“I always knew where we were going next, I just didn't really want to tell anyone...” hmv.com talks to Public Service Broadcasting
Emerging with their debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain in 2013, London duo Public Service Broadcasting created one of the year's most unique records, blending their guitar-propelled electronica with samples taken from the archives of the British Film Institute and layering their music with spoken word excerpts from WWII newsreels and wartime broadcasts. The two years that have passed since have seen them take their unique show al over the globe, performing extensive tours in the UK, Europe and further afield in the U.S. and Australia.
Next week (February 23rd) sees them release their sophomore offering, The Race for Space, and as the title suggests, this time they've been plundering the archives and setting the quest for space exploration to music. We caught up with frontman J. Willgoose, Esq. to talk about how they've taken their sound out of this world...
Your new album The Race For Space is out next week, when did you start working on it?
“We started researching stuff around January 2013, but then we kind of sat down to start writing it at the beginning of last year. We had about a month to demo it and then we were off to America for a month and a bit, then around Europe with the Manic Street Preachers, so we've kind of been squeezing in recording in amongst touring and other stuff, it was a very busy year for us last year!”
Where has it all been recorded? You did some sessions at Abbey Road didn't you?
“Well, we had about three hours at Abbey Road. Getting our money's worth there! But yeah, there's a thirteen piece choir on there, which we recorded at Abbey Road. We were quite lucky actually because we got awarded some PRS funding that allowed us to do a couple of things like that which we probably wouldn't have been able to do otherwise, but as for the rest of it we did drums, strings and brass at Pool Studios in Bermondsey and pretty much everything else was done at mine.”
Was that a very different experience from making the first album?
“It was almost exactly the same actually! We had three days and three hours in proper studios, the rest of it was weeks and weeks of me just tinkering, recording guitars, overdubs and all the rest of it in my studio at home.”
Your first album had a very specific aesthetic to it. When you made that first record, were you thinking beyond that about what a second album might sound like?
“Yeah, I'd been thinking about it for probably a year already before we'd even finished the first album. It was the day we finished the first album that I called the British Film Institute to see if they had any space footage for what I thought would be the second album, so I had a pretty good idea where it was going the whole time.
“You know, we got asked about it a lot even even back when we were promoting the first album, there was quite a lot of skepticism and questions about where, if anywhere, we could go next. I mean, you're going to get those questions in any band but especially if you're working in a slightly different way, I guess. But yeah, I always knew where we were going next, I just didn't really want to tell anyone. We like to try and keep a little mystery around things if we can!”
You mentioned sourcing material for samples from the BFI on the first album, where did you source the material for the new record, from the same sort of places?
“Some of it was from the BFI, there was some public domain stuff from the U.S. and also some stuff from Studio Canal.”
Were they quite open about you guys using all this archive stuff?
“Yeah the BFI have been great, ever since I called them up to work on one song before the War Room EP came out, they took a look at what sort of thing we were hoping to do with it, came back and gave us the thumbs up. They're quite a small organisation in terms of structure and don't have the same levels of bureaucracy that you might find at bigger companies, so they can be quite flexible, but they do have an enormous wealth of material and I think they recognise that what we do kind of helps them as much as it helps us, because we're always talking about them and we're using this archive stuff that might otherwise just be sat on a shelf gathering dust somewhere.”
So how did you approach the challenge of making a second record that retained that aesthetic while still moving forwards?
“Well, first of all I wasn't trying to write an album to answer any critics or questions beyond the ones I had myself, and I had quite a clear vision of how I wanted it to sound anyway, but because of the subject matter and because it's obviously such an epic, enormous subject to tackle it was kind of obvious that the music needed to step up a bit in scale as well, in terms of instrumentation and it being a bit more ambitious, but also just in terms of writing songs. You set yourself a few challenges to make sure that you're still pushing yourself and not just falling back on the same old tricks. 'Gagarin' was a case in point actually, we thought it would be quite a nice idea to create this sort of funky, heroic anthem for him and inject a bit of euphoria into it.”
What sort of stuff have you been listening to for inspiration? Is there anything in particular that has informed the sound of the new record?
“It was broadly the same sort of stuff, I've not had any massive epiphany or anything since the first record, but I've been listening to David Bowie's Low quite a bit...quite a lot, actually! I was listening to Tortoise quite a lot too, Wrigglesworth is quite an accomplished player and he plays tuned percussion instruments as well as drums, so I wanted to get some of that on the record this time and the way Tortoise use vibraphones and xylophones on their records is quite interesting, the way they've crafted it into their sound. So I was keen to get some inspiration about how we could incorporate that into our sound too.
“For each song it was quite specific stuff, for 'Gagarin' in particular you can probably hear a bit of Michael Jackson in there, one of the guitar parts is definitely a mini-homage to Jacko! There's all kinds of stuff in there though. I got kind of obsessed with The Doobie Brothers' 'Long Train Runnin' and trying to sort of deconstruct it and work out how they got that feel. I came back with the idea that it was all about the acoustic guitars and it's the same with 'Gagarin', actually. If you take the acoustic guitars out of that track – and it's something that probably nobody would notice – but if you take them out, they're doing so much for the rhythm that the song loses about fifty percent of its energy, instantly. That song didn't really come together until I'd worked that out!”
Do you have any ideas yet about what you might do for a third album, or is it way too soon at this point?!
“I've got a few ideas, yeah. One in particular actually, but at this stage we're trying to keep our cards close to our chests. I kind of think that we've done quite a few things that are on a grand scale, like World War II and Everest, or the space race. So I think I'd quite like to focus on something that's a bit more contained, on a more human scale. So again, we're starting on that and I've been in touch with BFI about a couple of ideas, so we'll see."
What sort of live show can we expect? You've got the two shows at the Space Centre in Leicester coming up, what other touring plans do you have for the album?
“Well, we're hoping to do quite a few festivals this summer, we're also going on our own UK and Ireland tour in April for a couple of weeks, which is going to be good fun. We've been working on some special additions to the stage which are, frankly, a little bit crazy, so Mr. B our live guy who mixes our visuals and stuff will be ding more on stage looking after this new thing that we've built! We also have a new addition in J F Abraham who will be joining us on stage for the UK and European dates doing live bass, keys and percussion. The shows outside Europe will be a bit more stripped back with just Wriggles and myself I think.
“I can't say anything just yet about some of the other festivals we're doing, but we are playing at Lunar Festival in Warwickshire, which seems quite appropriate! But there will be a few more in Europe, there's one in Paris and we'd like to do a few more festivals in Europe over the next year.
“We're also off to Australia in a couple of weeks to do shows in Adelaide and Melbourne, then to New Zealand and from there we fly to the U.S. for three weeks of touring, we're playing at SXSW then doing some of our own dates as well.”
One last question and it's about the 'Gagarin' video: is that really you guys dancing in the space suits?
“People can use their imaginations, if they want to think it's us then they can do, if they think for some strange reason that it isn't us in the suits then they're equally entitled to do so.”