"Do you know what happened, though? The first night we got here, I just remembered this and it's quite amazing, we were in this bar in Costa Mesa and Phil Spector was in there," says Broadcast's guitarist Tim Felton somewhat excitedly. "We were joking at first," bassist James Cargill continues, "going 'that guy looks just like Phil Spector,' we were like yeah, we could go behind the bar and say 'taxi for Phil Spector,' just to see if he'd respond. But then it turned out that it actually was him." The British trio were playing the first date on their first tour in support of their second album, Haha Sound, in the said beachside town about 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The bar was holding a small art opening when the band spotted the infamous 62-year-old 'wall of sound' record producer, now famously on bail for the murder of 40-year-old Lana Clarkson, who was found dead in his house last February. "It was so funny, he was just surrounded by young girls. There were about eight of them all circling him," lead singer Trish Keenan remembers. Apparently none of those girls have read the newspaper lately. "That's what we were saying, it was really weird," Felton agrees.
We're all sitting around Broadcast's tour bus a few days after that sighting, fellow Under the Radar scribe Nick Hyman, myself and all three band members, with a roadie trying to sleep in the back. The bus is now parked next to Los Angeles' Troubadour Club a few hours before showtime and the band are trading interesting stories. Keenan is about to launch into a very strange one, as her band-mates listen in as though they've heard it a few times before. "I've had an astral projection. I've had an out of body experience," Keenan reveals as if it's no big deal. "I just fell asleep on the couch and I had my back facing outwards if you like and I just rose, my body up to the ceiling and saw myself lying there and my friend actually walked in and put something on the television and walked back out again and I told her that she did that."
'Did you ever work out why that happened?' is the best response we can muster. "I don't know at all," Keenan replies, "but it was pretty scary and I was trying to get myself back into my body. I was pretty frightened. That's about it. That was a time ago?ÄîI haven't had it since. I also have those weird vibes when you're in-between sleep and consciousness?Äîthe very early R.E.M. period and I can throw myself around the room and fly and sit in weird areas of the room, like on top of the wardrobe or a shelf. And I know that it's not real, because I'm in a really odd positions, like I'm stretched over from the desk to the cabinet and over the television and I'm just kind of lying there and I know that I would never really be in that position, 'cause it's incredibly uncomfortable to do that, but I'm doing it. And I've had the old nag a few times?Äîhave you ever had that one? Where you sense someone in the room, but you're paralyzed and you can't wake up. It's internationally known at the old nag. At one point, I sensed the figure and it was a male figure and it came towards me quite quickly."
"It was Phil Spector, wasn't it?" Under the Radar writer Nick Hyman jokes.
Once our collective laughter subsides Keenan concludes: "Quite weird, quite scary, but I'm alive."
"Didn't you get shot once as well?" Felton suddenly chimes in.
"Oh, I got shot in the head!" remembers Keenan about a nightmare she once had. "And it paralyzed me down the one side. There are a few dreams that you do remember, that you hold on to. And there's always like a house from my childhood that I go back to in my dreams. One of a few, I moved around quite a lot when I was younger, but I always seem to go back to this one house."
Keenan recalls that she's been in mortal danger in her real-life as well as her dream-life. "I thought I nearly died in Berlin. I nearly stepped out in front of the tram," she remembers.
"The trams are silent in Berlin," Felton points out.
"I was looking the wrong way," Keenan continues, "because the fucking traffic is the other way than Britain, so every where you go, it's like the roads are really scary, and if it wasn't for this gentleman who was just looking at me again, because I think he thought, 'is she going to walk out?' You know, that I looked at him, and just as I'd done that, the tram just went by me. And, I thought that could have been me just gone then."
"Cause they're really big old trams in Berlin, not little things," Felton adds. Cargill agrees: "They're more like trains." Keenan admits that the near-accident didn't really have much of an impact on her life. "I just forgot all about it. But I did think of it, and think of it sometimes," she says.
Such strange tales aren't completely off-kilter and unexpected when you consider Broadcast's beautifully unnerving music. While the band's music may not incite the same feeling as an astral projection or a near-death experience, the trio's eerie soundscapes do transport you to a place far removed from Birmingham, England, where the band formed in 1995. The atmospheres of Broadcast's music suggest the realm of an experimental '60s Greenwich Village art film. Andy Warhol probably would have loved the band.
While there's no band today that quite sounds like Broadcast, the group's roots can be clearly traced back to a somewhat obscure late '60s West Coast band. In the summer of 1967, electronic music pioneer Joseph Byrd recruited a group of UCLA music students to form the boldly named United States of America (USA). The collective only released one, self-titled, album in 1968, but Byrd and his students were decades ahead of their time, with their use of the ring modulator, a primitive keyboard later popularized by the Krautrock sound, and an electric violin, among other strange instruments. Dorothy Moskowitz's somewhat detached vocals cement USA as the prime blueprint for the Broadcast sound.
Julian House, who designs all of Broadcast's artwork and who they consider their secret sixth member, was the one who originally turned Felton onto the influential band before Broadcast was formed. "He's got great records," Felton says of House. "It was his copy of United States of America I think that I heard that made me think?" "That's it, we'll rip that off for the next 10 years," Keenan interrupts to much laughter. She's only half joking, however, for if you were to track down a copy of the USA album you might be surprised by how similar the two groups sound. Such USA tracks as "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and "Coming Down" clearly pave the way for Broadcast's user-friendly electronic experimentations some 30 years later. This is not to say that Broadcast hasn't made the sound their own. Blending analogue synths, eerie background noises and Keenan's haunting vocals, Broadcast still expand upon the USA sound with modern production techniques and a more focused vision that expels some of USA's more hippie tendencies in favor of a more up-to-date space age sound. Keenan's vocal technique may sometimes mirror Dorothy Moskowitz's mainly impartial delivery, but with Haha Sound Keenan also invests more expressive emotion into her notes.
So whatever happened to USA's mastermind Joseph Byrd? "He's in a mental asylum," Felton jokes. In truth Byrd can now be found teaching American musical history and songwriting classes at the College of the Redwoods, a community college in Northern California. The band tracked him down via email. "We wanted to do some stuff with him, but it never happened. We're too far away from each other," Felton says. Still, the band sent him some of their stuff and Felton says that Byrd loved it.
After deciding to form a band around the sound started by Byrd's collective, Broadcast recorded and released three EP's (all collected on Work and Non-Work). Ever the studio perfectionists, they then took three years to record and release their 2000 debut full-length The Noise Made By People. It's now taken another three years to release another album; why so long? First off, since the release of Noise the band has lost founding keyboardist Roj Stevens. "Nothing major happened, we just kind of went our separate ways," Felton says of Stevens' departure. "Some relationships only last so long?Äîthat's just the way it goes," adds Keenan mater-of-factly. Steven's departure wasn't the only obstacle. Founding drummer Steve Perkins had long since left the band, but that still meant they needed to find someone to play drums on the record and then find the right place to record the album. The band rightfully makes no apologies for taking their time.
"You want to get it right," Keenan says, "and if that means re-doing it, then you do that. Okay, it's been a long time in industry terms, every year, bang, bang, same old thing, but you know, we're not that."
"We do everything ourselves," Felton continues. "To get it at a level where we're happy with takes quite a lot of work. We kind of just teach ourselves how to record things and stuff. We recorded all the album and EPs. The drums were done in the church hall over the road and everything else was done upstairs in our bedroom, so they're not ideal conditions. It just takes a lot more work than going into a nice studio with a producer. But the only way we can achieve what we want to is to do it our own way."
"The thing is I've given up saying it's difficult," Keenan says of the band's recording process. "I think it's just the way it is when you're in Broadcast. I don't care if it's different for other bands; you know, it's just the way we do things. Other people might call that difficult, but I just don't want to be negative about it. It's just you accept your own working habit. 'Cause you know they're results you are going to like at the end of it."
The band should be pleased by their results with Haha Sound. It's a more accessible and less oppressive record than their debut. "It's a much more optimistic and colorful album than the last album," Keenan concurs. The non-album tracks on the Pendulum EP (released several months prior to the album) perhaps hinted at a more chaotic direction for the band, but instead Haha Sound is their best-produced and most focused work yet. "The album comes back somewhere?Äîif you like the pendulum swings back towards the noise, between pendulum and the noise," says Keenan.
Even though Broadcast's sound traces back to USA's groundbreaking experiments, and loose comparisons might point to such influential contemporaries as Stereolab, there is really no other band today that sounds exactly like Broadcast. Even they have trouble defining their own musical palette. When asked how they would describe their sound to the average person, such as a cab driver, they are at a loss. "It's impossible," Felton admits. Cargill comes up with "psychedelic pop." "You just say that to get them off your back don't you?" Felton challenges. "What can you say then?" Cargill replies. "Because everything means something else to everybody else, doesn't it? It can mean one thing to one person."
"I must say, I've never been able to do it, to describe it, I just can't do it," Felton concedes once and for all. "I really don't know what to say."
Under the Radar - Fall 2003 Issue