Bristol’s hard-rocking OGs are back.
In 2013, Gonga released their third studio album Concrescence. The record was widely praised as their finest work and set the benchmark for the group’s transcendental, heavy-as-fuck rock. That year, all appeared to be going from strength to strength for the revered Bristolian trio. However, on the dawn of their musical triumph – they suddenly dropped away from the scene, in one of their most challenging times.
“Things were going well at that point,” reflects drummer Thomas Elgie. “We recorded and self-released Concrescence, and then did a tour to promote that. Last thing we did was headline a stage at Desertfest.” The future looked bright for Gonga back then. However, Thomas explains how he was “suddenly hit with ongoing health problems which enforced hiatus on the band for four years. It was pretty bad. We did the odd gig in that time but not much was happening.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first major setback the band have incurred since their formation in 1998. After recording their second album, Transmigration, in 2008 – their singer abruptly quit the band. “It wasn’t something that any of us would have chosen, especially at that point,” remarks guitarist George Elgie. “With Transmigration, things had really started to properly lock in with [ex-vocalist] Joe Volk and it was a real shame we had to make that change, especially as it happened just as the album was being released.” He continues, “This made it really hard for us to tour Transmigration in any meaningful way. The amount of time, effort and money we invested in that album, to then have it just sit there without properly touring or promoting, it was a real blow.”
But Gonga refused to allow such a blow to deter them. “We just couldn’t stop doing this,” says George. “We did try a load of singers out but it didn’t feel quite right. But through sheer determination and a real need to play music – we just had to fucking carry on.” Carry on they did, without a singer. Thom concludes, “Faced with Joe’s departure, and the fact that no other vocalist we tried seemed to be right for us, it was obvious that we should focus more on writing as an instrumental outfit.”
It is often said that creative restriction breeds innovation. In this respect, the loss of an irreplaceable singer turned into the gain of a captivating, new aural landscape for Gonga. Elaborating on the band’s decision to go instrumental, George notes, “Between Tom, Latch and I, we somehow found this way of uncovering musical landscapes in the most neanderthal kind of way. It’s not like Beethoven, but no one questions that classical music doesn’t have vocals – so why should it matter that we’re an instrumental rock band? Being vocal-less is not an issue; you just need to create in a different way. I think we’ve managed to create instrumental music that we feel is interesting. You get to contemplate when you listen to instrumental music which is something we like. Without the distraction of vocals, that incorporate lyrical themes, you’re free to interpret and wander off mentally. That appeals to us.” He also points out that “having a singer again is not something we’re ever going to rule out. Gonga is constantly evolving. It’s whatever we want it to be at any time. We’re comfortable doing what we’re doing, but always open to change and growth.”
On the subject of change and growth, jump forward to the present and things are looking very different for the three-piece. First, they recently made a triumphant return to the stage alongside their musical heroes, The Obsessed. “It was fucking amazing to share a stage with The Obsessed, and they were into Gonga,” grins Thomas.
“Yeah, Wino did actually say something like ‘maaaan that shit was heavy and funky, you nailed me to the wall motherfucker’,” enthuses George. “It was amazing to play that gig.”
Not content to rest on their laurels, they boldly opted to showcase all new material that night. Bassist Latch Manghat states, “It was a long time coming because of the health shit, but the idea was for us to come back with something fresh, new, that no one’s heard. To show that we’re back and we’re looking forward. During all that time off we had, we’d been working on new material, so we had it ready to drop. It was a statement of positivity rather than being nostalgic.”
“Yeah,” chimes George. “It was good to be able to start again from ‘now’ rather than looking back. We know that the older stuff is important, but the fun bit for a working musician is writing new stuff, doing new shit, being creative and trusting your fans are on board with you. I thought the new songs went down fucking well, there was that viking headbanging his tits off down the front,” he laughs.
Following their welcome return to gigging in 2019, the band are set to commit their new material to record very soon. With six years having passed since the release of Conscresence, the term “long-awaited” would be an understatement for Gonga fans. Delving into what they can expect from the eagerly anticipated new record, George describes how “each time it always sounds a little bit heavier, but it’s identifiably Gonga. These new songs are an evolution from what’s gone before. I know every band is going to say that, but each album has been an improvement on the last and you could see that from the response we got from fans and the critics. Get better or fuck off!”
Latch expands on this: “We try and move it on so it’s different to what we’ve done before musically. But to me, whenever we turn up, turn on and rock out – it sounds like Gonga. Which is probably why we’re still doing it; because it doesn’t sound like anything else.”
“We’ve always strived to become better players and writers,” says Thomas. “There’s a progression with the sound in terms of our understanding of how to write better and how to use techniques to accentuate feeling. In terms of hitting peak heaviness and grooviness, that desire is constant in everything we do.”
He continues, “But we’ve got a lot of work to do to better Concrescence. Out of all of our previous releases, that’s the only one I can actually listen to. I am really enjoying the new shit though, and that’s the beauty for me – trying to improve on something that I already reckon is good. That’s a challenge. I love that journey and once the new record is finished, recorded and released – I’ll think it’s better, otherwise it wouldn’t get released. It’s currently still in this embryonic stage and there’s loads of work to do, but the fact that what we do now will affect the next few years of our lives is exciting. That’s what this process is about. We’re elbow-deep in the birth canal trying to bring forth this new album ‘calf’ now, and once we drag that formed thing out and watch it run off in to the fields of music where it will live, we can wash our hands and start rutting with new ideas in the forest of creativity for the next album!” Thom pauses. “Yeah…I grew up on a farm,” he laughs.
When it comes to their current musical influences, it’s clear that Gonga draw inspiration purely from the creative connection they share as a unit. “Our influences are essentially each other.” smiles George. “We’re all pretty close.” Thomas, who is George’s brother, nods in agreement. “I feed off what the others play and that inspires me to push myself,” he explains. “I get that from all of us in the band – we come down to the studio and start jamming and it’s a very instinctive thing, it’s very personal to us. We all react to each other’s contribution to the whole.”
George also opts to cite literary works as influences, as opposed to musical ones. “I don’t think I actually have many influences musically at the moment.” he mentions. “But stuff like Nassim Haramein and Alan Watts has become regular reading, which contributes to thoughts that ultimately become riffs.” Latch adds, “Musically we’re trying to write with as much originality and integrity as we can. Influences-wise, in terms of concepts, for the last album there was stuff like Graham Hancock. Joseph Campbell, The Odyssey, the classics, the Sagas – we’re thinking about that for this new record. It’s instrumental music so it’s about concepts and ideas in the absence of lyrics.”
There are many bands, who after a few years of productivity, seem to dry up and hit a wall. The trials and tribulations of band life can wear musicians down. In this respect, it’s refreshing to witness Gonga, a band who have been going for an impressive 21 years, still nurturing that creative spark with utmost importance.
“It’s impossible to douse that spark if it’s there I think,” notes George. “There are definitely low points where things don’t work, but that, to me is what ‘laziness’ is. It’s in those points where things aren’t working when you have to say ‘it’s okay if I can’t be fucked’; it just means you’re not feeling creative in that moment. That’s how it works for me. Don’t feel pressure to be creative and listen to what your spirit is telling you… and then all of a sudden, a little valve opens and you’re okay! Often creative moments happen when you’re least expecting it. The key is to always have a guitar nearby!”
“How do you turn it on, how do you turn it off? Who fucking knows?” asks Thomas. “It can’t be a conscious effort to keep the creative spark alive; the fact that we want to continue keeps it alive. It’s been what we do for over 20 fucking years now. It makes us happy.”
Latch describes how they “have new tunes churning out all the time, every time we come down the room. When we play together, we love it. That’s why we keep doing it.”
It’s great to see a band with such a vital love for jamming together. Their refreshingly enthusiastic attitude isn’t just confined to within their own band. As stalwarts of the Bristol scene, George comments how “there’s loads of positive stuff to say about the heavy scene in Bristol right now. Loads of venues are doing cool shit at the moment.”
Thomas elaborates, “There’s a good family starting to appear here with promoters and venues and regulars you see at all these gigs. It’s cool. I’m really digging Seven Crowns from Bath at the moment. FUK are sounding good too. There’s a lot of touring bands stopping in Bristol now compared to when we started and we used to have to travel all over the country to see the bands we were listening to.”
Evidently, now is the perfect time and place for the mighty return of Gonga. And it’s bloody good to have them back.
Words: Serena Cherry