PUBLIC Service Broadcasting’s blend of archive footage with electronics has already won an award, pricked the ears of BBC 6 Music and will soon share the stage with The Rolling Stones. J Willgoose, ESQ spoke to Sophie Diver, as he prepares to tour the debut album, on his mission to inform, educate, and entertain.
You have a big tour ahead of you…
Yeah we’re not really at home again until early June. It’s pretty full on, it’s kind of what we’re after really, playing music is a fun thing to do, and it’s what you get into music to do, to play gigs and to play your music live, that’s the ultimate goal. So to be going out to do it for a whole month is really exciting really.
What can Nottingham expect from your live show?
It’s a slightly usual set up, we’ve got me, playing sort of electronics, bits and pieces, a guitar and a banjo and Wrigglesworth on the drums and he’s also got some electronic drums. There’s quite a lot of looping involved, lots of layering of sounds and building things up. At the same time almost sort of taking the position of a frontman really, we’ve got the visuals that we show at the same time in sync to the music. We actually have several old TV sets for the Nottingham show; I think we’ve got between sixteen and eighteen .
Why did you decide to start incorporating footage into music this way?
I heard about the release of some films online from a BFI archive they posted a series of public information films for the first time onto the internet. I went on and had a bit of a rummage around, just out of interest really and I’d listened to a lot of music before that used material like that, old-time material that had a bit of character to it and that lent a bit of authority to certain music. I discovered a couple of films and made a couple of songs from them and because it got a good response from my friends I ended up doing more of them and then before I knew it I had enough to do a live show and then we were off!
What’s the process you go through? Do you find the films and then create the songs?
It’s a bit chicken and egg. Sometimes we do it that we round and sometimes it’s the other. Sometimes I’ll have a song mostly written and then I just need to find the right kind of material that will fit with these characteristics. That was very much the case with Signal 30, the single that’s out for Record Store Day actually. It’s never written to picture, it’s more that I’ll watch a bit of it, try to get a feel for it and then just go away, work on the music separately and then bring the two together.
What kind of footage have you used so far?
We’ve used all sorts really a lot of American public domain material, road safety campaigns, a Studio Canal film called the Conquest of Everest about the first documented ascent of Everest and we’ve got a song about the invention of colour TV so that uses a lot of historical footage about ‘the greatest invention the world has ever seen’. Then there was the War Room which was made up of licensed material from the BFI war propaganda material and archive footage. One of the interesting things about it is you can use a whole range of materials and in a way is quite good as a song writing tool because you end up being sort of prodded to keep changing the style of the song to match, or to at least be sympathetic to the material that you’re using.
So there’s no end to the footage you can use, the idea could run on and on until you get bored…
Yeah I think it’s more likely that the musical ideas will dry up before the footage and what to do with it does.
Have you had any problems gaining permission for any of the footage you’ve wanted to use?
Yeah, there’s been a few things that we’ve asked to use and been turned down for. So it’s slightly disappointing when that happens but you’ve should got to swallow it and get on with it.
If you could use any footage, what would you love to interpret into a new work?
Oh! Err… actually something that I’d really like to work on in the future , I don’t think it would ever happen until we’d need to have a much higher profile to get the rights, but I’d love to do a David Attenborough based almost as a tribute to him really. He’s an absolute titan of public service broadcasting himself so it’d be great to do something using his footage.
When you’re playing live do you worry that people are paying too much attention to what’s going on behind you or on the TV screens?
It doesn’t really bother us, we’re quite happy for the footage to be the frontman in a way and take some of the attention. It’s not ideal if people zone in and almost forget that anything else is going on. I’d like people to at least appreciate that there’s some live music going on in front of them at the same time. It’s not just a matter of turning up and pressing play; I do think it’s natural for the attention to be on the screen and we don’t really seek out the limelight ourselves. It’s nice to have almost a lead singer without actually having to put up with one.
So you’ll be supporting Rolling Stones at Hyde Park…
Yeah, that was an interesting phone call. It’s just strange really isn’t it? It’s exciting but the overall feeling is just ‘that’s really weird’. I never really would’ve expected that. Starting this a few years ago, it was supposed to be a bit of fun for me and anybody else who was watching. It kind of sinks in at times like that, how far we’ve come in the last four years. It’ll be a nice poster to keep if nothing else.
You don’t think you’ll be rubbing shoulders with them? Watching old movies perhaps…
I think it’ll probably be a one off. Yeah, I’ll bring a collection; I’ll see if I can bring it to their dressing room, I’m sure they’ll appreciate that!
Is your music a way of trying to keep some old fashioned formalities alive?
I don’t know if things are ever as great in the past and as terrible today as most people would have you believe. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, whatever generation, I’m sure they’d tell you that fifty years ago it was much better and now it’s all gone to pot. But at the same time there were certain qualities back then that do seem to have been slung by the wayside, which are nice and admirable qualities really. Like the unflappable spirit of the Blitz in a way, I mean there’s nothing around today to compare to that. There’s a guy in the London Can Take It video surveying what looks like a neighbourhood that’s been destroyed and he just puts his pipe in his mouth and walks off, doesn’t look particularly fazed by it. It’s hard to imagine that kind of thing happening today really.
Looking back at some of these videos, especially health and safety videos, there’s almost a humorous element to them…
Yeah I think that’s one of the great things about using old footage and bringing it into the present day is the way that the footage has changed over time. It reminds you that we shouldn’t necessarily take ourselves too seriously, because in thirty, forty years’ time what we think is probably the greatest invention ever will just be scoffed at and not live up to the hyperbole that surrounds it.
Do you think the current trend for vintage might have helped you along the way?
I don’t know, living totally outside the circles of fashion as I do, I’m probably not best placed to comment on that. Entirely fortuitously what did help us were the Olympics and we’d just released the War Room EP and then London Can Take It started getting played. People kind of drew parallels between the Blitz and having to wait half an hour for a tube train. It was a nice way of putting the Olympics into perspective for some people because you know really; we’ve had it a lot worse.
You say your music is said to ‘teach the lessons of the past with the music of the future’…
Hahaha, I wrote that about three years ago, extremely tongue in cheek. It’s kind of a quote that won’t die.
Or take your album title: Inform. Educate. Entertain. What is it that you want people to take from your music?
I think the emphasis is very much on the ‘entertain’. I think there are definitely some informational messages that people can take away from it but it’s as much people’s own reactions to it that’s more important. In instrumental music you’ve got more scope for that to happen because you don’t have a singer stamping their own emotions all over it, you’re freer to have a more personal relationship with the music. At the same time, I have had several people now saying that they have been using our music in primary and secondary schools, and someone from the Royal Artillery Museum asked to use London Can Take It on his video presentation that he uses for schools. I suppose it’s just the more modern framing of it, reediting it so it fits in with our reduced attention spans, it seem to inadvertently seem to be having quite an effect on that level. For me it’s always been about entertaining.
This is the full interview. The edited version appears in the Nottingham Post 10th May 2013