Interview: Public Service Broadcasting

There are a few sure fire ways you can sell your band to guarantee cult success, including quirky stage antics and a near sexual attraction for nostalgia. This level of certainty is almost definitely true for London based duo Public Service Broadcasting, whose very name encapsulates their premise of attempting to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future” through sampled archive footage mixed with corduroy and soothing music. This formula has won the attention of BBC 6 Music, with two singles winning a place on the Rebel Playlist and an amazing studio session with Gideon Coe.

In anticipation for their audio-visual show at the Bristol Spiegeltent on December 4th, one half of the band J. Willgoose Esq. takes time away from his busy schedule to give Drunken Werewolf’s Graham Ashton an extensive look back on the success he and his musical partner Wrigglesworth have had over the last two years.

How much experimentation with sampling and electronic music was there before you decided on the concept for Public Service Broadcasting?

I’d been fiddling around with recording my own music, in various guises, for about 4 or 5 years; some of it was electronic; some a lot more bluegrass-y and simple in terms of arrangement, although not necessarily playing… Technically it’s bloody difficult! In the end the two kind of came together with the first few PSB songs, which was fortuitous, but then the whole way PSB got off the ground was a chain of fortuitous events.

What musical ventures had you pursued, both individually and together, before coming up with the concept?

I’d been in bands since being a teenager, and Wrigglesworth has a nice sideline in penning jazz odysseys; you should hear his scat reworking of “Everest”. But the moment the first PSB song was finished, before it was even PSB, it felt like something a bit different. People said they liked it, for one.

Your live shows have gained quite a lot of buzz. How do you present the archive clips on stage?

We’ve got a lovely old walnut-veneer 60s TV set, quite the collectible, and we also split the output to a projector. In many ways the footage is the front man; it’s what draws everyone’s attention, so we can get on with just attempting to play the music properly. I don’t do anything particularly amazing performance-wise, no windmills or stage dives, so it’s great that the TV takes centre stage. Plus it’s the least egocentric front man ever! Although we did leave it behind a sofa at a recent gig, and that probably wouldn’t happen with a real life human being.

Is it always just you two, or do you use a backing band?

It’s almost always just us two, but we’ve been lucky enough on a couple of occasions to get a brass section on board for the end of “Everest”, which is really great. It used to be just me on stage at the start, so playing with anyone feels like a step up, even if it is normally only Wrigglesworth. Playing with four or five proper musicians, plus my amateur attempts, is genuinely an amazing feeling though and we’d like to expand, eventually.

I imagine, given that they are all audio-visual, finding appropriate venues must be a bit difficult?

It was at the start, but I think we’re one rung up from the bottom, in a nice way, now and most venues do have projectors or are accommodating in hiring them in…It makes a big difference though. As we go on we’re hoping to play in a few more individual locations. The way British Sea Power have played in some fairly unusual venues is fantastic, I think. I’d love to do that kind of thing.

I recall hearing on your session on 6 Music with Gideon Coe that one piece took 3 months to write, and that was a ‘short amount of time’ for you. Take us through an abridged version on how you select a piece of footage and begin to adapt it into a song.

Yeah, that was “Everest” and that was a quick one! Taking it as an example, I was browsing through the BFI site online and was drawn to South, which I think is the film of Shackleton and the Antarctic. It’s a great film, but there’s no audio, so that was a bit of a dead end. But it got me thinking about snow and so forth, and then I discovered the film The Conquest of Everest.

The film’s 80 minutes long but I gave it a quick scan through and knew straight away that it’d be perfect to write a song around, so I got cracking. The moment I thought it could be something good was when I heard the line “two very small men, cutting steps in the roof of the world”. There was a poetry in that line that really appealed to me.

Anyway, I went away, fiddled about a bit and then hit on the main theme for “Everest”, which was when I really thought it might be a good song…then I found myself wanting to hear horns at the end so that happened too! And at some stage towards the middle/end, I start sprinkling the quotes on and seeing where they work, how they can dictate the structure of the song. I always put too many in and get told off by the good lady…she’s a good sounding board…so ended up taking most of them out. And then there’s the cooling off period, where you leave it for a week at least and then come back. You hear all sorts of things you’d forgotten you were unhappy with!

There’s that amazing bit in “Everest” where the music gets a bit trippy when the narrator says the high altitude “deludes and debilitates”. From that I wonder, what is the relation between the samples and the music? How do they affect each other?

As soon as I heard that line when watching the film I knew there needed to be a kind of hazy breakdown bit in the middle where the timing goes a bit wobbly, before coming back in and building to the crescendo. Sometimes, and that’s an especially good example, the samples can really dictate the structure of the song, which is great as it helps stop you from falling into a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure.

With particular emphasis on your EP The War Room, what is your relationship with the era from which your samples come from? Do you have family war time memories or has some of the films’ dialogue stayed with you throughout the years?

The War Room was quite a personal record. It didn’t start out that way, but it certainly ended up like that. I inherited my great uncle George’s banjolele a few years ago and have used it on a few songs so far. It has his name written on the inside of the case along with some of his personal effects. He died at Dunkirk in 1940 and the EP, and in particular “Waltz for George”, is dedicated to his memory.

How inseparable is the footage from the music itself? Can one just enjoy the sounds themselves?

I hope so! They complement each other, obviously, but given how well the record has done and how well people have reacted when it’s been on the radio, I think the music can stand on its own.

Same question again, only this time in regards to wearing corduroy. Can your music be enjoyed without it?

[Laughs] Definitely not!

With some of the more cheesier films used for samples, like "Signal 30", do you embrace them as a bit tongue in cheek, or do you try to bring out some sense of seriousness in them?

Signal 30 is a pretty horrendous film to be honest. I wouldn’t recommend watching it unless you’re a sadist, or trying to make a contemporary pop gem from it [laughs]…Seriously though, it’s horrific stuff. I used more than one film when putting that song together, as there was so much source material and so many great films. There’s very little from Signal 30 itself as I felt that’d be a bit disrespectful given the general over-the-top nature of most of the other samples, but it certainly provided a very good intro, hence using it for the title.

Which other sample musicians have influenced, inspired or entertained you over the years?

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… is still the big one for me, for fairly obvious reasons. It’s such an incredibly well put together record, it really is beyond compare. Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique is another personal favourite. In other ways though, albums like Vanishing Point were a big inspiration; and, although you wouldn’t really think of it as a sample-driven album, The Holy Bible was my favourite as a teenager / young man and I think the samples on that album really play a part in setting the, admittedly bleak, mood. Starting off a song with that quote from [George Orwell’s] 1984 though…what a statement! And to follow it up with something as searing as “Faster” really made a big impression.

Which types of public information films tend to make the most profound impact on you when you watch them e.g. war time propaganda, safety films, election campaign videos, and why?

I wouldn’t say there’s one specific genre. It’s more the kind of footage that really sinks in. The kind of things that show that times don’t change, much, and that people certainly don’t. The little girl being carried into the air raid shelter in “London Can Take It”, the Dunkirk Ferry sign in “If War Should Come”, Lowe grabbing Tenzing on returning from the summit of Everest and almost thumping the life out of him in sheer unbridled delight; it doesn’t really matter where it comes from, it’s seeing different elements of the human experience with such historic backgrounds, I just find they really resonate with me emotionally. And more generally I find the knowledge that nearly all of the people in these films are dead, and these films will be one of their, perhaps few, legacies…I don’t know, I find that moving. Maybe I’m odd!

You say your music aims to 'teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future'. What lessons from the past do you think we should pay particular attention to?

There may be a slight element of tongue-in-cheek-ness there, I have to confess! I do like a lot of things about the past, though. I know it’s a piece of propaganda and therefore inherently unreliable but there’s something so comforting about the man with the pipe in “London Can Take It”. He looks so unfazed and unflappable. I can’t imagine that reaction today, personally.

Do you think public information films today would be far more effective if they had tantalizing backing tracks such as yours to go along with them?

Ha! With the broadening of media available I think they’ve lost the ability to get through to such a large audience these days. The fragmentation and diversification of the way people watch films and TV these days is probably a bigger factor than not having any of our music behind them!

Currently you’re still self-releasing. Have you had any interest from labels?

There’ve been a few who’ve made inquiries or come to transmissions, but I tend to work off the assumption that nothing will ever happen. We’re doing ok as a self-releasing entity anyway and you do get to keep control, but you don’t get the kudos and wider exposure that being with a good label would get you. So anyway, we’re not desperate to sign anything but hopefully the right label will approach us with an interesting offer…at some point!

Are there any plans yet for a full album?

It’s being worked on as we speak! Amidst the tour…and working a normal job…and moving house! So probably sometime in 2015 [laughs]. No, in all seriousness it should be ready by spring. We hope.

If you guys existed, say, a century from now, what films from today do you think you’d be using samples from?

I’d like to think we’d sample really poetic, interesting and lyrical films. Not that I can think of many at the moment, but David Lynch would certainly be a contender, funnily enough! However it’d probably end up being the rubbish, cheesy ones I reckon; the sensationalist ones tend to work better!

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