RIP Trish Keenan of Broadcast

And this is something I thought I would never be saying. At least, not so soon.

A caveat at the start before you read my words further — for instance, you probably should read Maria T. Sciarrino’s piece first, or Joe Muggs’, plus others that will emerge. In contrast I was always a Broadcast appreciator rather than active fan, ending up with releases here and there almost by accident in the late nineties. For me there’s no throughline, more a sense of ‘hey, nice, like what I hear.’ I can’t ever say I played any of their albums or singles into the ground.

This is not to damn with faint praise, merely that the attention only can grab on to so much when you’re going through life. But they were a band who, over time, I was very glad was there, a source of creativity operating at its own preferred pace. I remember more than once reading others wishing that the band would be more productive — certainly their early association with Stereolab made a contrast, where that band seemed to never not be releasing something. Broadcast in contrast gave a sense of deliberation, that things would emerge when they wanted to see them appear, not because of any sense of a schedule to follow or because a fanbase needed to be sated. In the niches that the 21st century allows for artists if they choose to follow them, Broadcast seemed to have found something over time that suited them just fine.

At the heart of Broadcast was the partnership of Keenan and James Cargill but as the singer Keenan received the lion’s share of attention. As the artist in toto, though, she stood for something more — and in reading through various news reports today, I stumbled across a photo via, of all people, the Daily Mail that grabbed my attention:

Trish Keenan at ATP, via the Daily Mail

As the caption via the story notes, this was taken last year at an ATP festival, so a fairly recent shot — and recent is always best in the end when reflecting on the passing of someone, because the question should be ‘what are they doing now?’ rather than ‘remember when?’ But more to the point, the simple juxtaposition of two things struck me here, almost literally in two halves of this photo.

First, the lower half, and the technology on display — pads, pedals, who knows what kind of noise and music devices, wires, a microphone. While much has been made over a band like Broadcast using ‘old’ technology, the point is that this is still electronic technology and of a fairly recent vintage, something that draws its roots back at most to under one hundred and fifty years of human history, of world history. The fact that something so shockingly new is now so simply intrinsic and unremarkable is part of how humanity adjusts to expectations, perhaps, or simply reflecting what I’ve termed the baseline — if you grow up and see people playing electronic keyboards or whatever, the presumption is that this is always something that can or has happened. Broadcast were not merely comfortable with technology, it was essential, the point. Electronics as played and processed, circuits used and treated, whatever else one could point out.

But consider the upper half of the photo as well. There is something focused about her look, apparently biting her lip a bit as she makes an adjustment on an instrument, though that could just be a shadow. The overall look, however, is something more — there’s something serene there, and also something, for lack of a better term, old, mysterious. It’s a combination of things — the white, robe-like top, her long, flowing hair, the red cast of the lights — that suggests something ritualistic, a muddle of impressions of the past as reinterpreted all jumbled together. It reminds me a touch of Lisa Gerrard’s look in the Dead Can Dance film Toward the Within, and that idea of some intrusion of a perceived past — not a ‘real’ one, per se, more the suggestion of one, the idea that it might have been like this — into the present seems relevant. Not that Gerrard and Keenan have exactly comparable aesthetics or goals, merely that there’s a power of invocation here that, if Keenan’s singing would never attempt to compel the same way Gerrard’s does, is still relevant.

There’s obvious comparisons to be made to those bands that Broadcast clearly drew examples from, most famously the United States of America, but recent events reframe this into different paths for me. I’ve recently received and started to flip through Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change book, about the field, however broadly or generally conceived, of acid folk, the idea of a past tradition colliding, however softly, with the perceptions and possibilities of late sixties (and after) recording technology. While it would be a stretch to call Broadcast acid folk by any measure, arguably it’s the same kind of collision but from different angles, or different starting points — or is it? The sense of closeness Broadcast’s music often creates matches that of what is presumed to be the ‘realness’ of folk music of any stripe, the sense of something shadowy and mysterious, emerging from the mists of time or something else, seems shared by both as well. In turn this becomes something more, an extension of possibilities in new directions.

It’s no surprise at all, in retrospect, that the last formal release Broadcast made before this tragedy was titled Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age — in ways this was the perfect title for a release of theirs, at once calling up visions of ancient religious practice and the modern world, or a just slightly older version of the modern world that still thrives nonetheless. The two were part and parcel in the hands of Keenan, Cargill and those who worked with them.

So in the end when I saw that photo above and thought a bit, the truest comparison that leapt to mind was another band, now gone — Coil. In their emphasis on ritual and electronics, on the tactile and the contemplative, while the work of John Balance and Peter Christopherson still differs from Cargill and Keenan’s in many important ways, they arguably took different paths to similar end points, exaltations of creativity of the now that were also continuations of a secret history, of a time that seems more removed than it is, or more accurately a perceived time, a perceived past. And when there are always jokes that anything before one’s own birth or earliest memories is simply ‘ancient history,’ then Broadcast using the sonic starting points of the 1960s and otherwise would simply mean that they were working in just such a field in part, but never in the whole.

The point was not to recreate or reinterpret, but to create, in the moment. Keenan passed due to an illness contracted on a tour of Australia, her final shows done far from a physical home yet part of a continuum. In reading some of the comments on the ILX thread about Broadcast and Keenan’s passing, comments like “a warm apparition that melted cold, technological burdens into something friendly and familiar” address both that drive and what fed it.

A true loss, on all fronts. Rest well.

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