“It's not necessarily just about the industry, it's more about community...” - hmv.com talks to Public Service Broadcasting
Public Service Broadcasting must rank as one of the most original bands to emerge from British shores in recent years, blending electronica with chiming guitars, hypnotic rhythms and samples from historical archives like the British Film Institute to create a unique soundscape packed with surprisingly infectious hooks.
There's often a conceptual theme running through their work and where their debut album harked back to a wartime era of Spitfires and feats of human endeavour, its follow-up tackled the subject of the race for space and pioneers like Yuri Gagarin, conjuring up what is probably the funkiest song ever written about a cosmonaut.
This week they return with album number three, and this time the subject matter is a little closer to home, with a running theme about the decline of British industry. With Every Valley arriving in stores today, we spoke to Public Sevice Broadcasting's J. Wilgoose, esq. to talk us through the ideas behind the new album, recording in a makeshift studio in the Welsh valleys, and working with Manic Street Preachers' frontman James Dean Bradfield...
So Every Valley is out this week, can you talk us through the concept behind the new album a little bit?
“Yeah, it's very much centred on the region of South Wales and on the industry of coal mining, it kind of tells the story of when mining was a very proud industry, a very successful industry and a very lucrative one – maybe not for the people working down the mines, but in terms of fuelling the economy. So it goes from there up to the present day really - just the other week we had our first coal-free energy generation day in something like 130 years. But it's not necessarily just about the industry, it's more about community and what happens to communities when they're reliant on a particular industry, and that industry just sort of vanishes or is killed off."
When did you first have the idea for this?
“You know, thinking back to these things you can never recall the exact moment, it's not like 'oh, I was sitting in my kitchen on a Wednesday morning when suddenly...' - it never really happens like that. It's such a weird thing, before you know it you're just sort of doing it.”
OK, so what was it about the idea that appealed to you?
“I think I liked the way it was unpredictable, it was a bit of a left turn for us and perhaps not the sort of thing that people might expect us to do next, because I think it's kind of important not to do the obvious or keep repeating yourself, and try and find new and interesting ways of working. So it seemed like a big challenge, asking ourselves how to go about making an album about industrial decline in South Wales and still make that accessible and engaging. Not many people would try and do that kind of thing - maybe for a very good reason! It's just the story I suppose, that's what I find fascinating about it, the way it shapes communities and the way the effects of that are still being felt today."
You also recorded in Ebbw Vale - it's a place that has suffered more than most from the decline you're talking about and I understand you interviewed some of the people there, some of which made it onto the album?
“Yeah, I mean I wouldn't want to overplay or misrepresent that, but I did speak to a handful of miners and I did record some of my own background interviews and stuff.”
How did you approach that, and what kind of response did you get? Did they understand what you were trying to do?
“I went down to the NUM headquarters in Pontypridd, and yeah I did kind of of wonder how a sort of effete South Londoner might be received by people who've been through all this conflict, how they might view somebody coming as an outsider and having the arrogance to assume that it's theirs to write about, you know? So I did worry a bit about how they were going to take to that, but they were very friendly and very supportive, very open with me and very welcoming, and I can't really thank them enough for that.
“But that was the story across the board really, it was the same at the South Wales library and with the estates of the poets whose work we used, the musicians we worked with. You kind of worry about being met with hostility or a sort of closed-ness, but that just didn't seem to be in the make-up of the people we spoke to, which I was very grateful for.”
On songs like 'Progress', the vibe is very much one of hope and optimism – did you get that sense from the people there, that there's hope after the demise of an industry, or was there a bit of a disconnect?
“Well, the thing with that song is that, on the surface, it does kind of fit into our set in terms of believing in progress and the progress of mankind generally, which is what our previous albums have been about, in a way. But in the context of this album it's asking whether it really is progress for the people whose jobs have been lost and who have been kind of swept aside by the relentless march of human progress, so there's a kind of double-edged nature to it.
“It's the same on the song with James Dean Bradfield, even though it's using lines from Gwalia Deserta, which is a very famous poem by Idriss Davies, and even though it kind of speaks of all this strife and the scarring of the countryside, the broken men of the valley and all these kind of things, it does end on a defiant note; 'the things my boyhood cherished stand firm and shall remain'. So I think that air of defiance does run through the album, the sense that life will go on and you just have to kind of dig in for it.”
How did James get involved?
“We've played with them a few times when they've asked us to support them, which in itself is amazing for a Manics obsessive like me, and then when it came to thinking about this album I thought maybe we could ask James to do something on it. We played with him at Swansea, in 2016 I think it was, so I asked him then and he seemed up for it. I thought he was just being polite at first, to be honest, but kept on answering the phone. I gave him more than enough opportunities to back out of it discreetly, but he kept coming back for more, so I'm very grateful for that.”
You've got a few other guests on the album too haven't you? Could you talks us through some of those?
“Yeah, Tracyanne Campbell from Camera Obscura, that was very much about her voice as an instrument. I was looking for a very specific character in a voice to use on that song, which I'd had in my head for a very long time, and I'd kind of initially gone down the road of thinking we should just use Welsh vocalists for everything on the album, but I don't really like being that prescriptive so I ended up opening it out a bit in terms of my own approach. I was just listening to them one day and was blown away by her voice, and I suddenly realised it was what I had been after. So I got in touch through a friend of a friend and she was up for doing it, which was great.
“Haiku Salut I'd stumbled across on the internet and again their sound was the kind of thing I had in my head for a song that I wanted to ask them to play on, so it just seemed kind of obvious. Then with Lisa Jen Brown, I'd heard her voice on Guy Garvey's radio show and instantly thought what a strong and powerful but also still delicate voice she had, so I thought it'd be great to try and use that on something. Amazingly it all worked out, it doesn't always happen that way, but it did.”
So in a musical sense, all lyrical concepts aside, how did you want to build on or move on from what you'd done before?
“Well, I wanted it to sound more organic I suppose. I think it's a much more grown-up subject to be tackling and I wanted the album to have that weight and do some of that lifting for us. We recorded it to tape this time and I was keen to do so because I thought it would make the drums sound a bit better, but I genuinely cannot overstate how much of a difference it made to the sound of the record. As soon as we put the first drum track through it and listened back it was like 'bloody hell, that's what I've been after for the past ten years and there it is, instantly!' It was amazing.”
How did you go about finding a recording space in the valley? Did you have to tool it up a bit with some sound treatment and stuff?
“Yeah, well when we first talked about oping to Wales to record the album there were suggestions from various quarters saying we should go to Rockfield or one of the other big, plush residential studios, but it just wasn't the right feel for the album. We thought it needed something a bit more D.I.Y., and I wanted to record it in the valleys themselves. It was my wife actually who had been doing a bit of research and she found a small recording studio and live room in this building that also has this big live space, and we managed to get all of it for January, so we brought in studio's worth of gear, hired a lot of stuff. Wrigglesworth made a load of acoustic baffles and all of this stuff so we brought all that in, it was very D.I.Y. but it just felt like the right way of doing an album like this."
I understand you're doing a couple of gigs in Ebbw Vale too as a tour warm-up?
“It's not so much of a warm-up exactly, it's in the room that the album was actually recorded in. I can't think of too many bands who have been able to do something like that, so it should be really interesting. It'll probably be quite emotional for us actually, it was a special time making this album, so to go back and play these songs for the first time in the room they were recorded in should make for a special night I hope.”
You've played some pretty interesting venues, the Space Centre, Jodrell Bank telescope - what has been your favourite?
“Yeah we've done Jodrell bank a couple of times, once supporting New Order and then once at the Blue Dot Festival, and we made a video there as well actually. It's just such an incredible place, you don't really realise the scale of it until you're there in person. It's kind taking a leaf out of the book from bands like British Sea Power and finding ways of making gigs a bit more special. I mean they're a pain to organise, they're a nightmare logistically and they quite often lose money, but that's not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all, is it?
“For me though, growing up in south London, it's probably Brixton Academy, being able to do that as our own headline show just meant so much. I love that place!”
Where else are you going to be touring this year?
"We've got a couple of weeks touring the UK, some festivals, the main tour starts in October here, we're probably going to be in America for a bit and then Europe. But yeah I'm really looking forward to getting stuck back into it.”
Every Valley is available in stores now, you can also find it here in our online store...