Never Look Back: an interview with Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken

Claudia Brücken was the voice of Propaganda, one of Germany’s most successful pop groups of the mid-eighties. Together with singer Susanne Freytag, post-fluxus entrepreneur Andreas “Das Huhn” Thein, Ralf Dörper of Die Krupps fame and classically trained percussionist Michael Mertens, Brücken defined German (ice) cool, visually quoting the aesthetics of Lang, Murnau and Riefenstahl. While many are eagerly waiting for a second Propaganda album, tomorrow Claudia Brücken releases her second solo album in 25 years—a collaboration with Pet Shop Boys’ veteran producer Stephen Hague. Max Dax spoke with Claudia Brücken in Berlin. Photo: Peter Brown / Promo (ZTT Records); Claudia Brücken on the far right

 

In 1984, British photographer Peter Brown shot Propaganda in an iconic black and white Fritz Lang mood. All the band members were mis en scène in a German expressionist way. Susanne Freytag had a ‘P’ written on her chest, on yours the outline of a kiss was visible.

I remember that photo shoot. I had just finished school by then. It was a “from zero to hero” situation. Our first single “Dr. Mabuse” was also our first hit, so we went Top 10 in Germany from scratch.

You soon moved from Dusseldorf to London – from one epicenter of electronic music to another. Were you aware of the fact that Kraftwerk came from your hometown?

Well, I often spent my nights at an infamous bar called Ratinger Hof on Ratinger Straße. That was the epicenter of the Neue Deutsche Welle movement in Germany as well as the hot spot of all the painters, photographers and artists from the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie. Every city that has a space where artists and musicians hang out together can consider itself blessed. At Ratinger Hof, as far as I remember, we listened to electronic music all night long. I also remember having attended live concerts there, by DAF, Der Plan and Fehlfarben – all three being from Dusseldorf as well. It was common that everybody wanted to make music or art then. It’s strange; I’ve never encountered a magical situation like that ever again. And because everybody wanted to be famous, everybody started a band – like us.

Was it also about being in a gang?

Absolutely. That’s a good way of putting it. We started to play around with synthesizers. A friend of a friend had a studio that we could record in. Everything was quite simple, to be honest. Instead of going to the movies on a Saturday night, we’d go into the studio and record loops. It was like a weekly self-reassurance.

It was a decade before the birth of techno. How did you use the synthesizers?

We wanted to make dance music. We liked disco. We all had our Mini Moogs and we would shout slogans over the loops we’d program. Nobody felt the need to sing. It was only slogans we’d shout out. For us, everything went without saying, everything felt natural. It was all about attitude. People tell me it was different in other cities or a year later or earlier. It seems like we must have been in a situation where energy lines have crossed. Kurt Schwitters, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were my role models, and everything was fueled by punk and the then-recent activities of the Baader Meinhof group. It was a time where everything seemed possible.

 

 

You mentioned punk and the Baader Meinhof group in the same breath.

As I said before, in the early eighties everything circled around attitude. I was an angry girl desperately looking for an outlet. It was all about rebellion.

On Propaganda’s debut album A Secret Wish, a statement of the Baader Meinhof group was quoted on the cover: “wir denken die bequemen gedanken der anderen und fühlen nicht, dass unser bestes selbst allmählich abstirbt. wir leben ein totes leben. wir ersticken unser ich.” (engl.: “We think the comfortable thoughts of the others and we don’t feel that the better part of us is gradually dying off. We live a dead life. We suffocate our self.”), which provoked something of a scandal. Was that such an outlet?

No, that was Paul Morley’s idea, though I guess it was the same impulse. He wanted to provoke, and I shared a similar vision. I actually liked the quote because I thought it was provocative. In a way we succeeded. Our German label Ariola refused to print the cover. We had to substitute the quote.

Propaganda served as a projection screen – the band assembled everything you ever thought about German style.

That’s the beauty of music and of packaging it – be it as a record sleeve or by shooting a video to promote the music.

When you arrived in London you were immediately part of the inner circle at ZTT Records – you met all the people, from Frankie Goes To Hollywood to Trever Horn. You even married Paul Morley.

I loved it. It was all very exciting. I was 19 years old and school was over. Of course everything went very fast. I wouldn’t question the situation I found myself in. I guess I took it for granted that I was constantly working in the studio together with Stephen Lipson and Trevor Horn. I remember it was quite exciting to see Stewart Copeland of The Police walking into the studio and to contribute to the drums on ‘Duel’ as if this was the most natural thing in the world to do. It was phenomenal.

One of the standout tracks on “A Secret Wish” is “A Dream Within a Dream”, based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Whose idea was that?

First of all, it wasn’t me who sang that one. Susanne Freytag has a great speaking voice, so she did recite the poem. But apart from that it was again Paul Morley’s idea. But, similar to a mantra, Stephen Lipson and Trevor Horn always said, “Everything is possible!” If you start to believe such a phrase you don’t hesitate to use an entire poem by Poe to turn it into something of your own. It’s again a matter of attitude. Even today, I don’t shy away from anything. The question is never if I should do something but rather how I should do it to succeed.

How did you realize that the instant success of Propaganda was just a split-second in your life? You had to overcome it all somehow, didn’t you?

I wasn’t adult when it all happened. The fact that Propaganda split up pretty soon helped me becoming adult. Maybe the first sign of maturity was me realizing that we had fucked up a singular chance in life. I realized that the four of us hadn’t been dealing with each other properly. There was too much ego involved that directly led to the breakup of the band.

Did you feel bitter about the second album by Propaganda, 1234, that was released without your participation?

No, not at all. I had started my own band Act by then, and in 1991 I had released my first solo album. Even more important, I became pregnant and proudly raised my daughter myself alone. You don’t have much time to worry about such things if you are a single mother. You asked me about when I became adult, and I’d say when I raised my child. I consider this effort to be so much more important than any of the various collaborations that I’ve made over the years, be it the songs that I recorded with Martin Lee Gore or the music I did with Barry Adamson. I recorded an entire album with the Startled Insects that never saw the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, these were great recordings, all of them.

 

 

Why didn’t you release all these collaborative efforts?

All these collaborations happened because we were friends. We basically lived in the same London neighborhood, we invited each other to parties, and when you talk together it’s just a step away to recording music together. Who knows, maybe all these songs will surface one day. I wouldn’t mind. I also tried to regroup Propaganda together with Michael Mertens, but that didn’t work out for various reasons that don’t really need dwelling on anymore. This was also due to Ralf Dörper’s absence in the new attempt to record, even though we’re good friends. I think he should be part of a comeback, too. Ralf was the band’s main lyricist, and lyrics are very important for the identity of a group. He, Andreas Thein and Susanne were the original trio; Michael and I joined in later when Ralf and Andreas had already formulated the concept and the manifesto.

Let’s talk about music that you actually have released. On your new album The Lost Are Found you wrote none of the lyrics. It’s all cover versions of The Pet Shop Boys, Stina Nordenstam, The Band, David Bowie and others. Why this compilation?

It started when I teamed up with Stephen Hague, who is probably best known for his work with The Pet Shop Boys and New Order. He wanted to cover “One Summer Dream” by the Electric Light Orchestra and asked me to sing it. We both loved the final result, so we started to flip through his record collection and picked one song after the other to record. It was a very natural process. I always become a little self conscious when I try to write my own lyrics, so singing someone else’s lyrics proved to be very convenient for me at this point in time. I guess I wanted to sing rather than write.

Why did you pick The Pet Shop Boys’ “Kings Cross”? Was this because it was originally a production by Stephen Hague?

That’s exactly the reason, though the lyrics appealed to me too. All the songs on The Lost Are Found deal with some kind of inner conflict, dashed hopes and lost dreams. In that regard I could relate to the man in the queue who has lost all his hope. Stephen had told me that over the years he had always heard a different version of “Kings Cross” in his head. He probably wanted to record this different version at least once in his life. On another level, I try to celebrate the pop song on my new album. The Pet Shop Boys are a prototypical pop band and this song specifically stands out in their catalogue.

Why does the album circle around spiritual defeats and lost dreams?

I’m a happy person, but I can relate to people who are melancholic. Melancholy seems to be a stronger sentiment than happiness – at least when it comes to creativity. Of course, we were looking for songs that were not obvious choices. We wanted the song “Whispering Pines” by The Band because we thought that few people who are into electronic music would know it. First and foremost, we wanted to exhibit a kind of uplifting sadness with this album.

Do you have any intentions of ever releasing another total work of art like A Secret Wish that combines music, photography, artwork and spectacular liner notes?

As I said, I would love to record a second album with Propaganda. I am still behind the scenes trying to bring the old protagonists together. I think we’ve all become adults, so I’m sure that Susanne and I wouldn’t bite and scratch each other anymore like we used to. We’ve actually become quite good friends over the years. ~

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