Public Service Broadcasting – Interview – 2015

Two geeky looking technicians called Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, looking uncannily like the current Q in the Bond franchise – Ben Whishaw – but hopefully without his irritatingly arrogant disdain for 'field agents', have risen from the anonymity of their musical laboratory experiments to become unlikely minor pop stars, usurping the more telegenic and youthful looking amongst the vogueish indie brigade. Well, that's how it looks… In practice, mssrs J Willgoose Esq and Wrigglesworth are both musicians and audio technicians, and since their formation seven years ago, have released two highly distinct albums, that fuse together film and audio of the past with beats, live instrumentation and electronica of the present, producing an end result that works equally well via their studio recordings, and on the live stage.
While their debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain was successfully conceptualised around British and American propaganda and public safety film and audio of the 30s-70s, the follow up album The Race For Space employed a mix of the propagandist and 'live' audio captured in the control room of Houston, as it attempted to trace this historic 'race', conducted at the height of the Cold War, between the arch enemies of the USA and USSR. "It was the result of working on The War Room EP (the precursor to their debut album) and wondering where to go next after that," say J Willgoose from the back of a van, as PSB and crew traverse Europe on a tour, promoting said album. "The space race suggested itself for a number of reasons, not least the fact that I’m very interested in it.
"I did it over a year or so in and amongst our touring for the first album, which lasted the best part of 20 months. It involved a fair amount of reading, watching a number of documentaries and of course a lot of scouring the NASA Audio Collection and the BFI Archives. I also used the excellent Apollo Flight Journal, which was a great help. I was most concerned about getting hold of the Russian footage, but by an extreme stroke of fortune the BFI happened to inherit a whole tranche of material just as I was getting going on the album. It was relatively plain sailing once the BFI stuff fell into place, which was lucky. NASA is a wonderfully open and accessible institution, which helps."
While those of a certain age will almost certainly have recollections of the awe-inspiring audio and film of the various space missions from the late 50s to the early 70s, Willgoose and Wrigglesworth were barely a twinkle in their fathers' eyes. Personally, even though I was barely out of my nappies, some of my earliest memories involve watching rocket launches and space flights, and although I hardly knew what it all meant, it certainly seemed momentous. If you think of the Earth as having been in existence for a year, space exploration has only taken place within the last split-second… Now, that is awe-inspiring!
How did the idea for PSB come about? "It wasn’t really one idea, it was a series of ideas over a period of time. I made the first song in this vein, though after hearing a Radio 4 Archive Hour programme. It mentioned the BFI releasing some material onto the internet for the first time, which I thought might be a good source of interesting samples. From there it just grew slowly but quite naturally into what it is today."
PSB's debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain is remarkable if only to hear the rather quaint voices of the likes of Marie Slocombe, a BBC secretary of the 1930s, and Thomas Woodrooffe, a Royal Navy lieutenant commander, author, and commentator at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. People just don't have those clipped tones anymore, unless they exist in the rarefied upper atmospheres of our beloved class system. It also features recordings of the conquest of Everest, samples taken from the propagandist The First of the Few, a 1942 feature film that starred David Niven and Leslie Howard, about the development and employment of the Spitfire, one of the key factors that helped to defeat the Nazis; 1948's What A Life! film, which concerns itself with postwar austerity; and some ancient US public safety films. "Typically, we write a song based on a sample from a film, and then we re-edit the film, (for live performance) although we also find audio that fits the music. It looks like they fit together quite naturally, but it is a time-consuming process.” Using film footage from the British Film Institute, Studio Canal and various American public broadcasting films, the duo forged a relatively unique concept that saw them quickly develop a cult following. “We’ve always had a good relationship with the BFI, ever since I first called them up and mildly battered them with requests. We do pay them royalties, but it’s done at a mutually beneficial basis.”
As we increasingly hark back and sometimes pine for the pre-digital age when cameras used actual film, music was played on vinyl, there was only two or three channels on the TV, clothes were not made in the far-east, we had to organise meetings by good old telephone, and pasta was as rare as hen's teeth, PSB's spirit of of 'keep calm and carry on' may seem on the surface a little too rose-tinted, especially coming from a pair who are very much children of the digital age (does it seem like those harking back to an earlier, bygone age, are almost invariable those who have no experience of it?). "“It’s nostalgia in a sense, for a bygone era… certainly, looking at the footage for ‘London Can Take It’ [a song off Inform-Educate-Entertain], there’s the segment where the gent is smoking a pipe and looking extremely unperturbed, in the middle of a neighbourhood that had been leveled by German bombers the previous night. I can’t see that happening nowadays!" says Willgoose, implicitly pointing to the fact that, like the album's title, PSB is mostly about entertaining, which is further enhanced by the extensive use of motorik, Krautrock-type, rhythms throughout their debut album. How does PSB overcome these potentially naive and rose-tinted pitfalls? "With the space race material it was in trying to find a balance between the American and Soviet material, which went all the way down to the dual-fronted artwork. We don’t really pass comment on the material we present other than by making the music we do around it, which in terms of tone normally gives an indication of our thoughts on it, and in terms of selection of which audio to use in the first place. For WWII material, which is even more politically loaded, we tried to avoid nationalist tub-thumping in a number of ways while still celebrating the inventions and spirit that saw us win through in the end (Willgoose's great-uncle, George Willgoose, died at the Battle of Dunkirk, aged just 26). Presenting a piece of pure propaganda like ‘The First of the Few’ in the way that we did with 'Spitfire', though, could be seen as a comment on the original and its use of material to stir up patriotic feelings. Sticking a very German beat underneath it also helped, I think."
At the time Inform-Educate-Entertain was seen by some as a one-off, a quirky concept album of sorts that might not be so successfully repeated. But PSB have repeated the idea juts as well with The Race For Space, an album that is a little more recent in terms of the time period covered, and which therefore resonates with a much greater number, although of course, it's largely about people we have nothing to do with, whereas Inform-Educate-Entertain are about eras and events that we can trace a direct lineage to. Beginning with the rallying words of a speech made by President Kennedy in 1962, The Race For Space covers the period between 1957 and 1972, bookended by the launch of the first space satellite, the USSR's Sputnik 1, and the last moon mission, America's Apollo 17, and largely built with samples taken from the British Film Institute, NASA Audio Collection and the Apollo Flight Journals, many of which have not previously been available to the public. Musically, it's a little more eclectic and expansive, with less Neu-inspired rhythms, and more of a musical brew that incorporates dance beats, ambient soundscapes, and high energy funk.
Moreover, they once again didn't shy away from using the obvious audio samples and historical references (for instance the famous 'one small step for man…' prepared speech delivered by Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the moon in July 1969, and the near tragedy of Apollo 13, brilliantly captured in the film of the same name). How did they go about deciding what and what not to use? "We wanted to try to avoid too many of the most obvious soundbites and touchstones, hence leaving out Apollo 13. Where we did deal with much-covered topics (for example, Apollo 11 for ‘Go!’) we tried to put a different focus or spin on them. For Go! we almost exclusively used mission control audio rather than the whole ‘One small step’ stuff'. They also employed female vocals for the first time, in the shape of Sussex girls the Smoke Faeries, on the evocative 'Valentina', which 'tells' the story of the first female cosmonaut in space, Valentina Tereshkova, mixed haunting soundscapes with poignant audio for Fire In The Cockpit, which depicts the tragedy of Apollo 1 when astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee lost their lives.
PSB always knew that it would be through live performance that they could rise above and beyond purely cult status, and over the last few years they have performed at countless festivals, and toured the world, fine-tuning their live set up that provides visual meaning to the purely audio concocted sounds of the recordings. Originally a two piece on stage, they have recently expanded to become a four-piece. “When we put the live show together we wanted to make it as live as possible, so even though there were only two of us at first, I would play guitar and banjo, there would be some keyboard work and sample triggering, behind the scenes looping, and drums, which is always good to watch, Wrigglesworth's electronic triggers to loop stuff with. We operated on the principle that it could go quite badly wrong! Now, there's Wrigglesworth on drums and electronics, me on guitars, banjo and electronics and Mr B. on set design and visuals. We’ve also added JF Abraham on keys, bass, brass and percussion, so musically it’s growing all the time. Behind us we have the footage that we’ve edited to fit the music, and we’ve also got some old TV clips. In a way the footage becomes the frontman and we play the music around it. It works quite nicely.
Does Willgoose himself sometimes pine for an era he can only imagine? “One thing that has become clear after starting this is how lucky we are able to operate now. It wouldn’t have been possible even just ten years ago. It’s been a series of lucky events that has got us to where we are; it would be churlish to abandon this for the olden times!”
Jeff Hemmings