Foto-© Alex Lake
Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin. Bowie und Iggy haben es getan, Depeche Mode und U2 auch. Im Frühjahr 2019 schloss sich J. Willgoose, Esq. der Karawane an. Er ist (noch) nicht so bekannt wie die Granden, aber seine Arbeiten mit Public Service Broadcasting haben sich eingeprägt. Mit Every Valley beleuchtete er den Brexit von der südwalisischen Perspektive aus. Den Nachfolger Bright Magic hat der Leader der Band in Berlin konzipiert und aufgenommen. Dabei ließ er sich nicht vom düsteren Rumoren treiben, von dunklen Schatten der Vergangenheit. Ihn interessierte das schimmernde Licht, die Hauptstadt als Hort der Libertät und Libertinage. Er wählte mehrere zeitliche, klangliche und inhaltliche Ausgangspunkte. Rock kommt punktuell ebenso vor wie Elektronisches und Sinfoniesound.
John (wie er mit Vornamen wirklich heißt) ist kein Musiker, der sich auf Intuition verlässt. Er braucht einen Leitfaden, an den er sich halten kann. Er vergräbt sich mit Bücherwurm-Energie ins Thema. Das Gelingen hat auch mit Gästen zu tun, dieses Mal sind es Schauspielerin Nina Hoss, Norwegens Nacht-Nymphe EERA, Andreya Casablanca von der Indie-Band Gurr und Blixa Bargeld, der den Rhythmus der Maschinen verstärkt. Aufgenommen wurde in den Hansa-Studios. So war es. Inzwischen lebt John wieder mit Familie in London, wo er sich auf kommende Auftritte vorbereitet. Wenn alles gut geht, spielt die Band am 19. November in Berlin. Zuvor äußerte er sich ausführlich und tief gehend per Zoom zum Hauptstadtprojekt. Wofür wir uns total bedanken. Macht ja nicht jede(r).
How and when did the city Berlin appear in your head for the first time?
Initially I think it would have been Achtung Baby by U2, that landed as a record for me at a very important time. I was ten or eleven, not understanding anything about the world obviously, but just seeing these otherworldly people on Top Of The Pops. Bono looking like this space alien with those sunglasses on, these songs like The Fly still sound like an amazing record to me. Getting hold of the album and hearing him singing about Zoo Station – what are they talking about? I don‘t understand any of this!
How did you deepen your interest in the city in later years?
Later I found out that there‘s so much about Berlin in popular culture. You can‘t help to absorb ideas about it and build up a romantic image about it, even if you haven‘t ever been there. Whether that‘s John Le Carré stuff, which raced through in my teenage years or whether that was some of the amazing films that came out of Berlin or whether that was finally discovering Bowie and Low, Heroes and Lodger. Those albums totally changed my appreciation for what mainstream music could be.
Why did it feel right for you to come to the city in April 2019 and stay for nine months?
We‘d finished touring Every Valley pretty much and we‘d put out a short EP in late 2018 as well, so we‘d finished everything and it was time to work on the next record. I managed to find an apartment in Berlin and a studio to rent as well, two things that weren‘t necessarily the easiest. My wife and I also wanted a bit of an adventure. You often say: Wouldn‘t it be nice to live there for a bit? You hardly end up doing these things. But this time we were adamant that we were going to do it. What are we waiting for, you only live once. Obviously there was the Brexit imperative as well, we only had 2019 to be able do that as relatively free Europeans without any of the headache and paperwork, that would have gone with it. Time was running out. Luckily we found a place in Graefekiez where we could stay in for a year. Lovely place, great area, not too far away from Hansa Studios.
Was it only Hansa and nothing else as a recording studio for you or did you see other possiblities?
I think I always wanted to record something there. I ended up meeting Alex Silva, who worked with the Manic Street Preachers and extensively with Herbert Grönemeyer. He had a room at Hansa and I was talking to him about trying to find a studio and they had just taken a room above them at Hansa. He was quite happy to let somebody quiet and responsible rent that room for a bit (laughs), which was amazing. I got to walk through those doors and absorb the history and building and try not to become overawed by it. It made the whole thing become more serious.
The album is called Bright Magic. One of the fundamental ideas was to focus on illumination, light and brightness. It‘s an interesting aspect, because the city is still recovering from a very dark past that plays a big role in people‘s thoughts.
The title Bright Magic appeared to me first through reading the works of Alfred Döblin and seeing a short-story-collection of his translated into English of the same name. I knew I wanted to move to Berlin to write a record, but I didn‘t really know what that record was going to be about. I was starting to interrogate the idea – why do you want to move to Berlin, what is it about this city that is drawing you in? It doesn‘t have anything to do with the dark moments of its history. It has much more to do with the times when it‘s been an open city and welcoming to people from all parts of the world and people of all kinds of unusual and alternative lifestyles and being a haven for them. A very different record about the very dark times didn‘t hold any particular creative urge for me.
There‘s a particular aspect of light you‘re alluding to in Gib‘ mir das Licht. This song is about the life of Anita Berber, a dancer and actress who was seen as very scandalous during the twenties in the last century.
Anita Berber just emerged as this fascinating character while I was doing the research of people helping to advertise Berlin as this city of hedonism, of boundaries being broken. The words to the song are based on the poem that she wrote, it was called Cocaine. The imagery seemed to fit with some of the broader imageries I had in mind for the record. I read about Berber that there was no greater example of the shimmering dream of the Weimar era and how it would all be shattered and fall down and lead to the time we‘ve already spoken about. The song itself has this kind of shiny sensual nature to it, but as it approaches its conclusion, if you listen to it on an instrument-by-instrument level, it is falling apart a bit. The guitar starts to glitch, there‘s all kinds of tape artefacts that are happening, audio starts dropping in and out, the tempo starts to lurch downwards and then come up again. It‘s all a bit unsettling in hinting at the ways this surface of hedonism and living the fast life, all the things Berber stood for, are going to catch up to her and to Berlin in general in the thirties. She seemed like a neatly metaphorical figure to hang all of that aspect of the history on to her role in the wider myth of Berlin.
In People, Let‘s Dance singer EERA tells us a story about nightlife in a city in which can you party without problems until the morning of the next day or throughout the whole weekend. Have you and the wife been to Berghain or similar places to check things out?
I didn‘t personally go. The reason for getting EERA on board is that she‘s much more versed in that world. She could lend a bit more authenticity of being involved in it more directly. I didn‘t get personally into that world while we were out there. My wife was within two weeks of arriving in Berlin waving a pregnancy test at me telling me she was pregnant, so we had a very different existence there – her sleeping a great deal and me trying to work (laughs). We shot ourselves in the foot with that and closing off those avenues. My time in Berlin wasn‘t full of parties and clubbing and the wildness that is associated with the city and alluded to in that song. But you can‘t help but feed off that energy, even if you‘re not directly involved in it. It feels legitimate to have that on the record and to tap into that.
Let‘s talk a bit about Der Rhythmus der Maschinen. I spoke to Róisín Murphy recently about her album Róisín Machine. She‘s chosen that title because it would represent the industrial spirit in Sheffield, where she started her career. Also Kraftwerk‘s sound creates the impression of a perfectly working machine. What kind of image of a machine did you have in your head when you wrote Der Rhythmus der Maschinen?
It was an attempt to allude to the past of Berlin in terms of how prominent the heavy industry and the railway especially was in driving its development in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the city really exploded population-wise and just went through this massive period of growth by these heavy industries. I thought it was interesting having this presence of heavy industry and heavy machinery and so much of the music that ended up coming out of Berlin. Einstürzende Neubauten ended up having that kind of sound to it, even using some of those bits of equipment to make that music.
How did Blixa Bargeld become part of the project?
Originally we didn‘t have a collaborator for the song, just a vocoder at the end. But then the suggestion came from our label actually. Do you think Blixa would be a good fit for this track? I said yes, but why would he want anything to do with us? He‘s not going to be interested. And they said, well he might be, do you want him to ask and send him the track and see what he says? I said, yeah go for it. Then the answer came back, yes he was interested. He understood what I wanted from the track and what I was trying to achieve with it. I suggested that we write some lyrics in German and have this monologue at the end. He went away and came back with this monologue about Die Stadt ist die Maschine and building this Überstadt. It‘s off the wall really, but it really works with the song and obviously to have him on the record is extraordinary. I still can‘t quite believe it happened really. To have the pioneer of that kind of sound on our record, it all came together better than I could have dreamed of really.
Andreya Casablanca revives an important part of German pop culture when she sings „Ich habe einen Koffer in Berlin“.
I know this line from the Marlene Dietrich song. I see it at the end of the song Blue Heaven as Dietrich‘s final statement of intent regarding Berlin having left to go to America and then being in self-imposed exile during the Nazi years and then having been rejected by some parts of Germany after the war for being seen as a traitor for working for and with the allied forces. Despite not having been back to Berlin much since the war she‘s buried there. I feel that this is her full stop to that story, that she‘s from Berlin, is and always was in charge of her story, myth and illusion, as if she‘s saying: I may be in exile in Paris, I may be living in this other existence not in Germany, but I very much will be master of my own destiny, thank you very much, and I think will be buried in Schöneberg. It‘s two fingers to the people who saw her as not being loyal to Germany one way or another. It‘s a powerful way to use your own death as a weapon.
I have to ask you about Berlin‘s famous electronic music scene too. When I listen to Im Licht at the beginning, I can hear a Tangerine Dream influence. How important are these pioneers for you?
I was listening to a lot of Tangerine Dream before starting to write this record. The other German electronic record that would be a big one for me would be the record Eno did with Harmonia which I got hold of. There‘s a track on there called Vamos Compañeros. It has that rhythmic sound to it, which I was trying to get to with Der Rhythmus der Maschinen. Tangerine Dream were a big part of me trying to absorb all of that sound, I really listened to it over and over and over again. I hope that some of the influence came out in the music. If you‘re getting that from Im Licht, it‘s great to hear.