When I was at Bard College I saw an ad in the paper that said Q-Tip was looking for demos. Then his assistant called me out of the blue and said they were interested. We had lunch, I went to LA, they came to my house…it was weird. I was living at home with my mom. I had pictures of him on the wall, in my room.
A few years ago music media seized upon by a biblical-esque legion of acts with animal names. Lions, Tigers and Bears descended alongside Whales, Pigeons and Moths. Even a Little Dragon. Among the zoological blitz in 2009 was one in particular which piqued my interest: Penguin Prison.
Now, all of two summers later, here we are atop the swanky Soho House hotel, under a bulbous amber moon in Manhattan's formerly nefarious Meatpacking District, watching Penguin Prison play. Chris Glover (in a black and white-striped jailbird jersey) and his three band mates crank out flirty post-disco for a mash-up of industry folk and posh tourists. The spirits of Michael Jackson, Prince and Talking Heads possess Glover in his skinny red jeans and make him and his hips do wicked things. One time, Chris slings his red guitar over his head and plucks it behind his back. Another time, he runs through the crowd, seemingly heeding his namesake’s call for water. "I would've jumped in the pool, but I didn't want to get electrocuted. I remember opening for Jamiroquai, playing arenas and I wanted to jump in the crowd, but the stage was so far from the floor I couldn't see where I would've landed. We just did that tour this spring, I think we were a good fit."
Penguin Prison's funky, punk-spiked sound and street-smart attitude is as native to New York as Glover himself. Chris grew up an only child in New York's Upper East Side, where The Jeffersons had their dee-luxe apartment in the sky. His mother was a Country music fan, so his influences include unlikely heroes like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. In a mischievous tone he confesses to doing good imitations of Tom Petty and Aaron Neville.
The 29 year-old is also influenced by a lifetime of being friends with some of the city's coolest kids. As a music student, he sang in choir with Alicia Keys. He's worked with Q-Tip, or at least tried. "When I was at Bard College I saw an ad in the paper that said he was looking for demos. Then his assistant called me out of the blue and said they were interested. We had lunch, I went to LA, they came to my house…it was weird. I was living at home with my mom. I had pictures of him on the wall, in my room." Yea. It was weird.
Recently, he has been most notably associated with the dons of downtown nightlife, the DFA Records crew that includes LCD Soundsytem, The Rapture and Holy Ghost. "Holy Ghost helped me with my album, I co-wrote some of their songs. For live shows, I’ve done background vocals and played tambourine. My first gig with them was at Damon Dash's old club. To me, these are my friends. I don't walk around thinking, 'I'm in a scene.'"
For years now, Chris has lived nowhere near a scene. Currently Penguin Prison can be found in photogenic Sylvan Terrace in Hamilton Heights, near one of the last subway stops in upper-upper Manhattan. The historic cobblestone-paved neighborhood—featured in HBOs Boardwalk Empire—is miles from hipster hot beds like Williamsburg or the Lower East Side. "It's hard to find good places to eat up here, and there are always tourist taking pictures of this building; but it's a great place to live," Chris says. This is where Chris records most of his music, including Penguin Prison's debut. "For this album, for a month I also worked at The Ark Studios in London, it was owned by the guy who produced ‘What's Love Got To Do With It.’ Other than that it was done at home."
When I get the files I dont listen to the whole song at all, just the vocals. Thats all I ever pay attention to, I have no idea what any of the original chord structure is or anything.
Home is also where he does a lot of remixes, which is how he made his mark in 2010, reworking tracks for indie sensations like Goldfrapp and Passion Pit. "I'm supposed to do something for Yoko Ono," he says. "I can’t divulge the name of the song at the moment, but I’m excited." His approach to this remix will be a little different and not only because it's Ms. Ono calling. Normally, Chris hasn't heard the material and he likes it that way. "To me, it's like producing a new song. When I get the files I don't listen to the whole song at all, just the vocals. That's all I ever pay attention to, I have no idea what any of the original chord structure is or anything."
Glover's musical obsessions do not end on stage or in the studio. He's also an active DJ with bookings all over the world. Mostly I play a lot of disco, some electro stuff. I love Chic, Todd Terje. I also like to play instrumentals of my stuff and get on the mic and sing. I figure I might as well, why not? In September I'll be in San Francisco and LA. I am also playing in Santo Domingo."
When he's done DJing, the band will hit the road to promote Penguin Prison's self-titled debut due October 18 on Downtown Records. The next single will be the timely, scandalously titled, "Don't Fuck W/ My Money," which Chris describes as his favorite song on the album, "It came out of nowhere, the lyric and the melody. As I was working on it, I thought 'That's crazy I can't make a song like that.' And I asked the band and they said 'You can't do that!' So I tried to change it but it didn't come out right." Considering the censorship hoopla over Cee-Lo's "Fuck/Forget You," could "Don't Fudge With My Money" be far behind? He reassures us, "I'm gonna try not to do that. There are so many options to radio that you don't need to that."
Before we wrap things up, we have to ask about the name. Chris explains, "I was making a joke song about George W. Bush, just sitting around talking shit like 'He's a Penguin. He works for the Penguin Prison in the Penguin Position.' If that position is anything like what Glover was doing at Soho House that night, it sure looks a lot like a rock star.
"Don't Fuck With My Money"