Public Service Broadcasting’s blend of rock and electronics along with an extravaganza of samples, documentary visuals and iconic live outings has earned them a huge following. But, after dealing with massive themes like space and Everest, they’re turning their backs on samples and embracing Berlin.
Weaving huge themes with similarly huge sounds, multimedia visuals with massive, building and sweeping tunes, Public Service Broadcasting are on a mission to smash through genres and deliver an uncompromising live and recorded experience. Their winning approach involves matching sampled sounds and visuals with electronics, a full band feel and just about as many orchestral players that can fit on stage or in the studio.
And just when you think the PSB experience couldn’t be any bigger, they wrap everything up around (quite literally) the biggest stories to tell through their music. The track Everest, for example, is a live favourite and tells the story of Peak 15, the highest mountain in the world. “Why should we climb it?”, the sampled commentary asks as PSB’s ear worm alt-electronic rock weaves the audio together, building to a huge crescendo to then simply answer: “because it is there”.
Then there are albums like 2017’s The Race for Space that deal with even bigger themes and push the interactive experience to the max. The album takes audio from the British Film Institute to tell the story of the Russian and American space race with visuals projected when the album is played live, and where better to do just that?
What about a couple of gigs at the National Space Centre in Leicester? That should do it. Then to top even that, the band were asked to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings in 2019 with a special orchestral performance of the album at the Royal Albert Hall. As you do.
But where to go next? Having conquered both the highest mountain the UK and space itself, there’s surely nowhere left for PSB to go. What to do? Well, you could follow in the paths of Depeche Mode, U2, Bowie and so many others and head to Berlin.
But the band didn’t just end up in Germany’s mostly creative city because of who went before them – that would, they say, have been something of a cliché. No, it’s a bit more complex than that…
City to city
“I hadn’t really interrogated why I was there, I just thought it was the be all and end all,” says PSB’s founder J. Willgoose, Esq. while pondering what drew him to the city for the recording of their new album Bright Magic.
“I remember saying to our first manager back in 2012, ‘there are three things I want to achieve: play Glastonbury, play New York and play Berlin’.” He continues: “You feel this unique energy with all three, which is strange for a completely non cosmic, non spiritual and very pragmatic person [like me] finding yourself talking like ‘oh man! I feel the energy’.”
After hitting one of his ambitions and playing Berlin fairly early in the band’s career, the city’s energy called him back and in April 2019, after promoting the band’s third album Every Valley, Willgoose and family packed up and relocated to Berlin in search of an adventure and to write a new record.
Although discussions between the band about producing an album based on Berlin had been happening for some time, the album’s narrative had managed to remain a distinctly blank canvas. As the record started to get sketched out, it found Willgoose taking a more reflective approach to his narration.
“I was definitely talking about Berlin with the others before we recorded Every Valley, which was January 2017, and I think it was in my head a long while before that as well?” he explains thoughtfully, before breaking into a self-conscious laugh. “There’s no shortage of bands who move to Berlin to write a record, it’s almost a bit of a cliché!”
“I knew I wanted to go to Berlin to write and record an album and thought ‘I’m sure I’ll find plenty of stuff to write about!’” A nervous look appears on his face. “Thankfully I did, but I think I moved away from some of the more obvious subject matters for a band like us with our own history as well to cover.”
“I think it became more of a question of me asking myself; ‘why were you drawn here and what was it about the people that came here before you and made this place such a seductive destination?’ It’s a different way of trying to write a story I suppose. It’s much more abstract and expressionistic in the way the record approaches that narrative.”
Icons and lightbulbs
Bright Magic may demonstrate a new approach and narrative for J. Willgoose, Esq. but before opening Logic, plugging in that first synth, or crafting that first historical tale, a studio had to be found. Thanks to an introduction from the Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield, the band managed to eventually collect one of the ultimate bucket list ticks for any recording musician – albeit a daunting one.
“When everything was still a nebulous concept in my head, it was the plan to record the record at Hansa Tonstudio Recording Complex, but there was no plan on where I was going to write it,” Willgoose explains. “Luckily James put me in touch with Alex Silva who engineered [MSP album] The Holy Bible and lives in Berlin, but also happens to have a room at Hansa.”
“I didn’t actually realise that he’d had a room there when I got in touch with him. We met in 2017, had a chat and he kindly started looking around the city for a studio on our behalf. One day he said, ‘you know what, we’ve just taken this room above mine, just rent that for a bit if you want?’ I was like ‘er yes, I’d love to write a record in Hansa please!’”
It’s one thing being offered a studio space at Hansa, but it takes a lot of willpower not to be distracted or overwhelmed by such an experience. Willgoose explains what it was like working in such an iconic environment. “Walking through those doors every day, seeing Bowie’s image on the way in, it was quite overwhelming. Maybe if you’re going to put yourself up against anybody, maybe don’t do it with him. It makes one feel like a loser before you’ve started!”
“But obviously you’re tapping into the history,” he adds, “and some of the more imaginative things we did with the recording, like smashing up a lightbulb and using it as a shaker on Im Licht, were directly inspired by things Depeche Mode and Bowie had done within those walls before, and definitely felt like it [the studio] had an influence.”
“I don’t think we’ve had so much fun in the studio as the day we were just smashing stuff up,” Willgoose recalls. “I went a bit deeper with all that this time than I have before. It was the thing with last year.
"We made and laid down our record in the early stages of the pandemic and it was really hard because you do need to be able to have that playful approach and attitude to music making and finding that in those early days was really difficult.”
The sense of ‘play’ didn’t end at lightbulb shakers. Im Licht, a song about the ‘no-lumen-spared’ exhibition in October 1928 and the two patents held by AEG and Siemens for lightbulb manufacture across Europe, also saw Willgoose walking the streets armed with an Ether from Soma Laboratories, described by the company as ‘a wide-band receiver that makes it possible to perceive the electromagnetic landscape around you’.
Willgoose explains: “On Im Licht the bass drum is an impulse detected from the electro magnetic pulses detected down Leipziger Strasse. It’s this fast, high-pitched beep and I took it, moved it down two octaves and made a bass drum out of it.”
Over the past three records, collaborating with other musicians has become more of a regular experience for J. Willgoose, Esq. and this is the case again with Bright Magic. How does the process work for the band?
“For Blue Heaven the demo is quite close to the end result but in terms of the melody Andreya Casablanca [from Berlin indie band Gurr] just very quietly and politely shelved what I’d done and came up with something way cooler. The thing I’ve noticed over time is there’s no point collaborating with someone if all you’re saying is ‘here’s a thing, can you do that?’”
“The point of a collaboration is to take a track somewhere you wouldn’t on your own, so you should be inviting that creative disagreement in some respects. [Highly respected German musician] Blixa Bargeld had a totally different idea for Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen which didn’t quite work with where I wanted it to go, but he still happily took care of my concerns, while doing his own thing.
"I’d never have done what he did at the end of that track, which is brilliant. He’d written a more expansive, story-based thing to go over the whole track and we had to say, ‘no we just needed this one line at the end’. He re-wrote it quickly and delivered it beautifully. The engineer Boris turned to me and said, ‘I’m enjoying watching you have a very intense time’.”
Although in places it’s very subtly used, the incorporation of field recordings forms the bedrock of Bright Magic. It sees another change from Public Service Broadcasting’s past three records, with these ‘found sounds’ dictating the direction of each track rather than being applied as narrative at the end. Willgoose explains why this change came about.
“Often in the past I’ve come to the samples last and built everything else first, but with this one, because they dictated a lot of the pace, it felt like you were writing to the field recordings rather than the other way around. Especially with the last track which is recorded out of the window of the place we were staying in Schöneberg. It was raining and you had these cars going past and it created this wash like the white noise of a synth.
“I moved things around and re-arranged it, but they set the initial sense of pacing, mood and timing. They gave everything an atmosphere and it’s much easier to write imaginatively to than purely with a musical idea at the start.”
Sound And Vision
Like so many artists, Willgoose holds Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack in very high regard and when listening to Bright Magic you can’t help but be drawn to the beautiful ambient swells of a Yamaha CS-80. In this particular instance it’s actually a Deckard’s Dream synth, Black Corporation’s recreation of the iconic Yamaha, and incorporating its sound became a top priority.
“I’m obsessed with Blade Runner and Vangelis’s soundtrack,” Willgoose grins, before continuing. “For me there was a line from Metropolis through Blade Runner to this. Blade Runner’s so inspired by Metropolis and Metropolis is such a bedrock of this record.
"Plus the late 1920s atmosphere Berlin had was like this almost exotic golden hue. So getting hold of that synth and using the very expressive sounds that you can get from it on the record was imperative. It’s all over every single track and I don’t think that’s been true of a synth I’ve used before.”
Alongside Deckard’s Dream, a Waldorf Quantum, Modal 002R and the Nord Lead Stage all put in appearances across the record, but there’s one more synthesiser that became very popular during the recording process. “I also bought a Roland Juno-106. It’s just a beast and so fun to play with. I think that is on everything as well.” Willgoose pauses… “It’s not on the very last track because it broke.”
So alongside field recordings taking a more prominent role, it does sound like the synths have become harder than on previous records. Willgoose confirms: “I think I wanted to make this record a bit more of a tactile experience than previously where it was a bit more software orientated synths and virtual analogue synths.
"The fun you can have having a very simple but powerful instrument like a Juno in front of you, along with a Roland Space Echo, and then of course [rolls eyes] having to buy another one to get it in stereo! Just being able to muck around with that is enjoyable.
"There’s a bit in People Let’s Dance in the bridge where the Juno spills over. You probably don’t hear it necessarily, and it might be a bit geeky, but just before the drums kick in with the massive Phil Collins fill, it spirals down. It’s a lovely sound, but I wouldn’t have done that if, in the moment, it wasn’t physically in front of me.”
Willgoose continues, “It’s just ‘play’ and having the physical tools in front of you really helps to get in that mindset. It’s trying to manufacture those happy accidents and the more fun ways you have of manipulating the sound source and playing with stuff the more likely that is to happen.
"Going back to Every Valley and The Race for Space I do think it’s a step forward in terms of sound as well. It feels a lot richer. It’s much more like a live album than previously in terms of the sound sources.”
Although hardware has won the race for this record, there’s one piece of software Willgoose can’t live without. “Along with the Eventide H9, I’m addicted to the Eventide Blackhole. I’ve got that in software on the computer but also in pedal form. It’s just an amazing thing and again is nearly on everything.”
Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of watching Public Service Broadcasting live will be aware of the mounds of equipment surrounding J. Willgoose, Esq. and the speed with which his hands elegantly move in order to keep everything under control. At what point does the live show become a factor when recording an album? Willgoose takes us through the process.
“In terms of specifics of who’s going to play what, I don’t think about that during the writing and recording process, but I do pay attention to how it’s going to look on stage and what’s the set design.
"Because colour became such a big factor in this record I was always picturing the stage with certain lighting effects and colours on it. Im Licht is definitely a song written for a visual impact as well as a sonic impact. I can really imagine that at the start of a set: bam! With this really blinding light with a really loud sound getting in your stomachs.”
“In terms of who does what and how we do them,” he continues, “those decisions come about now and I’m putting it off because I’ve changed my setup and I don’t really know where to start piecing it together again.
"I know I’m going to have to sample the Deckard’s Dream because it feels like it might break, but things like the guitars will be kept live for flexibility as well as quality.”
“I’ve changed the synths out so that where it used to be the Virus Snow, Nord Lead 4 Rack and a MIDI controller, now it’s all been combined into a new Roland Fantom for more of a workstation approach.
"A lot of this is for quite boring reasons, like being able to split out and give [drummer and multi-instrumentalist] JF Abrahams all his bits in one output, and it stops one song dropping, then the next one being deafening as we’ll all have dedicates outputs.
"Plus they’ve incorporated all the Roland synths into it so you can simulate the Juno within the Phantom, which does mean I have to recreate every single synth sound across all four records.”
As the conversation draws to a close, Willgoose leaves us with a final thought on the band’s new direction to songwriting and recording. “It’s a different approach, but part of that is wanting to take a different approach anyway and try and remain interesting as a songwriter and a band.
"Part of it is drawing inspiration from Low and what that represented for Bowie in terms of a massive leap for him, and for us trying to be brave in the way we tackle the outline.”
“To go from a band known for using sampling, to working in some way to basically get rid of sampling more or less. Working almost exclusively in German as well, it felt like a reasonable move. Maybe it’s not? But to me it felt right and really I hope people come along with us.”
Public Service Broadcasting's new album Bright Magic is out now on Play It Again Sam.