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Depeche Mode: Spirit interview – Classic Pop Magazine



Back in 2017 Classic Pop packed its dictaphone and headed off to enjoy extended chats with Martin Gore and Dave Gahan on the occasion of the launch of the then-latest album by Depeche Mode, Spirit – conversations that would take in subjects such as songwriting, stagecraft, conflict, politics, the revolution, and hope… By Rudy Bolly

Depeche Mode certainly have staying power. Despite those rare but crucial line-up changes, countless hairy escapes and being taken off mainstream radio playlists, they still remain one of the universe’s biggest acts.

Four decades in, the trio are enjoying some of the best reviews of their career with Spirit, while its accompanying stadium tour is cementing their status as a major box office draw. “People never took us seriously,” says Martin Gore. “But eventually they have come to accept us.” 

“I’ve never felt we were like any other bands,” Dave Gahan adds. “Especially with those we first appeared on the scene with in the 1980s, like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet or those others who had success at the time. We never felt we were anything like them.” 

Basildon’s finest are back in the UK on a fleeting visit, conducting interviews – individually – in a very upmarket Mayfair hotel. Outside, a clutch of patient teenagers dressed from head-to-toe in black and parading a range of piercings fry gently in the sunshine.

It’s an impressively young crowd for an act 37 years into their career, but the frontman is right – Depeche Mode are no ordinary band. They seem to have more in common with heavy metal or alternative rock acts, those timeless names who consistently attract new generations of admirers, almost like a rite of passage.

“We probably had more in common with Fad Gadget, The Normal or Kraftwerk,“ Gahan continues, listing a number of other cult acts that used to grace the back pages of the now defunct Melody Maker. “We definitely have survived and been through a lot together. Ups and downs, marriages, divorces.”

Unlike most of those aforementioned chart rivals from yesteryear, Depeche Mode command stadium-sized audiences in 2017, yet they kicked off their latest Global Spirit Tour with an unusually intimate date at Glasgow Barrowland as part of the BBC Radio 6 Music festival.

Gahan considers small shows “more terrifying”, but Gore – who once required verbal assurance he wouldn’t pop his clogs on stage – is over any superstitions. “It was fun because even though it was smaller than people are used to us playing, it was the biggest gig we”d played in three years,” reflects the songwriter. “It felt like a real show.”

It’s currently feeling a lot more ‘real’ now the band are in the throes of European stadium dates, playing to more than 1.5 million fans in 32 cities. With further gigs in the UK, US and across the rest of the world still to come, it must be a daunting undertaking… 

“We look forward to it, really,” says Gore without flinching, “because we’ve been on this four-year schedule thing now for a while, which we fell into more than anything else. It’s quite good because when we finish an album it’s usually been a long time since we’d played live, so you’re itching to do that bit again. And then when you finish the tour you take a break and you haven’t been writing songs for a long time, so you’re feeling more creative.”

The band have been on that remarkably consistent ‘four-year cycle’ ever since 2001’s Exciter LP. Subsequent studio albums were solid fan-pleasers, but some accusations of treading water were beginning to be thrown their way. After more than a decade recording with Ben Hillier, the trio decided to shake things up a little and enlist producer du jour James Ford, one half of Simian Mobile Disco. 

Depeche Mode“It was time to make a change, to challenge ourselves,” Gore articulates carefully. “Maybe freshen things up, even though we loved doing those albums with Ben. It was actually Daniel Miller – who has been with us since day one – who recommended James. He knew him, so felt we would get on quite well personality-wise. And Daniel also knew everything that James had been working on.

“We were aware of the obvious stuff, but we got sent some of the other albums we didn’t know about and the thing that impressed us most was that he had worked with a lot of different bands in different genres; but they all just sounded great.”

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Ford might be synonymous with Arctic Monkeys, but his impressive CV also includes records by Florence + The Machine, Little Dragon, Foals and Mumford & Sons. It’s 22 years since the departure of Alan Wilder, but Depeche Mode have always sought a fourth member to record with. Besides founder Vince Clarke, they have worked with Mark Bell and Tim Simenon along the way; so is making an album solely as a three-piece an impossibility?

“James did so much on the record, sound-wise. He’s very talented,” says Gore, swerving the question expertly. “We definitely do need that ‘referee’, for want of a better word.”

Ford did more than simply produce Spirit; according to Dave, he practically became a group therapist. Gore remains more coy: “As a band, we need to give authority to somebody to oversee us because we can all have differing opinions and it’s very hard to come to a joint decision. So sometimes it’s easier to give someone like James the deciding card. Once that happened, everything fell into place.” Dave agrees: “He was able to guide us and take our demos to another level.”

Devoted followers of Depeche Mode have long hypothesised over band dynamics, sensing or, more likely, imagining tensions at various points in their career. Gahan believes collaboration helps them exist. “Sometimes our albums have reflected internal conflict,” he says. “Something that’s more personal and then sometimes our music reflects what is going on around us. I believe music does bring people together… it brings Martin and me together. Sometimes in very mysterious ways, I don’t know why.”

Spirit is arguably their most fluid work in many years. There are great moments on every Depeche Mode album, but this one feels like a complete piece of work, and the world’s media seem in agreement. Gahan smiles: “We’ve always remained sort of a cult thing, although that’s changed a bit with this new record.”

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Reluctant to analyse his work too much, Gore concedes they may have inadvertently captured the zeitgeist: “I suppose the first decision that I made when I came to songwriting was to go down the social commentary slope stroke political route, which I felt was a dangerous route to go down. But there was so much going on in the world, to just put blinkers on it felt a little bit criminal.”

Call it luck, or bad luck depending on your political allegiance, but Spirit’s songs feel incredibly pertinent today. Agreeing, Gore says: “It feels so relevant now. Maybe that was fortunate, but when I was writing the songs in 2015 I felt the world was in a bad place, in a bit of mess.

“That’s how I started off, I couldn’t have predicted that Trump would become President, but the whole electoral process goes on for ages in the US and there were warning signs. Watching the whole debacle from the early days to the end is very disheartening. Humanity… you wonder where we are going sometimes.”

Opening track Going Backwards with its haunting “we feel nothing inside” refrain sets the despondent mood of Spirit. “For me, the overwhelming message is we have lost our way a bit and lost our spirit if you want – that’s why we called it Spirit,” explains the Gore. “We need to find our way back to the path.”

Depeche Mode SpiritGahan hopes it will encourage listeners to think differently, too. “Spirit is something that’s within all of us, it’s a feeling that you have to listen to. You find all the answers you really need there.”

The new album’s lead single, Where’s The Revolution, is a particularly rousing call to arms in an anaesthetised world. Gahan continues: “I don’t know where the revolution is today, but I know it’s got to come from within. You won’t find it in someone else. When you really get in touch with yourself, the revolution begins from within.

“You start to question, how do I treat people? How am I treating my family, my friends? Am I really being kind? Am I being tolerant of their differences, and am I trying to understand? That’s the revolution in our thinking. We are kind of brainwashed to feel this a certain way and quite often we act out of fear.”

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Many have accused today’s youth of giving up caring, but surely it’s always been that way. Were DM any more militant as kids growing up in Essex? 

“When I was 18 in 1979 I was young and probably not into politics back then,” acknowledges Gore. 

“We grew up when we first started making music,” adds Gahan. “It was hard for young people to find new jobs, Britain was a tough place to live in the years of Thatcher. When I was a teenager I grabbed music by The Clash – it became my soundtrack. I’m very lucky, trust me… it could have been very different when I left school at 15 years old. We grew up on these council estates in the poorer part of town – where if you’re told enough times: ‘you will amount to nothing’, you react. We found a way out by making music.”

Social commentary isn’t new for a Depeche Mode album. Gore points out: “I suppose the only other time when we have dealt with it over a whole album was in 1983 with Construction Time Again, and I think that was because we had got out of our shells and become more worldly because we had travelled extensively.”

Spirit doesn’t just point a finger at others, it takes responsibility for mankind’s actions on a wider scale. At first, The Worst Crime’s ominous lyrics appear to refer to a specific event in past history: “There’s a lynching in the square/ You will have to join us”. However, as the song unfurls the listener becomes engulfed in a much bigger current issue.

“Usually I don’t talk about the songs too much but I will about this one a little bit,” says Gore. “It’s metaphorical and about climate change and us destroying the world, and how we are all guilty… so the lynching is us, we are all being lynched.” 

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Spirit paints a damning vision of the future, and Depeche Mode revel in it right up to the bleak finale, Fail where Gore concludes, ‘Oh, we’re f***ed’. “It sums up the album in a way,” he chuckles. “The good thing about it is the lyrics might be depressing but the music is so pretty. Once the lyrics stop it ends on this nice lilting gentle piece of music. That’s the bit of hope.”

The uninitiated have always accused DM of being miserable, and it’s something Gore attempted to address with So Much Love. “I felt the other songs were so damning about humanity and it was maybe too bleak. I came up with So Much Love because I wanted to write something that said: ‘it doesn’t matter what’s going on, there is still a lot of love inside me and you can’t take that away’.”

In reality, DM’s music has always offered more than a modicum of hope. Gahan agrees: “I try to look for hopefulness in things as much as possible but lately that seems to be hard.”

Since 2005’s Playing The Angel, Gahan has picked up songwriting credits on every Depeche album, contributing fan favourites like Suffer Well and Should Be Higher. He modestly describes it as “nudging my way in” and, using a basketball analogy, scoring the “occasional three pointer”. However, it’s a development that was tricky for Gore – chief songwriter since Vince Clarke left in 1982 – to adapt to. “It was hard,” he admits. “I’ve got used to it more and more.”

Depeche Mode Spirit

The songwriting democracy went a stage further on Spirit where Gahan has a hand in four tracks and, more tellingly, a co-write with Gore titled, You Move.

“It’s not the first one – we co-wrote one on Sounds Of The Universe and Delta Machine, but they were on the deluxe editions,” explains Martin. “When I write with Dave it’s usually an idea that’s very basic that I send to him. Then in his studio in New York he will come up with some words and a vocal melody, send it back to me and then I’ll do some more work on it and so on. This time that was it, he sent it back and it was finished. It was a similar process with Vince on VCMG.”

Gahan had a collection of his own songs prepared for Spirit, but when he heard the quality of Martin’s demos he knew many wouldn’t make the cut: “I wanted to sing these songs as well.”

Ultimately, it’s collaboration that Gahan enjoys most of all: “I came to songwriting late and for me I do like to be part of some sort of creative process. You can have great ideas but the interesting part is when other people get involved with that idea. That’s the exchange of two human beings actually communicating with music. It makes me feel human and part of something.”

The Global Spirit Tour’s only UK visit was at the London Stadium, home to West Ham football club. As Gore and Andy Fletcher are rival Arsenal and Chelsea fans respectively, did the former Olympic stadium seem a safer bet? “When we first started talking about it, it was going to be the Emirates and nobody had a problem with that,” Gore grins. “Then for some reason it fell through. So in a way it’s good that it ended up at the Olympic stadium as it’s closer to home for us.”

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It was Depeche Mode’s first stadium show in the capital since they played Crystal Palace Sports Ground on 1993’s Devotional Tour… a period when drug addiction was taking hold of Gahan’s life. “There was a point where I didn’t think I would reach 35, I thought if I’m going to go out, I’m going out with a bang,” he says.

“It’s important to be honest about who you are, who you were and coming out the other side. There’s plenty of pivotal moments in the life of Depeche Mode… we’ve all been through stuff. Somehow the music has always managed to pull us together.”

On stage, Gahan is a master at pulling fans together. “I go to see Iggy Pop and I’m not there yet,” he says, insisting it took 20 years to learn his craft. “When I go on stage and I get into the guy I like to be, all bets are off. I don’t know where it’s going to go. But sometimes you hit this extra spot and you don’t know why. There’s something in the spirit world that is way beyond you. I watch a lot of basketball and when those guys come out they are in the zone. I identify with that, for two hours that’s their thing.”

The fans play their part, too. “I think we’re spoilt by our fanbase, you watch them and they sing along and sometimes they won’t shut up unless Dave cuts them short,” Martin says. “It’s always a joy, no matter the size of the venue. I don’t have a favourite place to play, I just look forward to getting in front of our audience.”

Now with 14 albums of material to choose from, the setlist is getting harder to decide, but Depeche have done well to avoid just churning out the same greatest hits. “It’s always difficult to choose the setlist and we all have different favourites as well,” says Gore.

“We play a good cross-section. The only time I listen back to old stuff is if I have to do acoustic versions in the middle of a set, so it’s interesting to go back to listen to albums that I haven’t heard in years and see if there’s a gem that could be revisited acoustically.” 

Gahan adds: “But there are certain songs I can’t imagine not singing, like Personal Jesus, I Feel You, Walking In My Shoes, Never Let Me Down… these, to me, have to be part of when we perform.”

Gore concludes: “On the first leg we’re mainly playing big outdoor places and stadiums, so in a way we feel more constricted because there’s a lot of real die-hard fans there, but some of the audience will be more lukewarm fans so you have to take them into consideration, too.” 

Depeche Mode’s enduring success means they need not write that West End musical so many of their peers seem intent on peddling, yet. If the theatre doesn’t interest them, how about a Bowie Is-style museum event, touring their old leather jackets and synths?

Gore, who has a warehouse lock-up packed full of musical equipment, guffaws: “There’s probably enough stuff, but for us it would be really boring. Jonathan our manager just threw away a tonne of stuff recently because it was taking up so much room.”

They certainly aren’t nostalgic, and with things going so well it seems a little churlish to bring up the subject of retirement, but inevitably people wonder how long they can keep this going. Gahan isn’t fazed: “I’d like to think I’ll know when it’s time. I always want to be able to do it the way I want to.” 

Gore is equally adamant: “We are enjoying ourselves and just as passionate about music as when we first started. We never talk about this being the last album or the last tour, but I will always say you can never guarantee there being another album because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not being negative when I say that, because I’ve been saying it since 1986!”

It’s reassuring for Depeche Mode fans to know the band’s career, and personal relationships, are probably in the rudest health they have been for 25 years. Gahan agrees: “There never has been or is any real leader in Depeche Mode, it’s a family. At times, we are completely at odds in different corners of the room and not understanding each other at all. But everybody has their place, you have to be part of something. It’s a group of people and not just the band. It’s a bigger picture.” 

Depeche Mode: Spirit review

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xPropaganda interview: “Music should be a playground”




Alongside Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome, Propaganda’s A Secret Wish defined the grandeur of ZTT. Their debut album stood alone as a beacon of extravagant synth-pop… until now. more than three decades on, Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag – now xPropaganda – tell the remarkable story of their stunning comeback LP, The Heart Is Strange…

Sometimes, the toughest problems can be resolved by a matter of straightforward practicalities. The making of a new Propaganda album, 37 years after the imperious synth-pop masterpiece A Secret Wish looked to be their only major statement, was instigated by a simple wish for the band’s singers. Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag wanted to start playing live again. There was one major issue to overcome first.

“We realised a Propaganda show would be quite short,” smiles Claudia, sat next to Susanne on a sofa at Brücken’s home in London. “When we first played together again at The Garage in London in 2018, we had to fill the set out with B-sides. If we were to do more shows, we wanted to play for 70 minutes, not 45. That meant we really needed to write a few fresh songs, if only to make our concerts longer.”

That was four years ago. The pandemic has, of course, delayed matters, but was the wait for triumphant comeback album The Heart Is Strange also down to the kind of intricately detailed, money-no-object 1980s-budgeted studio sessions exemplified by A Secret Wish? Not exactly. Claudia and Susanne would generally meet at Brücken’s home, joined by co-writer John Williams, who’s fitted in perfectly with the pair since producing the latter’s solo album Where Else in 2014.

“We’d never be so presumptuous as to try to make A Secret Wish Part 2,” insists Freytag. “It was daunting when we started, thinking, ‘OK, which direction do we want to go in after so long?’ But we’ve found our style naturally, without thinking of the stress of trying to make a sequel to that record. If you impose that sort of pressure on yourself, forget it, that’s no good.

“Music should be a playground, and where there is similarity between our new record and A Secret Wish is that they’re both quite playful. We were free of pressure, and instead it was, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ That’s what works best.”

Without a record deal in place, the financial reality when they embarked upon the project in 2019 was a world away from A Secret Wish. “John would bring his sandwiches to my house,” laughs Claudia. “Then, twice a week, Susanne and I would pack our sandwiches to write at John’s. A lot of the budget for this record is sandwiches.” 


The writing trio were helped by Propaganda’s other (sort of) member, Stephen Lipson. The producer of A Secret Wish, Lipson played with Propaganda at that 2018 London comeback show. Before becoming a producer for Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones and Robbie Williams, he’d been a guitarist.

“Stephen joining us on stage was so great,” smiles Claudia. “Once we started writing, we asked Stephen if he had any backing tracks that we could get our heads into. He lives close by, so we could often meet up.” 

“I’ve always stayed in touch with Claudia and Susanne,” explains Lipson. “Mostly Claudia, because she’s in London and Susanne lives in Berlin. But we’ve all chatted about life over the years. I have a store of song ideas, so when they asked for backing tracks, it was easy to send ideas over and say, ‘How about this?’” One of those ideas became the new album’s magnificent 10-minute finale, Ribbons Of Steel. “Oh, that was much longer to start with,” laughs Stephen.

“Me and a producer friend, Pete Murray, had been asked to create a piece for a music library in Los Angeles. We made three pieces of music that segued together into this 20-minute track. Only after we’d sent that in did we learn the library wanted something short and sweet.

“It had a Propaganda feel to it, so when Claudia and Susanne wanted ideas, it was easy to send them Ribbons Of Steel. It’s a lovely way to end such a dramatic album, a soothing and peaceful piece to play out.”

Asked about Stephen’s status in the new line-up now dubbed xPropaganda, Claudia enthuses: “Lippo is so key to the music, I definitely think of him as part of the band. But he might not think of it like that.”

Susanne adds: “He’s in the video for Don’t (You Mess With Me). He’s performing at the London launch gig for the album. We’ve played with the idea of Stephen being in the band, I’d say.” As predicted by Claudia, Lipson isn’t so certain. “I’m their happy helper,” he smiles. “I’m not in the band, nor should I be. We work well together and I’m always happy to help out, but we’re just buddies, really.”

Whatever Stephen’s role, the original men from Propaganda aren’t involved. The band’s labyrinthine line-up started in Kraftwerk’s hometown of Düsseldorf in 1982, when Ralf Dörper of industrial rockers Die Krupps started Propaganda with Susanne and artist Andreas Thein. Flamboyant percussionist Michael Mertens soon joined from the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra, while Freytag persuaded Brücken on board, too, after the two had already sung together in B-52s-y art-popsters The Topolinos. 

John Peel was an early champion, with listeners including Paul Morley. The journalist wanted ZTT’s first signing to arrive from outside Britain, and there was enough mystique about Propaganda to make them ideal. Trevor Horn produced dramatic debut single Dr Mabuse. Thein promptly left, fearing Propaganda were about to become too commercial. He sadly died from cancer in 2013.

The remaining quartet finished A Secret Wish with Lipson. Horn might have been too busy to carry on with Propaganda, but Lipson was the ideal replacement. Not only was he Horn’s de facto right-hand man anyway, he was perfect for getting the best out of Susanne’s intoxicating melodrama and Claudia’s persuasive intimacy. “Stephen is instilled with the ZTT sound,” reasons Brücken. “The sound we make together is so attractive.” 

Although now rightly hailed as a masterpiece, A Secret Wish was only a modest commercial success, reaching No.16 in the UK Albums Chart.

“I feel completely bemused when people call A Secret Wish a classic,” frets Stephen. “Nobody really bought it. It’s not an initial flop that’s sold well over time, like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s just never really caught fire. But I didn’t reflect on that lack of success, because back then we were always onto making the next record. It’s like when people talk about how big the budget was.

“In the mid-80s, people didn’t discuss recording budgets. It was just about trying to make a good record. A Secret Wish took a long time, as we were experimenting with new equipment. It was detailed work, and everyone was happy for us to take the time to make it good.”

Stephen’s bandmates/buddies are more celebratory of their first album’s status. “We all knew at the time that we were making something special with A Secret Wish,” Freytag believes. Brücken agrees, noting: “My first musical experience in a studio was with Trevor Horn. That’s an astonishing privilege. But I’d never thought that, nearly 40 years later, people would still be discovering our album.”

It didn’t help in the detailed process of making A Secret Wish that Susanne, Ralf and Michael still lived in Düsseldorf, coming to England for a few days at a time. Claudia soon settled in London, marrying Paul Morley. (The couple separated soon after their daughter Maddy was born.)

“We were very young and inexperienced,” reflects Susanne. “Our record company contract could have been better, and a different manager could have held us together. It felt like we were being divided into two halves and there were so many different facets to any one story, it was difficult to know what was going on.” 

In 1986, Claudia left to form Act with Thomas Leer, staying with ZTT, while the rest of Propaganda instead signed to Virgin. By the time second album 1234 was released in 1990, Susanne and Ralf had quit, too, leaving just Michael with a new line-up, including former Simple Minds rhythm section Derek Forbes and Brian McGee. Michael persuaded Susanne to sing on two songs that had been written before Ralf had left.

“I didn’t want to be involved,” she admits now. “I only changed my mind for sentimental reasons when Michael asked me. I had nothing to do with 1234 creatively.”

Brücken is still frustrated that a myth has grown up around Propaganda that ZTT boss Trevor Horn and his wife, Jill Sinclair, refused to renegotiate the band’s contract. “Jill did invite us to renegotiate our deal,” she insists. “But the band decided not to do that. Different management would have encouraged us to at least listen to Jill. But there were four different people with different views and agendas. It was tricky.”

There have been various efforts to reunite the A Secret Wish line-up, but Claudia and Susanne are clearly right for each other 37 years on. Having lived in London for so long, Brücken is more talkative, but Freytag’s English is flawless, too, and her dry wit matches her friend’s.

“I don’t think we were conscious in the 80s of how different we were, being women in electronic music,” considers Susanne. Claudia adds: “Susanne and I have solidarity, females in a world where there’s a lot of male energy.” 

xPropaganda – The Heart Is Strange cover

Again, the band’s management didn’t help. “There was division in the band, and that division was created,” Freytag states. “That made it difficult. We were only in our twenties, and it was difficult to put into words, the feeling of certain attitudes towards women that were accepted, where Claudia and I would think, ‘Hmm, I’m not certain what to make of that.’ It wasn’t a negative experience, but management could have been more inclusive.”

The patronising attitude of the press didn’t help. Propaganda consisting of two women and two men, making grandiose and at times gothic pop, they were promptly dubbed “ABBA from Hell”, a tagline Claudia dismisses as “silly”, before Susanne interjects: “I thought it was quite funny. It was so silly that we used it ourselves later on.” 

This is news to Brücken, who stares at her friend. “Did we?!”  

Ralf has returned to playing with Die Krupps, while Michael released music in the 90s with Dreamware and Black Mesa, but has appeared musically quiet since 2011 single I’m A Cathedral with Italian dance musician Beppe Loda.

“We tried many times to make it work with Michael and Ralf,” says Claudia. “It worked beautifully 35 years ago with them, but it became like a relationship that doesn’t work. People change.” Susanne adds: “You can’t try to recreate situations again and again. We’re all different people. Claudia and I, this is the moment for now. Once we made the decision it should just be the two of us, it just clicked.”

The Heart Is Strange is released under the subtly yet pointedly changed name of xPropaganda. Brücken admits: “The guys weren’t happy for us to call ourselves Propaganda. Otherwise, that’s what we’d call ourselves.”

“But it’s also a name to show that it’s different now,” reasons Freytag. “The name xPropaganda shows that Propaganda was then, and here we are now.”

In truth, Michael and Ralf’s absence isn’t really noticeable on The Heart Is Strange. As comeback records go, it’s unimpeachable, Susanne and Claudia’s voices driving heart-racing pop songs still full of unexpected twists.

“Susanne and I like our music to be disturbing,” laughs Claudia. “But we also like it to be tender. There are lots of contrasts in our work, and we dramatise those contrasts in our words, our delivery, our music. Susanne makes our music beautiful and touching.”

For his part, Lipson says: “Our tastes align. The only thing that’s not appropriate for Propaganda is swing music. Anything else that comes out of my addled brain is usually appropriate in one way or another for Claudia and Susanne.”

To an extent, finally making a record together after so long was like a dam bursting. The single Don’t (You Mess With Me) was written in less than a day, its message that xPropaganda aren’t here to put up with anyone’s nonsense pouring out of the pair. 

“It was cathartic, that song,” laughs Susanne. Claudia adds: “We’d only met up to see what we might do that day. Coming out at the end of a session with a song like that, so honest about feeling frustrated, was astonishing.” It was also a song where John Williams’ help proved invaluable.

“Usually, I labour over things,” admits Brücken. “I take ages to write a melody. John has a lot of discipline in nailing things down. On my own, I usually think, ‘I could sing that word… no, it could be that word.’ Having a song like Don’t flood out was great to experience. Usually, my process is laborious, but it’s productive, too, because when I do sing the song, the polishing of what words to sing means it flows better.”

The compelling No Ordinary Girl also flowed beautifully, inspired by Claudia walking through London’s bustling Embankment. “I followed this hypnotic sound I could hear in the distance, because I couldn’t work out what it was,” she recalls.

“I realised eventually that it was someone playing steel drums. I thought it’d be cool to recreate that hypnotic feeling, creating a song that was equally mysterious.”

The attitude of not putting any pressure on themselves continued throughout recording, as Stephen explains: “Our to-and-fro of writing and recording continued, until we concluded we possibly had an album. We had enough songs to make an album, rather than trying to create an album. It was that way round. Once we had enough songs, why not call it an album and see if we could get a record deal?”

With fateful timing, Universal’s catalogue label UMC had recently bought the rights to ZTT’s back catalogue – and its name. Once UMC discovered Claudia, Susanne and Stephen had made a new album worthy of A Secret Wish, it would have been downright rude not to release it on ZTT.

“Where else could it go?” laughs Claudia. “This record follows the sound and mentality of ZTT. ZTT makes a lot of sense for us, and for UMC. Yes, it’s unusual for a new album to be released by Universal’s catalogue company, but why not? ZTT is where The Heart Is Strange should be.” “It’s like the circle has closed,” Susanne smiles. “Everything has come around.”

The majestic 43 minutes of The Heart Is Strange also means xPropaganda now have enough music to realise their dreams of a 70-minute show to tour. Stephen Lipson, who produced the soundtrack for the last James Bond film No Time To Die and is currently working on four albums and movie soundtracks, is too busy to tour.

“I like rehearsals for a gig, figuring out how we’re going to make it work,” he states. “I’m looking at The Heart Is Strange, thinking, ‘How should it be represented live? If the audience doesn’t know this song, does it matter?’ It’s challenging, but we’ll get there. That’s the bit I like. Playing a one-off gig is great, but a tour? Not sure. It certainly wouldn’t fit with my current life.”

“Stephen is a busy guy always doing a million things,” continues Susanne. “He can play whichever shows he likes, but we know great musicians for when he can’t play.”

There are whispers of deluxe plans for Propaganda’s back catalogue but, after so long without new music, the rebranded xPropaganda are looking to the future. “We’ve got our focus and we just want to get on with it,” summarises Claudia. “Susanne and I, we’ve recovered.” With a future now as strong as their past, for electronic music pioneers Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag, x marks the spot. 

Read our review of xPropaganda’s The Heart Is Strange here

Read our feature on the making of A Secret Wish

xPropaganda photos copyright: Kai Freytag, Peter Brown, Jimmy King

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Your instant guide to Dreampop




We lose ourselves in the hazy sonic textures of dreampop, that most painterly of musical genres…

What is it?

With dreampop the clue is in the word ‘dream’. This is music to immerse yourself in, to take a long warm bath in. It’s music that carries you gently from the real world to another, more abstract and ethereal place. In the case of dreampop figureheads Cocteau Twins, that place can be tranquil and balmy, with My Bloody Valentine it can be intense and threatening. There are elements of psychedelia in dreampop, but the emphasis is on sonic textures, not melodies. It’s ambient, with pop flourishes.

Common characteristics include fuzzy guitars, breathy, multi-tracked vocals and introspective lyrics. Expect plenty of reverb and echo, too. Dreampop can be downbeat or upbeat – it can take you up or bring you down. Often at the same time.

Musically, its origins lie in the thick sonic soup that was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, though there are hints of dreampop in some of The Byrds’ acid-fuelled experiments and the delicacy of Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column. Also check out The Beach Boys’ All I Wanna Do, from 1970’s Sunflower LP, which sounds 20 years ahead of the curve.

Dreampop’s heyday may have been in the 80s but it’s still out there, with bands such as Beach House and – until last year anyway – Chromatics still flying the flag for hazy, transportative pop music.

Essential songs

The Beach Boys – All I Wanna Do (1970)

This Mortal Coil – Song To The Siren (1983)

Falling – Julee Cruise (1989)

Cocteau Twins – Cherry-Coloured Funk (1990)

Mazzy Star – Fade Into You (1994)

Essential bands

This Mortal Coil

Dreampop’s sole ‘supergroup’, This Mortal Coil were started by 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell in 1983 alongside producer John Fryer. Though they were the only two official members, the collective had a revolving door of guest artists, including Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie as well as various members of Cindytalk, Dead Can Dance, Colourbox, The Wolfgang Press, Breathless and Modern English. “The idea,” states the 4AD website, “was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.” 

Cocteau Twins

The quintessential dreampop band, Cocteau Twins were formed in 1979 by Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie. It wasn’t until 1981, however, and the arrival of the honey-voiced Elizabeth Fraser and later multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde (replacing Heggie) that Cocteau Twins became the group we know. Fraser’s shimmering vocals, often singing words you needed a Smash Hits lyrics sheet to understand, sat atop Guthrie’s shivery guitars and Raymonde’s growling bass to create music of transcendent beauty. Sadly, they split in 1997, after the breakdown of Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship. FAST FACT: The band were named after the Johnny And The Self-Abusers (later to become Simple Minds) song The Cocteau Twins (itself later to be retitled No Cure).

A.R. Kane

Though A.R. Kane remains one of the lesser heralded dreampop outfits, it’s said that it was singer Alex Ayuli who first coined the term itself. Formed in 1986 by Ayuli with former schoolmate Rudy Tambala they were first inspired by seeing Cocteau Twins on television. “They had no drummer,” Tambala recalled to The Guardian. “They used tapes and technology and Liz Fraser looked completely otherworldly with those big eyes. And the noise coming out of Robin [Guthrie]’s guitar! That was the ‘Fuck! We could do that! We could express ourselves like that!’ moment.” Three albums followed – 69 (Indie Chart No.1), “i” and New Clear Child – until they split in 1994. Later bands such as Slowdive, Dubstar and Apollo Heights have all cited A.R. Kane as an influence.

My Bloody Valentine

Imagine the ethereal beauty of Cocteau Twins with the cold-eyed aggression of the Jesus & Mary Chain – that’s the sound that My Bloody Valentine have perfected over the course of their nearly 40-year-long career. Formed in 1983 by Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig, they took their name from a 1981 Canadian slasher film. The band signed to Creation in 1988 and later that year released their debut long-player, Isn’t Anything (“the first full-length expression of this remarkable new sound: gossamer vocals and insinuating melodies glimpsed through sheets of blurred, opaque noise,” enthused Stuart Maconie in Q). The classic Loveless followed in 1991, but Creation dropped them shortly after. Just one more studio album has surfaced since then, 2013’s m b v, though Shields keeps promising
more material. 

What they say

“An atmospheric subgenre of alternative rock that relies on sonic textures as much as melody.”
The AllMusic Guide To Electronica

“[Dreampop] celebrates rapturous and transcendent experiences, often using druggy and mystical imagery…. After 12 years of Conservative government in Britain, any idealism or constructive political involvement seems futile to these alienated middle-class dropouts.”
New York Times, 1991

“As a genre term, dreampop embodies some of the same characteristics as the music it describes: it’s hazy, ever-shifting, often undefinable and yet somehow distinctly recognisable.”
Long Live Vinyl

Read more: Popscene – C86

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Classic Pop’s John Earls wins top industry award



Classic Pop’s John Earls has won a coveted industry award for his work on the magazine.

John was named as the winner in the Best Writer – Specialist category at the British Society of Magazine Editors Talent Awards, beating fellow nominees representing Time Out London, Stylist, BBC Top Gear magazine, Glamour UK, Which? Travel and Prima.

Staged at 100 Wardour Street in London, the event was hosted by Tim Pollard, British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) chair and group digital editorial director of Bauer Media, and author, journalist and NHS doctor Dr Ranj Singh. Judges combed through hundreds of entries to find the best writers, designers, sub-editors, social media teams and support staff who make Britain’s editorial industry the best in the world.

The BSME judging panel concluded: “A great writer communicates effectively with their readers and John Earls has done just that! A clear winner in this category. We loved this entry; it was different and engaging and also highlighted John’s great interview skills.”

Tim Pollard, BSME chair 2022 and group digital editorial director at Bauer Media added: “The 2022 Talent Awards are proof that the UK’s magazine industry has bounced back from the toughest two years in living memory. I was blown away by the resilience and creativity, storytelling prowess and teamwork demonstrated by editorial teams the length and breadth of Britain. Congratulations to all our winners and thank you to everyone for entering and making the awards party a memorable night.”

John, who has written for Classic Pop since our first issue in 2012, said: “I’m absolutely delighted to win, especially against such a great field of other writers from such leading magazines. I’m obviously thrilled for myself, but I’m more pleased the judges have recognised not just the hard work the Classic Pop team do to get the best interviews and features possible every issue, but in seeing the value of pop music itself.

“It’s been traditionally easy to dismiss pop music as unimportant, and it’s great the BSME have realised that what artists like Duran Duran, Boy George and Soft Cell have to say is of value, as well as hopefully entertaining the readers. Of course, it’s also true that chatting to Boy George about turning 60 beats having a proper job any day of the week. But pop is important, and so are magazines.”

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