the album careens through the lives of characters like Mike Leigh-On-Sea (the grown-up family man who refuses to grow up, still thinking he can party with the best of ’em) and Vivien the cross-dresser in the song She Was Only A Roofer’s Daughter.
All of these are seen through Milligan’s ever-curious eyes. “I’m a 40-something bloke with a really happy home life,” he admits. “I don’t go round shagging random women, taking drugs or clubbing at the weekend. So, I don’t write about those things. I write about things that 40-something blokes think about.
“I sit on a train for four hours every day. Coming in and out of London. Wondering who all those people are. How do they feel about their lives? Are they pissed off? I know I am. There’s nothing at all wrong with my life, but I just feel a bit… disappointed. Disappointed that life hasn’t turned out like they said it would on Tomorrow’s World. Where’s my jet-pack? Where’s my sky-car?
“Some people have described the album as nostalgic and maybe that’s what they mean.”
“I think it’s definitely what I would call a mature album,” adds McGrath. “People often talk about midlife as a crisis, but there is something about getting older that gives you the opportunity to look back and have an opinion about life. And to have the courage to stand by those opinions.
“When you’re young, you’re always so worried about what other people think. When you get to our age, you don’t really give a shit what other people think. You look at the world and let people know what you think for a change.”
“If anything, I suppose that’s what I hope people get out of this album,” says Milligan. “I hope they recognise the way it’s looking at the world. I hope people of my age can listen to it and understand what I’m on about. I hope they feel comfortable with it and perhaps see themselves or people they know in there.
“As for Jake’s generation…” he adds, looking over at his son. “Maybe they’ll listen to it and understand their parents just that little bit more.”
Danny Scott, Jan 2011