Broadcast interview at Sonar 2010


It’s a balmy Spanish afternoon as Trish Keenan and James Cargill sit in the courtyard of a well-to-do hotel in Barcelona. This is the afternoon before Broadcast’s debut at Sonar, Europe’s largest music festival for electronic and experimental music. The pair have come straight from a soundcheck; the interviewer fresh off a 26-hour flight.

Perhaps it’s fitting that their latest release Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, which emerged in 2009, is so closely entwined with sensations associated with altered realities and at times, woozy, almost lullaby-like melodies. A mini-world within a mini-album, if you will.

With Ghost Box co-founder Julian House, the pair created an album that fused long-term collaboration plans from both Broadcast and The Focus Group.

“I didn’t really have an idea of what it was going to turn out like,” starts Cargill, speaking of his expectations for the record. “It was constantly this discovery of ‘bloody hell, that works’. It was very much an evolving thing of ‘this is turning out to be something we really like’. So I didn’t really have any expectations before. We set out just to do a little EP, it was way beyond what we expected. I don’t think that had ever happened to me before.”

As Cargill and Keenan sit across from each other, a wobbly tape recorder placed between them, it becomes clear they are very much attuned to the mood of what the other is saying. It’s this dynamic that rears its head throughout the rest of our conversation.

“In a way, a real album happened, it wasn’t one of these constructed, slogged-out albums that everyone seems to make, where you love tape, you love the colour of analog but reality is it all has to go onto a hard drive, chopped up and tidied and cleaned, in order to make some sort of produced, professional-sounding album,” Keenan continues. “So it was completely unprofessional and real.”

Does this mean the opposite, the professional album, is not real? Keenan explains:

“Yeah. Well, it’s not really about performing songs onto tape. And that album really came together in a very constructed way, which kind of sounds like it shouldn’t work really. It just shows you it’s the ideas, they carry the whole thing. When Julian said this is the title: Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigates… that was kind of such an inspiring title that I immediately went away and wrote a bunch of songs with that in mind. That’s how it should happen. Mostly it’s been quite a long process recording albums.”

“Definitely,” Cargill says, “conceptual elements were in place before some of the music, which was a really good way to work.”

“You’re feeding in to something,” adds Keenan. “There’s a reason for your album. You’re not just this band talking as yourself as a band. It’s not your music about music, it’s got a purpose, you’ve got this aim and you’re trying to trigger responses in the listener, not just autobiographical music.”

The band started to piece together elements of Witch Cults over the course of a few weekends. House took pieces of Cargill and Keenan’s music and according to Cargill treated it in the same way that he makes the collages of his own music. Basically our stuff was the source material, and he’d give us stuff back and then we’d arrange a bit more. Sometimes you miss what you’re good at yourself. So we definitely contributed to each other’s ideas.”

“We gave him a whole lot of stuff you know, not all of it he used. It was interesting to see which ones he plucked out and thought were valid for the idea,” Keenan adds.
“It felt properly collaborative.”
“More so than somebody coming in and doing a guitar line.”

“It didn’t feel like how it might have been in the past,” continues Cargill, “‘send me a few files; and then they send you something back that;s kind of finished. We built the relationship with Julian over like 15 years anyway from him doing the sleeves… [we’re] on the same wavelength anyway.” The process was “kind of perfect” for Cargill and Keenan, as given the existing relationship with House, and each knowing the other’s interests and references, nothing else needed to be said. This sense of mutual perfection even comes through in House’s sleeve art for Witch Cults. The usual Ghost Box template of stark, clean-cut typography is put aside in favour of this whimsical design. It feels quite different from any of House’s previous sleeves for the band: cartoonish and playful, but still retains that undercurrent of uneasiness.

The last time that Cyclic Defrost checked in with Broadcast was in 2005, after drummer Tim Felton parted ways with the band. Losing a dedicated percussion player wasn’t just significant for the structure of Broadcast. The ensuing years have seen a gradual shift of the band’s sound as a result of this departure, directly or otherwise. Witch Cults is filled with pace and propulsion but not necessarily driven by rhythm as we know it.

Indeed, the rhythms from the Tender Buttons album onward feel more peripatetic. As Cargill and Keenan explain, this shift is as much to do with logistics as it is with any new songwriting approach.

“Well, we struggled with drummers right from the very start,” Cargill says. “After Haha Sound we ended up in this scenario where we generally can’t go and work in studios, it just doesn’t work out for us, we’re not together enough and we’re probably missing a drummer or a keyboard player. It ends up that we just make records in the house… it immediately restricts your noise levels. Rhythm sort of dies away a little bit. Songwriting came to the front.”

This “domestic music”, as Keenan terms it, naturally changed the way they used rhythm as a backing to vocals, or a way to move a song forward. “You know, the drummers we like are expensive. It always comes down to economics or space,” she says.

“The thing is I do think Tender Buttons has a lot to rhythm to it, it’s just not complicated rhythm,” Cargill continues. “There’s certainly beats in there. The acoustic drummer element had gone by that point. That wasn’t a conscious thing to do because the songs for Tender Buttons [were]kind of what we wanted it to sound like and then we’d take that to a drummer and [get]real drums on it. It was still going to be sparse but have acoustic drums. We tried it a couple of times and it just didn’t work. In the end we just thought we’re going to use it as it is. Since then, well, we haven’t done anything since then,” Cargill laughs.

Even if a conventional notion of rhythm has been displaced over the course of several albums, Keenan feels the construction of songs for Witch Cults shows it is still there, albeit in less obvious ways. “Neil Bullock’s drumming is great, it’s really charged and so if you write a song on top of Neil’s playing it’s going to sound very rhythmical and pacy,” she says. “There’s these internal rhythms and conceptual rhythms throughout the whole thing [Witch Cults]. I think it’s actually the paciest album we’ve made in terms of scene changes and timbre and mood changes. It’s the most complex rhythmical album in that respect.”

This complexity is at its most apparent on ‘Ritual/Looking In’ from Witch Cults. There is this odd stop-start motion that purposely jolts you out of any feeling brought across from earlier tracks – as if it is an entirely different thought altogether.

“It’s almost like this idea of traditional rhythm is becoming less focused,” says Cargill. Keenan comes in too at the same time with her take. “The idea of a voice on a beat, that they go along together, it’s almost … we’re broken in that sense. Kind of limping a little bit. But I think that will come back when the moment’s right. Again, when things align nicely. I think with Neil, the references we gave him, the things we wanted him to do really excited him.”

“I think that’s one of the things I like when I look back at everything we’ve done,” Cargill continues, “when we’ve been forced in these situations where at the time we think ‘this is a bit of a disaster you know, it’s not how I wanted it to turn out to be’ but then I look back and I think ‘well actually that’s good because it’s a lot more interesting and we’re not taking these predictable routes and repeating ourselves’.”

Since this interview there’s been another release between The Focus Group and Broadcast, Study Series 04, released on the Ghost Box label. “I think what I like about Ghost Box is that they’re constructing these worlds that you can totally understand,” says Keenan. “There’s titles and very clear concepts.”

We move on to the topic of influences from the past. Initially, they both felt the reaction to Broadcast’s early sound was tarnished by the seeming irrelevance of ‘old’ music. In an era characterised by drum and bass and ‘future music’, anything that sounded different was thought to be wrong.

There was also an implication that all these sounds which had come before had gained enough attention, according to Keenan. “A lot of things that we love were totally missed by everybody. For me, it’s like, I think it is valid looking back because a lot of things that were focused on [at the time]were boring by today’s standards.”

Cargill credits Simon Reynolds, and the hauntology tag used to label the output of Ghost Box and Mordant Music in particular, with bringing more mainstream acceptance to this sound. Nostalgia as a creative springboard has certainly experienced a Renaissance in the intervening years, though this isn’t to say Broadcast produces ‘retro’ music. Certainly, from The Noise Made By People through Mother Is The Milky Way and beyond into their work with The Focus Group, Cargill and Keenan have never followed a particularly straight sonic trajectory.

“We seem to do that every album,” says Keenan. “I don’t know whether we butterfly around a bit, whether it dilutes the trajectory of the band.”

“I think that’s why we feel like outsiders a lot of the time,” says Cargill. “It’s not like we’re part of a genre that we can back ourselves up with. We’re very much ‘we’ve done this thing now and alienated all those people’.”

Keenan continues, “I always feel like we’re not working. I think that;s what I meant when I said we’re a bit of a broken band, because I’ve always felt that people come and go ‘oh I really love that Tender Buttons album’ and then we hit them with Witch Cults or Winter Sun Wavelengths and they just think ‘oh’. And then the people who love those things are going to come to the next show and go ‘oh I really love the way they improvise’ and we’re just going to hit them with a load of pop songs. So we’re always kind of slightly out of sync.”

â”But when I look back at all the bands that I of love, and this is why I think it feeds in to our own aesthetic anyway, is that they all did that,” adds Cargill. “All the great bands like United States of America and White Noise, they didn’t quite fit at the time, they weren’t really that popular. In a way that ties in with what we are a little bit.”

The performance that follows our interview in the evening, in Sonar Hall, matches music to visuals provided by House. It’s a show that is divided into three modules, the first being a twenty-minute improvised piece to Winter Sun Wavelengths, a short film by House, followed by a set filled with “colour, harmony and pop songs”, and concluding with Dream/Ritual, another film-based piece.

“We’ve never recorded that soundtrack to Julian’s film so I like the way it exists as each performance,” Cargill continues, “it could go either way, it sounds different each time. That’s definitely purely something that exists on the stage. We do the songs after that … they’re still reinterpretations. The Tender Buttons songs are a bit easier because they’re quite sparse so it’s easier for just the two of us to do them but I’d say most of the set is kind of like, pretty, interpretive of things. It tends to differ a lot each night. It’s been called kind of ‘difficult’s our new stuff, because it is twenty minutes [where]we’re doing this kind of soundtrack with lots of different stuff going on. I think sometimes people who come in to us who’ve never seen us before like it more than people who know our songs.”

Eventually, the band would like to compile all their work with House together and make an audio-visual album. There are another six films in the pipeline, and perhaps even a comic book. Keenan is also working on a project called Let’s Write A Song, where she asked for one sentence submissions that would then be crafted into songs. “I’ve got two songs already so I’m hopefully looking to do an EP,” she says. “It’s been really good, a really good editing exercise. I think the words are really strong, the way they’ve come out. And strangely they sound like Trish, sound like me!”

Perhaps it wasn’t so strange after all, if people were consciously trying to write like Trish. “Well I wonder,” she continues, “a lot of different people from all over the world contributed, and it’s interesting how much your creative work is really about editing. That somehow the text, the music the songs you generate is really this slightly general cloud of stuff… it’s about what you choose out of it that is you. The choices that you make are the important ones.”

Also in the pipeline is the soundtrack to a film by Peter Strickland, writer and director of the 2009 film Katalin Varga. Cargill explains the concept behind the film: “I think the idea is this slightly awkward, British guy who takes music and musique concrete, who goes over to Italy to work on the soundtrack of this kind of slasher film, and he’s totally out of his depth. You start losing the idea of reality in the film, and the sound effects that he’s working on, you stop knowing whether they’re part of his tape or reel. But he wants us to do the real Morricone-esque, haunting songs.”

As for Witch Cults and the rest of Broadcast’s output over the years, it makes sense in the here and now as much as it would have before our time. “You know, for me the film references, or the way the album kind of depicts a film on record is understandable,” says Keenan. “There’s these layers that once you kind of peel back … the cultural ‘glue’ if you like, there’s all these layers you can really enjoy the album on. The way that Julian’s production breaks down some of the structures of some my songs is exciting for everybody who likes music.”

Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
is out through Warp/Inertia. Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises is released through Ghost Box.

Broadcast is touring Australia, co-presented with Cyclic Defrost.

Saturday, December 4
Perth (Capitol) with Seekae and Pikelet
Tickets available from GET TIX

Monday, December 6
Brisbane (Hi-Fi Bar) with Seekae
Tickets available from

Wednesday December 8
Sydney (The Forum) with Seekae
Tickets available from 1300 GET TIX

Thursday December 9
Melbourne (Hi-Fi Bar) with Pikelet and Seekae
Tickets available from