Despite what the members would have you believe, Public Service Broadcasting is far from your average band. Helmed by J. Willgoose Esq. and driven by the percussional talents of trusty drummer Wrigglesworth, this pseudonymous British two-piece is unlike most. The band’s sound comprises of samples unearthed from dusty public information archives intertwined with an exhaustive array of stringed and electronic instruments–making for an unlikely but intensely emotive aural collage.
According to the band biography, Willgoose is a horn-rimmed glasses, corduroy loving kind of chap, and if it’s possible, he sounds it on the phone, too. The two have only recently returned from a month in the U.S., a trip across the pond which included representing the BBC Introducing venture at SXSW. A festival so infamous for debauchery seems perhaps an unlikely choice for the gentle-natured PSB, and Willgoose admitted, “yeah, it took me a while to relax a bit and get into the pace of it. Everything was a hundred miles an hour and I was just pottering about. I was having a good time by the end, though!”
It’s been a non-stop ride for Public Service Broadcasting since EP “The War Rooms” was so warmly received in 2012. A full-length album, “Inform – Educate – Entertain,” and a mammoth touring schedule followed, with a DVD released last fall to explore in depth the sources and inspiration behind the carefully researched clippings. PSB’s vocals draw from a diverse array of sources including, but by no means limited to, WW2 bulletins, a reading of W.H Auden’s poem “Night Mail,” an American advertisement warning against dangerous driving, and the 1953 film The Conquest of Everest. Live performances are even more mixed media, utilizing projectors and vintage television sets to broadcast (literally) the accompanying visuals. It’s an eclectic mix for sure, but the effect is far more rousing than a band which self-describes as “underwhelming” would admit.
Willgoose approaches music-making with the rigor and dedication of an academic, conjuring up an emotive, passionate story from these unusual ingredients. He explained his process as intuitive, saying, “I always know roughly what tale it is I want to tell and how it needs to fit the music, so then it’s about seeing what the raw [archival] material is like. If it’s ‘there’ in the first place then great, but sometimes you have to…mangle it a bit. It’s about looking for something that just grabs me, if it just reaches out and says ‘use me.’”
It’s clearly a time-consuming process, and Willgoose reacts indignantly to any suggestion that the two have been lying low since their last release.
“We haven’t been hiding! Unfortunately, I could have done with a bit of hiding away. January we even managed to spend writing new material for the next release, whenever that might see the light of day,” he said.
Due to the ironic, self-aware manipulation of sources, and the title of the album, no doubt, Public Service Broadcasting has been quite heavily politicized by critics and fans alike. This is something Willgoose is keen to tone down, describing his style as more “the Strictly Come Dancing end of BBC, rather than Newsnight.”
“I think what we’re trying to do is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek, not to be too highbrow or arch or pretentious, hopefully,” he elaborated. “Entertaining is the main thing that we’re about. If people take other bits and bobs away, then that’s good too, but we want to entertain people. One of the best things anybody has ever said about our gigs recently said he was looking round the crowd at our London Forum show, which was a massive deal for us, and everybody just had big smiles on their faces.
“And that…I remember going to a Flaming Lips concert and everybody just had huge smiles, and I was just thinking ‘this is great.’ I mean, what a fantastic way to see the world…traveling around and making everybody smile. I think we certainly make a fair few people frown and storm off angrily, but our aim is to make sure people have a fun time.”
Willgoose is self-effacing and modest, and clearly takes this niche work extremely seriously. Describing PSB’s home-grown ethos as “very much cottage industry, self-releasing, and self-financing,” he reluctantly admitted that as much as “a huge live show would be fantastic, financially we’re not quite ready just yet. Sadly–it seems a bit of a crime to be so mundane and prosaic about music.”
While it’s easy to agree that a full-scale West End show would be incredible, albeit possibly over budget, Willgoose is softly assertive about the vision he has for Public Service Broadcasting, now and for the future. “Next week we’re doing a radio session in France, and we got asked if we could do a cover. And…we can’t really do a cover. We don’t ever do them. It’s not because we’re being divas or anything; it just doesn’t really work with what we do. They’re insisting we do a classic rock cover, and we’re like ‘ummmm no.’ Thin Lizzy?!”
Public Service Broadcasting has played Berlin before, in April last year. Willgoose described it with his now evidently typical self-deprecation. “It was at Festsaal, which I believe has burned down now, and it was mostly notable for one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made on stage: forgetting to retune my guitar, and then playing one important part which loops, of course, for about a minute. Wriggles nearly fell off his stool laughing.”
A year on, the duo are set to play the German capital again. What can fans expect, this time around? In Willgoose’s words, “an audio-visual…electro delight? A feast for the senses!”
Public Service Broadcasting plays tonight at Privatclub in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.