Coal, Brexit & Tea Towels: An Interview with Public Service Broadcasting

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By Jack

PSB struck a cultural nerve with The Race for Space, an instrumental rock album which used samples to re-tell history. Their follow up Every Valley narrowed their focus to the plight of Welsh coal. It was a left-field decision from a left-field band, and I sat down with frontman J.Willgoose, Esq. to discuss their latest album, inspiration and touring.

HN:  You once said of your forthcoming album “I think it’s going to be an interesting development for us”. Every Valley is certainly that…

JW: “We wanted to move away from what came before. We didn’t want to become one of those bands that repeats themselves and gets predictable. It would have been very easy to pick another engineering or technical topic. We wanted to use our voice. There were more pragmatic explanations – the BFI had a load of footage of coal board films. The unpredictability appealed to me.”

HN: Every Valley has a totally new set of sounds. How did you decide on the instruments you wanted to capture this story?

JW: “You don’t always decide – I can already hear what the next album will sound like. You get an idea for the character it has. Deciding to record the whole thing on tape was a big part of it (TRFS was all digital). It makes it seem more ‘real’ – that’s a really wafty term to use. James Campbell did a great job mixing it too.”

HN: When this album opens it sounds like a Western. 

JW: “It is a bit ‘There Will Be Blood’ isn’t it…a bit…(imitates a droning sound). It’s quite a dramatic opening.”

HN: ‘The Pit’ feels like the reverse of ‘Sputnik’. With that track you got that sense of ascension, whereas here it’s a feeling of descending into this clanking, frightening machine.

JW: “It is supposed to be imposing, and frightening in a way. I think people fall into a trap saying the album romanticises mining in some way, that whole track is supposed to show you what the job was like and how dangerous it was and how dirty it was, working in a 3 foot 6 space – you can’t even kneel in that.

It’s directly suggested by the bass trombones and the double bass – it’s really mean sounding.”

HN: ‘Progress’ is the most upbeat track on the album but arrives at a time in the track-list, or story, when things are about to get really bad. Was that a difficult song to sequence?

JW: “It was always going to be on side one. It works on at least two levels. Superficially it fits with our previous output – focusing on things that have driven the human race forward and having a more optimistic outlook. But when you place it in the context of the album it does change the meaning of it. You start thinking ‘What is progress and what does it mean for the people in this story?’ because they are about to be discarded.”

HN: So you knew from the start how Every Valley would be sequenced?

JW: “Yeah it’s like writing a book, I don’t know how you would go through a book without knowing how it ends.”

HN: ‘You + Me’ is my favourite song – was it important to have spoken Welsh on the album?

JW: “It was important but then also might be one of the least accurate things we’ve done, it wasn’t a language that was widely spoken and you still don’t hear it a great deal down in the valleys. But I didn’t want to be another English band to well, denigrate the Welsh language! So it felt important to put it on there. It felt right”

HN:  And you actually sing on this one!

JW: “Yeah…that didn’t feel right! Someone else was supposed to sing it but I think he got too engrossed in his own work. I had this mini epiphany, and thought since Lisa (Lisa Jên Brown, who duets on the track) is so amazing she could carry anyone, so maybe I should just do it.

And actually I was talking to a mate of mine whose produced a few albums, and he said the fragility of me not being (laughs) a good singer at all, contrasts her being extraordinary. It works with the emotion of the song.

It was imagining what it must have been like living in a house with these massive forces weighing down on you – and thinking as long as you hold onto each other then they can’t win. There was some personal stuff that informed that song too. I think it’s my favourite song on the album and that is despite me singing on it.”

HN: I’m curious how the music is received internationally. Culture is so relative, is there a language barrier?

JW: “I guess it is a bit odd, but you also need to remember that music is the biggest cross-language way to jump barriers. It can communicate so much that words cant. There are all kinds of resonances and connections that you have no idea what people are able to take from your music. And I think the album does allow people to find their own way with it.”

HN: What’s with the tea towels?

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JW: “I think we just knicked it off British Sea Power. Around the first album we were talking about what merch should we do. I think I had a dream and woke up thinking ‘gotta do tea towels with the shipping forecast on them‘.”

HN: That must have been an amazing dream though.

JW: “It was quite perfunctory. I think it was like BAM – tea towels – done.”

HN: Tell me about ‘Geoffrey’

JW: “Again that comes from me going to gigs and getting endlessly frustrated by all these people with their phones out. It looks crap – it sounds terrible. Why are you spending all your gig doing that?”

HN: I liked that Every Valley was a narrative rather than a mandate. The listener is left to make up their own mind about how they feel about the story – if they even want to feel any way at all. But is there a lesson to be learned from the album and the story of Welsh coal?

JW: “Yes – too many. It has informed the way the country has gone since the 80s, rampant free-marketeering. If you look at the state we got ourselves into, and the areas that voted to put us into that state, or take us out of the super state….

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It seems to me it is a direct follow on from the 2007-08 financial crash and also from the dismantling of industry. But not just that, in a way that was progress. Moving towards a less industry based economy has been good for a lot of people and certainly improved quality of life. It’s gone up dramatically since the 80s.

But the way it was done and the way the people who had provided the industrial backbone of the country for so long were treated. How they were deliberately targeted and so callously and with so little regard to the collateral damage to those communities. I think that was a disgrace.

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It lead to the disenfranchisement we are seeing now. It left a vacuum for this really ugly form of populism to rear it’s head and try to win votes from these people even though they have no intention of helping them at all. It’s not about helping poor people in the valleys. Leaving the EU is only going to make things worse. It’ll only help people who don’t like regulation and government interference. It’s really tragic.”

HN: It seems the right time to tell this story. I think it’s beginning to re-enter the public conciousness, and people are looking back to that time because now it’s coming back to bite all of us.

JW: “In employment terms, zero hours contracts etc, it’s all because the unions were effectively broken in the 80s and then further broken down the line by subsequent governments. Not just Conservative governments either…

When you look around at the balance of power, the growing gap between rich and poor, it’s all part of that sad legacy.”

PSB are on tour throughout October. Read our review of their show here.

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