Post-Sophomore Bravery: Public Service Broadcasting

J. Willgoose talks coal mining, cultural appropriation, and finding the courage to sing...

How do you follow up a concept album chronicling mankind’s race to the stars and the dawning of humanity’s cosmic existence? Why, you tear your eyes away from the heavens and look down at the ground of course. 2015’s ‘Race For Space’ saw the group – now a trio with live bassist JF Abraham’s upgrade to full member status – apply their unique sample-based compositional approach to the single most important initiative in human history. Their new record ‘Every Valley’, on the other hand, explores a far less grandiose subject that is perhaps no less universal in its thematic scope: the unstoppable rise and subsequent decline of the Welsh mining industry.

“I think if you were to tell someone that we’re going to release an album about the history of coal mining in South Wales, it might not instantly sound like a hit, as interesting a subject as it is,” admits PSB guitarist, keyboardist and all-around mastermind J Willgoose Esq., “So I think you kind of have to make it accessible but retain the integrity and beauty of the story.” The band weren’t short of conceptual suggestions from their online fanbase, which ranged the obvious (The Cold War) to the odd (a history of motorsports). But there was something about the tight geographic focus of this recognisably human story of progress, loss and resilience that drew him to it.

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“It felt like an interesting thing to do and a brave thing to do,” Willgoose explains, “the sort of thing that the bands we like would do, and that’s what we model our entire existence on.” As a band from South London releasing an album exploring the recent, raw history of South Wales, there are no shortage of reasons why sticking to a more uncontroversial and popular historical topic might have been the less foolhardy move. This claim of bravery from a man who looks not unlike an assistant maths teacher is not an exaggeration.

Though Willgoose and co. might expect to get a relative kicking for this from some corners, ‘Every Valley’s style of cultural appropriation isn’t exactly Coldplay ft. Beyonce with ‘Princess Of China’. For one thing the majority of voices telling the story are Welsh, with the classic cut-glass British accents the group tend to employ relegated to the minor roles of newsreaders and false prophets.

Furthermore its title is sourced from a conspicuously Marxist bible passage, Isiah 40:4 (‘Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plane’), and much of the album focuses on the forgotten, discarded and disadvantaged communities left behind by unchecked ‘boom and bust’ economic systems. As Willgoose points out, the devastation that can be left in the wake of progress doesn’t end at the banks of the Severn estuary, “As much as this is a story about South Wales, it’s something that can be extrapolated across the UK and far beyond to communities across the western world”.

It’s not only its politically charged subject matter that makes ‘Every Valley’ Public Service Broadcasting’s bravest album yet. Having perfected a musical formula based on assembling highly kinetic instrumental tracks under old television and radio samples, the band are now disassembling their winning template to incorporate sung verses from artists such as Tracyanne Campbell, James Dean Bradfield and, most courageously of all, Willgoose himself on the gorgeous ‘You And Me’.

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For the first time in the band’s career here is a song that features no samples, just one guitar track (“I always chuck way too many on”) and very little embellishment of any kind, just the previously silent guitarist trading English verses about trust and co-reliance with Lisa Jen Brown’s beautiful Welsh vocals.

“The first half (of the album, which follows the growth of Welsh coal mining, the mass strikes that followed the first pit closures and the subsequent collapse of the previously booming industry) was the easy story to tell with the archives we had,” he says, “But continuing after the strike was a little harder and I thought maybe it would lend itself better to a slightly different approach. So I started thinking about community; the strength of community and the strength of togetherness. That’s where the idea for ‘You and Me’ came about.”

The band started experimenting with sung collaborations on standout ‘Race For Space’ track ‘Valentina’ when it became apparent that the tale of man’s journey out into the unknown rather lacked the voices of women, leading them to invite Smoke Fairies to soundtrack the theme of first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova. “When the subject becomes harder to tell because the archive either doesn’t exist or isn’t quite how you’d like it to be, then you put it into your own words or try to shape it more actively yourself” explains Willgoose, who also applied this approach on a more ambitious scale by taking the voices of the Welsh Male Choir (who finish the album’s emotional roller-coaster ride with uplifting singalong ‘Take Me Home’) and subtly adding them to the majority of these new songs, effectively weaving the rich lyricism of the Welsh voice into the very fabric of the album.

The trailblazers of ‘Race For Space’ obviously inspired a pioneering attitude in the band this time round, as there’s yet another ‘first’ to be added to this album’s growing list. Next week will see them perform it in full in the same Ebbw Vale former workers’ institute they recorded it in, “It will be nice to give people the chance to come into the room where it was actually made, look around the building and capture the feeling we had while we were there” Willgoose enthuses.

For a band who in many ways have more in common with archivists at the British Museum than Led Zeppelin, their willingness to step out into the unknown is at once surprising, refreshing and, for fans and Welsh historians alike, slightly terrifying. “It’s all part of doing things differently and not falling into the same traps, that’s why we decided to do it,” Willgoose reasons, ““It’s probably a brave thing to do, but there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity so we’ll see…”

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'Every Valley' will be released on July 7th. Catch Public Service Broadcasting at Ebbw Vale, Institute on June 8th and 9th.

Words: Josh Gray

For tickets to the latest Public Service Broadcasting shows click HERE.

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