The last time we spoke to Public Service Broadcasting – ahead of their Button Factory show in the summer of 2015 – they were on the cusp of making a substantial breakthrough. The Race For Space album had been out for a few months, warmly received by critics (State included) and finding a new audience who might initially have been a touch, confused by their unique approach to music making. That trajectory would continue over the next year or so, but at the time when we asked J Wilgoose if he had plans for what happened next, he was quite cagey. What was to happen next was the band’s third album Every Valley, an exploration of the mining industry in South Wales through both good and bad times. Now the cat’s out of the bag, we wonder if he actually did have a plan…
“Definitely. I had started the research and I knew where I wanted to go with it. I’d started watching a few BFI titles and reading a few books on tour. It was general background research, I certainly hadn’t started writing any of the music although I may have had a few ideas knocking around. I think the idea for ‘Progress’ was there”.
Thematically, you’re taking a very different direction here. Was that a conscious decision?
“I just wanted to do something a bit different on a number of levels and not fall into a predictable trap of doing ever more massive and epic projects. This is telling a different version of the same story I guess and it struck me that we were focusing on something that was on the surface a lot less glamorous and would be a much harder sell as an idea. It’s as instantly appealing commercially than the space race. How do you make an album about a potentially complex subject and make it engaging? That appealed to me at a basic level but I also wanted to do something a bit more human. I think a lot of the people we’ve focused on have been almost superhuman in retrospect, they have this otherworldly aura, and I wanted to do something more everyday really that listeners could identify with on a fundamentally human level”.
Do you see connections between the two stories?
“Our previous output has been focused on human progress and this is still about that but is more about what happens when that progress leads to extraordinary negative side effects for the communities who get left by the wayside. It seemed like an interesting way to take a bit of a left turn and do something different”.
With this one though, there’s no positive ending….
“When James Dean Bradfield and I were working on his track and I was explaining what the final tracks were going to be about. He said that you just can’t get away from that ending, you can’t duck it. We tried to address it head on and use more sparse musical arrangements, that change in sound was quite deliberately done”.
The album starts on a very different note. The Richard Burton sample on the title track seems to paint mining as a glamorous profession…
“I’m not sure if you call it glamorous, the quote from Burton highlights the pride more than anything else that the people in that industry felt. It’s the pride that comes from doing an honest day’s work with your hands. Even that song has a sinister side to it, it’s not saying it was the perfect job more that it gave pride to the community, gave them a purpose. We wanted to show the job in context though as a dangerous, dirty and difficult one. I didn’t want to approach it in a facile way that this was a great industry and now it’s gone, it’s always more complicated than that”.
Were you able to talk to people who’d been involved for this album?
“I didn’t speak to as many people as I would have liked to but it was an important part of it. All sorts of logistical things got in the way, not least touring the last album, but I met with the head of the NUM in South Wales, I met former miners and people who were involved in protests around the strike. It was important to get that personal perspective and also to gauge the attitude of people involved to someone coming in from that evil London and not ever being part of it. The reaction was overwhelmingly one of encouragement that we were bringing attention to this subject”.
There are a couple of obvious voices missing from the record, given part of the story?
“It’s about the human cost more than the key players. I didn’t want to put Margaret Thatcher’s voice on it, partly because I don’t want to listen to her every time we play live, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to use Arthur Scargill with either because I think this conflict would have come regardless of who was in charge at the time. I wanted to focus on the story of the community which in a way makes it a more effective argument because you’re not over politicising it. The album is quietly political in its own way but it’s not pushing a left wing cause, it’s an open interpretation of the events. The sympathy for the miners is definitely there though”.
Did you want to avoid taking a definite standpoint?
“The most satisfying pieces of art, film or music are the ones that are happy to leave some ambiguity in there because they trust you to find your own way through it. Even stuff like The Wire has complex storylines that leave you to form your own judgements. I like that kind of openness in any creative endeavour, you owe your audience that kind of trust”.
And we have to ask again, what’s next?
“I am thinking of a few things but I don’t really know. We’ve had a fairly accelerated three album period so it might be nice to take the foot off the pedal and have a serious think about what is next and when. I have a few ideas definitely, one strong one that’s in the lead”.
Are you feeling more secure about the band’s position following the success of the past two albums?
“Just being played on the radio exceeded my expectations but The Race For Space put a foot firmly down for us, showing that there was more to this than people might have thought from the first album. This record hopefully is the other foot, solidifying our position and meaning we can afford to relax a little bit. It does feel like a bit of a scrap when you’re coming up and trying to get people to notice you and take you seriously. The one strong idea feels like an awful lot of work at the moment”.
How modern would you take it?
“You could go all the way to the modern day. I have three albums mapped out that go to at least the mid-00s but we’ll always be at least ten years behind when we get around to making them…”
Every Valley is out now. Public Service Broadcasting play Body & Soul at the Electric Picnic and return in 2018 for shows at Dublin Academy (Jan 24th) and Belfast Limelight (Jan 25th)