Her distinctive ice maiden cool vocal delivery with hints of classic Marlene Dietrich and wispy Nico more than suited the glorious European film noir sound of PROPAGANDA, the Düsseldorf quartet with Susanne Freytag, Michael Mertens and Ralf Dörper in which she first came to prominence.
Together, their songs such as ‘Dr. Mabuse’, ‘Duel’ and ‘P.Machinery’ were fine examples of how new digital technology could be utilised to produce accessible neo-industrial pop music with a chilling edge. Their 1985 ZTT album ‘A Secret Wish’ gained a legion of prominent fans including DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore and MICHAEL JACKSON’s producer QUINCY JONES who borrowed their influential sound for the ‘Bad’ album.
Despite the acclaim, PROPAGANDA split. Remaining with ZTT, Claudia formed ACT with early electro pioneer THOMAS LEER and released an album ‘Laughter, Tears and Rage’ in 1988 which featured an array of lush synthetic dynamics glossed with a touch of starlet glamour. Not one to rest on her laurels, she released her only solo album so far ‘Love: And A Million Other Things’ in 1991 on Island Records before taking a career break to bring up Maddy, her daughter with then husband Paul Morley. During this period, she only recorded occasionally with guest contributions for acts including SPIRITFEEL, THE BRAIN and OCEANHEAD.
During the latter half of the 90s, PROPAGANDA reformed and although material was written and demoed, no album was released. Around this time, a friend at German label Logic Records suggested Claudia should work with Paul Humphreys of OMD.
First touring the US together in 2000 before eventually becoming ONETWO, they released an EP ‘Item’ in 2004 and then the excellent album ‘Instead’ in 2007 via their own There (there) label.
Simultaneously, Claudia also worked with BLANK & JONES, APOPTYGMA BERZERK and ANDY BELL as well as releasing ‘Another Language’, an album of stripped down cover versions with her former ZTT label mate ANDREW POPPY.
With new deluxe 2CD reissues of ‘A Secret Wish’ and ‘Love: And A Million Other Things’ hitting a variety of retail outlets, Claudia Brücken invited The Electricity Club down to ONETWO’s London studio to chat about her career and her upcoming musical retrospective which is expected to feature the mouth watering prospect of some unreleased tracks and new remixes.
Who were your original influences?
There were people like THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and PATTI SMITH, I thought she was wonderful. I was completely mesmerised by DAVID BOWIE and I also liked KLAUS NOMI. And then KRAFTWERK came along. It just questioned everything that came before because with ‘Autobahn’, you were wondering “what kind of sound is that?”. It was just so revolutionary at the time!
Of the electro stuff I was into, there was early HUMAN LEAGUE, CLUSTER, MALARIA! and NEU! I loved LA DUSSELDORF, DAF and also DER PLAN, they were completely arty and had these tiny electronic keyboards and they dressed up in these really weird costumes.
And I was also very much into the very first NINA HAGEN BAND album amongst other things. I’ve never been into one specific musical direction only; I was like a sponge soaking everything in from when I was 15. I drew from so many other sources. This would have been the time I was in a band with Susanne. There came a point where it seemed that everyone wanted to be in a band.
The Düsseldorf scene was very small. There is a street in Düsseldorf called Die Ratinger Strasse and there was a club called Ratinger Hof where a lot of bands and students from the University of Art would mingle. All the bands and people from the art school or university would all meet around there. There was this interaction between art and music happening and everyone kind of knew one another.
With ‘A Secret Wish’ now receiving the deluxe remaster treatment, what are your immediate memories of that period on ZTT and the recording of that album?
Working with Stephen Lipson really. There were four studios in Sarm West, ZTT was upstairs at that time and there was also a flat where PROPAGANDA were staying at the very top. It was this place of creativity so there were these rooms where PROPANGANDA were programming in, FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD were in Studio1 and THE ART OF NOISE in another.
We were in a little studio for recording which we called ‘The Spaceship’, a tiny little room with lots and lots of lights and electronic equipment. And for me, it was one of the most creative times in my life. I don’t really dwell on the bad bits.
Stephen J Lipson’s production on ‘A Secret Wish’ proved to be highly influential on variety of people; DEPECHE MODE, SIMPLE MINDS and QUINCY JONES to name but three. What sort of technology were you using on the album?
We had the PPG in Düsseldorf so we worked with that. I had moved to London but I was flying back and forth so we would be doing lots of writing on the PPG.
We also worked with a Linn Drum and our data was recorded onto floppy disks as far as I can remember, which we then would give to Stephen… but I’m not really the one to talk technical here, that would be a question for Michael.
Most of the PROPAGANDA sounds were actually from the PPG. It had a really great identity that PPG, I could identify it immediately like “oh, that’s a PPG sound”… it just had something that was different and distinct about it.
The Fairlight we only used on ‘Dr. Mabuse’ as far as I remember because JJ Jeczalik who operated it was part of Trevor Horn’s team and Trevor produced the song. When it was decided that Stephen would produce the album, it was mostly the Synclavier that was being used. I think at the time there were only three Synclaviers in the world and Trevor had one of them. Stephen did all the Frankie songs using the Synclavier, he was one of the few engineers who knew how to use it! *laughs*.
Trevor has his own way of working because when we worked with Stephen, Trevor was the executive producer and he’d go “ok, play me what you’ve done” and go “ok, I think that’s not working yet”.
So he would check in every night to give us his comments and walk out again. We’d meet the next day again, that’s the way he worked.
And Trevor, he can take a lot of time for one thing only to come back to the very beginning to say this is what he wanted! But he goes through all these alternative ways to realise this was the best idea. Extremely time consuming and costly but that’s what you get when you work with Trevor, that’s his way.
Someone told me the other day that ROBBIE WILLIAMS gave Trevor his entire album and said “Trevor, see you in six months, do with it as you wish!” and came back six months later and just absolutely loved what he did.
Was it quite interesting for you to hear the PROPAGANDA sound on say, a MICHAEL JACKSON record like Bad? Or did it not register at the time?
It really didn’t… Trevor mentions this on the new sleeve notes and I was very flattered, that’s just brilliant. I remember hearing QUINCY JONES wanting to licence ‘A Secret Wish’ but I didn’t realise that it had captured his imagination so much. So that’s validation isn’t it? It’s wonderful!
PROPAGANDA could be considered a forerunner to the modern female fronted electronic acts like LADYTRON, GOLDFRAPP or CLIENT. Were PROPAGANDA ahead of their time?
Yes, I think what was interesting for us was we fitted into Paul Morley’s avant-garde vision of ZTT. There was the pop act he wanted which was FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD but he also wanted something which was edgy and different, and we kind of fitted in with that picture. Susanne, Ralf, Michael, Andreas Thein and I, because we were five at the time, we had that essence. What was magical about it was that we were given this opportunity.
It is interesting what happens when you put five industrial bashing experimentalists like us into this playground where we can work with the best musicians, the most amazing equipment and an absolute stunning producer… what happens if? You couldn’t have predicted what it was and this came out of it. I think you can hear that in the music. People were saying “have a listen to this” and “why not try that?” and it all just came together. And it then created this very special album. But PROPAGANDA wasn’t so easily digestible at the time, we confused the hell out of people who just thought “who are they?”… we didn’t fit in really!
How do you look back on being part of that whole remixing, multi-formatting marketing machine of ZTT? As a non-native English speaker, how did you find trying to understand Paul Morley’s sleeve notes?
Well, I did have to get the dictionary out at times! Obviously the Nietzsche quotes I could understand as a German so I had no troubles there.
But some stuff was like “Hmmmm! Where’s this coming from?”. The thing with Paul, and that’s what attracted me to him, was we had a very similar way of thinking and approaching things so we were talking the same language although I did have difficulties with the English language at the time.
Paul would have an idea like “let’s remix this song”… there would be a house engineer available, a downtime studio free so let’s use it rather than have it standing empty, let’s do something and be creative. That was Paul’s energetic spirit, we were all kind of rebellious and driven. We weren’t really questioning things too much, we were just doing. I was 19-20, you don’t question everything you do at that time… you do it when you’re older… sadly. *laughs*
When was the first time you actually dreamed in English?
I don’t know. I cannot answer that question because I can’t remember that moment. Now I think and I find it much easier to write in English. I find it really hard sitting there and construing a sentence in German because the grammar is probably completely the opposite to the English language. So I find it much easier and I think now after 25 years, I feel more Anglified and I feel really kind of English.
Well, it was the deal that we signed. I always say we had a management which wasn’t really management in a sense that it was divisive towards the band!
I wouldn’t class them as good managers, a good manger knows how to pull things together and make them happen.
In this case, yes, we did have a bad deal. But I remember Jill Sinclair, ZTT’s label manager didn’t want to lose PROPAGANDA, she already had lost Frankie.
She loved what we did, she was very proud of this album and what it had achieved at the time. And she did not want to see another band of hers go. So she said “come to me and negotiate” which I later did.
But I was in a tricky position because I wanted to work with Paul, I loved working with Trevor and I loved working with Stephen. Obviously, my loyalties were with my husband also and I knew what he had done for PROPAGANDA. He would have done so much more for us, but it was the others who wanted to leave. I know how the album was made so I knew you couldn’t put that kind of team together on another record company. I very much knew that.
It was a magical team, I do always believe it’s all in the team that you’re working with. When you have that, why give up something that works? It was the decision that the others took. I really didn’t want to leave them but I just didn’t want to go to a different major company either.
What would a second PROPANGANDA album on ZTT have sounded like if the team has stayed together to follow-up ‘A Secret Wish’?
Much like ‘A Secret Wish’, very much so… I think it would have been a very natural progression of what we had written and recorded before.
Do you think you’d have got artier and avant, or do you think you could have gone the way 1234 sounds, dreamy but almost with a mid-Atlantic pop accessibility?
I personally would have liked to have explored a similar direction to’A Secret Wish’. For me it was a perfect marriage of pop accessibility and the arty avant side of us. There was a rebellious side to Susanne and me and although we love pop music, there was a dark and a bit disturbing side to us as well and we wanted to combine these two sides. We were a band full of contrast, light and dark, dreamy and nightmarish. The combination of the two was what intrigued me.
Also musically, Stephen picked up on that. The voices would be very soft and the backing would be very hard. And then if I’d go really really hard, the music would sometimes become very soft so it was just this interplay. Yes I think we could have made a great second album on ZTT.
No, that was a different vision altogether. For ACT it was all decadence and glamour. And we wanted the drama of it all and we moved kind of politically further. We’re now in ’87 and it was the decline of Thatcher’s Britain and we just had a completely different message altogether.
It was a lot more theatrical and spielerisch, which is kind of more playful in a sense. It left aside the dark side, the Teutonic-ness. But also musically, Thomas was such a different kettle of fish altogether.
Do you think the UK didn’t ‘get’ Snobbery & Decay then?
No, sadly they didn’t *laughs*
Unfortunately they didn’t, or perhaps it was just not the right moment for this song… I do think it’s such a great song. Thomas wrote me an email the other day and he does think that perhaps we were ahead of our time. But also what happened was ZTT at the time changed companies to work with so they went from Island to Warners. And when that always happens, and we were just right in the middle of all that, the MD who takes over is often not that interested to take on what he’s been given, he has a complete different vision about what should be. So it’s sad because it happened to me again with my 1991 album ‘Love: And A Million Other Things’. The MD and the team you work with change and the artist is no longer a priority. The artist gets caught in record company politics.
When I was doing ‘Love: And A Million Other Things’ with Pascal Gabriel, we were working in the studio on the last two songs of the album and the MD from Island suddenly left and all the people who worked on my album left as well. A new guy came in and already I could sense what would happen so Pascal and I decided to get really experimental and we did so on the song ‘Surprise’ with THE BOW GAMELAN ORCHESTRA who were using fire and huge pipes to create sound. We realised we’d have trouble selling this album now. It had nothing to do with the artist or the content of the album.
‘Love: And A Million Other Things’ is being reissued by Cherry Red. You must be very pleased that this is fully available again and able to be re-evaluated because it’s very under rated?
Yes, maybe this time people can get the feel of it. At the time, I didn’t get much promotion.
I understand there may be a CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN compilation in the offing with some unreleased songs and remixes as well as collecting together material in all your various guises?
Yes, it’s going to be called ‘Combined’. I’m hoping that it will be released on Union Square as well, because it’s a licensing nightmare *laughs*
There’s so many other record companies involved and I don’t necessarily have the knowledge of how to do this. In this particular instance, I went to Union Square and said it would be great if they could get that together for me because they do this all the time. And it will make things easier.
Will this include stuff like the BLANK + JONES, OCEANHEAD, THE BRAIN and APOPTYGMA BERZERK collaborations?
None of those, but there’s going to be all the singles that I’ve made. So it’s going to be three PROPAGANDA tracks, two ACT tracks, two from my Island days. There’s going to be a new electro version of ‘Sequential’ on it, Paul Humphreys has done a really good version of that.
There’s two tracks that I’ve done with Stephen Hague called ‘Thank You’ and ‘Night School’, they’re completely new and I wanted to find a home for them. Also I want those two songs to promote the album so I’m hoping to make videos etc. We haven’t decided which one we should put out as a single so we may make two.
‘Delicious’ with Andy Bell of ERASURE is going to be on it and so is ‘Cloud 9’. All in all there will be 14 songs on CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN ‘Combined’.
Will any of the unreleased PROPAGANDA material from the late 90s reunion be included?
No, we’re not going to put that on. I didn’t want to go there.
Is there any possibility of the four of you working together again?
Actually I’ve been working with Michael, Susanne and Ralf again, we’ve written one song and I like it a lot. I’m really happy with the song. Now we just have to find the best way of releasing it. I think it’s a song that’s very suitable for the Olympics actually! Maybe we’ll get it out by 2012, hopefully before, we just have to see. But it’s written, it’s recorded and almost produced… in my view it sounds really fresh and very much like PROPAGANDA.
But a few years ago when we tried this, Ralf was absent. What was really essentially missing for me was Ralf because he has a way of saying things with words and he also formed PROPAGANDA with Andreas and Susanne. And he had a good vision about the band, what it stood for intellectually and so on. It felt more right when we wrote together again about a year ago; I’m comfortable with that format. That is PROPAGANDA, the four of us.
How did you come to work with Paul Humphreys?
For a few years I was a bit lost, unsure of what to do next musically… I’ve always been reliant on working with other people, I don’t really work that well on my own. I do like to have other people’s input.
So Paul and I started working together when he asked me to do this 2000 tour in America *laughs*
That’s when Paul and I discovered that we work well on stage together.
Again, with Paul, it’s brilliant because we are very playful, we are not too precious.It doesn’t have to sound like OMD or PROPAGANDA. We can take elements if we wish but we’re not labouring over it.
How are plans coming together for the next ONETWO album?
We are writing and we’ve started. I’m hoping we can put something out by April 2011. That’s what I would like to do, that’s my plan! But you know, sometimes things take a little longer but we’ve made a good start.
‘Instead’ was very well received, but what are your reflections on the album now?
I think we did really well. The other thing that I now think about the album is I wish we’d have gone out with it live before because we’ve got Philip Larsen who adds a lot of electronic blips and also James Watson who’s such a great musician. So because we did all the gigs with ERASURE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE and we added things on, I would have liked to have gone in the studio now and recorded it because it would have got another bite to it and a bit more aggression behind it.
It’s a little bit like making a wine, the sediment has to go down and settle… it’s the same kind of thing with music. We’ve grown into a really good live band now that we know what we’re doing and now we can play around with all the parts as well. So I would have liked to have gone back and now recorded the album and I think it would have sounded more electro and energetic. But that’s something we’re now aware of and we’re thinking with the next songs that we’re writing, with the next ONETWO gigs that we have, to take them out and rehearse them live, then record them later.
I think all of those. To be honest, when we did THE HUMAN LEAGUE and ERASURE gigs, I think people had no idea who we were and then they realised when we were playing ‘Messages’ and ‘Duel’… “Oh, it’s them!”
We were something new and how do you get to know a band like ONETWO if you don’t have any radio or TV and only a few people who write about you?
We had to start at the beginning and I’m just really pleased that THE HUMAN LEAGUE and ERASURE gave us a platform for more people to discover us.
Before ONETWO, you were not really known as a live performer but it’s like you tour like mad now. You recently appeared live with HEAVEN 17 too performing ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’. It was on TV, how do you think it went?
I haven’t seen it because I never watch my own performances. I got the live bug I guess, I just really like singing. In a studio environment, it’s all so controlled… but I’ve just become this live singer! Teaming up with Paul Humphreys, he made me discover that when I was doing a tour with him in 2000 and I thought “this is good fun”. And then I realised singing PROPAGANDA songs, how well people responded when they got a chance to hear them. Now I just want to spread the word because they are great songs, they are part of my past and I’d like people to hear them.
Is a solo concert ever going to be a possibility?
My plan for ‘Combined’ is to make a special evening with special friends, so I’m trying to pull as many people who are on this album to appear with me. I’m trying to get Susanne, Michael and Ralf in, I’ve invited Thomas and I hope he’ll be able to join me.
I’m hoping Andy Bell can do it. I’m sure I couldn’t get Martin Gore… but Glenn Gregory I think I could get; we keep on helping each other out. If he’s around, he probably will do it.
I will ask everyone who’s been involved to join me, it could be great night….let’s see!
You do seem to have worked with quite a few legends from the ‘Synth Britannia’ era.
One special thing about ‘A Secret Wish’ was that it has opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve got so much respect from fellow musicians, people just kind of go “Claudia, I want to work with you, can you do this?”. That’s pretty much how all of my collaborations came about.
Is there a stand-out memory from any of these collaborations?
It was amazing when David Sylvian came in. On ‘P-Machinery’, there is this line he wrote on a little keyboard that he brought in, it’s that theme which is also ‘Thought II’ from the bonus CD.
Is that David Sylvian I can hear on the middle eight of P-Machinery?
That’s just the girls. The “calm but steady flow, our strength is running low” bit, that’s me! But I tell you who does the backing vocals in ‘Duel’… it’s Trevor!
What did parts did Glenn Gregory do on ‘A Secret Wish’?
Glenn did the shouting on ‘Jewel’. It was me, Paul Morley and Glenn!
‘Don’t Stop’ was your most recent recording in collaboration with German dance duo BLANK + JONES. You also recorded a marvellous song with them called ‘Unknown Treasure’ in 2003. How did those songs come together and how much input were you able to contribute to the final results?
With ‘Unknown Treasure’, that was quite magical really because Piet Blank and Jaspa Jones sent me a basic groove. And onto this groove, I wrote the melody and all the words. Paul Humphreys was brilliant, he helped me to record the voice and edit it.
He’s so patient with editing vocals and putting it all together. It’s a very time consuming process. So we sent them the entire vocal track and two weeks later, they sent me a CD back and to my delight they had turned it into this beautiful song, it was just this lovely journey. And I think they did such a great job, a real collaboration. Don’t Stop was in reverse, they gave me all the music and then I did the words and sent it back to them. And this is how these two songs came together.
Is there any reason why ‘Unknown Treasure’ is not on ‘Combined’?
It’s not on ‘Combined’ because ‘Kiss Like Ether’ is on, and ‘Kiss Like Ether’ is very much in same the vein as ‘Unknown Treasure’. Before, ‘Combined’ was a double CD and pretty much everything I ever did was on it *laughs*
And then it was like, we’re only doing one CD. And then I had to put some songs aside. So with ‘Unknown Treasure’, I really wanted it on but I wanted ‘Kiss Like Ether’ instead. Tempo wise, it’s very similar so it had to go… it was a tough decision!
You’ve done quite a few cover versions in all your guises as well as doing the ‘Another Language’ covers album with ANDREW POPPY. Are there any other songs you’d like to do?
There’s so many great songs, I’m a singer and I like good tunes. ‘Duel’ for example is one of my favourite songs because it’s a singer’s song, composed for my voice. I love Motown stuff but at the moment, I’m singing ‘Plastic Palace People’ by SCOTT WALKER. I’m pretty random with my choices that I like to sing. I love electro and I love heavy industrial stuff. I love Chanson and drama. When I grew up, my grandma listened to LOTTE LENYA and BERTOLT BRECHT. I think you can put me in any kind of musical outfit really and I can make it work in my own style.
What did you think of SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR’s and MANDY SMITH’s covers of ‘Duel’?
I like Sophie’s and Mandy’s versions of ‘Duel’ and I’m glad that they’ve picked our song as they make other people aware of PROPAGANDA’s music.
Personally, when I do covers I like to put the songs I chose in a very different light to the original. In that way they become my own interpretations. My approach is more similar to SUSANNA & THE MAGIC ORCHESTRA or the way Martin Gore works on his ‘Counterfeit’ albums.
It’s very funny but on the sleeve notes of ‘A Secret Wish’, Paul Morley was saying that when Trevor Horn was not available to be producer anymore because of FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, he wanted DAVID SYLVIAN.
Meanwhile Jill Sinclair wanted STOCK AITKEN & WATERMAN!! That would have been a wrong choice, nothing against them! *laughs*
Have you heard that track by HURTS called ‘Wonderful Life’ which sounds a lot like PROPAGANDA?
I think that track is really beautiful; I can really hear how PROPAGANDA influenced it musically, especially from the middle bit onwards because it goes into that dreamy motion until the end and the choice of instruments used remind me a bit of ‘A Dream Within a Dream’.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
My daughter gives me songs to listen to, so I don’t lose connection. I’ve been listening to BEACH HOUSE, NITE JEWEL, THE RAINCOATS, SUSANNA & THE MAGIC ORCHESTRA, GILLIAN WELCH and the new ARCADE FIRE album. You have to discover acts yourself now, I preferred the old-fashioned way of listening to the radio.
Another truth installed by the machine…
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Claudia Brücken
Special thanks also to Paul Humphreys
CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN ‘Love: And A Million Other Things’ is reissued as a 2CD package by Cherry Red on 30th August 2010
PROPAGANDA ‘A Secret Wish’ is available now and released by Salvo/Union Square
CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN ‘Combined’ will be released in 2011
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
29th August 2010, updated 5th February 2018