With a band name like Public Service Broadcasting and an album titled ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, it seems communication is essential to J. Wildgoose Esq and Wrigglesworth, the duo who make up Public Service Broadcasting. Yet considering this, they are a band of very few words. Never having yet laid a vocal onto any of their tracks, they rely entirely on the use of sound bytes and audio clips. Far from being official, corporate and soulless, Public Service Broadcasting’s treatment of every topic at hand is so considerate and well balanced, that the outcome is extremely human and emotive.
Their debut single ROYGBIV was released in March 2012. Beginning by listing the colours of the rainbow, it is an uplifting and acoustically bright track that collates sound bytes praising the invention of colour television. Above straight drums and picky banjo rhythms, lines like “colour to excite the mind” and “the brilliant pulsating miracle that gives substance to shadow” all spoken in traditional television English, sonically express a progressive story of mankind and its technological advances. It is a beautiful historical incite alongside something you can happily swagger too.
“While it may now seem like a coherent and understandable concept realised, it actually took a while for the whole package to materialise,” explains J. Wildgoose Esq, the man responsible for the string instrumentation. “The initial spark was almost certainly hearing an ‘Archive Hour’ on Radio 4 presented by Tom Robinson (who would go on to be the first person to play our music on his Introducing show, ironically enough!). From there it was quite a quick idea – “Wouldn’t it be great to have an album where each song was inspired by a different public information film?” To which I thought the immediate answer was “dear god, no – that sounds like the most pretentious thing ever”. But I went ahead and did it anyway – and it only took about 4 years.”
“Wouldn’t it be great to have an album where each song was inspired by a different public information film?” To which I thought the immediate answer was “dear god, no – that sounds like the most pretentious thing ever”
The PSB press release claims they hope to “teach the lessons of the past through music of the future.” As Wildgoose says:
“I find the contrast between old and new quite revealing. It reveals new things about the old material, but also about our own times… I hope!” By distancing themselves personally, PSB have ensured there is no middleman telling you how to feel and think about whatever is being explored. And they explore a lot.
ROYGBIV was followed two months later by the release of ‘The War Room’ EP. A seeming antithesis to their debut it opens with ‘If War Should Come’ and the clear and melancholy message “make no mistake, this country is at war”. This five track EP sees an expansion into a more texturally layered soundscape. ‘If War Should Come’ reveals a hint of propeller, possibly the echoes of gunshots, dreary monotonous strings and the definite declaration that “no-one in this country of ours wants war”, yet we all know war is exactly what they got; an unsettling atmosphere about a disturbing subject. However, like the cover art itself, and the attempted destruction of the human spirit, things are never wholly bad.
‘Dig For Victory’ begins with “have you joined the ranks of this great new army? Young men are doing it, young women, children, old men; they know that food is just as important a weapon of war as guns”. The slower pace, bass deep and chiming guitar strokes are soothingly steady; atmosphere intensifies with a constancy that is entirely comforting. ‘Dig For Victory’ is full of hope; despite the horror it is facing.
‘Dig For Victory’ is full of hope; despite the horror it is facing
The samples selected by PSB, the instrumental treatment and exploration of the theme taps perfectly into our collective nostalgia and our fear of progress. Like sitting on a giant rocking horse of history, you are constantly swayed between feelings of fear and elation. What is it about the use of these samples that they find so inspiring?
“There are almost too many aspects to list, really,” explains Wildgoose, “but having the weight of history, and authority, behind you just adds something that I could never personally bring to the music myself. And that authority can either be genuinely spellbinding, as I find it with ‘Everest’ (“two very small men, cutting steps in the roof of the world’), or unintentionally hilarious (my favourite quote from ‘Signal 30’ is the exchange about not drinking and driving – cue the question ‘not even beer?’ and answer: ‘not even water’).”
Like sitting on a giant rocking horse of history, you are constantly swayed between feelings of fear and elation
While the samples can set the tone, it is PSB themselves who select the samples and arrange the music to evoke brilliant emotive responses in the listener.
“Above all I suppose it’s the nostalgia that gets to me – the little girl carried into the air raid shelter in ‘London Can Take It’, the footage at the end of ‘Everest’… Just that these things were worth filming, or saying, or doing, for whatever reason, and this is what’s been left behind by these people who are now gone. I can’t quite put it as eloquently as I’d like to. I suppose that’s what the music aims to do.”
In a generation obsessed with YouTubing its life by means of preservation, this sentiment has particular poignancy.
Working up to the release of their album, their single and EP releases demonstrate a sense of theme and sentiment so strong, you sense that these must be issues that matter greatly to them.
In a generation obsessed with YouTubing its life by means of preservation, this sentiment has particular poignancy
“Some of it is quite by chance – ‘Everest’ only came about after I was watching ‘South’, the Shackleton film, and seeing it as a related film suggestion. But I suppose after ‘The War Room’ I was looking for something more triumphal, and uplifting, universal, to lift the gloom of having my head in World War II for so long, so maybe it wasn’t all that accidental. And other times – as with ‘Signal 30’, or ‘ROYGBIV’ – I wanted to write something that fit thematically with a topic (driving education, the invention of colour TV), so actively went looking for suitable clips.”
This play-off of energy and seriousness of content is very apparent. ‘ROYGBIV’ and ‘The War Room’ as well as ‘Everest’ and ‘Signal 30’ are created from completely different energies. The ratio between information, education and entertainment is what makes their music so real, accessible and enjoyable.
“I definitely take the entertainment side of things more seriously than the informative side, I have to say! Live music should be fun, and should be for the benefit of the people listening, not the people playing. It took me a while to get that equation balanced the right way round, mind! And if any little nuggets of information, or any emotional response, or thought-provoking business comes out of that too, then you’re probably lucky enough to be onto something!”
The ratio between information, education and entertainment is what makes their music so real, accessible and enjoyable
Equally the ratio between sound byte and instrumental space is something PSB spend a lot of time focusing on. The consequence of such consideration is the creation of something that allows the listener’s imagination conceptual freedom.
“I normally put far too many in and then whittle them down – either playing them to the good lady (who gets enraged by too many clips) or our managers, who say less is more – and then go back and really strip out anything unnecessary or unintelligible. With instrumental music you have the great benefit of people bringing their own emotional response to the music, rather than having one stamped on it by a singer. So you need to leave enough in the song to make it speak about its subject matter, and make it relevant, while also leaving enough room for people to bring their own feelings to it.”
Balancing the light and dark of sonics, content and even manner and tone, is something both Wildgoose and Wrigglesworth are comfortable with.
“We were in the Scouts together and Wrigglesworth was a natural – he tied the fastest woggle I’ve ever seen. I looked up to him in many ways, as a man, and as a leader. He’s also great in a survival situation. So when it came time to look at getting someone else on board, there was only one choice as far as I was concerned. (NB – this may, or may not, be true.)”
Such humour is not at odds with the content, but rather it is instrumental in its success. Alongside hope, it is that element of the human spirit that is continuously revealed through the band’s music and that enables easy communication of big historical issues.
Humour is not at odds with the content, but rather it is instrumental in its success
“It may seem trite to say so, but communicating with other people is one of the most worthwhile and vital things you can do with your time,” says Wildgoose, “especially if you’re of a creative bent, you want to communicate your ideas, your views, your feelings, to the world. Quite often the world doesn’t particularly care to listen, of course, but finding the right vehicle to deliver it is key and I suppose the layers and irony inherent in what we do and how we deliver it appeals to me.”
Although they utilise the formal and instructive, they have intentionally aimed to make it universally accessible.
Although they utilise the formal and instructive, they have intentionally aimed to make it universally accessible
“I find it maddening listening to, or reading, academic and obtuse language – the kind that almost deliberately obscures the meaning of what the author is trying to say, as if communicating their intelligence is more important than actually imparting something useful. Will Self always gets me shouting at the telly with his ‘epiphenomenal imbroglio’ nonsense. You want people to understand what you’re saying, what you’re trying to communicate. It’s exactly the same with music. I have no interest in writing obscure or unlistenable but ‘clever’ music. I want it to reach as many people as it can, anyway, is what I’m trying to say I suppose!”
This is why seismic human shifts are easily understandable whilst being uplifting and wonderful to dance to.
“There is no meaning to music unless it has an audience. I think one of the saddest – and truest – lines in a song ever written is in Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound Of Silence’: ‘People writing songs that voices never share’. Music without an audience is like sound in a vacuum. It doesn’t exist, or it may as well not do, at any rate.”
This is why seismic human shifts are easily understandable whilst being uplifting and wonderful to dance to
As Public Service Broadcasting demonstrate, vocals are not necessary especially when employing sound bytes and samples. Although this in itself is nothing new in music, because PSB use it as a method to artistically discover more about the topic or theme in hand, it does at times – especially in terms of poetics – seem to cross into the spectrums of sound art in many respects.
“I think it does cross over a bit, yes, but because it’s quite unashamedly poppy in some respects – at least with regard to having a strong melody, and us clearly not taking ourselves too seriously – I think that audience probably feels a bit turned off by us.”
While some listeners may struggle to combine such polar elements, the band themselves are more than comfortable with it.
“Boomkat gave us a very sniffy review, for example, and I was very much expecting that. Yet I absolutely take the material seriously, particularly the war footage, but perhaps people don’t see the divide between us as an entertaining entity and our very honest affection for the materials we use. We probably don’t seem like the real deal to that audience, anyway. I’d disagree on that front, obviously, but I can understand it.”
Their succession of fully-rounded and beautiful releases clearly shows the affection they have for both the materiel and importantly the subject matter. Setting their sights next on the summit of ‘Everest’ their next EP was created from a considerate selection of clips from the 1953 documentary ‘The Conquest of Everest’ and made into a truly beautiful and uplifting study of human endeavor. Opening with “Once their was a mountain called Peak 15, nothing was known about it, but in 1852 the surveyors discovered it was the highest in the world, and they names it Everest” the track immediately becomes something you want to run a marathon to. A steady strong pulsing 4-beat is paired with straight ringing guitar lines, which sees each bar build and build as the climbers in your mind go higher. Almost exactly half way through the track production expands as the struggle does conceptually. “At such heights when you’re lacking oxygen, you may think you’re normal but you’re not, you’re moving in a dream, a dream that deludes and debilitates” echoes into a sonic dreamscape reflecting a struggle that could be applicable to anything you are facing. The entire four minutes is threaded by a delightfully optimistic riff that calls through guitars and pianos, and is eventually answered by a beautiful brass section that is the epitome of winning. The final sentiment of “Why should a man climb Everest? Because it is there!” feels like the reason for life itself.
The final sentiment of “Why should a man climb Everest? Because it is there!” feels like the reason for life itself
Like any historian, philosopher and musician, there is no end, conceptually, of what Public Service Broadcasting can explore. Their album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’ released this spring brings the best of their EP and single releases together and expands on what they can do as a band.
“It still needed to feel like a whole piece though, not too scatty or devoid of any real glue to keep it together. It’s kind of a snapshot, as well as a bit of a mission statement. Some people might feel it lacks the focus of ‘The War Room’ but I think it has a different role to fulfill – a kind of sample of all the different sides to our music. Hopefully we’ve succeeded in getting that across!”
Fifty listens in, according to iTunes, and I would vouch that they have certainly succeeded. With a fantastic tour lined up there is much to look forward to from the band.
“We try to keep it as live as possible – we rework stuff, but more importantly we keep back a little intensity from the records to bring out live. When you see a live act whose music you love, you want it to be bigger, louder, harder – at least I do! – while still retaining enough softer edges so that it doesn’t get relentless. I think the humour in what we do helps there as well.” And while the themes they explore are limitless, so too are their ambitions. “I’d love to do a show in a few years’ time where everything is performed live – including the voices, so having loads of musicians and also a few voice actors on stage. I think that’d be great fun. Maybe the Barbican will have us in a few years, ha!”
In the meantime, allow Public Service Broadcasting to inform, educate and entertain you. The experience can range from unsettling to euphoric and at times a bit daft. Ultimately, it is this bringing together of humour and hope, that allows them to treat the human condition, its struggles, fears and endeavors, with such consideration, while all the time being truly beautiful to listen to.
Public Service Broadcasting are currently on tour, dates and information can be found here.
This article first appeared here.
Today i’m listening to: Public Service Broadcasting
Another image from the recent equals exhibition I co-curated depicting Rosanne Robertson’s installation. Left after her live performance the entire room was transformed into the embodiment of the ‘Sublime Fuss’. Rosanne is a really inspiring artist, I absolutely love her work and working alongside her here was a fantastically developmental process. You can find more information about her here.