Broadcast: Laughing in the face of genres

In 1996 Melody Maker ran two reviews of Broadcast shows. On the strength of them, you could be forgiven for thinking that the two gigs were played by different bands, or one band with a serious identity crisis. Not only was one review glowing and the other peevish, but on one bill they were wedged between Pavement and Mogwai, whilst on the other they opened for Squarepusher and Stereolab. A year later, their first Warp release, Work and Non-Work (a singles collection), was a feature album in the mag, the band was Pick of the Week, and one erstwhile music critic was, if there is any justice, writing for Kitchen Gardener Monthly.

When their LP The Noise Made By People splashed down in 2000, 60’s soundtracks were the reference point most often cited. Ennio Morricone, inevitably, was mentioned, as was John Barry for his melodramatic Bond scores, and Henry Mancini for his sweet but distant, slightly surreal theme-songs – raindrops keep falling on my windmills. There was an air of clandestine melodrama about ‘Papercuts,’ while ‘Come On Let’s Go’ was sweet and whimsical.

These exuberant qualities are chastened on the new record. The spy movie references are gone, for one thing, replaced perhaps by an Andromeda strain of eerie scifi. Like labelmates Plone, Broadcast were always technicians, both antiquarians and experimenters with electronic instruments, but the arrangements and tonalities of HaHa Sound are more arcane, and more exciting, than what went before. Trish Keenan’s ethereal tones are even more hypnotic, and have lost none of their crystalline beauty. Her nursery rhyme melodies are even more formal, and less hummable. There are still beautiful songs: ‘Valerie,’ for example, is a guitar-driven folk tune reminiscent of the Velvet Underground in ‘Venus in Furs’ mode, but the no less pretty ‘Before We Begin’ is more representative: impressionist arrangements of floating ah-ah’s, pulsating chords and weird echoes, with a driving beat. Where before you could pick the occasional Morricone guitar twang or John Barry flourish, Broadcast seem to have sublimated those influences into a collage of fuzzy synths, asthmatic organs and shimmering chimes all their own.

Broadcast’s guitarist Tim Felton talked to me from his home in Birmingham, where he and singer Trish Keenan grew up. He was affable, down to earth and sounded a little bemused, forthcoming and articulate about practical things but patiently unwilling to get abstract. When I asked him whether their film influences had changed, for example, rather than wax cinematic he told me about Cinephilia, the video shop down the road, where the band rents for free and whom they thank in the liner notes.

Broadcast live up to their name: they throw their net widely, across a broad spectrum of influences, across a broad range of media, across a broad band of culture. Dichotomies and clear divisions don’t seem to work for Tim. Broadcast have always been lumped together with melo soundtrack buffs like Goldfrapp or Kinobe, but Tim resists identifying film as a dominant influence. Rather than just pastiching cinema, he seems to see the arts as essentially one element, a continuum in which he, Trish Keenan and James Cargill move and work. So when I asked him to choose his preferred live situation from a post-rock or an electronica line-up, he cannily replied that it depends on the individual crowd. The beautiful thing is breaking down the genre walls. Of course, it makes them feel more at home that Tom Jenkinson plays a mean bass. And Tim does draw the line at supporting Metallica.

Tim and James both come from an art college background, which may explain their zeal for interdisciplinarity. Their aesthetic encompasses more than just the music. Broadcast’s cover artwork, half Sergio Leone/Nouvelle Vague poster, half surrealist collage, is an ongoing series designed by Julian House, who did Primal Scream’s Exterminator sleeve. Their live shows also incorporate a visual component, and not the token cult flick projected on a bed sheet, either. The films are cut specially during rehearsals to ensure that the images mesh with the set.

Broadcast started life as a five-piece, but the current line-up is Tim, James and Trish, with friends temping the other slots. (An audible change is Neil Bullock, whose atmospheric percussion work replaces Keith York’s.) The trio met through their fairly esoteric musical interests, including a mutual love of psychedelic folk-rockers The United States of America, who pioneered the use of electronic instruments in the late 60’s. They weren’t exactly top of the pops in the 80’s, though, when Tim was growing up in Birmingham, but there were alternative resources around. ‘If you’re interested in music you search things out, don’t you?’ An important one was the Senseteria (I think), an underground club run by a mate of Tim’s, where you could hear psychedelic music. Another was John Peel, Radio 1 DJ and godfather of alternative music since the 60’s, whose Peel Sessions have featured Broadcast several times.

Ha-Ha Sound is only their second real full-length. The period following The Noise Made By People was not easy, but 2003 is a bumper year with not only the LP, to be released in August, but an EPeritif as well. Pendulum features five non-album tracks, as well as Pendulum itself, an eerie meeting between My Bloody Valentine and Kraftwerk. Trish’s affectless chanting and Neil’s implacable, compelling drums flatten out the histrionic guitar solo and moody organ riff, perfectly capturing a dream-feel of dread combined with apathy. Also on the EP is a collaboration with Brum Uni’s Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre, or BEAST as I brilliantly didn’t notice until Tim pointed it out to me. This involved BEAST making a montage from the tapes of the new album, which, in spite of some trepidation, Broadcast were pleased with. And, just quietly, again with the crossing of boundaries: ‘we became aware of BEAST; we’d already been interested in musique concrete and academic music.’

There is a weird bathetic nexus between highbrow and pulp in Broadcast’s life. Their own work is on some level an organic research project into a particular era of pop; the way Tim describes ‘being interested in a lot of old recordings’ and ‘trying to achieve the same sort of thing,’ ‘finding bits of equipments in junk shops and things,’ it sounds like archaeology. So you get a kind of irony, where the sweet Marianne Faithful naivety of ‘Lunch Hour Pops,’ for example, is also a period piece.

The streaming audio mixes on their website (www.broadcast.net.uk) also showcase freaky collisions between mass and high culture. Delia Derbyshire, for example. Tim likes Delia’s work; although he laughingly denied all knowledge of 60’s obscurity The Stained Glass, he became animated as he explained the history of the Radiophonic Workshop where she worked, and described her seminal experiments in electronic music. She’s a major figure in the history of the medium; her name should be mentioned with Leon Theremin, Brian Eno and Richard D. James. And she also did the theme from Doctor Who. Same with Tom Dissevelt – he’s an ultra-serious electronic artist whose avant garde composition ‘Sonik Re-Entry’ was appropriated by Fantasy Theatre, a schlock horror TV slot. Highbrow and kapow, serious and cereal – their fates seem intertwined.

Then again, like the rock/electronica binary, maybe they’re the same thing. Broadcast are a hardworking band, not only in the sense of playing great sets (their shows are legendary), or delivering full strength albums (HaHa Sound is 14 tracks long), or being technically brilliant (what the fuck instrument is that anyway?), but in their wide cultural literacy, be it aural or visual, pop or high. Fortunately, you don’t need to know who Jean Dubuffet or The Stained Glass are to love Broadcast. All you need to do is tune in.