Talking to Broadcast lead singer Trish Keenan is a bit like talking to a Scientologist. When discussing the way things are, adherents of that good book Dianetics don't explain their terms. They just assume you're already on the level -- you know what an engram and a thetan is, what makes someone a Clear, and what truths can be gleaned with an E-meter. It's not really naïveté or rigidity of thinking; it's actually an admirable purity of belief, an altruistic impulse to want everybody to see the world as it really should be.
That's how Keenan references the important musicians and records in Broadcast's world of literate, twee, distinctively English indie-pop. For example, she'll explain how her Birmingham-based trio was hoping to achieve a certain sonic quality, "You know, like Carl Orff would get on his stuff."
Orff, as one unearths after a little research, was a German composer whose best-known work, Carmina Burana, made it into an Old Spice commercial. Broadcast likes him for Schoolwork, a twelve-record series he produced with songs for kids to learn in school. Keenan describes it as "like this pre-Steve Reich almost-minimalism, because it's made simple so the children can play along." But this caveat only comes after you ask for it. She also offhandedly mentions Abstractions of the Industrial North -- a concept album inspired by factory life recorded by Basil Kirchin, a jazz drummer nobody's heard of -- and soundtracks from a period of British cinema in the early '60s (un)known as the "Angry Young Man" era.
The way she name-drops these outlandishly obscure nuggets without preamble is totally without snobbery, though -- it's cute. Keenan wants to live in a world where that stuff is common knowledge, where things such as '60s French pop -- with its aloof-sounding girl singers and shimmering chimes -- are celebrated as "serious" music. One of the execs at Tommy Boy, which licensed Broadcast's first album, 2000's The Noise Made by People, in the States, would tease the members because they'd "talk about Joseph Byrd [of the short-lived psychedelic-folk band the United States of America] as if he was John Lennon, like he was the most famous person in America."
The band's penchant for the obscure has certainly caused problems. Broadcast's recordings are full of chimes, and Keenan sounds (and looks) quite a bit like one of those straw-haired chanteuses who appeared on mod album sleeves bedecked in white-plastic geometric earrings and orange smocks. But we treat such references as shallow statements of irony; the most exposure Broadcast has received came when its tune "The Book Lovers" appeared on the first Austin Powers soundtrack.
And then there's the music press, which has almost completely overlooked Broadcast as a fun, light-hearted group keen on entertaining. Instead, reviewers have cast its members as dry-witted lab technicians obsessed with sound who sort of casually slip on all these sonic hipster outfits to be cheeky. Keenan and bandmates James Cargill (bass) and Tim Felton (guitar) tried to put it as plainly as possible, calling their new album HaHa Sound. But still the dour taxonomy continues.
"Mostly what's written about us, especially in the UK, is like, 'Retro-futuristic, psychedelic, pigeon-toed freak-out from Midnight Cowboy,'" Keenan laments. "Just so many corny things have been said. I think it's really held us back that these clichés about us precede what the music's actually doing and saying, because I think that HaHa Sound is extremely playful and uplifting and colorful, and that's what we wanted people to take from it."
Part of the problem is that Broadcast is on Warp, a label home to other impish characters trying to get people to crack a smile who are instead miscast as bloodless studio shut-ins -- Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Plaid. Like Jaguar trying to release an SUV, Warp has such a pedigree for signing straight-faced techno nerds that its only honest-to-goodness band will be scrutinized differently than if it emerged from an indie rock label.
And Keenan has to admit that the cross she bears is partially self-imposed: "If you want to be influenced by obscure things, I guess you have to take the descriptions you get."
Broadcast is also reflexively compared to London's Stereolab, another journalist's crutch that irks the band. But here the group has less of a defense -- both anchor their squirrelly analog synth explorations with saccharine female vocals, and both merge old pop with new electronics "retro-futuristically," regardless of how Keenan feels about the term. Broadcast also released some early singles on Stereolab's Duophonic imprint. Keenan maintains that the two bands developed independently of one another, though she recently admitted that "I'm sure that if we compared record collections, we would see where we link."
With HaHa Sound (released in May), Broadcast maintains the Stereolab connection, taking sounds once considered disposable -- cocktail music, library sound records, very early experiments in electronic music -- and making something substantive and mature out of them, curiously lacking the sarcasm similar attempts usually evoke. But the album also reveals Keenan and her mates as messier than their London counterparts, with riptides of metallic surface noise rising to subsume the pretty melodies every time the guitars and synthesizers break. With the instrumentalists constantly smudging outside the lines, the mood surreally teeter-totters between a frenetic anxiety and Keenan's soothing nursery rhymes.
So, the HaHa of the title is both a "Haha, this is absurd and incongruous that she's so bubbly while her cocktail dress gets splattered with wine," and a nastier "Haha, mom's sweet lullaby won't alleviate your sick tummy from that gulp of vodka and 'ludes you just took."
Keenan says it's that eerie dual nature of children's songs that she often borrows for her own songwriting. "I like the idea of the little bit of barbarism in them," she says. "The dichotomy of these sweet little two-part songs, but with these really sinister lyrics. Like 'Three Blind Mice,' with the cutting off of tails. And they're also the first songs we have performed to us -- our mums sing these songs into our faces -- so they have this deep place in the consciousness."
Pulling from the most intimate, closest-to-home sources -- Mum's lips --and the most remote --'60s European library music intended as background for documentaries -- Broadcast, as its name implies, comes from a far-off, unknown place but appears right in front of you, almost inside you. "Yeah, our music doesn't really sound like anywhere, especially not Birmingham, which is a heavy metal city," Keenan says. "We've gone to lengths to create a whole new world for ourselves. Some of our favorite albums are those where you couldn't place where it came from, like the musicians were in a spaceship heading outwards."
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