Lighting the Bright Magic lantern – back in touch with Public Service Broadcasting’s J.Willgoose, Esq.

On the eve of the release of the fourth Public Service Broadcasting studio album, a celebration of the cultural and political metropolis that is Berlin, and with the London-based outfit set to return to live action, it was time to catch back up with the band’s key sonic architect, J. Willgoose, Esq.

Bright Magic, out this Friday, September 24, is an album in three parts (Building A City / Building A Myth / Bright Magic), seen as their most ambitious undertaking yet, following in the footsteps of David Bowie, Depeche Mode and U2, recording in and inspired by the delights of the hauptstadt of the Federal Republic of Germany.

A four-piece comprising my interviewee, drumming companion Wrigglesworth, multi-instrumentalist JF Abraham and visuals guru Mr. B, they’re set to tour the new record from next month, prompting further headaches – but welcome ones – after what’s proved a stressful last two years.

As 2013’s debut LP, Inform – Educate – Entertain, used archival samples from the British Film Institute as audio-portals to the Battle Of Britain, the summit of Everest, and beyond, 2015’s follow-up, The Race For Space, used similar methods to laud the superpowers’ rivalry and heroism in orbit and on the Moon. Then in 2017, they were joined by voices such as Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield on Every Valley, a moving exploration of community and memory via the rise and fall of the British coal industry, reaching No.4 on the UK charts. And now they’ve moved on again.

While the use of electronics and surging guitar rock remain familiar, Bright Magic uses samples and the English language sparingly, in a less linear and narrative and more impressionistic portrait of a city from the ground up.

J’s Eureka moment came in late 2018 when he heard cinematographer Walter Ruttmann’s 1928 Berlin tape-artwork Wochenende, a collage of speech, field recordings and music that provides a sonic evocation of the city and is sampled on three Bright Magic tracks.

Starting to get a feel for where his title wanted to take him, ‘towards ideas of illumination and inspiration, electricity and flashes of light and colour and sound’ – all the tracks eventually colour-coded – he moved to Berlin in April 2019, and was soon found on the Leipzigerstrasse, site of the city’s first electric street lights, walking ‘up and down recording electrical currents and interference’, some of those frequency buzzes, clicks and impulses heard on in ‘Im Licht’, inspired in part by pioneering lightbulb manufacturers AEG and Siemens, my interviewee determined to ‘capture those tiny little pulses you pick up while walking through a city’.

I was a couple of listens in when we spoke, already enraptured, but asked J straight away if this was just an eloquent and creative way of a band with an ongoing mission of ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’ to say ‘Bollocks to Brexit’.

“Erm … it’s clearly a pro-European record, I would say, just from its very existence … yeah, it’s not explicit, but at the same time I realise in the lead up to making it, if I was ever going to realise this ambition of moving there for a bit, writing and recording, I needed to do it pretty quick, because the door was closing. While it’s not impossible now, it’s certainly a lot harder than it was … for no real good reason. But there you go.

“To speak about the record though, and what it’s trying to say, it’s implied rather than explicit, having these cities where all nationalities move in and out and inspire each other and contribute to the patchwork and mosaic of creative industry in that place. Berlin in the ’20s was full of people from all over the world – exiled Russians, Americans, English, all sorts – and being able to facilitate that as a city, you see the benefits it’s reaped from that. It’s a city that nobody in the course of the last two years when I’ve told them what I’ve been doing, said, ‘I didn’t really like it there’. Every single person said, ‘I love Berlin!’. It’s so revered.”

As he puts it, the finished record is ‘ultimately not just about one city, but all centres of human interaction and community which allow the free exchange and cross-pollination of ideas’. But he managed nine months there before the lockdown arrived. Was that always the plan, or did he realise what was happening and change his schedule?

“The original plan was to stay a year, do the record and come back. But within two weeks of getting there, my wife was waving a little white stick at me, telling me she was pregnant, so that changed things. We wanted to come home for various reasons, we did in January and everything went well, but then the walls started closing in – pandemic-wise – and it swiftly became apparent that our lofty dream of all heading back as a family in early summer to live for a couple of months while I finished up was not going to happen.”

Well, hopefully you’ll be back soon.

“I hope so. I had dreams of taking photos of my daughter with the piano in the big room at Hansa, but not this time.”

He’s referring to Kreuzberg’s famed Hansa Tonstudio, where the LP was written and recorded, also used for Depeche Mode’s ‘80s triumvirate, U2’s Achtung Baby, and, crucially, David Bowie’s Heroes and Low. And as J put it, ‘It’s become an album about moving to Berlin to write an album about people who move to Berlin to write an album’.

It’s always a pleasure working out where PSB are heading next, I tell him. They’ve taken us from the darkness of the war years to scale Everest and higher still for the Space Age, then down to the valleys and pits of South Wales, shining a miner’s light on the importance of community. And this time we have another fantastic story and winning spotlight project. Did he know early on this was going to be his next album concept?

“Yeah, I’d been banging on about it to the others for ages! I think I knew that even during the writing and research for Every Valley. It was in the offing for a very long time and seemed pretty destined.

“However, it’s all very well saying, ‘I’m going to move to Berlin, write a record about Berlin’ – and our albums have more of a narrative feel to them, I suppose – but it’s not as simple as moving there, writing 10 songs about love then moving back. It’s a case of ‘what am I actually writing about, what is this nebulist concept going to distil down into, and what am I focusing on?’. And it was getting the title of the record that came before anything else, and really defined it. An odd way of doing things, but that’s what happened!”

Was that before you discovered and became inspired by Wochenende?

“Yeah, but that’s why when I finally saw the Ruttmann films and other Lichtspiels we finally focused on, it made such sense. I was thinking, ‘bright magic – imagination, inspiration and illumination’. And to then realise Berlin was this early heart of abstract animated film and these beautiful films all came out of there, was like a lightbulb moment in my head. That was a day off in Berlin in November 2018 when we were on tour there. I got back in the van the next morning proudly telling everyone, ‘I’ve got it! I know what I’m doing now!’.”

From the moment that female voice comes in and announces or demands ‘mach show’, I’m in the Star Club in Hamburg, I let on, The Beatles being bullied into another demanding live set.

“I think that’s misheard. I’m pretty sure she says, ‘mach schon’, which is ‘get ready’ … but if it does have echoes of Hamburg and The Beatles, I’m certainly not going to tell people otherwise!”

Well, perhaps they misheard, and that’s what the Star Club owner was demanding of them.

“Maybe. It would make sense. And they were worked pretty hard over there.”

This record is unmistakeably Public Service Broadcasting, but at the same time incorporating so many European cultural motifs. Were you always a lover of Kraftwerk, Einsturzende Neubaten, and so on? John Peel loved his German bands. Were you listening to all that?

“Yeah, although I wrote ‘Spitfire’ before I really dug down into proper krautrock. I’d heard the echoes of it down the generations afterwards, like the influences on New Order, Primal Scream and a David Holmes album I loved. So I got it second-hand. It was only after ’Spitfire’ came out that I went back and did the proper work. For me, it’s NEU!, it’s Harmonia, it’s Kluster, it’s Roedelius, and the stuff Eno did with Harmonia especially, which only just recently resurfaced.

“I do like Kraftwerk. Any band that plays any kind of electronic instrument obviously owes them an extraordinary debt, but in terms of the focus on krautrock for me, I think Neu are my number one.” 

‘Der Rhythmus der Maschinen’ for me is somewhere between Moby at his 2002 creative peak and the 18 LP, and Grace Jones.

“Ha! Wow!”

How did the link-up with Blixa Bargeld, veteran of The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten, who becomes the voice of Berlin’s industry on that track, come about?

“I think that’s the first time in all our collaborations it was suggested by the label rather than coming from me. Not because Blixa and Einstürzende Neubauten weren’t on my radar, but I just thought, ‘Why would he want anything to do with us?’. I didn’t have the audacity to ask him! But when someone asks if we’d thought about it and said, ‘I can put you in touch,’ it was, ‘Well, put me in touch, but he won’t be interested’. But then they came back, said he was interested, and I was saying, ‘Are you sure they’ve spoken to him? Is it just someone asking on his behalf?’. They assured me he was, and I said again, ‘Are you sure?’.

“And although I didn’t meet him in person, we spoke online then did a remote recording. It was an experience – he’s a formidable character – but did a great job with it. The voice of the machines that kind of descends half-way through, takes it somewhere else entirely. It’s great.”

Meanwhile, ‘People, Let’s Dance’, the first single – featuring vocals from Berlin-based musician EERA – set the scene brilliantly, and incorporated a guitar riff from Depeche Mode’s ‘People Are People’, the song taking its title from a chapter of Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine A City, and opening up part two of the album, the scene shifting to a three-day weekend club environment and an aspect of Berlin as a long-established free zone for pleasure, art and expression, its accompanying video featuring colourful roller-skaters against a city backdrop, directed by Chloe Hayward. A bit like ‘Gagarin’ six years earlier, I suggested, it takes a dance level entry to a wider themed record.

“Ha! Yeah, you dangle these radio-friendly things out there to hope you can trick people into listening to a relatively obscure record! But it was a fun song to write, and to write a song about Berlin club culture – even if you’re not going to make it a techno-banger, as it were – it has to be pretty up and appealing.

“That song has its own purpose and function, with echoes of that Depeche Mode track and the Hansa thread that runs through that. Even in itself it’s densely woven, full of references, little clues to other stuff. But when you put it in the context of the rest of the record, there’s so much going on in pretty much every track in terms of where it draws your ear and eye to. It’s quite dense!”  

You mention Depeche Mode, and also talk about the importance of U2’s Berlin period, but I clearly detect the influence of someone else above others who worked so memorably there, a certain David Bowie. And I’d like to think if he was still with us, he’d deflect from talk of his own ‘Let’s Dance’ from 1983 to mention yours instead.

“Ah, I don’t think he would! Again, what on earth would someone like him want to do with us? But one of the hardest things about this was being able to be lucky enough to rent a room in Hansa for the best part of a year and write there, walking past his image every day and hearing these ghosts that hang around the building, like Depeche Mode, U2, and Neubauten. All these people who’ve been there really defined the building and defined eras of music at the same time. It’s really something to have that hang over you when you enter the building every day and not take it on your shoulders to think, ‘What am I possibly hoping to contribute to this? I am not in the same bracket as them!”

Well, it obviously raised your game.

“Erm … I mean, has it? I don’t know. I hope so, but it’s not for me to judge.”

Was the LP that followed your immersion in Berlin the key to getting through lockdowns, borders closing, and all that on your return home, albeit with a new family member as well?

“No, actually for the first five or six months of lockdown last year, it was a tremendous source of stress and worry. All my equipment was in Germany. I was still renting a studio and renting an apartment in Germany, but couldn’t get there and didn’t have any equipment here to make music. That’s when I did my side-project of Late Night Final, choosing loads of synths that had been sat at the back of cupboards for ages, and guitar pedals I’d never really plugged in, bodging together bits and bobs to try and get some kind of creative juices flowing. It really helped me mentally to get that done while I was dealing with the prospect of maybe not being able to finish the record the way I hoped – either having to abandon it or record it here and run up the white flag.

“So much was in the balance then. I don’t think I really had vocalists for most of the tracks, and it just felt impossible at that point. I was a bit heartbroken and crushed by it. Then, when things started to relax, in June and July, I was booking dates in, hoping beyond hope we could all actually get out there without contracting Covid, work together in that environment, get it done, get our stuff and get home. It was really quite stressful. But the actual recording, thankfully, ended up being very enjoyable – a refreshing slice of normality in a very un-normal year.”

I can’t pretend to have been on board right from the start, but it was ‘Spitfire’ that made me go back to the first two EPs and singles, courtesy of Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music, and I was sold. It’s now eight years since I first saw you at Preston’s 53 Degrees, and it’s been more than a decade altogether. Where’s that time gone? Has it flown for you (‘like a bird – a spitfire bird’)?

“Yeah, it has, and it hasn’t. It’s a strange thing, with many personalities and aspects to it. Now and again I’m almost transported back in time to what it was like in the beginning. It’s so exciting when things are taking off. You get taken back there at various points, and think, ‘God, that feels like a long time ago’. I listened to a demo version of ‘Spitfire’ the other day and was transported back to late 2011, thinking, ‘I’m really trying to write something good here, and it’s not working’.

“And it’s strange that this weird concept for a band has been embraced so widely and allowed us to fulfil these crazy ambitions, doing stuff with some of our heroes and going somewhere as revered as Berlin and Hansa, being able to make a record and contribute our own piece to that history. It’s a privilege.”

Along the way, you’ve also introduced me to a few acts, from Smoke Fairies to 9 Bach, and back to properly check out Camera Obscura. And this time I can add EERA for ‘People, Let’s Dance’ and ‘Gib Mir das Licht’, Nina Hoss on closing track, ‘Ich und die Stadt’, and Andreya Casablanca, of Berlin garageistes Gurr, standing in for Marlene Dietrich on ‘My Blue Heaven’, an anthem of proud self-determination. How did Andreya come up on your radar?

“For that track I wanted somebody with a bit of spike and punk to them, who’d have a bit of that attitude she seemed to have. A remarkable woman, a remarkable character, and I use the word advisedly, as I do feel a lot of the time she’s playing somebody. I wanted somebody with that edge and while I knew of Gurr I didn’t realise they were from Berlin. And while trawling the internet to find female vocalists I thought would be good for this, Gurr popped up and it turned out they weren’t working together on collaborations but Andreya was.

“We went from there, wrote most of the lyrics online together last year, sending demo files backwards and forwards, going through it line by line. It came together very slowly, and I didn’t really hear what we had until it was all recorded, when I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not bad, that!’”

That track, ‘Blue Heaven’, is perhaps my early LP favourite, another that’s trademark Public Service Broadcasting, but also initially New Order then – when you step up the guitars, as on past songs like ‘Signal 30’ – The Wedding Present, which is absolutely fine by me.

“Yeah, it’s all in there, it’s The Walkmen, it’s Jesus & Mary Chain, Here We Go Magic were a big one for that track, it’s Slowdive, Asobi Seksu … I’m just thinking of all the songs I ripped off for that one! When you’re writing music, if you’re like me, a bit of a magpie – and that’s probably one thing I do share with Bowie, always keeping an ear out for something you can take – it’s a big part of making music, taking other people’s work and incorporating it into your own.

“There is of course a line you shouldn’t cross. If we’d used that Depeche Mode riff without asking … but there are still ways of paying tribute to things without plagiarising them, and I hope it’s a line we stayed the right side of. There’s all sorts of musical nods to all sorts of people, perhaps most explicit with Low and Bowie and ‘The Visitor’.”

‘The Visitor’ was initially intended to feature a sample of Bowie reflecting on ‘how he viewed himself as this vessel for synthesizing and refracting other influences, and presenting avant-garde influences to the mainstream’, my interviewee revealing that the band ‘tried to absorb a bit of that spirit’. And that number for me is perhaps this record’s ‘The Other Side’, with a hint – when it all comes together – of Hubert Parry’s music to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, I suggest.

“It’s become clear to me afterwards that it’s not dissimilar in some respects … or ‘Jupiter’.”

True, and with an underlying feel of Ultravox. In fact, I can see the fog on the streets on a well-known video of a certain hit single from 40 years ago.

“Yeah, it was all about conjuring an atmosphere similar to ‘Warszawa’, the song that kicks off side B {of Low}, layering up the piano and the synths. I think I just used a bit of background electrical noise to create the flanged intro that was again a sort of nod to Station to Station. Then that melody wrote itself in my head. The drums were a very late addition. They weren’t in the demo version. And we put the snare drum through ’Even Tide’, so you get that pitched down effect Visconti pioneered and everyone in the ’80s then used.”

Well, I said Ultravox because that’s probably where I heard it first.

“Yeah, and Visconti probably nicked it from somewhere else!”

Talking of that kind of feel, I’m briefly back in my church choir when the organ leads us into ‘Lichtspiel I: Opus’.

“The strange thing is it’s all one instrument, the lead of that, and it does sound like an organ when all the filters are down. The other thing that might give it the sound of the organ is that on earlier synthesisers they didn’t call it octaves, they called it feet – like an organ. And I was kind of playing those in real time, so you get these harmonic layers that pitch and shift and move on top of other stuff. When you’re playing with those sort of harmonies, it’s going to take some people back to church music, which is built around those.”

Absolutely, and that’s not something I’ve said to any other interviewee (not even Rick Wakeman).

“Ha!”

So how are you, Wrigglesworth, JF and Mr B going to manage to get all this over on the forthcoming tour?

“I’m just getting to that now. I think I was too worried it wasn’t going to happen. Now it seems it will, because of the Government’s policy of unorganised chaos, so I’m now starting to scratch my head about it. But I think we need some help on the vocals front, and we’ll probably try and enlist live vocals some way or another. When they’re as central to the songs as they are on some of this record, and even on the last one, you do need that represented on stage.”

It sounds like that might involve some visas.

“Erm … it might. It certainly involves a bigger, more complicated and more expensive show. Very few bands are in a position to be able to think about those things, because we’ve all not really worked for a year and a half. It does leave you with a lot of head-scratching moments, chiefly, ‘how do we afford this?’. But there you go.”

And dare I ask where you’re headed next? I was thinking something to do with Empire Windrush and the positive impact of immigration before, but I was wrong this time and will probably be wrong again. Perhaps you’ll just confound us with a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle-eight/chorus-type LP next time instead.

“Well, it is nice to be asked. It shows people are interested. To be honest though, this is the first time since we started that I don’t really know. There’s something potentially in the works for next year, but I’ve not heard a lot about it for a while, so who knows.

“Other than that, without going into too much detail, this was a really difficult record to make for all sorts of reasons. It definitely took its toll. So I should really feel quite happy to just try and recharge on some level.”

No pressure from me, by the way. I’m not saying you’re only as good as your next LP.

“Well, you know. There will be pressure at some point! And I’ll try to embrace that.”

For the April 2017 writewyattuk interview with J. Willgoose, Esq., marking the release of Every Valley, head here. For this site’s February 2015 feature/interview with J, marking the release of previous LP, The Race for Space, head here. You can also seek out writewyattuk‘s lowdown on Inform-Educate-EntertainThe Race For Space, and PSB live at 53 Degrees in 2013 and the Ritz, Manchester in 2015.

Public Service Broadcasting live dates, with tickets available here: October – Sun 24 Cardiff University Great Hall; Mon 25 Brighton Dome; Tue 26 Bristol O2 Academy; Wed 27 Exeter Great Hall; Thu 28 Southampton O2 Guildhall; Sat 30 Aylesbury Friars; Sun 31 Birmingham O2 Institute. November – Mon 1 Leeds O2 Academy; Tue 2 Llandudno Cymru Theatre; Thu 4 Manchester O2 Apollo; Fri 5 Newcastle O2 City Hall; Sat 6 Aberdeen Music Hall; Sun 7 Glasgow Barrowland; Tue 9 Nottingham Rock City; Wed 10 London Brixton O2 Academy; Thu 11 Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Bright Magic is released on Friday, September 24th via Play It Again Sam, with a pre-order link here. And you can connect with Public Service Broadcasting via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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1 Response to Lighting the Bright Magic lantern – back in touch with Public Service Broadcasting’s J.Willgoose, Esq.

  1. So much to enjoy in this piece, Malcolm.

    Love that the artist moved to the city for ‘inspiration’. That’s commitment! And the record sounds fascinating too. I loved The Race For Space. Embarrassingly, given Welsh ancestors somewhere back in time, I struggled to connect with Every Valley. But having lived in Germany for a year (though not Berlin) it feels like a good start for the new one. In fact, the more I read in this excellent article, the more excited I became.

    Off to see where/how to order Bright Magic.

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