With new album The Race for Space set to rocket up the charts MALCOLM WYATT talks nostalgia and final frontiers with Public Service Broadcasting ‘director-general’ J. Willgoose, Esq.
I’m not alone in my fascination of all things space-related, and was captivated as a child by the later Apollo missions.
And there was a similar attraction during the Challenger era for J Willgoose, Esq., the pseudonymous mastermind behind indie favourites Public Service Broadcasting.
For PSB’s latest album, Willgoose was granted unique access to historically-important British Film Institute footage, going back in time to explore the period when the USA and USSR fought to gain the upper hand on a whole new frontier.
The Race for Space, out on February 23, is the follow-up to acclaimed 2013 debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain.
I witnessed a memorable PSB performance at Preston’s 53 Degrees prior to that first LP launch, while later band highlights included festival successes at SXSW in Texas, Glastonbury, Bestival and the Green Man, and sell-outs at London’s Forum, New York’s Mercury Lounge and Rome’s Lanificio.
Then there were the supports to The Rolling Stones, New Order at Jodrell Bank and the Manic Street Preachers plus their current Kaiser Chiefs tour, the band branching out from their indie roots yet remaining cult heroes, slightly shy and quintessentially English.
Now they’re back, the new LP’s lead single Gagarin featuring a six-piece brass section, five-piece string section and funk-driven theme for a cosmonaut who was arguably the world’s most famous man in the early ‘60s.
While their first album involved just Willgoose and drummer Wrigglesworth (PSB don’t tend to go in for first names), the new one starts with a celestial choir, and includes guest vocalists Smoke Fairies on a poignant Sigur Ros-style tribute to tragic cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.
But don’t let their past and present subject matter – the band adding innovative musical twists to everything from WW2 documentaries to post-war public information shorts – make you think this is all about nostalgia.
The Race For Space vividly re-imagines the super-powers’ rivalry for space supremacy between 1957 and 1972, its highlights including the first space walk, a ride on the Sputnik 1 satellite and touchdown on the lunar Sea Of Tranquillity.
It’s not just the triumphant milestones covered, PSB tapping into stirring stories of life, death and courage to a soundtrack of techno, folk and electro-rock.
The album starts with a musical piece built around JF Kennedy’s landmark 1962 Rice University speech, a logical link from the first album’s Everest as the president name-checks pioneering mountaineer George Mallory.
So did the enigmatic, self-effacing Willgoose know where he was headed when the first album came out?
“I knew I wanted to write an album about the Space Race, and I wanted to start it with Kennedy’s speech.
“It wasn’t until I sat down and read the transcript that I noticed the link. It’s perfect. I’d like to say it was a stroke of genius, but I stumbled upon it, albeit quite happily.”
So how did the link with the BFI come about?
“It started a long time ago when writing a song based around the Protect and Survive nuclear safety announcements. I rang and confused them quite comprehensively.
“They took a bit of persuading and an extra email, but came back with the double thumbs-up and ever since have been really supportive and accommodating.
“I think they like the fact we’re giving a new lease of life to stuff that might otherwise be sitting in an archive somewhere. It seems to work as well for them as us.”
Is there a similar American archive link now?
“NASA material is freely available and copyright-free, so getting hold of that – at least audio-wise – wasn’t a problem. The concern was getting Russian footage and being able to use it.
“It was another extraordinary stroke of luck, as the BFI a couple of months before I rang inherited a whole load of Russian footage, sending me a massive list and asking which I would like!”
Is there a lesson to be learned in these troubled times – did the Race for Space ultimately stop the Americans and Russians blowing us all to smithereens?
“It’s one of life’s biggest ironies that so much technological and telecommunication progress is driven by war. That’s the only way this innovation and change is pushed through with so much financial support.”
PSB pride themselves on ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’. So does Willgoose get frustrated that some might feel he’s just wallowing in nostalgia?
“That flies in the face of what we’re actually presenting really. For me, the interesting stuff happens between the lines of the past and present. It’s just reframing the past, putting it in a more modern context, I guess.
“That all sounds pretty pretentious and highbrow though. Really, we’re just sticking a beat underneath satellite noises.”
It might not help – I say, looking to wind up my interviewee – that Willgoose’s bow-tie and tweed image suggests Matt Smith-era Dr Who. He takes it well though.
“Well, that is a big issue, because he became The Doctor in 2010 I think, whereas I’ve been doing this since… well, the first gig was on August 7, 2009.
“So there’s a little historical proof out there that I beat him to it, and he just needs to back off really.”
Is that why Matt stepped aside for Peter Capaldi?
“I think he was obviously feeling the pressure.”
There was a mighty reaction and plenty of adulation for Inform – Educate – Entertain. Were those proud moments?
“Yes, but we were so busy, caught up in the whirlwind of everything, so you don’t really have any perspective on it.
“It’s going to be in around 10 years time when I’m back to the day-job that I’ll realise that was all actually quite good and we did alright.”
There must have been moments though, such as when Willgoose heard his teen-year heroes the Manic Street Preachers loved PSB.
“I still struggle to get my head around that. It’s like two different worlds – my teenage world then this modern version.”
That first album set the bar very high. Did that give you a few sleepless nights working out how you could top that?
“As a kid I always got my homework done as early as possible, and I’ve carried that into adult life.”
So where do you go after outer space with the next album?
“I think I know … but I’m not going to tell you. I was listening to a Harry Belafonte calypso album the other day and that gave me the final piece of the jigsaw, as unexpected as that sounds.”
Anyone who’s seen PSB knows how technologically-reliant they are. Does it ever go wrong?
“It’s bound to, isn’t it. Even in the Space Race they had a 99 per cent non-failure rate, but that left over a million parts that could quite easily go wrong.
“We’re not quite up to that many, but we’ve certainly got lots of stuff being plugged in and out. We had one gig where we had to abandon the last song, one of the worst feelings ever. But we’ve invested in various resistant technologies since.”
Willgoose and Wriggleworth are clearly a good team, but it’s not just them.
“We’re the core of the band, but there’s Mr B doing the set design and live visuals. And we’re adding a third touring musician, to expand the live musical spectacle.”
The attention to detail includes the cover art, the new LP in a choice of either NASA or USSR front images, opening to a gatefold centre in which, just as in space, there is no correct way up or down.
“Again, that all comes out of the idea of playing the two sides off against each other. It’s a nice way of getting that across visually.”
I get the feeling there will be a few major companies ready to snap these indie stars’ hands off, but guess that wouldn’t appeal.
“I find it hard to see how we’d fit in. It would have to be a very good sales pitch, and I’m not sure we’re quite doing our bit to go the other way.
“But hopefully with this album we’ll convince a few people we’re not quite such a flash in the pan and one-album wonder.”
Did PSB get to see much of the bigger bands they’ve supported so far?
“The Rolling Stones were in and out within about five minutes. The limos arrive and they go straight off.
“They’ve been around so long and clearly get bored of the hanging around and people telling them how wonderful they are.
“We didn’t meet New Order either. We were straight off to another gig so couldn’t wait around and say ‘thanks for having us’.
“With the Manics, we were on the road with them for quite a long period. Again, you don’t want to over-stay your welcome, so try and keep a respectful distance, but we got on well and they were lovely chaps.”
There’s a bit of a ‘70s cop feel to the single, Gagarin. Was that fun to make, with the brass section?
“We wanted to capture a bit of the exuberance of that period. Just watching the footage of the crowds when they met Gagarin, trying to get that down.
“When we were recording that, with the six of them in a little circle, I decided to join them, listening on headphones, but had to get out within around 40 seconds.
“It was so loud, like being punched in the ears repeatedly! It was just an assault.”
The video is a revelation. Did it take Willgoose and Wrigglesworth a while to master those athletic dance moves?
“Oh crikey – yeah, that was hard work. My hips are still aching actually.”
Gagarin was a world hero after that first journey into space in 1961, wasn’t he?
“He was, and I find it very sad watching the footage, knowing he died only around seven years later in a plane crash. He seemed to be warm and friendly. There’s great footage of him in Moss Side, Manchester, visiting a workers’ union.
“They wanted to put the top down in the car he was travelling in there, and he insisted on it – despite the rain, thinking if people have come to see me, I can stand the wet.”
Willgoose wasn’t so sure at first with regard to two songs related to tragedies from that era, Fire in the Cockpit and Valentina. But in the end, he felt it would have been more disrespectful not to include those parts of the story.
“It was illuminating reading the astronauts’ accounts. They were a very pragmatic bunch and as much as they were devastated that their friends and close colleagues died in an awful way, they recognised it saved more lives than it cost in the end.
“It was a terrible tragedy but such a big part of the Space Race, and to leave that out just felt wrong and under-playing it all.”
The Other Side is another standout, summing up in six and a half minutes the first NASA voyage around the dark side of the moon.
“I think so much of that is about the tension in his voice in the control room, and the conflict in him that you can hear him trying so hard to disguise.
“He’s trying to be the omnipotent voice of narration. The moment that really gets me is when they do re-establish contact, and you hear a little cheer in the background.”
Yet for all that poignancy, PSB is ultimately about putting smiles on faces – as shown in the sheer joy of a moon landing speed trial on penultimate track Go!
“With Apollo 8, the Genesis reading would be better known, but it was about trying to avoid the most famous aspects. It’s superficially mundane, I suppose. They land on the moon and you just have an engineer saying, ‘We have shut down’.
“But I find all that so exciting, with teams of highly-skilled people working very hard to realise something.”
Willgoose’s first space memory involved the Challenger space shuttle disaster. But he has a happier recollection.
“I also remember being on holiday in Florida one year, when my Dad was adamant he heard a massive sonic boom one morning.
“When he read the news and saw it was the space shuttle returning home he was very happy.”
So how many showed up for Willgoose’s one-man Public Service Broadcasting debut at a pub in Tooting, south London, in August 2009?
“Quite a few, because it was free! I didn’t look out until the second-last song, glanced up, saw the room was fairly full, panicked, and looked straight back down!”
You’re not by definition an exhibitionist, are you?
“No, and I don’t really want to start prancing around down the front with a guitar. People quite like that, the way we don’t try to be anything we’re not.
“They appreciate the dry wit. I don’t think it would work if we were leaping around.”
For more details about the new album and forthcoming UK tour, head to www.PublicServiceBroadcasting.net.