The krautrock-inspired band are masters of the concept album and have reached No 2 with their latest, a danceable tribute to the myth and magic of Berlin. Frontman J Willgoose Esq talks poetry, Brexit and Bowie with Helen Brown
eu’m excruciatingly self-conscious,” says J Willgoose Esq. “The dance floor isn’t my natural habitat.” And yet the lead single he has written for Public Service Broadcasting’s fourth album, Bright Magic, is a krautrock-indebted hymn to the spiritual release you can get from a good old boogie. On “People, Let’s Dance”, Norwegian guest vocalist EERA sings and robotically recites lines about exchanging “salty sweat/the movement of souls”, before gently reassuring the band’s audience, used to their previous, rockier material that, “it’s perfectly natural/ come dance/ and lose yourself”.
To write the song, the trio’s frontman channelled the “unifying, permissive, pan-everything” nightlife of Berlin. “The whole album," ele diz, “is an interrogation of my fascination with a city where so much seems possible. Historically, it has been a place where artists and musicians go to experiment and create their own mythology, with David Bowie being the obvious example. I’ve always had such a romantic idea of the city. After the Brexit vote I realised I only had a short time left during which it would be feasible for me to go to live there and have a leap at my own Berlin album. Try a little reinvention.”
It wouldn’t be the self-deprecating Londoner’s first reinvention. “John Willgoose Esq” isn’t my interviewee’s real name. It’s a character he created back in 2009 after around a decade of playing the guitar in indie bands. “I was on the cusp of 30,” he says – he’s now 39 – “and I’d given up all hope of being a professional musician. I just thought I’d make some music for fun and the ‘Willgoose Esq’ was just my own Fisher Price attempt at reinvention.” As he talks over the phone from the home in which vintage synths have made way for the toys of his young daughter, I get the sense that he’s a little embarrassed about being stuck with the joke name. Although, as a shy man, he also seems to enjoy the protection it provides. The band’s newest member has continued the tradition, lurking behind the spy-like moniker of “Mr B”.
Willgoose was cooking up a little electronica when he heard that the British Film Institute and The National Archive had released some recordings. Enthralled and amused by the vintage sound of reports about the night mail (1936), the design of the first Spitfire plane (1942) and the first expedition of Mount Everest (1953), he stirred samples into the mix to create an atmospheric debut album, eight years ago, Inform-Educate-Entertain.
“It was such a simple concept,” says Willgoose, “teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future.” But it’s one that resonated with the rise of geek culture in which teenage IT whizzkids became millionaires overnight. My scientist friends played the record late into the night as they crunched data, using the beats like audio caffeine and sucking inspiration from its pioneering subjects. The album defied Willgoose’s expectations and peaked at 21 nas paradas de álbuns do Reino Unido.
Each successive PSB album scored a higher place in the charts, com Bright Magic reaching No 2 Semana Anterior. Each release locked more securely on to a theme, playing out like sonic seminars and staying true to Willgoose’s mission statement of “celebrating human achievements, innovation and resilience, even in the face of overwhelming odds”. The Race for Space (2015) began with JFK’s 1962 Fala. Every Valley (2017), on which he was joined by “JF Abraham” on bass, banjo and flugelhorn, chronicled the rise and fall of the Welsh mining industry, threaded with rich seams of brass and studded with samples including Seventies job adverts praising the security of a carrier down the pits and vox pops from miner wives. Along the way they’ve produced EPs about the Second World War, the development of radar and the sinking of the Titanic. This was music designed to make the listener think.
“I fall down rabbit holes of research,” says Willgoose. “I often end up with more questions than answers. But I don’t think that throwing those questions out there is a bad thing.” The Nottingham University graduate thinks there’s been a gap in the market for more cerebral music because “a lot of bands don’t seem to have a lot to say. They don’t put a lot of thought into anything.”
Por contraste, Bright Magic arrives in my inbox with pages of detailed notes, tracing the history of Berlin back to its rise from the marshland (“brl”, I learn, is Slavic for “swamp”) and tracking its influence on industry, the arts and architecture. In what reads more like an essay than a press release, Willgoose interrogates theories of a city that has “borne witness to tremendous creativity and some of the darkest hours of humanity’s history”. He explains why he avoided focusing on the overexposed inhumanity of the Nazis and the Stasi, inspired instead by the German companies that developed the lightbulb and the artistry of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich.
“My first memory of Berlin dates from watching the wall come down on TV with my dad,”Ele diz agora. “I was seven. I felt how serious he was. He told me we were witnessing an incredible moment in history and I didn’t understand. eu pensei: 'Oh? Really? OK.’ Then a few years later I was gripped by U2’s Achtung Baby. I remember seeing Bono on Top of the Pops performing ‘The Fly’ in those shades and thinking he looked like the coolest person ever. I bought the record and felt there was something different about it. I was intrigued by the German title. It’s funny that ‘Achtung Baby’ is their Berlin album even though they went out to have a creative moment and hardly wrote a note there. They had to come home and write most of it in Dublin.”
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But this feeds into Willgoose’s theory of the Berlin myth. Though it’s true that the city has hosted extraordinary cabaret and spawned “the most authentic industrial punk”, there’s also an element of mirage.
He takes a real delight in telling me the story of when Bowie met Christopher Isherwood, the gay novelist who moved to Weimar-era Berlin in 1929 to revel in the “mystery-magic” of the city’s intellectual stimulation and document its sexual freedoms in the company of his friend WH Auden. “So Bowie said, ‘I read you had a hell of a time here in the Thirties!’ And Isherwood replied, ‘Don’t forget, I was a hell of a writer.’ Isherwood burned his diaries to erase the reality of it. The myth he created – a myth that went on to become Cabaret – is what is preserved. The truth went up in smoke.”
This shadow of loss gives Bright Magic a melancholy that balances its energy, the audio equivalent of sparking neon party lights reflected in gutter puddles. Jangle-pop tunes such as “Blue Heaven” (on which vocalist Andrea Casablanca assumes the persona of Marlene Dietrich) are shadowed by more sombre tracks including the atmospheric “Ich und die Stadt”, where Nina Hoss recites a poem by Kurt Tucholsky about how the smooth asphalt of Berlin’s train station acts as a “human funnel” to swallow worried souls. “Tucholsky was a fascinating character who reached out a hand to me across time,” says Willgoose. “He refused to carry his gun in the First World War and his books were among the first to be burned by the Nazis in 1933. As a journalist, he was an acerbic critic of social injustice. As a poet he was incredibly tender. I don’t think you have to speak German to hear how beautiful that poem is.”
Although he’s in thrall to the “experimental energy and hedonism” of Berlin, Willgoose admits his own time there was more staid. “A couple of weeks after we arrived my wife was waving a positive pregnancy test at me. So she had a lot of naps while I walked the dog. As vegetarians, we couldn’t engage with all the sausage. Although I’m almost moved to tears remembering the best veggie burgers I’ve ever eaten.”
Sitting by the side of the road, sampling passing cars that sound like waves of white noise, he marvelled at “how well the city accommodates non-human life. There are skylarks nesting there, being protected and celebrated. I walked along the canal every day. Water brings a peaceful energy to cities. And I can’t stop banging on about Tempelhof airport, this amazing recreational urban space that used to be an airport and is now a huge space for people and nature. It used to house refugees in 2015. I was thrilled to cycle up and down the old runways.”
Always political, Willgoose notes: “If we had a space that big in London it would be swallowed up by one of Boris Johnson’s mates to build skyscrapers filled with million-pound apartments and a few boxes for poor people who’d have to go in and out through a separate poor door.” He says he finds it “extremely depressing” to think that Brits will find it much less easy to work in Europe, post Brexit.
“We included so many lyrics in German to make a pro-European statement. We are all for the integration of cultures and ideas. It was painful to be writing about the idea of city as a creative melting pot at the emit moment when our own country has shut itself off from that in a very stupid, nationalistic way.” But he concludes that the album’s theme is “light… the light bouncing off of Dietrich’s cheekbones, of neon signs in the rain. I wanted to celebrate movement, colour and joy in an urban environment.”
‘Bright Magic’ is out now via Play It Again Sam. The band tour the UK from 24 October to 11 novembro, including a show at London’s O2 Brixton Academy