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 1984, 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 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 the time has brought changes within the group —
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 —
MEDIUM OF PERSUASION
For the new album, did you choose studios with any particular requirements in mind?
“Rather than go for 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 is there was more writing to be done. We start laying down backing tracks in early summer 1988 at The Wool 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 operandi 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 section 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 the things on tape —
“Most of the time we write out of impulse, then listen to it, and try and refine it and make it definite. When we did the demos, there was one track which we thought was going to be the single —
The first album, A Secret Wish, featured a powerful, very European, mechanical sound. Is machinery still and 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 has two machines in the studio —
How did the collaboration with Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes come about?
“We contacted Chris 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 has 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. Continue »
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 —
How is the workload of the lyrics an 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 —
“Derek started to get into computers when he saw the way that I work. He used an Atari with C-Lab Creator, an analogue Akai 12-track recorder, and an Emax smapler. 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.”
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 —
“Simon Clarke, who has plated 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 —
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 —
Abbey Road is renowned for its suitability for recording orchestra, so was there a temptation to use live strings?
“It would have started to be very expensive. Continue »
“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!’ —
On ‘La Carne, La Morte E Il Diavolo’ there is a reoccurring string motif which give the track a great atmosphere —
“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 —
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 —
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 musical conservatory. Continue »
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 —
THE PROS AND CONS OF TECHNOLOGY
Propaganda 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 advancing technology as he is keen to take advantage of it.
“It’s easy to get lots, 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 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 do everything. I’m not interested in doing everything with one machines.
“The MIDI implementation on the PPG is ridiculous —
Did working with Trevor Horn influence your approach to music production?
“I’m sure it has, because that was the first time 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 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 —
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.Continue »
“We used 1/2" 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 —
Obviously the final product is very important to Propaganda, and one of the sources of frictions 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 —
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 out 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 —
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.