Broadcast - Biography
“Retro-futurist” is a hindering descriptor for a band to shoulder. Immediately saddling an artist’s sound with notions of 1950’s sci-fi whooshes and the limpid groove of the space age bachelor pad. It hardly offers room for any real progressive musical statements, or room for a band to grow its sound. Terms like “retro-futurist” and even “space age” have been used profusely to describe the English band Broadcast since its first singles were released in the mid-90’s. And yes, Broadcast owe a sizable debt to the more electronic sounds of 60’s psychedelic music, as well as making use of the techniques and electronics used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And yes, early Broadcast music sounds not unlike those purveyors of all things space age groovy, Stereolab. But over the last decade Broadcast has constantly updated itself, maintaining a darker, more rough-hewn and experimental edge that stops the band’s sound from becoming simply polite music designed for sipping martinis in your space suit.
Formed in 1995 in Birmingham, Broadcast began life as a quartet. Original members Trish Keenan, James Cargill, Roj Stevens and Tim Felton played with a rotating cast of drummers. Supposedly one of the formative shared affections of the group was for the 60’s American band, The United States of America. Hailing from Los Angeles, that band’s music is some of the earliest rock to incorporate a heavy electronic element through the use of primitive analog gear and various studio effects. The result is a heady, hypnotic take on psychedelic rock as heard on the band’s only record, released in 1968 on Columbia. It has since become an underground classic. Broadcast borrowed liberally from the sound of The United States of America.
Another great influence on the Broadcast aesthetic is the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In the late 60’s composers working at the BBC, like Delia Derbyshire and John Baker, experimented with tape manipulation and primitive electronic oscillators to create incidental music and themes for shows. The sound of this early electronic music made a big impact on Cargill in particular. The influence continues to be prominent in Broadcast’s sound design.
These influences merged, along with a psychedelic pop sensibility that is equal parts swinging 60’s and late 80’s shoegaze, to form Broadcast’s sound. The band’s debut single, Accidentals (1996 Wurlitzer Jukebox), was released in 1996. The same year, Stereolab heard a kindred spirit in Broadcast and the band released an EP, The Book Lovers (1996 Duophonic), and its second single, Living Room/Phantom (1997 Duophonic) on Stereolab’s Duophonic label.
By this time mega-indie label Warp Records had picked up on Broadcast’s intriguing mix of hypnotic electronics and catchy pop tunes. Warp collected the band’s early vinyl sides and released them as Work and Non-Work (1997 Warp). Despite being a compilation, the release has an extremely coherent feel. Using woozy samples of strings, vinyl crackle, swinging rhythms, electronic sound effects and vintage synthesizers the songs create an icy atmosphere over which Keenan coos simple and inviting vocal melodies. Keenan’s voice is one of the band’s greatest assets. Sounding like an even more aloof Nico, but singing in tune, Keenan’s voice manages to be both welcoming and alien.
Three years and several singles later, Broadcast finally released its proper debut full-length in 2000. The Noise Made By People (2000 Warp) features a fuller band sound with strong bass and guitar lines and excellent drumming. Broadcast’s 60’s rock influences begin to show strongly on the debut. While maintaining the signature electronic elements, the record has a prominent in-the-room vibe, sounding more like a live band than previous recordings. The arrangements are also more complex and organic, with stronger emphasis on layered interlocking parts.
Another three years and only one single would pass before Broadcast’s much anticipated follow-up was released. Haha Sound (2003 Warp) is obviously the product of intense studio work. Slightly darker and more rhythmically aggressive than the debut, Haha Sound incorporates a larger amount of dirt and noise in the system. Here Broadcast forgoes the soothing languidness of early songs in favor of layered textural grit and upfront, busier drum parts. The synthesizer programming in particular benefits from this growing attention to distortion and texture. The synth parts positively buzz and crack all over the record, constantly percolating and coloring the space with noise that seems totally alive. The contrast between this new noise and the lullaby melodies Keenan specializes in, creates a stronger sonic identity for the band, further eschewing the overly simplified space age pop banner. With Keenan’s melodies and lyrics becoming more and more interesting as well, Haha Sound is a vibrant record of artful pop songs and adventurous sonics and features some of Broadcast’s best work.
Sometime between Haha Sound and the group’s next release, Tender Buttons (2005 Warp), Broadcast drastically shrank in size. Slimmed down to the duo of Keenan and Cargill, the new record was bound to be something different. And it is. Ramping up the noisy buzzing electronic textures from the previous record and incorporating simplified lo-fi drum machine beats, Tender Buttons is the farthest Broadcast has gone from its 60’s rock influenced sound. The melodic pop songwriting is there in force, but everything is coated in electronic grit, like the Young Marble Giants run through Fennesz’s powerbook. It's mainly the loss of the fluid and organic rhythm section that gives the record its distinctive feel, but the duo easily make up for it in exploratory texture and atmosphere as well as offering some of the best songwriting Broadcast has recorded to date. Although less traditionally pop and more challenging on the surface, Tender Buttons is a brave new step for Broadcast, and a successful one.
It’s a rare feat for a band so willingly defined by its influences to continue to sound so fresh. By constantly exploring the possibilities of electronically generated textures and incorporating greater use of noise into the pop format, Broadcast has skirted the hamster wheel of repetitious cliché. It will always be interesting to see where the band takes its music next.