Saturday, 2 November 2013

Public Images Unlimited: An Interview with Public Service Broadcasting

With a DVD of debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain due shortly, J. Willgoose Esq discusses Public Service Broadcasting’s sounds and vision, and ponders their history-steeped style’s future

Inform. Educate. Entertain. With these three principles, John Charles Walsham Reith laid down a remit for a fledgling BBC that would go on to influence public service broadcasting the world over – and, 90 years later, Public Service Broadcasting, the creative outlet of one J. Willgoose, Esq and his dependable drummer Wrigglesworth.

After some well-received singles and calling card EP The War Room, the band titled their debut album after the Reithian ideals – and entertain they did, with a high-concept, high-impact sound combining motorik rhythms, propulsive, hook-filled melodies and an array of archive-sourced samples. It’s the latter that provides PSB their USP: they’re neither the first nor only band to utilise spoken-word snippets in such a manner (the haunted/haunting work of The Advisory Circle and other Ghostbox artists come to mind), but they’re the only contemporary practitioners to bring these voices from the past to within a hair’s breadth of the top 20. Factor in keen radio support and a strong showing on the festival circuit and the duo emerge as one of the year’s true musical success stories.

This month, the band consolidate their annus mirabilis with a new single (Night Mail) and a DVD originally intended to accompany the album on its initial release, but pushed back when a self-imposed May deadline meant there was “physically no time to put it all together.” Alongside some newly filmed extras (Willgoose in conversation with the BFI, a mini tour diary, live footage) are all of the band’s promo videos and other visuals. Like the music, they’re drawn from a variety of archive material, ranging from US road safety films to 1930s naval newsreel to George Lowe’s 1953 feature documentary The Conquest of Everest, celebrating Hillary and Norgay’s landmark ascent.

The collected clips not only complete an audio-visual experience previously reserved for live performances (where they’re screened on vintage television sets – both prop and authentic – for added retro appeal); they also enhance the album’s charm by rounding out the concepts underlying each track – for instance, the aforementioned Night Mail is made more romantic and rousing by the attachment of footage from the GPO documentary of the same name, while ROYGBIV – an ode to the arrival of colour broadcasting – is given extra sparkle by the accompanying montage of tinted rainbows and flowers in bloom. Additionally, a commentary from Willgoose makes good on those other two legs of the Reithian triumvirate – to educate and inform – by offering details about his creative process, and background to the footage that facilitated it.

“The commentary is basically just me rambling on in a hot room in the summer,” laughs Willgoose, speaking over the phone ahead of this month’s tour, which begins in Aberdeen the day of the single and DVD releases before winding its way southwards. “It’s just to give a bit of context I suppose. I think a lot of people are quite interested in the stories behind [the songs], and with a lot of our stuff actually having quite a definite origin, this seemed like a good way to do that. Most of it ended up being about the footage, probably because the music kind of speaks for itself… but with stuff like the instrumental [Qomolangma], it’s nice to be able to explain what I was trying to do… It’s not intended to ram anything down anyone’s throat or treat people as if they couldn’t possibly have realised it themselves; it’s just nice that it’s on record, as it were, for people who are interested.” Whether pointing out that Lit Up’s borrowed three-note motif spells B-B-C, likening Late Night Final’s closing drum effect to Mogwai, or self-effacingly responding to online complaints about the use of Hurricane aircraft in the Spitfire video, it’s a modest trove of insights that fulfils the self-described brief to “not just whack out 11 videos and say ‘there you go it’s a DVD.’ We wanted to make sure that some time, thought and consideration had gone in to it.”

What the DVD is not intended to do, however, is put the visuals on a level-pegging with the audio. Exempting the trio of clips cut by others (“the best ones”), Willgoose describes the eight self-edited pieces as “very functional. They don’t have a great deal of flair to them.” He names DJ Shadow as an example of someone “doing amazing stuff with their visuals,” but insists the influence there was purely musical – going so far as to label the project’s initial premise “a kind of mini-homage” to the pioneering hip-hop sampler. It was while formulating this homage that Willgoose caught wind of newly available archive footage from the BFI (a purely coincidental discovery – “I don’t have a sort of long-held, burning admiration or love for 1940s documentaries or anything,” he laughs). “The two ideas married together quite well, and it was really once those things were sitting together that the wider concept came in: an album where each song was based on a different public information film. But then the album ended up being something quite different from that anyway, because we used feature films and documentaries and all sorts really.”

While the archive-raiding lends the project its distinctive flavour, Willgoose doesn’t want to become defined exclusively by it, emphasising that the PSB aesthetic has plenty of untapped potential. He takes note of critics that paint the band a one-trick novelty, but argues that “the concept is a lot broader than some people seem to have realised.” Does it bother him when people misread the historical sampling as a gimmick? “I think the novelty thing is definitely something we’re open to as a criticism, or exposed to anyway, just because it is slightly unusual,” he responds. “But I think you have to trust that people have more than one idea up their sleeve. I mean at first it was a bit of a novelty – I was putting songs together without a great deal of thought about the wider concept and what it all could mean and stand for and what we were about. It was only after playing live for a bit that I decided I wanted to write something a bit more hefty, something dealing with a trickier subject matter. And I think with The War Room we took a definite step away from novelty. We showed that we wanted to write music that had depth to it, that it wasn’t just a case of getting some samples and whacking them over any old rubbish.” He lets out a wry laugh. “I mean, some people do think that’s what we do” he sighs; “but they’re entitled to their opinion I suppose…” Their second album, Willgoose promises, will be “a progression, in terms of it relating to a later period – it takes us into the 1970s, so it’s a bit more up to date I suppose. I think if we leapt from this album into contemporary footage it would be a bit jarring, but as long as we consider where we’re going and how we do it, we’re not particularly limited in what we can cover.”

Finally, with several of the institutions exalted across the PSB oeuvre weathering political pressure (the BBC), experiencing severe budget cuts (the BFI), undergoing seismic changes (the Royal Mail’s privatisation) or already dismantled (the 2012 closure of the Central Office of Information, i.e. the agency responsible for all the UK’s post-war public information films), we wonder whether Public Service Broadcasting has a political element. Earlier, when discussing the unsavoury side of patriotism, Willgoose expressed his hope that, despite referencing a certain type of nationalist, stiff-upper-lip British Empire iconography, they always manage to handle the material “sensitively enough and intelligently enough that people don’t ascribe to us political beliefs that we definitely, definitely don’t hold.”
Which raises the obvious question: what political beliefs do they hold? 

“If there’s a political message behind it, it’s probably a rather wishy washy liberal one,” Willgoose replies. “It’s probably about the power of ideas, and the power of people coming together and doing extraordinary things – whether that be coming through times of extraordinary stress in the war, or whether it be conquering Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.” He pauses. “It’s a positive outlook I suppose, and hopefully not a cynical one. I think when a band call themselves Public Service Broadcasting you can probably tell they’re leaning slightly to the left on most issues – it’s not like we’ve called ourselves BskyB Incorporated or anything horrific like that. But I don’t necessarily think that our political inclinations are that important to the music – it’s more about the spirit of optimism, I suppose. The spirit of hope.” In its sincerity and idealism, it’s enough to bring a tear to a monocle-sporting eye.

[feature written for The Skinny]

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