Most bands would like to think that their music offers up some distinctive element that the listener isn’t getting elsewhere, but in the case of pseudonymous U.K. duo Public Service Broadcasting, that claim can be both stated and verified. The pair’s sound brings to mind latter-day Mogwai with a genuinely unique conceit: a wealth of painstakingly gathered archival samples that function as storytelling devices.
“It started off…trying to sound like DJ Shadow,” the man who calls himself J. Willgoose Esq. tells me in the group’s tour van. It’s a dreary, rainy Wednesday night in Allston, where Public Service Broadcasting seem to have brought the weather from their native London stateside. Willgoose, sample-smith, guitarist and bandleader, is in town with drummer Wrigglesworth for a date at Great Scott as a part of their second proper U.S. tour. Public Service Broadcasting’s second record, The Race for Space, was released in February, and has already begun to generate bigger crowds for the band’s live dates. “We’re in a constant state of pleasant surprise,” Willgoose says of the current tour.
The origins of Public Service Broadcasting’s unlikely creations are rooted less in history than in auditory aesthetics. Willgoose cites the aforementioned DJ Shadow alongside sample-driven acts like The Avalanches and out-there electronic artists such as The KLF as early inspirations for the project, which he began as a solo endeavor 7 years ago. Wrigglesworth came on board later, after the two met through a local weekly gathering involving medieval clothing and fake wars, which Willgoose is quick to point out are “not that fake” (“guy lost an eye in one two weeks ago”).
Willgoose sources much of the archival material for his brainchild from the British Film Institute, a prestigious organization that he connected with as easily as a phone call and an email exchange.
“They sounded quite confused,” Willgoose says of the BFI’s initial reaction, but ever since gaining access, they’ve been “very accommodating and supportive.” For PSB’s latest stargazing effort, they struck it lucky with the Institute’s recent inheritance of “a whole load of Russian stuff,” which, combined with excerpts from the NASA audio collection, drive the album’s space race narrative.
Luck, as it turns out, has plenty to do with it for Willgoose. “I don’t think it was quite as much as people imagine,” he says of his time investment in sifting through old footage, particularly for the band’s current release. “I seemed to strike it quite lucky quite regularly,” he adds. NASA’s handy transcriptions of the Apollo missions didn’t hurt. “The Apollo flight journal…really helped cut down the time spent wading through Apollo 8 and 11 in particular,” Willgoose says in the manner of someone who didn’t start this project as a history enthusiast, but might’ve become one along the road anyway. “Just looking for the ‘go’s and ‘no go’s in Apollo 11 would’ve taken me weeks.”
Willgoose’s charmingly bookish personality translates to the stage later that night, as he takes his place in a suit and bowtie and uses a series of chipper vocal samples triggered from a table of gadgets to interact with the crowd. All manner of archival video attuned to each song’s subject matter is projected behind the band as they lay down motorik grooves, offering up a most innovative trip through history. Who ever thought danceable tunes and learning about space exploration would go hand-in-hand this naturally?