From the miners strike of 1984 to Brexit, the latter is largely the result of savage dismantling of industries and a decades-long neglect of local communities. We interviewed J. Willgoose, Esq. of Public Service Broadcasting
By Franko Burolo
Tuesday 14 November 2017 Tvornica kulture in Zagreb, Croatia hosted the British band Public Service Broadcasting. The full hall at Tvornica shows that this young band already has a significant number of fans even in Zagreb, and of various age groups. Before the show, and just after the sound check, while nobody was there yet at the Tvornica club, except for the bands and the staff (a local band called Nellcote opened the show), I’ve had the chance to talk to the founder of PSB — J. Willgoose, Esq. about shutting down of industries and Wales, about the great miners strike of 1984-85 in the UK and its influence on the current situation in the UK and on “Brexit”, about singing, about the Manics, and many other topics regarding the latest PSB album – Every Valley, about which we have also already written (in Croatian language), and which they were promoting to the Croatian audience at the Tvornica club in Zagreb.
Franko Burolo (FB): Hello, J! How are you tonight?
J. Willgoose, Esq. (J): Very well, thanks!
FB: How do you feel about playing in Zagreb again?
J: Well, excited, because it’s… I mean, we were here for InMusic, but this is our first headline show in Croatia, anyway. So I’m… yeah, excited. We don’t really know what to expect, so we’ll see.
FB: I was accidentally at your InMusic show and I was actually perplexed, it was really great, so I expect you to do even better now that you’re headliners.
J: OK, well… haha… we’ll see, we’ll see… Hopefully the crowd will be as positive as they were the other night, because that was great.
FB: Let’s talk about your last album, Every Valley. It’s talking about an issue that is actually international. In Croatia we can also relate to this story, because a lot of industry was shut down during the 80’s and the 90’s, and it brought many “deaths of villages”. So why did you choose exactly South Wales to talk about it?
J: I knew I wanted to do the album about mining and about the industrial heritage, in a way. The more research I did, the more I started to think the album was as much about the community as is about the commodity. So I started to look communities where it might be most interesting, or where you might get the most out of setting it. I guess quite a few things drew me to South Wales. There was the solidity of the communities there, they were the most determined, I think, during the strike, in terms of fewest people going right to work, so there’s obviously something special about the area. Then the geography of it, you know, there’s something very appealing about the dramatic nature of the geography and how these beautiful valleys have been kind of… ransacked – I suppose is the word that’s used in one of the songs. So you have this kind of contrast between beautiful nature, but also an ugly side of man and industry spoiling the countryside. And just the sound as well. You know, I love the voice, the Welsh accent is very distinctive, and it’s very lilting, and up-and-down, and quite musical in itself. Then there are Welsh male choirs, which is a very Welsh traditional thing.
So it’s a whole number of factors, really, and… I don’t know, you can’t always explain it all rationally either, but something about it… just seems as like I thought: “yeah, that’s what will do!”
FB: You have mentioned the strike, which leads us to my next question. In my opinion, All Out and They Gave Me a Lamp sound like some central songs of the whole album, like everything is related to those two songs. They are respectively about the big strike of 1984-1985 and about women participation in it. Can you tell us a bit about the impact and the legacy of this strike in the UK and maybe even internationally to this day?
J: In the UK there are so many after-effects of it, I think. In the communities which were affected by it, there are still all sorts of problems. It wasn’t an industry dismantled in a sensible or practical way, it was done in a deliberately savage way, I think, by the government in an attempt to break the power of the unions, which is as much what it was about as it was cheaper commodities from abroad. So, there are all kinds of areas in the UK which are still struggling, still deprived, still affected by poverty, lack of opportunity… you know, all the things that you’d expect when a main industry is vanished. And lots of simmering resentments. A resentment against the government, and resentments that can be very easily be turned against other people in general. So, it began a kind of populist message coming in, and trying to take those traditionally left-wing votes, I suppose, and move them further to the right. And that ends up with one of the biggest political decisions in recent European history, which is the vote to leave the European Union. The two feel incredibly linked to me. It just feels like the after-effects of both the mid-Eighties and that sort of decimation of industry and neglected communities, as well as the financial crash of 2007 and 2008. You know, it feels like what happened almost ten years later was… the result of the combination of what have already happened.
FB: Can you comment a little bit further about the relationship between the big strike of the Eighties and Brexit?
J: Well, where we recorded the album, we recorded in Ebbw Vale, which is an area in South Wales, which once had Europe’s largest steelworks, which is closed down in the early Nineties. It doesn’t have many immigrants, there’s not many people from the EU, there’s not many people from outside the EU, either. It doesn’t have affluence, it doesn’t have a great deal of opportunity, has a lot of young people without a great deal to do. And it has a lot of, I suppose, people who would’ve been employed in the mining industry, who don’t have a career available to them, don’t have a solidity, and don’t have a relative prosperity of a reliable job with a decent pension, at the end of the day.
So, what seems to me to have happened there is that… It’s very ironic, really. The EU funding for Ebbw Vale is amongst the highest in the country. When it came to the referendum, Ebbw Vale was pretty much the highest to vote to leave the EU. And you have people being interviewed on the news saying: “What’ve they ever done to us?”, and they’ve stood next to a sign which said: “This road has been paid for by the EU Development Fund.”
It’s when you get at a community in an area of the country which has felt neglected and run and abandoned, and disillusioned and disenfranchised of politics of all kinds, not just the right or the left. Then that’s what you end up when you offer them a stark choice, to kind of stick or twist, you know, roll the dice. I think, out of desperation, and out of the lack of any real investment in the status quo, they just said: “Agreed! We’ll roll the dice!” And the horrible irony of it is that it is only going to make the situation worse. It’s not gonna help them. The only people Brexit will help are rich people, right-wingers, free-marketeers, people who just want free trade and don’t want any kind of worker’s rights, employment rights, any representation… It’s just like another step down, really.
FB: But, in your opinion, this was basically just a government resentment, rather than a xenophobic one?
J: I think it’s probably both. It’s not trusting the government who were trying to sell the “remain” line, you know, they were trying to say this is what is done for the good of the people, while they can’t see any particularly positive effects of the economy or the economic growth. They haven’t been in London benefiting from the boom. It’s kind of perpetually booming in London, really. And at the same time, when you get people with a resentment and with an abandonment, they can very easily be manipulated by populist cynical politicians like [Nigel] Farage, and like [Boris] Johnson, and like [Michael] Gove, and like all the worst characters of Brexit, and by the right-wing news papers, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who’re based outside the UK for tax reasons and who just seem to be helping on pushing immigrants as the cause of all problems, and they’re really not. Study after study shows that immigrants contribute far more to the UK than they take out.
FB: Another thing, rather on the aesthetic side this time, is the singing in the album. It’s the first album where we hear any singing.
J: No, no! There’s some on The Race for Space, it opens with singing, a choir, and on Valentina we have the Smoke Fairies singing, as well. So, you know, we were kind of inching towards, anyway. Yeah. But obviously, there is more on this album.
FB: Yes, and it was a nice surprise, actually. It sounds better than I would expected it before. But I also wanted to ask you about your own singing in this album, which is totally a new thing.
J: Yeah, I didn’t enjoy it…
FB: You didn’t? Haha…
J: No… I did it out of necessity, really. I did it because we’ve had this song which I really, really love, and I think it’s my favourite on there. And I had Lisa from 9Bach, she’s an incredible singer, she’d done a great job translating the words. I really wanted her on the album, I really wanted some welsh on the album. And the person I had in mind to sing with her, having previously said yes, in essence, then stopped answering the phone, and I was like: “Oh, god! Well, what are we gonna do?!”, you know. Haha…
FB: Who was it? If you can tell us…
J: Oh, no, no… Professional discretion.
FB: OK then, no problem!
J: Umm…. Yeah. And so I was just travelling home on tube one day, and I suddenly thought as: “Why wouldn’t I just do it?”. You know, I don’t have a very good voice, I can’t sing very well, I don’t enjoy it, but at least that way it would be done. It would end up on the album. And because it’s not just about imagining a kind of being at the centre of the community, with all these outside forces running down, it was also quite a personal thing, in terms of what was going on for me as well. So it was like: “If you’re ever gonna sing on a track, this is the one to do it on.” And I knew Lisa would carry the song, anyway. You know, I’m kind of hanging on to her coattails, really. Especially the final chorus, it’s like me here, and Lisa like… way off in the sunset.
So, you know, I just like the song too much to let it go, and I wanted her on the album so…
FB: But it doesn’t sound that bad, anyway… It came out quite good.
J: Yeah… Why, I think the fragility of it, and the inexperience of it, and the lack of confidence, I think actually suits the song, as well. It doesn’t sound confident, and actually that works with the message of the song, this fragility at the heart of it.
FB: Will you sing it tonight?
J: No, because we don’t have her with us, so… We only really sing that one when we have Lisa with us, because she’s too important to it to put her on track.
FB: So, we will also not be able to hear the song Turn No More, done with James Dean Bradfield?
J: No. No, again because it carries the song too much. It is such a central ingredient. To let the computer do that work, it doesn’t feel right. We’ve done it once, it was OK, but… it didn’t feel right. But there’s stuff like Progress and They Gave Me a Lamp, where it’s not as central… You know, the motive is always important, but the live singing in them is not as big a thing to be missing as a central vocal performance, it’s more a kind of another instrument, I suppose. And that’s not to do the people singing on those tracks down, it’s just in terms of the way the songs are structured. And also because Progress is about mechanization and automation, so to have Tracyanne on track, actually, is quite another layer of irony, really.
FB: Yeah, that’s what I meant before – this time the singing is different than it was on Valentina or on The Race for Space generally.
J: Yeah, it’s less textural and more… central, I suppose. On those two songs, in particular.
FB: As a Manic Street Preachers fan myself, I’ve had to notice that your album Every Valley has some points in common with Rewind the Film by Manic Street Preachers, it has this story of dying villages, women participation in strikes etc… Can you comment on this? Was there some sort of direct influence? You have also collaborated with James Dean Bradfield, so…
J: I think that there’s always an influence on everything we’ve done, because they’re such and important band for me. You know, so important that they’re always gonna be there in the background. I think… You know, I knew Rewind the Film, I’d heard it. It wasn’t one that I gravitated towards as much as, say, Futurology – that was much more up my street. So, I guess it must’ve influenced us on some level, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out some of those links being more explicit then I previously had thought. But it wasn’t conscious, I suppose. Another one of the decisions to do South Wales was thinking maybe I could ask James to do something, you know. Because working with somebody like that would be such thrilling and just so exciting.
FB: Was it?
J: It was, yeah. It was daunting, obviously. He’s an incredible musician, he’s got such pedigree… He has such intelligence. And he has that fire in his belly, still. He’s very passionate and a sharp intellect. So, I was intimidated on some levels, but also he doesn’t have any airs and graces, I think James Dean Bradfield hates all of that stuff, he hates it. So it’s just like… just work together on a musical level, just get something that works and that we are both happy with. And I think I had to try very hard to forget that it was James Dean Bradfield, and just work with him as a peer, which is weird, ‘cause I’m not his peer. You know, I’m way down here, and he’s way up there. But if he heard me say that he’d be very angry. Hahaha…
He’s a really good guy, and he’s been extraordinarily supportive and generous. So, yeh, we owe him a lot.
FB: Another thing which is very important in your acts, actually, as we don’t see it while listening to a record, but on your shows there is also a video performance which is a very important part of your aesthetics. It’s basically a fourth member of the band. Can you comment on this?
J: Yes, it is very important. I think… We do go through great efforts to make the music, ‘cause it’s as solid a foundation for the live shows possible. I don’t feel like it’s a live show that doesn’t work without visuals, and we have to do that sometimes. When we play the festivals in the afternoon, and there’s no screen, for example, you know, projectors don’t work against the sun, so we have to adjust and just do it. And it still works, and the people still react in an overwhelmingly positive way to it. So, the music is always above everything else – the most important factor, but I think video does help, especially with the more abstract stuff, like Every Valley. It does help to give people a kind of context to it, and give people an idea of what you’re trying to say, and it’s a highly effective way of communicating. Obviously, when we have it, it’s a very important part of the show, and I think it does add a lot. It potentially takes a little away in terms of atmosphere, because some people just get so with any moving images, to get so focused on it to the point where they kinda forget that the music is happening, to a certain extent. But then you get some of the shows, like the festival InMusic, where that doesn’t seem to be the case, and people just take it all, as this kind of big all-out “assault”, I suppose, and don’t get too focused on one particular item of it. It’s also good as it allows me not to be a frontman, because I’m not a frontman.
FB: Yes, that’s one of the reasons why I asked for a comment about it, because you do a lot of electronics, and electronic music is usually not as performative as guitar music. If you just play there behind your machinery, it doesn’t have the same effect as someone “frontmaning” in a more traditional guitar band. So maybe you need something like effective visuals, and I think you’re doing it great.
J: Oh, cheers! Well, yeah, I think it definitely helps. There are some electronic elements that we still play, but even then we do our best to make it… musically engaging, make it obvious as to what sound is coming from where. We always have the live drums to watch, as well. It’s electronic music, but presented in an engaging way.
FB: When I first saw you live, I liked that I felt like you were communicating a lot between each other and the audience.
J: Yeah, and that’s part of it. You know, if everything is just pressing buttons and stuff, I just… I don’t know, I can’t get as into that. Haha…
FB: All right, that’s about it. Thank you very much!
J: Cool! Thank you!