Interview: Public Service Broadcasting

J. Willgoose Esq is reminiscing about his first visit to the Scottish capital, back when Public Service Broadcasting was still a solo project. “I know Edinburgh better than most cities that we pass through, because there was a very formative experience there doing the Fringe in 2010,” he says, speaking from his home in South London. “It was back when it was still a solo show. And it was tough. A right old slog. I think I played to four people one night.”

That was almost eight years ago now, and Public Service Broadcasting are transmitting live to much bigger audiences than when Willgoose, then billed as ‘a one-man musical spectacular’, was playing to just a handful of punters at Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall. 

Indeed, as the former geography teacher and his drumming musical companion, Wrigglesworth, get ready to pitch up at the Usher Hall on Saturday night, things could hardly be more different.

For the uninitiated, this corduroy-clad double act create sample-based music using old public information films, archive footage and propaganda material. Their 2012 EP, The War Room, featured World War two material, while 2015’s The Race For Space explores the US-Soviet space race. Both releases earned them heaps of critical acclaim, the latter being an impressive follow up to debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain, which itself reached a respectable No 21 in the charts. The band earned yet more plaudits with last year’s Every Valley, which depicts the history of the mining industry in Wales,

During their live shows, which feature long-term touring pal JF Abraham, banks of vintage TVs sit on either side of the stage and big projection screens at the back ensure there’s always something to look at – which is probably just as well, as there’s no singer. Those attending PSB’s live shows shouldn’t go along expecting to hear any between-song banter either – even this is conducted electronically, with a pre-recorded retro-sounding voice introducing songs.

It sounds a tad bizarre – but it really works.

“I was out on the Royal Mile every day flyering for seven or eight hours and I was trying to do a bit of busking as well, which I was terrified about,” says Willgoose, still on the subject of those formative Fringe shows. “It was really tough, and it was very hard work – but it was a very important week in the bigger scheme of things, because that’s when I first had the idea to put the videos together.

“I thought I needed to do my best to stand out from the competition as there were 6,000 other acts or something with shows that week, so why on Earth were they going to come and see me fiddling about with a computer? It prodded me into taking the next step and getting the videos together. That was a big step, I guess, because when it came to being able to gig in venues with projectors and stuff it made a big difference and stepped things up a bit.”

Clearly, Willgoose holds those memories of PSB’s early shows in the Capital dear, and he’s looking forward to returning and playing in a much bigger space – and to a much bigger crowd.

“I always like to come back to Edinburgh,” he says. “I think it’s the most beautiful city in the UK. It’s just so stunning. Very striking, both visually and geographically.”

If PSB’s first album put them on the map, it was their second, The Race For Space, that sent them stratospheric. The album soared to just outside the Top 10 in the UK, selling an impressive 60,000 copies in the first week of its release alone.

“I was looking for somewhere to go after the first album and I wanted to keep it focused on one era and one subject,” says Willgoose when asked why he opted to focus on the golden age of space exploration. “I’ve always been interested in space explorations and missions, as it’s always been a big part of my childhood.

“It seemed like a good idea to marry the two up by combining personal interest with professional expedience. We wanted to make it a bit bigger – and there’s not much bigger than space.”

“I don’t know many people who aren’t interested in space travel. It’s fascinating and it speaks to all mankind – though I no longer want to be an astronaut. That peaked when I was five years old.”

Pubic Service Broadcasting, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, Saturday 14 April, doors 7pm, £28.60-£31.35, 0131-228 1155

Words: Gary Flockhart