History and indie music: Listen and learn

A new generation of indie artists is taking inspiration from 17th-century witch trials, war-time propaganda and other intriguing corners of British history. By Chris Mugan

Festival-goers rarely expect a history lesson to go with their weekend music marathons and hedonism, though that is what you get from Public Service Broadcasting.

Earlier this year, the London-based duo's debut album, Inform-Educate-Entertain, entered the chart at No 21 with an original fusion of driving guitar rock and commentary taken from vintage films and newsreels. Now they are taking their audio-visual show around the festival circuit, providing contemporary soundtracks to anything from Second World War propaganda to the famous Night Mail film. Unique PSB may be – but they're far from the only indie artists who find inspiration in British history.

A number of musicians have joined the pair in using seminal moments from our nation's past as creative springboards, unearthing a rich resource that adds a new dimension to their writing or opens up subject matter seemingly far removed from the usual romance and social commentary. By referencing civil war, witchcraft trials or global conflict, writers such as Darren Hayman and PSB's self-styled J Willgoose Esq enter territory that used to be occupied solely by the traditional folk brigade.

Previously, the indie scene was best known for bands employing names with anachronistic twists, from British Sea Power and Baltic Fleet to The Strange Death of Liberal England. The first-mentioned have long had a taste for historical references – though PSB's album takes matters to a different level. Oddly, the band's chief writer admits to being a history ignoramus, who only fell for his favoured mid-20th century period while hunting down kitschy samples.

Quotes from stirring war movie The First of the Few about the creation of the Spitfire and starring the anti-Nazi propagandist actor Leslie Howard appear in a track named after the fighter plane. “I was seeking that weight and character of history that you only find on the original material”, says Willgoose. “As we did more gigs and wrote more songs, I wanted to take it more seriously – and as an adult you have that freedom to explore things that actually interest you. I had no idea until we made 'Spitfire' that Goebbels had described Leslie Howard as the most dangerous Briton.”

Despite his donnish bow-ties and jackets, Willgoose denies he is a retro fetishist who wants to “return to a time when everyone was polite to each other”. Instead, he hopes his work has relevance today, as when PSB's The War Room EP came out around the time of the London Olympics: the track “London Can Take It” used an American description of the city's harrowing Blitz experiences. “It was unintended, but there was a lot of negativity about car lanes and it was a way of saying, look, we have faced more serious threats to our existence in the past.”

Elsewhere, artists have made more deliberate choices – and currently the 17th century holds a weird thrall over them. Last year, the Eccentronic Research Council, an outfit based around two musicians and actor Maxine Peake, concocted the 1612 Underture, a largely synth-based work that explored Lancashire's Pendle witch trials through their supposed leader Elizabeth Southern's return today. Also last year, Darren Hayman, founder of indie darlings Hefner, unveiled The Violence, a double album that brought to life similar events in his home county of Essex, along with the impact of the English Civil War.

After immersing himself deeply in the early modern period, Hayman included two folk songs of the time on the album – and he found the original material so engrossing that he has recorded more of them on Bugbears, which features everything from bawdy numbers about errant maids through marching tunes to political satires.

Looking into the county's history, Hayman found the witch trials to be a potent theme that chimed with more familiar subject matter. “People back then thought the world was going to end and it was the worst of all times to live in – just as we did during the riots when I was writing. But I think most ages seem to think like that.”

Now Colchester-raised solo artist Kevin Pearce has based his second album on Essex's infamous Witchfinder General. In Matthew Hopkins and the Wormhole, Pearce, with a keening vocal reminiscent of Cat Stevens, captures the eerie atmosphere of a windswept part of England in the likes of “Tortured By Ghosts”. The songwriter also sees parallels between Hopkins and fanatics today. “People are always willing to jump on that demonising bandwagon or commit horrible acts because of their beliefs,” he says.

Indeed, Pearce's metaphorical ghost-hunting and PSB's use of RP accents may seem worlds apart – yet all these artists use history to ask questions about how we live today.

Darren Hayman's album 'Bugbears' is out now on Fika Recordings. Kevin Pearce's album 'Matthew Hopkins and the Wormhole' is out on 22 July on AWAL

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