Public Service BroadcastingLiverpool Olympia 12/4/18
Founded by bespectacled and corduroy-clad multi-instrumentalist J. Willgoose Esq., PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING have now expanded into a trio, incorporating Wrigglesworth on drums and JF Abraham on keys and flugelhorn. Right from the start this idiosyncratic group’s ethos has been clear, with their music containing samples gleaned from the BFI archives and other sources to construct a narrative set to post-rock with large doses of electronics, funk and even jazz. Their first EP, One, was a taster of the band’s philosophy, sampling an infomercial for a record player over propulsive, progressive indie rock.
The War Room EP followed a year or so later this time focussing on WWII, particularly the Blitz, generating radio play and piquing interest. Their success was further enhanced thanks to their famed live shows, which feature extensive and atmospheric projected films synchronised with the electronic and often progressive rock and motorik backing.
Their debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain would bring all these concepts together in a lushly-produced long-player and they enjoyed critical as well as popular success. Festival appearances beckoned and suited their visual and sonic style perfectly. Two further albums, The Race For Space and Every Valley tackled subjects as diverse as the 1960s space race and the decline of the South Wales mining industry respectively.
Throughout this time Willgoose has expanded the live performance by utilising a brass section and a 13-piece choir to move towards a more grandiose and symphonic experience while maintaining the intimacy of his early gigs. Back on the road this April, Public Service Broadcasting are revisiting old haunts such as Liverpool, this time at the Olympia on 12th April. Going by how their last appearance went in the city, this should be a triumphal return. J. Willgoose Esq. took some time out from his research to chat with us over the phone from his South East London home.
On your most recent album Every Valley you chronicled the decline of the South Wales mining industry: why did you choose mining?
It was the desire to be a bit unpredictable and not to fall into a set pattern of working or set range of topics I suppose… It also just felt like quite a timely thing to do. The more we worked on it, the more the world was changing around us; it just felt like [the album was] not about its time but of its time.
Did you feel that it took on a life of its own?
Yeh, you set off with a rough structure and once you’ve done basic research for an album like that, you plot where you want to get to – especially when you’re coming to a subject which we had no history or association with. You go into it with your ears and eyes open and there were a number of things we changed as we were going along.
Why South Wales as opposed to other mining industries?
It was more recent in the memory, so we could sit down and talk to ex-miners in South Wales. I wanted to focus on a particular community… and there was something about the geography of South Wales, the Valleys in particular, the way the communities are so defined by the industry they grew up around and the solidarity of the community was a big factor. They were the most solid, [and had] fewest returners to work during the strike of 84/85.
Looking at the other subjects you’ve tackled – WWII, 1950s consumerism and the Space Race – these are two or three generations back, whereas with Every Valley a lot of the miners who were involved in the 80s are still relatively young. Did this immediate connection play a part in choosing this subject?
Well, we’ve been gradually moving forward in time as we’ve gone along and getting closer and closer to the present day, so it did feel right to continue that momentum in a way. Those areas are still dealing with the heart of the communities being ripped out and dealing with the betrayal of their industry.
On this album, as with your others, you use sampling, giving your tracks a documentary quality. When you’re writing a track are you looking at the story and the music and then adding samples or is it the other way around?
It goes both ways really. With a song like Go! [from The Race for Space], it was finding the samples and writing a song in response to that and trying to capture that excitement, so making it sound fast and driving with that tension in it. With this album I think a lot more of it was written with an idea of where we were trying to get to in terms of subject matter, like the song They Gave Me A Lamp: the music for that was written before I’d found any of the samples and, luckily enough, after sifting through material at the South Wales miner’s library I uncovered this stuff about politics and about female empowerment and it all came together in the way that I was hoping for.
What kind of responses have you had from the subjects of your songs? For instance, in regards to the album The Race For Space, have you heard anything from any of the people who worked in mission control back in the 60s?
Yeh, various people have got in touch. I’m sitting looking at a signed photo from [NASA Flight Director] Gene Kranz now actually wearing his famous waistcoat. It says “To PSB eagle, you’re go for landing” – that’s nice isn’t it! He found [The Race For Space] on his own and bought a copy of the record, he seems to speak of it in glowing terms which is incredible. And equally for the new album we’ve had quite a number of responses from people who either worked in the coal industry or live in the Valleys. The depth of support and encouragement and the connection we made with those people is very humbling, actually it’s been overwhelmingly positive which is all you could hope for I think.
What kind of criteria do you consider when choosing your next subject?
Just whether it interests me really and how it fits into what we’ve done in the past and where we want to go in the future: ‘Is it the sort of thing I can get excited about?’ It’s got to sustain you for a good couple of years before you even start touring it. That’s one of the good things about the way I work, writing in response to stuff gives you a whole different kind of vocabulary of music to draw upon and pushes you in directions you wouldn’t always go in if you were left to your own devices.
Can you give us an insight into what might be coming next? What your next subject matter might be?
Well we’re working on the EP for BBC Music’s Biggest Weekend in Belfast on the Titanic… we’ve been trying to do four tracks to tell the story of the ship in a slightly more balanced way rather than everything being so iceberg-focussed and disaster-shaped. There’s comparatively little written about the origins of the ship, how and where it was built versus how it met its fate. There is a tie in to Every Valley in that Belfast, being the former industrial hub, is one of the biggest shipyards in the world responsible for making the world’s biggest ships. So the odd kind of thread still weaving through it all draws it all together.
You played Liverpool a couple of years ago at the O2. You’re on tour in April and playing Liverpool again, this time at the Olympia. Do you find audiences in Liverpool are particularly responsive?
We’ve always found Liverpool really responsive even from the very early days. It’s a special place with a special heritage and we try to get there as often as we can really. The last gig was really memorable in terms of how the crowd were and we’re hoping for more of the same this time.
Public Service Broadcasting play Liverpool Olympia on 12th April, with support from Jane Weaver. Every Valley is out now via PIAS Recordings.