“We’re an unusual proposition so for me it makes complete sense to keep things on an unusual footing.” – Public Service Broadcasting’s J Willgoose, Esq
It’s not the image the Soviet space program might have envisaged for its crown jewel – two men in spacesuits breakdancing to a funk song named ‘Gagarin.’
Then again, the song and video’s creators, Public Service Broadcasting, specialise in taking the history we know – or think we know – and playing it back to us in a radically altered context.
‘Gagarin’ – as the name implies – pays a unique tribute to the first man to walk in space, layering state broadcast footage atop a backdrop of a fat funk bass line and spitting horn section.
It’s quite a contrast from the staid, sombre post-punk upon which the band built their reputation, and the element of surprise is one that chief music-maker J Willgoose, Esq (possibly an affectation) says is key to the band’s philosophy of never becoming too comfortable.
Willgoose tells Something for the Weekend: “[Gagarin] sounds a bit different in terms of instruments and genre, being a bit more funk-oriented than our usual stuff, but I think you’ve got to keep changing things and keep trying to work in different ways, otherwise you’ll just go stale and keep making the same record over and over again.
“I don’t want to do that. If you do happen to lose a few people along the way, purely because you’re trying something new, I think you’ll make that up in people that you’re gaining from not doing the exact same thing.
“It’s got the reaction we’ve expected, which is broadly very positive and a couple of people online saying it’s not as good as Spitfire, and what they really mean is that it doesn’t sound like Spitfire, but it shouldn’t because it wasn’t designed to.
“We’re not a normal band, you know? We’re not two guitars, bass, drums, singer prancing about all over the place. We’re an unusual proposition so for me it makes complete sense to keep things on an unusual footing.”
The pair’s first album – 2009’s Inform-Educate-Entertain – sampled British and American propaganda films from the 1930s and 1940s and paired them with electro-infused rock in a way that was as disquieting as it was entertaining.
On The Race For Space, they’ve taken on a much greater subject and with it a suitably expansive sound that, while perhaps not being quite as ambitious as space exploration, is a step up in terms of scale and depth.
“When we conceived this album, there were a few things we wanted to do in terms of scale and the instrumentation – the size of it, in a way. It seemed to me like working with the space race, which is such a massive and dwarfing thing to write about, would be a good thing to provide a backdrop to that a sound with a bit more breadth to it.
“There was also a slightly more pragmatic element, because of the way we work, that if you want to pick a certain era in time to write about you’ve got to know there’s good footage available you can use to tell an interesting story. As soon as we got the Russian footage from the BFI, we knew we were on our way with it.”
While the pair make no clear political statements on the album, Willgoose feels the very act of selecting samples is a form of commentary in itself, and he’s particularly interested in the way the same information was presented by the Americans and the Soviet Union and what that says about their respective societies.
“Politically, it’s quite interesting in terms of the source material, in terms of how open and accessible the NASA material is and the number of amazing histories you can buy of theirs – proper history.
“And then contrast that with the Russian stuff. One of my favourite lines on the album, and it may only be profound to people who know the history, is on EVA. It’s Alexi Leonov and he says ‘ten minutes in space, ten minutes that shook the world.’
“That’s how the Russians chose to present that story, but he was actually out there for 20 minutes, far longer than he was supposed to be, his suit swelled up massively and he had to let some pressure out of a little valve and go in head-first when he wasn’t supposed to and basically nearly died.
“Whereas NASA were quite open about some of their bigger failures – the notable one being Apollo One – and the way the Russians present it I find illuminating. It’s still kind of true to this day, the way the two societies are structured and how closed, in certain respects, Russian society seems.
“I think the way the Russian one is so nakedly not actually true, in certain respects, says a lot about how they like to control media and control the message, and I think that’s still true today.
“If you look at media freedom in Russia – it would be a lot lower on that index than the USA. I found this a stark illustration in how little has changed.”
Space exploration is something Willgoose has always been interested in, and there’s an element of The Race For Space that mourns that dormant chapter in history, though he stresses it’s intended as an album people can enjoy whether or not they’re interested in the subject matter.
“It works on all kinds of levels, whether or not it’s lamenting a case in which, although technology has moved on, we don’t send manned missions to the moon anymore and this age of manned space exploration missions seems to have gone.
“It seems like a rare instance where technology has gone backwards in a way – there aren’t many things where you can say ‘we used to that but we don’t do that anymore’ about something that is technically innovating.”
As for the video, Willgoose refuses to be drawn on whether it is, in fact, him and partner Wrigglesworth, dancing in spacesuits.
He says, possibly only half-joking: “We get asked that a lot and we can’t talk about it because we’ve signed a confidentiality agreement with ourselves, and will actually have to take ourselves to court if we do!
“We like to let people use their imagination and if people want to believe it’s us then they’re perfectly welcome to, and vice versa. Some people seem to want to say it’s us and some people want to say it’s definitely not us – we’re on the fence.”
The Race For Space is scheduled for release on February 20.