The Art of Propaganda
Back in 1985, Propaganda made an astonishing debut with 'Dr. Mabuse' and the classic album 'A Secret Wish'. After years of silence, a split with ZTT records, and the departure of three-quarters of the original line-up, Michael Mertens is back with a new-look Propaganda, and feeds the party line to Nigel Humberstone.
Remember Propaganda? Cast your mind back to 1985, when the midas touch of producer Trevor Horn dominated the dance floor, elevating the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood into the spotlight. Propaganda too had a slice of the action, with the singles 'Dr. Mabuse' and 'Duel', both from their highly acclaimed debut album A Secret Wish. But their relationship with Trevor Horn and ZTT Records turned sour. A legal battle ensued, involving months of litigation, which finally released them from their contract and enabled them to sign to Virgin in late 1987.
But time had brought changes within the group - Susanne Freytag and Ralf Dorper left the group to return to Germany and their respective careers as a goldsmith and a banker. Claudia Brucken pursued her own career in music, forming Act with Thomas Leer, leaving Michael Mertens as the only survivor of the original line-up. However, new recruits made up for the losses: ex-Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes and drummer Brian McGee both joined the Propaganda machine, and the final addition was vocalist Betsi Miller - spotted singing at a nightclub in Munich, although her roots are in Idaho, USA.
As the driving force behind the band, Michael Mertens is keen to explain their inactivity over the last few years. He speaks in a soft German accent and picks his words carefully as he talks about the Propaganda philosophy, and expresses his delight at the way the group is now shaping up. The process of breaking away from ZTT was obviously a traumatic one. Did it dampen your creativity?
"It was like 'How To Kill An Artist' really. I wasn't able to write a song for at least a year, because I was talking to lawyers all the time. There were so many aggravations that I couldn't sit down and write a song, so I went to Germany and worked for a television soap opera series. It's a completely different thing, because people ask you to do a specific task - you still use your creativity, but it's much more channelled. So that was a very good way for me to get out of it all. I was back in work, but I didn't have to write my own songs - I just had to write music which fitted the pictures. That cleaned my head out. There was no more dirty washing, and I wasn't looking back on it anymore."
For the new album, did you choose studios with any particular requirements in mind?
"Rather than go to one major studio, we decided to use places which weren't as expensive, so that we would be able to go out of the studio if there was more writing to be done. We started laying down backing tracks in early summer 1988 at The Wool Hall studio near Bath, which has a 48-track SSL desk, but we mainly used the programming studio [The Keyboard Club]. Then we continued at Abbey Road in what they call the Penthouse Suite, which has a computerised desk. Most of the mixing was done at Olympic Studio and Metropolis, with one track at Mayfair Studios. We knew with the mixing that there was to be no compromise in terms of studio environment. But for recording we tried not to use SSL and Neve, because we didn't feel it was necessary. There are so many good desks around for recording, like DDA, and those studios aren't as expensive."
Is there a particular modus operand! for Propaganda in the studio?
"It varies. Most of the time we work in stages, doing it bit by bit. Derek and Brian may do drum bits, then we sample sections or drum sounds and fit them in with the computer, sometimes reprogramming the playing. The track 'Your Wildlife' is a case where Betsi, Chris Hughes, and I went into the studio on a Sunday and thought 'Let's do a B-side or something'. We just simultaneously put things on tape - me from a sequencer, Betsi singing along, Chris doing drum bits - and that's how that track developed. The way we write is to do a lot of programming and 'write' on the Fairlight.
"Most of the time we write out of impulse, then listen to it, and try to refine it and make it definite. When we did the demos, there was one track which we thought was going to be the single - that track isn't even on the album, because you can hear the intention and therefore it's a bad track if you have that in mind."
The first album, A Secret Wish, featured a powerful, very European, mechanical sound. Is machinery still an important part of the Propaganda sound?
"Although it may not sound like it at first listen, Propaganda is still a very computer-based band. On the sampling side there was loads of Fairlight III involved and some Synclavier, because Chris Hughes has a small Synclavier system. Ian Stanley did a lot of the programming, along with Chris. They each have a Fairlight, so there were situations when we had two machines in the studio - which sounds ridiculous - but they have them as their personal production tools, and brought them in on their own premise. My own personal equipment is still a PPG 2.3 system, with Waveterm A, which I use a lot. Also I have a Roland D50, Super Jupiter, Super JX, and Oberheim Matrix 12 expander, all rackmounted. On the record there are a lot of old synthesizers, especially the Yamaha CS80, which has a really unique filter sound. We also used an Emulator and its arpeggiator for accidental pieces on 'How Much Love', which was then put into the C-Lab sequencer and re-worked."
How did the collaboration with Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes come about?
"We contacted Chris at first and asked him if he wanted to produce the LP, but at that stage he wasn't really interested. Then the record company recommended Ian Stanley, who had produced Lloyd Cole and played keyboards for the likes of Tears For Fears. I wasn't a huge Lloyd Cole fan, so it was difficult for me to see if he was right or not. We met him and his angle seemed to be right. Then, when we started working at his home studio, he introduced Chris Hughes to us, as he wanted him to help programme rhythms on the Fairlight. We became friends and I asked him later why he hadn't wanted to produce the album. He said that knowing A Secret Wish, with its cover and everything, he had thought we were very rigid, weird, and strange people. He gradually became more involved and nearly co-produced all the album."
A key element in the style of Propaganda was the sonorous and distinctive voice of Susanne Freytag, used to great effect reciting the Edgar Allen Poe poem 'Dream Within A Dream', the first track on A Secret Wish. Her involvement with the new line-up has continued with the inclusion of a couple of cameo vocals.
"'Vicious Circle' and 'Ministry Of Fear' were always written with Susanne in mind. When Claudia left the band we tried to make Susanne the main singer, but that didn't quite work out - Susanne felt she couldn't really develop as a musician. She is a goldsmith, and that's how she sees herself in the first place. We were happy to have her in the studio, and it may happen that when we go out live we will ask her to join us at some special gigs."
How is the workload of lyrics and writing shared within the band?
"The lyrics were done partly by Ralf Dorper, who is still in the circle but not the line-up of Propaganda, along with Betsi and Derek. In terms of writing, we are very much a team. Some of the songs are started off by Derek and then taken on by me - he would say that I 'Propagandasise' his material - and some of the stuff I write on my own or in conjunction with Derek and Betsi.
"Derek started to get into computers when he saw the way that I work. He uses an Atari with C-Lab Creator, an analogue Akai 12-track recorder, and an Emax sampler. It's good for me, because with the first album I was the only real musician in the band. Now if I don't have any further ideas, Derek comes along and is able to say 'What about this?'.
"When we were looking for a new singer it was difficult, because I didn't want to just sit there on my own or with Derek, write songs, do the melodies, write it all down, finish it and then have a singer come in. I would rather have a reflection of personality, because Betsi has her own creative force which has to be recognised."
"Although it may not sound like it at first listen, Propaganda is still a very computer-based band. On the sampling side there was loads of Fairlight III involved and some Synclavier."
Creative forces from outside the band have also helped with new material. The lyrics for the single 'Heaven Give Me Words' were written by Howard Jones, a seemingly mismatched alliance?
"It happened by accident - we were working at The Wool Hall and so was Howard. We had worked on all the album stuff and we came back to 'Heaven Give Me Words' to try out certain ideas. Everyone thought that this could be a single, but we didn't quite get there. We needed some outside influence, somebody who was objective, because we had worked on that track for a long time. So we asked Howard if he would be interested in taking the track and writing a lyric for it. We wanted to have a track that was great, rather than to say we had done it all.
"Simon Clarke, who has played keyboards for Peter Gabriel and Tears For Fears, contributed some vital Hammond organ and CS80 synthesizer on that track. He's a really good player - absolutely brilliant."
The same kind of coincidence that led to Howard Jones contributing to 'Heaven Give Me Words' also brought about the involvement of Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour on another track.
"He was at Abbey Road when we were there. We were working on 'Only One Word' and felt it needed a guitar solo, for which Dave Gilmour would be perfect. He came in with just his guitar and a small amplifier - no racks of equipment - sits in the control room, plugs in and says to the engineer 'Let's go!'. He plays purely by intuition. He doesn't need to know the chords - he just listens and plays."
Abbey Road is renowned for its suitability for recording orchestras, so was there a temptation to use live strings?
"It would have started to be very expensive. I was working with Blue Weaver (ex-Strawbs and Mott The Hoople), who had played synthesizer and been a keyboard programmer with the Bee Gees in the '70s, on all that Saturday Night Fever stuff. He told me stories about how they would do all the parts on synthesizers and then bring in the string players to make it sound amazing - which it never did, so they ended up using the original. It's a gamble - you can fall flat on your face, and at the end of the day you have to pay them whether it's good or bad.
"We used other live instruments. We had Allen L. Kirkendale, who is a principal trumpet player for the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra and played on the first album. He's very classical and has an incredibly clean tone. Also, Robbie McKintosh (from The Pretenders) and Neil Taylor played guitar on the track 'Your Wildlife'."
Propaganda create a style of pop music that is very much their own. Their new album, 1-2-3-4, is more commercial than the Wagnerian prequel of A Secret Wish, but just as stimulating. Michael Mertens was a percussionist with the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, and it is perhaps this classical heritage that allows the arrangements and sequences of Propaganda to be more than just pompous pop.
"What I don't like about so many songs is that they are so predictable. I like things where you don't know what is happening, and have to listen to it again. We try not to stick to one formula. Many people might expect the new album to be 'CRASH, BANG!' - your 'Dr. Mabuse' type of angle, which I feel is not necessary to do. We've done it."
On 'La Carne, La Morte E II Diavolo' there is a reoccurring string motif which gives the track a great atmosphere - how was that achieved?
"We consider that as the verse, and it was written first. I had this theme with chords below it, and that was how it started. It's very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone [composer of many 'spaghetti western' themes, like 'A Fistful Of Dollars' - Ed.], and is in a way a homage to him. The next thing that came along was the string section in the middle, which was not as defined as on the record but contained the chord movements and harmonies. Then I got together with Ian Stanley and he did some restructuring and suggested an introduction. The premise was to make it really filmic and atmospheric. There's a lot of PPG on it - all the long swirly parts - and all the strings were done on the Fairlight."
Classical music is currently the subject of a major marketing effort, with the aim of bringing it to a wider audience. As one who has been professionally involved in both the classical and pop worlds, Mertens is perhaps better entitled to his opinions on the merits of both than most people.
"It's probably one way of trying to make people listen to more varieties of music. It is very difficult if educational people try to make you listen to classical music at school. My instant reaction then was that I didn't like it - I wanted to listen to pop music. I now personally feel that I would miss out on something if I only listened to contemporary pop music. My own choice of music is always very 'period'. When I played in the DSO, being a percussionist, I liked 20th Century stuff more than 18th Century. We did Stravinsky a lot, and all the ballets like Firebird, Petrouska, and Le Sacre Du Printemps - which I like musically. But I also like Verdi and Puccinni, who are quite romantic, and Richard Strauss."
It's an interesting coincidence that Michael Mertens is a native of Dusseldorf, the home town of those masters of European electronic music, Kraftwerk. As it turns out, there is an even stronger link.
"I know Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk. He had the same musical education as myself, in the same music conservatory. We had the same teachers, and his teachers became my colleagues at the DSO. He was also doing classical percussion, so our paths crossed."
Have you any plans to incorporate your percussion playing in live shows?
"I don't think I will. I left the DSO in 1985 and I haven't played percussion instruments since. I may use percussion like gongs and cymbals, but if you don't practice every day you lose your technique. Nowadays I don't consider myself a good percussion player. I have a marimba and a vibraphone, and those were my main instruments, but I can't link them to Propaganda at all. Emotionally, they don't seem to fit."
Was the track 'Vicious Circle' written in separate sections and then grafted together?
"No, that's the way it was written, except for the end which originally went into another chorus - but we changed it around and went completely atmospheric, which I felt was a better way of finishing the track. All the different sections were written like that, even the 'digeridoo' bits where it suddenly goes really weird. It's a bit like being in a James Bond movie, where one minute you are in England and something is going to happen - then cut, and you are in Hong Kong!"
"My PPG system, which is a complete dinosaur these days, is still a fantastic machine which generates noises that no other machine does."
Propanganda are very much a hi-tech band, and Michael Mertens is as aware of the pitfalls of advancing technology as he is keen to take advantage of it.
"It's easy to get lost, if you can afford it. But my PPG system, which is a complete dinosaur these days, is still a fantastic machine which generates noises that no other machine does. For that it is just great, it has a certain character. What I don't like, in terms of the development of new synthesizers, is that manufacturers don't build them the way that I would like to see them. A lot are aimed at what I would call the 'Christmas Tree' market. I like analogue synths, and it's all getting a bit too uniform for me. New machines are incredibly similar in certain ways and they all aim to do everything. I'm not interested in doing everything with one machine.
"The MIDI implementation on the PPG is ridiculous - I can only have one sound at a time via MIDI. Before the company fell apart I went up to Hamburg to get the machine repaired, and they said that they could put a new chip in there - but I didn't want to change the sound of it, because they are all different. Although it is only an 8-bit sampler, it has a great sound. Eddie Richards, a friend of mine, told me that each machine, even similar models, have certain aspects that are different - and that's good."
Did working with Trevor Horn influence your approach to music production?
"I'm sure it has, because that was the first time that I had worked in a studio. I was very curious at that time to see how it all worked in terms of pop music. I had never been inside a pop recording studio before Sarm. I looked at the way Trevor Horn worked, but he only did 'Dr. Mabuse' with us. It was Steve Lipson who did the album and spent most of the time in the studio.
"We mixed the new album before Christmas, knowing that we would do remixes later, because we were extremely exhausted at that point. Most of the time, I was there - I wanted to be involved because it's very important for me. I'm not going to sit there and tell the engineer what to do, but there are always questions coming up in terms of how to project certain things and if you need to shift emphasis on a track, so it's very important to give my opinion."
Remix work involved Gary Langan (Art Of Noise and Yes), Ross Cullum (Associates), Felix Kendal and Martyn Webster, the latter working with the band at Olympic Studios. Mastering was on to several tape formats.
"We used ½" tape and Sony 1630, whilst simultaneously backing up on to DAT, which I kept for my private collection. DAT is still not as professional as 1630, which, when you see the editor, all makes incredible sense."
Why did you choose to have the album cut at the Masterdisk Corporation in New York?
"The cutting of a record is very important. Bob Ludwig is one of the best guys to do it with - a lot of great records have been cut there. We had wanted to edit and compile the album on a DAR SoundStation II - but it crashed, so we ended up doing it all on 1630 at The Townhouse."
Obviously the final product is very important to Propaganda, and one of the sources of friction with ZTT was the release of Wishful Thinking, an LP which contained remixes by ZTT's Paul Morley.
"That was one of the points where we fell out with ZTT - not so much artistically, but from a point of view of how all the business was handled. They would be remixing stuff that we didn't know about, and that was something that we felt could not continue. Nobody just goes into a studio with our tracks and just does what he thinks is right. I don't think it's a bad album - a lot of people think that it's the second LP that we've done - but it's only a remix of five tracks. Put it this way - I don't think it was necessary."
On A Secret Wish, Propaganda sounded very much a studio band, but the new personnel and newer technology have made live work a more practical proposition.
"After doing the live tour in 1986 with Derek and Brian, we thought it would be good to develop towards being a 'band'. Propaganda was originally very conceptual and 'out of the living room'. With Derek and Brian it suddenly started having more of a feeling of a band, which was the direction that we wanted to go. At the moment we are doing a lot of promotion, because there's been such a big gap since our last release and we want to make people see us, listen to our music again, and be aware that we're still around.
"We had problems with the first tour - most of the keyboard parts came off tape. We had to use tapes because, after the production we had done, the technology available to recreate that live would have been so expensive. This time around it's not that much of a problem - we can get two or three S1000 samplers. The choice of sequencer is my only worry; I'm working with C-Lab Notator, but I wouldn't take it on stage. As for my choice of master keyboard, I'm going to have to go on a shopping trip. Maybe I'll go for a Macintosh with Opcode Vision software, and perhaps a Roland A80 keyboard. Some of the tracks will be sequencer-based, but with the ballads I'll get another keyboard player in, a friend from Germany, and we can cover most of the new material and the old stuff."
The prospect of the new-look Propaganda live is a mouth-watering one, but there's plenty to keep fans happy and attract the interest of just about anyone else in the meantime. With a new album, 1-2-3-4, new personnel, and the single 'Heaven Give Me Words' heralding their return, Propaganda are now ready to present themselves as a truly European band, living up to their name by agitating, manipulating, and commanding our attention, as they did so dramatically when 'Dr. Mabuse' was first released.
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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