Trish Keenan, Broadcast, 1995-2011
“The alternative worlds that Broadcast built were idealized retro-futurist conceptions: the counter-cultural vision of the future as re-imagined by the enthusiasts of the present.”
Many in the indie community were saddened by Trish Keenan’s passing, in part because it seemed to interrupt the quiet hum of Broadcast’s productive, consistently assured output since 1995. But her wintertime death from pneumonia did not signal the succumbing of their more ethereal tendencies; it spelled a generally uncertain future for the entire project, which by 2005’s Tender Buttons had been whittled down to just Keenan and her partner James Cargill. Keenan was a major creative force in Broadcast; that much has been highlighted by the various tributes. She was not ‘just the vocalist’ of the band, a point being emphasized as of late perhaps because some of Broadcast’s peers in electronic music in the 90s operated on a revolving-door policy for female vocalists.
Happily, for family, friends, and fans alike, Keenan’s legacy as a spokeswoman/philosopher, a creative lyricist, and a linchpin of the band has been widely recognized alongside her authoritative vocal talents since her death. Authoritative may sound like an odd description of a delicate voice like Trish’s. But if she at times sounds like a refugee from C86, it has more to do with her precise enunciation than any residue of cuteness. Happy legacies again — Broadcast were always sophisticated enough to select the ‘best bits’ of the past, tuning that retrospective vision like a kaleidoscope to their desired frequency of weirdness. Keenan herself described her ideal vocals as “very very direct spoken voice almost,” and her vocal tastes were anti-blues, leaning towards the easy delivery of 60s French pop singers.
“If ever a band were most at ease locating the everyday in the Bohemian and the strange, it was Broadcast — true to the Surrealist game.”
The sense of Trish almost reading the songs aloud was clearly the product of this very deliberate way of expressing herself, and her authority over the strange narratives that she honed through creative writing classes and automatic writing techniques is experienced as a desire to communicate clearly what is worth sharing. This phenomenon of carefully enunciating strange narratives over a psychedelic background can perhaps be viewed as a relic or a lost art form in itself, recalling the tendency in 60s British children’s TV to combine whacked-out ideas with cheery, polite delivery. Trish emphasized that these memories of a pre-lapsarian, futuristic education through media were not her own (she was born in 1968), but that they were part of her imaginative heritage, like dated paperbacks that could be plundered for inspiration.
Nevertheless, her lyrics were not always audible behind the band’s tendency to cloak their songs in layers of reverb and washes of analog synths. The album that probably showcases her lyrical contributions at their best is Tender Buttons, and this is appropriate given the reference to Gertrude Stein, which is dutifully honored on the title track — unusually for Broadcast relying on mellow guitars as the reference point for the arty freedom that Trish evokes by meditatively uttering a string of disconnected phrases: “the comb, the calm, the colors, the cortex.” If ever a band were most at ease locating the everyday in the Bohemian and the strange, it was Broadcast — true to the Surrealist game.
While Tender Buttons’ reference points made it a blocky, cut & paste affair using monochrome imagery (the black cat, the chalkboard) and invoking art-school optimism, Haha Sound (2003) was an elegant homage to European independent cinema. Broadcast were always a conceptual band for whom context was all; thus, it is difficult to fully appreciate an album like Haha Sound without being aware of its movie inspiration, the notorious Czech menstruation fable Valerie’s Week of Wonders. The context is always several layers deep with Broadcast: for instance, Valerie has been suggested as a possible inspiration for the British writer of twisted adult fables, Angela Carter. Ultimately, Haha Sound is like a fine-boned replica of the dinner party paganism of the 1970s, which comes across as innocent despite its undertones of sexism and horror. And therein lies the brilliance of Broadcast and Keenan’s soundworlds: like Tolkien novels, they were built by enthusiasts, but experiencing them is not necessarily an intellectual exercise; it is an escape to other realities that seem strangely plausible.
“In their own, tripped-out way, using reference points of technology, time travel, and magic, Broadcast and Keenan were able to redefine concepts of how electronic music was composed, recorded and edited.”
The alternative worlds that Broadcast built were idealized retro-futurist conceptions: the counter-cultural vision of the future as re-imagined by the enthusiasts of the present. Viewing past futurism through the lens of the present was evidently designed to have a distorting effect, which would create the illusion of a telescopic perspective, a kind of imaginary time travel, which Keenan described in this 2009 interview with The Wire:
I think the evocation of memory in our music could be seen as the residue of imaginary time travel. You can either go forward or back. You go back in order to change something in the now, to redesign the course of events for personal reasons. When you go back to a previous musical time, you’re trying to recall a memory that never happened to you, that is not stored, so it would make sense that you hear a fuzzy dissolving sense of time and place…
The process that Keenan described was literally worlds away from rudimentary ideas about ‘sampling’ that defined the reputation of 90s electronic music. It was a process of ‘seeding’ memory with associations, creating an alternate past, a space to have imaginative recourse to, like a kind of psychedelic Riviera. This oddball aesthetic probably explains the logic behind calling the project “Broadcast.” The sowing of broadcast signals has now become a more recognizable action than the sowing of seeds, but in all likelihood a parallel was forged between the two that stuck, so that communicating by radio was seen in the early days as a sibylline activity like casting the dice. Trish Keenan often speculated out loud about the possibility of a process like “creative biology” occurring during improvisation, which can be viewed as analogous to scattering seeds or generating random static.
Broadcast’s most recent work with Julian House suggests that electronic instruments and tape-recorded samples don’t have to be one-way receivers or transmitters of information manipulated in order to create a fixed ambience; in fact, the clunky unpredictability of some of these tools makes them very likely to be unruly interpreters in spite of intentions. Trish mused that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were “mediums in a way” that let objects speak for themselves, like the proponents of musique concrète, who deliberately emphasized the role of communication in ‘playing’ electronic instruments. Broadcast seemed to hark back to these early academic ideas about electronic and non-traditional music, but with an added ingredient of psychedelia. By their own admission, they gained energy from reflecting on sound, rather than reacting to it in a live setting.
“Broadcast were always sophisticated enough to select the ‘best bits’ of the past, tuning that retrospective vision like a kaleidoscope to their desired frequency of weirdness.”
The band’s habit of hoarding their actual samples as if they were valuable curios, taken from library music compilations or just lifted from the everyday (Keenan described herself as a sound enthusiast who recorded going to the shops) seems very different from the contemporary practice of relying on freely available digital files or easily programmable beats in the process of composition. In this sense, Broadcast’s early experiences of collecting sounds rather than being exposed to a galaxy of easily programmable options probably served them well. They were ruefully aware that analog synths had become trendy in the early 00s, although they themselves seem to have adopted them naturally because of their interest in emulating the sound of their favorite 60s electronic pioneers, The United States of America.
In their own, tripped-out way, using reference points of technology, time travel, and magic, Broadcast and Keenan were able to redefine concepts of how electronic music was composed, recorded, and edited. The band’s editing process was rigorous, but by treating their electronic equipment as devices capable of communicating and interpreting a collective past, they underlined the primary functions of any musical instrument — to interpret, to communicate. They playfully revisited the notion that, in the radio age, electronic musical experimentation was perceived as a kind of mediumship, which Trish more than any other member of the group seemed to develop into a homemade philosophy of electronic composition. This was most notable on their recent release with Julian House, Broadcast and the Focus Group investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (2009). The ‘Ghost Box’ of Julian House’s label was an example of technology’s intersection with the occult: a radio receiver and recording device designed to translate static into messages from the afterlife. It is particularly poignant to think now that Keenan’s own voice — sometimes obscure and sometimes sailing over clouds of static — was probably intended in these final tracks to convey the effect of a voice “coming through” like a broadcast from a memory of childhood, or the afterlife, or some other place.
The Noise Made By People (Warp; 2000)
Haha Sound (Warp; 2003)
Tender Buttons (Warp; 2005)
• “Tears in the Typing Pool”:
Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Ghost Box; 2009)
• “Make My Sleep His Song”: