PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING
The Race For Space
“I get a bit frustrated when we’re asked questions about ‘nostalgia’,” says self-effacing Public Service Broadcasting director-general J.Willgoose, Esq. “The samples are archival, but the songs aren’t using antique music, at all. We’re bringing things from the past and framing them in new ways, to engage with them in the present.”
Engagement is easy on Public Service Broadcasting’s new album The Race For Space. Following their number 21 debut Inform-Educate-Entertain – a hugely acclaimed work whose plaudits included being named as one of 6Music’s ten best LPs of 2013, and being nominated as Best Independent Album of the year at the AIM awards - their second long-player is an integrated yet unpredictable song suite that vividly reimagines the super powers’ rivalry for supremacy in space between 1957 and 1972.
Along the way, we touch down on the lunar Sea Of Tranquility, hitch a ride on the Sputnik 1 satellite and take the first space walk in history. We also reconnect with stirring human stories of life, death and courage, all to a broadened soundtrack of funk, techno and folk alongside the electro-rock riffing that has so far underpinned the band’s emotive collages of music and vintage audio samples. “Who wouldn’t be into the space race?” posits Willgoose, seated in his gear-packed garden studio. “To me this is the most extraordinary period of history there ever was and quite possibly ever will be. The story’s part of trying to understand, literally, what on Earth we're doing. What is the point of us? Why are we here, on this strange blue and green orb? And what did the first ever journeys leaving this planet tell us about ourselves, and our place in the universe?”
The questioning began in January 2013, when Willgoose began sourcing film and audio material, courtesy of friends at the BFI, from the space agencies of America and the Soviet Union. In between live engagements, he filtered out the key ideas and samples that would allow his vision to take flight, and duly gave them musical setting in his home studio, aided by multi-instrumentalist foil Wrigglesworth. The results, augmented by a brass and strings session at Abbey Road, evolve models developed on PSB’s 2012 EP The War Room and 2013 debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain. These critically lauded releases featured moving re-animations of concepts including the ascent of Everest, the Spitfire fighter plane and the invention of colour television, and were followed by tours and festival dates across the globe. As shown by triumphant sets at Glastonbury, the 212RMX festival in Mexico and Jersey Live (where Willgoose found himself onstage with Chic dancing to their party anthem Good Times), much ground has been covered since the first Public Service Broadcasting gig - a one-man Willgoose show at The Selkirk pub in Tooting on August 1, 2009.
Further biographical details, though, remain scant: a modest, quietly spoken gent who admits to being prone to pessimism and self-doubt, Willgoose is wary of his even his first name being known (“I didn’t realise I was such a private person until this started going places,” he quips). Yet his teenage listening habits illuminate the homebrewed but panoramic music he makes today. Oasis made him pick up a guitar, he says, but it was the more conceptually demanding provocations of Manic Street Preachers and The KLF that really opened his mind.
The latter group’s maverick influence is arguably present on The Race For Space’s antic but serious lead track Gagarin, an Afrobeat-with-balalaikas tribute to the first man in space, with James Brown breaks and a babel of voices. “Yuri Gagarin was the most famous man on the planet for a while,” muses Willgoose. “With the crowds and euphoria that surrounded him, it was almost like a superhero thing – ‘all of humanity was with him,’ is the quote. Rather than go down a more literal route, we just thought we’d do something a bit bonkers and fun, though there is a passage that relates to his untimely death.” The dangers of space exploration are also manifest on Fire In The Cockpit, which relates the 1967 tragedy of Apollo 1, when three astronauts died during a launch rehearsal. “It would have been more disrespectful to leave them out,” says J. “It’s a mini-tribute to three people who died, who paved the way for a lot more people *not to die.”
Other tracks are more evidently inspirational. The first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova - another icon of Soviet cosmonautics - is saluted on Valentina, a reflective, Sigur Ros-influenced song of controlled strength, wherein her name is intoned by Sussex dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies. “One of the biggest problems with the material we use, from the period we address, is that it is almost totally devoid of any female voices,” says Willgoose, whose favourite space movies include Star Wars, 2001 and Gravity, “Rather than yet more men - us, in this case - attempting to speak on her behalf, it seemed more appropriate to ask a guest singer to provide a female voice, and I’m very glad we did. Smoke Fairies put a lot into this song and I hope people enjoy what is a fairly unusual excursion for us.”
The title track also features the human voice, with its Ligeti-like fusing of a choir and a recording of President John F.Kennedy’s ‘Moon Speech’ of 1962. The choir reappears on closing track Tomorrow, alongside other recurring motifs. “I also added a short ambient piece,” adds Willgoose, “an attempt at a kind of ‘call of the moon’-type instrumental - to suggest that there is some unfinished business, and we might, one day, send another manned mission to the moon. I hope we do.”
And so it continues, with techno pulse/ Balearic rocker Sputnik, the lunar landing speed trial of Go! and the journey around the moon that is The Other Side (“for me it’s the most emotional moment on the album,” says Willgoose) delivering emotive charges of drama, heroism and wonder.
It’s striking how much it avoids the clichés of the epoch – there are no Genesis readings or small steps for man here – and how powerfully the danger, scale and sheer momentousness of these achievements are imparted. The modest Willgoose is not unaware of the mythic nature of his subject. “How could mankind’s first journey around the moon not be mythical?” he wonders. “There’s never going to be another first time. There is an optimism in our work too: underlying it is this theory that mankind has done amazing things, and we will continue to do them.”
He and Wrigglesworth, incidentally, will be keeping their corduroy, slightly professorial outfits says Willgoose, who adds that his bow tie look was actually based on late broadcaster Sir Robin Day and not as some have imagined Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.
Succeeding such past live triumphs as their three nights at the RAF Museum in Hendon, sell out dates in London, Rome & New York and support slots for New Order, Manic Street Preachers and, at Hyde Park, The Rolling Stones, an extensive world tour has just been announced – including their first journey to the Southern Hemisphere. But first, February’s debut performance of The Race For Space at the National Space Centre in Leicester.
“The record is an attempt to translate an emotional response and musically connect with the bravery and excitement of that period,” concludes Willgoose, who admits he’s irked by conspiracy theory loons who deny America landed on the moon, “It can also be a really good way of opening your eyes to a whole range of things you mightn’t otherwise be interested in… it’s meant to be about putting a smile on peoples’ faces, too. People are coming to gigs, not bloody history lessons. I always said to entertain was what we were aiming to do.’
In this, The Race For Space succeeds outstandingly. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be some ride.