Introducing... Public Service Broadcasting
Following the acclaimed release of The War Room EP in 2012, Public Service Broadcasting have lit up the scene with a genuinely new and exciting approach to instrumental rock. Their sound is heavy on sampled historical earworms but maintains a visceral edge that rivals some of UK's finest live acts.
Talking to their guitarist (and Grade 5 merited recorder veteran) J. Willgoose Esquire, we uncover the inspiration and ingenuity behind the spectacle and musical wizardry of their debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain and upcoming UK-wide tour.
PSB marks an innovative, fresh approach to the tired concept of post-rock. What lead to the idea of sampling Britain’s history for pop hooks?
I suppose it was from listening to a lot of different bands or artists who used these kinds of voices in their work (DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5 , Manic Street Preachers - I was a massive fan of The Holy Bible, still am), and then the spark, if there was one, was listening to an Archive Hour programme on Radio 4, aptly enough.
Tom Robinson was presenting, and he'd actually go on to be the first DJ to play us on the radio, so it ended up being a neat little virtuous circle. The programme featured the release of some British Film Institute material and also an interview with Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives fame, and that set me off looking at some of these films and making a song from one of them. And from there it just grew - and grew!
Your live shows are notable for adding a visual spectacle to accompany the music. How do you go about attaining the videos and syncing them up for live performances?
The video comes from various sources: some of it is public domain, from the Prelinger Archive, some of it from the BFI, and 'Everest' is from Studiocanal. We've got a great relationship with the BFI, purely through phoning them up and explaining what it was that we were doing and what we'd like to do. They've been enormously supportive and
accommodating, especially where rights are concerned, so we do owe them a huge debt.
In the early days, did you ever consider introducing a vocalist or any other members for the line-up?
It's not something I've ever felt the need for - not yet, anyway. I tend to go mostly by instinct when writing. For example, the final track of the album is called 'Late Night Final', and features two saxophones. I'd always thought I hated the sax after the disasters of the 80s, but I found myself working on this song and thinking, 'Hang on a minute... does this song.. does this need a saxophone on it? I think it does! Oh my word!'
So I'm guessing that at some point I'll feel the need to put a human voice (definitely not mine) on a record, but that moment hasn't come through yet, and I definitely don't want it to happen in a cynical or calculated way when it does. We've really evolved very naturally to get where we are today and I'm happy just keeping that process going without forcing anything.
The compositions that make up these songs are technically very impressive. Where does the history behind the band's involvement in music begin?
I know some (probably including [drummer] Wrigglesworth!) who'd beg to differ! I don't think that technically I'm a good player, but I do go on gut feeling and I think some of that does get through. And I also like to keep people guessing - rather than just writing bog-standard 8-bar choruses I write mostly in 6s, to keep things moving, or just throw in an odd change or sound or so on.
If I can trace PSB back to a sole musical root, though, it was probably my amazing, burgeoning talent on the recorder. I'm one of the select few ever to have taken the descant recorder all the way to Grade 5! I got a merit. Not that I'm one to boast, but that's almost at the top of the descant recorder pile. It all comes from that, I think.
Can you explain how the recording process works when producing a typical PSB track. For example do you write the music first or is there always a sample idea to work around?
We get asked this a lot, and it's probably because it's the equivalent question for us of 'what comes first, the music or the words?' I think for most bands it's often a mix, and we're no different. Sometimes there's the kernel of a musical idea, festering away in a corner of my brain somewhere, and I'll try and team it up with a particular theme or genre of film, and sometimes I'll have seen something really good and want to write something more particularly for it. It's a bit chicken and egg.
Your initial release The War Room EP was an interesting concept record. How was your approach different when recording the debut album which draws from various eras of history?
We didn't have the strong narrative to draw on for the album as we did for the EP, so the main challenge was to make a consistent body of work that flowed and retained some sense of cohesiveness. I think it ended up being more about making it hang together around the music and a general mission statement (the title of the album, with the emphasis heavily on the 'entertain'!). Hopefully it works, but we can't really be the judges of that.
What musical influences had an impact or directed the sound of Inform-Educate-Entertain?
Too many to mention, really. All sorts, I really can't even start to pinpoint them! I mean even for one song like 'ROYGBIV', inspiration for different elements of it come from all sorts of places: Datassette, Amadou Balake, Caribou, The Beatles, David Bowie, south Indian soundtrack music... the list goes on! I like to listen to as many different types of music (good music!) as possible, because I think that the music you write is like your accent, in that it
forms from the sounds you've heard but is still particular to you. If you put as much good stuff as possible in your ears then you'll hopefully get something good out of the other end!
As a young independent act, what difficulties did you have to overcome in getting the idea behind PSB into practice and on the road?
The usual financial ones at the start of not being paid for gigs, and so on, and also being quite equipment-heavy and technologically-reliant, both of which aren't cheap things to be. And on the technical side barely a night goes by without something different going wrong in a slightly new and unusual way. It keeps things interesting, anyway! Although I'm not sure my blood pressure would agree.
You’ve toured quite extensively over the past year and have set a UK wide album tour for May – what can people expect from this new tour?
We're taking our bigger visuals show out for the May tour, which means a dedicated visuals chap and a whole load of extra screens. It's basically an all-out audiovisual assault. Prepare to have your mind blown (or at least vaguely prodded).
Are there any upcoming dates that you are particularly looking forward to playing?
I'm looking forward to the London shows with a mixture of excitement and mild dread. So much can go wrong with what we do, and when we're playing to our hometown audience in our biggest show to date that will raise the stakes somewhat. But at the same time, those are exactly the shows and situations (and tests) that you want to play as a band.
And besides those two we've got a whole load of really fun ones - really I look forward to every gig, but particularly the run of six up in the Scottish Highlands, I think they should be really fun and it's absolutely stunning up there.
How do you think the live show will translate to bigger venues or is this something best experienced intimately?
One of the most encouraging things about PSB as it's grown has been the way it's got better as it's got bigger. We're constantly adding things to the show and trying to up the spectacle, and it seems to work just as well (if not better) on a massive stage as it does on a smaller one.
I know for some audiences they might prefer the thrill of being really close to the action at a more intimate gig, but it's not like we're playing stadium gigs! I think we try to make sure the gigs are engaging and enjoyable no matter what size they are.
How do you feel about the critical response to your work so far, BBC 6 Music seems to have been particularly supportive?
6 Music is basically the reason we are where we are now. Without them and the BFI we would be nowhere, so we can't say thanks enough. I can't believe they ever considered closing it down, but that's Mark Thompson for you. Never trust a man who bites ears. They're generally not good eggs.
Can people expect to see you play any festival shows; End of the Road seems like an ideal spot for you guys?
I went there as a punter a few years back and really enjoyed it, and we'd love to play it, but it doesn't look like anything's moving there yet. Fingers crossed. We do have a whole load of festivals though, 19 and counting at the moment, all over the country. I think it's the kind of thing that will really go down well at festivals - if someone stumbles into a tent with a pint of cider in hand and comes across us wearing mountains of corduroy and showing old (odd) films, I think they'll get into the spirit of it. That's the great thing about festivals, the open-minded atmosphere and general good-humouredness of them.
I always have to ask... favourite Prince album?
We may have a problem here. I don't like Prince I'm afraid, with the exception of one or two songs. I don't understand how he's classed as funk. How can you be funky with a snare sound that bad? And without using real drums half the time too? He just sounds mechanical and soulless to me, as well as being an enormous (yet simultaneously tiny) sexual deviant. Give me The Meters any day.
Tune in to PublicBroadcasting.net for more information, tour dates, etc. Their album Inform - Educate - Entertain is released on 6 May via (inevitably) Test Card Recordings. Please be upstanding for the national anthem.