The relationship between music and video is one that has challenged artists from The Beatles to the present. During the 80′s and 90′s, video was a necessity. Fortunately, we’ve evolved to a world where sound and vision can work together to become art for the sake of art, not to because you’re bidding to follow 2 Chainz on the MTV VMA’s.
While listening to Simon Raymonde (ex-Cocteau Twins, although if you didn’t already know that, why are you here?) last week, I was mesmerized by the sounds of Public Service Broadcasting. The music is an amazing soundscape of space and beauty, on it’s own. It was only upon investigation, that I discovered that their first EP, The War Room was developed into a brilliant project, using actual World War II archival footage to create a truly unique work of art. PSB are a London-based musical duo consisting of J. Willgoose, Esq. on guitar, banjo, other stringed instruments, samplings and electronic instruments; and Wrigglesworth on drums, piano and electronic instruments. We spoke with J. Willgoose about their beautiful vision.
TDOA: Let’s start at the beginning: conceptually, how did you come up with the idea of combining World War 2 video with music?
J: It didn’t really start out as one idea – PSB started about 3 years ago with me taking samples from mostly American public information films – purely because they were the most freely available. It got a really good reaction – most of the time – wherever I played it, so I took a one-man show up to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 and just the sheer range of competition and acts on offer really made me start wondering about where to take it next, say, if I were to come back to the Fringe in 2011 or 2012.
These things take time but I do remember having the idea of an EP called The War Room while on the streets of Edinburgh with flyers in hand – it was only after I worked with the BFI on Protect and Survive that I started to plan out The War Room itself and everything started to come together.
TDOA: How did you gain access to the access to BMI videos and were there difficulties in securing rights to use them in your videos?
J: I just phoned them up! There’s a lovely lady in the archive department called Sarah, and initially I think I scared her slightly (and definitely confused her), but I sent her an email with a few examples of other songs I’d done and they got the thumbs up, so I think they decided to help me out. They’ve been really accommodating and supportive ever since and it wouldn’t have been possible without them, so I keep thanking them! They’re a lovely bunch.
TDOA: Obviously, what you’re doing is far more complex than what a traditional four-piece rock band does. Who does what within this partnership?
J: I’m not sure I’d agree that’s it’s more complex – maybe slightly more unusual, but writing a good three or four minute song (pop or otherwise) is as difficult in one medium as another I’d say.. Anyway, in terms of who does what, I’m somewhat musically illiterate but I tend to watch a few videos, think of a few ideas, and write some new music. Then I’ll demo it and get Wrigglesworth to help out with any arrangement that needs doing (he annotated the brass score for the new single Everest, for example, and played the piano on Waltz for George), then we’ll record the drums proper and I’ll spend about a year twiddling with it until I think it’s ready (which it never is!). So I suppose it’s mostly me, but modesty prevents me from shouting that loudly – we’re very much a team.
TDOA: What equipment do you use musically to make the magnificent sounds that you produce?
J: Ha, again I’ll have to take you up on ‘magnificent sounds’, I’m not sure everyone would agree! Like most people though I have a variety of hardware and software synths and a few toys that I tend to rely on. I’ve really pared it down though and tend to mostly use either a Nord Rack, some Native Instruments synths (particularly Reaktor more and more) and I’ve just recently acquired a Virus TI Snow which is great and fits nicely into the live setup. Then guitar-wise it’s mostly all software too, I’m not an amp or tone snob – the flexibility I get from using software outweighs the drawbacks, for me.
TDOA: Can you explain the process of creating your music? Do you have the video created in advance, allowing you to play along to it or does the video come after the music?
J: No, the music always comes first, but usually with a concept for the video running concurrently in my head. It’s much easier to do it that way around! I can’t imagine how difficult it’d be to do the video and then write music to it – in a way of course I do do that in watching it and writing something to try to fit to it, but then I have the luxury of being able to edit the film to fit what I’ve written, which works a lot better.
TDOA: You posted a picture of an algebraic equations, citing it as part of the creative process. My head is still spinning from looking at it. Please elaborate.
J; Ha.. yeah, I tend to use a bit of maths sometimes, it does come in handy! Basically because I’d written a 6 bar chorus but 8 bar verses my software wasn’t doing the live looping I needed it to, so I had to work out a delay time manually. That meant working out how many seconds 14 bars of 142bpm worked out at, hence all the algebra!
TDOA: Can you talk about the experience of doing a session for Simon Raymonde? Do you know how he came across your music?
J: It was great fun, and obviously I have a huge amount of respect for him, both for his label and his past output – I’m a big fan of the Cocteau Twins, Iceblink Luck is one of the most amazing melodies I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure how he heard about us, he has his ear to the ground though I’m sure, ha!
TDOA: Do you have any plans to record with a singer?
J: We get asked this quite a lot, and it’s not something I’d rule out – I just haven’t seemed to need it yet. I’m not averse to it, I’ve just never been working on a song and thought ‘this needs vocals’. Yet! I’m not a big fan of the saxophone but I was writing a song a while back and found myself thinking ‘this needs saxophone!’ much to my amazement and partial disgust – so it’s not something I’m doing on principle, but at the moment I’m happy with what we’re doing. As long as you’ve got a strong melody in there I think people will have something to hook onto, whether or not it’s delivered by a human.. And the speech samples help to humanise everything anyway, of course.
TDOA: Are your works intended to express anti-war sentiment or are they purely a tribute to your uncle?
J: They were intended to be as apolitical as possible. The main thing I was trying to avoid was any kind of pro-war, nationalistic tub-thumping – there’s a certain element in Britain who can’t seem to let go of that side of the two world wars and see fit to taunt other countries about the Allied victories. I’m not one of those people and tried very hard to avoid us – even possibly – being lumped in with that. I think these were momentous events in history that had almost incomprehensibly tragic outcomes for so many people. I think it’s mostly intended to be a neutral look back at the attitudes and atmospheres of the time, without seeking to comment on the rights and wrongs of it. It’s an impossibly complicated subject matter so I think the best thing to do is just to try and reflect how it was by using the films and propaganda of the time in a (hopefully) thoughtful, sensitive and reflective way.
TDOA: What’s next for you? Will you continue this project with its current theme or is this the work of a performance artist that may shift over time?
J: I want to avoid PSB being forced into some kind of WWII-esque niche, so we’ve moved on – for now – to Everest, something a bit more uplifting and universal. After this single we’re putting together the album, which will really reflect our broad remit as public service broadcasters – ie informing, educating and entertaining people. Hopefully it’ll be a good balance of the three.