The bespectacled, bow-tied pair bring Prog into their world…
There may be proggier ideas out there than a concept album about the super powers’ rivalry for supremacy in space between 1957 and 1972, featuring iconic extracts of film and audio material courtesy of the BFI, the space agencies of America and the Soviet Union, all recounted over ambient, burbling techno, elegiacal electronica and passages of choral grandeur, but Prog certainly can’t think of any. In Search Of Space might have been a good alternative title for Public Service Broadcasting’s new album, The Race For Space, but it was already taken.
“We get compared to Hawkwind quite a bit,” says J Willgoose Esq, one half of PSB along with Wrigglesworth. “I never thought I was a good enough musician to be considered prog, actually. But I can see how our album might appeal to prog fans because of the conceptual angle, and the fascination with space. I do like Robert Fripp and side two of David Bowie’s Low – Warszawa is where we got the idea for the voice-bed stuff on The Race For Space. Oh, and my dad used to play Genesis in the car.”
He means the We Can’t Dance album, but it’s a start. Willgoose and Wrigglesworth are an odd couple. Born in 1982, they are young men out of time. With their National Health-style specs and bow ties, crumpled shirts and corduroy trousers combo, not forgetting their evocative atmospherica, they are equal parts Robin Day and Nights In White Satin, 1960s chemistry teachers meeting 1990s Chemical Brothers. Their surnames, which Willgoose assures us aren’t pseudonyms, reek of moustaches and wartime heroics – indeed, Willgoose’s great-uncle died during the Battle of Dunkirk, and PSB’s 2012 EP, The War Room, with its vintage footage and propaganda material from WW2, was dedicated to him. Their 2013 debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain was based on moving aural mosaics paying homage to the ascent of Everest, the Spitfire fighter plane and the invention of colour television. They plunder the past to make records that canonise mankind’s historic achievements as beacons of hope for the future.
PSB began as a solo venture for Willgoose, playing his first gig in a pub in South London in 2008. Since then, the pair have played everywhere from the RAF Museum in North London and the National Space Centre in Leicester to festivals in Australia and Mexico where the crowd sang along with every last archival word.
“I don’t know about groupies – we’re both happily married and well-behaved – but we do seem to be attracting a more regular following,” concedes Willgoose, as surprised as anyone that PSB’s debut album reached No 21 in the mainstream album chart while its 2015 successor recently peaked at No 11. Will there be a performance at Cape Canaveral next? “Probably not. We do get tweets asking us to drop by NASA when we’re in Houston, but I think they [NASA] might be sick of people talking about the golden age of space exploration.”
Not so PSB, they could talk about it all day. Willgoose has no truck with conspiracy theorists who insist that the moon landing was fake. When Prog asks whether he finds it weird that in 1969, while they were propelling men through deep space in shiny rocket ships, back on Earth we were driving round in rudimentary Ford Anglias, he replies: “Not at all. That’s not a reason to disbelieve it. It’s what happens when you pour billions and billions of dollars of investment and the finest minds of a generation into something like the US space program. And the reason it hasn’t been done since is expense.”
He dismisses nay-sayers as fools.
“If you try to unpick their arguments, they fall apart instantly,” he says, rather testily for someone who describes himself as “a nerdy computer boy” consumed with science fiction and self-doubt (“My standard brain setting is ‘massively anxious’,” he confides).
“People say it was all propaganda, to wind up the Russians,” he says of the moon landing. “If that was the case, don’t you think the Russians would have been monitoring what the Americans were up to, and if they hadn’t gone to the moon don’t you think they would have been first to produce conclusive data to prove they didn’t go? But they didn’t, because they did go.”
Willgoose was in his early teens when he discovered the power of electric guitars via Oasis.
“It was like a musical bomb going off in my head,” he recalls. With his “excruciating inability to talk to girls”, he immersed himself in sci-fi, space and songwriting.
After studying English at Nottingham University, Willgoose – who doesn’t want his real first name or too many details of his private life revealed because he’d like to preserve some mystery – got a job, but he soon ran out of days off when PSB began to catch on. It was Radio 6 Music who first spread the word about them, especially their track Spitfire.
“That really seemed to connect with people – I didn’t realise how big a deal Spitfires were for people, but that song put us on lot of people’s radar,” he says, pun perhaps intended. “I remember, back in 2009, my parents saying, ‘Do you think you’ll ever give up your day job to do this?’ and I was like, ‘Of course not. It’s too weird and niche.’ I was just doing it for my own enjoyment.”
The Second World War became a weighty topic around which he could shape the material he’d been amassing. But after The War Room EP PSB were tagged in some quarters as “WW2 obsessives”.
“People would come up to me at gigs and ask, ‘Do you like war?’ And I’d say, ‘Of course I don’t like war!’”
Also weird was seeing WW2 veterans who lived through the war at PSB shows, “incredibly moved by the sound of the air raid sirens”. Then there was the woman who heard London Can Take It on Radio 6, immediately threw up and started crying – “Which,” Willgoose confirms, “is not what we were aiming for, so sorry!”
Does he intend to change concept for each PSB album?
“Hopefully,” he says, “but not in a way that’s predictable. I don’t want to fall back on a pattern. But I do find it rewarding to focus on a particular era. I’m already mentally preparing for the next one and checking for the availability of certain footage with the BFI.”
What will be the central theme? The apocalypse? The cure for cancer?
“If I could find the material, who knows? But it could be a bit depressing.
“We’ve done big and bold, epic things like The Second World War and The Space Race,” he muses, “so maybe it’s time to focus on something smaller and more human.”
Is it weird to have people at gigs pumping the air and dancing along to music featuring documentary snippets of calamitous events?
“I don’t think it’s weird,” he says. “With the songs that are more foreboding people don’t punch the air, they move with the tone of the songs, which respects and reflects the content. But I do think people should be jumping around and celebrating the space race. I’m really happy with what we did with [the track] Gagarin: it’s an exuberant celebration of life, technological achievement and hope for the future.
“There are more sombre moments,” he continues, “but it’s about presenting them in such as way that we do show our respect. We’re not ‘celebrating’ Dunkirk – that was never the idea.”
Does he see many fans in their audience adopting their early-70s Open University chic?
“There have been a few,” he laughs. “I like the idea that one day there will be an army of strange bespectacled, corduroy-wearing people all dressed like us.”
Willgoose and Wrigglesworth supported the Kaiser Chiefs at The 02 in February. The crowd, up for beery singalongs and cheery indie anthems, were a tad nonplussed by this eccentric electro twosome. When Prog compares and contrasts PSB with other synth duos past, who generally had a flamboyant frontman and a poker-faced keyboardist, Willgoose jokes, “We’re both the poker-faced miserable ones!”
Other reactions at The 02 were more violent.
“Someone tweeted – which I found hilarious – ‘It makes me feel like being stabbed in the head multiple times.’ Wow, thanks for sharing that.’”
It reminds him of a comment on a message board after an early play on Radio 6.
“It said, ‘This is what happens when the chess club kids at school don’t get their heads flushed down the loo enough!’ I liked that.”
PSB are the geeks inheriting the Earth. But are they, Prog wonders, haunted by history?
“I wasn’t before I started doing this,” Willgoose admits, “but when you write music all kinds of strange things bubble to the surface and you learn all sorts of things about yourself. If anything ties our work together it’s a kind of optimism and faith in technological progress and the achievements of mankind; what we can do when we work together instead of trying to blow each other up. Even the past can express an optimism about the future. I’m not an optimistic person, so it’s weird that this is the message that comes out of our music. But it is genuinely a fantastic thing, in this cynical day and age, to be travelling the world, spreading a euphoric message, saying that it’s not that bad really, there is hope.”
The Race For Space is out now on Test Card Recordings. See www.publicservicebroadcasting.net for more info.