We speak to the mysterious, bespectacled, suited character that is J. Willgoose, Esq, the mastermind behind Public Service Broadcasting. Backed by his drummer Wrigglesworth, Willgoose blends elements of past with present, like a mad scientist concocting musical compounds. He overlays historic public service broadcasts, dug out from the BFI archives, onto a soundscape almost as expansive as space itself.
Two weeks from the launch of PSB’s second album The Race For Space – the follow up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Inform- Educate-Entertain – Willgoose tells us, after completing the record in November last year, he “cannot wait until it finally comes out.” No wonder, we’re pretty psyched for it too (though we’ve already been treated to a sneaky listen). On the 23rd February you’ll be able to put the record on and watch it spin and spin, until you’re spiralling through time and space, in Willgoose’s sonic time machine.
At our time of speaking with him, PSB were currently on tour supporting the Kaiser Chiefs. In the past, the band’s own live shows have been as much about the filmic material as the music. Willgoose is purposefully enigmatic when we ask him if he has any plans for explosive, space-encompassing visual effects to accompany the record’s cinematic sound: “We have something in the works,” is as much as he will let on.
Similarly, when we probe at his choice of the space theme in particular, he simply replies: “because it’s there.” And what better answer do we need to explore something? “It’s just fascinating, and you can’t 100% explain why you want to write about something, you just get the feeling that that’s what to do next.” He’s particularly interested in the topic as a challenge to our human self-awareness, as the space exploration age really revealed to us “how tiny and insignificant we are” in the face of the newly traversed universe. Pushing their ever-expanding sound into unknown territories, Willgoose adds that “it also matched our desire to make the song-writing more ambitious.”
We ask him for any further musings on the self which may have been the fruit of contemplating his place in space, and he admits feeling overwhelmed by the whole idea, he doesn’t “like to think about it too much because it does make my head go funny.” “The one thing people say who’ve been to space, and especially those who have walked on the moon, is how small and fragile Earth looks from space, and how that gives them a different perspective on things.” He says he’s never claimed to have got that perspective from watching some films and writing a few songs about space, but he can certainly appreciate how for them, their perspective of everything on Earth must have totally changed from that point. “There’s a great documentary called In the Shadow of the Moon, I think it was Edgar D (Mitchell) who said “you can never complain about the weather” and he likes to spend time in shopping malls because he loves to be where there are people, as he thinks it’s just a miracle.” He adds “having that perspective would be an amazing thing, it’s a shame we can’t all have it.”
Perhaps one day, however, space travel will be all the more economical and jetting off to the moon will be the new Malaga. Well, maybe the moon will never be a hot party destination. Though, of course, according to Bowie that man up there definitely proclaims it so: “Let the children lose it / Let the children use it / Let all the children boogie.” Anyway we digress, while space holidays certainly won’t be a thing of the foreseeable future, as The Race For Space articulates, at one time, the possibility of man in space seemed like a fanciful reverie too. Willgoose wouldn’t necessarily grab at the opportunity for space travel, surprisingly: “I think I would be too terrified to do it, sadly. I don’t even like flying.”
The album being so dynamic, each song very much its own individual episode in the history of space travel, Willgoose explains that some songs were crafted to reflect the emotions surrounding the individual event, whereas for others, he tried a less obvious approach. He did, however, want to steer clear of space stereotypes, using ‘Gagarin’ as an example, he says it would be easy to create something “60s sci-fi” style, filled with “space noises”, “like a kind of Dr Who theme.” Funnily, Willgoose is often referred to as a Matt Smith figure, donning tweed and bow ties, this image compounded by his sonic space-time travel. “I had this little riff lying around for years, and suddenly it struck me that it would be a nice, obtuse way of doing it” and so ‘Gagarin’ became the funk-infused groove that we now hear on the album, which acts as a “euphoric celebration” of the first man in space. Alternatively, some songs took a more literal approach, Willgoose describing ‘E.V.A’ as “twisty, turny and disorientating in melody.” It’s meant “to be quite hard to work out what’s going on with it in some ways, which is supposed to reflect one’s own experience of being in space.”
Similarly, with ‘Go’, which explores the first moon landing, he wanted to avoid anything too clichéd, such as the infamous “One small step for man…” quote. With its call-and-response style ‘Go’ “in a way becomes our own weirdly abstract take on ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’” he muses. ‘The Other Side’ documents Apollo 8 travelling around the dark side of the moon; here Willgoose talks a little about the process of incorporating the sampled broadcasts. Though this process differs between songs; sometimes the broadcasts are selected first to form the story which the music must encompass, whereas for others, such as on ‘The Other Side’ the musical vision will precede. Willgoose tells us that to tell its story, he knew the song had “to build up, it’s got to be really tense, then its got to vanish to next to nothing and then the moment (Apollo 8) comes back around the moon, that’s the moment you really go for it.”
“It’s the old “radio has the best pictures” approach” says J when we discuss the cinematic, imagination-firing nature of his music. “It leaves plenty of room for interpretation and can be taken on a number of levels. I would like to think it takes you on a bit of a journey.” He then goes back to the idea of space being explored “because it’s there.” The mission of The Race For Space is exploration, not explanation: “you can’t always explain these things, and it’s not always even your job to explain it.”
The public service broadcast being a medium dominated by male voices, ‘Valentina’ offers a beautiful and important excursion for the band, the inclusion of the female voice for the first time. “It’s a sort of annoyance really, because we focus on this period of history, there weren’t any female voices full-stop. It was frustrating to find that even the female stories, such as of the first woman in space, are talked all over by male voices in translation, and [Valentina] is always stood on podiums surrounded by men. It just didn’t feel right really, to be more men pretending to be her voice.” So dream-pop duo Smoke Fairies lent PSB their gentle, ethereal voices to the track, singing the story of woman’s first adventure in space.
The title track opens with the celestial intonations of a choir, recorded by Willgoose at Abbey Road Studios, in a mere three hours. He laughs about the surreality of the experience: “just seeing the tourists outside as I was crossing the threshold and wondering if I was about to be taken out by a sniper on the roof. It’s the ultimate imposter syndrome really.” Describing himself as often racked by self doubt, he light-heartedly admits “I still don’t feel like a real musician, more like someone who’s tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes.” But Willgoose should rest assured that he is an ingenius, highly imaginative musician and visionary, and The Race for Space can only affirm this.
On tour with the Kaiser Chiefs at the time of press, PSB’s own tour is to take them into the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, hence exploring territories unchartered by a PSB tour before. Catch in familiar realms, at Manchester’s The Ritz on the 29th April or Sheffield’s The Foundry on the 28th.
The Race for Space was released on the 23rd February on Test Card Recordings. Check out their lead single, ‘Gagarin’, out now.By Sophie Brear and James Rudge