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    Interview: Public Service Broadcasting

    Public Service Broadcasting

    Taking BBC’s mission statement as its own, London duo Public Service Broadcasting have crafted a curious, delightful and quite extraordinary debut album by repurposing old propaganda films. We talk to J. Willgoose, Esq, the brains of this operation, prior to their November UK tour, that will see them playing at EVAC on the 25th.

    Can you tell me a bit about your musical background? What kind of music were you doing before Public Service Broadcasting?

    There were kind of a range of things I suppose I was doing, played the guitar since I was about 14, to varying degrees of skill, still not particularly technically excellent but I get by. I’ve been in a lot of guitar bands before, sort of playing various different things, I played drums in a few bands at university, until I hurt my wrist doing that so I had to stop, you know, I played in a few bands, none of which ever really got anywhere at all, and at the time of starting Public Service Broadcasting I was listening to a lot of bluegrass music and a lot of finger-picking stuff, and was trying to use finger-picking on my own stuff and looking kind at of almost Bon Iver type music. There was that going on and there was also this new idea of maybe using sort of a more electronic style and taking samples from things, and I ended up sort of thinking I was best suited to do the electronic style and kind of gone on from there, really.

    Haven’t you ever been a singer?

    I used to sing in my very first band at school, and I started off terrible and ended up slightly less than terrible, so it’s a slight improvement but it’s not one of my strengths really, so I think it’s probably for the best if I don’t.

    You released EP One, which included ‘Theme from PSB’, in 2010, when Public Service Broadcasting was only you. Did you have by then a clear idea of what music you wanted to make in the future and how you wanted to do and present it?

    No, not really, it’s been an ongoing growth I suppose, it’s all growing quite naturally and reasonably slowly. I mean, I started the first song about five years ago, so to get to the debut album was quite a long journey. Around the days of EP One I think I was just still just finding my feet with it, doing stuff that I found amusing and entertaining and playing in pubs, and getting mostly a good reaction, but still kind of finding my feet with it. It was really wanting to move on from that that led me to start work on The War Room, I suppose.

    While The War Room EP was a five-track conceptual record, about WWII, Inform-Educate-Entertain is more focused on each song as a unit, with different themes such as speed, fashion style, colour, death... Is it all under the umbrella of informing, educating, entertaining?

    Yes, I think so, with the emphasis very much on entertaining. It’s quite a tongue-in-cheek title to the album, we are not intending to inform or educate to a particularly great extent. It’s much more about being entertaining listened to and certainly being entertaining live, to come and see. I think there’s elements of each of those in each song. The album, if there’s a concept behind the album, is more the concept of the band and what we do, what kind of music we are interested in making and what kind of subject matter are we interested in using.

    Do you usually get songs out of old films or you look into the BFI archive once you already have a song in mind?

    It can be the way around, it depends. Sometimes I’ll have seen something that I want to use and end up writing some kind of base on that and other times I’ll have a song reasonably well developed and I’ll go looking for footage that I think matches it or would be a good fit for it. So, there’s not really a kind of definite process, it depends sort of song by song.

    Would you stand by the tagline “teach the lessons from the past through the music of the future”?

    Absolutely, a hundred percent. We’re a hundred percent behind that, it’s an absolutely cast iron truth, as far as we are concerned.

    Apparently some teachers have used your material, so it must be educating in a way.

    Yeah, yeah, I had another one, two days ago, from a teacher who played it to the history class, I think it’s a bit of a funny one, it’s not really what we intended at all when we started doing this. It’s a nice by-product, I suppose. I do think it would be really good fun one day to do a tour of schools, sort of play to bored secondary school pupils or kind of primary school pupils who don’t know any better. But yeah, it’s a nice thing really, it’s a nice thing that people think that kids will get something out of it, other than the musical side of it. It’s interesting that people can use it in that way, and obviously feel something of some value is performed.

    Producers and bands such as DJ Shadow, UNKLE and Manic Street Preachers have built songs out of samples before. In your opinion, what makes PSB stand on its own, distinguishing it from other artists?

    I’m not in the best place to answer that, I’m far too closely involved with it. It’s hard for me to get an accurate hold on it. I think, if I was forced to answer it, I’d say probably what makes us slightly different is the fact that the concept and the way it’s presented and the way we present ourselves and the way we play it live, is quite strong conceptually. It does all tie in together and fit into its own world, really, which I think is part of the appeal for some people, because it is quite a strong sort of visual identity as well as sonic identity, I think that’s possibly what we’ve got going for us.

    You’ve done lots of touring since the album came out [May 2013]. How has your live performance evolved?

    It’s definitely changed, it has got a lot slicker and sort of smoother since the start of the year. And we are always trying and throwing slightly different to keep each other on our toes and keep ourselves entertained. We try and mix things up as much as possible, really. It’s quite an usual beast of a live show, I think it’s very focused on the musical element of it, the music quality of performing it live, it’s not so much about some electronic artists that’s basically a man pressing buttons all evening, which is not particularly visually exciting to look at. We try and basically make it a good show on every level, musically, visually and just in terms of the atmosphere as well.

    You came across as a rather serious, profound band, but things like using synthesised voice for live gig banter makes one thing that you are rather fun.

    I suppose The War Room was a serious EP, because you need to be sympathetic to the material that you are using, so we are certainly not tongue-in-cheek on The War Room. There’s definite places on the album where I think we’re being slightly sort of arch, but live, just even from the way we look, I hope we very much give the impression we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we are not kind of a big pretentious beast, I think we do have a lot of humour in our music and in our live show and it’s nice to get that across. I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously, and hopefully that’s particularly clear at the live shows, when we send ourselves off a bit.

    The combination of vintage samples and modern music that you do is very interesting. In a way, it could be said that Public Service Broadcasting is music’s equivalent to Blade Runner, don’t you think?

    Yeah, I’m very pleased you said that, kind of retrofitting, I suppose, isn’t it? Taking something old and bolting something new on top of it and in the process hopefully making something new. Without getting too pretentious, it’s quite postmodern what we do, which is another reason to have an element of humour in it. I think postmodernism works a lot better when it’s got a slight mischievous air to it rather than being po-faced. And yeah, Blade Runner is one of my favourite films of all time, I think it’s an absolutely staggering film.

    Thinking about the future, do you see yourself expanding your ‘sampling scope’ into non-propaganda material, using classic films such as Citizen Kane?

    Yeah, I am keen to broaden the scope and broaden the horizons on every level really, not just in terms of the way we use samples, but the music around it and the concept in general. I think there’s a lot of different ways we could go with it, which is quite exciting, and we certainly don’t want to just fall into a pattern of doing the same things again and again. The next thing is kind of forming in my head as we are travelling around, I am thinking of different ideas and different subjects and I am pretty confident that we’ll end up with quite a different record but one that still sounds enough like us to make it a continuation rather than a total departure.

    So, you are thinking of changing the concept in your next thing?

    Well, not as much as changing the concept, but changing the way we use samples. We might still use a lot of samples, but maybe they won’t be quite as centrally placed, maybe there might be a more human voice element in there, whether that’s in the form of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, or a choir or... you know, some kind of a more human element in that respect. And then you can rely slightly less on the speech samples to give character and emotion. And in terms of changing the scope of the music around it, I think we need to keep it developing and growing as we keep travelling around. Otherwise, a) we are going to get bored of it, and b) more importantly, the audience is going to get bored of it; so it’s something that we give quite a lot of thought to, really.

    In Inform-Educate-Entertain, the use of banjo, banjolele, mandola, guitar and even saxophone gives you quite more of a musical richness. Do you consider PSB to be in the electronic sphere?

    I think it is fundamentally electronic music, yes. It has obviously got a certain level of more organic playing on top of that. Yeah, I think it’s a good blend of instruments that we have at the moment, it does lend a different character and it is also a good way of writing differently. When we come to write the next thing, hopefully, we’ll add a few more sort of different ingredients to it. The more different stuff that you put in, hopefully, the more different stuff that you get out of it, so it will be interesting to see what it ends up being.

    Wrigglesworth says in the DVD edition of the album that ‘Signal 30’, ‘The Now Generation’, ‘Spitfire’ and ‘Night Mail’ are his favourite songs of the record. What is your Top 4?

    My Top 4... uh.. My Top 1 is definitely ‘Everest’. I think it’s just probably the best melody that I’ve written, certainly the catchiest. That’s definitely my favourite, and then after that I go through spells with them all, really. I think sometimes I’m becoming slightly tired of a song and all of a sudden you find something different that you can do with it, and it becomes entertaining again. ‘Signal 30’, I like it, it’s got a lot of energy, it’s always a good one to play live, and ‘Spitfire’ gets a great reaction pretty much everywhere we play, which is a nice thing to have. And, in terms of listening to the album, I really, I really like the instrumental track, ‘Qomolangma’, I like the change in pace and the change in tone of it, I think it’s a sort of nice ambient direction for us, and I was really pleased with how it came out actually, it came out very easily, which was unexpected.

    Public Service Broadcasting will be playing at East Village Arts on Monday 25th November - Buy your tickets here.

      Oriol's posts By Oriol Bosch
      @ obosch_



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