Formed in: 1995, Birmingham, England
Key Albums: Work and Non Work (1997), The Noise Made by People (2000), Haha Sound (2003)
Broadcast were an English electronic act known for a strange, eerie sound built from archaic analogue organs, dissonant feedback, ghostly samples, and Trish Keenan's pure voice. Inspired by '60s psychedelia and archaic library music, they played with notions of time, memory, and mystery, and maintained a devoted, cult-like following. The band came to an abrupt end when Keenan passed away in January, 2011.
Little is known about Broadcast's members, as individuals, or their backgrounds. It was not accidental. "With a lot of bands, you get them in Mojo all the time, and you end up knowing everything about them," James Cargill —who started as simply the band's bassist— told me in 2003. "Even though we're not deliberately trying to do it, I'd rather not have other people know quite so much about us."
The band were formed by Keenan, Cargill, guitarist Tim Felton, keyboardist Roj Stevens, and drummer Steve Perkins in Birmingham's bohemian neighborhood, Moseley, in 1995. They never ducked their two most intense influences: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop music made by Delia Derbyshire, and the American psychedelic '60s band The United States of America.
"We wanted to sort of do, like, tree-kid sort of psych-rock, with that 'lullaby' sort of vocal," Cargill explained. "I think there were loads of references we were trying to live up to, and sort of 'copy,' in a way. And the big one was The United States Of America."
"People would see Broadcast from the outside as a kind of pop band," Keenan offered, to Rave in 2010, "[but] behind the scenes there's a really, true love of sound and that's fueled by people like Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram... to me they were both hugely inspirational because they're women exploring the world of sound. They didn't comply with any of the classic clichés about women in music: they lived sound."
Broadcast's first single, "Accidentals," was issued on Wurlitzer Jukebox in January of 1996, and was followed by "Living Room" and The Book Lovers EP on Stereolab's label, Super Duophonic 45s. Broadcast were then signed by English electro institution Warp Records, who compiled their early output as a debut full-length, 1997's Work And Non Work.
Beginning work on their first LP-proper, Broadcast stayed holed up for over two years; playing only two shows over that time, not releasing anything, and losing themselves in the task. "When we were making The Noise Made by People," Cargill recalled, "it was the period where we were 'wrong in the head'."
"Striving for something ideal," the band were trying to self-consciously create a classic album. "When you measure yourself up against really great things... that kills you," said Cargill. "In the end, you wake up and realise you're not going to be able to bash some song into a classic arrangement, basing it on something from the past which embodies this elusive brilliance —like a Brian Wilson production— that you'll never be able to achieve."
Eventually, they overcame their preciousness, and The Noise Made by People, released in 2000, was a staggering listen: a record creating a sound-world all of its own. The record was, surprisingly, released by hip-hop label Tommy Boy in the US, though that certainly didn't set Broadcast on the path to fame. "We're not popular at all," Cargill lamented to Cyclic Defrost, in 2005. Broadcast were seemingly destined to remain forever a cult prospect.
Curiouser and Curiouser
By 2003's Ha Ha Sound, the band were a three-piece: Keenan, Cargill, and Felton. Struggling, again, with working in a studio, they retreated to a church hall across the road from their house in Birmingham. "There it was," Keenan beamed, to The Milk Factory, "60-foot ceiling, huge wooden floor, wooden panelling... it just sounded beautiful... we would be banging the floor, trying things."
Inspired by French library music like Roger Roger and the soundtrack to the Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the LP was a more experimental, unvarnished artifact. But, it was also more direct: the melodies, and Keenan's singing, sounding brighter in the dissonant context.
"We just want to get the song across, as opposed to fussing with all the decorous styling that comes with arranging," Cargill said. "I've grown fond of songs as they are, and accepting their rough edges, and not trying to turn them into something they're not."
By 2005's Tender Buttons, Broadcast were just Keenan and Cargill —partners in both band and life— and their music retreated further into its own esoteric world. "Working as a duo," Cargill said to The Wire, "completely changed the sound, dynamics, everything really."
After the 2006 singles collection, The Future Crayon, Broadcast embarked on a collaborative project with Julian House, the graphic designer who'd been in charge of Broadcast's artwork throughout their career (as well as doing notable work with Stereolab), who made sound-collage pieces as The Focus Group. Initially intended as a more-spontaneous marriage, the project lasted years of sample-layering and high conception. The resulting record, 2009's Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, dabbled in the occult.
"I'd like people to enjoy the album as a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night," Keenan told The Wire.
The band also released a tour-only EP, Mother is the Milky Way, in 2009, and set out work on their fifth album proper.
The Untimely Passing of Trish Keenan
On a December 2010 tour of Australia, Keenan was infected with H1N1 influenza. In hospital for treatment, she developed hospital-acquired pneumonia. After spending two weeks in intensive care, battling the illness, Keenan passed away on January 14, 2011. She was survived by a body-of-work whose influence will long persist.
"It seems to me," she said to The Wire, in 2009, "that the past is always happening now, all previous events have positioned us here philosophically, geographically, and in the present we are always in memory."