It has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina hit, claiming nearly 2000 lives, causing an estimated $108 Billion in damages, and putting itself in history as one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history. In many ways the southern states are feeling the affects to this day. It is no question that it changed the lives of many and for those people, they will never be the same. The internet is full of stories of people coming together after Katrina, and helping one another to rebuild their lives. One way was through music. Arguably, there is no other city in America that values music like New Orleans. Not only is it an important tourist attraction thanks to it’s rich history of Jazz, but for many it was also their way of life. Among the stories of inspiration and hope, is one of an independent rock duo by the name of Penguin.
Formed in 1994 by Michale Molero and Mickey Harrison, this do-it-yourself alternative rock group has been touring locally and self-releasing albums and EPs since 1995. Penguin’s founder Molero looks back at how he decided to be in a band: “My brother had this killer stereo system in his bedroom. He was always playing stuff loudly, mostly Metallica and Pantera or other metal, but then one day he played this song that blew me away, and that one song single-handedly pulled me away from whatever I was into at the time (which I’m sure was making fake hilarious commercials with my future bandmate with a camcorder) and threw me into the lions den of rock. It was ‘Scentless Apprentice’ by Nirvana. I joined Columbia House and BMG Music service (you know, 14 albums for $1) and started acquiring more CDs than I could keep up with. Around the same time, a friend of mine introduced me to his cousin’s band by handing me (or selling me?) their 10-song cassette, Because Good Is Dumb by Haggle. And that was it. I wanted to be in a rock band”. Just like any other indie rock band, jobs, school and life in general can shake up the main focus behind musical dream, in many ways those moments can strengthen the dynamics and lead bands into creating some of their most inspired art.
Such as the case with Penguin, who are set to release “Never Gone”, a collection of songs written and recorded after the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a city where music is so important to the culture and it’s people, many survivors looked to music to help cope with all of the loss. Not only was music a form of escapism for survivors, but the local artists used their music as a form of expression, putting into words the feelings that had about losing everything that was important to them whether it be personal belongings, homes, loved ones, or their lively hood. “When I left town, I had the clothes on my back, my dog Zelda, boxes of master tapes, my 4-track recorder, and my 8-track recorder. That’s it, no instruments, no family photo albums,” Molero states. “ Aside from reuniting with my family, my first return to normalcy was walking out of the Baton Rouge Guitar Center with an Ibanez electric/acoustic and amp combo. You know, those starter packages they sell for like $189 or whatever. Temporarily out of a job until I could return to New Orleans, I just sat there and jotted things down, came up with riffs, and recorded stuff. That was my only real escape from the sudden crazy reality I was faced with.” Working on this album became his only output for venting his frustrations with the situation. It may have ultimately kept him from spiraling deeper into depression, for example the song “Whiskey Bay” . “With no belongings and most of the city shut down, there wasn’t much to do but drink. Luckily for me alcoholism was just a temporary ‘side stint’ to music”.
By the end of 2005, Morelo had moved in with is his brother just outside of New Orleans and was able to return to work, as well as ready to record new music with the band.“I had a small collection of songs with a central theme, but I had no music equipment and the other half of the band was living wherever. In early 2006, we reunited and spent a bit of our FEMA money on rock gear. We recorded an EP (Your Anguish Sustains Me) and went on a two-week tour with Baltimore-based band The Frauds. Upon returning to New Orleans, we took a short, break, recorded two or three cover songs, and then sort of went into the Never Gone sessions.”
The band worked on the album over the next few years, tracking and demoing. At some point fatigue set in and they were tired of hearing the same songs repeatedly during the mastering sessions. Maybe they decided upon bad takes, maybe they were just tired of hearing and thinking about Katrina, but it was time to put it down and move on. They shelved the project and moved on with their lives. ” I just got sick of the songs and sick of hearing and reading and talking about Hurricane Katrina and sick of mixing the same shit over and over and over. It wasn’t perfect, like how I heard it in my head. The clarity wasn’t there. I just wanted to move on, and that’s what we did. I shelved the album, we took a short break, played a few shows, and then started outlining the next record, which we started in February 2011 and released in December 2012 as “No Time For Bullshit.“ Now leading up to the ten year anniversary, it just seemed like the right time to revisit that horrible time in their lives and let the album see the light of day.
“Never Gone” is a raw, sometimes hard hitting, sometimes delicate, journey of reflection and self-discovery. Tracks like “Down” and “WTF” harness the snottiness of Local H and combine with the poise and stature of early Nirvana. The opening track “Megnut” while being reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, is one of the few songs that steps out of the Katrina theme lyrically, but manages to fall in line in a theoretical sense by using it’s story of reflection and curiosity as an idea that brings it all together in a cohesive theme. “The song “Megnut” is titled after a girl I met in 1997 and never saw again. The eight counts at the end of the song represent the years that have passed since. I still wonder if she overcame her demons and returned to a healthy, normal life. In regards of storyline, “Megnut” and “Wake Up Call” are real-time bookends, and everything in between is part of a huge flashback.”
The stand-out track on the album “Rusty Gulch”, is a haunting, gut-wrenching emotional ride, that shuffles along with a melancholy beat that sounds just as sorrowful as the story behind it. “That song still sends chills down my spine. Those hauntingly off-key vocals at the end do it every time. I remember at shows I’d pound the drums even louder than usual. My arms and wrists would lock up, like I was channeling all the different emotions that came with returning home and trying to salvage anything and everything. It was the one time I saw my dad completely lose it and break down and I’ll never forget it. We all just hugged each other and cried for what seemed like an eternity. Rusty Gulch is all of that. It just might be one of the most important songs I’ve ever written. This was the only song from the album we officially released back then, and as a music video we shot in December 2007 at my old home. The house was torn down in 2008.”
Whether you have been a fan of Penguin over the years or it’s the first time hearing of them, “Never Gone” is a thought provoking album that manages to capture the touching, surreal emotions of loss and desperation without ever getting too heavy or melancholy. Despite the deep subject matter, most of the cuts are wall-shaking rock songs that begin with the same do-it-yourself fury and energy of any garage band but with the experience and poise of any seasoned veteran. It’s a peek into the minds of individuals who weathered the storm and lived to tell about it yet never getting one bit pretentious in a way some albums of personal reflection tend to do. As of 2015, Molero, still lives in New Orleans, with a wonderful wife and new baby girl, that helps keep his head above water. Although Penguin as a band, is currently on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t mean that the record can’t be enjoyed in real time, or out of the context of Katrina. In a lot of ways, recording the album and finally releasing it, can be seen as closure to an event that change the lives of not only the band, but maybe even the entire group of survivors. “The main thing I’ve learned, and still to this day have trouble with, is leaving the past in the past because you can’t change it. That’s another reason which pushed me to move on from “Never Gone” without releasing it, but even after all this time, I still think it’s the best collection of songs I’ve ever written.”
“Never Gone” will be released in digital form only, exclusively through Penguin’s Bandcamp page, on August 29th 2015 – the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. With each purchase download, at no additional cost, comes the alternative demos from the making of the album. Do yourself a favor and give the album a listen and check out some of their previous work. Penguin is (or was) a band that is made up of real people, displaying real talent by playing authentic alternative rock without the restrains of a major label or pressures of current trends. “Never Gone” just may be the band’s finest hour, despite being built around their darkest.
Purchase “Never Gone” on August 29th exclusively on Bandcamp
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For more information on Hurrican Katrina and it’s charities, please visit AmericaCares.org