'˜I'm happy to say there was a lot of openness'
After basing their first two albums on public information films and the space race between the USA and Soviet Russia, J Willgoose Esq headed back there again for their third record.
Every Valley explores the history of the coal mining community in South Wales and the profound changes wrought upon it by the industry’s decline and fall.
“There isn’t a particularly simple route for getting to the album being the way it was,” begins Willgoose. “It was the idea over a lot of time of maybe something interesting I could do with the BFI’s mining archives, because I know they’ve got a lot and we’ve got a good relationship with them, wanting to do something different after The Race For Space and this progression of big, epic, enormous themes and maybe do something that was a little bit more specific geographically and maybe had a bit more of a political edge.
“I think the thing that drew me to South Wales more than anything was the strength of the community there and how it was the most solid area during the strike [of 1984-85] and wondering why was that and if that was the case what’s it like now? That’s probably what got the cogs whirring in the first place.”
Willgoose was also at pains to visit the Welsh valleys himself. “That was an important part of getting it right – or as right as someone like me could do. Going there and spending a lot of time there and doing some proper research and meeting people and speaking to people and doing it in the proper spirit of engagement and openness that subject like this warrants. If you’re going to do it you’ve got to do it properly and not go into it with too many preconceived ideas, almost like a blank slate and say, ‘What’s the story here then?’”
Speaking to people who had worked down the mines in Ebbw Vale proved eye-opening. “Living through the strike, it was little things like expecting them to be very anti-police. I think in the valleys they didn’t get too many people from London bussed in to supervise these things. A lot of the time the conflicts were with people they knew and more kind of personal. It was stuff like that, finding how much more nuanced it was, not just going in and shouting and screaming.
“It was useful background information and it was useful to speak to people who were directly involved and not just go in and think you’ve read a couple of books and watched a few films; it was an important part of the process – as much as anything gauging what these kind of people’s reactions are going to be to someone like me coming in and saying I’d like to write an album about it: is it a wall of hostility or is there an openness to it? I’m happy to say that thankfully there was a lot of openness and almost like a tacit encouragement in a couple of ways. It was great.”
Willgoose admits the band’s manager had some initial misgivings about the project. “Some people may have that reaction too: how do you take something like that and make it open and accessible? How do you end up with an engaging album that isn’t all just politics and conflict and anger? I didn’t really want to make that album,” Willgoose says. “It does have a place on it but it’s not the overriding emotion, certainly.”
The album’s central theme of the neglect and abandonment of a whole community can be seen to be reflected in other post-industrial societies around the world. Willgoose admits to feeling particularly engaged by politics in the past couple of years.
“I think it’s like the sample in They Gave Me a Lamp says, at some point, whether it’s early in your life or later in your life, you realise that everything about politics affects you directly or indirectly. I don’t see how you can’t be engaged with it given what’s been going on over the last couple of years.
“That was the interesting thing as we were making this album because I knew I wanted to do it this way even before the last General Election, when those results came through they caught everybody by surprise. I felt ‘Maybe this is a good time to be doing something like this’. Then the EU referendum happened and that adds a whole level of complication and subtlety and relevance to it all and then Mr Trump over the ocean talking about bringing these jobs back and you just think I don’t know how you couldn’t be politically engaged at the moment. It just seems impossible to me. Maybe some people manage it, maybe they have a less anxious life as a result.”
Every Valley is released on July 7. Public Service Broadcasting play at O2 Academy Leeds on October 19. publicservicebroadcasting.net