Public Service Broadcasting have carved a name for themselves with their unique fusion of concept-led, sample heavy electronica and multi-instrumentalism. We caught up with PSB’s frontman J. Willgoose Esq. to discuss inspiration, the folly of war, and life on the road…
Hi J! For those who are new to the band, how would you sum up Public Service Broadcasting?
It’s a strange mix of all sorts of different things, I suppose. It’s mostly audio samples from old archive material, propaganda films and documentary footage put to music that we kind of write around it. It’s almost like a re-soundtracking or a sort of re-imagination of certain historical events and happenings, but dressed up in an eccentric way.
Do you start with an interesting sample or do you decide what you want the song to be about before finding relevant snippets?
It changes. With the latest album for example I knew fairly specifically before I started writing it which subjects I wanted to cover, so it was a case of researching material for those songs and trying to tell the stories in an interesting way that wasn’t just relying on the most famous bits.
It all starts with research about the general topic, you know just reading a few books and getting a feel for it and working out what you want to cover, and then narrowing it down from there. But then along the way you might encounter one or two things that strike you as being worthy of a song, or as being something interesting that’s worth pursuing.
Are your topics purely interest-led, or do you ever explore something because it fits with PSB?
With the Race for Space it’s something that’s interest led. I thought it would be a fantastic challenge as a songwriter, a fantastic prompt in a way, it’s just such an extraordinary period of history. But the motivation for writing The War Room EP came from wanting to tackle something more serious, more heavyweight, so we could put forward our case for being a bit more serious than some people thought we were. You know, myself included. That’s what led to writing The War Room rather than any kind of particularly burgeoning interest in World War Two.
So when you started to research it in greater detail did you discover anything eye-opening?
Everyone knows the basics in this country I think, although I’m certain it’s not the case elsewhere. I knew the rough frameworks of the war, I knew roughly the reasons why it happened and who the main protagonists were, and obviously some of the more terrible things that happened, but I didn’t necessarily know some of the more detailed stuff. I made a decision to concentrate on the British side mostly because that was the material that was available to me.
The problem is war has been, and it’s the terrible irony at the centre of it, a great driver in technological developments and creativity. That’s what Spitfire is about to me as a song, this horrible irony that something so creative, such a beautiful piece of machinery and engineering can come out of, and actually serve the purpose of, destruction. I can’t figure out if it’s depressing or if there’s actually something good about that, that even in the darkest times there’s something to be had from it. But it’s a lot of sacrifice to pay and I’m not sure if it’s worth it really.
Did that point of view inform The Race for Space? Because you’ve gone from the pursuit of technology for warfare to the purer pursuit of exploration.
Well yeah, but a lot of the rocket research was going hand in hand with working out the best way to deliver many tons of nuclear warheads intercontinentally, so it certainly wasn’t entirely innocent. But I do think there’s something loftier, something more noble about it that goes more to the heart of us as a species as we try and work out our place in the universe.
So taking it back a bit, how did the collaboration with the BFI come about?
I phoned them up! I wanted to use a film they had the rights to called Protect and Survive, which was a nuclear safety film. I’d already used a couple of their things for early demos but without bothering to see if it was worth getting official permission because it was basically just me playing stuff to nobody in my bedroom. Then things started to get slightly more serious so I thought I’d just phone and ask them, and luckily they were incredibly supportive, incredibly encouraging and accommodating as well. It’s been the start of a really good relationship with them. They’re very on board with what we’re trying to do and I think we both get something out of it.
You’re doing a fair few festivals between now and September –
Are we? Bloody hell! That’s entirely possible, that’s normally what we do. I had thought this year was a bit quieter but it’s probably not, actually thinking about it. July is definitely busy for us.
Do you enjoy being on the road?
It’s an enormous privilege to be heading around Europe, or heading around America. It’s a fantastic thing to be able to do and when you get to these places and people have turned up to see you as well it’s very humbling. I think the more you do it the more the travel part of it becomes a bit tiresome and the more airports become boring and the more the logistics of it become a bit more repetitive and stale. But the actual gigs themselves, it’s pretty much the most fun you could have as a musician. The best feeling is playing, especially your music, to people who want to hear it. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Thank you for your time, J!
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