Mining the past for inspiration

By Paul Rigg

PSB began in August 2009 with J. Willgoose Esq. (13 April 1982) picking up his guitar and being inspired to draw on recordings of key historic events for ‘lyrics’.  

The London-based band soon added 
Wrigglesworth on drums and J. F. Abraham on bass; although in practise they all are multi-instrumentalists.     

Their early EPs were shortly followed by three full albums that have had increasing UK chart success: Inform-Educate-Entertain (which reached number 21 the UK charts); The Race for Space (number 11) and Every Valley (which reached number 4 in 2017). In 2015 they won Prog magazines ‘Vanguard breakthrough category’ in recognition of their progressive style of music.

Guitars Exchange
catches up with Willgoose in mid-March while he is at his home in London. He has just emerged from his recording studio - “a small converted garage full of wires and lights” – and is pleased to talk about his band’s latest album, his favourite guitars and the rise and fall of the coal industry in the Welsh Valleys…   

GE: You are about to release a new single – is that right?

JW: Yes, it is called ‘Turn no More’ from our latest album,‘Every Valley’. We are going to release it on Record Store Day [inaugarated in 2007 to “celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store”] on the 21st April – we are trying to do our bit to support record shops, as they’ve supported us. The single is on 12” and it is backed by five different remixes.

GE: ‘Every Valley’ focuses on the coal mining industry in south Wales; how has it been received? 

JW: Pretty well, I think. It was a risk making it in terms of the subject matter, and also because of some of the stylistic changes we made. We were aware that it was not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but part of being in a band is to be unpredictable, to keep taking those risks and try to stay ahead of where people expect you to be. It seems to have been overwhelmingly well received.  

GE: Where have you toured it?

JW: Around Europe, as far east as Hungary, Prague and Warsaw, and we have been to America, Canada and Mexico. We also have a lot of dates in and around the UK, and we will go off to tour it in Australia in April.  

GE: Where has it been best received?

JW: Our fan base is biggest in the UK. We play much bigger shows there than we play anywhere else, partly because we get the radio support that we don’t really get elsewhere. It has translated better than you think it would  - especially as it is something about coal mining in south Wales -  and most of that I think is because music is the closest thing we have to a universal language. We spend a great deal of time trying to make the music as strong as it can be, because it is the foundation that everything else is built upon. I think the fact that we get gigs in Poland and play to a receptive crowd is not because people there have any particular interest in south Wales; I think it is because the music connects with them.     

GE: Many people who perhaps supported the miners against the Thatcher government are now against the extraction of fossil fuels because of their environmental impact- are you still for it?

JW: I don’t think coal is an energy that we should be focusing on in terms of planning for a clean and sustainable energy future. I think if you approach the album and that is the message you take from it - that we are somehow calling for a return to coal - I think that would be quite a severe misreading about what the album is trying to say; but at the same time it is not our job to explain it. There is an element of irony. People will not always need coal and the cast iron promises that governments made, and that agencies gave workers, saying it was a job for life, there is lots of money and security, you know 10 years later they were systematically dismantling the whole industry; so things that can have an air of permanence in one particular decade or month can very swiftly change. And it is the dark irony behind the title of that song that appealed to me – if you take it very literally and think we are saying people need coal I don’t think you’ve applied a particularly rigorous analysis to the album. (laughs)  

GE: Going back to the start of your career, I understand you found inspiration in old BBC commentary; how did that idea occur to you? 

JW: Actually it’s not the BBC- they are quite hard to deal with in terms of flexibility and shall we say ‘the payment structure’ can be prohibitively expensive. It came about because I was listening to a Radio Four programme about the release of some BFI [British Film Institute] material for the first time and I was doing some instrumental stuff at the time and was trying to find a way to give it a more human character and I thought that some of my favourite music, whether it is Holy Bible by the Manics, or DJ Shadow or snippets of Mogwai and stuff, was something that might give the music more depth and character – and the idea worked and then some, which I was very surprised by. It was a rare good idea! (laughs)


GE: Were there any specific setbacks in your growth?

JW: Yes especially in the early days when I was doing it as a solo entity. When nobody turned up or paid attention – you may as well be invisible because of the amount of connection you are making with the audience. I played a gig at the Edinburgh fringe, for example, and four people turned up. It was hard – I was there at the end of the day lugging all my kit into my car; it was very lonely at times. It made me question whether I should just be doing it as a hobby and not hoping for anything more out of it. I think it is good to ask that kind of question, but I guess my natural determination saw me through.  

GE: As you rely heavily on video footage how do you deal with live open air daytime concerts?

JW: If there are large LED screens they will be bright enough to ‘fight the daylight’, as it were, but sometimes we can’t use any of the footage and we just have to go back to being a pure music act. Two or three times a year we have to do that but as we try to make the music as strong as possible, the result has been good. Sometimes the video draws people in and makes people forget that there is this whole musical element to the show going on in front of them – when there are a lot of plates being spun simultaneously as it were – and when there is no video, it can make them re-engage with the musical side of things. It’s nice to mix it up – but we sell a decent number of albums and we don’t include any video with our albums, so I think that says something.  

GE: Your songs ‘Gagarin’ and ‘Spitfire’ seem to be particular favourites in your live concerts – why do you think that is?

JW: Those two are good fun because they are up tempo. ‘Gagarin’ in particular is a bit of a romp and it was intended to be almost a super-hero theme tune, celebrating the life and achievements of Yuri Gagarin; people respond to that, but I think the biggest song on tour is ‘Go’ because it is such a combination of emotion plus energy. It really does seem to connect and get people involved. It is very rare when you write a song that you know it is going to be good, but thankfully that one came out very well – I was sure it was strong. 

GE: Turning now to your guitars, how old were you when you started to play, and which was your first?  

JW: I started playing when I was 13 or 14 on my mum’s classical guitar, which was unbranded, but I learned a few basic chords on it. Then my first own guitar was a Chinese Fender Squier Strat. A lot of boys start out on a guitar like that to see if it is something they take to, I could noodle around on it and sound like I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t. My brother and I were both given that guitar for christmas; I think they are definitely good starter guitars.   

GE: Which guitar do you use now?

JW: (laughs) It is a bit of a weakness actually; I have too many! The main one is a Rickenbacker 330 because I’ve had that since 2002; I have a very special bond with that guitar because there is something about it that I can’t get from any other instrument. I also have an American vintage 52 Telecaster reissue that I bought a few years ago – I use it a lot on singles like ‘Go’, ‘Progress’ and ‘They gave me a lamp’; it is meaty and good to get stuck into. I love the fact that you can beat them up a bit, they almost respond better to that! I am a big fan of Teles. I bought a Strat solely for use on ‘Gagarin’, because I thought ‘I need a Strat for this’ – there is no other guitar that can make that sound with the two pickups sort of slightly out of phase, with a whacky 80s sound, which is what I was after. I thought Strats weren’t my cup of tea but the more I‘ve played it the more I’ve enjoyed it - to my immense delight I’ve discovered that I love it. They are just such incredible guitars it would be hard not to get something out of them. 

GE: What gear can you not live without?

JW: Most of the recent album was recorded with a 3 Monkeys amp, which I think is an Orangutan or Orangutan junior, it is a small combo amp. 3 Monkeys seem to have moved away from making amps now, they seem to do a whole range of solderless cabling for pedal boards and DC solderless Audio, stuff like that; but the amps are great. I came to that through My Morning Jacket, who are one of my favourite bands, as they use 3 monkey amps.

Pedal wise I am a big fan of the Eventide stuff, so the H9 makes up the bulk of the live rig; in fact I use three H9s which is a bit of an indulgence, but it really covers all the bases. And bits and bobs of random analogue stuff, older fuzzers, it’s all relatively low-tech on the album. Live, to control it all, I use a controller called RJM Mastermind which is fantastic – I don’t think I could run the set without it - and a couple of expression pedals.
  It is relatively compact on the live side. I didn’t want a monster pedal board, it has to be relatively understated.  

GE: More generally, do you have any ‘guitar heroes’?

JW: Jonny Greenwood, James Dean Bradfield, and John Squire from the Indie world. I also really like a bluegrass player called Doc Watson who is absolutely incredible and puts so much heart into his playing; and Thurston Moore. I think they are both underrated – they are not the ‘showiest’, with riffing and soloing, but what they are doing is very carefully considered and textured. But my favourite guitarist at the moment is Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear – I love his sound, it is unique; he is just such an incredibly gifted player, his guitar playing is perfect for the music that he is making, and that is all you can ever ask.   

GE: What plans do you have for the rest of this year?

JW: We are leaving on Friday to support The Editors in Europe for two or three weeks, before we return to the UK for our own tour, and then we are off to Australia. We return to the UK for a big BBC event in Belfast - we are playing on the Titanic slipways in Belfast, as we have been asked to write some music about the Titanic, so we may release that towards the end of the year - and then on into the festivals for the Summer. We also hope to headline our own tour in Europe. So it is a busy period for us.

GE: Best of luck with it all; thank you very much.