Gimme Your Answers: An Interview w/ Public Service Broadcasting

Public Service Broadcasting
Photo by Dan Kendall

Public Service Broadcasting have been a regular highlight of many festivals over the summer months including the Electric Fields event which took place in Scotland over the August bank holiday weekend. It was an absolute privilege for AMBY to sit down with J. Willgoose, Esq. to discuss the pleasures of festival season, the complexities of making latest album The Race for Space and the political perspectives and cinematic influences that appear on this record. There are also a few hints to the style and content of the next record too!

AMBY: Welcome to Scotland. The festival season always seems like a busy one for you guys. What’s the appeal and which festival has been your favourite so far?

Public Service Broadcasting: There’s been a few of us that seem to pop up on a lot of the bills… Everything, Everything have done… everything this summer! Wild Beasts have been busy too, they’ve got their album out obviously. We think the festival season’s the best time of year really. If you get a good  festival crowd it’s just really great fun. They seem a couple of steps ahead compared to a normal gig in terms of being ready to have fun. You can’t play some of the more introspective stuff so you do lose a bit of light and shade, you’ve got to go with fast and heavy!

AMBY: Your performance in the Far Out tent at The Green Man Festival was an absolute highlight of the entire year in 2015.

Public Service Broadcasting: That was one of my favourite gigs ever actually, it was a really lovely show. You get it occasionally, something just clicks and the feeling from the crowd that you get tells you instantly that everything’s alright and you can just have fun basically. It doesn’t always happen!

AMBY: Your music implies a kind of child-like wonder and curiosity to events from the 20th Century. Does this stem from your interests as a child?

Public Service Broadcasting: With The Race for Space, yea, I think my interest in space travel and certainly the moon Apollo programme and growing up in the eighties, just science fiction in general all fed into itself like a virtuous circle I guess. The WWII stuff, nowhere near as much, that was much more about wanting to tackle a particular topic with a group of songs, telling a story and using it as an emotional pool… some of the earlier stuff was a bit more tongue-in-cheek… there’s still a bit of that on The Race for Space but it’s less appropriate.

AMBY: I visited the Kennedy Space Center last year and it made me wonder what kind of research you had to do when you were creating The Race for Space. Were people open and forthcoming during this research?

Public Service Broadcasting: NASA are just an incredible organisation and basically an open source as far as I can tell. You can download the mission audio from most of the Apollo missions… they haven’t quite digitised all of 16 and 17 yet but you can listen to Apollo 8 in real time which makes it something of a problem when you’re going through trying to find specific bits… the countdown to LOS (Loss of Signal), we condensed a thirty-eight minute period of LOS to about forty-five seconds I think, so finding the crucial bits to tell that story was tough but then there’s transcripts, these lovely people at the Apollo Flight Journal have just done transcripts of everything so the resources on the American side are and have always been great. It was the Russians that I was worried about! But luckily the British Film Institute had it all and I just got given it all the day before I was going to phone them up. I was phoning about high-quality NASA stuff and they said ‘we haven’t got any but we do have Russian stuff. Are you interested’ and that was when I knew, you know, here we go, this is going to work.

AMBY: How did you decide on The Smoke Fairies for the track Valentina?

Public Service Broadcasting: We were casting about for female singers, we didn’t want to use male voices on it because they’re so prevalent on everything we do just as the nature of the time, which can get a bit depressing, it’s certainty not the message we want to be sending so we wanted to get some female voices on there. Even all the footage of Valentina Tereshkova is translated by men which is also quite depressing so we were looking for singers really and it was a conversation with our publisher, Mute, who also publish The Smoke Fairies and David at Mute asked me if I’d thought about them… I knew them, I’d heard Hotel Room on Marc Riley’s show and thought they were good so we went to the pub, talked it through and they seemed up for it, seemed like nice people and they were and they are! It worked out quite nicely.

AMBY: It was great when I saw you at The Ritz and the track was actually performed with The Smoke Fairies.

Public Service Broadcasting: Well, it’s the little things you can do to add something extra, especially when we don’t always have a focal point on stage… with a brass section and guest singers, it all helps to turn in into more of a spectacle.

AMBY: Tracks like The Other Side provide quite an emotional, cinematic experience. Do certain films or film makers inspire your approach to music?

Public Service Broadcasting: Kubrick is as far as I’m concerned the best there’s ever been and I’m not being particularly controversial in holding that opinion I don’t think. His eye and the way the camera moves in his films, it’s just always so purposeful… even when it’s not moving it’s purposeful. I just really admire how he put together 2001: A Space Odyssey with these three non-narrative blocks basically… the use of voices and the slight discord within those voices was definitely influenced by the soundtrack of 2001 and it was the Hungarian composer György Sándor Ligeti who manipulated those voices and Kubrick was a bit naughty and put effects on it without asking, but I also admire what an amazing control freak he was. He really was the king of control freaks, as an aspiring one myself! It’s something to aim for, definitely!

AMBY: You’re opening the Manchester Science Festival in October, playing the album in full. Will this include Fire in the Cockpit?

Public Service Broadcasting: Yes, we’re playing the album in full.

AMBY: Because you always said that you’d never play this track…

Public Service Broadcasting: No, I never said that. That’s kind of come out, but I don’t know how… I said we wouldn’t do it at a festival which I think holds true, but I never said we wouldn’t do it, I think I said we’d probably do it if we played the album in full but it’s not exactly a crowd pleaser. We’ve done Waltz for George a couple of times and I kind of feel a similar way about that… it’s right to play it in the right place and time but it’s just incredibly sombre really which is not always a mood you want to introduce at gigs. I think it’s going to be extraordinarily jarring, it is on the album, deliberately but even more so live, we’re going to have the brass that’s come out for Gagarin and then for Fire in the Cockpit, people are going to look forward to the end of those two and a half minutes I think.

AMBY: How will this event differ from other shows?

Public Service Broadcasting: Shear numbers… we’re going to have a choir, a string section, we’re going to have a bigger brass section and obviously we’re playing the album sequentially, which I’m not always a fan of seeing other bands do because albums tend to be front loaded in terms of quality and you can often find the second half of those shows a bit dull.

AMBY: So is it like two stories running parallel?

Public Service Broadcasting: With the Race for Space we took liberties with the chronology and it goes from 1962 to ’57, back to ’61 and then all the way to ’68. I wanted to give that parallel impression but in reality that didn’t really happen… the Russians just absolutely hammered it and won pretty much everything up until… Apollo 1 was a turning point for America in terms of it pushing them to shoot for the moon with Apollo 8 earlier than they would have done otherwise. I was even in two minds about including Fire in the Cockpit on the album in the first place but it just felt that because it was such an important event for the American side that it would be disrespectful not to and it’s a way of keeping those memories alive.

AMBY: Is there a clash between your own political viewpoints and your fascination with the events and politics of the space race?

Public Service Broadcasting: Not really because I think that the driving force behind it was obviously military. It was two superpowers essentially developing the best ballistic rockets they could, whilst sticking men into space, but at the same time it was probably one of the greatest spiritual and technological achievements that there has ever been and shows both sides of humanity, all sides of humanity really, and that’s why it’s such an interesting period of history. I try to keep God out of it, the ceaseless implication of God by the Americans, which they tend to do anyway… I’m not religious in any way and see it as something that man did, which is what makes it remarkable really. Certain aspects of both programs are quite unsavoury but I just think it’s extraordinarily interesting and a fascinating period of history. In actually representing it and portraying it, you’re not necessarily endorsing it… with Gagarin you can create this superhero theme tune to highlight the way that’s how he was portrayed and actually he met a tragically early end. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your comment on it is ‘what a super guy’, although I do think he was an incredible person… it’s not as simple as ‘all these things were great, that’s why we wrote songs about them’. With the second world war stuff, I didn’t want to get caught up in nationalistic tendencies. I think it’s right to be proud of certain achievements, it’s right to proud of the spirit of the blitz and the resistance and it’s right to be proud of technological achievements that helped defeat facism, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but I think holding on to it in a small-minded, nationalistic way is something that we’re not interested in.

AMBY: Technology appears to be changing every aspect of our lives. How has it altered the way you create your music?

Public Service Broadcasting: Well, I don’t think we could have been a band like this even ten years ago, fifteen years ago, getting off the ground, it would have been too expensive. The technology would have been prohibitively costly, large and inefficient probably. The whole way the show is put together… ironically, for a band who reference material from the past, we’re actually of the time and I think that is one of the interesting aspects of the band presenting old stuff in a very modern way.

AMBY: You’re described at times as an electronic duo but like a fine single malt, I think there are more tones and textures to appreciate that this description doesn’t take into account. How do you decide what tones and textures to include in a song. For example, the banjo in ROYGBIV.

Public Service Broadcasting: You know, that song’s about colour, the explosion of this rainbow of colour and the noise at the start is actually a mandola which is an octave above a mandolin and it’s heavily affected and delayed but it’s really bright and ringy and it’s octave strings give you a richness and tone out of it and obviously the banjo for me is a happy, vibrant and colourful instrument so that’s where using instruments like that comes in. You just tend to hear it, if you’re lucky enough in that respect when you’re working on something and you can just hear that you want something to sound a particular way and there’s not always a particular reason why. Often, it’s because you heard it in something else and you liked it and made a mental note.

AMBY: I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, so I’m not going to ask what your next record will be about, but how do you think the next record will differ from The Race for Space musically?

Public Service Broadcasting: I think it’s a nice question to be asked because I think it shows that people are looking forward to what’s coming next and think it has a future which is great because it hasn’t always been that way. People kind of thought with the first record that that’s it, you’ve reached the end of your life there which is never what I thought. How is it going to be different? I think it’s going to be more serious, I think it’s going to be more personal and more human-focussed and not just moving on to the next, big epic thing. I think it might have a slightly more political bent to it in a couple of respects but again I think we’ll stay one-step removed from it and it will be about interpretation.

AMBY: Is it a work in progress?

Public Service Broadcasting: Well, I’ve written it all, I think! I’ve written the bones of it all, I’ve demoed most of side A and I just need to get around to side B now. We’re working with other people, trying to get other people onboard and changed the way we worked, keeping in interesting and keep moving and that’s key really. All my favourite bands have never stood still and done the same thing again and again so just for our own sake we’re keeping it interesting

AMBY: Your 6Music for the BBC shows have provided an insight into your music tastes. Firstly, have you enjoyed your time on the airwaves?

Public Service Broadcasting: Yea, it was so lovely to be asked. I did one show for them last year around Latitude and I wanted to do a good job because it’s lovely to play music that you like to other people basically. It was lovely to be asked back for the four shows… I was pretty terrified because it was two hours instead of one and I don’t think I’m the most naturally charismatic or personality imbued person on the air so I was a bit wary about how it would go down but I think over the four shows you can kind of hear me relax a little bit and become a bit more comfortable with it and in the end I really enjoyed it.

AMBY: And finally, the programme has provided an insight into personal tastes. Can you name three artists that you draw inspiration from in your own compositions.

Public Service Broadcasting: The Manics definitely.

AMBY: I wasn’t expecting that!

Public Service Broadcasting: We’ve played with them a bit and I mentioned them in the early days and I think Sean Moore found us, maybe via Simon Price and the Holy Bible was just this bomb when I was fifteen, sixteen for me, I found it after the fact really, and it’s got very interesting use of samples in terms of setting the tone and setting a claustrophobic atmosphere… DJ Shadow, especially the first album or two, I think he’s got such a great ear and Mogwai… there’s a lot of post-rock guitar stuff on there, a lot of textual guitar work  and they’re such a powerful live band as well.


Thank you Public Service Broadcasting, for giving us your answers!

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Interview by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto

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