The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Let the Balloons Go Outside

Since I don’t do drugs, I think the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had was when I let go of a balloon outside for the first time and watched it rise into the air until it turned into a tiny dot and disappeared. It made no sense to me that a balloon would do that and nothing else would, and I wondered where it ended up — if it was in space or if it crashed on an island somewhere. As a kid, it might have been the first thing that made me start to ponder the depths of the universe and realize how little I knew about it.

Now that I am something resembling an adult, I have no use for balloons. If someone came up to me on the street and handed me one, I would say “why are you giving me this balloon.” If they insisted on me taking on the burden of the balloon, I would walk around with it for awhile out of some weird sense of guilt, then eventually get tired of having to hold the string and let it go because I don’t care about the environment. And as the balloon rose up, I wouldn’t think about how cool it was that this object was floating into space. I would think “yeah balloons do that because of helium or science or whatever.”

Trish Keenan either never stopped being fascinated by balloons or found a way to channel that sense of kid wonder through her music. As easy as it is to feel depressed about her death while listening to Broadcast, on Haha Sound the predominant feeling I get is joy. “Lunch Hour Pops” might be their most overtly happy-sounding song — it’s like a nursery rhyme with her sing-song vocals plus the chirping electronics, and includes the refrain “let the balloons go outside.” It’s an ambiguous psychedelic image that also captures the band’s approach to making this album.

Haha Sound is a pop music carnival where every song is like a different exhibition that shows the listener something new. There is the cotton candy girl-group inspired “Before We Begin,” the spiky sci-fi rock of “Pendulum,” the warm, affecting shoegaze of the last two tracks, “Winter Now” and “Hawk.” If there was a criticism to be aimed at The Noise Made By People (there wasn’t, but speaking theoretically here), it’s that it was very focused on a specific minimal aesthetic. Haha Sound feels like a reaction to that: it’s Broadcast at their most maximalist, and the joy comes from hearing the band explore every possible texture and sound they can come up with while still combining all of that weirdness with timeless pop songwriting.

This would be the last Broadcast album before it reduced to a duo of Keenan and James Cargill, probably because it used up every idea they had for the full band. Neil Bullock’s drumming is worth singling out because the rhythms on this album are really creative and make every song on Haha Sound feel distinct. “Man is Not a Bird” is his best showcase; its dense sound and the textures he provides make it a significant departure from TNMBP while maintaining all of the band’s strengths.

Keenan sits at the center of these kaleidoscopic pop fantasies, observing the strange world around her with a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it’s Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz, or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, there is something about the concept of the ordinary woman in a fantasy land that resonates, and she inhabits that role on Haha Sound perfectly. She adds such relatability to the band’s psychedelic sounds and visuals, like on “Ominous Cloud,” where the titular image is used to convey trying to overcome self-doubt and procrastination like all of us do.

While I’ve always loved Haha Sound, it didn’t emotionally connect with me as much as Broadcast’s other music until I started listening to it repeatedly in the last few weeks. Lately, I’ve been more into music that can take me back to my old balloon-loving self while still treading new ground, and this album’s unjaded sound appeals to me now more than ever. I’ve also been asking myself what makes this band’s music ageless, and I think it lies in its mix of classic pop songwriting and malleable lyrics, themes, and sounds. No matter where I’m at in life, I’ll be able to find something in Haha Sound that makes me feel and sparks my imagination.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Valerie

Broadcast had a wide range of esoteric influences in many different mediums, but one that comes up over and over again in interviews is the 1970 Czech film Valerie and her Week of Wonders. It’s a surrealist fairy tale about a 13-year old named Valerie who is becoming a woman. She has magical earrings which lead to a bizarre and frightening story involving a creepy priest, her vampire grandma, a polecat, and a boy who loves her and may or may not be her brother. The film raises many interesting questions like “what is this,” “what am I watching” and “isn’t that guy dead.”

Regardless of the actual quality of the film, it’s easy to see why it inspired Trish Keenan. Broadcast’s music always had a fairy tale feeling with Keenan’s voice playing the Valerie role of innocence amid the strange electronic fantasies they created. A lot of the imagery in Valerie and her Week of Wonders is the type of uncanny beauty that was Broadcast’s trademark. Another direct influence is Lubos Fiser’s lush soundtrack, which at times feels like a precursor to Broadcast’s sound.

After the smooth elegance of The Noise Made By People, Broadcast leaned further into the Valerie inspiration on Haha Sound, marking a departure for the band which would be typical from record to record. The space of TNMBP is replaced with tons of texture in the form of diverse percussion sounds, buzzing electronics, and other clatter. It puts Keenan in the center of a musical fantasy that is reminiscent of the film’s surreal imagery. They don’t exactly hide this: one song is called “Valerie” and borrows the melody from Fiser’s soundtrack while Keenan sings about the magical earrings.

“Valerie” stands out as one of the prettiest songs in Broadcast’s discography with its gentle strumming and Keenan’s innocent performance of Fiser’s melody. It also is a testament to how good they were at repurposing art that inspired them into music that fit their own sound. I loved this song before I even knew what Valerie and her Week of Wonders was, and I never even watched the movie until a few days ago. Understanding where some of this band’s ideas came from adds a layer of appreciation to it, but isn’t necessary at all.

I suspect the band would quite enjoy that I ended up watching the movie because of their music. Part of Broadcast’s charm was that they came off as so enthusiastic about their influences, and they used their music to try to get listeners interested in art they felt was meaningful. What I’m still discovering in their music now are little reference points that I never recognized as someone who hasn’t ventured into a lot of the areas Keenan was obsessed with. They function almost as easter eggs that make the band into cool friends that turn you onto stuff you wouldn’t have found on your own.

The sincerity of their love for Valerie and her Week of Wonders is why the band borrowing the melody for “Valerie” feels like such a thoughtful homage when in other hands it could have been perceived as an act of theft. It’s the band resurrecting this old, forgotten piece of art and bringing it into conversation with the present and the future. The term “retro-futurism” kind of sounds like music writer babble, but “Valerie” is a direct example of it, where the past, present, and future all collide in one song. The rest of Haha Sound finds similar joy in linking different eras in a way that Broadcast did better than everyone else.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: TNMBP

“Look Outside,” the ninth track on The Noise Made By People, only has two lines of lyrics: “I look outside and wherever I go you are there. You color in the every day wherever I go.” The rest of the song is instrumental, with a keyboard, a light guitar part, and splashing cymbals joined by Trish Keenan’s wordless voice that blends into the sound. It’s constructed in a way to make the listener ponder those simple words and what they might mean. It could just be a love song, but it also describes one of the core principles behind Broadcast’s music: the idea of psychedelia as a way to elevate the ordinary.

That theme is conveyed on this album through music that is consciously accessible and basic on the surface. Especially compared to their future releases, nothing that happens here is too complicated and the songs tend to stick to familiar pop structures. The lyrics in particular are written in a very elementary vocabulary with a lot of one-syllable words. The opening track,”Long was the Year,” introduces the band’s strategic use of brevity with lyrics like “be like the sun/never gone” and “sleep long and fast/let the past be the past.” This approach to language emphasizes the sing-songy qualities of Keenan’s voice while also being much more psychedelic and thought-provoking than many bands that write overly complex lyrics.

Keenan understood that the best art is the type that goes “off the page” and isn’t easily explained. The brief lyrics on The Noise Made By People are like sketches that hint at certain emotions or feelings, but are left to be fully colored in by the listener. This sort of ambiguity is a gift: it allows people to project themselves onto the music and to find their own way through the space that the band creates. It’s the key to why this is one of the most enduring albums I listen to and why I consider it a classic.

In an interview with Wired (which I’ll be using a lot because it has so many good Trish quotes), Keenan outlined how she views psychedelia as “a door through to another way of thinking about sound and song. Not a world only reachable by hallucinogens but obtainable by questioning what we think is real and right, by challenging the conventions of form and temper.” And that seems to be a particular focus on this album, which I usually describe in oxymoronic terms. It’s electronic but deeply human, it’s simple and yet so complex, and it sounds like the past and the future at the same time.

It made me reconsider certain preconceptions that I had about psychedelic music. I always assumed it meant there would be 10-minute songs that used words like “cosmotronic.” Broadcast proved that a whole world could be opened up through three-minute pop songs. It inspired me as a writer, the way the band sounded so smart and communicated such complex ideas through simple, unpretentious language — that’s something I aspire to. It made me appreciate electronic music, which I had previously written off almost entirely because I didn’t think I could connect to it like I did with this.

I already wrote about “Come On Let’s Go” and “Echo’s Answer,” which are the two opposite ends of the spectrum on this album. The rest of the songs occupy a space in between those extremes, combining beguiling pop and gentle psychedelia. It’s a style that usually gets labeled as “dream pop,” but Broadcast’s music is more about conscious thought than dreaming. The Noise Made By People tingles the brain in a way that few albums do — it’s a joy to listen to because of its songwriting and can be pondered for eternity without being completely solved.

Thus far I’ve been snubbing Trish Keenan’s bandmates (James Cargill, Roj Stevens, Tim Felton, Steve Perkins), but they shine on this album, especially given that surprisingly little of it features her voice. That outro on “Look Outside” is their best moment, but they also play a trio of instrumentals (“Minus One,” “Tower of Our Tuning,” and the finale “Dead the Long Year”) that add some pacing and texture to the album. And while Keenan’s voice and delivery has natural psychedelic qualities, a lot of that comes out in the retro-futuristic sound, which was inspired by eerie 60s groups but still feels like something no one else has caught up to.

“Unchanging Window” is one of the other songs on this album that is definitively Broadcast. It has that vague intangible quality that “Echo’s Answer” does while also being catchy in its own way with another memorable instrumental outro. The titular window goes back to the motif on “Look Outside” that runs through this album: the idea of seeing and thinking differently through music. The window doesn’t change, but what you perceive through it does.

Poppy songs like “City in Progress” and “Papercuts” contribute to making this Broadcast’s most accessible album. That is often said in a snobbish and dismissive way, but the elegance and listenability of The Noise Made By People strengthen its themes and make it an album that will endure forever, as long as people get the chance to hear it. Anyone who finds it will get the ultimate musical experience: an album that opens your eyes and makes you see the world differently.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: It’s Hard to Tell Who is Real in Here

Let’s face it: a lot of musicians sound like assholes. Music as a medium lends itself to mopey whining or egotistical displays of bravura and skill. Think of any breakup song ever written or any long guitar solo. This isn’t even necessarily a criticism, because it’s sometimes fun to listen to and I like my share of socially maladjusted artists. But I’ve also found in recent years that I really like it when musicians sound nice, even though that’s often associated with being boring.

That might all spring from “Come On Let’s Go,” which is the first Broadcast song I loved and Trish Keenan’s most endearing performance — one that shows how a single song can totally color your perception of a performer. It’s about a nearly taboo topic in music: being a kind, caring, generous person.

This is the second single off The Noise Made By People, and it’s quite a contrast to “Echo’s Answer.” While that song is inscrutable and bewildering, “Come On Let’s Go” is immediate. It’s the purest pop song the band ever made and it was easy for me to embrace the bouncy sound, Trish’s warm voice, and the straight-forward, relatable lyrics. The positioning of these songs as the first two singles that appear consecutively on the album has linked them together in my mind, and I believe it was a conscious strategy by the band.

Part of it is showing the range of the band in two songs, a way of saying “look what we can do” to the listener. They can make a perfect, catchy pop song, then follow it up with something strange and baffling that barely resembles a song at all. Functionally, “Come On Let’s Go” also serves as a gateway into Broadcast’s music. As a less experienced listener, this is the song I gravitated towards because it was so simple and got stuck in my head, and my love for it helped me get into all of their other songs like “Echo’s Answer.”

Once I got into those songs, there was a period where I didn’t listen to “Come On Let’s Go” much, and I’m ashamed to admit at times I felt like I’d “moved on” from it. Now I’ve come full circle as I’ve gained an appreciation the craft of a pop song, especially one that holds up as well as this one after almost 20 years. In fact, some of its lyrics might resonate now more than they did when the song was originally written.

No lyrics describe life in the social media age as well as “it’s hard to tell who is real in here” and “what’s the point in wasting time on people that you’ll never know.” Now more than ever, it’s really easy to get caught up in what other people think and to spend tons of mental energy endearing yourself to strangers who don’t actually care about you. Whenever I find myself doing that, this song echoes in my mind. It’s like a gentle pep talk from Keenan to stop being so stupid.

It’s not like these lyrics are revolutionary concepts, but there is something about Keenan’s delivery and the warm sound that makes them feel that way. She is just so matter-of-fact and sincere about it: “yeah, I’ll be your friend forever and I’ll always be here.” That is one of the deepest, most human feelings there is, and there aren’t as many songs about it as I feel like there should be. And this really shapes my perception of Keenan, who comes across in her music as such a caring, genuine person, which forms a contrast with so many other artists. “Come On Let’s Go” is one of the songs that separates Broadcast from other electronic/psychedelic bands who twiddle on their instruments but don’t make that human connection.

The ironic part of “what’s the point in wasting time on people that you’ll never know” is that it can apply so easily to the artists we listen to and obsess over. A lot of loving music is forming that one-sided connection with an artist, where they mean the world to you and have no idea who you are. I didn’t know Trish Keenan, and she wasn’t a very public person, but through songs like this I feel like I did. She felt real and I never sensed an ounce of pretension or acting in her music. If this isn’t who she really was, then she was an even more incredible and convincing performer than I realized.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: The Impossible Song

Sometimes I hear a song and instantly think it’s amazing and everyone needs to hear it this instant and it’s an absolute crime, a travesty that this song isn’t getting showered with praise. Then I listen to it like five or ten more times and realize that actually it isn’t that great and I should probably chill out with the knee-jerk reactions. Other times, I love a song for awhile and then it kind of fades away, and when (if) I go back to listen to it, I still like it, but I don’t remember why I loved it. And even with most of my long-term favorite songs, my enthusiasm for them is often slowly decaying each time I listen to it as I run out of new things to discover in them.

“Echo’s Answer,” which Broadcast released as a single in 1999 and then included on their first full-length, The Noise Made By People, defies that typical life cycle. It might be the only song I’ve heard where I feel like I love it more every time I listen to it, and I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great story of when I first heard it and like, time stopped and I just looked out the window for eight straight hours listening to it on repeat because I could feel my entire life changing forever. I just remember gradually going from liking it to loving it to now where I hear it and think “HOW DID THEY DO THIS. HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN.”

No experience could be more emblematic of Broadcast. Their music doesn’t necessarily make the greatest first impression, but it always lingers in your memory and never ages. What sounds simple on the surface becomes more complex and inscrutable with every listen. There’s never that moment where it’s “solved” and it’s time to move on. It reverberates forever, like an echo that gets answered infinite times.

What remains remarkable about this song is just how little is going on in it.   There’s no chorus, no hook, just that lonely keyboard part, a ton of space, and Keenan’s sighing vocals. I always think it’s more like a musical painting: the sound is not about telling a story with a clear meaning, but about creating a moment or an image. I picture Keenan standing on a mountain, whispering her words into the wind and hoping for an answer. Sometimes it feels lonely, other times it’s warm and soothing because of the calm sound and her voice. Either way, it’s always beautiful and bewildering.

The placidness of “Echo’s Answer” is audacious, maybe even defiant. It’s so the opposite of what many people expect from music, which is that feeling of getting instantly swept off their feet by a song like they’re a character in Garden State. I cynically wonder if a song like this would ever really find its audience in today’s music landscape, which is so based on virality and getting that instant reaction that feeds algorithms. Subtlety and sophistication are skills that are rarely rewarded with popularity, especially now, but they make songs like this last forever.

I’m not here to rank Broadcast’s songs and albums against each other, which feels like a pretty pointless exercise. But I do think of “Echo’s Answer” as their most defining song as well as their clear creative breakthrough. Anyone who wrote them off as being just a kitschy throwback act after their first singles had to feel like a big idiot when they came out with this. It obliterated any comparisons people had made to other contemporary bands and really put Broadcast into a world of their own, one they explored with so much artistry and depth over the next several years.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Before We Begin

When I named this blog “The Noise Made By People,” I didn’t really think about how big of a gamble it was to name it after one of my favorite albums. After all, there is a lot of music I listened to back then that I don’t even really like anymore, and some that is downright embarrassing. But over the years, as so many artists have come and gone, the music of Broadcast has remained the one constant of my music fandom. I didn’t even process it as a risk because some part of me knew that would be the case.

All of music is so subjective, and I’ve learned it’s not really worth trying to convince people to care about anything that really matters to you. But I’m still motivated to write by some sense of justice — the feeling that some artists simply deserve a chance to be heard, or credit for doing something great that hasn’t been given to them. A lot of that motivation came from loving Broadcast so much and feeling like any amount of effort would be worth it if I could get one more person to experience this band.

Despite my love for them, I haven’t really written at length about Broadcast, at least not since the beginning days of the blog. I’m motivated now out of fear that their music could completely disappear from the consciousness. Trish Keenan’s tragic death means there won’t be a trendy reunion tour where everyone looks back on their music, and other writers have become so obsessed with newness that there is no incentive for them to look back at a band like Broadcast. I don’t think they’re going to be included in the canon of their time, even though I don’t believe there was a better band during their existence.

Maybe that’s overstating things, and I’ll admit it’s hard to separate my more objective evaluation of the band with what they mean to me personally. The truth is, I never felt like someone who was necessarily predisposed to like psychedelic music. Drugs terrify me and I’ve never done them, I don’t really care for a lot of the hippie stuff that has often gone hand-in-hand with it, and even now I rarely feel like I fit in with that segment of music fans. A lot of the credit (or blame) for my taste goes to this band, because their whole discography functions as an argument in favor of psychedelia as a form of escape and a way to expand the mind.

And Keenan was the perfect guide for a psychedelia newbie. Their music always makes me think of Alice in Wonderland, with Keenan being this ordinary woman who is thrust into a strange universe that she needs to make sense of. She was an incredible singer, but in part because she didn’t show off with big notes or consciously mind-blowing lyrics. She was just very human and there was a sincerity in everything she did, and when it was combined with their often strange retro-futuristic music, it was magic.

What I find most satisfying about looking at Broadcast’s music in order is how they didn’t follow the dispiriting path so many artists take, where they start out being super exciting and show tons of promise, then gradually recede towards bland normalcy in an effort to appeal to more and more people. They started out in a place that was kind of ordinary, then with every record they built on their sound, explored new areas, and took their dedicated listeners with them on a journey. The end result is what I would consider the most rewarding music I’ve listened to, and it’s why I always use this band as an example of doing things the right way.

Their first singles were released in the mid-90s and compiled on 1997’s Work and Non-Work, which as I mentioned before, isn’t the type of debut that really blows you away and makes you certain that the band is destined for greatness. And reading really deep between the lines, I don’t get the sense that the band was ever incredibly proud of these early songs. It’s really good music, but it doesn’t quite feel like Broadcast, or at least not what they would become.

I don’t have a time machine, but I speculate that part of the issue was timing: these songs were released when this type of loungy downtempo electronic music was at the height of its popularity. In particular, the band was burdened by comparisons to Stereolab and perceived as kitschy and nostalgic. This wasn’t helped by the inclusion of “The Book Lovers” on the Austin Powers soundtrack, which is still very weird to me.

These early songs mostly establish one aspect of the band’s sound, which is their ability to mine the past and create a sense of nostalgia in their music. They were particularly obsessed with the 60s band The United States of America, and on Work and Non Work, it sometimes sounds like they’re emulating that band more than they’re finding their own sound. But in hindsight, it’s also easy to hear some of the seeds for what would make this band so special on their ensuing albums.

While these are their least musically adventurous songs, that makes them a real showcase for Keenan as a relatively traditional singer. The band was still tinkering with their sound and figuring out what worked, but she was captivating from the very beginning. She always struck me as very shy and thoughtful, and it comes through in her singing, which has this humble quality to it. On these songs, she sings with more directness than she would in future releases, but she already had that quiet confidence and human quality that added so much to their music.

Still, the songs on Work and Non Work aren’t the ones I tend to revisit when I go back and listen to Broadcast, even though they’re really quite good. That’s more a testament to the strength of the rest of their music and the way they evolved so naturally than an indictment of these songs. The band took their sweet time following up on these singles, which would become routine for a group that always seemed to think through everything they did and never compromised their art in any way. And on their next single, they found their identity as a band, creating a song that to this day still doesn’t feel like it should have been possible.

#10: Eerie Wanda – “Hum”

I’ve decided to start giving out a Trish Keenan Memorial Trophy for the artist each year who comes closest to emulating the Broadcast singer. This year’s goes to Eerie Wanda frontwoman Marina Tadic, who reminds me of Trish with her gentle psychedelic songs that strike a perfect balance between being charming and weird (or, I suppose, eerie).

Eerie Wanda’s actual sound isn’t much like Broadcast’s; there are no electronics, with songs always built off Tadic’s guitar and some light percussion and bass. The arrangements are simple, meant to showcase Tadic’s vocals while providing a tranquil, daydreamy vibe that evokes the 60s.

Tadic’s voice is the real defining instrument here: it has a warmth and dreaminess to it, but also somehow always sounds off-kilter and distant, which gives Hum its underlying strangeness that makes it stand out from other guitar pop albums this year.