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Citizen Arcane

Broadcast mines Czech vampire films and French library music to create lush electronica

In the hit cult movie High Fidelity, a music geek's Citizen Kane, there's a semifamous scene where record store clerk/arch-rock snob Barry (played by Jack Black) scorns a customer's request for Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You." "Ooh, I'm sorry, is your daughter in a coma?" Barry mocks the befuddled, out-of-touch dad asking for the record. "There's no way she likes that song," Barry then huffs, in a moment of rock pomposity befitting a paunchy Axl Rose.

But as soon as the dad leaves the store, Barry gleefully begins to gab about the top-five musical crimes perpetuated by Wonder in the '80s and '90s. Barry's knowledge demonstrates that even the haughtiest of rock elitists tend to have soft spots for populist pap.

Count the consummate musical historians of Broadcast among the Barrys of the world. The Brit quartet culls its cinematic moods from atmospheric film scores, the eclectic electronica of such bands as Stereolab and Saint Etienne, the avant-garde psychedelia of late-'60s legends the United States of America, and modern IDM. Yet a conversation with vocalist Trish Keenan reveals her fascination with everything from French library music and Czechoslovakian vampire films to more accessible influences, such as nursery rhymes.

No laughing matter: Haha Sound is Broadcast's finest, most complex work yet.
No laughing matter: Haha Sound is Broadcast's finest, most complex work yet.

"Nursery rhymes… they are the first songs that people really perform to us, in a way. You watch people singing them to you," Keenan says. "That's quite a powerful thing, when you're really young and you're learning words. I remember learning 'Three Blind Mice' -- well, I don't really remember, you don't remember learning things like [that]; you just feel like you've been born with them."

Contrasting childlike whimsy with darker edges, the Birmingham-based ensemble has recently turned in its most accomplished work yet, Haha Sound. The disc displays portentous moments (the ominous rhythmic jazz attack of the instrumental "Distorsion") while preserving the cool-cat sophistication and spy-noir melancholia of 2000's The Noise Made by People("Oh How I Miss You," "Winter Now"). Yet Keenan sounds like a toddler possessed by demons when she croons atop the haunted electronic noises that drive "Pendulum," while the burbling beats and singsong lyrics skip like a child let loose in a Krautrock candyland on "Lunch Hour Pops." The understated love song "Colour Me In" even whirls as if it were part of a synthesized circus of happy clowns and fuzzy teddy bears.

"I think that we really wanted to change the whole tone of what we were doing -- I know I did, anyway," Keenan explains. "We wanted a more optimistic feel, a folky kind of feel. Not that we were unhappy with the last album -- I just think that, with the darker side of what we were doing, we wanted to back away from that for a bit. I say that, but a lot of people have said that they've thought this album is darker than the last one, so you can't really win. But there was definitely a feeling of a more imaginative, colorful world that we wanted to create with the Haha Sound."

The album's textured tones represent the most complex and mature work of Broadcast's career. Founded in 1995 by Keenan and bassist James Cargill, the band toured with Stereolab and released a handful of singles on the Lab's Duophonic label early in its career before signing to esteemed electronica label Warp Records for the 1997 compilation album Work and Non-Work and the profile-raising People.

Like past efforts, much of Broadcast's current inspiration comes from the arcane. Keenan speaks enthusiastically about a Birmingham video store called Cinephilia ("They never charge us for the rental of the videos -- they've got a great Eastern European cinema section, which I've plowed my way through," she says), which is where she discovered the Czech vampire film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the inspiration for the girlish Haha Sound song "Valerie." Finding a celluloid gem like this in Birmingham, a gritty, almost Houston-like city in the middle of England, parallels the paradox that such a nonglamorous place has influenced Broadcast's polished, stylized tunes.

"Nothing good is supposed to come from somewhere like Birmingham; nobody likes the accent; nobody particularly likes the architecture, because it's quite brutalist," Keenan says. "There's also a very, very big business mentality here, to the detriment of the arts, and so we may not have tried to create the world we tried to create musically if we had come from somewhere more exotic or more culturally rich."

And Broadcast thrives on contrasts. By modernizing and preserving obscure music and cinematic themes, the band boosts this esoterica into the mainstream; rather than becoming a tool for separatism, Broadcast's exploration of history widens its appeal and jars expectations of what even constitutes the underground in the first place.

The group is "really interested in exploring the kind of music that wasn't intended for mass market," Keenan says. "[Like] library music. It's catalog music -- you pick it if you've got a documentary on the working of an industrial plant. It's becoming very, very popular now, and the prices on eBay are just rocketing. It's really interesting to see music that wasn't really intended for mass market is now influencing the mass market. It's quite strange."

 
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