TURN ON THE NEW
Their US singles, bearing the Stereolab seal of approval, are already collector's items here. And an imminent domestic release should let the rest of us in on the news soon.
Visiting the other side of the pond. Jay Ruttenberg gets a head start on Broadcast appreciation.
When Broadcast were invited to open for the Stereolab/Tortoise hepster post-rock Kraut-clique caravan at London's Forum last year, the inchoate quintet from dreary Birmingham were hardly expected to steal the show. Barely a year old, with only a single 45 to their discography, Broadcast seemed merely a blip on the marquee vaunting the two Hyped Ones.
But inside the spacious club, things swung in favor of the neophytes. While Tortoise blew a fuse on the Autobahn and Stereolab awkwardly struggled to match their recorded par, Broadcast enveloped early birds in an elegant vibe of pulsating pop psychedelia that seemed to take even the band themselves by surprise.
Garbed largely in charity-shop stripes and tamed moptops, the group looked fantastic, as if they'd crawled off one of those 60's rock shows that VH1 rerun on weekend afternoons. With a cheap light show and film surrounding the band, it looked as though they'd upped and lifted the entire set; with their progressively regressive waltzes, it's like they borrowed the soundtrack as well.
Singer Trish Keenan examined her scrappy Chuck Taylors as she strummed a guitar and provided very feminine, unterse vocals. Tim Felton added guitar and Richard "Roj" Stevens carnival keyboards, respectively pillaging the redeeming aspects of silly hippies like the Byrds and Doors. James Cargill on bass and Steve Perkins on drums enforced the dragging 3/4 time that seems to permeate the band's repertoire. Keenan soon shed the guitar to become a full-blown chanteuse, her shadow looming behind the five, as if they were stuck in some junk-nightclub spy scene. Then Felton jettisoned his guitar to join Stevens for keyboards and spacey, theremin-like electronic effects. All the while, Broadcast tightly clenched a classy, alluring aura. True, their songs do tend to bleed together after a while, perhaps overwhelmed by the overall smokey vibe; and despite an undanceable triphoppy feel, the music veers away from post-Nixon era influences...
But on vinyl, as the group are quick to point out, it's a different story. Having since released a second single and a four-song EP on Stereolab's Duophonic Super 45s label, Broadcast's recordings to date (all of which are being compiled for the US on Drag City in May) range from the aforementioned psychedelic live-band pop on "Living Room" -- which juxtaposes springtime guitar and vocals with bursts of keyboard and a throbbing staccato sample -- to cheap cut-and-paste samples and proggy electronic sounds. The other side, for example, avant-gardely relies on analogue keyboard and odd, sci-fi-esque samples. The newer Book Lovers EP most fully realizes their soundscape, floating along like a high-class screensaver designed by Roman Polanski. Indeed, the quintet's application of home-computer-looped samples is their most innovative asset, used as the core of many recordings. While the perennial break of isolated samples can hinder the flow, at best Broadcast's electronic experiments meld traditional pop melody with Tricky texture.
As keyboardist Stevens explained, lounging after the show in the cluttered Birmingham flat he shares with the band's rhythm section (conveniently located down the road from big brother band Pram, not to mention the rest of Broadcast), their approach to sampling draws from disparate camps. "We listen to a lot of people who did tape-loop experiments in the '50s and '60s, like John Cage. We're trying to do with samples what they did with tape loops, getting into sound collages...The idea is to construct a song out of the sample, as opposed to having a song and sticking in a sample later.
"A lot of our sample ideas we get from hip-hop -- like the Wu-Tang Clan production method, where they have really bad-quality samples so you can hear them as samples, instead of just another sound."
But don't even attempt to identify those samples. Drawn mostly from random obscurities dug up at second hand, the original sources often aren't even recollected by the band members themselves. "We hate it when bands slide in obvious samples to show what they're into," says Trish Keenan. "It's like wearing a group's t-shirt."
Thus, Broadcast distort the samples they select until they fit their song, jumbling them unrecognizably on a budget Amiga PC - the crudity of which complements the group's equally primitive instruments. Despite this lo-fi-ness, they do not view their route as a retro one. "I'd say it's more of an organic approach to sampling," contends Stevens. "the equipment is all at the same kind of level, and it's basic, so we understand the work of the computers and can incorporate everything."
Which brings us tracks like their debut side, "Accidentals." Designed around a samples combo, it pauses palpably between each looped cycle. A playful bassline typically runs the show, an eerie figure alternating with Keenan's soft Chelsea-Girl-with-a-heart vocals -- themselves punctuated by snippets of canned strings.
But wait just one minute here: doesn't England already have one Caucasian group championing a hip-hop-meets-007 approach to sampling, with prominent bass,lazy beats, hazy atmospheres and an ornately piped singer?
"I don't think we sound that much like Portishead," says Keenan, "simply because we're not soul or dance." Adds bassist Cargill, "They have similar John Barry-style melodies, but triphop is break-beat oriented." Broadcast, to be sure, come from a more psychedelic school: their sound may evoke images of film noir, but the flicks are always colorized.
It's harder to avoid mentioning Stereolab, if only because Broadcast share a manager and record label with them. They also have a similar interest in cultural archeology. But where Stereolab clearly use Neu!'s work as a blueprint, Broadcast unearth the electronically augmented psychedelic experiments of the late-'60s band the United States of America. A far-out, groovy, circus-influenced romp, the poppier, unchaotic side of that guitarless band's 1968 LP is manifested in Broadcast's work - in fact, "It was the album that kind of got us together," claims Stevens.
This whole fashionable concept of borrowing from long-burried progressive bands gives us a quirky view of the future via the past. Even the name Broadcast (as well as Stereolab, for that matter_ suggests a 1957 take on 1997. So we get the present through the past into the future. Or something like that.
Having completed a remix for popstars Saint Etienne (apparently on a mission to elicit remixes from every band in the UK) Broadcast have talked a bit about indie dreams of giving birth to their own label. Meanwhile the hip record companies trying to coax a full-length out of the quintet will have to remain patient awhile longer -- the complacently underground group have yet to feel up to the task of filling 12 whole inches, and they refuse to pad an LP with previously recorded material.
"If we do an album, it will have to have a lot of authority, and sound like we're a band really confident in what we're doing," says Stevens. "It's still at that exiting stage where we're just evolving."
Which is just what I like about Broadcast. Catching a band at this virgin stage is akin to the initial moments of a budding romance: expectations are nil, the future equivocal, staleness and ennui replaced with a precarious zing. The band members' post-collegiate poverty and skepticism toward tempting offers keep preventing them from buying a sampler for concerts, or nicer instruments, or a computer less dated than their clunky Amiga.
Things won't stay that way, and Broadcast will surely go on to more lasting achievements. For now, I'm just enjoying the zing.
Puncture Magazine 1996 (published in 1997)
interviewed by Jay Ruttenberg