Commercial success doesn’t seem to have changed the pseudonymous J.Wilgoose Esq. Unless of course his excuse of not picking up his phone straight away as he was ‘carrying a cup of tea into the studio’ is shorthand for some rock’n’roll excess I’m unfamiliar with.
The relatively reticent yet amiable, Public Service Broadcasting frontman is heading towards the July 7th release of the band’s third LP, Every Valley, a (whisper it) concept album set against a backdrop of industrial decline and neglected, abandoned communities across the western world.
Every Valley centres on the plight of the mining community in South West Wales, but aims far wider. As the band put it, ‘In the current climate of cynical, populist politics, the tales told on the album feel more pertinent and affecting than ever. Every Valley is a powerful riposte in an age of apathy’.
The band’s first release on independent label Play It Again Sam is about community and what happens when an area’s lifeblood is ripped away, its theme a metaphor for a much larger, global, social malaise. It’s a story of dignity and social responsibility, ‘transposing the story of the South Wales miners into a 21st Century of ‘fake news’, populist politics and a total disregard for the voiceless’.
The track-to-track thread of the record takes us from a golden age when miners were ‘kings of the underworld’, via mechanisation, automation and the march of ‘progress’ to the downward spiral of the industry – to closures, the all-out conflict of the miners’ strike and its sad, lingering aftermath.
As JW (him with the bowtie in the publicity shots) puts it in on his blog, “I have no personal ties to mining, coal or otherwise, and no family links to the area, but something about the story drew me in. This is an album about community as much as it is about mining; it’s the story of an entire region centred around one industry, and what happens when that industry dies.
“Perhaps something about the romanticism of the valleys and their geography drew me in particular, perhaps it was their solidity during the strike of 1984-5. What’s certain is that this album isn’t just about mining, and isn’t just about Wales. It’s a story reflected in abandoned and neglected communities across the western world, one which led to the resurgence of a particularly malignant, cynical and calculating brand of politics.”
PSB have built something of a reputation in recent years for weaving forensic, historical research into evocative sonic storytelling, Every Valley following revered 2013 debut album Inform – Educate – Entertain and similarly-splendid 2015 follow-up The Race For Space, the latter peaking in the UK charts at No.11, going on to achieve ‘silver’ status.
The night before I spoke to JW, I saw for the first time the promo video for introductory single Progress, the band’s ‘playful look at a serious and pertinent topic, mechanisation, and its true place in the progress of humanity’. Inspired by 1960s’ Cold War films and filmed in a jet engine testing facility in Suffolk, there’s something of a nod to fellow innovators Kraftwerk there too, wouldn’t you say, J?
“I think so. I’m not the biggest fan but have enormous respect for them. And if you’re making a song about automation …”
Was it fun to make?
“Well, when they said, ‘Be as wooden and emotionless as possible’ I don’t think they knew that was our forte. I thought, ‘Finally, a direction I can fulfill!’
What perhaps characterises Progress more than anything are the guest vocals by Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell. Funnily enough, her band had been in my head all week after seeing Lloyd Cole at Preston Guild Hall, the gorgeous Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken springing to mind. Is he a long-time fan of the band?
“Yes, they’ve been on my radar for ages, back to around 2006 when somebody played me Let’s Get Out of This Country. I’ve dipped in and out, and listening again thought, ‘Hang on, that’s the voice I’ve been after for about a year!’ I’d been keeping my ears primed, ready to hear this voice in my head. When she started singing, I thought, ‘That’s it!’ I got in touch and said, ‘I’ve got this song and think your voice will be perfect for it’, and she was immediately very receptive.”
Then there’s James Dean Bradfield on Turn No More. Was that a further ‘pinch yourself’ moment for a musician first stopped in his tracks by the Manic Street Preachers as a teenage fan?
“Of course, it would be for so many people. They’re such an incredible band and have been for so long. It kept getting more and more unreal. First, Sean (Moore) spoke very nicely about us in the NME, then we got asked to play with them a couple of times, then again at Swansea last year, when I’d already started thinking about this album.
“So I decided to ask, thinking he can only say ‘No’. Even when he said, ‘Yes’ I thought he was being polite at first. I gave him ample opportunities to tell me ‘No’ for real, but he kept answering the phone!”
Did he feel self-conscious explaining the concept? After all, in lesser hands it could be viewed as a rather patronising project – these geeky Londoners telling the world about industrial decline in South Wales.
“I didn’t actually get a great deal of time to talk to him. We were backstage together just briefly. I collared him on the way back from watching the Super Furry Animals. I briefly told him what the album was about and as they’re such a fiercely intelligent band I was a little worried that fierceness might come out.
“But much like the rest of the people from that area we spoke to, worked with or had any dealing with, there was nothing but tacit support or beyond that, actual encouragement. I thought we might get a slightly reserved feeling that ‘we can’t talk to you about this’, but I don’t think that exists there. I’m not sure that’s in their make-up. They made us very welcome.”
Last time we spoke, for the Race for Space album, I asked what PSB had planned next, and JW told me he already had something in mind. Was this that idea?
“Yes, there was never really anything else that was a serious contender this time.”
So when we were wondering where they were heading next after reaching the heavens, we probably could have guessed ‘down’, yet not actually below us.
“I guess. I wanted to do something a bit more focused, or with a tighter focus. And I think we’ve definitely done that.”
At the time I was pondering whether it would be something Empire Windrush-related, tackling immigration to the UK from the 1950s onwards, starting with a part-ska, part-calypso soundtrack. I was clearly way off the mark though.
“Yeah, I’m not sure. It would be really good to play calypso properly. They’re great musicians.”
That said, when the makers of the Paddington film used Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place For Me I had the feeling you’d missed the boat, so to speak.
“I love that whole series by Honest Jon’s Records, and think I have all of them. That’s some of my favourite music in the world. I don’t feel qualified enough, but never say never. I wouldn’t have said we’d be making an album about South Wales mining either!”
“I tend to write quite tightly. It’s quite focused, but there are times when I start with a definite idea and I’m convinced that’s the way to go, but in a couple of cases that changed totally. The more you do this kind of thing and the more experienced you get at taking decisions when you’re writing, the more you learn not to be too precious about anything. Just listen to what sounds best. Don’t let your ego or preconceived ideas get in the way.”
Guests on the new LP also include local strings players, Abergavenny’s Beaufort Male Choir, PSB’s own brass section, and emerging acts Haiku Salut and Lisa Jên Brown of 9Bach.
Tell me more about Haiku Salut, who feature on They Gave Me A Lamp.
That’s a band I kind of stumbled across on the internet, as is my wont. I had this idea for the song we ended up working on, how I wanted it to sound and the instrumentation, and again wanted to work with female singers, as it’s a song about women’s support groups.
“As with Tracyanne, I was keeping an ear out for the right sound, then heard this song, Hearts not Parts, and realised that was exactly what I was after. I got in touch and we hit it off. They were great to work with, and very straight-forward.”
How about 9Bach’s Lisa Jên Brown, who features on You + Me?
“I heard her on Guy Garvey’s radio show, and thought, ‘Wow’. Such a rich, very pure voice, perfect for the song I had in mind. As with choosing a guitar for the sound you need, it was the same with the voices, deciding who to cast, and for which songs.
“She was a natural for the one she ended up on, and although we did three or four takes, we didn’t need to. We had it after one really! She was amazing. It’s a very personal song and she did it a lot of justice. “
It’s a bit late now, but as a fellow lover of archive documentaries, I love 1950s’ short film A Letter for Wales, following homesick Welsh actor Donald Houston as he posts a letter late at night at a London railway station, looking proudly back at many aspects of Donald’s homeland, not least industrial progress.
“Ah yes. I’ve seen that!”
It seems to fit the general theme, but I’m guessing the story you tell is more specific.
“Yeah, it’s an over-used term, especially in music, but it’s quite a journey, starting from a very rich, prideful, positive, optimistic position, but even with those songs the audience knows what’s coming. It becomes darkly ironic in a few places. It’s an interesting story but there’s no getting away from the fact that it has a sad ending. I guess ultimately the album is more about loss than anything we’ve done before.”
You also seem to be sending out a message about the way society is heading though, extolling the importance of community values over corporate greed. Do you think we’ve lost sight of those core ideals?
“The aspect of community came into it because of how solid the South Wales community was during the Miners’ Strike, compared to other areas of the country. But if there’s a message, it’s not so much about a need to go back to a better time as much as being about what happened to those communities and where it’s landed us now.
“How have we got from thriving valleys and industrial towns to those same places being so bereft of hope and ambition? Ebbw Vale, where we recorded the album, was one of the strongest areas of the country voting to leave the EU, even though they’re also among the highest recipients of EU funding. It’s all tied to this demise of the industry, the way they were treated at the time, and lack of opportunities there have been in the interim.”
In fact, PSB are set for two shows at the Ebbw Vale Institute a month ahead of the release of the album (Thursday, June 8th and Friday, June 9th), having used the venue’s former lecture hall to record the LP back in January.
Talking of the recording process, the band say they were aiming for an earthy, full sound, in keeping perhaps with the underground nature of the concept, while carrying some of the lilt and lyricism of the language. Or is this just an excuse to write something in which you can incorporate a stirring Welsh male voice choir and Richard Burton’s evocative voice?
The band also conducted interviews with ex-miners and their families as part of the project. Will they be passing them on to the British Film Institute, having admitted a certain amount of ‘plundering the BFI’s back catalogue’ in recent years?
“I’m not sure they’d be up to their standards, really! One snippet did make it on to the record though. But it’s still such a raw topic for so many people and so tightly focused that it felt wrong to just stay in a tiny bubble and not actually meet people involved directly.
“Interviewing people is definitely not one of my strengths, but it was a good thing to have done for this record, to meet people involved and hear it through their words, without a filter.”
I mentioned my love of archive travel and social history documentary films, with PSB clearly sharing that love and marrying it to great tunes. A few bands out there have taken a similar visual approach to their own recordings and live performances in recent times, not least British Sea Power and King Creosote for BBC 4 commissioned projects, and friends of this site, The Magnetic North. Has this approach to making music become something of a sub-genre?
“I don’t know. I think we sit apart from some of that in the way the content is so tightly wedded to what we do. We’ve taken bits from all sorts of bands, with British Sea Power definitely one of our inspirations. I can’t really speak as to if there’s a specific movement though. I feel very separate. We’re in our own little world.”
As a unit, PSB certainly seem to have branched out from the core of JW (guitar, banjo, other stringed instruments, sampling and electronic instruments) and Wrigglesworth (drums, piano, electronic instruments), the format I first witnessed at Preston’s 53 Degrees four years ago. By the time of May 2015’s visit to the Ritz in Manchester there was also Mr B (visuals) and JF Abraham (brass). So will that line-up expand again for the album tour that follows those initial Every Valley dates?
“I don’t see any further extensions for the moment. We might take a few more musicians if we can fit them on the bus, but it’s full at the moment! The idea is to scale up to play with as many musicians as practically possible, financially and logistically. Between the three of us and Mr B on the visuals we’re pretty good at covering most things now, because of the way we layer things and each of us can do a multitude of things at the same time.”
Incidentally, are you still in touch with that 2015 tour’s guests, Jessica and Katherine of Smoke Fairies?
“Yes, they’ve played with us a few times and appeared on the last album, and were at the Brixton show we recorded and released, and the Royal Albert Hall show we did in October. I certainly hope that wasn’t the last time we play together. They’re lovely people and it’s a pleasure working with them. They have an interesting edge to them.”
As for Public Service Broadcasting – not bad for a ‘band’ that started as just J, playing the Selkirk pub in Tooting, South London, barely seven years ago. To use the sporting cliche, has it all sunk in yet?
“It has and it hasn’t! It’s strange how quickly you get used to anything really. Luckily, I’m quite good at giving myself the proverbial slap round the face and not taking this for granted. It’s such a privilege to make music for a living. It far surpassed any of my wildest hopes. Everything we now do can be a bonus really, because Brixton was the Holy Grail and it’s come and gone. So what do you do when you’ve fulfilled your ultimate dream?”
Erm … you head to Ebbw Vale, I guess.
“Well, I did start thinking why we were doing this, and what we were going to get out of this. It’s about not changing things for the wrong reasons, trying to make an interesting piece of work and do something that challenges us and hopefully challenges and entertains those who end up listening.”
For this site’s February 2015 feature/interview with Public Service Broadcasting’s J Willgoose Esq., head here. You can also seek out writewyattuk‘s lowdown on Inform-Educate-Entertain, The Race For Space, and PSB live at 53 Degrees in 2013 and the Ritz, Manchester in 2015.
Meanwhile, for further information, background and insight on Every Valley, head over to J. Willgoose, Esq.’s blog. To check out the video to Progress, pre-order the new LP and find out details of where the band are heading this summer – with dates in Glasgow, Zagreb, Hull, Liverpool, Birmingham, Guildford, Talaton and Portmeirion already lined up – try the band’s official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.