“What’s this for sir… oh right, I went to the University of Nottingham” “I did not.” “I think I once interviewed Puressence for the university magazine. It was a… good interview.” J pulls a face, they both laugh. I’m huddled in a booth with Public Service Broadcasting in the Rough Trade bar, and the music is too damn loud.
They say never meet your heroes. They should also probably say never meet those who have created and maintained a particular and distinctive image, because it probably won’t be there when you meet them, either. Maybe that’s not as catchy a saying. Anyway, Public Service Broadcasting have already, just two albums into their career, carved a notably idiosyncratic niche into the musical landscape of the UK. Their Charley Says meets post-rock musical approach currently so adored by the BBC is perfectly complimented by their aesthetic, a decidedly vintage and formal quirkiness. In fact, suited and bow tied, the pseudonymous J. Wilgoose Esq. and Wrigglesworth could easily be a classic Time Lord and companion. Which is why it was so disappointing to see them arrive unbespectacled and corduroy free, looking dangerously ungeeky and, well, normal. Could it all just be an act? Let’s find out.
Wilgoose Esq. takes the lead on the first question and, frankly, for the rest of the conversation; Wrigglesworth says very little, bouncing away and struggling to pay attention. On a completely unrelated note, he’s the drummer. So why the interest and focus on the past? “It’s strange really, it evolved naturally, it didn’t happen particularly deliberately, it happened because I started mucking around with old recordings of BFI film…”
At this point, the bar’s music starts blaring again and I’m forced to find the barwoman to rectify the problem. In my absence the duo decide to treat my dictation device to an intimate performance, singing a tribute to/loving pisstake of the song currently interrupting our conversation. “Who is this?” “Dutch Uncles. They’re great,” they make sure to tell my dictaphone. I return. “Where were we? Yeah, it didn’t start out with ‘I’m gonna use historical stuff and make albums around concepts of different eras’” The loud music gets louder. I’m starting to think this barwoman is doing it to spite me. She brings the band tea.
J continues. “This is posh tea, this. Yeah, so I started mucking around with BFI material because I heard it was released on the internet. I’d used other stuff for samples before, just sampling films and computer games and stuff for my own amusement. Having made a couple of songs from this stuff, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if you did a concept album based on different public information films?’, and so we kind of did. As it grew I became kinda dissatisfied with the piecemeal nature of doing it that way, and so we did it solely about World War II to try and give it a narrative thread running through it. And then we moved onto the space race. It seems like a really unnatural thing to be doing but it’s grown up quite natural if that makes sense.”
Why space in particular? “Well part of it is that you know the material is great before you even start looking at it. I’ve got a long standing interest in it which is great; it helps to be interested in what you spend nearly two years of your life writing. And it also moves us forward in time a bit which is… what we want to do is kind of gradually get closer to the present day. Anything to add Wriggles?
Do they worry that by going straight to space with the second album that they may have set the bar too high? Not at all. “I think you’ve just got to do the best you can with each release and not worry about what’s coming next. If we held it in store for a fourth album or something then… well who knows if we’d get a fourth album. I don’t think there’s any shortage of interesting material or interesting directions you can go with it. Is it a worry for you Wriggles?”
“He’s good. He’s been to media training as well…”
The music dies down. The barwoman’s vanished. I’m paranoid. Is it a difficult process to create an album like this? Only as much as any other album. “When you’ve got the freedom to write your own lyrics and sing your own things, that’s obviously a different kind of pressure. For us it’s a matter of sifting through and putting things in an interesting order or context. Actually generating that stuff in the first place is difficult but on the other hand we have to do quite a lot of research and digging through hours of audio. It’s not harder or easier than the other, just different”.
It may just be me, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of humour in the albums, the juxtaposition of raw excitement and drama as described by the prim and proper, RP-spouting broadcasters. Is this an intentional choice? “There’s definitely a lot of humour in what we do. That wasn’t an intentional thing on this album. That was the reason we did ‘Valentina’ the way we did it, trying to avoid having too many prim and proper Englishmen, especially talking over her, but talking over the others as well. The first album had a lot more humourous touches to it.” I don’t mention I find The Race for Space more amusing than their first album. “This one had fewer I think just because of the nature of the material. We try and get a bit of wry humour in occasionally. My favourite line in terms of that is in ‘Gagarin’ one of the voices goes “was it hazardous? Yes it was.” Oh right, thanks for clearing that one up. Hadn’t thought it might be dangerous, but thanks for telling me.”
The tea is finished, I’m now wary my mortal enemy will return. We’ll need to wrap up soon, but first a biggie. There’s a lot to talk about in the way they go about their tunes, and a lot of academic, intellectual discourse around sound and the recontextualising of it for music. Does the band engage much with that? In short, not even a little. “Personally I don’t try to intellectualise what we do too much,” J explains, “I’m not one for reading big critical theory… modern, postmodern music, dissertations. The only time I come close to intellectualising it is when you have to explain it. I think it does a reasonable job of speaking for its self. One thing we like doing is leaving a lot of room for interpretation, so not putting a big narrative stamp on it, but leaving people to find their own way through it. It’s a more rewarding way of being able to listen to something.
I’ve got bad news for them then; I’m writing something on just this subject and they’re likely to crop up. “Oh really, what’s the essay on? Why is modern music so bad?” Sound cultures, I explain. The idea started with the Eno and Byrne album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. “Ah! Yes…” Recontextualising cultural sounds, and these guys fit right into that mould. “Sadly not quite into the David Byrne and Brian Eno mould. That would be nice but not quite.”
I point out there’s still time, while they retain their humility. Speaking of other artists, were there any explicit influences on their most recent work? “All sorts, yeah, all sorts. It wasn’t particularly obvious on the first album, but we wanted to do a funk track and that’s where ‘Gagarin’ has come from. We wanted it to be an infectious and upbeat and exuberant song and celebration of his achievement I suppose. The biggest influence on this album I feel would be the band Tortoise and Bowie, Low, I think. They’re the two that have the most direct influence on it. Eno was involved with Low as well so he’s definitely in there but for his work with Bowie rather than his own stuff.”
“I purposefully didn’t listen to too much of his stuff, particularly the David Byrne stuff – I don’t own it. I don’t want to compare myself to these people. Christopher Nolan when making Interstellar wouldn’t watch Gravity because he didn’t want to get involved with it, he wanted to do his own thing, and it was that way of thinking.”
Mine enemy the barwoman is back; it’s my cue to leave. They ask if I’m staying for the concert later, I tell them I’m reviewing it. J. Wilgoose Esq., the helpful gentleman he is, gives me some adjectives for the review. “Boring. Derivative. The audio equivalent of palliative care…” We shall see.
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