Interview: A Chat With J. Willgoose Esq. From Public Service Broadcasting

Monday, April 16, 2018

Public Service Broadcasting — if you're unfamiliar with their work, you'd be forgiven for thinking that they could be a sister television or radio station to either the ABC or perhaps SBS; but they're actually a band from the UK who make good use of archived recordings by layering them atop a soundscape of their own creation.  It sounds strange I know — and it is - but their use of these obscure samples (that could rival the likes of The Avalanches) just bloody works I tells ya!  Their third album Every Valley manages to propel an important narrative while simultaneously pleasuring your aural cavity.  The album was centred around the decline of the coal industry, specifically in South Wales, UK and the injustice experienced by the shafted miners of the area.  Here's what founding member J. Willgoose, Esq. told me about the album this week, ahead of their upcoming Aussie shows in May.

Good afternoon, I believe it’s afternoon for you over there in Liverpool?

Ah, it is definitely morning.  I'm still waking up.

Well, it’s evening over here and while you’re probably preparing for a show tonight, I’m getting ready for a night of drag queen bingo.  Not a super relevant opening to the interview but here we are.

Wow, that sounds like fun.

Now I have to say, never before have I done so much research or learnt so much about a specific political issue when preparing for an interview as I have for this one!  

Ah geez. Sorry about that, yeah.  

(Laughs) So I apologise in advance for the long-winded questions.


The decline of the coal industry, especially throughout the mining towns in South Wales (UK) is certainly a different thematic topic for an album.  With the move towards sustainable energy and consequently away from the use of fossil fuels, this music piece is and will become more and more relatable as countries make the shift.  I noted that you have no family ties to the location or the mining industry, so pardon the pun but where did you dig this idea up from?

(Laughs) Yeah. That's a good question.  I think it kind of just follows on from the last two albums that we made and the sort of subject matter that we've been looking at and [with] the last album was The Race for Space and are all kind of, large-scale, epic, grand achievements of mankind etc... and it's similar to some of the stuff on the first album, you know the conquest of Everest and things like that.  [We] didn't want to just get kind of sucked into becoming formulaic and predictable in terms of the subject matter we looked at.  We wrote a lot with the British Film Institute (BFI) and I knew that they had a massive archive of 'Coal Board' films.  The National Coal Board used to have a dedicated film unit, which released films on a regular basis so I knew that the material was there and I thought maybe we can do something interesting with that; and that was kind of the starting point really for descending into making an album all about mining and trying to focus it as much on community as coal itself.  That's why we ended up centring it in South Wales and giving it that particular focus.

I did notice how much research it must have taken to obviously, not only learn about the issue at hand but to physically track down appropriate recordings from the BFI to use.

Yeah it was a lot, and it wasn't just the BFI, this album, I was working with the South Wales Miners' Library at Swansea University and some smaller production companies who make documentaries as well; and then there's... the poem for example that we got the rights to have on the album and finding the right piece of music for the choir to sing.  It was pulling together a lot of different strands from a lot of different areas.  It was pretty labour intensive — especially some of the audio interviews - just listening through them because there are no transcripts for this stuff, unlike some of the stuff we've worked with before.  [There were] no synopses really so it was quite... well to find out what song it is [you just have] to sit down and listen to them for an hour and a half.  And there's no way around that, you've just got to get on with it and hope you get something good out of it.  But luckily, in amongst a lot of stuff that turns out to be not particularly useful, you do find these little gems that just kind of leap out at you.

100%. Is it almost an easier process for you guys to create the music around it?

I wish it was.  (Laughs) Um, no I think in the end the research is easier because you know, it's something you either find or you don't.  Whereas with music, you just never know if it's good.  You just never know.  Even the ones that you start off friggin' sure about, confident about, you know, it's then just the endless sort of self-questioning and self-doubt.  It's the same with anyone who's writing anything, whether it's music or a book or poetry or even doing a painting.  It's that constant quest to make it as good as possible and to make sure you got the most out of what you were trying to do.  It's only really happened once or twice in our history that we've had something that I think I came away from it thinking, "Yeah, that's a winner."  Otherwise, it's just fairly torturous sadly.

Well, it's definitely not predictable as you said.  

(Side note: *The champs were also selling a t-shirt to raise funds for the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.  I recommend spending some time at J. Willgoose, Esq's Tumblr blog page for further reading.  After you've finished reading this article of course :) )

Now there will obviously be a lot of people displaced by this shift away from coal – and while some can I guess be trained or employed in the sustainable power projects there will be many people that will suffer in similar ways as they have in South Wales.  It’s very cool that you guys are donating a share of your profits to the South Wales Miners’ Benevolent Fund to support these ex-miners and their families.*  You also played your very first gig in support of “Every Valley” in Cardiff, which is in the area that you were focusing on.  How was it received there?

Yeah well, we did do the show in Cardiff as part of the larger tour but we also did two shows in the room [that] we actually recorded the album in, which is a 300 capacity hall in the valleys themselves, up in Ebbw Vale.  Those shows seemed pretty special and very emotional just in terms of like giving something back to the community, which had helped us and supported us.  It just felt like a good, socially responsible thing to do, so we were very happy to do that.  And then the sort of bigger shows rolled around and Cardiff was the first of those bigger shows and I think because it was the first night of the tour we were all a little bit on edge — there were various things we hadn't really tried.  We'd rehearsed them but you never know how they're going to go until you actually get out there and play them.  It was quite overwhelming actually, it was quite an overwhelming response.  The crowd you know, they just really went for it and I just remember we closed the show by getting the Beaufort Male Choir to come up and sing 'Take Me Home', which is how the album ends as well and that sound is such an emotional sound - just being in that room and the whole crowd sang the national anthem back at the choir in Welsh and it just felt like a really special moment.

Wow

It's just lovely to have that kind of acceptance, from a region that we're not from and for a subject that we're not directly connected to, to get that kind of response and that kind of endorsement in that way, it was just absolutely lovely.

Definitely!  And probably very hard to top for the rest of the tour, getting something like that straight off the bat!

It's definitely one of the ones you'd remember, yeah.  That's for sure.

My personal favourite from the album is 'People Will Always Need Coal'.  There is so much going on with this one and the title instantly piques interest.  Throughout the sampled recordings you’ve even managed to touch on the very much outdated but still prevalent rationale of having all male or mostly male industries; while staying on course with the inclusion of misleading quotes pertaining to the security and stability of the mining industry itself.  Was the track intended to be a demonstration of how much we’ve changed in such a short time? 

Yeah and I think, you know, its darkly ironic title is intended to show how things that can seem so certain in one particular era or one age, you know, it doesn't take that long for them to change.  The first thing to change here, I think, was that.  This is an advert that was produced in 1975 boasting how there is lots of money and security in this industry and nine years after that, the UK's going through its biggest ever industrial relations dispute - the year long miner strike and people going without pay for all that time, going through great hardship and struggling through it and then the gradual - not knowing then - but the dismantling of the industry and the kind of discarding of these workers who have done so much for their country over the years, just being sort of left on the scrap heap and left to fend for themselves.  It's a really kind of sad past and I think it's very illuminating - it kind of illuminates human behaviour in a way; things that can seem so certain in some areas just very quickly fall apart in retrospect.  Just the title 'People Will Always Need Coal', I mean, no they won't, they definitely won't.  There'll be other sources of energy to replace it.  That kind of certainty is very misplaced, I think.

Yeah definitely, I was actually thinking, given the ironic title, you should send it to Trump in the hopes that he'll use it on face value in support of the coal industry because you know he won't put any research into it (laughs).

Aaaaah, I don't want anything to do with that man.


Well the titular song, 'Every Valley' has some awesome foundations that I feel could really be well used in the background of a movie.  There is a slow burning intensity to it.  Have you ever thought about the possibility of creating music for a film score?

Yeah, I'd love to!  We get asked this a reasonable amount, which hopefully means that there is potential there but um... maybe if they ever come knocking seriously.  But you know (laughs) if they're listening and they're out there, I think it could be a really interesting thing to work on.  I think I would've felt much more, sort of overawed by it if we'd been approached early on, after the first album or something; I don't think I'd have felt ready but I think we've kind of grown up a bit and matured a bit and just in terms of the use of different instruments, different textures, different techniques and things like that, I think I'd feel much more confident about tackling something like that these days.  


Definitely! Well, I think that if they probably read Wickedd Childd I think this could be your in!  They'll see that you're keen and I reckon it'll take off from there.

(Laughs).

The spoken passage featuring Richard Burton — who in my opinion is the UK’s vocal-version of James Earl Jones — effectively paints a picture of the way miners were perceived and where they saw themselves fit into the social hierarchy.  You’ve put that on top of layered music that has the super intense gradual build I mentioned earlier, with a minor fade at the end.  Was this an intentional tactic used to kind of, build a subconscious tension and unease for the listener – sort of in line with the heavy subject matter?

I think so, I think the whole opening track is a lot of discordant strings and there's tension inherent even in that, in terms of the fast sort of, tremolo strings (I think you call it) and it's kind of suggesting a kind of pastoral scene to me in terms of the sound of it/the use of the instruments but at the same time it's suggesting a kind of tension within that, and a darkness you know?  This industrial darkness eating away at the landscape and sort of blighting it for future generations.  This sort of fall from grace that's around the corner but there's still this kind of big monolithic side at the time in this seemingly unstoppable industry.  It seemed like a good way of setting up the album.  It was great fun to record it, working with the strings and that was amazing.

Well, I don’t know how much you guys value lols or pranks during your live show, but maybe you could just throw in a massive Skrillex style drop instead of the slow fade at the end – you know, just to mess with the crowd. 

(Laughs)  Maybe!  Yeah we'll see.  You know, we don't mind having fun on stage.  It's certainly a long way from being po-faced (laughs).  We'll see.

(Laughs and Googles the phrase "po-faced" - it means, 'humourless and disapproving' for you curious Aussies).  Well looking at your own personal blog on Tumblr (link), it seems as though you’ve gone from being quite a non-political artist and have progressively become more and more confident about speaking out or using your platform for matters you believe in.  One of which, you spoke at length about a seemingly innocuous post from a fan about your collaboration and tour with Smoke Fairies and how women seem to be taken less seriously as artists and musicians.  Although this was a really boss blog post and you guys seem to be aligning nicely with my own personal values, have you found that having a public opinion on these kinds of issues has alienated fans or detracted from the music at all?  Or maybe the opposite is true?

Um, probably... I think it kind of makes the people who agree with [you] feel more strongly about you in terms of in favour but I'm sure it's turned some people off and I think you have to accept that if you're going to start talking about things like this and talking about more personal beliefs then it is going to turn some people off.  But I would rather do that and be honest and speak up for these kinds of things that we're interested in and that we believe in and the kind of changes that you want to see in the world/the kind of world that you'd like to reflect I suppose than just kind of play it safe and toe the line and just aim to sell as many records as possible.  It's never been about that for us, it's kind of a creative endeavour.  And I think, yeah you're right, it's just confidence.  Confidence growing in all kinds of manners as the albums have come out.  You know we're on to album three now and it's just realising that you have earned a voice and that you have the right to use it for whatever you want to and there's always going to be people who try and tell you to shut up or [that] you should stick to this or stick to that - but I'm not really having any of that - I think that is absolute nonsense.  I don't believe that art and politics are divorced and are used in different spheres at all.  I think that's just, well it's just nonsense, absolute nonsense on every level.  So yeah I just felt like we've gone way further with this and had way more success with it than I ever thought we would do.  So what do you want to do with that?  Do you want to try and be a force for good in your eyes or do you want to just play it safe?  You know it wasn't really ever a choice.  

If you've got a voice, use it.

Well yeah, you know, we've earned it.  Other people buy newspapers and endlessly use them as their mouthpiece for their own political purposes and they don't necessarily get told to shut up.  They just get on with the business of quietly poisoning people minds with nonsense and lies.  And for us to really have pulled ourselves up to where we've got to and to be told to shut up - well I'm not having it really.

Excellent.  That's what I like to hear.

QUICK SIX:

Do you remember the first time you heard your song on the radio?

Yes.  Yes, I do.  It was going out at 2 in the morning on BBC 6 Music in kind of an introducing program.  They tell you in advance that your music is going to be played and me and my wife were away on a camping trip (laughs) and we both sort of decided that we wanted to stay up to hear it even though it's pre-recorded.  So we brought a portable DAB radio and just stayed up 'til 2 and yeah (laughs) it was amazing.  It's the sort of thing you never forget.  It's weird how quickly you just get used to stuff being played on the radio, but you shouldn't really because it's so amazing having stuff being played out there and being listened to.  That sense of wonder and just delight, you shouldn't really lose that.  


Can you name a song that you think is just absolutely, flawlessly brilliant but is super underrated (and it can be one of your own songs)?

(Laughs)  It's never going to be one of ours.  No chance.  Um... hmmm... underrated... I mean it's not underrated but perhaps it's sneered upon by people but I can't get enough of 'Rosanna' by Toto.  I just love it so much.  It's such a great song.  It's just incredible.  It's one of those songs that you kind of know and that you know, you know it but if you actually sit down and listen to it properly, you're just like, "Woah! That is awesome!".  So yeah, we've all become slightly obsessed with that over the years.  It gets played before most shows. So I'd probably go with that but even then, it's sold millions of copies so I don't know how underrated it is.  


Is it true that once you’ve done a TED Talk, you are just instantly a better person and more highly regarded in society at large?

(Laughs)  Well, it was TED x.  It was a fringe event so I don't know if I'm quite on that level yet.  It was interesting, you know?  It was quite a challenge trying to fit it all into that actual space of time.


What are you most looking forward to doing in Australia?

Um... Seeing my friend actually, I've got a good friend in Melbourne who I haven't seen for a while, so I'll actually stay with him and you know, just hang out.  But the food there, that was what really blew me away last time.  I wasn't expecting it to be as good.  And the tea!  It's very hard to get a good cup of tea on tour.  Wall to wall good tea.

Tea?  That's a big call!  

Yes, it was good tea in Australia.

The next one is a weird one.  It's a 'Would You Rather?'.  Would you rather eat every meal for the rest of your life from a petrol station or speak with a racist, stereotypical Indian accent for the rest of your life?  (Question courtesy of Tosh.0,) (LINK).

Ah Jesus!  (Laughs) Well, they're both awful!  Ah, well I'd probably have to go with the petrol station though because at least that's only causing harm to yourself rather than causing harm to everyone else.  

You'd have to take the missus on a nice date down to get some microwave pies.

Oh God yeah I think that'd be the end of the marriage.  I'd rather not though, is that an option? (Laughs)

Do you have a random interesting fact (it can be about anything or yourself or the band) that you’d like to share?

Oh God, I'm normally full of them.  Um.  Giraffes are the only animals born with horns.  There ya go!


Really?  OK, perfect, that's a great fact.  Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today!

Thanks, it was nice, cheers!

Public Service Broadcasting are touring Oz in May. Details as follows:
08th May - Howler - Melbourne
10th May - Oxford Art Factory - Sydney
(Tickets are available here)

They're also playing at Groovin The Moo 2018.  

Written by Kate Carnell (@Kate_Carnell)