It’s three decades since the devastating miners’ strike that plunged thousands of working class people in the United Kingdom into poverty, as they fought the Conservative government of the time for their livelihoods, but the scars in communities from Scotland to Northumbria, Yorkshire to Wales and beyond remain raw after all these years. Young men were left on the scrapheap and entire villages plunged into unemployment, as Margaret Thatcher played hardball in the name of global commerce.
Now, in 2017, Public Service Broadcasting are releasing Every Valley, an album that paints a vivid picture of the conflict using the words and memories of those directly affected in the Welsh mining community, although the album’s subject matter extends beyond the strike to paint an historical picture of the mining community as whole. It’s a stunning piece of work, weaving BFI documentary sound clips from the National Coal Board alongside the band’s own meticulous research. Arriving just as Theresa May has announced an early general election in an attempt to further strengthen the Tories’ grip on the UK, and in the wake of the big Brexit debacle, the ever-escalating housing crisis and the horror of seeing the NHS dismantled before our very eyes, it all feels terrifyingly current.
“It’s a very pertinent thing,” says J Willgoose, Esq, the musical brains behind Public Service Broadcasting. “I think you can draw a number of lines. This was the last stand of the trade union movement in the UK. And I think you can draw a definite line from that to the lack of representation people have today, and zero-hours contracts and the gig economy. It’s sort of a free marketeer’s dream, the environment we’re in now, even before you get into whatever the hell we’re going to do with this supposed Brexit. And that definitely came from the mid-80s and the Tories’ very deliberate strategy to do that. Even just that on its own, the attitude of the public in general to the unions has hardened, you don’t find support for strikes, and it’s interesting to come back to a time when there was real power in those movements. They used it to represent working people and get them better rights and better working conditions. Because no employer’s going to give you those unless you ask for them and fight for them.”
The miners’ strike has been a constant source of inspiration to creative people since it happened, from artist Jeremy Deller’s reenactment of The Battle Of Orgreave to the more mainstream-friendly likes of The Full Monty and Pride. And given that PSB’s previous albums have tackled the enormity of the universe in The Race For Space and the horror of global conflict in The War Room, it’s a chance for the band to hone in on a small area that went through big changes.
“As I was approaching the end of The Race For Space, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’” says Willgoose. “I didn’t want to move on to something equally epic and grandiose, I wanted to make it more focused. And the sort of geographical element that we brought into this record is definitely quite different. It’s very tightly focused on one particular area and region, whereas you don’t get much more broad strokes than space, and the same with World War II, they’re very big subjects. It was quite a daunting thing to take on at first, but it’s just working your way through it a bit at a time.”
The band – completed by drummer, keyboardist and electronica-wrangler Wrigglesworth and former-live-now-full-time bass, horn and keys man JF Abraham – take an almost documentary-making approach to their work. Alongside the BFI clips, Willgoose spent time at the South Wales Miners’ Library, where he was provided with interviews with miners and their families recorded by Dr Hywel Francis, as well as an independent film called The Welsh Miner.
“I was met with a very warm welcome wherever I went,” he says. “I was slightly worried that I would be this suspicious outsider coming in and hoovering up all their stories in a vampiric way, and dashing off into the sunset and misrepresenting people left, right and centre. From the people I spoke to, all I had was encouragement and positivity, and that was a very important part of it. Just because there isn’t any personal tie doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to make this record and tell this story. And in a way we’re really just re-telling this story anyway, using the people involved’s own words – we haven’t put too much of our own slant on it.”
To get a further sense of the place they were representing, rather than recording in plush Welsh studios such as Rockfield or Monnow Valley, they transformed the Ebbw Vale Institute in the heart of the Valleys – more used to hosting community events and gigs by covers bands – into a recording space. As a thank you to their temporary home, they’re returning to launch the album there with a live show.
“I didn’t want to be an impostor and just write it remotely,” says Willgoose. “Not that what we do is a hard job anyway, but it felt important to put the shifts in and go there. It was quite a lot of work transforming the room into an actual studio, it had quite a DIY ethic to it, which felt right for this kind of album. I wanted to find somewhere in the heart of the Valleys, somewhere we could at least get a flavour of what life is like at the moment, not just to be stuck away on a farm in the middle of nowhere.”
The location also had the added bonus of being perfectly situated for a stream of guests to walk through the doors, from the male voice choir who have the last, spine-tingling word on the record, to the brass players, to special guests that include Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell and the Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield, who Public Service Broadcasting met when they supported the Manics in Swansea on their 20th anniversary tour of Everything Must Go. The resulting track, Turn No More, is a stunning centrepiece for the album, turning to Idris Davies’ poem Gwalia Deserta for its lyrics.
“I stumbled across in the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, in their library,” says Willgoose. “It’s something that [James] knew so well. For people of a certain ilk and generation up there, it’s a very famous poem. It kind of persuaded me of the value of coming to something like this as a bit of an outsider because you kind of have a naïve audacity, you don’t necessarily know all the connotations of working with a piece like that. It’s such a powerful poem. Even though it was written in the 30s, there are so many echoes to both the time we were talking about then, which was the mid-80s, and even to today, so it was just great to use it. And the line that it ends with, they’re among the most lingering on the record: ‘Though blighted be the valleys/ Where man meets man with pain/ The things by boyhood cherished/ Stand firm, and shall remain.’ That’s the spirit that we want to get through. Life does go on even though these things happen.”
Every Valley could never have happened with a band less fiercely protective of their independence. It’s a work of art: it’s thought-provoking and, musically, takes cinematic post-rock to whole new levels. And it’s this eagerness to plough their own furrow that made 2015’s The Race For Space such a surprise hit, its vision of intrepid astronauts stretching the limits of what humans can achieve striking a nerve wildly enough to take them to No.11 in the UK charts and No.1 in the indies. It certainly spoke to the progressive community, who embraced the band and saw them named the breakthrough act at that year’s Prog Awards.
“This is a nice surprise,” says Willgoose, modestly. “[Prog’s] not something that I necessarily think our music is. I’m aware that we don’t have sole right to say what our music is or is not though. I can see a number of threads that do tie us together; the theatrical live shows, the conceptual albums. I don’t necessarily think the music is that proggy. I’m not really a good enough musician to write that kind of music, so I don’t think that’s really the case. But obviously there’s something there that appeals to people that like that kind of music, so it’s a nice surprise.”
And while people constantly cite Kraftwerk as a forerunner to their work, Willgoose says the likes or Radiohead and David Bowie actually had a bigger influence on PSB.
“I remember hearing [Bowie’s] Low quite late on, I think I was 23 or something, and just thinking, ‘Jesus, what a record.’ And I still have that feeling every time I listen to it, it’s just one of the most audacious, brilliant pieces of music ever written. So he’s always there. I guess Blackstar did hang over the album in quite a sad way. It’s such a great album, but it’s so hard to listen to and keep a dry eye. Especially the last song, it’s tough. What a way to go, he was just one step ahead of everyone the whole way, even to the extent that his own death became this piece of theatre. What an audacious bugger!”
But it’s Major Tim, not Major Tom, who’s been listening back to PSB.
“I think Tim Peake was heavily leant on by the European Space Agency, who were fans and wanted to encourage him to listen,” Willgoose says with a laugh, of the British astronaut’s endorsement of the band. “So I think it ended up in one of his top 10 tracks for space, but I’m not sure how much of a guiding hand he was given there. But I’ve had people getting in touch, a lot of the Apollo community are certainly aware of the album. I’ve got a photo of [NASA astronaut who was instrumental in saving the crew of Apollo 13] Gene Kranz holding the album, giving the thumbs-up, and I’ve got a signed photo to us from him. I think he was greatly tickled by the idea of the echoes that this kind of thing that he did has down the generations. I think a lot of people were just happy that it was still being talked about, that for another generation, even if it’s only five or 10 young people that listen to us and become inspired by that then that’s great, that’s absolutely fantastic.”
From floating in the stars, to tunnelling under the earth and standing up to the government to protect your livelihood, Public Service Broadcasting’s major skill is finding the human stories behind history’s biggest headlines and letting the original voices be heard. And while a Welsh mine and the working class fight for survival is as far as you can get from flying to the moon, it oddly fits in with a recurring theme throughout the band’s career so far: heroism. Or at the very least, drive, the fight to succeed against the odds.
“I think it’s resolve really,” says Willgoose. “It’s finding strength in adversity, that kind of runs through the whole thing, through our body of work. And I think here it’s a more sad defiance, it’s slightly more bittersweet on this record, but it’s definitely still there. The track You + Me is very much about how, in the face of terrible events, it’s looking to each other for strength. That’s just the way this record went.”
Who knows what’s going to happen in the next year and beyond. Certainly it feels like there are dark days ahead. But you can bet that, if there are people out there fighting for what’s right, pushing the boundaries and creating history, Public Service Broadcasting will be on the trail, just waiting to make their stories into impeccable work of art.
Every Valley is out July 7 on PIAS. See www.publicservicebroadcasting.net for more information.