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Public Service Broadcasting masters the public domain

J. Willgoose, Esq.  (left) and Wrigglesworth are the London duo Public Service Broadcasting.

Dan Kendall

J. Willgoose, Esq. (left) and Wrigglesworth are the London duo Public Service Broadcasting.

Check patterns like houndstooth and gingham are having a moment among fashion-minded men scouting out a classic look that can — just maybe — pass for cool with the right attitude. The music of Public Service Broadcasting fits neatly into this milieu, though its makers are banking on the notion that the best fashion is timeless.

The London duo’s aesthetic is formed at the intersection of vintage and progressive, of fashionable and ironic. The music is propelled by comfy electronic beats that create a mood hovering somewhere between the chill room and the dance floor, buoyed by live instruments. But its songs have midcentury signifiers baked into them, from bits of archival detritus like World War II-era propaganda films or a 1953 documentary about the climbing of Mount Everest.

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At least to the American ear, even their almost aggressively English stage names — J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth — tiptoe the line between elbow-patched professorial chic and parody.

“I thought about what you would look like when you go into a pub and play it, what you would be wearing,” Willgoose says of the period when Public Service Broadcasting evolved from his casually conceived home demos to a genuine musical project, “and the aesthetic of what we wear on stage was born. It’s very corduroy-heavy. Slightly-well turned out but equally a bit shabby, a bit crumpled.”

Whatever its form, there’s definitely some showmanship afoot — even if it springs more from the workaday life of a Londoner with an affinity for the historical programming on BBC Radio 4 than gaudy rock star fantasies. “It’s new-fashioned to look old-fashioned,” an audio sample used in “The Now Generation” declares.

“When I put the bow tie on and we go onstage,” Willgoose, who intimates that he’s slightly over 30 but declines to give his exact age, “it’s not like I become the equivalent of Ziggy Stardust. I’m probably slightly more awkward onstage than off it, if that’s possible.”

The audio samples are not merely ornamental. Willgoose writes the songs in conjunction with moving images he cuts and re-shapes from archival films, found mostly in the public domain. The resulting videos are projected at shows, which the group likes to call “live transmissions.” When it has its full gear at its disposal, the duo uses vintage television sets as functional props; on its current American tour, which stops at The Red Room at Café 939 on Friday, projectors will have to do.

The result of this technique has surprised its authors by making them pop stars, of a sort. The duo’s debut LP, released overseas last May, rose out of nowhere to the 21 spot on the UK album charts.

After an embryonic EP in 2010, the surprise success of its World War II-themed EP “The War Room” two years later offered a strong sign that Public Service Broadcasting was onto something. Single “Spitfire,” an evocation of the iconic fighter aircraft, got some radio play on the BBC. Willgoose remembers sitting in his front room and packing for shipment the complete initial stock of 250 EPs, which were sold out in advance before they’d even arrived. About 10,000 copies were eventually sold.

The current tour (13 one-nighters plus a visit to Austin’s South By Southwest festival) is the group’s first of the United States. It’s an auspicious move for the duo, though they’ve yet to prove that their appeal translates on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s incredibly exciting but also a bit daunting. We don’t really have a clue how it’s going to go. I don’t think anyone’s heard of us in America,” Wrigglesworth, 28, says, “so we’re not expecting crowds of people at the gigs. We’re hoping to get the name around a bit.”

Onstage, Willgoose alternates between electric guitar, banjo, some keyboards, and programming; Wrigglesworth plays live and electronic drums. Helped along by the multimedia element, the two hope to create the energy of a rock show.

“The theory behind it is that it should be as far away as possible from just watching someone on a laptop twiddling away,” Willgoose says, “probably doing all sorts of clever things but not really offering any kind of musical engagement to the audience. I personally get very frustrated with that.”

If the songs didn’t stand up on their own, the samples and general sheen of historical geekery might amount to mere gimmick. But its sheer musicality, and the organic way in which music, words, and images cohere, keeps the work from coming off as glib. “Signal 30” weds clips from a safe-driving film to a careening rocker paced by a rippling bass line and some reasonably heavy guitars. Both ominous and defiant, “London Can Take It” combines banjo and synth patterns amid a 1941 report on Nazi air raids.

“It kind of defines the character in quite an intangible way. You can’t put your finger on it but once you start sparkling some in,” Willgoose says of his source material, “it changes the whole feel of it. If you use it the right way it can add a lot of weight, a lot of authenticity to what we’re trying to do.”

And indeed, perhaps some music just sounds better with bow tie included.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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