On their latest album, The Race For Space, Public Service Broadcasting introduce their ambitious retelling of one of humanity's greatest technological periods with a speech from John F. Kennedy. Set to a growing number of choral voices, it's reverent, stirring and perfectly captures the enterprising and innovative spirit of the period.

It's a bold, yet fitting opening for an album which takes the listener from the first satellite launched into space (Sputnik 1), to Apollo 17, the final mission in the USA's Apollo program. Along the way we are shown triumph and tragedy, rendered by the band fusing dance, electronica and ambient music with archival recordings from the era. We managed to catch up with founder, and band leader, J. Willgoose, Esq. to talk about the scope of the project, the oddball funk of 'Gagarin' and how the live show has evolved over the years.

You've recently released The Race For Space, which it's safe to say is a quite different record to Inform-Educate-Entertain because it plays out like a single narrative. Was this something you always wanted to achieve with the record?

Yeah, it was really picking up where The War Room (the band's 2012 EP) had left off. Even though it came out before the album, we'd been playing [the songs on Inform-Educate-Entertain] live so there wasn't that much new stuff on the first album. And I also really liked that way of working - actually focusing on a theme and being able to tell a bit of a story. So when it came to making the second album I was really keen and excited to try the same thing, but on a grander scale and moving forward in time.

I had thought it was going to be another EP at first, or a mini-album of about six tracks. But as I started working on it it just kind of grew, and it would have kept on growing if I hadn't just stopped it and said "right, that's enough".

I guess there's nothing grander than space.

It's such a massive and ambitious topic, but it leant itself well to setting ourselves a few challenges in the songwriting, trying different instrumentation and different ways of writing in new genres, and taking a few risks as well, which is always a good thing for a band to do.

What was it that drew you to covering the space race on a record?

I didn't want to work on another conflict based EP or album, we'd had all sorts of suggestions for follow-ups to World War 2, but I just didn't want to do it. I didn't want to get stuck in a pigeon-hole. So I liked the fact that [the space race] allowed for more optimistic and expressive songwriting. I also liked that it's a step forward in time, it represented progress for us as well as progress chronologically. And then there's just that I'm very interested by it - I have been for as long as I can remember. So it was a great pleasure to spend the time I did researching it and working on it. To then have the response that we've had, including from some members of the actual community, has been incredible.

You said that you'd been playing material live for a while before committing it to record. How do you create a Public Service Broadcasting song?

It varies really. A lot of people ask the variant - for us at least - of what comes first, the music or the lyrics? The music or the samples? With The Race For Space there was a fair amount of historical research first; just reading books, working out exactly which topics I wanted to cover and then looking for material that would help me do that and would be usable.

There were preconceived musical ideas floating around at that time. 'Sputnik', for example, was one of those. It was kind of always intended to be a slightly subdued, but also menacing and pulsey, opening to the album proper. So that kind of formed in my head before I'd really watched much of the footage or even decided to use the beep for the song, which pulled the whole idea together - made it work. On the other hand there was material like 'Go', where I knew I wanted to do a song about Apollo 11, but I wanted to do it in a relatively un-hackneyed way. So using less familiar audio. I was just searching through [the recordings] and found these call-outs - it was just an instant "yeah, that'll work. We've got something here."

Were there any aspects of the space race you wanted to explore but didn't, or couldn't, for whatever reason?

I wouldn't have minded slipping in an extra Russian track. 'EVA' was actually the last track to be written and it was an attempt to address the balance a bit in terms of American to Russian material.

I was quite keen to avoid some of the more famous [material], like Apollo 13 and even the genesis reading of Apollo 8. I did think of doing [a track about] the Genesis Rock from Apollo 15 - the rock that did as much as any rock has at unlocking the past of the moon - but time sort of crept up on me. Also, I just thought, keep it around 40 / 42 minutes - I think that's a good length for an album really.

In terms of the editing and pacing of the album it does feel very considered. 'Sputnik', for example, is preceded by one of the most optimistic and hopeful tracks on the record. Did you take the time to move tracks around in the order to see what effect they would have on the story you were trying to tell?

To be honest with you, it was mostly written in sequence, so it started with the first track - which was a big gamble - and moved from there into 'Sputnik'. That's always what I had in my mind, a backwards step in history to start off with.

There were a few things I thought carefully about. 'Gagarin' is a bit of a stand out track on the album in terms of the style of it, so it was [a case of] working out whether to play on the fact it just jumps out on you and is unexpected, or try to bury it amongst similar sounding tracks. In the end I decided it worked better to just celebrate its oddness really, but not to get too carried away. So I took some of the melodies from 'Gagarin' and carry them into 'Fire In The Cockpit', which obviously couldn't be much more of a different song.

'Gagarin' is probably the most surprising track on the record, particularly because of how celebratory it seems to be. Do you think people would have been expecting something like that from you?

Possibly not. I can't trace where the idea came from to match him to that song, because it was a song I'd worked on previously - in a different form - but I liked it enough to keep it in the back of my head. I think I was watching some of the footage of Yuri Gagarin, and there was an interview of him to camera where he talks about the first time he got the space bug - it didn't make it into the song - but something about the line "the space bug", his exuberance and winning smile, and personality - which is one of the reasons they chose him anyway - I think that was the reason for going where we did with it.

It is celebratory, but at the same time there is a minor key element to it. It descends into quite maudlin strings towards the end and that is deliberate. I wanted to hint at the sadness [of Gagarin's life] and the way he was used ultimately by the Russian government and sadly died tragically young. That is supposed to be in there. Whether or not it's noticeable, I don't know, but that was my intention.

Exploring that personal, tragic, element of the space race is probably clearest on 'Fire In The Cockpit' and I think it's interesting that this album explores a range of emotions - more so than Inform-Educate-Entertain. Was that something you were really keen to explore when you first started putting together the concept for the album?

I think so. Ultimately, any album is just an emotional response to either the material you are working off, or to the wider world in general. I don't necessarily know if it was that conscious of a decision to construct it in that manner, I think it just happened the more I got into writing it and got into these songs and these stories.

How did you go about gathering the recordings for the record?

By sort of hum-drum modern means, really. There wasn't any romantic rummaging through film canisters in some dusty archive. I spoke to the BFI - just on the off-chance they would have any material relating to the space race. I presumed they would have some stuff to do with the Americans, some NASA documentaries of the time, or something like that. To my great surprise and delight they actually said they didn't have that, but what they did have was a whole load of Russian material and, having had sleepless nights about where to get hold of this stuff, it was sort of like the golden ticket falling into my lap. It was a tremendous stroke of luck, right at the very beginning of this process and it kind of let me know that it was going to be possible to make it.

The American stuff is still very open, accessible and usable - you know, it was an interesting illustration of the nature of information dissemination at the time. You can listen to and download the whole audio for almost all the Apollo missions, but that was the spirit their space program was conducted in. Whereas the Russians are still sort of shrouded in elements of propaganda and uncertainties, which is very strange when you consider what big events these were - that there is still some confusion and controversy about what exactly happened and who was responsible for what.

It sounds like your relationship with the BFI is quite strong, how did this come about?

Just by picking up the phone really. I was quite scared about making the [first] call, but I wanted to use one of their films for something and I thought, "well, they can only say no. Let's see what happens." I spoke to a woman there called Sarah, who has since become an absolute diamond for us, and she actually listened to what I was suggesting rather than throwing up a big commercial brick wall of rates - which I have met in other places. She took [my idea] away, I emailed her a couple of examples of some of the demos, and they all gave it the thumbs up at the archive department. It was still very much in the realms of hobbyism for me at the time - it was when it started to become more serious that we had to work out the exact terms of the deal - but they've been extraordinarily accommodating and supportive at every turn. We certainly couldn't be doing what we're doing without them, they're an incredible institution.

How have you found the process for acquiring licenses for the material you use?

It's been a bit of trial and error, but we've been quite lucky with most of the material we've wanted to use as we've managed to get the people who are in charge of it to agree to [its use]. We're self releasing on our own label, so there has been a certain element of finding your way through it a bit. But we've had good advice from various publishers and management who have experience with this kind of thing. To date it's all worked out ok, we're just kind of hoping we can carry on in that vein.

Has there been anything you've not been able to use?

There's been a couple of things that we wanted to get hold of but sadly couldn't - and it does tend to be the bigger companies and Hollywood film studios. They know you're not going to make enough money, so they're not interested. It is a bit disheartening, but you just have to move on and try and find something else really.

What drew you to working with archival recordings for music in the first place?

I thought it would be good fun, to be honest with you. I had been making instrumental music for a while and had attempted to sing on some tracks as well, but I was never happy with the results - and I think it's safe to say that no-one else was either. You know, it was just looking around for something to do as a hobby - something to keep me entertained creatively and give me an outlet.

I was listening to a documentary about the BFI and archives in general, and just went from there. I started throwing a few samples onto instrumental songs trying to see if they gave any extra character and they did. The broader concept of the band itself, the material and the idea for the album and all that stuff, just grew alongside this quite naturally over the course of two or three years until the historical content started to become much more of a focus.

I thought it was interesting that your first performance was in 2009, prior to the release of your first EP, because it always felt like your music would be the sort which works well on a record, but is difficult to translate to a live environment.

Even though it was a one-man show, I was very focused on trying to make it musically engaging. I think I probably only did about five or six songs the first gig I ever did, but it was surprisingly well formed, really. A lot of the work was in getting the structure of the show right and finding a way to make it not just "man checking his email" on stage.

The show has evolved substantially since those first performances as a solo outfit. How did you find that progression?

The encouraging thing about what we do is that it does scale up reasonably well. For this album, because it's more ambitious, I decided I wanted to add a third musician to the touring line-up - certainly in the UK where we can afford it, if not overseas. So we now have three people playing instruments on stage and occasionally guests on brass. It's grown - again - quite naturally and steadily.

The visual element as well, that's quite a big part of the show when we can do it. We've really put a lot of thought and effort into the production of it with Mr B, who does the visuals and set design. It's slightly "pro-sumer" technology that we use, but in terms of what we can do with what we can afford, people like [Mr B] can actually do quite a high standard of production at moderately sized shows - which is great for everyone involved.

Did you have anything in mind for the visuals when you first decided to add them to the live show, or did you give Mr B free reign to do what he thought worked best for the songs in a live environment?

It's set to a certain degree [given the archival footage being used] but he can manipulate that. It's more about layering other stuff on top - footage of us on stage or the extras that we have, like the rising Sputnik, the antenna and the "Go" text - and triggering those live in time with the music. All of that is his artistic interpretation of it.

In terms of the future for Public Service Broadcasting, are there themes you'd like to explore on future records or EPs?

Yeah, I've got a fair few ideas. I think it would be tempting to carry on with the big, grand themes - [moving from] World War 2, to the space race, to whatever the next logical [theme] would be. I also don't want to become predictable in that respect, so I'd quite like to focus down on something a bit more specific and possibly with more of a human and more of a political element. That's what I'm focused on now in terms of thinking about the next album, but even beyond that I've got vague ideas for one or two after. We tend to keep our cards close to our chest though.

Public Service Broadcasting's latest album, The Race For Space, was released at the start of the year. Read our review of it by heading here. Catch them at the following dates next month, and be sure to pick up their Sputnik/Korolev EP on November 20th.

  • 17th November – Queens Hall, Edinburgh
  • 18th November – University Refectory, Leeds
  • 19th November – 02 Academy, Liverpool
  • 20th November – Rock City, Nottingham
  • 21st November – OPEN, Norwich
  • 26th November – Great Hall, Cardiff
  • 27th November –02 Guildhall, Southampton
  • 29th November – 02 Academy Brixton, London