There are only two types of music fans in this world, those who believe Propaganda’s audacious German synth pop opus, A Secret Wish, from 1985 is one of the greatest records of all time, and those who have yet to hear it. Within the Propaganda camp, two factions peacefully coexist– those who are still obsessed with the band’s one and only album, and those who have followed lead singer, Claudia Brücken on an adventurous career of wildly unique collaborations across the past four decades. This year, Brücken will delight both factions with xPropaganda, a live tour of A Secret Wish featuring co-founder/co-singer Susanne Freytag, and Beginn, a new studio album in collaboration with Jerome Froese, formerly of Tangerine Dream.
Popdose recently caught up via Skype with Brücken in London and Froese in Berlin to learn how Beginn began and to bring die-hard Propaganda fans the very latest update on the potential of an original line-up reunion.
Exes, Propaganda and xPropaganda
To fully appreciate Beginn, let’s briefly head back to the beginning, Dusseldorf in the early 1980’s, when Propaganda launched a then teenage Brücken into international stardom. One of the common misunderstandings of A Secret Wish is that it was produced by Trevor Horn; most likely because the album’s first single, “Dr. Mabuse”, is on an all-star compilation album called Produced By Trevor Horn. While the former Buggles frontman turned uber-producer (Seal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) helmed the ‘Mabuse’ single and signed the band to ZTT, the label he co-founded with music journalist Paul Morley, his engineer, Stephen Lipson, produced the rest of the landmark LP. Now remember these names, they are important to the story that follows.
For an album that barely dented the charts – it peaked at #16 in the UK – A Secret Wish refuses to fade away. Lipson’s crisp, dangerous and futuristic production still sounds ahead of its time in 2018. Brücken’s mesmerizing vocals, Freytag’s stark spoken word passages, and every loop, hook and beat created by the band (including Ralf Dörper and Michael Mertens) create such perfect musical Lego blocks, the songs have been remixed and rebuilt into countless re-imaginings of the album, including Wishful Thinking, Outside World, Noise and Girls Come Out To Play, the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, and as absurd as it sounds for a band with one album, a 2-disc greatest hits set (The Best Of Propaganda). Even the original vinyl and CD issues — both from 1985 — contain different mixes (Lipson credits the latter as the definitive mix). Countless more remixed Propaganda singles lurk like buried treasure throughout the ZTT universe, including the 6-disc Art of the 12-inch series and Blank and Jones’ S080s take on the ZTT catalog.
With all due apologies to 1990’s 1234, a delightful mainstream pop record featuring a somewhat different Propaganda lineup (Freytag makes an appearance, Brücken does not), fans have been clamoring for a true sequel for some 30 plus years now. While demos from an ill-fated reunion have leaked online, Brücken admits, a proper sequel is unlikely. “A Secret Wish had a huge budget and a brilliant producer,” she told Popdose while discussing Beginn’s origins, “We didn’t set out to write an album that sounds like Propaganda or Tangerine Dream; it was never our intention, we both need to move on. Hardcore Propaganda fans want Propaganda, but we cannot be that. We’d never get there.”
Until a label backs up a truckload of money to properly fund Lipson’s services and a full band reunion, Propaganda fans will find plenty to love on Beginn, including an appearance by Freytag on the lead single, “Sweet Sense of Liberation”. “I always liked the way our voices intermingle, the way they bounce off each other, the familiarity,” Brücken said of Freytag. “This song is the sound of us being experimental, working things out.”
Brücken and Freytag recently brought A Secret Wish to life on stage as xPropaganda for a series of sell-out shows in London. This fall, they take the show on the road for a special UK tour with Heaven 17. xPropaganda will once again perform their album in full while Heaven 17 celebrates the anniversary of their landmark album, Luxury Gap.
Between Propaganda and Beginn, quite a lot has happened in Brücken’s career – for a guided journey through every act from ACT (with Thomas Leer) to OneTwo (with OMD’s Paul Humphreys), read Popdose’s 2014 interview with Brücken.
Dream Within a Tangerine Dream
All the meanwhile, guitarist Jerome Froese ushered Tangerine Dream (a band started by his father) through one of their most prolific and successful eras (1990-2006), netting many Grammy nominations along the way. Since departing the band, he has released volumes of albums and singles under his own name and TDJ Rome, and Loom, a collaboration with Johannes Schmoelling (also of Tangerine Dream) and Roger Wässer.
“I wanted to add vocals to some instrumental music, so a friend recommended Claudia,” Froese told Popdose. “At first, we talked by Skype for two hours. We were on the same wavelength as to where the music industry is these days. I sent my demos to her and she liked it. She came to Berlin in late 2015 and we listened to them in studio.”
Beginn takes a lot of sonic textures one would find in an ambient Tangerine Dream album and marries them to some of the most gorgeous, elegant and accessible pop songs in Brücken’s career. The album combines the soft focus dreaminess of classic Saint Etienne with crisp and compelling pop hooks reminiscent of Goldfrapp’s best work.
To craft lyrics to fit Froese’s sonic soundscapes, Brücken followed her muse and his vibe. ‘“Wounded’ is a dark song, so I wanted to write something sinister,” Brücken said, “Like a crime happening, I wanted to get that feeling across. For ‘Whispers’, I watched a film scene by an Italian director that takes place in a Rome garden; children, playing in the moment.” After their session in Berlin, Brücken returned to London to write the lyrics, “I take lots of time because the story has to sing well. I write and abandon phrases until I ultimately create something I will enjoy singing.”
Froese crafted all of Beginn’s instrumentation by himself, “While I am trained to play several instruments, I like guitar the most,” he said comparing the malleability of the guitar to the programmed loops of a synthesizer, “As you bend the strings, there’s always the possibility to put yourself into the sound.”
“Writing with Jerome was so freeing,” Brücken said. “There were no ego problems or clashes. I learned a lot, like a child on a playground again.”
Sound is one of many things Brücken and Froese agree on, from high fidelity to the financial soundness of the music industry itself. “We used to both be signed to major companies in the late 90s, and then learned creating our own labels was a better way to earn direct income,” Froese said. “In the 2000’s, streaming became a big problem – it isn’t an alternative income source. Thankfully, we both have solid fan bases from the past, always following, always watching to see what’s next. Introducing a new project is much more complicated. We will see if Tangerine Dream and Propaganda fan bases buy the album.”
Fans that spring for the physical incarnation of Beginn will enjoy superior fidelity and album artwork featuring creative input by Paul Morley. In Brücken’s life, Morley is much more than the co-founder of ZTT; he is her former husband. The two also co-produced a child (now grown) and have collaborated throughout Brücken’s career. “I always liked Paul’s input, and he likes being a part of it,” Brücken said. “I like his process, the way he puts words into brackets. Paul also helped design the xPropaganda t-shirts. I like his language; his little symbols echo the ZTT era.”
Fans that sign up for the crowd-sourced vinyl edition will receive an added bonus, two Fleetwood Mac covers, exclusive to the Cherry Red Bespoke campaign. “When I start a project, I like to get a feel of who I’m working with,” Brücken said. “ A good experiment is to record a cover. My mood that day was ‘Sara’. I asked his favorite Fleetwood Mac song and he said ‘Gypsy’”. Froese added, “Our version of ‘Gypsy’ is a bit more poppy and electronic, while ‘Sara’ is very ambient.”
Whether Beginn is a one-off project, or the beginning of something new remains to be seen. “My biggest achievement was hearing a song I created played on the radio – it’s where a song belongs,” she said. “I thought Where Else… (her 2014 collaboration with John Owen Williams) had a lot of radio-friendly songs, but they got little play. Beginn isn’t what you’ll hear on BBC-1 or BBC-2 these days. Perhaps BBC6? It’s tricky – ‘what’s the single’, they’ll say. We’re worlds apart.”
If the album winds up selling enough copies, Brücken and Froese are willing to take it on the road if the right promoter shows interest. Performing Beginn as a duo or with a full band remains to be seen depending on the opportunity. And if this remains just a studio project, well there’s always the chance for something more. “We have some recorded leftovers,” said Froese. “Some started, some finished. We selected the best at the time to create Beginn and have some songs leftover. Some are sketches with no lyrics. We could try to make something new.”
In the meantime, Brücken is writing new material and preparing for xPropaganda’s upcoming shows. “I’ve wanted to perform A Secret Wish live for 25 years,” she said. “Susanne and I are like sisters, she’s in England as well, so our contact has never stopped. All these years, people are still following our music; people of all ages. I recently met someone at an xPropaganda gig – the only concert of mine he hadn’t seen was one of the very first Propaganda gigs. Since then, he’s seen all the rest – from all of these outfits. My music has been part of the soundtrack to his life; it’s thrilling. For the xPropaganda shows, we thought everyone in the crowd would be 50+, but there were people in their 20’s and 30’s – it was much more mixed than we anticipated. There have been so many A Secret Wish reissues; people keep discovering it. Plus, the Eighties are very popular now. Practicing for the gig, I listened to A Secret Wish a lot. Doesn’t sound dated. The songs are like classic pieces of furniture, they mix right in with modern songs and it all sounds good. That’s why, for this latest project, I wanted to get back to my electronic roots. I also wanted to collaborate with someone from Germany. And then Jerome called and here we are.”
Beginn by Claudia Brücken and Jerome Froese is out June 15, 2018 on Cherry Red Records.