Since the late 1970s it has become a place of pilgrimage for many musicians – including J Willgoose, Esq. of Public Service Broadcasting, who was so intrigued by the place he decided to live there for nine months with his wife prior to lockdown.
The band’s new album, Bright Magic, is his attempt to make sense of it all.
“That’s the question behind the whole record, I think,” he says of his fascination with Berlin. “It doesn’t just apply to me having gone there, it applies to all the people in whose footsteps we’re following. What is it about the place that has this draw?
“I think the process of writing the record for me was about actually properly starting to ask that question, trying to see why you’ve got this weird germ of an idea in your head that you want to translocate across a continent, leave your friends and family behind and live in a space you’ve never really spent more than 10 or 11 days in. So I guess for me it was trying to work out what really drew me there, but also some of the myths that had come up about the city that acted as such a creative magnet for people for many years now.”
Willgoose’s first visit to Berlin came when Public Service Broadcasting performed there. “It was really high on my list of places I’d dreamed of playing, but I don’t really know where that came from,” he says. “I really don’t have a good grasp of why you get these ideas in your head, but along with Glastonbury, New York and a distant dream of Brixton, Berlin was up there on that list. It’s odd how you start building a mental image of these places before you’ve even been there in a lot of cases. That’s often quite romantic and idealised and quite different from reality.”
The album’s opening tracks reference Wochenende, Walter Ruttman’s 1930 experimental film/sound collage. Yet Willgoose says his idea wasn’t to create a similar portrait of modern day Berlin. “Most of the stuff that’s been written about on the record is in the past at some point; I don’t think it was an attempt to portray the city as it is now,” he says. “What it is an attempt to do is to portray the city as it exists in this weird space in my head. All the different aspects that I find interesting creatively and also physically, geographically about the city, and also conceptually. With the second half of the record, it moves into much more conceptual territory.”
At one point Willgoose contemplated writing about the city’s 1945 to 1989 East-West dividing lines, but he says: “Once the title Bright Magic just popped into my mind seeing that in one of the short story collections by Alfred Doblin it went from there.
“That’s when I started reading more with that in mind – the idea of light and creativity and imagination. Once I had that in my head as a sort of broad theme then it started to write itself as a three-part record telling different aspects of the mythical nature of its history and in different styles, without an obvious narrative link in the way that we might have had in the past, but taking inspiration from some films like 2001 where there’s really distinct parts of it that have this common thread but they aren’t narratively necessarily linked.”
Willgoose has himself cited the second side of David Bowie’s album ‘Low’ as a key inspiration. Such rock ’n’ roll mythology about Berlin “that’s enhanced and magnified and amplified by people like Bowie” is hard to escape, Willgoose concedes. “For people who love those records, Hansa (recording studio where Bowie worked) will always been a place of quasi-religious status. That’s purely due to his presence there.
“It’s interesting when you look at it beyond the surface. It’s not news to anybody who knows anything about Bowie, but how many of those records were actually written and recorded in Berlin? And you soon start to realise that actually is a myth. He’s always been one of the masters of curating that myth. When you put those two together, when you’ve got the extremely powerful pull of the city itself, so malleable, so many different facets to its history, so many fascinating periods, and then people like Bowie going there and weaving their mythology into it and vice-versa, it really enhances the appeal of it to a lot of people, but definitely people like me.”
For one field recording, Willgoose walked along Leipzig Strasse with an electromagnetic receiver trying to capture the sound of electrical currents. He chuckles at the suggestion that he is obsessed with minute details, saying: “That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”
In this instance, he says it was “about thinking of interesting ways to use material that isn’t music but other textures and sounds in the way that we’ve used speech in the past”, adding: “Much as it isn’t an attempt to create a contemporary picture of Berlin, it is an attempt to weave a contemporary side of the situation there and to juxtapose it against the use of historical use of samples like Wochenende. So you’ve got bits of me wandering down the street recording all these buzzes and clicks and whirrs, some quite hideous interference at times and going out to the harbour and recording pseudo swamp-esque noises to put in there or recording sounds of rain and cars driving past. It all added to the richness of the texture of the whole record, I hope, but also giving a bit of context and more personal touches. It’s less abstract and removed than just using other people’s sounds across the whole thing.
“I think we did start that process with Every Valley (PSB’s 2017 album about South Wales mining communities) but it’s just been taken and run with for this record.”
Bright Magic is out on Friday September 24. Public service Broadcasting play at O2 Academy Leeds on November 1. www.publicservicebroadcasting.net