It was once said about music, for all its inherent subjectivity, that there are no original songs left to write. It has all been done. Every chord sequence has been strung together and every lyric sung. This, possibly, explains the ever growing urge for artists to splice and wedge every known musical element into a hybrid in order to break new ground. Very few of these people can boast that they’ve managed to do it as charmingly as Public Service Broadcasting. Noted for using old broadcasted soundbites from various sources, PSB have been one of the truly original musical springs of late. As they prepare to release their second album, The Race For Space, State.ie chatted to J. Willgoose, Esq., one half of the enigmatically named duo about their musical journey.
What inspired your method of using these kind of samples in this context?
It didn’t come from a particularly active thought process, more just listening to a Radio 4 programme about historical recordings being released online for the first time. Being a bedroom producer I straight away thought I could use them and that’s how it started. I had no idea if I was good at it or not, this producing business, but after getting hold of these recordings and trying things out with them I played them for a few people who liked them. And trust me, that’s an uncommon reaction to a lot of my stuff… from there I just worked on a few more tracks and started to toy with the idea of making a whole album, something bigger than a bunch of audio clips. That was about five of six years ago now, it has evolved since then.
It’s now a far more structured thing. I’m trying to tell more of a story with the samples as opposed to just putting them together.
So you thematically source samples now?
Yeah well that was the case for our last EP, The War Room. I wanted five songs which were based on World War II stuff; like propaganda and news broadcasts. I really enjoy that process of writing because it gives you far more room to tell a story. If, for example, I’m just using random samples I’ll end up with 10 unrelated songs about nothing. I was conscious of trying to focus things a little more on this album and in return it would stand a chance of getting people involved emotionally.
So is the fact that you took what was effectively British propaganda as source material a worry for you? Did it matter to you how it was perceived?
Of course. Doing anything related to World War II in any context is a risk for obvious reasons so, for example, making a track like ‘Spitfire’ which is quite rousing in itself meant we had to be very careful. People could very easily take it the wrong way so we took steps to undercut anything that could be turned into nationalism or used with horrible connotations. Thankfully we avoided anything like that. The song is three years old now and a lot could have happened in that time, yet the song is still free from those elements.
What measures did you take, exactly?
It’s a Krautrock song! The spitfire itself was a very important in the war and we were aware of that, but obviously there are horrible people out there who’ll always look to put horrible, nationalist overtones on these things so there is irony in the song being in the style it is and being called ‘Spitfire’. We’re basically celebrating what was an incredible design and something that was hugely important in keeping Europe safe from Nazi Germany, there is nothing wrong with that.
Was there anything from these archives that you couldn’t use?
No because with The War Room we were very specific in what we wanted from the British Film Institute and what we could actually use. We worked very closely with the archivists and had free range to use what we found, the only stuff we couldn’t use tended to be from more disparate sources. Things like samples from movies, TV shows, etc. When we requested permission we’d usually get a bog standard reply from them, “NO”.
Their loss! Did they offer any reasons?
Nah, the film studios are just reluctant to do anything at all that won’t make them millions of pounds, something they were never likely to do with us, haha!
You were given access to some very well guarded material, was that difficult?
We got most of what we wanted through our relationship with the BFI and that was as simple as just summoning the courage to ask them for access. ‘Er, hello, this is who we are and this is what we want to do, can we please have access to your recordings?’. You see, at this point we had been able to use some stuff from the US public access archives in a song and we were able to give the BFI examples of what we planned to do with their recordings. They were very flexible and supportive of us and gave us the green light. Actually, they seemed to want to work with us which was a huge surprise, they have been and are excellent to work with.
Maybe they saw the potential of reflective glory…
I think it has more to do with the fact that they’ve got the structures in place to adjust their rates, because obviously we weren’t in any position to pay the commercial rates for these samples. If we were making a documentary or a film and wanted to use this stuff we’d have paid a lot more. But the fact that they were willing to be flexible with us was hugely encouraging, they obviously wanted to work with us for whatever reason.
Isn’t most of this stuff in the public domain already? What kind of money were they looking for?
Yeah it is but you still have to pay a royalty because it’s their material regardless of whether it’s been made public or not. Thankfully it wasn’t prohibitively expensive though. They are a bureaucracy but they’ve structured it to make it as easy as possible for people like us to use. Anyway, some of the recordings were probably destined to sit in a dusty cupboard somewhere, never to be listened to again. What we’re doing is giving it yet another chance to be heard.
So how will all of this work in a live setting?
From the very start I was adamant that as much of this as possible was going to be played live, I mean, I’ve been to gigs and performances where you’ve got one or two guys on stage pushing buttons and that just doesn’t do it for me. I find all of that quite boring so for us there was a big emphasis on musicianship and performing the tracks using instrumentation, in particular the drums. For the most part, drums are the the most engaging part of any live show and you don’t need to be a musician to appreciate that. Which is funny because you don’t even need to be a musician to play the drums…
Well, there’s my subheading right there.
I’m winding Wrigglesworth up, I obviously don’t mean that! Nah, to be honest there is no contest between live drumming and a drum track. Not even from a purely musical standpoint; from an audience standpoint too. To see a cymbal being hit and hearing the noise is far more thrilling than hearing it in a sample, really. So that’s the number one way of making people realise that there is an actual performance going on rather than a couple of guys and a laptop. Add to that the synths, samples, guitars, banjos, whatever, and you’ve got something real. We’ve a third member for the live shows who’ll be playing bass and horns and then we’ve an audio-visual guru too, Mr. B, which we’re quite excited about. A few custom built TV sets that we’ll be projecting images onto. Unfortunately, though, not all of the venues have the capability to use this stuff so not all of it will be used but everything will be focused around the audience seeing a live performance with live visual mixing.
All of this must be surreal considering you started it all in your bedroom. Now you’re including a live band, visual mixers…
Absolutely, the whole concept has grown over the last few years and from being just me it is now what we hope is an engaging spectacle and we hope people can appreciate the work that’s gone into it. We must have done close to 300 gigs at this point though, it has taken quite a lot of effort to get here so we’re very happy to see the results. In all honesty, though, we’ve never gotten bored playing these songs and touring them, despite how many times you might play the same song over those years. Now we’re able to add so much more to them it just doesn’t lose it’s appeal for us. It’s a privilege for us to do this.
What about collaborations, have you any plans to include other artists in your work?
We’ve had a few approaches and very tentatively approached some others in the hope that they’ve heard of us. I really can’t say who at this point but there are some very interesting ideas in the pipeline and some very bonkers people who’ve agreed to work with us so we’ll see.
Finally, are they your real names?
Ah, well, we are so shrouded in an air of mystery that we can never pierce it so our names must remain a secret…haha! Strangely enough though, Wrigglesworth was born with just that one word name so we all vowed never to delve too deeply into his backstory…
Public Service Broadcasting release The Race for Space on February 20th and will be performing live in Belfast’s Mandella Hall on May 3rd and Dublin’s Button Factory in May 5th.