Patricia Anne Keenan a.k.a.Trish Keenan (1968 - 2011) was a British singer and songwriter for Broadcast, the cult band that she and her partner James Cargill formed in the West Midlands in the mid-1990s. Parts of Broadcast’s second album, Haha Sound (2003), were recorded in a church hall where Keenan had attended a jumble sale, and she applied a similar magpie-like approach to making music, searching the more obscure corners of pop culture to create something new, strange and evocative.

Although they occasionally wrote direct pop songs, Broadcast won critical acclaim by mixing together influences such as the primitive electronics of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1970s public information films, Czech surrealism, Moog organ, forgotten film soundtracks and kitsch ephemera. At the centre of this process was Keenan, whose vision drove the group and whose voice could be variously haunting, mannered and heart-rending.

Born on 28 September 1968 in Winson Green, Birmingham, Keenan attended Archbishop Grimshaw Roman Catholic school. After school she worked in various catering jobs and at the age of 21 moved to the bohemian enclave of Moseley, forming a folk duo called Hayward Winters before she met Cargill at a 1960s psychedelic revival club in Birmingham.

The pair bonded over shared interests and formed a band, Pan Am Flight Bag, who played two gigs before they regrouped as Broadcast. One early inspiration was The United States of America, the cult hippy-era California group who strove to add avant-garde electronic experimentation to pop music, and whose sole album Keenan once described as a “bible”.

With the guitarist Tim Felton, the keyboard player Roj Stevens and the drummer Steve Perkins, Broadcast spurned major scales and rock cliches, instead pioneering what is now termed “hauntology” by attempting to create a retrospective notion of what musicians in the late 1960s thought that the future might sound like. This fetishisation of the space age led to their song The Book Lovers, from an early EP of the same name, being included on the soundtrack to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).

But Broadcast’s relationship with the past was far more complex than that of some of their slavishly retro contemporaries. Instead they were part of a group of avant-garde musicians centred around Birmingham’s Custard Factory arts complex who made edgy and occasionally difficult music by fusing old-fashioned analogue textures with modern digital recording techniques.

After releasing two singles, Accidentals and Living room, on small indie labels, Broadcast were signed to Sheffield’s Warp Records in 1997 by the label’s founder, Rob Mitchell. This came as a surprise because Warp was then primarily known as a home for techno and electronica artists, but Mitchell recognised the singularity of the band’s vision. Keenan’s lyrics were inspired variously by Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe and, latterly, HG Wells, while in live performance the band updated the 1960s arts lab “happenings” by playing in front of projected short films, with Keenan’s static stage presence, heavy black fringe and pallor giving her a slightly detached and icy demeanour totally at odds with her offstage manner.

Broadcast released three albums – The Noise Made by People (2000), Haha Sound and Tender Buttons (2005) – before Keenan and Cargill, partly motivated by financial considerations, reconfigured the band as a duo and moved to Hungerford in Berkshire. It was there that they embarked on the most compelling phase of their career. Collaborating with the graphic designer and film-maker Julian House, the trio released two EPs, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age (2009) and Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises (2010), combining white noise with music influenced by film soundtracks, psychedelic folk and the half-remembered children’s television shows of their youth.

In a 2009 interview with the Wire magazine, Keenan discussed a desire to make music that re-imagined primitive nature cults by replacing them with a kind of enlightened pagan science worship, “a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night and a science-worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day”, the Eloi being one of the races in Wells’s The Time Machine. She was also beginning to explore cut-up lyric techniques inspired partly by her interest in the occult and furthering a talent for creative writing, which she studied at Birmingham University while working on her music career.

Broadcast were gradually being recognised as, if not quite national treasures, then the kind of underground stalwarts for whom each release is regarded with anticipation, in their case by fans as varied as Paul Weller and the Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The latter invited the band to join the bill when he curated the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival, in Minehead, in May 2010.

Keenan really did have her best work ahead of her. She had one of the most distinctive voices in modern music and was a visionary and creative thinker with a vast appetite for discovering new inspirations.

On her return from the band’s first Australian tour in December last year, Keenan was diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalised; died 14 January 2011. She is survived by James, her mother, Zena, brothers Malcolm and John, and sisters Maxine and Barbara.

Edited by gubia on 18 Jan 2011, 03:05

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