The Popdose Interview with Terri Nunn
Think about getting on the phone with the woman you lusted after like no 14-year-old boy ever lusted in his life. This was the “challenge” presented to us when we got the green light to interview Berlin singer and part time DJ Terri Nunn, who for this writer’s money is the alpha and omega of ‘80s rock star hotties (and still looks fabulous today). Nunn is doing press to promote Animal, Berlin’s first album of new material in 11 years, and it’s a full-on dance record, packed with wall-to-wall beats – and yes, a dubstep moment – as well as a scorching cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Nunn was clearly thrilled about finding her muse again. We, on the other hand, were happy just to be on the phone with her. What happened along the way, like the time she called two music giants ‘socially retarded’ – and outed another for not having the decency to turn her down politely – and when she equated making music with a married couple’s sex life, was gravy. And then there was the opening exchange, which will haunt our dreams until the end of days.
How are you?
I’m good, thank you. How are you?
Good. I’m talking to you. What’s not to love?
(Laughs) That’ll get you laid. That’s how you talk to a woman. ‘How else could I be? I’m talking to you!’ (Laughs)
So, let’s talk about the new record. When I heard the dubstep breakdown in the album’s title track, I had a funny thought: electronics have played a pretty significant part in the band’s sound, not with every record, but some more than others. Was there ever a time where a certain type of dance music would come into vogue, and you would wrinkle your nose at it? Like, “Ewwww, I’m not doing that.”
I hated disco. In the ‘70s. Hated it.
That’s funny, because I saw you cover “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer at one point.
Did I cover it live?
Yes, you did. [Note: In fact, she covered it live as recently as last year.]
Well, Donna Summer, that was Giorgio Moroder. I did love Giorgio Moroder. I loved Giorgio…we begged Giorgio to work with us. We couldn’t afford much of him, but we got him for a song. So yeah, I guess there was an exception there. But overall, I thought disco was corporate rock. I didn’t like it. I was a kid when the ‘60s happened. My brother got [to experience] that, that was his time. You know, he was a teenager, and I watched how exciting it was for him, and I thought, “Cool, when I’m a teenager, I’m gonna get my version of that.” But the version that came in the ‘70s for me was disco. After the cool Pink Floyd, Bowie time at the beginning of the ‘70s, then it turned into disco. I was like, “What? This is it?” I just didn’t get it. I didn’t think it was serious music, which is hilarious, because here I am doing a dance record, and I love it now. But they didn’t really have electronic music then. It was horns and four-on-the-floor beats. But yeah, I didn’t get excited about it at all, not until punk happened, and then it was like, “Okay, it’s starting now.” And then I felt like, “Now this is my time.”
That’s interesting. But you’ve been into every [dance trend] since then?
Yeah, I actually have! I love ‘90s music. I love what was going on in that time. I love industrial, I love the whole Garbage and Nine Inch Nails time, I love the Nirvana stuff…yeah! The ‘80s, obviously, because I was working a lot of it, but I love that music and was a big part of bringing that into happening, but the ‘90s, just seeing where music was going, I thought was fantastic. The only thing that didn’t really hit me so much was hip-hop. Not my thing. It’s okay. I don’t hate it. But it doesn’t speak to me.
Isn’t it funny that it’s almost blasphemous to say that now?
I know, it kind of is blasphemous, because there are kids who have never had life without it. They don’t know life before hip-hop, so yeah, it is kind of blasphemous.
I thought the song “Break the Chains” was interesting. It reminds me of “Ray of Light” from Madonna. Do you hear a similarity between the two?
No, but thank you!
There’s something about the way it ramps up into the chorus. The chords, and the energy, and the notes that you’re hitting vocally, it immediately reminded me of “Ray of Light.”
Wow! Thank you. That was the first song of Madonna’s I ever bought.
Is that right?
It’s not that I didn’t like her. She’s okay. I liked her, but there was nothing that I was, “Oh, I have to own that,” until “Ray of Light.”
Let’s talk about your cover of [Jefferson Airplane’s] “Somebody to Love.” Did you tell Grace Slick that you were going to do it?
No, but…God, I could die happy now, because we had done [the track], and she agreed – later, this was maybe a year later – she agreed to let me interview her on my radio show [Note: Nunn does a show called Unbound on KCSN in Los Angeles, which we will get to later] if I would sing on…she was doing a tribute song for Hurricane Katrina victims to raise money for them. And she asked if I would sing on it, and I said, “Yeah, I will, if I can interview you.” And she let me, for two hours.
Yeah, I know, just fucking kill me, because I’ve lived now. Anyway, so I played [the cover of “Somebody to Love”] for her, and her response was, “Wow, you can sing! But the music sounds like it’s underwater.” (Laughs)
So yeah, we stripped it down, and the producer, Carlton Bost, in the mixing, he stripped away a lot of reverb on stuff, which made it sound kinda muddy. So she did influence the final track. She is an American treasure. She doesn’t sing anymore, she doesn’t care about being in the spotlight anymore, either. She paints, her hair is completely white now. She smokes constantly, chain smokes.
What’s funny is that between “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” she’s probably been covered by more dance artists than just about anybody.
She’s just the shit, man. She is, to me, one of the reasons I sing. I guess everybody has that, they have those moments where they see something happen, and they’re like, “Oh my God, my life just changed.” That was her. I remember first seeing them, it was on television, and I was maybe 6 or 7, and it was a live concert, and they were in a big uproar because she took her top off! She flipped off everybody, and she threw her top off. Everyone was like, “Oh, that’s terrible.” I’m going, “I love this woman!” That’s just the coolest thing ever. She’s up there, “Fuck you,” just like the guys! She got to rock and roll with them, and they’re all scared of her! That’s great! (Laughs)
What are your honest expectations for this album? Do you even think about album sales, or is the album at this point more of a tool to, pardon the marketing speak, raise brand awareness?
(Pause) The album, bottom line for me, has reinvigorated my passion for doing this. My dream is to make enough money from this album that I can do an even bigger production [live] show. I have production in the show, but there are so many things now that I could use that I want to be able to afford. When I go see a Nine Inch Nails concert, or even my friends Devo – Jerry Casale is a friend and has done production for my shows – and I went to see his latest show, and he’s got the entire LCD screen backdrop. It’s the entire back of the stage. Just to be able to afford to do a show that’s got video, and lights, and just make it a real event, that’s my dream. Make enough money where I can design a real production.
Devo were very savvy businessmen. Jerry got into directing, and Mark [Mothersbaugh] got into scoring, so they had multiple revenue streams coming in, and they could do Devo whenever it was convenient for them.
They’re so talented.
I saw them at Lollapalooza in 2010, and they killed.
Killed! Like, the best fucking songs, and so many songs that are so incredible. That band, I’m never over it. They’re the fucking top of the top.
[Back to original question] That makes sense. I was thinking in my head, “I wonder what this is like for her going through this process now versus what it was like when she had Geffen bankrolling everything.” You have a list of potential singles, a video shooting schedule, all of that. And I’m sure this is nothing like what it was.
No, it’s not, but in ways, I like it better, because first of all, it’s great to have a label that gives a shit, and is passionate about it like I am. It’s been a while since I had that. But the difference between now and the Geffen time is I was in my 20s, and I didn’t have any money. I was their slave. I couldn’t tell anybody what to do, because I couldn’t call the shots. I didn’t have the wherewithal, the foundation to do anything myself. And now it’s different. Now, I have the money to bankroll as well. So it’s a power and an ability to direct it, that I really like. I appreciate it. It takes time to get to that kind of place. So that’s what new for me, is that yeah, the label isn’t Geffen, but I don’t need a Geffen label now. It’d be nice, but I don’t need it.
That’s why I was surprised when Trent Reznor signed with Columbia for his new record. They’ve made some great signings this year with Daft Punk and Depeche Mode, but I thought Nine Inch Nails were going to stay indie for the rest of their careers.
It’s a lot of work. When you’re indie, you gotta do it all. You gotta hire all the companies to make it happen. He was probably like, “I don’t wanna do that anymore.”
I’ve seen you twice in concert, first opening for the Thompson Twins in 1984…
(Whispers) Oh my God…
…and then opening for the Psychedelic Furs around 2003. I was wondering if you had any amusing anecdotes about either of those tours.
What I remember about the Thompson Twins, the two biggest things I remember are that the girl in the Thompson Twins [Alannah Currie] hated me. Had no interest in me whatsoever.
What, were you too pretty for her?
I don’t know. Because I wore short dresses, I don’t know. She wore these burkes. She was covered head to foot and had these huge turbans on her head. I definitely thought she was talented, but she wanted nothing to do with me. That’s one thing I remember, and the next thing I remember is, they had this incredible vegetarian chef that made their food every day, and we would kind of hover around the edge of the lunch and dinner tables hoping [they would feed us], and once in a while he would give us stuff, take pity on us, and he’d give us what was left over from the Thompson Twins food! (Laughs)
That’s awesome. I don’t know what I was expecting you to say, but that was way better.
It was excellent food, man.
So what about the Psychedelic Furs?
(Thinking) Psychedelic Furs…what do I remember…I really liked the girl, the female keyboard player, and the name is escaping me at the moment [Note: if Wikipedia is to be believed, she’s likely referring to former Information Society keyboardist Amanda Kramer], but she’s English [Note: Kramer is American, but lives in England], and I really loved her style and persona. Nice band. I wish that, like INXS, we did a tour with them recently, a couple of years ago, they’re just such an amazing band. Even though Michael’s gone, J.D., the guy who’s singing with them, or was singing with them, is such a great singer. And I pulled Andrew Farris aside near the end, because there’s no new music! I said, “Andrew, you’re an amazing writer! What’s up with this? Come on! People want to hear you, they want to hear what you are doing now. Where’s the music?” And he said, “You know, Terri, I haven’t had a partner, a collaborator, like Michael since he died.” He said, “J.D.’s not a writer, so I don’t really have the collaboration that I would really like to have, so it’s just not happening.”
And that’s how I felt about the Psychedelic Furs. Such a unique sound, great singer, but where’s the new music? Where’s the new passion?
I always wonder about that. The Cure’s not making any new records, either. This sounds petty, but I wonder if some bands worry about putting out material that will harm their legacy, because it won’t stand up to what people consider to be their golden age.
To me, that’s thinking about it too much. It makes sense, as a thought, but to me it’s still overthinking it. The bottom line is that it’s fresh, it’s something that keeps you excited and going. It’s like being in a marriage. How long can you fuck a guy the same way? You’ve gotta come up with some new ideas to keep it passionate and fresh. How often can you do the old moves? I don’t know, maybe some people can, but I can’t. And clearly, a lot of the stuff that I’ve come out with doesn’t live up to first three [Berlin] albums, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying to re-inspire myself and my band.
It does seem unfair that there is a certain percentage of a band’s audience that thinks they should stop making new material. ‘That’s not your call, man. I’ll make that decision, not you.’
I listened to one of your radio shows on KCSN, which should be called, “Terri Nunn Spins David Medsker’s Record Collection,” because that’s exactly what you did.
Cool, well then you like our show! Looks like we have the same taste.
How much fun is that for you?
I love it. That is one of the greatest reasons this album exists at all, because when I got the job a year and a half ago, January 2012, it focused me. [The program director] said, “It’s your show. You can do what you want. I’m not giving you a playlist – you play what you want. The only thing I ask is that you don’t play heavy, hard rock, and we don’t want any rap. But other than that, AAA station, Adult Album Alternative, you can do whatever you want.” So it forced me to listen to what was going on. That was a key reason that I got inspired to find a [songwriting] partner. I mean really find a partner, not just whoever came along, but “Okay, I love this, I can do something with this. I gotta find somebody.” And then I found John King from the Dust Brothers, we worked together, he was amazing, and then I found Derek Cannavo, and that was even more amazing. So thank God for that radio show.
You sang for the Sisters of Mercy. How did that come to be?
I met Andrew Eldritch…I was putting together music for my solo album, and I contacted three artists, that I wanted to write with. One was Andrew, Trent Reznor…Trent never responded. Moby turned me down. He was kind of mean about it. He said, “You know what, no. I turned down Madonna, okay? So for sure I’m turning you down.” Is that good? (Laughs)
But Andrew responded, and he was interested. He lived in Germany at the time, in Hamburg, so I flew out there and spent a couple of weeks with him, and I brought the song that we ended up using. The stuff we wrote was not great, but that song, it ended up being called “Under the Gun,” and he put it on his best-of, but at the time it was called “Two Worlds Apart.” And my label didn’t like it. They just didn’t get the song, at all. So I played it for him and said, “They don’t get it. What do you think? Can you do something with this?” He said, “I love this song!” He wrote the rap at the end, that singing/talking rant at the end while I’m singing, “Are you living for love?” And he put it on the record. We actually had a hit with it. We had a hit in England; I played “Top of the Pops” for the first time in my life.
I know very little about Andrew Eldritch, but I will never forget watching Dave Kendall interviewing him on “120 Minutes” when he was promoting Vision Thing. This was a huge score for MTV, because the Sisters of Mercy were as big as they ever got, and he was the biggest stiff of an interview I’ve ever seen. He didn’t want to talk.
He wasn’t a social guy. A lot of musicians aren’t, David. Maybe that’s why they get into music, especially men. Because they want chicks, but they’re not really good at being normally social and fun, so music is a way to get girls, and that’s what they do. I have met some of the most retarded social misfits in music. [Andrew] wasn’t retarded, but he had no social skills whatsoever. Another one is Prince. Not one social skill. I mean, totally estranged from his family, couldn’t even talk to his family. I was in his studio for three months, in another studio next to his. We were working every day, I’d pass him in the hall every day…never spoke to me, never looked at me. And on the last day of being in Minneapolis at his studio, he said hello. I mean, okay. (Laughs) How hard is it? I don’t know, but that’s musicians. A lot of us are just fucking retarded.
And I can see for myself, a lot of this album is about my problem with my fear of people. I’ve been afraid of people my whole life, I’ve been afraid of connecting with people. I’m really good on a stage because there’s music going, and when there’s music going, I love everybody, and I love being with people because there’s music going, and I love music, and it’s a bridge to people for me. But when there’s no music, being one-on-one with somebody? Fucking hard. It’s been a lot of work to get over my fear and to keep trying to get better at relationships.
What do your kids think of your music? Are they cool with it, or do they say, “Moooom, stop talking about sex!”
My daughter loves it, because a lot of the sounds that I do…she has younger people she listens to, like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, those artists. And the music is very similar, though the messages are for her generation – they don’t speak to me. And she loves that it gets her extra perks at school and stuff, because her teachers know me, so she loves that. My boys could give a shit. They don’t care, I’m not cool at all, I’m not interesting, I’m Mom…they’re not even into music. My younger son, he’s 18, he wants to join the military and be a sniper. He’s into all different kinds of guns, he’s fascinated with them, and that’s what he wants to do. He’s not interested in music in any way. And now he’s getting laid, so I don’t see him anymore, he’s gone, he never calls us.
The 21-year-old, he’s not into music either. He’s kinda got some social issues…actually, he is more into music than Kenny. He’s into death metal. So I’m not cool. [My music]’s not hard enough for him.
Well, that makes sense, the whole teenage rebellion thing. They’re going to be into something different than what you did.
Is it hard for you to come to terms with your kids listening to someone like Justin Bieber, or do you just roll with it?
No! No, everybody needs their own generation that speaks to them. Why would her generation listen to me? I’m a totally different message. (Laughs)
It’s not even that, but rather that he’s turned out to be this stoner dirtbag. I didn’t know if you had trouble with it from a protective mom standpoint.
Are you a dad?
What do you have? [Note: the conversation goes a bit sideways for a few minutes, but we talk about our mutual fondness for Kylie Minogue, Propaganda, and the Trevor Horn Prince’s Trust benefit show from 2004. Nunn compared Horn to Giorgio Moroder, which led beautifully into the next question...]
I once joked with Gavin Rossdale about how he’s one of two artists to work with Steve Albini, and then turn around and work with Bob Rock. But you can actually do him one better, because you worked with Giorgio Moroder and Bob Ezrin in the span of a year. I don’t think anybody else has done that, have they?
(Laughs) Yeah, they’re both kinda brilliant, in different ways.
You’ve probably answered this one as well, but a bunch of my friends wanted me to ask about the band’s appearance on “Bands Reunited.” I read the piece that Kurt Harland of Information Society wrote about how far VH-1 went in the editing room to misrepresent what actually happened, but yours seemed pretty nice. Was there anything that they misconstrued?
No, it was actually pretty accurate for what happened. They didn’t show every single thing that happened, but yeah, it was pretty accurate. It was life-changing for me. I hadn’t talked to John [Crawford, original Berlin guitarist and principal songwriter] in seven years. I was sure he wouldn’t do it. When they showed up at my house, and asked if I wanted to do it, I said, “Yeah, but I don’t think John will do it.” He was out of music, he was born again, and he wasn’t even speaking to [original keyboardist] David Diamond because David was not a heterosexual. There were a lot of things that I thought, “It’s not gonna happen.” And he did it! And it re-established our relationship, it healed old wounds, we talk again, we share again, and that’s huge for me, because he’s a massive part of my life. He created music with me that is giving my kids a college education. As I get older, I appreciate him more and more, and all the petty shit is just petty shit.
I can’t understand how someone who is capable of churning out so much music in such a short period of time can just flick that switch off and say, “Nope, I’m done.” Wouldn’t you think it would eat at him a little bit? Even if he’s born again, that he’d write a different kind of music? [Note: should have done my research on Crawford before saying that...]
He still writes. He’s written quite a bit. He’s really not interested in the spotlight and pushing himself so much. He lost interest in the machine.
I can understand that. It has to be exhausting.
Yeah. He’s not a stage person. I am. I love shows. Concerts are the reason I do this. I don’t love studios. They’re boring. I don’t like twiddling knobs, I don’t care. I just want to get in, sing my song, and get out. I know you have to do it, because you have to have something people can buy, but for me, it’s the live experience. It’s amazing. It’s better than drugs. It’s the best drug I’ve ever had.
Speaking of which, do you have any tour dates lined up?
Yeah, all over America and we just took on – actually CAA took us on, because it’s time I get off my ass and go overseas. I’ve been really lazy about that, and it’s my fault, but I want to go now. So we’re going overseas, too.
Yeah. End of the year.
I’m surprised by that. I figured that would always be a good place for you to go.
You know, it always was. It’s my fault, I dropped the ball. I did so well here in America that I thought, “Ah, I don’t want to go anywhere else.” My fault.
I have to share this with you: the last time I saw you, you were playing a cover of “Never Let Me Down Again,” and your keyboardist said, “Anybody here like Depeche Mode?” My wife and I looked at each other and said, “No, nobody who pays to see Berlin and the Psychedelic Furs…
(Cracks up laughing)
…is a fan of Depeche Mode.”
We’re going to see Depeche in September.
Thank you again for talking with us. It has been my pleasure.
Thank you! It was a pleasure talking to you. Very interesting.