J. Willgoose, Esq chats to the Mute founder about Berlin, Hansa studios, and their new album…

For ‘Bright Magic’, their fourth album, Public Service Broadcasting left the valleys, space and information films of their earlier work behind and fixed their attention firmly on Berlin. “I wanted to move there for a bit and live there and see what happened,” explains the band’s J. Willgoose, Esq. “Like hundreds of other people in the past, I didn’t really know where the idea had come from. It had been germinating for a long time.”

Willgoose can date his interest in Berlin to listening to David Bowie’s ‘Low’ for the first time in around 2005, and that album’s distinctive split presentation – vocal tracks on the A-side, mostly electronic instrumentals on the B-side – informed the structure of ‘Bright Magic’.

Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, began his love affair with Berlin at the start of the 1980s when he found himself in the city’s legendary Hansa studios to watch Nick Cave and The Birthday Party record what would become their swansong ‘Mutiny’ EP. ‘Hansa By The Wall’ as it was then known was the former Nazi ballroom that had been converted to a vast studio complex, becoming the location of many important recordings, including Bowie’s pivotal trilogy of Berlin albums.

At the encouragement of Hansa Tonmeister Gareth Jones, Miller brought Depeche Mode to the studio in Berlin to complete their 1983 album ‘Construction Time Again’; not only would it start Depeche’s own relationship with Hansa and the city, it also yielded the friendship between Miller and Jones that prevails to this day. As Sunroof, Miller and Jones released their first album together in 2021, ‘Electronic Music Improvisations Vol. 1’.

The conversation took place between London, where Willgoose has returned to, and Miller’s home in Berlin.

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J. Willgoose, Esq.: When did you first go to Berlin?

Daniel Miller: It was around 1979 or 1980 with Fad Gadget when he played here, right at the beginning of Mute. I was the tour manager, driver, sound engineer and I also did front of house for Fad back then. I started coming to Berlin for longer periods after Mute signed The Birthday Party. They wanted to record in Hansa, and they’d recorded in Hansa before. I just wanted to see what was going on. I just wanted to experience it and see what it was like, and see what Hansa was like. Why did you want to record at Hansa?

JWE: It was really because of what you had been doing at Hansa with Depeche Mode after that. And also the stuff Einstürzende Neubauten recorded there, and also U2, especially the ‘Achtung Baby’ album. However, the main driver was the three albums that Bowie recorded at Hansa, and ‘Low’ in particular. I was impressed with the boldness of that album, and the nerve to put a record like that out as a major mainstream artist. To go there and do something that unusual – I genuinely can’t think of any parallels for it in terms of how out-there the B-side of ‘Low’ would have been at the time, and still is in many ways. I just think it’s it’s so brave and beautiful.

DM: The nice thing about ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ was of course that he was very influenced by the German music of the of the early 1970s and late 1960s. I know he referenced Kraftwerk and Neu!, so it’s kind of a classic feedback loop in a way isn’t it? Nothing starts from nothing – all music has some kind of reference. I find that interesting. When I first heard those records, when they came out, I was very snobby at the time and musically very underground in my tastes. I thought they were just a ripoff. Bowie was very good at taking references and making them his own. However, I’ve learned to really love those records as well over the years. I’ve put my youthful ideology and extremism to one side. I’m a bit more pragmatic now.

JWE: I never thought I’d get the chance to have a room at Hansa, and write there. It really came about through a chance connection. Public Service Broadcasting had worked with James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers on ‘Turn No More’ from our album ‘Every Valley’, and he put me in touch with Alex Silva, who engineered ‘The Holy Bible’, and who works out of Hansa. It was just a really, really lucky coincidence that he’d taken on a room but didn’t actually need to use it at that time. So he just said, “You can rent that and work at Hansa every day. You can come to work and that’s your office.”

DM: Hansa has changed a lot, in some ways, since I worked there. Which room was it? Was it one of the big studios?

JWE: It was what used to be the control room on the third floor. It was the room they used to train the Tonmeisters in. It was amazing to work there every day. I did have to get over a real kind of imposter syndrome, because I was working with all those echoes from the bands who’d been there before, and their shadows. And if you’re not particularly happy with your work at the start, which I never really am, it takes a while to get into it. It was a little bit difficult to settle in and feel like I belonged. But in the end, I just got on with it really. I just put one foot in front of the other and just got on with it. And it started to come together after that.

DM: Your album sounds great to me. I think it’s a very ambitious record and I think it reaches its goals very, very successfully. I don’t know whether this is deliberate or not, but to me it sounds like a musical documentary of Berlin music over the last 30 years, interspersed with a kind of a recurring theme.

JWE: There is a sort of semi-orchestral theme that crops up several times across the record to link things together. That was inspired by something from the score for ‘Sinfonie der Großstadt’, Walther Ruttmann’s 1927 film about Berlin. Ruttmann’s ‘Wochenende’ is the film that we sampled across the record. It’s billed as a film but there’s no visual content to it. It’s purely an audio collage, which Ruttmann made for Berlin radio in 1928. I came to him via his Lichtspiele, the early abstract animated films which I discovered while walking round the Berlinischer Galerie when we we had a day off on tour.

I had had the title ‘Bright Magic’ in my head for for ages. It’s the name of a collection of short stories by Alfred Döblin, who also wrote ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’. Stumbling across these beautiful early expressionistic abstract films, and with that all burning away in my mind, the record started to form itself around those ideas. All of those things were trying to set the scene for the building of the city, the growth of the myth of the city, and some of the people who made it into such an attractive place to be.

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DM: It’s an amazing city. Back when I first started working with bands in Berlin, London closed at 11 o’clock, because it still had the old licensing laws. So, in London, you worked in the studio and then you just went home because you had nothing to do whereas in Berlin, you’d go out to a bar, you could have a bite to eat right through the night. That was one of the many advantages of being in Berlin. It’s still very much like that. It’s become gentrified in some areas, like the area that I live in. There’s quite a lot of bars and restaurants around here with outside areas on the street. These days you’re not allowed to be outside after 10 or 11 o’clock at night, because it disturbs the neighbours, which I find very weird for Berlin. But it’s still an all-night city. It’s very much still like that.

JWE: I used an electromagnetic recorder to record the distinctive energy of the city. I just thought would be an interesting thing to do. The second track on our record, ‘Im Licht’, is about Berlin’s history, both literally and metaphorically, as this kind of ‘City Of Light’. Berlin manufactured most of lightbulbs for Europe in the 1920s, and it was one of the first places to have fully-electrified streetlights. Leipziger Straße is just around the corner from Hansa. It was the first fully-electrified street in Berlin and so I tried to capture some of those pulses and echoes on that street, then filtered the city through me and my musical influences and through the band and through our music.

I managed to capture a strange, very clear pulse, which I took one little burst from, and I pitched it down and added resonance to that and turned into a bass drum on that track. I just loved doing that kind of moulding of sound and the sculpture of sound and weird stuff that you’ve recorded as well. The way we started out, there wasn’t much of that going on. It was all other people’s archive material. And as we’ve gone on, we’ve had a bit more of a direct hand shaping the narrative of the records, and the sound of the records. All that stuff was great in Berlin. Recording the bird sound for the first song, ‘Der Sumpf’, and the noise of rain and cars driving past on the last song, ‘Ich und die Stadt’ – it all really helps you steer the record a bit more atmospherically. You get more interesting textures and methods and techniques on there, though I must have looked liked a total weirdo wandering up and down the street, waving the recorder at streetlamps.

DM: I really got much more conscious of the sound of Berlin when I was traveling backwards and forwards quite a lot before the pandemic. The sound of London is so different to the sound of Berlin. All cities of course have their own sound. With films from the last 30 or 40 years made in Berlin, you have the sound of the trams and the sound of the trains – it’s very distinctive. There are certain parts of Berlin where I can walk around and I really feel like I’m in a film because of the sound. It really is a lot more distinctive than London. I think London’s got a general city sound. Berlin has got a very specific sound.

JWE: For a novel, Döblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ has so much sound in it. He’s kind of inventing words and using a lot of onomatopoeia. It’s almost like it’s a sonic novel, in some ways. Berlin has had that kind of sonic identity as an interesting part of its character for such a long time. And then ‘Wochenende’ by Ruttmann is is another part of that – just being able to have these snapshots, and these fragments of being able to leap back in time and hearing contemporary Berlin, and all the clanging and metallic sounds as well as just voices of Berlin and little kids playing and marching bands going past. I just find it fascinating.

DM: Before the Wall came down, West Berlin was in the middle of East Germany. And it was not a very attractive place to come for German businesses, or anybody really, because it was just a hassle to have to get through the corridor from West Germany to West Berlin. And so the government made a lot of concessions to Berlin. So, for instance, at that time in Germany, there was conscription into the armed forces. People who had Berlin residency were exempt from conscription. So it naturally attracted a lot of people with a slightly rebellious nature, and a lot of artists who didn’t want to go into the army. They came here and were free of conscription. They introduced a lot of tax breaks and subsidies for companies that did come, and that’s why there was a disproportionate number of recording studios in Berlin per capita, because there were so many musicians there, and the studios got advantageous tax breaks or funding to keep going, because there weren’t that many businesses here.

Rent was ridiculous in those days. There were people I knew who were absolutely broke, who had huge warehouse spaces. So all those things came together really, at that time, to create an atmosphere. The same atmosphere was there before the Second World War. Berlin was always a very liberated, open society, and very creative. It always attracted people from all over the place, and I think that the circumstances around post-War Berlin recreated that in a very different way. But nevertheless, it attracted people from everywhere. It was very exciting. You just bumped into people like Blixa Bargeld from Neubauten or Gudrun Gut from Malaria! – all those people who were part of that early scene were just hanging out, and it was just great to meet them. They were very friendly, very open and not like, “Oh, Depeche Mode – they’re a pop band!” There was nothing like that. It was very, very welcoming.

JWE: I’ve never really been part of any kind of scene like that. It’s not really on offer in London. I feel immensely jealous when I read about how Talking Heads got going, or reading David Byrne’s book, ‘How Music Works’, and then reading the Beastie Boys book about New York in the late 1980s. You just think, “God, I wish we could have had the equivalent of that in London.”

DM: There are so many sub-scenes and sub-scenes of sub-scenes these days. Obviously there was no internet in those times, and no Spotify and no Apple Music, so it was much more focused. I think that’s what it was. It was much more focused and very supportive, even though people weren’t naturally making the same kind of music. It was more like a cultural scene, rather than a genre scene.

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JWE: What made Depeche Mode go to Berlin? Was it just a case of recording studio time and budgets or did they see Berlin as this really exciting place to be? Or were they following in someone else’s footsteps, in some sort of self-repeating story? They became such a big part of the fabric of Hansa and the city.

DM: It was because of a number of different things. When I went to see The Birthday Party record, Depeche were in the middle of recording ‘Construction Time Again’, which we were recording at Garden Studio in Shoreditch. Gareth Jones, who was the engineer and co-producer on that record, was in the process of moving to Berlin. He was in a relationship here with Annette Humpe from Ideal, and produced their record ‘Bi Nuu’ at Hansa. We took a break from ‘Construction Time Again’, and that’s what I went to Berlin to see The Birthday Party, and he was in the mix room at that time, mixing the Ideal record.

Gareth was very enthusiastic about the studio and about Berlin and he showed me around Hansa. He said that we should finish and mix the record there. The mix room at the time was the the most high-tech thing I’d ever seen. I always loved the idea of working in Berlin, and the band were very open to it. We just said, “Yeah, let’s mix it in Berlin.” And that was the beginning of a three-album relationship that Depeche had with with Berlin.

Martin Gore from Depeche learned German quite quickly, and the whole band really engaged with the city, the people and the culture. They were already fans of Neubauten and wanted to try and put the Neubauten sonic picture into a pop context. I mean, it wasn’t the Neubauten sound but it was taking abstract sounds and putting them into a pop context which was something that we really dived into. There was a lot of sampling as well – not of records, but of the environment, mostly in London. All the samples in there were our own.

JWE: Is it true that when they were mixing one of their albums at Hansa, they basically played it through a PA in the main room at Hansa, the Meistersaal, and they used that as a kind of ambience on the record, or is that one of those things that’s slightly apocryphal?

DM: No, it’s absolutely true. I think for a few weeks we rented the whole space, the whole complex. We did a lot of re-amping, as they called it in those days. We were in the mix room but we but we rented the the big hall, put a PA in there. On ‘Black Celebration’, we had mics and speakers all over the building in different spaces. They did some vocals in there as well, in the main hall, but yeah, we had a PA and they were banging away.

JWE: People still do talk about how loud it was, and that’s so cool – using the building almost as a musical instrument. I love that when Fripp did the guitars for ‘Heroes’, it was almost like the building was vibrating with it. And when Neubauten were drilling, and getting their jackhammers out, and nearly knocking the building down. I love the idea that somehow those resonances are still in that building, or part of the the fabric of it.

DM: We were just trying stuff out, to see if it would work. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t.  

JWE: We tried a bit of that, in kind of a much more Poundstretcher way. We smashed a few things up for the first time in the studio, which is always good fun.

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DM: How did you come to work with Blixa Bargeld from Neubauten on ‘Der Rhythmus der Maschinen’ from ‘Bright Magic’?

JWE: I hadn’t thought of asking Blixa, because I think I was just too intimidated by the prospect. Like, “Why is he gonna want to come anywhere near us? We’re a bunch of idiots.” That came from the label and our manager saying, “Have you thought about asking him?” Well, yeah, I had thought about asking but I’d shied away from it. It just took somebody else to take the reins on that one and have the courage to ask him on my behalf. And then when he came back saying, “Yes,” and that he was interested, I was very surprised and asked him to double check. He ended up doing a great job on ‘Der Rythmus der Maschinen’ . It’s like this voice of God just sort of descends towards the end of the track and just kind of intones this slightly weird ‘Metropolis’-esque sort of narrative on it. It would only really work in German as well. I think if we tried it in English it’d be awful.

DM: Did you do it in Berlin or did he do it remotely?

JWE: I was in London when we first talked about it, in the middle of the pandemic. And then when I got over to Berlin to record it, he’d moved to Portugal. I recorded it in the Neubauten studio, andereBaustelle Tonstudio, with Boris, their engineer. Boris was enjoying watching me have a very intense time. Blixa was on the line from Portugal. It was amazing to watch him, even just on the screen, and watch him performing. There was no question of his commitment or anything – he was definitely into it. And that definitely meant it was really quite inspiring to watch.

DM: I met Blixa early on when I started going to Berlin. Blixa was already hanging out with The Birthday Party. That was the first time I met him. I remember he was a very skinny youth. I didn’t know that much about him at that point. I knew about Einstürzende Neubauten, of course, but I wasn’t intimidated because I didn’t know much about him. If I’d known more about him, I probably would be more intimidated! I think there was a slightly mutual sense of mild intimidation, so it was fine. We got on well.

JWE: Blixa being on the album was part of us trying to pay tribute to all these really inspiring things about Berlin, with all these little nods of the head to stuff like Depeche Mode and Neubauten and the structure of ‘Low’. We were still trying to make it our own thing, so we were adding to all of those influences, rather than just doing a pastiche, which artistically would be pretty worthless. It’s trying to straddle that line between having these quite knowing nods to these big key records that came out of there in that period, but also trying to weave them into something, like a bigger whole. We tried to use that as something that we could jump off from.

The record is trying to unravel some of what makes Berlin so uniquely attractive to creative people and also to creative people in search of creative reinvention, like me, I suppose. It was about using the city as a bit of a springboard to try something different and to try and work in a different way. Even if it’s just a cliché, what is it about Berlin that lends itself so well to that? That was the original impulse behind ‘Bright Magic’.

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‘Bright Magic’ is out now. Catch Public Service Broadcasting on tour, starting in Cardiff University Great Hall on October 24th.

Sunroof (Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones) released their debut album, Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1, on the Parallel Series of Mute earlier this year: https://mute.ffm.to/sunroof.opr

Interview: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Alex Lake

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