Post Coal Prom Queen, née L-Space, are releasing PCPQ, their debut EP in their new incarnation, towards the end of April. It’s a stunning collection of tracks, a pure distillation of the sound they’ve been cultivating over the past few years. The band’s touchstone themes of environmentalism and the possible positive future applications of technology are to the fore again, and their knack for creating miniature worlds through song is as uncanny as ever.
We caught up with the duo, Lily Higham and Gordon Johnstone, to chat about the new EP, the source of their unusual new name, the benefits of the band’s new independence, and the reason why their songs are, actually, all about love – even when they’re not.
Your new EP, PCPQ is coming out soon. What can you tell us about it?
Gordon: Yeah. It’s coming out on the 30th of April. We were really lucky that we managed to get the last little bit of recording done just before the proper lockdown kicked in, around December-ish. So we got the recording done, which was really lucky. And then we started to remotely mix, which is something we hadn’t done before.
Lily: It’s not as exciting as being in the studio when you can hear each change the engineer makes, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s keep that’ or ‘Garble it more, make it sound worse’ [laughs]. It’s not as exciting but at least we can still do our own mixing.
Gordon: We’re lucky to record with Simon [Doherty, Infinity Bus Studios, Glasgow]. He’s fantastic, and did a really good job of mixing it all for us. It was just kind of luck of the draw that we actually got everything done; if we’d waited another day or another week, we wouldn’t have anything to release just now.
I’m really enjoying the EP. To me, you’ve really got down to the bones of what makes you great.
Gordon: I think from a music arrangement perspective, it’s a confidence thing. All through L-space, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when we started. I didn’t know how to plug one end of something into another. I didn’t know how to use any audio recording equipment. I could barely play instruments.
So we built up this really big sort of grand sound and lots of layers because you can hide mistakes, you can hide a lack of experience. But over the course of the couple of years I learned a lot. Now it feels like we’ve got the confidence to just strip everything back to the really good parts and just let them shine through.
Lily: Yeah, I think we know a bit more about how to make each individual layer sound better within its context as well. From what I remember, we didn’t go very much in-depth about frequencies when we were doing L-space stuff. Now we’ve learned more, we are able to filter out frequencies that are causing problems between the layers, or enhance other ones that make it sound good.
Gordon: We’ve always worn our learning on our sleeves. When our first EP came out we played a gig the next week, and we had no idea what we were doing. We’re not one of those bands that sat for years and years, that practised and practised and perfected one particular sound, and then took it live. We just sat in my living room, recorded something and then that day, put it out. And thought ‘that’s fun’. It just kind of snowballed from there.
Lily: Completely. Yeah, we did it because it was fun, not because we were good.
Lily: I would say for other people to do that, too. If you find it fun, you should do it – even if you’re not that good. Like music, sports: people should go out and play football with their friends, even if they’re really terrible at football. They should do it for fun and they get better with time. Yeah, we did it because it was fun.
You changed the band name from L-space to Post Coal Prom Queen. What’s the story behind the new name?
Gordon: It comes from a photo essay that the Guardian published in May 2019. A photographer went to the traditional coal-mining towns in Transylvania, Romania, where I lived for a little while. He was taking pictures of the young people there who are stuck in this weird existence where they live in a completely post-industrial town – quite like a lot of towns in Scotland – that used to rely on industry, but it’s taken them a long time to catch up to anything else, now that the industry is gone.
So these teenagers are stuck between an incredibly hyper-modern world where they exist online, and an incredibly traditional but outdated world where they live on a day-to-day basis. So as soon as we saw the name, Post Coal Prom Queen, it just sounded really evocative. It was the kind of aesthetic that we’re going for because we mix a lot of very organic sounds with electronic and industrial sounding things.
Lily: With that combination of words, it makes you think, ‘oh, what does that mean?’ I like the idea that the name has a story and evokes images.
The EP itself, you said you were working on it remotely? Also, how do you work? Do you split the writing so that one of you writes so much of the music and the other comes up with the lyrics and topline?
Gordon: That’s largely true. There’s lots of times when Lily comes with a musical idea and we’ll develop it together. Or sometimes I have snippets of lyrics that we incorporate into things.
When we’re working remotely especially, I tend to do the production and arrangement and then there’s a lot of back-and-forth about how to get the song into the kind of shape we want it to be. It’s definitely more difficult remotely than it is in a studio.
You don’t have that instantaneous thought process where you just blurt out ideas that might be stupid, but sometimes they’re really good. Whereas if you have to type it all out in an email – I’ll type something out and think it’s stupid and take out because I don’t want to embarrass myself.
Lily: I wonder how many lost ideas there are just because of the gap of time and it not being immediate anymore. How many ideas have just slipped through the cracks and disappeared because of the situation? Ideas that could have been really good.
You’ve been making music which talks about technology and environmental concerns for a long time. When we last spoke, in 2018, you mentioned the issue of rising sea levels impacting the viability of farmland and how technology could be used to solve that. It’s interesting to see that on the new EP, ‘Salt’ is all about this.
Lily: Yeah, I think ideas are kind of brewing over time. You might have something on your mind that you want to write about, but you don’t quite have the song that fits that topic yet. When Gordon sent me the beginnings of Salt, it had that sound, a bit like underwater, its sinister depths – like if you’re in a submarine, in a trench underwater. And so I was like: ‘Ah, okay. So this is maybe the time to talk about the rising sea levels’. It just fitted well with that song.
It’s the same with other songs, like ‘Tomorrow’s Garden’, which is our next single. That has solar punk themes, which we’ve been interested in for a while. I started playing with some synths and nature sounds. And putting those together gave this kind of nature-y feel with electronics.
Gordon: I always find it funny when we speak about the themes of the songs because, you know, you’re not gonna hear ‘Tomorrow’s Garden’ in a nightclub anytime soon. This song is about futuristic agricultural practices, and I thought ‘Total dance banger!’ It’s always quite funny when we just lay it out.
We’ve been working on the songs for a while now and it feels different. If you’ve listened to a song a lot, and you wrote it, after a while it starts to feel like it’s not yours anymore. That’s how I feel about ‘Tomorrow’s Garden’. It feels quite remote. It’s still definitely us but when I hear Lily talk about it I think ‘no, this is the sort of stuff I’d listen to’.
In ‘Faraday Cage For One’, what is it that you’re looking to protect yourself against?
Lily: When we wrote it people were talking about misinformation in the media and doubting science. It was in that media environment of having to filter through everything to find what is closest to the truth, or most accurately reflects the outside world. And how exhausting that is. And how difficult it is. And sometimes, you just want to block all of that information out that’s being thrown at you wherever you look, and put yourself in a little Faraday cage for one person, where no one’s feeding you any misinformation or uncomfortable information.
People have been talking recently about information hygiene. For mental health, not just making sure that you drink enough water, making sure you eat your vegetables, or something. It’s also about cultivating good information habits, and what you read each day as well, because it can really affect your mental health. I was thinking about that when I wrote ‘Faraday Cage For One’.
Gordon: It was late 2019 that we recorded that, so it would have been around the time that the US election was gearing up, so there was that. At that point, there were just murmurs of a pandemic, or at least a new virus kicking about. So I think it was definitely an interesting political landscape, one that we might not really see again. So I’m glad we captured an idea in a song around that time.
Lily: And it’s always going to be relevant, because we’re never going to get to a point where we’re only presented with high-accuracy information that we don’t have to filter.
Do you have any ideas on how society could approach normalising the information hygiene you mentioned?
Lily: I think that they should start teaching particular targeted philosophy courses in schools for quite young children, like at secondary school – classes in epistemology, logic, and critical analysis.
Gordon: Critical thinking is key. You have a lot of schools just geared towards teaching you the specific facts that you need to pass exams. There is less of a focus on the critical analysis aspects, which is what everybody requires. I think philosophy should definitely be talked about at a much younger age.
Lily: Yeah, I think that would really help. Just starting those ways of thinking when people are younger, so they are used to doing it. So they are used to looking at a piece of information, not as ‘this is black and white, true or false’. I just like thinking about things in terms of probabilities rather than facts. I think teaching things like that in school will really help mental health, but also everything – being able to analyse things critically.
You talk a lot about the positive use of technology in your music.
Gordon: I think we try to remain optimistic. Most of our songs are fairly positive about the use of technology.
Lily: And we’re trying to do that more for the album as well. So we’ve got some of that in some of that in the EP: ‘Tomorrow’s Gardens’ is an optimistic song. But in the album, we’re gonna lean into that more, and think about more optimistic uses of technology, because technology will be our way out of problems. It will be our way out of climate change, which is too late to fix, but we can find ways of surviving it through technology.
You kind of need to think about technology optimistically, because it’s the only way we’re going to survive – it’s the only way we can make people’s lives better.
Gordon: I think there’s gonna be a massive uptake in the science of manipulating weather, geoengineering. I’d like to think that we’ll go live on Mars, or the moon. But realistically, it’s easier to fix this planet, which is for all intents and purposes perfect for us, than it is to go and terraform.
Lily: Yes – you think about terraforming Mars, but we can we can just terraform Earth! [laughs]
Gordon: We’ve got the internet here, we’ve got coffee shops, you know, it’s sunny, or it is sometimes. We should really just stay here.
Lily: What makes it harder to terraform Earth though, is that there’s a lot of people here, and people will want different things. Whereas on Mars, no one’s going to tell you you can’t start building, because it’s not going to hurt anyone if you do. Maybe that’s why people go straight to terraforming Mars rather than fixing Earth: because no one’s going to argue about it. You can just do it.
Gordon: Elon Musk in his Tesla, just driving around Mars, terraforming things left, right and centre, doing whatever he wants.
Lily: One of the songs that we’re probably going to put on the album, that is mostly written but not all recorded, is about the use of aerosols to reduce the heat on Earth. It’s about a plane that outputs these aerosols that reflect the sunlight so that less of the sun’s rays are trapped in that gap between the clouds and the surface of the earth. One of the songs is about that. Spoilers!
Gordon: Another dancefloor banger. It’s a surprisingly upbeat song. I like that one.
Lily: It’s an upbeat topic really. It’s about fixing the earth. And it’s about going and flying in a plane, spraying stuff.
Gordon: Wouldn’t it be easier if we just wrote songs about drinking?
Yeah, you don’t really do songs about drinking. Or love.
Gordon: No, in fact, I’ve counted up a while ago: in the course of L-space and PCPQ we’ve released about 70 songs and only one of them has the word love in it. And it’s a song about a giant isopod trying to imagine what it’s like to be human, and then deciding it’s better off as an isopod. That’s the only time we’ve ever used the word love. And I think I’ll probably continue for a while.
Lily: There’s one song which is about love. It was ‘Bloom Rapids’.
I think love is in the songs, in a way. Because if we’re writing about wanting to fix things then there is love in that. If you didn’t love anyone or anything then you wouldn’t care about trying to make the world a better place. So even though songs themselves aren’t specifically about love, I think they are within a context of loving people and the ways that the world can be.
How are you feeling about releasing the EP yourselves after being with Last Night From Glasgow for a while? Are you apprehensive, or are you just thinking ‘Let’s get out there and do it!’
Gordon: The latter. We’re really excited to be doing things on our own schedule, and the way that we want to do them. Working with Last Night From Glasgow was great; we had fun, but their method of working doesn’t suit what we do now. And what we’re doing now doesn’t suit the label.
L-space will stay there as a legacy project with them. But everything PCPQ does is independent. It means that we can try out some new things that even when you’re working with a very small and agile label like LNFG [wouldn’t be possible]. We can make a decision in the morning and be doing it by the afternoon. And that’s what we’re all about.
We’re going to try some new methods of interacting with fans and the people who buy the music. We’re going to have an interactive WhatsApp group for people in the UK to join. And then we’re going to have an equivalent for our fans in Japan and Taiwan.
Lily: It means no one has to suffer our misguided decisions, if they end up being misguided. But right now we think it’s a great idea to do these WhatsApp broadcasts or do pay-what-you-want releases. But we don’t want that to negatively affect anyone else if it goes wrong. It’s an experiment and we don’t mind too much if we learn it doesn’t work.
Gordon: Because it’s fun.
Lily: Yeah, it’s fun, and it’s an experiment.