Birds fly a lot better than we do ... Some day, I’m going to build a plane that will be just like a bird.” That is Leslie Howard as aircraft designer RJ Mitchell, from the 1942 film The First Of The Few. Howard’s warm tones punctuate the Motorik beat and strobing guitar patterns of “Spitfire”, the calling card of the band Public Service Broadcasting. Just as the early folk collectors preserved the songs of ploughmen at a time when mass agrarian employment was ending, so PSB warp and twist our waning communitarian sensibilities to create a form of modern folk music.
They are not alone. A number of acts that tap into this current of modernist nostalgia will form a mini-strand at next weekend’s Womad. Among them are the Welsh folk trip-hoppers 9Bach, the retro-futurists of Radiophonic Workshop, PSB – and the pioneers of laptop folk, Tunng.
Like PSB, Tunng are shaping a musical future out of elements from the past (and are likewise wary of the “world music” tag). But where PSB shore up fragments of public information and polemical films from before and after the second world war into a setting half-mocking, half-affectionate, Tunng use the language of folk (coupled, most recently, with progressive rock) to articulate a science-fictional view of an alternative present.
Founded in 2004, they were one of the first acts to set traditional acoustic folk elements against electronic (as opposed to electric) elements. Initially, Tunng were a duo who came together to write film scores. Sam Genders, a founder but no longer a member, had a background working with folk-rock veteran John Tams. Mike Lindsay, the other founder, admits to a simultaneous fascination with “Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Wicker Man soundtrack; and also electronica, glitch, cut’n’paste twistedness”. He insists, though, on “the raw and the real – the fingernails scraping down strings”.
The band expanded to a six-piece and the early albums were distributed affairs, sound files swapped remotely with each band member’s additions stitched together in the studio. But Turbines, Tunng’s most recent album, was written by the whole group together in the depths of Somerset. “It was an experiment,” says Lindsay; “all of us in the studio at the same time. It was more difficult – more argumentation, more musical chats at six in the morning.”
The musical world of Turbines is spiky, introverted, paranoid. In Lindsay’s words, it is “not a particularly positive-sounding record. It has the flavour of something that’s gone wrong. The message is, ‘You don’t belong here.’” And yet the claustrophobia and xenophobia can yield up some surprisingly sweet melodies, as if Simon and Garfunkel were performing in an 1970s electrical substation, with its ominous high-voltage hum.
Tunng use sampled and found sounds to blur the boundaries between studio or onstage performance and the outside world. Lindsay is concerned with the grain of the music. “I liked taking the sound of scratchy vinyl and manipulating it in the computer to find textures,” he says. The band’s Phil Winter salvaged a heap of seven-inch sound effects records from the BBC Sound Archive, and “everything on there sounded brilliant,” says Lindsay, “creaking boats, wildlife, trains, sounds from other countries.”
They used a sample from Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam on an early record, but had to withdraw it when the film company refused permission. Later, they started to record their own sounds while on tour. “Things in hotel rooms, a guy in a gas station in America. It’s more personal. More personal and more legal.”
PSB, for their part, push the use of sampled voices to an extreme. Their primary source material is public information films from the 1930s to the 1950s, looped to highlight the strangulated upper-class accent of the time. These are set to a soundtrack of guitars and the ostinato rhythmic trance that some see as a homage to the kosmische music of 1970s West Germany – although the band’s founder and frontman, who goes by the stage name of J Willgoose, Esq, insists that his primary template is the more prosaic Oasis.
The band has now added a drummer called “Wrigglesworth”, and new material to be recorded in August may round it out further. But the power comes from the tension between the rhythm and Willgoose’s guitar and occasional banjo, and the sound clips. “Some of the archive material”, Willgoose says, “is absolutely ridiculous” – he cites the American drivers’ awareness films used on “Signal 30”, creating a bathetic resonance between the magisterial music and the hyperventilating warnings.
What began in a spirit of light mockery, however, has expanded into something more ambivalent, even sympathetic. One track, “Lit Up”, is built on an infamous – because intoxicated – BBC commentary on the Fleet Review at Spithead in 1937, and when the announcer talks about the fleet lit “like Fairyland” the backing explodes into synthesised sparkling bells. When “Everest” highlights commentary from the 1953 film The Conquest of Everest, the music salutes the spirit of stiff-upper-lipped heroism. “There’s a poetry and lyricism,” says Willgoose. “It’s fantastic writing, very evocative.”
Perhaps PSB’s most audacious reclamation is of the celebrated 1936 Post Office documentary Night Mail, with music by Benjamin Britten and a commentary that yields to a poem by WH Auden. The new version speeds up the train to an express gallop amid a clack of percussion and guitar riffing. Willgoose accepts that his use of Auden’s verses is “incredibly presumptuous”.
PSB’s core concerns – public service and heroism – may be seen as beleaguered notions, but as a “wishy-washy lefty liberal” he is keen to defend both. Tunng, meanwhile, looks back to the deep connections of village life. So despite their 21st-century accoutrements, both these bands share folk music’s tendency to lament an order just passing: nostalgia never stands still.
Womad Festival, July 24-26. womad.co.uk