Rekindling; An interview with Jack Duckworth of Radio Berlin

Radio Berlin

Radio Berlin

On February 2, 2015, the members of now defunct Canadian post-punk band Radio Berlin, re-issue their three incredible LPs, Sibling, The Selection Drone, and Glass digitally.  These long out-of-print, hard to find records, have never been officially available in digital format before now.  The news seems especially timely considering the band dissolved ten years ago.

For those needing a history lesson, Radio Berlin was a four piece band from Vancouver, BC, Canada comprised of musicians that have also performed in a bevy of celebrated bands including A Luna Red, Black Mountain, Lightning Dust, etc.. Formed in 1998, the band released numerous, well-received albums. With a sound best described as rhythmic postpunk/new wave with early ‘goth’ stylings, Radio Berlin’s garnered many welcome comparisons to bands like Pornography-era Cure, Joy Division, Wire, Josef K, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, only backed by the rhythm section one would expect from a band like Clikatat Ikatowi. Having played with peers such as of The Locust, I Am Spoonbender, The Faint, Vue, Add N To X, Interpol, Ted Leo, The Organ and Camera Obscura (not the Scottish band), Radio Berlin rocked out with a hypnotic live show.

Ghettoblaster recently caught up with former Radio Berlin multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jack Duckworth to get a bit of an oral history of the band, an update on where they are now, and collect other little tidbits of long-lost music lore, including about the tour Radio Berlin was offered with The Killers.  This is what he told us.

When Radio Berlin first got together, what were the goals of the band?

It’s been a while now but I think our goals at the time where as simple as just wanting to experiment in a different style of music that we all mutually had a strong aesthetic and emotional connection to. Prior to Radio Berlin all of us had played in more aggressive, post-hardcore style bands; usually very noisy and not without shouting/screaming or whatever. The scene in Vancouver at the time for that was really upbeat and positive for that sort of thing but for me I felt like it was only representative of a small range of ideas that I wanted to get across. All of the Radio Berlin members at the time had grown up on music that I guess one could call “alternative” from the decade before (’80s).

The timing was right as there were other bands in the same general scene from the US that were starting to experiment with those sounds, like The Faint, The VSS, The Audience, Satisfact, the first couple of releases by The Rapture and more.

But yeah, I think our goals were just to play some shows and maybe put out a record. Nothing really beyond that at the time.

What were Radio Berlin’s accomplishments that you are most proud of?

Well, in our seven years of activity we did get a lot done! We put out three full length albums as well as other releases and had toured North America I’d up to half a dozen times. I think that was more than what we were expecting compared to our goals in the initial years of that project. We were there at the start of that wave that was the beginning of the “post-punk revival” that started in North America around 1999 or 2000 and sort of took it from there really. Prior to playing in Radio Berlin I hadn’t really released anything on vinyl before. I started the band when I was 19 after all!

Are all the old LPs currently out of print? Have they ever been available digitally before?

Yes, that’s correct, although vinyl copies of The Selection Drone are still available through Ache Records — which is still around but not really actively doing anything anymore so it’s not really being pushed out there. All of the other releases in their various formats are out of print as far as being commercially available and that’s because all of the record labels that had released them have been out of commission for years. And with that came the lack of access to those records digitally as well. The only place you can really get them, if you’re actually keen, is sifting through the marketplace that is Discogs where there are copies of those kicking around second hand.

Our recent re-release that we’ve done finally gets all three albums out there in a publicly available format.

Why did Radio Berlin call it quits?

In short: change! The band started in 1998 when I was 19 and the other folks in the band weren’t too much older than I. When you’re in a band for seven years people get different ideas and want to do different things. By the time we started touring the last album Glass we were on the road at least 2-3 months of the year so the band intensely became a part of our lives. We were consciously aware of the hype about the post-punk revival happening around us and I think that subconsciously started to inform how we could move it further. I was wanting to go more electronic and atonal and Chris wanting to go more guitar-oriented so we experimented with both but nothing presented itself as a feasible option toward the end of the band. On our final un-released, half-recorded set of tracks most of the tracks were both Chris and I playing guitar, which sounded good. I think we just couldn’t make up our minds as a unit as to what we wanted to do.

Plus all of the touring we were doing was very DIY and very intense. We were doing somewhat well enough to coast along with it but we had no major backing behind us. It just started to get exhausting I think! Our last tour we were offered was opening for some new band called “The Killers” but we opted to try and record a new album for a new UK label at the time called Discoloration to try and rekindle things. In the end we just moved on to do different things. We had all remained, for the most part, good friends since then.

What has everyone been up to since Radio Berlin?

A lot actually. A lot has happened in ten years. For myself I moved to the UK in 2007 and have been active here since doing Soft Riot, promoting club nights, and doing a lot of design work. Josh has been doing very well with Black Mountain, Lightning Dust and now his new project, Sur Une Plage, whom I played with in Vancouver last October. Great band. Chris lives has been living in Berlin since 2008 and plays in a number of great bands like The Deep and Dysney Boys. Lyndsay has started a pretty sweet (pun intended) custom cake business called Coco Cake which is doing extremely well. Warren runs a label and record store in Portland, Oregon. Yeah, we’ve all been busy in our different spheres of the world — moving forward, trying new things with what I’d say the same curiosity and enthusiasm that lead us to do Radio Berlin in the first place back in 1998.

Do you believe the sound Radio Berlin was making is as relevant in 2015 as it was over ten years ago?

That’s a tricky question and one I’ve thought a lot about, not just Radio Berlin but the whole trajectory of the post-punk revival in general. At the time we started it was a major shift out of this very intense punk/hardcore scene that was in full swing in the early to mid nineties. I think that was part of a larger motion in music that rejected all of the aesthetic choices that dominated the 1980s, reverting back to rawness and anti-“glamour” — opting for a stripped bare approach rather than fantastical constructs that were prevalent in the decade previous.

At the time when all of these revival bands started popping up, the press was obviously going on about “the 80s” and “donning your black eyeliner” and all that sort of thing. They still are to some extent, almost 20 years later. There’s tons of amazing original synthesiser post-punk music that sounds similar to what was happening in the 80s but sounds like its own thing. The music journalism around that music today is far more retro and cliché than the music it writes about in my opinion (how many times to we need to hear “80s” in twenty years of current synthesiser music, c’,mon!).

I think the music we were doing at the time by circumstance has its own sound. We were referencing bands from a decade or two previous but the studio environments of the time (late 90s/early 00s) were run by friends and peers of ours that had grown up in the 90s indie methods of production. When I listen to them now Radio Berlin sounds like a post-punk band produced by Steve Albini or Steve Fisk rather than Mike Hedges or Trever Horn so that in itself makes it sound quite different.

Plus, Radio Berlin, when I listen to it now, sounds far more “prog” and math-rock than the obvious bands I thought we were referencing — maybe less Siouxsie and The Banshees and more Grace Under Pressure-era Rush or something. Not in a bad way — but our musical chops were already pretty fucking technical from playing hardcore bands in our teen years to just start some band with simple 4/4 rhythms. There’s some time signatures in the songs that are totally bizarre. I listen to them now and have a bit of a laugh when I listen to them.

But all in all, I think we had our own take on it. It wasn’t as accessible as other bands at the time that had more success at it but it’s part of the story of that post-punk revival in some way.

What made the band want to revisit this material in this way?

Since we quietly disbanded back in 2005 I think at least I’ve always had an interest in getting the material back out there. However, we’ve all been busy with new things so it’s always got pushed to the back burner. I think it’s been shelved for so long as there’s been new music buying/listening habits that have only gathered steam within the last five years that have made us doing a project like this possible. I mean, we could have taken the route of trying to find a label to re-release but to be honest I don’t think there’s enough interest out there to buy a re-issue from a somewhat known early-2000s post-punk revival band… hahaha. That and it’s a lot of time and effort to shop things around to a label. But with platforms like BandCamp it’s made things possible. That and in my travels touring with current music, as well as articles here and there on the internet about Radio Berlin that have surfaced in the last couple of years, it just seemed a good time — it was easy enough to do and for me, winter gets a bit slower for work (I’m a graphic designer/web developer) so I thought it’d be fun to dig through the archives and get the music out there for anyone who may have interest in it.

What bonus material is available with these albums?

For each of the three re-releases I’ve put extra tracks on there. For the Sibling digital re-issue there’s a track called “All Systems Go” off of our original seven song demo we self-released in 1998. To me this track sounds the most “retro” than any of them. It was the first song we did and was fun to make. There’s also an electronic version of this track that Josh did that was the “secret” track from the original CD version of Sibling. Finally, there’s “The Connection”, which was recorded in the same batch of songs that we did for Sibling but was released exclusively on a now very out of print split 7” we did with a band called Kid Commando from Sweden, released on an Australian label.

The new digital version of The Selection Drone contains the track “The Nation”, which was an outtake track from those sessions that didn’t make it on the album mainly as it didn’t fit the track sequencing we ended up settling on.

For Glass, there’s a few extras, including “Towers Above You” which again was an outtake from the recording sessions, omitted as it didn’t fit the track listing. There’s also an ambient version of “The Hyphen” that I did on one of my earliest computer workstation configurations back in 2003. Finally, there’s a track called “Bright Things”, which was a track recorded along with four or five others for what was to be a fourth Radio Berlin album that never materialized. Most of the tracks from that session never got completely finished and I don’t know if those tapes will ever re-surface. The only reason this track was completed was because we submitted it for a compilation on the Kill Rock Stars label called “Track and Fields,” released in 2004 I think.

Is a Radio Berlin reunion ever something that you guys would entertain?

To me it would seem very alien and regressive to do a Radio Berlin reunion. The majority of us have definitely moved on to newer things since then as far as music and art goes that represents us where we are now and are very excited about our current projects.

And we don’t have that “let’s do it for the money” bottom line either as, uh, we never even got close to that sort of popularity to do a reunion to rake in big bucks or whatever. Finally, the fact that all of the ex-members live in four different countries across two continents makes that sort of convenience of hooking up very inconvenient.

Having said that I had an amazing time working with all of those folks in the band that were all involved. They’re all massively talented and I miss them all quite a bit. In some alternate world where we all lived in the same city it would be fun to do just for a laugh but yeah, that was a long time ago now!

Where can people get the albums?

Well, right now anyone can get the recently re-released digital albums through our archive site that we’ve set up at www.radioberlinarchive.com which in turn is ultimately housed on BandCamp at radioberlin.bandcamp.com. If anyone is looking for physical copies of the record, as mentioned earlier there are some copies of “The Selection Drone” at www.acherecords.com but other than that, any other physical copies will require a bit of sifting through sites like Discogs, eBay or any other music distros that still have dusty copies lying on their shelves!

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