Sound of Progress: Public Service Broadcasting on Every Valley

J. Willgoose, Esq. walks The Skinny through the people, politics and picket lines that make up Public Service Broadcasting's emotional third album Every Valley

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 29 Jun 2017

Public Service Broadcasting have already conquered Everest, dissected WWII, and rocketed through the Space Race. Now, for their third LP, the band has taken to heart the troubles and triumphs of South Wales’ mining communities. As J. Willgoose Esq. explains it, ingenuity, ambition and innovation has been behind each of PSB’s previous records, but Every Valley explores the all-too-human cost of our drive to keep pushing forward: What does ‘progress’ mean? Who does it help, and who does it leave behind? Written, rehearsed and recorded on site, Every Valley broadcasts the tales of Ebbw Vale’s miners with compassion and blazing urgency.

Willgoose laughs as he describes the bespectacled band – with a new ‘official’ member in long-term touring pal JF Abraham in addition to multi-instrumentalist Wrigglesworth – as “extremely geeky”. From another group, such a claim might be self-deprecation. Not here. Ever since PSB’s first EP, a rigorous process of archival research has informed the band’s sound, most notably through audio clips borrowed from dusty public service films. Every Valley’s title is borrowed from the 1957 documentary of the same name, but otherwise the band’s process has evolved tenfold. Built on a bedrock of face-to-face interviews, experts, museum visits and, most importantly, weeks spent within South Wales’ valleys, this album takes a particularly personal approach.

“I didn’t want this feeling of cultural tourism, or to be vampires taking this story from afar and not grounding it properly,” Willgoose tells us. “Especially this kind of story; it didn’t feel right. Some people [tried] to persuade us to go to one of the big, plush residential studios but we said no, it doesn’t fit this album at all.” Instead, in early January, the band moved in to the Ebbw Vale Institute, a community project space that happens to have recording facilities, too. Throughout our conversation he emphasises the importance of “actually speaking to people, rather than bringing preconceived ideas of the story and of the kind of people involved.” These interviews inevitably shaped the narrative of the album, as first-hand testimonials assisted the band in talking about “complicated stuff in hopefully a more nuanced way.”

There’s a testimony to his research, too, in the public support from the UK’s national coal mining museums: “That was one of the nicest messages to get,” he enthuses. “It was really nice that they reacted this way, and it’s kind of been that way all along. We’ve not met any hostility like, ‘Who are you outsiders writing about this?’ I’m sure some people will take it upon themselves to have that reaction on behalf of the people we’ve worked with, but they themselves seem to be happy that these stories are still being told, and can hopefully [reach] another generation”.

The result is an astonishing, hugely emotional album. Over 11 tracks, Every Valley documents the rise and fall of the industry, as well as the power of policy changes and picket lines. Opening track The Valley shows us rock star miners at the forefront of the UK’s industrial power, as a voice-over proclaims 'Every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner... They were the kings of the underworld!' Then, gradually, Public Service Broadcasting begin to pick this world apart. People Will Always Need Coal shines with poignant optimism, but lead single Progress starts to unravel a sense of creeping change. The eerie refrain of 'Machines will do the heavy work' captures contemporary anxieties about robots making us all redundant, as well as acting as a reminder that knock-on effects from fast-moving technological developments have existed for decades, if not centuries.

Camera Obscura’s Traceyanne Cambell provides haunting guest vocals – a collaboration that Willgoose spent “the best part of a year” searching for, and believes has resulted in “one of our best songs… I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but it’s clever!” He elaborates: “Not only have you got the organic and the synthesised elements ultimately combining, but at the end of each chorus it moves up two semi-tones. Then the first chorus is one repetition, the second one is two… and it’s the first [time] we’ve had a sung refrain as a single. So yeah, I feel like [Progess] works on lots of levels.”

The centrepiece of the album is All Out: a strike song which builds into palpable, dignified, righteous anger as a woman’s voice, calm but defiant, says: 'What you see on the telly is nothing, what you see in the papers is nothing. I was brought up to respect police. I don’t respect them now.' It’s the heaviest track PSB have ever recorded, and it is scorching. Willgoose reflects, “There’s quite a few [songs on the album] that are emotionally heavy, but this one should break a few speakers, too, hopefully.”

The emotional weight of Every Valley doesn't make for an easy listen. Turn No More combines Welsh musical superhero James Dean Bradfield with the words of Idris Davies, a Depression-era miner turned poet affiliated with TS Eliot. “There’s this epic, Waste Land-type poem called Gwalia Deserta, and I found a few verses that had a great ring to them. Then [Bradfield] did an amazing job. Having someone like him working on something like this and placing that kind of trust in us… it says a lot," Willgoose reflects, clearly touched. The ballad is turbulent and stormy, and Davies’ remarkable words ring with contemporary consequences.

We try to avoid talking about the inevitable, but 30 minutes in, there it is: “Well, this was written during and after the vote to leave the EU, and during Mr Trump’s ascendance across the Atlantic,” Willgoose sighs. “In each case the only thing I could do was to stop reading the bloody internet and go and do some work.

“It just makes it even more sad because, from an outsider’s perspective, this is the community and the work force that bore incredible hardship and incredible danger for a very long period, and provided the materials that fuelled the ascendency of the country, fuelled it through the war efforts, twice, and while it did eventually get nationalisation and some kind of health and safety which for some reason these days is held up as a bad thing, but was mostly put in place by unions to save lives…

"For these [communities] to be basically wilfully destroyed, and to have it done by the very government they’ve trusted? It's like, do you really think they care about this area and its people and its history? I find that a hard one to stomach. Ebbw Vale was one of the highest recipients of EU funding in the UK and it voted to leave. I think it’s a desperate situation, and a lot of people didn’t know what to do but stick two fingers up.

“I wondered if somebody – an especially dim-witted journalist, maybe – might say, ‘Oh, so you’re calling for the mines to be re-opened, are you?’ No, we’re really not. It’s not our position to do so. We’re just drawing attention to the fact that these communities have been let down and betrayed once, and now they’re being abused and capitalised upon to elect these people whose interests really couldn’t be further from theirs.” His point is reinforced when, after our interview, the first of the so-called “Trump-Era mines” opened outside Pittsburgh in a blind attempt to prop up an increasingly unsustainable industry. The Guardian reported, two weeks later, that the “global demand for coal has fallen for the second consecutive year.”

Willgoose describes the record as having a “residual sadness and anger” that’s as much a consequence of his wife’s recent battle with cancer as it is the political climate, but “there’s also a feeling of hope and defiance and togetherness.” Without prying further, or resorting to too much speculation, it’s possible he’s referring to You + Me, a beautiful, vulnerable ballad that features guest vocals from Lisa Jên Brown and a rare vocal turn from the band. Elsewhere, tracks like They Gave Me a Lamp ensure that the bravery and resilience of South Wales’ women are celebrated with as much vigour as the actions of the miners – it’s a full and important reminder that communities are built on unity, support and love

The record’s final track, Take Me Home, offers a book-end to Every Valley's triumphant beginnings. It's a classic miners’ song originally written by Edwards & Hand and is performed here by the local Beaufort Male Choir. It describes a young boy who realises he won’t be following in his father’s footsteps, and must “[set] out to make my own way” in a world that’s changed. There’s a behind-the-scenes video of the choir in action on Public Service Broadcasting’s social media, showing the mostly elderly singers congregating in the Ebbw Vale Institute. Their conductor halts them, mid take, to offer an emotional reminder: “Remember, more people will hear this than they’ve probably heard any other thing you’ve done.”

Surely, hopefully, if the UK’s learnt anything in these past 12 months, it’s that we’ve got to listen to each other.  

Every Valley is released on 7 Jul via Play It Again Sam

Public Service Broadcasting play Manchester Academy, 16 Oct; Barrowlands, Glasgow, 18 Oct; O2 Academy, Leeds, 19 Oct