After years of band tensions and failed reunions, Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag have resurfaced as xPropaganda with a shimmering new album, ‘The Heart Is Strange’. Here, they talk ZTT, camaraderie and the fear of following up 1985’s defining ‘A Secret Wish’
By any measure, 37 years is a long time between albums. So long that you’d imagine recording a follow-up with the same personnel would be fraught with difficulties and pretty much impossible. For Propaganda though, it was the exact opposite. Almost four decades after the release of their defining 1985 debut, ‘A Secret Wish’, singer-songwriters Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag have reconvened with producer and guitarist Stephen Lipson as xPropaganda to produce a new record, ‘The Heart Is Strange’.
The process has been an unpressured and enjoyable one, by all accounts. Mainly because there was no actual plan to make an album at all. ‘A Secret Wish’ was reissued in 2018 and, to mark the occasion, Brücken and Freytag performed it in its entirety over two nights at London venue The Garage, with a line-up that included Lipson. In rehearsals, they found themselves playing B-sides and extended versions and quickly realised they needed more songs to flesh out the set. The pair asked Lipson to work with them on new material. Ideas flowed easily, and quite soon they found that they’d written enough songs for a long-player.
“It wasn’t, ‘This is the year where we now write a new xPropaganda/Propaganda album’,” explains Brücken, speaking from her London home. “It wasn’t planned that way – it was very natural. We wrote four songs and it was really good fun, so we just thought, ‘Well, why don’t we continue?’, and then it sort of evolved. Susanne and I had tried to revive Propaganda several times with Ralf [Dörper] and Michael [Mertens], so it was like a continuation of us trying to get this off the ground. Then these shows came about and out of them a new shape of Propaganda started.”
There’s a great deal of history underpinning xPropaganda and, rather like an iceberg, much of it is hidden. The band have their own identity, as does ‘The Heart Is Strange’, but both are necessarily entwined with ‘A Secret Wish’ and Trevor Horn’s era-defining label ZTT, which has been reactivated especially for the new release.
The backstory is messy and somewhat troubled, involving a protracted legal battle with the label and subsequent out-of-court settlement, a second incarnation of Propaganda (Mertens, US singer Betsi Miller and two former members of Simple Minds – Derek Forbes and Brian McGee), their 1990 album ‘1234’ and, later that decade, a failed attempt to reunite Brücken, Freytag and Mertens. All of which makes the women’s faith that a “new” Propaganda would work this time around slightly surprising.
“The first word that comes to mind for me is camaraderie,” says Brücken, describing the relationship between the current members. “A feeling of the right people, respect, everybody having their job to do and just a really good time. No egos, please!”
Still something of a sore point nearly 40 years on, the same issue saw Freytag walk away from the 90s iteration of the group well before ‘1234’ was finished. Joining the chat from Berlin, she recalls the friction vividly.
“Things happened among the band members, and I decided I didn’t really want anything to do with it,” says Freytag. “When they started working on ‘1234’ – and it took a long time – I became a little bit more sentimental. They asked me to be part of one song and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’.
“But it wasn’t the Propaganda I knew. I wasn’t happy that there was a very clear distinction between male and female roles. I don’t want to go into more detail but it was, ‘You do this, we do that’. And I thought, ‘You know what? Pfft’. I got up and left the room, and that was it. So ‘Don’t (You Mess With Me)’ from the xPropaganda album was a nice little answer to it.”
Brücken, who quit Propaganda in 1987 (but remained signed to ZTT) and formed Act with Thomas Leer the following year, shares this view.
“It was always an issue, I’m afraid. We can’t pretend it wasn’t. I didn’t feel very valued at that time and Susanne had the same experience after I’d left.”
The situation was infinitely better in 2017, when work on new material for the ‘A Secret Wish’ shows began. Also on the team was writer and producer John Williams, who’d worked with Brücken on her 2014 solo album ‘Where Else…’. Brücken likens their whole lyric-writing process to a game of catch.
“Throwing balls, catching balls and going, ‘Nope, that doesn’t sound right’. The word has to match the melody you’re singing, so sometimes, even if it would have been a great word, if it didn’t sing well we’d go, ‘No’.
“It was a long process. We’d meet up at least twice a week and work from 10am to 6pm, only on words – it was a real discipline. Once we had the melody and the words, we would record it all, so by the end of the day Stephen would have everything there to fiddle with.”
Those lyrics range across the many facets of love and romance – among them regret, desire and dependency – but there’s political comment, too. ‘The Wolves Are Returning’ addresses the resurgence of the far right (“When history repeats, must we take it in our stride?”), while album closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’ is more personal, confronting German history with its reference to the Berlin Wall.
What’s perhaps most striking about ‘The Heart Is Strange’ is that although it’s instantly identifiable as Propaganda – there’s the dark glamour, sadness and icy drama, the interplay between Brücken and Freytag’s voices, as well as their individual potency – it’s definitely not just ‘A Secret Wish’ part two. Which is creditable, considering the success of that debut and the current widespread appetite for 80s nostalgia.
“I think we were aware of the ‘second album’ fear,” admits Freytag. “But ‘A Secret Wish’ was such a long time ago. We’re different people now. The whole studio set-up is very different. So we decided to say, ‘Okay, we do what we enjoy doing’, because part of it, of course, is connected to Propaganda – part of the band are the same people – but there has been a lot happening in between. Even if we wanted to, I don’t think we could make completely the same album.”
When Stephen Lipson speaks to me a few days later from his home in the Cotswolds, he concurs with the “that was then, this now” attitude towards ‘The Heart Is Strange’.
“Honestly, I didn’t think about anything other than being in the moment,” he admits. “Which probably means I’m an old fart.”
He cheerfully confirms the almost accidental nature of how the whole endeavour came about.
“It wasn’t as if we actively decided to do a follow-up – nothing like that at all. It was just messing about. John Williams had a whole bunch of ideas, and then we suddenly realised we had the basis of an album. Everyone kept saying, ‘Eight tracks aren’t enough’, but I hate long albums. I’ve really got no interest in doing 16 songs, or whatever – those days have passed now. So we made it. And I’m not going to blow smoke up my own backside, but it sounded pretty good.
“I have had literally no expectations for this. It was done to give Claudia and Susanne something to play live. That was the main event. We’ve done that. And I never, ever thought we’d get a record deal, but we have.”
The “x” that’s now in Propaganda’s name lends an enigmatic air to the original (which itself seems newly resonant in light of the epidemic of fake news), updating it from its initial Cold War/Eastern Bloc associations. However, it was added simply to avoid further wrangling with Dörper and Mertens over the old band moniker.
Freytag describes trying to get permission to use the name as “a long, long process – many discussions and emails”.
“We always had the question of, ‘What are you doing with the name?’” she continues. “‘Are you doing something? Are we doing something?’ And then we thought it would be nice to show it has roots in the old project, but it is a new project. That’s why the ‘x’ is in front of it. The difficulty was also with the English and the German copyright name and legalities – different countries and laws. We never really knew where we were, so the new name was a kind of compromise.”
“It was a struggle,” expounds Brücken. “We went to them and said, ‘Look, you haven’t done anything with the name for so long, so is it alright if we have it?’. And it was a complete ‘No’. It was quite heavy. It’s different for me because I was blamed for loads of things that happened in the past and I’ve never heard the end of it.”
One of those things, says Brücken, was the claim she wanted to leave the group in the 80s to launch her solo career.
“That was never the case – I just wanted to stay with ZTT. I really loved being in Propaganda but the others decided they didn’t want to stay with the label anymore. I was put in an awkward position because I was freshly married to Paul Morley, who was one of ZTT’s co-founders, so it was extremely difficult.
“My heart was very much with the band but I also loved the ZTT sound and working with the people. It was a real conundrum for me. Everyone seems to have a different truth, so there are loads of versions out there, but I feel as if I’ve always been made an easy scapegoat for all the things that went wrong.
“I really enjoy working with people who appreciate what you’re doing,” she adds. “The people who work on this new shape of Propaganda have loads of respect for one another and we are also very fond of each other. So I’m far happier with that.”
‘The Heart Is Strange’ will also be available as a deluxe edition, including a complete set of instrumental versions. It’s a format that heightens the panoramic drama of the songs, with their understated yearning for something forever out of reach – whether that’s in the past or the future, it’s intriguingly hard to tell.
For Brücken, Freytag and Lipson alike, there’s a pleasing symmetry to the record’s release on ZTT, given their 1985 debut became emblematic of the label – although they struggle to immediately define what it represents.
“I suppose boutique quality,” offers Lipson. “Beyond that, the things I was working on for ZTT were very disparate. But whether it was a hit or not, it was all pretty good, and that stemmed from Trevor Horn’s work ethic. At the time, Stock Aitken Waterman were happening, and I remember we’d talk about how different everything was, how they were a factory that churned things out in two days or whatever, while we’d be agonising over a bass part for three months.”
Brücken identifies the distinctive elements of their singular sound.
“The cinematic landscape and that kind of underlying continental or German colour,” she says. “And the contrast in voices but also this very cold, dark synth music in combination with organic instruments such as trumpets or guitars. For me, it’s always been a sort of theatre. What I like about it in particular is the way Stephen approaches his music. It leaves the listener to project their own associations and emotional ideas.”
“It’s definitely the theatrical drama and, of course, the 80s when we grew up in Germany,” adds Freytag. “Also, Hildegard Knef and German chanson singers, who are very much in our DNA. I think Claudia has very often been compared to Marlene Dietrich, and for me it’s Greta Garbo.”
All this talk about their music’s cinematic scope and theatrical drama suggests Brücken and Freytag might like to try their hand at writing for film.
“Yes, we would!” enthuses Freytag. “It would be fantastic.”
“I think I could do it, too,” adds Brücken. “When I see all these Netflix series with their palettes of music, I go, ‘Oh, this sounds right up my street’. One could really experiment with that.”
The xPropaganda call has gone out – movie producers, take note.
‘The Heart Is Strange’ is released by ZTT/UMC