Chris Williams speaks with Public Service Broadcasting multi-instrumentalist J. Willgoose, Esq. about their new record Every Valley.
Public Service Broadcasting combine alternative instrumental music with samples from archival audio in their compositions. Their last album, the hugely successful Race for Space, documented the space race between the USA and USSR; while their new album sees them coming back to Earth – deep down in fact. Every Valley is the story of the coal mining industry in south Wales. J. Willgoose, Esq. shows he agrees over the phone from his home London, on his sofa with his dog: “You’ve hit the synopsis on the head, broadly speaking. A fairly broad sweep, taking in the history of mining in south Wales; including the good times – the times when being a miner was a prideful occupation and it was really sort of the engine room of the Valleys and the wider country.
“Then moving through and starting to branch out into mechanisation and automation, starting to face some employment troubles as a result of that and then before you know it into the sort of ‘all out’ conflict of the mid ‘80s, and the eventual decline and death of the industry now.” Willgoose then says that this story of industrial decline is repeated all over, and Every Valley is about all the “communities and places once closely identified with one particular industry and what happens to the people and places that get left behind”.
Although he has no family history of coal mining, something drew the PSB front-man to the story of the Welsh coal mining industry: “I got told off by my mum for saying that because she’s adamant that we do, back a couple of generations… maybe further flung relatives who were in the east Midlands coal fields. I just thought it was an interesting story; something about the strength of the community and the geography of the area – as well as how it came to define those communities and the whole region – just seemed to make sense to home in on. I don’t know if you can compare what we do to making documentaries but sometimes something about a topic just grabs you and makes you want to investigate more and before you know it you’re spending two years of your life working on it.”
Even though the decline of the mining industry was relatively recent, Willgoose found that that didn’t necessarily mean it was easy to research: “I presumed when I went into it that it would be easy to conduct retrospective interviews and slot that in but I didn’t realise the problem we had in terms of tenses – if you’ve got people talking about things in the past tense it removes all the drama from the situations so you really need contemporary accounts from the time so that people are talking about it in the present, urgent tense”.
As well as being drawn to the subject of coal mining, the band have also been drawn to the area – the album was recorded at Ebbw Vale Institute and the band are also playing two gigs of album previews there: “It just seemed important to give [the album] a solid founding in the community it was written in… You’ve got to go into these things with the spirit of engagement and not kind of bringing too many of your own pre-conceived notions, because I know practically nothing about it. [We were] going there with the express intention of finding out more and doing it in an authentic, tangible way rather than just sitting at home in London and not getting out and about.
We’ll be bringing a bit of economic activity there and hopefully a small amount of excitement and attention – there’s some strange stuff happening around [these gigs], the biggest Italian national paper is sending a journalist over to cover and interviewing ex-miners. I don’t think you’d get that if you didn’t have us kind of doing our best to lead the way. I’m hoping it’s seen as a kind of thank you to the community for putting up with us and allowing us to do what we’ve done; I hope they’re happy with the album”.
Public Service Broadcasting, Ebbw Vale Institute, Thurs 8 + Fri 9 June. Tickets: sold out. Info: 014 9570 8022 / www.ebbwvaleinstitute.org; Every Valley, Out Fri 7 July. Info: www.publicservicebroadcasting.net