“He’s just gone for a power nap and came back laughing and ready for the interviews in 15 minutes. That’s exactly how long the power nap should be, right?” – says Tony, a guy responsible for the interviews before the show in Hybrydy, at the very moment he sees me. Yeah, J. Willgoose, Esq. – founding member of Public Service Broadcasting seems like a very precise guy. But still – he can also be very funny and – most of all – interesting. Here’s a quick interview with him.
How’s the tour going?
Yeah, good… Europe is difficult, you know? Big journeys, big drives, long way to go. It’s strange that you can go to some places some time and play to a good crowd and then come back next year and it’s quite contrary. It doesn’t make any sense. We’ve been going to some new places this time like Stockholm, Bochum, Malmo and Leipzig yesterday so it’s, like, harder work in terms of numbers, because it’s the first time we’ve been there.
Do you feel those audiences react to your music the same as British ones? Your “lyrical” content is very British. We still burn a lot of coal here, etc.
That could give an extra air of novelty or appeal. I don’t necessary feel that would hurt. We’ve been playing places that we’ve been to before. There has been slight difference in the response. It does feel like people know the music and actually there’s a deeper level of engagement. And actually, the affection for it as the people there really get it and are into it. That’s quite satisfying to see. In example – Berlin two days ago vs Berlin a year ago. Crowds are weird. You can play five days in a row in one place and get five different experiences. And first time in Berlin was a little cold. There was a little, you know, distance. And two days ago, they were just crazy. The noise, the energy front to back. Everyone was kind of moving around. Yeah, it feels like there may be a different level of engagement as people start to understand what it is.
As we got to the lyrical content – do you see yourself more a musician or a documentarian?
It’s a really weird but interesting job I have – making music in this way. There’s not a great number of people doing it. Probably for good reason. Definitely more a musician. I have trouble seeing myself as a musician anyway, because technically I’m not very strong so I have an inferiority complex about that when playing with proper musicians (Laughs). I don’t read music and I don’t write notated music. But there’s a whole extra level of research and kind of the wait for the record to… You know, the last record – putting it together, getting all the collaborates, archive materials, the story itself, where to record it, how to produce it. It was massive undertaking for us and for me particularly, but it was really interesting, really satisfying thing to do. Challenging, which is good. Difficult.
And how deep are you going with those researches?
Quite deep. Especially the last time. With “The Race for Space” – the one that came before it – a lot of that is very well known. You know, even Apollo missions are fully transcribed, so you can zoom in to the bits you need, but when you go to the small library in South Wales like I was, and listen to the cassette tapes… You know, this is the interview with this person and this is with another one. That’s two hours, that’s three hours… There’s no way around it. You just have to sit there and listen to it. It was a lot of work for that album, but then when you do find those little nuggets then it makes it more and more satisfying.
Do you start your work with those researches or the music comes first?
They both kind of happen at the same time. I always do a little bit of research first to get a rough structure, a rough framework, just to kind of understand what is that I’m trying to do. And there’s always a few musical ideas floating around. You know, when we’re playing a soundcheck and I do something new and I think “all right I can use that. When you’ll be writing about this, you can use it there”. Then we start demoing it and do research at the same time. You know, some of these songs are very fully fletched in my head and they come out exactly how I intended, but there are others like the song “They Gave Me a Lamp” off the last album. I wrote all the music, but I didn’t have any material. I knew what I wanted this song to be about, but I didn’t have the archive clips, so it was quite stressful. “Where am I going to find these things? I need to find someone who will say this kind of things about those women groups.” So, the music was entirely ready before the archive was found, but thankfully I did find it and it came together.
So, it seems more challenging when you have the music first, right?
Yeah, I think maybe it is, but maybe like 60-40 – that’s probably the case. You know, our best known and probably the best song – “Go!” – that was the other way around. I had the material and I knew what I was going to do with it. Structured it around that. That one came out like [snaps fingers]. But that doesn’t happen very often. And then – when it does come out like this, you need to be grateful.
Is there any topic that you wouldn’t do on your album?
I had somebody talking to me recently, quite forcefully, that I should do something about Auschwitz. And as important as that is, you know, we spend a lot longer in our heads with this material than anybody else. We will be playing it for as long as we’re a band, so it’s very difficult to commit to something as relentlessly troubling as that. There’s really no light about that. Even with the coal mining we’ve managed to get a bit of light and a bit of shade – some uplifting and some sadder stuff. But I don’t see I could do that with Auschwitz and stuff like that. And the same with bombs – like Hiroshima and Nagasaki – there’s a lot of very important things to address there and it definitely would be very interesting to work on, but I also think it would be too damaging mentally.
On the last album, you’ve got more into politics. Was it hard?
Well, it’s a risk. You don’t know how much of your audience is going to be instantly turned off by it. I think our audiences tend to be, you know, intelligent and culturally engaged and I think even if they didn’t necessarily agree with some of the things that we presented them, I think we don’t beat the people with it. There’s still room for finding your way through it. We try to avoid the big clichés, so Margaret Thatcher is not in there, etc. The big, really divisive figures aren’t on it, because it’s supposed to be about the people who were affected by the wider politics. But still, it’s a political thing to do to write an album like that. It’s a risk, but you know – I never expected that band to be anything, to be big enough to people to care about. Certainly not big enough to be playing at Brixton Academy, which was my dream venue. And we did that. When you do something like that, it makes you think “Why are we doing this? Is it because you just want to play on a bigger venue and you don’t really care about it, or is it because you actually got something bigger to say and you think your audience would come along with you?” You can even challenge your audience, you know – respectfully. And I think we came from that kind of place – realizing that you have a voice and you have a microphone and you always have a duty in some way to take that responsibility.
I think we’re not a punk band but we’re definitely DIY. We came up on our own label. We were doing loads and loads of gigs. No label behind us, no big money behind us, just word of mouth, radioplay and gigs, gigs, gigs, gigs, gigs. And there’s still no wall between us and our fans in terms of – minus our website – it’s us running our social media. If someone asks us questions there, we always try to answer as a band rather than building a wall. We share a DIY ethic. It kind of leads to the same thing – just being honest as a band in terms of taking your responsibility of being in a band with audience, seriously, which I think is a power of punk.
So, do you fit in any scene with your music, lyrical content and approach? In example – your first time in Poland was supposed to be on tour with Editors.
Yeah, that show got canceled, sadly, so we never got to play it. We came to Warsaw, still, but instead of playing we’ve gone to pub. Which was nice, but we preferred to play the show. And as for the scene – I don’t think so. It’s not normally for bands to say. That’s the thing – putting bands in categories – that NME has done. I don’t think they exist anymore, but that was the thing that they were very successful at for so long. Creating scenes – either naturally or artificially. There are a lot of bands at or around our level, that we really like and respect, but we’re not a part of the “scene” in that kind of way. It would be nice actually. It would be great. It’s hard in London to be a part of the scene. It’s fragmented just because of the size of it. There are little pockets, like when Bloc Party came out in Southeast London or The Libertines in North London, but it’s nothing like a scene in a way of Television and Talking Heads in New York. It doesn’t compare, sadly.
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