"Why is this place, arguably more than any other European city, such a magnet for creativity?" - Public Service Broadcasting on their Berlin-based new album Bright Magic
Public Service Broadcasting have spent the last few years crafting a series of albums in their own unique style, often heaivily utisling samples from archival newsreels to generate atmospheric tales of history set to a collage of shimmering guitars, motorik drums and crackling voices from a distant past.
Their previous albums have been themed on the race for space and the rise and fall of mining communities in the Welsh valleys, but this time the band's chief creative force J. Willgoose wanted to fulfill a long-held ambition of moving to Berlin to write and record an album inspired by its rich history and its tapestry of unique characters.
Their new album Bright Magic arrives in stores this Friday (September 24) and ahead of its release we spoke to J. Willgoose about why the album turned out quite differently to what he'd originally imagined...
So obviously the pandemic has interfered with the plans of a lot of artists, but we understand that a fourth album might’ve been here sooner?
“Yeah, I think so, I’d kind of finished writing the bones of it by January 2020, then I came back to London to have our first child, my wife and I…”
“So yeah, that happened! And then, obviously, other things happened too. We were supposed to go back out in May or June to record the sessions, the idea was to have the album finished up and probably out by about January this year. So it delayed things by about eight or nine months, which at the time was concerning because it looked like we might not be able to get back into Germany for the foreseeable future, so we started to think whether we needed to abandon our romantic plans and grand dreams.
“Thankfully it came off. We managed to squeeze in during the window between lockdowns and get it done, but yeah, it wasn’t an easy process. I mean, it’s never an easy process, but it was definitely an even harder this time around.”
So with all your usual gear stuck in another country, you ended up making and releasing music on your own as Late Night Final. It was something a bit more experimental and exploratory than you’d normally do with PSB…
“Yeah, absolutely. And it was just so quick. I did the whole record in about three months and it was recorded straight to stereo, so there was no endless tinkering with it, it was sort of live takes of me sequencing stuff and fiddling with it as it went in. So it was the total opposite to PSB records, which take so long to research before even a note of music is written, and then obviously take a while to write, and then take ages to record and get ready to play live. So it was a lovey sort of antidote to that, for me, and it was nice to see it get more of a response than I thought it would, given how non-mainstream the format was, with four fifteen-minute songs or whatever it was…”
All your albums to date have been quite thematic, last time with Every Valley you recorded in a village in Wales and made an album about the rise and fall of the coal industry there… this time it’s centred around Berlin. Can you talk us through the idea behind it?
“Yeah, well, even before we’d started recording Every Valley, for many years I knew that I wanted to move to Berlin to write a record, and that was all I knew, and I knew that I wanted that to be the one after Every Valley. I mean, obviously there’s an extraordinary wealth of history and extraordinary episodes in humanity, both good and bad, which centre around Berlin. So in the early days of thinking about this I thought: ‘Well, there’s more than enough material there to choose from and I’m sure I can find plenty of interesting things to do there’.
“But then the more I thought about the motivation for doing the record I thought: Why do you want to move there? Why is that exactly?’ And the more I started to examine that, the more it kind of became the focus for the record. Why is this place, arguably more than any other European city, such a magnet for creativity? Especially for musicians, since Bowie kind of blazed a trail in the 70s, why are people still drawn there?"
What inspired the album’s title?
“Well, with all of that in mind this title just sort of presented itself to me, I’d just discovered a short story collection called Bright Magic by a noted Berlin author, Alfred Döblin, and those two things kind of met in my head and the album just started write itself down a particular path. It was an odd process, because I thought it was going to be about historical events, or the Stasi or something like that, all the more obvious things I suppose. But I guess in examining the motivation for doing it, it all slightly unravelled and became something else.”
As far as the album’s vision of Berlin goes, is this contemporary Berlin as it is now or a sort of imagined Metropolis?
"I think it’s sort of both. It’s Berlin as this imagined utopia of creative expression and creative freedom, it’s this prism through which light gets shone and creativity radiates outwards from. It’s the version of the city that I’d created in my head before even going there once, let alone all the times we’ve played there, and the versions of cities that we all create in our heads, sometimes places we’ve never been. So it’s an imagined version of the city, but it’s also about the characters who’ve made it what it is, certainly it in terms of its appeal to me and to many other people."
How did you go about weaving all of that into the album?
“It’s split into three parts, the first part is about building the nuts and bolts of the city and building some of the myths that have been generated around it, but more the industrial might and force that propelled it forwards in the late 19th century, and then into the people and the scenes that made it this beacon, the club scene and Bowie and Dietrich and Anita Berber. It’s this kind of combination of theatricality and musicality, myth-making and danger, in some respects, the permissiveness and the sexuality, all these things that make it this exotic and enticing place. How much of this is actually borne out in reality is anyone’s guess, but the myth of Berlin stands tall, so it’s examining all that through these characters.
“The the last part of the album takes a bit of an abstract, expressionist leap. It’s inspired by a lot of the artworks I’ve discovered while making the record, and takes inspiration from Berlin as this sort of creative force that compels people to take these brave steps, so it was our version of that, really.”
You recorded at Hansa Studios too, where David Bowie recorded in the 1970s, what was that experience like?
“Yeah, we not only recorded there it was all written at Hansa too, over a year, so I was going into work every day, passing all these people stopping for photos outside and seeing the tours go around, I even had a few people trying to sort of tailgate me as I went into the building! It was a very present building, if you know what I mean, as far as a building can ever be present in writing a record, but it was a big part of the story, certainly.”
Are you still producing it all yourselves?
“Production-wise, yeah, still doing it myself, but Alex Silva, who’s worked with the Manic Street Preachers and Herbert Grönemeyer, who is basically the best-selling German artist there is, he’s credited as executive producer on the record, and that’s kind of for the oversight he gave me, he gave me a lot of feedback on the songs, and also logistically he was very helpful, he got things done when I couldn’t.
“We had more of that sort of help, a guiding hand across the whole process, but the nuts and bolts of it is me. I think it’s just that you’re biting off quite a lot there, putting yourself in that situation, but I suppose as a writer and a creative person that’s one of the challenges you set for yourself. You know, can I move to Berlin and write this record and is it actually going to be any good? It was important to kind of keep it in-house and challenge myself to see where I could get with it.”
You’ve sampled Walter Ruttman’s audio collages a few times across the album, how did that feed into what you were doing?
“Yeah, it came out of going to an exhibition in a Berlin gallery on a day off in 2018, and I discovered his works and discovered that he’d made the first abstract animated film ever, Lichtspiel Opus 1, and I was walking around with this Bright Magic idea in my head and I just stopped in my tracks when I saw that film. It was exactly what I’d been looking for and just really seemed to gel with this idea I had in my head.
"So not only did that from the basis for a song but he also made Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which became a big inspiration across the record, and he made the world’s first audio collage as well, so I sort of juxtaposed those with a lot of recordings of the city as it is now I’d made myself. That’s what I mean about kind of creating a half-imagined, half real place, it’s got these contemporary sounds of Berlin, but also these other sounds that are throwbacks to a place which no longer exists. I found that a quite an interesting idea to explore.”
You’ve got a few guests on the album this time too – EERA, Andreya Casablanca. How did they become involved?
“I was aware of EERA and I knew that she was in Berlin, so we met up and talked music, and it’s always just nice to talk to other people who are trying to make their way in this rather difficult world, so we hung out a fair bit and she ended up working in two songs, we just got on really well both musically and as people.
Then with Andreya, she’s one half of Gurr, who I did know but didn’t know they were Berlin-based, and I really wanted a female vocalist with considerable energy and attitude. You can’t do a song about Dietrich otherwise, because she was such an extraordinary character. So I got in touch, and they weren’t really into doing collaborations as a duo, but Andreya as up for working on it in a solo capacity. We hung around a bit, we went to see Stereolab, which I think has definitely come out a bit in the song!"
So you have a tour coming up over autumn / winter – you must be looking forward to being able to play live again… what kind of live show can we expect this time around?
"I think the record is more abstract and conceptual, so we’re looking at ways to try and reflect that and give it a bit of personification, while still being able to show the archive footage that we’ve been using for several years now. So it’s a case of trying to blend the two, we think we’ve found a way of doing it, we hope we can afford it! And we’ll have the brass section that we’ve been taking on tour for years, and hopefully live vocals, so it should still be fairly involving show, we hope.”
Will you be able to include any of the guests on the album in the live shows too?
"We’re hoping to be able to do them, we can’t take them all with us unfortunately be we’re hoping to do live vocals in one way or another!"
Bright Magic is available in hmv stores from Friday September 24 - you can aslo find it here in our online store.