Public Service Broadcasting are on tour at the moment. Having recently left Australia, they're currently in the USA, and they'll be playing in Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic before the end of May. Oh, and they've also got a thirteen-date jaunt around the UK and Ireland booked somewhere in the middle of all that.
This mammoth world tour is being undertaken in support of The Race for Space, PSB's second LP and my personal album of the moment. In fact, I've been so enjoying The Race for Space that I recently jotted down some questions about it and emailed them to the band's management in the vague hope that I might get a response.
And, well, I'm thrilled to announce that J. Willgoose Esq. (the man behind Public Service Broadcasting) was generous enough to answer those questions. Here's what he had to say:
Photo by Paul Hudson
The Race for Space, as an album, is far more thematically unified than Inform-Educate-Entertain. What drove you to write a concept album this time around?
I think the first record was a concept album too, it's just that the concept was basically us. And before that we had The War Room EP, which was obviously conceptual too, and which actually post-dated a lot of the material on the album even though it was released before I-E-E. I really enjoyed that way of working and felt it made the record hang together a lot better and gave it a stronger emotional hook, so I was keen to work that way again.
Following on from that, why did you choose space - and specifically The Space Race - as your subject for the new album?
It's extremely tempting to write 'because it’s there'! But it appealed on a number of levels: firstly, it's a subject I'm very interested in and have been for as long as I can remember. Secondly, it brought us a step closer to the present day, and we're keen to keep that momentum going. And thirdly, it's a subject with a broad and grand enough scope that we could expand our sound to fit it, something we were equally keen to do.
Each song on The Race for Space deals with a key event of the era (the first manned lunar orbit, the moon landing, etc.) The album condenses seventeen years of history into nine songs - how did you decide which events to focus on?
A combination of factors, really - personal interest in the story, its importance in the overall history of the era, and how well covered it had been. I was never going to work with Apollo 13 for example because, dramatic as it was, in terms of the overall space race it wasn't a giant leap forwards or backwards (thankfully!) - it was instead NASA's first 'successful failure'. But it’s been done to death so I was keen to steer away from it.
Similarly, with some of the better known recordings, I was hoping not to use some of the more famous lines ('One small step for (a) man', the Apollo 8 Genesis readings, etc.) and to try to offer a fresh perspective on it.
Where did you find the spoken word material for this album? Were all of these recordings publicly available, or did you have to write to NASA?
NASA are a fantastically open (almost open-source in some ways) organisation and they have been wonderfully free and generous with their sharing of their archives – for all mankind, as it were – and in the lack of copyright on their audio.
I was never worried about finding the material to tell the American stories; it was more the Russian side of things that worried me as I had no idea how to go about getting hold of it, who to ask, or even where to go to ask them. In a stroke of extreme fortune, though, the BFI had just inherited a whole load of ETV films about the Soviet space programme and we were able to use them. It really was an incredible piece of luck.
Which is your favourite song on the new album and why?
It changes quite frequently depending on how well we've played it live recently! But at the moment I'm quite keen on E.V.A.. I think it has an atmosphere and a maturity to it that is unlike any of our other songs.
One lesson I'm keen to teach is that you should always be careful how you write your press releases in the early days! I wrote that line in a desperate (and very tongue-in-cheek) bid to stand out from 6,000 other acts at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 and it's followed us around ever since.
We're really not trying to ram history or any form of teaching down people's throats at all. We like to leave room for interpretation and imagination in what we do - I don't feel I have ultimate control over its meaning just because I happened to write the music. It's up to the listener to form their own relationship with the album, because once it's out it doesn't even belong to us any more. We don't control it once it's out there.
Musically, The Race for Space is a bit of a progression from Inform-Educate-Entertain. You've kept that motorik sound on tracks like Go!, but there are also flirtations with funk and ambient music. What were you listening to while you made the album? What musical influences are at play here?
All sorts, just as with the first album. I've done a bit of a Spotify playlist somewhere that I'm sure people can dig out if they're interested, but I listen to so many different kinds of music from so many genres that it'd take all day to list the influences behind this album. The key players though would probably be Bowie (for Low), Eno (snap) and Tortoise (for TNT).
Some elements of this album (the horns on Gagarin, for example) sound like they'll be difficult to recreate live without drafting in additional musicians. Is this something you've considered, or will you be relying on pre-recorded material during those songs?
Ha, yes, funnily enough I've considered it! We always try to make the show as live as possible, within financial or spatial constraints (we still play very small stages outside the UK for example). We've added a touring musician, JFAbraham, to our UK and European dates, and he’s covering a lot of ground by playing bass, keys, flugelhorn and percussion. Where we have the budget and the contacts we also get live brass on board, but it's not always easy at our level.
Without wishing to get ahead of myself...what's next for Public Service Broadcasting? Where do you go once you've conquered space?
I don't know about conquering anything… but I know where I want to take it next and I know who I'd like to be involved. I also like to keep my cards close to my chest, so we’ll all have to wait and see.
Do you think you'll ever use spoken word samples to create a completely new narrative? Remove them from their original context and weave them together into a story of your own?
Who knows? I think the ways we work and the material we work with, and the way they interact...well, I think the possibilities are endless, anyway, as Mr Collins might once have said.
* * *
Huge thanks for Willgoose for taking time out of PSB's hectic touring schedule to answer my questions. The Race for Space is available from the Public Service Broadcasting website - I'd strongly recommend that you buy it.