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Interview: Public Service Broadcasting Talk Sound and Vision

Interview: Public Service Broadcasting Talk Sound and Vision

Fluffy / Tuesday 1st May, 2018 3:30PM

London multimedia trio Public Service Broadcasting have carved out a name for themselves in the annals of musical history since releasing their 2013 debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain. The enigmatic team of J. Willgoose Esq., Wrigglesworth and JF Abraham are bringing their carefully researched audio-visual extravaganza to Auckland's Powerstation this Thursday with fancy new album Every Valley in tow, their first local appearance since wowing audiences at world music extravaganza WOMAD Festival 2015. In anticipation of the immanent live transmission, we sent high-vibrating being Fluffy along to chat with the band's J. Willgoose Esq. about their latest aural offering, musical motivations, and the creation and recreation of PSB's dense compositions...

What was it that drew you to combine music making with these live audio-visual transmissions?

I think it was sort of opportunism in the early days. I was making instrumental music, electronic with bits of guitars and things and it was alright but there was no kind of hook to it. There was no way for people to get into other then on its own merits as instrumental music. I heard about the release of some British Film Institute stuff and about this amazing archive called Prelinger Archives on the American National Archives site. I just thought, “a lot of my favourite artists have used voices in ways that I like and it seems to have added some sort of depth and meaning to the music, maybe I can use some of that?”. I started doing it in a very superficial way really, without any kind of thought of the historical side of things, just doing it really just to get some human character on there. The more I did it the more obvious it became that you can really do so much more with it if you did harness all the different aspects of it. Try to tell a story and try and retell history and pick out the bits that you find interesting and over the last eight or nine years, that lead to where we are today.

Awesome! You mentioned some of your favourite artists are sample maestros. Is there anyone in particular who’s a source of inspiration when writing Public Service Broadcasting material?

I mean DJ Shadow is the absolute, undisputed king of it, as far as I’m concerned. That first album was just spellbinding and it still is. There’s some slightly odd ones really, ones you might not necessarily think, like the KLF, a lot of the little snippets they litter their albums with. It just gives it a different atmosphere. Then in a similar way, Manic Street Preachers and The Holy Bible, it's not necessarily what you’d class as a sample based album but at the same time, the samples that are on there are so effective in setting the scene and setting the tone for the whole thing, especially given how big that album was for me growing up. I think it all kind of seeped in there and before you know it, you’ve got all these different influences. And Jurassic 5 as well, it’s all over the shop really.

So you’re a big electronic buff then, from some of those influences?

Yeah, well I wouldn’t say buff, because again I’m profoundly ignorant in all sorts of ways that I don’t even know but I love all kinds of electronic music, especially the stuff that’s more thoughtfully put together. And music of all kinds really. That was one of the things that really hit me in my mid-twenties was just realising that the doors were all open, there was no barrier between different genres of music; you don’t have to stick in your guitar-based hole. You can listen to all sorts of stuff and enjoy it all and get the best out of everything if you do.

I think that realisation is quite the turning point in lots of musicians’ lives. Was there anything that triggered that in yourself?

I had a friend who was a radio producer and he was making a lot of drum and bass shows, it’s not something I’d listened to before and it’s still not something I listen to that often, but listening to something like that was quite alien to me and listening to it in depth and in detail. Hearing somebody knowledgeable talking about it I was like “yeah, this is actually really good, I really like it. Why didn’t I do this before?”. Then once the first domino has fallen like that then they all start to fall. I think it’s possibly easier these days for kids growing up having everything at their disposal, whereas we had to be a bit more selective growing up in what we got into and where we chose to spend our pocket money. But when the whole world is your oyster, I think a lot of those barriers have come down now, which is overwhelmingly a good thing for music and for society in general.

The internet era is something of a double-edged sword. I wanted to speak a bit about your pseudonyms and perhaps the motivation behind them. Is that a measure of self-preservation in the Big Brother-esque age that we’re starting to see?

Well, we’ve never confirmed officially that they’re pseudonyms. We like to maintain an air of mystery at all times. I think, it’s like the very final thing that Bowie released where he says “I can’t give everything away” as soon as I heard him sing that I dissolved into a pool of tears because I had heard it after he’d died and it’s still very emotional even thinking about that track. He’s so right, you can’t give everything away and what's more, you shouldn't give everything away because it ruins the mystery, it ruins the intrigue. It also ruins people being able to get their own meaning out of it, once you’ve recorded and released something, it’s not yours to decide what it means to the person who’s listening to it [and] their relationship with it. It’s only a little thing but it kind of reserves some kind of personal intrigue or mystery. It all kind of feeds into build-your-own mythos, which sounds incredibly pretentious but a lot of the people I love the most music-wise have all done it and I think that’s probably why we do it too.

From the subject matter of Public Service Broadcasting, I would take a wild guess that you’re perhaps a bit of a history buff?

Erm, not really! Well I certainly wasn’t. I actually gave it up at school as soon as I could because it felt like too much hard work. So I feel like a profoundly ignorant person in a lot of ways and it’s really coming back to me as an adult and starting to research these things out of genuine interest and desire to learn about them. It really feels quite liberating in a way, it’s much more exciting then it would have felt if I was being lectured to at school.

I think that’s the way with all education. Whenever it’s pursued of one’s own accord rather then shoved down your throat, it’s much more engaging.

Yeah, agreed. I think it was a blessing in disguise actually, missing out on it growing up. It means you have a bit more of a sense of childlike wonder even as an adult because there’s a lot of things you remained profoundly ignorant of for a very long time.

This is a bit of a curveball but have you ever seen the TV series Drunk History?

I’ve seen a couple of episodes yeah.

It amuses me the way some people on that show pay homage to events passed and I feel a strange parallel to that show and to some of the tunes you guys create.

There’s a track on the first album called ‘Lit Up’ which is a very famous UK radio broadcast from the 1930s where Lt. Woodruff is trying to describe the fleet at Spithead, some kind of naval exhibition and he’s spent the whole day in the captain's quarters drinking rum and when it gets to being on air he’s absolutely off his face. It’s an incredible piece of radio and they couldn’t turn him off once they turned him on. The technology in those days was he had to turn back to them so he just rambled on for about fifteen minutes. In and amongst quite extraordinary monologue... my dad is adamant that when he says “the fleet is gone, they’ve all gone, they’ve disappeared” it’s because his hat has fallen over his eyes... He comes out with some real insight and real poetry almost. He says “there’s nothing between us and heaven, nothing at all”. Sometimes out of moments of great drunkenness there do come these little pearls of wisdom, it was this bittersweet but interesting piece of history that was nice to be able to use. Drunk Histories is a kind of weird echo of that in a way, you’re right.

Speaking of ‘Lit Up’ in that song there’s a drum line, a melody and a bass line playing - I was wondering how you implement the samples when you play live? Are they triggered by loop pedals or do you have an MPC?

There’s a variety of things, I’ve got a four by four MPC-esque sample pad and JF Abraham has one as well. We’ve both got keyboards, Wrigglesworth has his drum kit as well as an electrical percussion controller that’s like a MIDI vibraphone type thing and all that gets sent to the computer and either filtered or looped or recorded, it triggers various things. We do as much as we possibly can for three of us, there are some things that do have to come off a track but there’s a lot going on and there’s several plates being spun simultaneously onstage. Given the nature of the music it is, it’s hopefully more musically engaging then a lot of the shows I see where so much of it is relying on a track and so much of it is a bloke checking his emails on stage, which I find very frustrating to watch. It’s as far from that as you can get, I hope.

Though your sound is very idiosyncratic and hard to pin down, I noticed a few breaths of post-rock in some of the guitar arpeggios you use and even the audio-visual experience reminded me of seeing Sigur Ros in the last year. Are you a fan of the post-rock genre?

Yeah, definitely. I must’ve seen Mogwai over ten times and Sigur Ros three or four times, bands like Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] and Tortoise. It’s definitely had a big impact on me as a guitar player, especially Mogwai. What I like about Sigur Ros as well with their live shows, is the theatrical side to it, the big set-ups and the big reveals. They just had an amazing show about ten years agowhere they just had a marching band walk across stage halfway through the set for no reason then just disappear. It was twelve musicians dressed in magnificent white outfits and they just appeared and walked side of stage left and side of stage right, played a bit and then they were gone. It was like an illusion really, it was magical.

The last time you guys played in New Zealand was at 2015’s WOMAD festival. Could you tell us a little about that experience?

Well it was my first time in New Zealand full stop and it was such a weird experience getting off a plane and feeling like you’re at home which is so odd because it’s basically as far away as you can get from where I live in London. It just felt instantly like “this is my kind of place” and I don’t get that at many places in the world, so it was an amazing experience to spend four nights in New Plymouth before we had to leave. We got to go up Mount Taranaki to a reasonable height before we got too tired and had to turn around. Just seeing how the indigenous culture is still so central to life there and it hasn’t been brushed under the carpet or left as a footnote. It is still part of the culture, there’s something special about New Zealand and we had to push quite hard to get these shows in because there wasn’t much time between all the stuff we’re doing in Australia but we were adamant and we’re just delighted to be coming back.

We’re glad you’re coming. So your new album is called Every Valley. Tell us a little about some of the inspirations behind how that work came to be.

Well it’s quite a complicated album in terms of what its about and how it came to be about that. In the simplest terms, its a condensed history of coal mining in South Wales. I’m aware doesn’t sound particularly appetising to a lot of listeners, but it’s an attempt to really focus on what it means to a community when the industry that defined it and helped it grow and flourish is systematically and quite deliberately dismantled and those communities are left to flounder. That was the thinking behind making it and trying to come up with something unpredictable and unusual and a risk, a creative risk as well as a financial risk in many ways. That’s what led to that album taking the form it does and along the way we were lucky enough to work with a whole load of collaborators like Tracyanne Campbell from Camera Obscura and James Dean Bradford from The Manic [Street Preachers], Haiku Salut, who are a great band from Darbyshire and a Welsh male choir which was incredible. All sorts really, it was quite the experience putting all that together.

We managed to set up a studio in a community centre in South Wales in the heart of The Valleys. We set up this mobile studio, we were there for well over a month and a bit and we recorded the whole thing there and just soaked up the atmosphere really and tried to let it seep into the album. You just get a feeling sometimes when you’re doing something like that that those moments are few and far between and you should cherish it when they’re happening. It did feel like a special time and I’m not sure we’re ever gonna get the chance to make another record like that because it was an incredible privilege to work that way.

Your recent single ‘Progress’ incorporates a guest vocalist which, as you were touching on before, a bit of a hip hop sensation, someone will make an instrumental beat and get an MC in over the top. Do you think this will become a regular fixture in your future music making?

I don’t know, it felt right for this song. Working with Tracey and her voice as an instrument was fantastic. I think it’s gotta be song dependant - what is best for the song and what’s gonna serve it best? I think that a lot of people, because of the way the first two albums turned out being without a singer primarily, I think they thought that were somehow against it, we’re never gonna go down that road. I think the nature of that song and the title of that song is a clue to the fact that we’re not a band that’s gonna stand still, we’re gonna keep developing things and changing things in interesting ways. We’ll see, I’ve got several ideas in the pipeline for what's to come but it's a long way off, it feels like a long way off.

You can catch Public Service Broadcasting at The Powerstation in Auckland on Thursday 3rd May.


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