What types of music from your youth influence the group’s sound most today?
It’s hard to untangle everything... especially after the fact.
The way I got into music, sort of mid-90s, like a lot of people back then, was Oasis and guitar music. That was the real ‘Oh wow, this is exciting. This is the sort of thing I really want to do.’ So that’s what got me into learning the guitar and playing rock music or indie music, and that led to a very long road of various bands and so on. I feel like it’s the same for everyone, but the way that ‘scenes’ existed in the 90s and beforehand doesn’t really happen anymore because of the diversification due to streaming. It feels like it’s much harder to have a little isolated scene at school that you’re part of versus other people listening solely to other kinds of music. Historically speaking for me, I think it would be guitar music, but then from my early twenties it just went everywhere. It’s really hard to put a particular pattern on it. But then I do the writing, which sadly means Wrigglesworth’s love of 90s hip-hop doesn’t really have that much of an effect, as much as he’d love it to!
You’ve said before that, just before turning 30, you’d given up on becoming a professional musician. What changed? And how did this develop into Public Service Broadcasting?
The last band I was in before this broke up in the way that bands do when nothing is really happening. So yeah, I had given up on doing anything like this for a living really. I think letting that sort of desperation go was really quite important for just relaxing and starting to make music that I really enjoyed myself, and not always thinking ‘What sort of songs do I need to write?’ I got less cynical and calculated about it and just wanted to write something that was fun so that if I needed to drag my mates to the pub to watch a gig, which I had been doing for 15 years or more, they might actually enjoy it for once rather than suffering through it. And it kind of worked!
As soon as I did the the first demo and played it to my mates, I got a reaction unlike anything I’d had before. So I just picked it up and ran with it really, and it’s been a process of doing that as a band ever since; picking up this concept of Public Service Broadcasting and running with it and seeing how far you can bend it and push it and distort it and experiment with it and see where you can get to. It would have been beyond my wildest imagination to think... from doing the first demo in my bedroom to writing a centenary piece in recognition of the BBC to be played at the Albert Hall with the Symphony Orchestra. It’s mad...
What initially sparked your interest in the archival material that you’ve used so much in your music and how did the idea of sampling it begin to develop?
Just hearing it on the radio... Hearing an archive programme on Radio 4 which was actually presented by Tom Robinson who went on to become the first DJ to play our music. I heard him interviewing somebody from the BFI and I heard him talking to... I think it was Rick Prelinger from the Prelinger Archives in the US, which is a vast public domain source.
I was making this electronic-ish music that I liked but it didn’t have a great deal of personality, and I’d always been a fan of stuff like DJ Shadow and Jurassic 5 and even the Manics (The Holy Bible)... The way they used speech and stuff they recorded off the telly for that record, and how it kind of lends a particular atmosphere to a piece of music. So I think I just thought ‘I’ll give that a try’. I didn’t really think it through in any great detail. I wasn’t using it for the emotional or narrative purposes which came later. It was just kind of window dressing almost... To give it a human voice of some element that wasn’t mine. Again, just picking it up and running with it... As soon as I started to realise how much more you could actually do with it as a concept, that’s when The War Room happened and I didn’t really look back from there in terms of how to use the material to tell a story and to get an extra emotional response.
How did your use of archive sampling later lead to your close relationship with the BFI (British Film Institute)?
I had been doing some gigs... I’d been playing in pubs and I did a few gigs for Club Fandango, which was the promotions arm of Fierce Panda Records, and I’d started to do a couple of smaller festivals and thought I probably better start asking permission to do this kind of stuff (archive sampling). It felt like it was getting to that level.
The relationship with the BFI started with me just ringing them and saying ‘hello, this is what I’m doing. I’d like to use some more of your material. Can I please?’ And they were surprisingly and inexplicably receptive to that... Really supportive, open and collaborative without charging me an arm and a leg when I couldn’t afford it. It was amazing to have that relationship with them when I was basically nobody. You could argue that I still am! But I didn’t have a track record. I didn’t have a record of working with other archives and I couldn’t point them to things that I’d done apart from these fairly scratchy demos. So for them to take a chance on that was amazing.
I was genuinely going in and taking out the old film cans that hadn’t been looked at for a while. I remember taking one of these cans to the head technician there and saying ‘I can’t open this, is there a trick to it?’ And he just grabbed it off me and threw it on the floor. The tin cracked and out came this dusty old reel of film which obviously hadn’t been looked at for years. So as part of the process we paid for some of the digitalisation of that which kind of fed back into preserving the archive in small ways and preserving and generating some interest in it. I don’t think they’d had a great deal of interest in Welsh NCB (National Coal Board) films of the 70s and 80s before we started combing through it all.
It’s nice to be giving something back to the whole process by shedding light on some stuff that’s laying dormant for a while and also just helping to get it transferred on to a more future-proof medium. Although, to be fair, that can of film was fairly future-proof!
How important was the addition of Mr B to the group when it comes to the visual aspect of the live performances, which goes hand in hand with the sampling of archival material?
It didn’t start off like that. The first gigs were just me in a pub with some MIDI controllers, a guitar and a banjo... Very basic, homebrew setup with cables going everywhere... Pretty amateur hour. Then I took the show to the Fringe in 2010 and that’s when I started editing videos to go with it because I thought I needed to do something to make it stand out.
Mr. B came into view around 2011/2012-ish and the first gig he did with us was XOYO (London venue) in late 2012. It was a step change in the ambition, scale and quality of what we were able to do. He lent so much to it, and amazingly he’s stuck around and tolerated us since and kept coming up with weird and wonderful designs for the stage show and for the visuals themselves. It would be a very different and much poorer thing without him I think.
The concepts of your projects are normally built around a specific topic, theme or idea, how does the selection process for these topics go?
It’s a mixture of stuff really. I think I had a lot of ideas in the early days that have built up over a long period of time, and a lot of interests. Even going into the first record I knew that I wanted the next one to be about the space race. I’d dared to dream about doing something about Berlin back then too, but I knew I wasn’t really ready after The Race for Space, so Every Valley was kind of the next step.
There has to be a degree of personal interest in the subject. There has to be some kind of way into it in terms of available and usable material and I think we’ve become more imaginative in ways of doing that over the years. There’s an element of pragmatism, certainly to working with The Race for Space stuff and with World War 2 material... Knowing that there’s plenty of material out there and knowing that the story is dramatic enough that it can really hold up and generate an emotional response if you get it right. All that kind of stuff sort of blends into the mix, but it needs to be something that I feel personally interested in, even if not as a subject but as an idea for a record. I might not have had a keen interest in coal mining prior to starting the Every Valley research, but the idea of Every Valley as a record and doing the sorts of things we did with that record appeal to me enough to spend two or three years of my life down that rabbit hole. So yeah, it’s a mixture of all sorts of things.
There’s not a great deal of collaboration within the group unfortunately because I’m just a bit of a control freak. I don’t really give the others any say. If I did, again, Wrigglesworth would just take us somewhere awful (laughs). It’s probably for a good reason...
Was your fourth album, Bright Magic, a step in a slightly different direction with less archive sampling as well as the addition of more guest vocalists?
Yeah, I think it was another way of challenging me and challenging the concept of the band. When you’ve done these very kind of narrative, conventional-ish records with The Race for Space and Every Valley, can you make something more conceptual and make it hang together around the idea of a city as a beacon of creativity?
I think having gone to Berlin and having been inspired by all of these people who took creative leaps there, it felt right to try and take my own creative leap of abandoning some of the stuff that we’d done before and trying new things. That’s what all the people who I really admire creatively, who have had the most interesting careers, have all done. The people who are worth listening to don’t just do the same thing over and over again, they try things. That’s why I wanted to do that record really, to try something much more conceptual and use the city of Berlin as a catalyst... As a springboard to see where it would push us if we put ourselves in a similar situation to some of my musical heroes and some of my favourite records of all time like Achtung Baby, Low, Heroes or Some Great Reward... What’s our version of that going to sound like? I’m really pleased with what came out of it. I think it’s very different, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s deliberately different. You don’t want your fans to be comfortable all of the time, you need to provoke them a bit! Otherwise, it’s just dull for everyone.
Your new album, This New Noise, recorded live with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Jules Buckley) at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the BBC Proms, was commissioned in recognition of 100 years of the BBC and focuses on the power of radio. Is this particular recording a step back towards your first three albums with the reintroduction of the type of sampling people have come to associate with Public Service Broadcasting?
Maybe in some ways. I think at the same time there’s stuff like unearthing that poem, “A Cello Sings In Daventry”, in an edition of the Radio Times from 1927 and asking Seth Lakeman to sing on it... I think it was utilising all the things that I’ve learnt over the writing of the previous records with the biggest challenge being opening it up to working with a symphony orchestra; writing from the ground up for a symphony orchestra, which we’ve not done before. We were lucky enough to do a prom in 2019 but that was just bolting an orchestra on to a pre-existing record. To actually pare back what we did personally; with me just doing guitar, Wrigglesworth with no electronics, JFA just doing piano and a bit of flugel horn... We’re not all trying to cover ten instruments at once because we’ve got an 85 piece orchestra doing that. That was the real challenge and the big difference I think.
But of course it’s a commission as well, so it sits slightly to one side of the studio records as a result. It’s something that I was very interested in and engaged by and I certainly wanted to do a good job with it, but it hasn’t come from within. It hasn’t come from that burning desire to see an idea through from the tiniest little fragment through to reality. It’s a different feeling when you’re writing to a brief, even if the brief is as general as it was for this project.
We use some of the older techniques but also try new things as well musically. I thought more laterally about the project’s use of poetry and the use of certain archive bits and bobs. It’s sort of an accumulation of all the stuff I’ve learnt over the last 11 years or so.
How was the overall experience of this particular Royal Albert Hall show alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jules Buckley?
Working with the orchestra... I was lucky because I managed to go and see them several times last year under the guise of research. It was a real immersion into the world of classical music and provided a much deeper appreciation of the power and the viscerality of an orchestra, and I was trying to work out ways to weave that into some big moments in our own set.
You’re stood on stage with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of hours of expertise and skill and it’s very humbling in that respect because I can barely play the guitar (laughs). I was stood right next to the leader of the orchestra who came straight out of music college to become the principal of the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) or something... Ridiculous. I didn’t want to look like an idiot basically. It blows my mind that even among such a talented field with so many talented classical musicians, there are some people that are just so good that they’re obviously head and shoulders above the rest. The principal trumpet player was also taken straight from music school and I think also went straight to the LSO, as principal trumpet! You wonder if they know how lucky they are...
What lies ahead for Public Service Broadcasting?
The next record! I’ve spent most of the early part of this year getting this place ready (studio) because it was just a shell... Doing all the acoustic panels, making sure we got the aircon installed, doing all the wiring... It was a lot of work! That, along with mixing the new album, took up the first three or four months of the year. Since then, I’ve been trying to gear myself up for writing the next record, which we hope will be out next year at some point, accompanied by a tour and all the fun stuff.
I’ve written two out of nine and I’m struggling through the third, so I’m just trying not to lose my mind with it all which is what normally happens (laughs). It’s exciting. I never say what it’s about until we’re ready to talk about it. Not because I’m trying to be a tease, but because I’m very protective of the idea and I need to find my own way through it... Research, writing, trying to come up with the next step in our evolution and continuing to challenge myself as a songwriter and musician.