Public Service Broadcast bring some Berlin-themed Bright Magic to Hampshire
Berlin has long been a city with an almost mystic allure to artists of many stripes.
J Willgoose Esq, Public Service Broadcasting’s main man, moved to the German capital from April 2019 to January 2020 in a bid to understand this fascinating city.
Since their 2013 debut Inform-Educate-Entertain the band have become a distinctive voice – weaving samples from archive footage into instrumentals that have veered from alternative rock to electronica and all points in between.
Over time they have also used guest vocalists – and on new album Bright Magic these guests, including EERA, Blixa Bargeld and Andreya Casablanca, help paint a vivid picture of Berlin.
The album went to number two in the charts on its release last month – a career best.
So where did the original idea for this album come from?
‘It's really hard to remember back to when you first had the idea for something – it's been in there for years – since before (2017 album) Every Valley was recorded, let alone released.
‘In terms of where the idea itself came from, part of writing the record became trying to work that out – what seeds were planted by this city and its history and its people who'd used it as a backdrop and by the art that emerged from it.’
Why does he think it has such a magnetic draw to artists?
‘Writing the record became an attempt to answer that. Maybe I've raised more questions than I've actually answered,’ he laughs.
Using Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis as its first touchstone, the album threads through the past century, but as J adds, he was clear what he did and didn’t want to cover.
‘The title came to me before anything else, and defined what I was looking for when I was researching it.
‘When I was reading these great voluminous histories of Berlin, it was not Goering, Goebbels, and Hitler, not the airlift, not the wall, not the spycraft – it was ideas of what follows in from Bright Magic?
‘It was illumination and inspiration and creativity, and imagination – all those things I was on the hunt for, and I think Berlin has had at least two creative peaks, but certainly the ’20s into the very early ’30s, the sheer amount of extraordinary art that was produced.
‘It was a big draw in terms of subject matter, definitely.’
During that early period there was a strong cabaret scene in Berlin, was J tempted to go down that route?
‘Well, we got all the dancers in, but I just wasn't feeling it...’ he laughs. ‘Dance is definitely a link on the record for me though – the movement, it's a strange conceptual working in my head, but it feels like a lot of it is movement-related and colour-related, and obviously dance is a great way of getting that across.
‘It would be nice to weaving that into the live show, but I don't know if we can afford it – we might need to sell a few more records!’
The first taste of the new album came back in June via the single People, Let’s Dance.
‘There's an unnamed member of our entourage,’ says J, ‘and I sent them an early demo of People Let's Dance, and said, does it actually make you want to dance? Does the song perform anything like its title intends?
‘And he said that as he put it on, his eldest kid came running downstairs, came into the kitchen, jumped on the table and started dancing. His youngest put down the crayons and joined in, and he didn't say who it was – he just put some music on and that happened.
‘It was like, well, we're in business!’
The album was recorded in the famous Hansa Studios – where David Bowie U2, Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode, and many more have recorded classic albums.
‘It's not just the things that have been recorded there, but the songs that have been written there – physically walking past photos of Bowie and Depeche Mode.
‘I'm not a spiritual or phantasmagorical person, but feeling the presence and weight of that history on you every day is pretty intimidating, and quite demoralising in some ways, because you know you're never going to be up there with these "gods”, so what are you doing, why are you here, you moron? That's your internal conversation every day, which isn't fun.
‘You've got all that weight behind you, but the challenge is to run that from something stultifying and the pressure you transfer onto yourself and turn it into an inspiration. Can we pay homage to them in some way, while doing our own new thing?
We used some of the things they used – we tried to follow Depeche Mode and (industrial music pioneers, Einstürzende) Neubauten's musique concrete and industrial things – hitting lots of bits of metal, smashing up lightbulbs, making percussion out of them, stuff like that, but also using some of the tricks that (Bowie producer Tony) Visconti used in the studio for Low and “Heroes”, but obviously trying to keep it fresh and do our own thing on top of it at the same time.
‘It was intimidating, but ultimately I think we got to grips with it.’
Neubauten founder, former Bad Seed and notoriously intense musician Blixa Bargeld appears on Bright Magic’s track Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen (the rhythm of the machines).
What was it like working with him?
‘My modus operandi with him was not to annoy him, basically,’ J says with a chuckle.
‘He's an intimidating character so you don't want to get his back up – that was my main focus – get the performance out of him that we need, but at the same time we're not going to be best mates, so don't feed him lines that he's heard every day for the last 20-30 years or he's just going to think you're an idiot and not worth his time.
‘I don't think you get to have a career as long and as brave and as strong as his without being like that.
‘I remember the engineer who was recording the session turning to me and saying: “I'm enjoying watching you having a very intense time”.
‘Thanks for that!”
Is this ultimately his love letter to Berlin?
‘It's an attempt to decipher a love for Berlin – why is that?
‘What version of the city have I concocted in my head, and through which methods, and which characters, and why has it had that effect on me?
‘It's a love letter to a version of Berlin, but whether that version of Berlin actually exists in reality, is questionable.
‘We all have our own relationships with the places we love – my London would be very different from yours, for example.
‘Berlin has so many angles, so many facets, so much history, it's what you want it to be for a lot of people who got there. It has so much to offer.’
Given the subject matter of the album, it doesn’t take much of a leap to realise that J is also strongly pro-European.
‘I think anyone with an open mind, and a creative persuasion and a liberal approach to life and arts and exchange of ideas and information and people and labour... I think we're all in despair at what's happened over the past five years and genuinely can't believe what our country's done to itself.
‘The record is obviously in its own way a comment on it. And it was the last change to take up the options available to us as citizens of Europe.
‘I was a citizen of Europe when I wrote this record, and I'm not any more.
‘It's simultaneously enraging and heartbreaking.
‘I don't know anybody who's creative, who relies on travel and distributing ideas and exchanging information of anything across borders who thinks that this is a good idea. Not a single person. Maybe that's echo chambers. Maybe it's the fact that it's a terrible idea, who can say?’
Public Service Bradcasting are at O2 Guildhall, Southampton on Thursday, October 28. Go to academymusicgroup.com.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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