Former futurists in the UK in the mid 1980s, let down by the likes of Ultravox on one hand and electronic music being hijacked by Stock, Aitken and Waterman on the other, turned their attentions to Germany. Kraftwerk's chart success with 'Tour De France' hinted that there were unplumbed and purer sources of synthetic construction to be found over the Channel. Even previously dismissed froth-puppets Depceche Mode threw away their pop sensibilities, decamped to Berlin, and borrowed Blixa Bargeld's scaffolding and concrete blocks for their rhythmic inspiration.
It was in the light of this Teutonic sea-change that Claudia Brucken, the singer of the German anti-Abba construction Propaganda, first fell into the UK music scene.
Propaganda's entree was courtesy of the ever confrontation-hungry people at the helm of Zang Tuum Tumb Records, whose media savvy manipulation had already garnered a UK number one with Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax'. As ZTT Minister of Information at the time, Paul Morely recently had the following to say about the signing of Propaganda: “Chris [Bohn, NME writer] played me their version - almost an original new piece, almost absurdist - of Throbbing Gristle's ‘Discipline’.
"And having made my mind up very early on that I wanted Zang Tuum Tumb to be more European than American, and arbitrarily fancying the idea of a group from the home city of Kraftwerk, and the idea of connecting the label to a then relatively new but already deep and fascinating history of techno/electro/industrial music, and thinking their name was perfect, in all sorts of ways, for a group, and a group on a label that I was planning to be like the label was for a short while, they were the first group I wanted to sign.”
The role ZTT played in introducing the art of marketing to the British pop charts - not to mention inflating standards and methods of production far beyond that reserved for throwaway chart releases in Britain prior - cannot be underestimated. It can be argued, in fact, that the introduction of the likes of Frankie and Propaganda were part of a philosophy towards pop that assisted in breaking boundaries and creating a wide new field of visual and format experimentation in popular music, perfect for the emergent MTV generation.
Propaganda produced a fistful of compelling singles, combining motorik iciness with Horn’s signature bombast, and then a remarkable and odd album in A Secret Wish. As the story so often goes, especially when relating the insanity of hyper inflated egos and budgets, the band collapsed in an angry convoluted heap of politicking, label machinations and conspiracy theories. Brucken married Minster Morley and stayed with ZTT, while the rest of Propaganda left. A Secret Wish, however, has never been forgotten by fans, and has just had its 25 year re-release. Brucken’s career continued, but has always been shadowed by her time in Propaganda, with attempts to reunite the original line up still sporadically ongoing until even last year.
Now, over 25 years later, Claudia celebrates her musical life with a retrospective compilation. Charismatic and surprisingly approachable, she speaks with The Quietus about Combined and what really happened to the Propaganda reunion.
Why did you decide to put out this compilation?
Claudia Brucken: It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My work has been quite scattered because I’ve done so may little projects, and I was just thinking that if someone hasn’t heard of my work, something like this would be the best way to introduce them to it.
If there’s a young kid out there that has listened to some of my stuff but hasn’t got any idea of what else I am about... a lot of people think that there’s just Propaganda and always go on about that, but actually there’s so much more. So, for me, it was important for someone to be able to get a taste of everything that I’ve done, including my cover versions and albums with Andrew Poppy, with just piano or one instrument and one voice. I just wanted to get all the flavours on there.
How did you choose which tracks to put on there?
CB: I chose songs for how the music fits together. I wanted to start with Propaganda because that was my first band, and the first seven songs are in chronological order, because I didn’t want to split them up too much. The next seven songs are in accordance with what goes together nicely, really. A lot of people don’t listen to albums in their entirety any more, but for me that’s very important - how things sound together.
Do you still believe in the album as a relevant format?
CB: I do! [laughs] Maybe it’s a bit old school, I don’t know, but for me it’s important. The best albums for me have a beginning and an end. I think that’s just the way I’ve grown up with music and I don’t want to let it go. I don’t really believe in cherry-picking songs, because I think sometimes you need to listen to a song in its context... listen again and again and then you get to know and love it. But this has all changed - you have to be so instant these days, but that’s not the way I feel.
So what are your favourite albums?
CB: I go back to the past quite a bit now, so it would be something like "Heroes" by David Bowie or Horses by Patti Smith. Especially old Bowie records - I was very much a Bowie fan in my youth. These kinds of albums mean a lot to me. My musical spectrum is quite broad, really, and there are lots of records that really say a lot: the Velvet Underground, you know the Andy Warhol one. Oh what was that called?
The Velvet Underground And Nico...
CB: Was it? I was very fond of them.
People often focus on the Propaganda years - is that something that you resent?
CB: No, I never do. I’m absolutely fond of having been part of ZTT and Propaganda. It was a journey that I would never have missed, because it was so exciting. I’m not resentful at all, it’s just that people focus on that thing only, and I’ve done so many other things.
So why do you think Propaganda is such a focus for so many people after all this time?
CB: You know, I think it’s because we only made one album with that line-up, so I think it captured a lot of people’s imaginations at that time. I think they were disappointed that we only did one record. Because that album was just so different, and because it had such a filmic quality, I think it allowed people to dream - we caught something in people’s imaginations. We were quite different, the four of us, and we had a dark and arty side. Obviously it was so well produced, too.
If you were asked to examine you own career history, do you have a particular period of your work that you are most excited about?
CB: I think it would be my album Love and a Million Other Things. I feel like I became my own boss, really, with that album. I think I liberated myself from the weight that I’d carried around from A Secret Wish. On Love and a Million Other Things I made most of the decisions: I had a budget and could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have any limitations. No-one tried to say 'You can’t do it like that'.
I had to free myself from A Secret Wish was, so that time was very important. Obviously A Secret Wish is very, very important, and then Love and a Million Other Things is, and then after that I just got very playful. I was meeting people like Martin Gore or Andy Bell, and we just said 'Shall we do some work together?' and did it.
So how did you meet Martin Gore?
CB: Martin used to live close by in London. At that time there were ‘the Depeche people’, the Depeche and Mute family. It was like a small community and we all just hung out. I hung out at Mute parties and Depeche concerts and that’s how Martin and I got to know each other. I love their music very much. I think Martin is an amazing songwriter, and he’s got so much integrity.
So did he approach you, or you him?
CB: No, I approached him because I was stuck on a song: it was quite silly really. I had an idea - a lyric and the verse melody and a bit of a bridge - but I couldn’t think of a chorus. Because Martin was literally only 10 minutes away from my house, I just called him up and I said 'Can I play you something and can you help me out?'. First of all he said 'No I can’t do this, I’ve never written with someone before, I can’t do it', and then a day later he called back and he said 'Look, I’ve done it, it was so easy.'
I like that kind of collaboration, when there’s no pressure, and you can try things out, and it either works or it doesn’t.
Of all the people you have collaborated with over the years, who do you think you’ve learned the most from?
CB: Oh that’s kind of an unfair question!
CB: [laughs] Everybody has their own qualities, you see, and...
But did anyone kind of mentor you particularly or collaborate very closely with you?
CB: Well, I loved working with Steven Lipson [musician and producer at ZTT]. I have to say, that was just such an amazing experience. He was just so good in directing us, and bringing out parts that I would never have dared to do before. But that’s such a long time ago, I might have remembered something entirely different to how it really was. [Laughs] I was so young then.
I’ve learned so much since then, I think, and now I’ve been working with another producer who I’ve often wanted to work with, and that’s Stephen Hague.
How did you end up working with Stephen?
CB: That’s actually really funny, because I met him at another Mute party. [Laughs] I think it was actually the last Mute party, before they demolished the building. There was a party at their offices, and they actually demolished the whole place brick by brick at the party, which was quite ‘happening’ actually. It was quite funny.
So you helped demolish the Mute office?
CB: Yes, I’ve just got a little piece of the wall. You know like the Berlin Wall? Well I’ve got a little bit of the Mute wall. It’s a great idea, I thought. Really clever.
I met Stephen at that party, and I just said 'Look Stephen, since the 80s I always have wanted to work with you' and he said “Let’s try something.” It has been a great experience because he pushed me into doing something that I hadn’t done before, but not in a kind of negative way. I really like doing things that I haven’t done before.
So what did Stephen encourage you to do that you hadn’t done?
CB: Singing in a certain style, definitely. Also I think these songs come from a slightly different direction, and have a different kind of groove - they’re more sultry and moody. Stephen and I discovered that we both have a passion for Motown, so we tried to capture a little bit of that feeling, and I would have never thought of doing that.
Was it a difficult thing to try and do?
CB: It took me ages to write those two songs, you know. It doesn’t come easily to me. It’s a really difficult long process, and lyrically I want to tell a story. I don’t want to just fill the melody line. [Laughs] I want to say something that has a little bit of substance, I hope.
What was it like for you growing up in Dusseldorf, and what was the music scene like there? And did you want to be in a band from the start?
CB: Well, I got really interested in music from about the age of 13. Everybody seemed to be in bands, so when I was 13 or 14 I formed a band, but it wasn’t really about the music. It was more about dressing up and being part of a gang, I guess. We were just expressing ourselves - or trying to express ourselves - musically. It would never have occurred to me at that point that I would make music seriously as a career, because at that time really I wanted to become a painter.
Dusseldorf is really quite small. The music scene was already there and I joined it more when I was 16 or 17, when there was a lot of synthesiser music going on. There was one street in particular where everybody hung out called the Ratinger street, and there was one particular club, called Ratinger Hof. All the musicians hung out there, and also a lot of artists from the Academy of Arts which was just around the corner. So it was a real melting pot of interesting people - or what I thought were interesting people.
Because it was quite small, you knew a lot of people: you’d just see each other, and that’s how someone asked me 'Do you want to join a band?'. We had a covers band for a while; I was on backing vocals. Then I joined The Tripolinas, with Susanne [Freytag, Propaganda percussionist/vocalist], when I was 16 and again it was all about dressing up, but also synthesisers and analogue sounds. Susanne was asked to join Propaganda while she was still in the Tripolinas, and then after a while they recruited me because they needed a singer. Next we ended up in London, and then ZTT wanted to sign us to record which was the most incredible experience. It all fell into my lap a bit.
So when you were approached to be part of Propaganda, did you like the band?
CB: Oh yes - I liked their sound. It was a really heavy dance rhythm, and kind of electronic, which was a Dusseldorf sound at the time - like DAF, for example. At the time there was just disco, and then, all of a sudden, it changed and we were right in it. We still liked dance music, but also these really hard analogue sounds. Susanne, Andreas [Thein) and Ralf (Dorper, formerly of Die Krupps] had written a couple of songs: one called 'Disziplin' was a cover of a Throbbing Gristle song. I really liked sound of that.
And did you want to move to London?
CB: London was an incredible place. Dusselfdorf is just such a small town in comparison, so I was like 'Wow! Where am I now?'. I was still in school when ‘Dr Mabuse’ came out, and it was number seven in Germany while I was still finishing high school. After I had successfully finished my exams it was like 'Oh, ok, what now?' And 'now' was go to London because I was in Propaganda.
Given Ralf’s background in Die Krupps and the interests that you had in harder and more hypnotic music, how did you feel about having your songs transformed into pop by ZTT?
CB: Well, I don’t think it was entirely pop: I had a love and hate relationship with pop but I don’t really see A Secret Wish as pop. I see it more as its own thing. It stands out; I think it’s more filmic.
I mean, we had our pop moments; there was ‘Jewel’, for instance, which was intentionally a pop song. It was brilliant to work with Trevor [Horn] on ‘Jewel’, to see an expert at work. He had a lot to do with distilling it, [and] making it a pop song. He removed a lot of chords and narrowed it down until it was a little pop number.
What made Propaganda interesting was that we were four individuals, and we each had our own ideas. I feel that I was my own person and I had my own vision and so had the other three. So, we all had our own influences and we all came together to make the album with the other people. I don’t feel I was pushed into anything. For me it was just an incredible work experience. Maybe it was because I was quite young, but I didn’t kind of question things too much. I just threw myself into it.
Ralf was quoted that the band were trying to be a more sort of dark and edgy kind of Abba... How did you feel about all of that, particularly as a woman? Did you feel you had to push back against any kind of pigeonholing?
CB: I think within the band, Susanne and I were perceived at the time as easily replaceable and we were only ‘on hire’, so to speak. Which obviously made me and Susanne angry, because we were actually the faces - the front figures - of the band. So that was a sore point. Women in the media industry... the way they are treated is horrendous because it is a man’s world - or it was at that point. I think it has probably changed a bit more now, but I’m not sure. At that time women were there to just look good, and not have an opinion. Susanne and I were quite rebellious spirits, so we wouldn’t put up with any of that. But we were always fighting, you know? Fighting to be heard, and to be respected. Women in the industry just were not taken seriously.
Do you feel it is different today?
CB: I feel quite removed from it, now. After I did Propaganda I did Act and I did incur quite a lot of sexism then. But now I’ve got my own record company and I’m my own boss, so I feel I’ve removed myself from it.
But do you think that it’s still as much of a problem?
CB: Yeah it still is, it hasn’t changed. Women are not allowed to age. It’s not a problem for men to age and grow old, but we can’t. People tend to focus on how we look. [Laughs]I could find that all kinds of depressing but I’m just trying to ignore it as much as I can - because of course, we all get older...
Well it certainly doesn’t affect your ability to write a song...
CB: Exactly. I’m standing my ground here. I love singing and I’m not going to give it up because I’m getting a bit older.
Well in the blues, the older a person was the more likely they were that they were going to be accomplished...
CB: I think people, especially in the last 15 years, focus on youth. It has been taken all out of proportion now, and it seems there is hardly any space for my generation. But I feel also that a lot of people are just not putting up with those limitations any more. The media portray a certain side of what is happening out there, but very often there’s a lot more going on that the media doesn’t portray. People are standing up and saying 'Hello!?', you know? 'Hello, we are here, and we know what we are doing'. Just because we were here at a certain time doesn’t mean we still have our bands.
For example, I love Heaven 17 very much: they're true friends of mine, and I’ve encouraged them for years, saying that they have to write another album, and now I think they are doing it. Now they are thinking with a better... a different vision, which is a good thing. A very good thing.
So these days what gives you inspiration and motivation for new creativity?
CB: Oh, there are so many things. Stories that I read, backing tracks that I receive, they kind of stimulate me to find a certain feeling.
Do you still find inspiration flows quite easily?
CB: If I allow it... I think it’s a question of mind over matter. I do feel like I need to express myself in some way, and so if I’m not inspired to write songs I sing other people’s songs, and I find inspiration in that again. It was difficult a few years ago when my Dad died, I couldn’t write anything for a couple of years after that, and now I feel like I’m getting into it again somehow.
I love expressing myself through music, and I love the whole process of finding melodies and getting the song right. And once you’ve got them, it’s like when a writer finishes the end of his essay or short story or book. It’s really thrilling once you’ve got it. It’s like a gigantic puzzle and you’re putting the pieces all together, and that's really satisfying.
I also love going out on tour again with One Two. In the 80s I missed out on doing live work: I did a very small tour for three weeks with Propaganda, and a couple of years ago I did 30 days, I think, with the Human League and 30 days with Erasure, and that was just brilliant. That kind of really got me into the mood again for doing live shows and presenting new work. I wouldn’t want to go on the road doing old stuff; I think that’s how you undervalue yourself as a musician. That’s just talking for myself, though.
You are in the middle of writing a new album, is that correct?
CB: Yes that’s right, I’m doing another album with One Two. Especially [for] when we go out live, Paul and I think we’ve found a really good way of doing our old songs: songs from OMD, from Propaganda, and also new songs. We felt it was a good way of introducing our band to people, and to having our past together represented, but also our music that we’re doing now.
How do you function as a recording partnership and a relationship partnership? Is it a difficult balance?
CB: [Laughs] Yes, it is, but I met Paul through music, so because we have that in common I couldn’t imagine it any other way either. We have huge arguments - for example, when he likes a drum pattern that I really don’t like, we can argue about it for days. But I stand my ground on things that I don’t want. I think, in bands, you have to learn to create something that everyone is happy with. That’s another learning process. After we’ve been in the studio, though, I can come home and just switch on the television and let it go.
We had a studio in our home for the first One Two album and it was something we both weren’t happy with, so we actually got ourselves a studio and we’re loving that. And at the studio it’s just work, and at home it’s just home. So that was a very good thing.
Did you set up any creative relationship rules?
CB: It’s a talking process. The important thing is that if you feel like something is unsatisfactory to you, you have to acknowledge it. I think a lot of people don’t do that, [but] I verbalise things over and over until I’m heard. If you’re unhappy with something you have to keep stating it. I think we, as humans, need to hear things a lot of times before stuff sinks in so you just have to keep going.
Back to Propaganda: I did read that there was some more recent material written last year, but that it all kind of fell apart. What happened there?
CB: (sighs) You see Michael, me and Susanne have been trying to work together for so many years - we’ve collected quite a lot of material, and I would love to make another record. About a year and a half ago, Ralf joined the band temporarily, and we did a song which I think is really brilliant and I just want to put it out. I’d love to work on another Propaganda album - but it fell apart again because Michael does seem to have difficulties working with me, which is a shame.
Is it possible that what you’ve done can come out anyway?
CB: Well I don’t really see how to if one of members of the band isn’t behind it.
CB: I mean, I have a really lovely relationship with Susanne and I have a great relationship with Ralf again which I’m very happy with. We’re good mates now, which means a lot. But Michael... we were approached a while ago to do some live work and I really wanted to push that, but Michael decided he didn’t want to work with me any longer - and that was his decision - there’s nothing I can do.
What about you and Susanne, would you work together again?
CB: Well, it’s starting with the the Scala gig and she’s excited about that - she’ll do ‘Dream Within A Dream’. We’re programming that at the moment which is a really big job, so I’m hoping that one thing leads to another. That’s all you can do, throw out something there and see what happens from there.
Do you put a lot of effort into the visual side of being an artist? Is that something still really important to you?
CB: Ha ha ha! If you could see me now! I love dressing up for formal occasions and in the 80s it was all about dressing up all the time you know. You would never leave your house without spending an hour on your makeup, but, now I like it for going out, and social occasions and also doing things like the Scala gig, but I also like just taking my coat and taking my dog out to the park you know? And walking in the rain with wet hair and stuff! The current Claudia Brucken is just the way I am. What I am now, today, I’m quite comfortable with that. I’m quite happy with the place where I am at the moment.
I’m quite a private person also, and it probably is strange for people to hear but I’m quite a shy person too, which doesn’t come across on some covers I’ve done! For me I always see myself like an actress in a way, I slip from one part into another part and I like that...
I love Claudia Brucken. I've been a follower of her career since the early days. A big influence. Catch her on the Back To The Phuture show with Mark Jones on BBC6 Music (broadcast Sun 8th May): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01101sg