How Public Service Broadcasting fused history with music in a unique way

by James Belfield / 03 May, 2018
At the coalface: Public Service Broadcasting. Photo/Dan Kendall

At the coalface: Public Service Broadcasting. Photo/Dan Kendall

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British band Public Service Broadcasting is bringing its history-laced electronica to Auckland.

Scraping spoken-word samples from pop culture is hardly a new practice in music, but Public Service Broadcasting have certainly taken it to a new level.

The 80s synth maestro Paul Hardcastle delved into news archives for his anti-Vietnam War single 19, Shona Laing’s Glad I’m Not a Kennedy lifted from JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech and a whole slab of 90s UK dance music relied on borrowed subtexts to give their transient bleeps, booms and whistles apparent depths. But PSB have put the samples front and centre in their compositions.

What started as an excuse for frontman J Willgoose, Esq to avoid the limelight and having to sing on 2013’s Inform-Educate-Entertain – a grab bag of stories including the advent of colour TV, Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest and the development of the Spitfire fighter plane – turned full concept album for 2015’s The Race For Space, which opens with Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the Moon” speech and ends 10 years later with Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan wishing “may the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind”.

And the visiting UK outfit’s latest offering, Every Valley, saw them get even more involved when they tackled – of all things – the failed coal industry of South Wales, including travelling to the former steelworks town of Ebbw Vale to interview residents and set up a recording studio in an abandoned workers’ institute hall.

Willgoose says he doesn’t have a burning interest in history, but coming face to face with his subject matter meant added responsibility. “We’ve always been sensitive to the source material, but it went to another level with this album because a lot of the people are still living and the communities affected are still battling to find a way through,” he says.

“In a way, going back and recording the album there and putting something back into the local economy kind of felt a socially appropriate way of making an album.”

The result is as far from the kitsch samples of 80s and 90s dance music as you can get – from the raw guitar-heavy All Out, which focuses on the miners’ strike, to the haunting They Gave Me a Lamp, which gives a female perspective on what was a very male industry.

Willgoose says the live show allows them to push the source material even further, with visuals and a strong emphasis on “embellishment and improvisation”, a direction that, although they’re undoubtedly a unique band with a unique approach to creativity, sets them up for comparisons with the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai.

“Just because there’s no one else necessarily in that incredible narrow genre of instrumental public information film-based electronica doesn’t mean we’re only competing against ourselves. You’re always looking at your peers and bands you love and putting yourselves in situations that will push you.”

Public Service Broadcasting play at the Powerstation, Auckland, on May 3. Every Valley is out now.

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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