J Willgoose Esq on Public Service Broadcasting's Titanic-inspired White Star Liner EP & future plans
The new White Star Liner EP from acclaimed archive newsreel raiding rock trio Public Service Broadcasting features music inspired by the Titanic disaster. In advance of their Irish gigs in the new year, David Roy quizzes bandleader J Willgoose Esq about creating the evocative four-track release and the London group's future plans
HI J, how is the current European tour going?
Pretty well. It's always a bit of a struggle for us over here because we don't get a great deal of radio play across the continent, especially in places like France.
We get little areas we seem to do all right in – we get little bits and pieces in Germany – but we've been going to some new places as well. It's always a bit quieter when you got to a city for the first time. But it's all going well really.
You recently played London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall for the first time with a special career-spanning setlist. How did it go?
It's funny, these really big [shows] become their own thing in your head. You kind of assume so much responsibility for them and put so much pressure on your own shoulders that they become a bit harder to enjoy than the regular shows, because you're just so concerned about how it's going and making sure the wheels don't fall off.
It wasn't like last year, when we did Hammersmith [Apollo, on the Race For Space tour]: that came at the end of a run and so it was a show where we knew exactly what we were doing. But when you start throwing new stuff in it puts you a little bit more on edge.
So, it was a bit hard to take in at first actually. I came off stage and people were saying 'oh you must be thrilled' and this that and the other, but my brain just felt like scrambled egg, basically.
It's one of those things where when you're in the middle of it, it's all a bit overwhelming, really. The fact that we pulled off a show at the Royal Albert Hall will be something that sinks in and solidifies over time, I think.
But it's good that everyone there seemed to enjoy it!
Was the gig filmed for posterity?
No, it's prohibitively expensive, sadly, and I don't think we really have the fanbase to justify doing that – maybe if you're Pink Floyd or someone it would make sense.
The White Star Liner EP is inspired by the story of the Titanic, from the optimism surrounding its construction to the horror of its destruction and the recriminations that came afterwards. How did it come about?
It was a bit unexpected, actually. Last year, the BBC asked us to do something to tie in with the Biggest Weekend in Belfast – I think they probably expected us just to do one song, but as soon as I started looking into [the Titanic] I knew it justified more than that.
I started off by reading Walter Lord's A Night To Remember on holiday during Christmas 2017. Then we were over in Belfast for a show in January, so I went down to Titanic Belfast and met the folks there. It was very helpful and instructive speaking to them, they were great.
I spent most of February/March writing before we went back out on the road. That was a bit of a rush, and then we ended up recording it in between touring as well, so it was all a little bit of a stretch.
We were working with the BBC properly for the first time, which was good. Because they asked us to do it, they gave us access to their archives – although, as it was 1912, there's quite a comic lack of moving imagery and audio.
I thought there would be a wealth of footage, but in total there's probably less than a minute of the Titanic itself. So that was definitely a challenge.
One of the highlights on the EP is C-Q-D, which features the distress signal sent out from the ship during the disaster, while final track The Deep includes spoken word testimony from survivor Eva Hart and a eerie melody based upon Archibald Joyce's Songe d'automne, believed to be the final piece of music performed by the Titanic's band as it sank. Are those kind of 'authentic' touches important when you're writing material based on real events?
Yes, that why the distress call starts off quite faintly and then becomes more and more insistent and terrifying as the song goes on – it was supposed to mirror the general lack of concern onboard when they first hit. It must have seemed unthinkable that such an invincible beast like that would go down so quickly – I think it was only two and a half hours or something.
We were trying to capture that increasing franticness. I've been in a couple of situations where your brain almost struggles to process the information in front of you when things are going badly wrong. When I was reading the testimonies of people who were onboard it took me back to moments like that – I was on a plane once that dropped about 200ft in a few seconds once and it didn't seem real. There's almost this gradual dawning and engagement of your brain with reality.
From reading A Night To Remember, the most powerful sections of it are the ones dealing with how needless the tragedy was and the total mismanagement which caused so many people to die.
What I like about that clip of Eva Hart that we used is that, although she was an old woman at the time it was recorded, you can still hear the indignation in her voice about this awful tragedy that happened when she was only seven years old.
I thought her anger was an important thing to get on the record.
Will you be doing any more touring behind the current album Every Valley – and do you know what's next for Public Service Broadcasting yet?
We kind of viewed our five recent Welsh dates and the Royal Albert Hall as the end of Every Valley, as it were. That felt a bit like a full stop, which is a bit sad, but the good thing about records is that if they make an impact and if they do connect with people then they get to live on.
I think our focus has been starting to shift onto what's next for a while now and making sure that we start getting stuff lined up really – because already I don't think there's going to be enough time to get a record out next year now. You don't want to wait too long because then people forget who you are.
I do have something in mind [for the next record] but I can't say too much about it at the moment. How I want to make it and where I want to make it is going to be quite an undertaking – I'm trying not to think about it too much because it kind of makes me start to panic!
:: Public Service Broadcasting, January 31, The Olympia, Dublin / February 1, The Limelight, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster.ie. White Star Liner is out now