Title: Action direct
Author: David Bradwell
Source: Music Technology
Publish date: August 1988
If Propaganda has a Secret Wish it might have been that, after their demise, singer Claudia Brücken would team up with keyboardsman Thomas Leer to form Act. Interview by David Bradwell.
It’s the summer of 1987 — one of those lazy Thursday evening spent in front of the television. You’ve yawned through Top Of The Pops, slept through Eastenders and fallen off your chair during Tomorrow’s World. Suddenly, you notice that this is no ordinary edition of said programme — instead it’s a “special” on electronic music. Part of the action is centred around Steve Lipson and a band called Act.
It is now the summer of 1988, and the memory of that lazy evening is but one thread in the donkey jacket of life. Act have vanished from civilisation, another flawed but interesting ZTT project destined to obscurity. Or so it would appear. For now Claudia Brücken and Thomas Leer are having a second try — with an album called Laughter, Tears and Rage, featuring tracks produced by Lipson and Trevor Horn as well as some of their own production work.
Leer will be no stranger to devout E&MM aficionados, having appeared on the cover way back in September ‘84. Brücken, on the other hand, was the face in front of and voice behind Propaganda, who never really achieved their deserved level of commercial success. She takes up the story:
“Propaganda were more of a studio band — that is how we were perceived. It was more a Steve Lipson production than four people being able to play. Ralf Dorper wrote the lyrics while Michael Mertens was the musician. But I always knew that to grow you have to be together, and you can’t be based on four different opinions. You have to come across as one big state of mind and it never was like that. It is much more relaxed with Thomas and I, we’re much more of a unit.”
Brücken was still at school in Dusseldorf when her band teamed up with Trevor Horn and became another component in the ZTT machine. Leer, meanwhile, was suffering for his art alone at Arista. He recorded one album for them, but it was a far from happy time.
“I wrote the first project but before I’d managed to finance it I’d already written the next,” he explains, “so I had to go somewhere for a deal, scrap the second project and then write something new, I did an album called Scale Of Ten for Arista, but I just didn’t get on with the record company. The ideas that I had for the presentation, and the way that I wanted to record the album, were more in line with what I was reading about ZTT at that time. I think there was a similarity of spirit between me and Propaganda, although interviewers were continuously comparing me to them musically.”
At this time, Leer had his of Fairlight Series II on which had built up a considerable sound library. But that comfortable situation was to come to an untimely end when the Fairlight was reclaimed by Arista on his leaving the label. Leer retains a great deal of sentimentality for his old Fairlight but he’s not so enthusiastic about the Series III, however, preferring the older model’s grainy, eight-bit sound quality.
“I was listening to my old album a couple of weeks back, as a matter of interest, and I realised that the sounds were really good, even though I thought it was just crappy eight-bit sampling at the time. Now I prefer it to some of the things we’ve done on the 16-bit Synclavier. Actually, I think the future for both the Fairlight and Synclavier is very bleak — they will become dinosaurs in a couple of year, and everybody will be selling them off. The Synclavier is far too bit and far too expensive, and the things it can do aren’t that fantastic compared to what you can do for a fraction of the price. Technology is moving so fast that soon you’ll be able to sample for five minutes on a home computer. There’s always a good and a bad side to technology.”
Subsequently Leer and Brücken formed Act as an experiment, and discovered a comfortable working relationship, sharing the writing credits.
“In the beginning we were feeling our way around and we stuck to what we knew — me being the musician and Claudia the vocalist”, Leer begins. “But as we’ve become more comfortable working with each other, we’ve star started to interfere with each other’s ground. We try to combine all sorts of elements in writing, like showbiz mixed in with dance music, jazz, pop and disco. And Claudia is also learning piano now.”
Act’s main producer, Steve Lipson, came across as a rather pessimistic character when last interviewed in Music Technology (May’ 87), seemingly disillusioned with popular music. So what is he like to work with, 18 months on?
“He can drag you down, make you feel no good”, begins Brücken. “He’s a complete perfectionist and the sound is everything. But being such a perfectionist can take some of the freshness away. I think if you want to compare his production with ours you should listen to the 12-inch of ‘Chance’ — Steve’s version is very rock’n’roll America, very MOR.”
“The thing about Steve is that he’s a brilliant techno man”, continues Leer. “If you want to use the best of the technology, like Synclaviers and Fairlights, you really can’t get any better than him. He is brilliant at what he does, so he was worthwhile to work with.”
In the light of the success of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman production triumvirate, Leer concedes that the Horn/Lipson style of production is three years out of date, but the duo deny that it’s a source of concern.
“‘Doctor Mabuse’ [Propaganda’s debut] was done over three months”, asserts Brücken. “It’s a fantastic piece and I wouldn’t say anything against it. It’s joyful and brilliant for the ears, but you don’t need to do that anymore. I think you should use part of the demo because of it instantaneousness.”
Leer takes up the story: “An Act production means everything is done very quickly, I program everything musically before we go in, on the Voyetra. Then we lay it all down on tape in one go, making sure we have brilliant engineers so that it sounds great. Then we work really hard on the vocals, do a few overdubs, and go for a really good mix.
“What you get from that is a kind of spontaneous spirit. With Steve it’s ‘Oh, let’s offset this a tiny bit, and the feel will be that little bit different’. He needs you to be there because you are the writer and he needs to know what you think. But it’s so boring — I don’t work like that, and that’s where the problem lay for me.”
But is Lipson good to work with?
Leer: “Everybody is up to a point. I’m a difficult bastard to work with apparently, so I don’t really get on with producers. I’ve got too many specific ideas of my own.”
“You got to trust the person you work with,” Brücken. “I would hate being in the studio when all of the programming’s going on, it’s so boring. I know Steve’s technically very good, so I trust him that way, but I think maybe it’s time now for a new experience.”
Both Thomas Leer and Claudia Brücken have home studio setups, although Brücken’s is at an early stage in its development. Having lost him Fairlight, Leer has had to settle for a less elaborate, though still useful, personal system. He now owns an Amstrad PC running Voyetra Sequencer Plus software, linking it up to an Akai S900, Yamaha DX7 and Roland Jupiter 6 — the only surviving keyboard from his 1984 line-up. Meanwhile, Brücken manages with an acoustic piano, four-track cassette machine and Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects processor.
“When I get my proper equipment set up, I’m going to give her my Roland MSQ700 and my Jupiter”, says Leer, obviously in a generous mood. “Then we can both write at home and just bring the sequencers in.
“When I first got the Voyetra Sequencer, I hated it. On the Fairlight you can loop around for ages, but on the Voyetra you are unable to — it’s much more like a recorder. It took me a long time to get used to that, but now I have done it I love it. It’s probably the best of the new breed of sequencers. You can get right into the heart of the thing and magnify it all. And Steve’s got one as well, which means I have been able to give him a disk to copy while I’ve got on with working on something else.”
So much for the technicalities, what about writing the material?
“I usually start with the drums and then add the bass”, explains Leer. “The drum sounds can vary — lately I’ve been using a Roland TR626, but the sounds aren’t particularly brilliant on that, so I supplement it with samples from the Akai. The way I write can vary from song to song. Sometimes the chords will all be there in my head, and I’ll sit down at the keyboard and pick them out — building the rhythm around them. Other times I will just be looking for inspiration, so I’ll start with a rhythm part and fiddle around until something Claudia will give me the completed lyrics, and they’ll trigger off a rhythmic or melodic idea.”
Leer has found the S900 a valuable tool since the loss of his Fairlight.
“I’ve got a library that I’ve built up, but the last track I sampled for extensively was ‘Winner 88’, the B-side of ‘Chance’. The idea for that was to try to make something that was like a four minute medley of TV commercials. I start by sampling as many suitable things for m television as I could. Then, once I had them, I set up loads of programs on the Akai and on the Amstrad. I put it together like a jigsaw around a bassline and drum part, with about five changes to accommodate everything.”
Does the question of sampling morality concern Act? It seems we have a difference of opinion here.
Brücken: “I can’t stand it personally. I can’t believe that people get away with it — I think it’s a complete con. On ‘Winner 88’ we did some acoustic sampling. That’s where you actually sing the line for yourself which is actually quite funny. But I think if it’s ten tracks getting ripped off in a song and somebody becomes Top ten it’s dodgy.”
Leer: “I wouldn’t mind anybody sampling my records at all, but I think it depends how creative you are with it — most of the rapping and hip hop I hear is just rubbish.
“To take a little bit of a James Brown rhythm and build a completely new song is great — some people have done that and it’s good. But then when somebody has done it, and done it well, everybody else starts to do it. It’s like regurgitation, because they steal the bit that was stolen, and that’s just boring.”
Could the popularisation of sampling, or even of technology as a whole, be the cause of this stagnation?
“Technology’s killed music and it’s killed creativity in a lot of ways” replies Leer. “People don’t care about playing any longer. They’re only concerned with the end product. The good side is that people who would have been unable to create before due to lack of technique, can now sit there doing things which would have been beyond their capabilities. It’s really difficult subject matter. Sometimes I’d like to just dump all technology and go back to all acoustic instruments. Do it for real.”
All this from a man who claims to be self-taught and with a reputation based on using the best equipment available. It seems that Leer too is suffering from a degree of disillusionment with the current music scene.
As musicians moving with the development of domestic audio system technology, Act are interested in the continuing development of Compact Disc and Digital Audio Tape.
Leer: “DAT will be very important, but I don’t know if recordable CDs will replace it. People like the idea of a cassette going into a tape machine for some reason — I certainly do. If the record companies stop you from recording CDs it will destroy the whole point in a way. CD, I think, will move increasingly into the territory of a computer storage medium, while DAT will be entertainment based, and double up as a creative tool. I think, ultimately, that all those things like Copycode are a pointless waste of time. I think the facility of being able to copy things just makes people want to buy more machines, and the only effect of stopping copying is to confine people into one format. If copying is allowed, people will buy more equipment. Sony have obviously got that sussed because they make everything.”
Act’s new single ‘Chance’ is all about 1988 — they see it as a magical year, full of opportunity. The song is all about go-getters, yet according to Leer, it is an “anti-yuppie” record. They admit to mutual admiration for David Byrne and Brian Eno, and have already decided who they would now like to work with, although for the present their lips are sealed. (“He’s quite an unusual choice, so we can’t name him.”)
Reflecting on their current situation, and planning their future together, Act are already beginning to work on their follow-up to Laughter, Tears and Rage. It seems they intend to adopt a more commercial approach that they did for their debut album.
“The first album was kind of experimental”, Brücken explains, “because Thomas and I didn’t know what our abilities could be together. We came up with some surprise tracks we were really chuffed with and which we didn’t expect we could write together. Now we know what we are about and what we want, and having covered the showbiz angle, we would really like to go for the Hollywood/Las Vegas feel.”
“That’s the fun of it, that’s what keeps it exciting,” Leer adds. “It’s always constantly searching for something new. As long as we can continue to do that, we can work together. If we can’t do that we will have to look for something else. I think it’s important that people hear the album before they make their minds up, then they will have seen Act as a whole. Actually, this is a problem of the present day pop scene — most bands tend not to be seen as a whole ant more, they are whatever the single is that’s out at the moment. That’s a pity because I enjoyed the days when you could get into the whole package, and that’s what we are trying to present. You have to see the whole package to really appreciate it. The real pain is that you need hit singles to promote your album, and that’s a real disaster.”
Brücken takes up the cause, “Our songs are more complicated than some of the ones that make it to No. 1. Fairground Attraction made it to No. 1 because people like nursery rhymes. I think we’re probably just a bit too mature for the singles market, but we’re not panicking because we would rather build up a following that grows up with us.”
And that, as they say, is the Act manifesto. Incidentally, Fairground Attraction supported Act as their London date in February. Is there any sense of frustration in that the support band made it to No. 1 first? Brücken seems none too happy.
“Don’t talk about that. It happened with Then Jericho and Propaganda as well.”
Anyone interested in the support slot for the next Act tour?