From Berlin to Petaluma - An Interview with ‘80’s New Wave Diva Terri Nunn

The night of October 27, 2000 was probably the most fun anyone’s had in Petaluma, California since George Lucas filmed "American Graffiti" there almost 30 years ago. It was probably the happiest anyone’s been since film critic/native Pauline Kael left town. This was the night headliner Berlin and opening act Electric Peach played the Mystic Theater. Berlin had a string of hits during the Reagan years ("Sex", "Masquerade", "The Metro", "No More Words", "Take My Breath Away") and lead singer Terri Nunn has reformed the band with a new line-up and a new album, Sacred and Profane.

Mary Cary, Electric Peach’s gregarious singer/guitarist was nice enough to peek her pretty head into Berlin’s dressing room and ask Ms. Nunn if I could interview her. Terri obliged and I have to say, she was very nice. Heck, she’s a real lady. Here now, are my inane questions to the talented star:

GM: Hello, Ms. Nunn, my name’s Gene Mahoney. Can I ask you a few questions please?

TN: Sure.

GM: Jeez... I sound like a cop.

TN: (Laughs).

GM: Hey, did you know I gave up seeing Sarah Brightman AND The Beautiful South to see you tonight?

TN: Ha!

GM: Now, Terri, this isn’t the original band, is it?

TN: No. I joined in ‘79. John Crawford started it in ‘77.

GM: Now you’re from what town?

TN: Southern California. The Los Angeles area. All of us. Right now I’m in Encino. Hot.

GM: You have a new album out. What label is it on?

TN: Timebomb, it’s an Arista company. I like independent companies with major distribution. We always do well with that. Geffen was when we signed with them, they were just starting. It was nice because we mattered to them. We were just starting and they didn’t have many people and so they worked hard. I like that about independent companies. It’s smaller and so you actually make a difference. If you sell records or not they care!

GM: It can have a reverse effect if you work for a big company. They’re pushing bigger acts so their sales reps tend to ignore you. Bob Geldof wrote about that in his autobiography Is That It?

TN: How was that?

GM: Oh, it was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.

TN: Really? Why?

GM: I can’t describe it. Obviously Geldof isn’t Doesteyevsky, but it’s a combination of a light read but yet... it’s written very lightly, but he just doesn’t hold back. He’s a sensitive guy but he’s a tough Irish guy, too. It’s just a great paradox. I read it like 10 years ago and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Uh, I noticed you mentioned [late INXS singer] Michael Hutchence on stage tonight and I just read about Paula Yates. (Editor’s Note: British TV personality Paula Yates recently died of an overdose. She was the mother of Bob Geldof’s children and had a romantic relationship with Hutchence prior to his death, which resulted in a child.)

TN: Can you believe it? And they have kids, and she’s dead? An overdose! What are these people thinking? When you have kids you just don’t do that shit to your kids! On top of being talented and gorgeous, he’s got kids!

GM: Hey, I don’t want to get too nosy, but you knew Michael Hutchence? You were friends with him?

TN: Yeah, we dated for a short time.

GM: When?

TN: When he was here in the States. Then he went back and that was the end of that. It was 1985. I met him in England. We were making a record and they went for the first time and toured England. So we saw them in a little club because they weren’t big yet.

GM: This was what year?

TN: 1985.

GM: "The One Thing", "The Swing"... they were big before that.

TN: Not in England.

GM: You mean they cracked America before England?

TN: They must have, because we did our third record there in the winter of ‘85 and they just got there and played The Marquee to 500 people.

GM: In ‘83 they had "Don’t Change"---

TN: That was here.

GM: It’s unusual a band would crack America before England.

TN: Well we did, too. England didn’t even look at us before "Take My Breath Away".

GM: Yeah, but you’re an American band. Well, I guess we lump Australia into being part of England, but it’s not. Men At Work cracked America before England I guess, right?

TN: Did they? I don’t know. I wasn’t into them.

GM: Why don’t you tell us about the new album? And, are you happier in a way now? I know A Flock of Seagulls had their big hits right around the same time you did, and, I forgot the name of their lead singer... he said he actually didn’t enjoy the fame. He said he actually enjoyed it years later when they toured the smaller clubs. Just like Sting with The Police, he said the biggest success they had with the Synchronicity tour... he was actually miserable around that time. Are you enjoying yourself more now than you did in the ‘80’s?

TN: I am now for a few reasons. What I enjoy now is we don’t have to stay out on the road for 6 months at a time, solid, and have no lives, to survive. Berlin’s got a history now and we make enough money on the tours that I can go out on weekends only if I want and stay home with my boyfriend and have a life. It’s a lot different. The money is completely different. My manager, who also manages Sting, he said what happens, and it’s happening to Sting too, when you start your big money is the records. People don’t come to your concerts. They don’t know who you are. You make dick. You make nothing. And so you have to stay out on the road for a year and a half just to break even, just to sell records, because the records are what’s selling. Then it goes like this: pretty soon it’s not the records. The concerts are making money and the records are going down. Now Sting’s competing with himself. He puts out a new record but people go to the bin and go, ‘Okay here’s a new Sting record but here’s the greatest hits. I know more of these songs. I’ll buy this one.’ So he’s competing against himself and he can’t sell the kind of records he did again. So it shifts. And what I like about that is being able to have a love life. I had no love life. I was celibate for 4 years in my 20’s when Berlin was huge.

GM: Those rumors. I’m not getting fresh here, but I remember being 18, and a lot of the guys in the neighborhood had a crush on you, and then in interviews... was it just for publicity?... you said you enjoyed certain kinds of sex that might not be legal in certain southern states...

TN: (Giggles) Like what?

GM: I know how journalism is... they were saying that you and your bandmates were into sodomy.

TN: My partner was. He was into sodomy. He would say that. He liked that. That wasn’t my thing.

GM: Was a lot of that just trying to sell records? Trying to make an image for yourself?

TN: No, I just think we were more open about talking about it. We were a real open band about that stuff, and we never had any affairs. But that was all the people you had to talk to! I mean, you’re spending 24 hours with these people! It’s like a marriage without fucking.

GM: So guys like me in high school were probably thinking, Wow! Look at these rock stars! They’re so hip and I have to go to these boring classes. But in real life though, I probably had more fun than a lot of those rock stars who were just trapped in a hotel.

TN: Guys get it better. The guys had more fun than I did. Girls just fling themselves at the boys. Men don’t fling themselves at women.

GM: They’re probably intimidated by it.

TN: Yeah, I think they are, and I can’t blame them because I’m surrounded by men. Men that walk in don’t want to make a wrong move because they’ll be killed. (Laughs) It’s a different situation. Girls can’t be threatening--

GM: Well a guy will think, Well she’s gonna turn me down. But if a man is attractive he gets approached more by women than an unattractive man does. But an unattractive woman actually gets approached by men more than an attractive woman does. Because a guy will think, Well she’s out of my league.

TN: Not in this situation. More in a situation where men feel equal, like at a party or at a club I get hit on much more than I do in a place like this.

GM: The fast track lifestyle... even if you don’t partake in it you’re surrounded by it. It must be difficult to have a relationship.

TN: Oh yeah. I had no relationship. I had no life. I had no friends.

GM: How did you handle that?

TN: I burned out. I stopped for a while, got married, had a life.

GM: How did you meet your current boyfriend? What does he do?

TN: He’s a loan officer. He helped me buy my house. I was getting a divorce, and he walked into my house because we had to move. We had to sell the house we had and I had to get a new house. He walked in. The first thing he said was, "We normal people think you rock stars make a lot of money. What happened?" (Laughs).

GM: You know the lead singer for Romeo Void? What was her name?

TN: I don’t know, but I loved her.

GM: Yeah, it was in the paper, she was paying like $675 a month, which is unbelievably cheap nowadays.

TN: For what?

GM: She had like an apartment South of Market.

TN: Oh, she lives here?

GM: No, she just moved with her boyfriend, I believe that’s what the article said, to Wonder Lake, which is in the desert. I think it said she bought something like a 2 bedroom house with her boyfriend for something like 40 grand... some ridiculously low amount of money. All the artists are moving out of San Francisco now.

TN: Well it’s expensive.

GM: Who are your biggest influences?

TN: In my life?

GM: Singing. Like Sinead O’Connor put out that album of cover tunes and it was obvious that people like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn were big influences on her. Singing-wise, who would be a big influence on you?

TN: Grace Slick, Ann Wilson, Stevie Nicks.

GM: More modern. When you were a little girl you weren’t listening to the old blues stuff?

TN: No, that was a little bit before my time. Aretha Franklin was amazing. I can’t say I love the blues, I just love her.

GM: It’s like k.d. Lang. You probably don’t like country, but k.d. Lang’s amazing.

TN: Right, right. Yeah, yeah.

GM: Did Berlin break up for a while?

TN: Yeah.

GM: When?

TN: I left in ‘88.

GM: Your biggest hit was "Take My Breath Away"?

TN: Yeah, that was our international hit.

GM: Why did the band break up?

TN: Lost direction. People not knowing where to go and fighting about it. John wanted to keep it where it was and I wanted to try new things, and now in hindsight I don’t think he was wrong... I don’t think I was wrong, but I think if we had just been able to come more in the middle with it. So I went off and did a solo record. I did all kinds of weird shit on it. It was awful. A mess. There were so many different ideas on it.

(Suddenly, a big guy approaches us.)

Big Guy: Hey there’s no tape in there! It’s not even recording! He’s just hitting on you!! That’s not professional!

TN: (Laughs). Gene it is? Gene, this is Dallan. Dallan, Gene.

GM: Hey, how are ya, Dallas?

TN: Dallan! D-a-l-l-a-n. Isn’t that a great name?

Dallan: It’s an old Irish name. They don’t even use it anymore. Pleased to meet you.

GM: Dallan?

TN: And that’s the LOVELY Linda!

GM: Dallan, pleased to meet you. Hey, Linda, how are you? Linda, where were you singing before you sang with Terri?

Linda: Tears For Fears.

GM: What tour was that?

Linda: Raoul and the Kings of Spain.

GM: Was that the one with "Woman in Chains"?

Linda: Yes, that was me.

GM: That was you on the record?

Linda: No, not on the record.

GM: My friend saw them on that tour.

Linda: Really, where at?

GM: I think it was the Cow Palace.

Linda (excited): Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!

GM (back to Terri): So I guess I should start wrapping it up. So you’re happier today than you were in the ‘80’s?

TN: Yeah! Are you happier today than you were in the ‘80’s?

GM: Well yes and no. I think I had such grand illusions back then. I grew up in a really dysfunctional home so when I was a kid I had to fill up my head with these impossible dreams to keep me from killing myself. But yeah, I am happier, because you find out that fame, having people who don’t know who you are have an image of who you are... stuff like that doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. Real life, not being above it all, but being in it...

TN: I like both. I like fame and I like not fame.

GM: Well, limited fame. Like being a writer or something like that is probably good fame. But being somebody who’s like Madonna... I can’t imagine that being a pleasant life.

TN: It’s hard on people around you. I’ll speak for myself. When it was the peak of fame and everywhere I went became an ordeal. There was no let’s just have a fun afternoon out and go to a movie. It didn’t work like that. It becomes this isolated, lonely existence that I don’t care for. I don’t want to live like that. I don’t need that much recognition. I don’t know what it’s for.

GM: When you were younger did you think you needed that much recognition?

TN: I thought it would be fun, until I had it.

GM: You made it quickly. You were very young.

TN: Yeah, it was my first band, and in the first 3 years it was insane.

GM: How did it start?

TN: They answered my ad. I placed an ad in a musicians’ contact service. I wanted an original band and they called me, they said, because I said original. And at that time, synthesiser music wasn’t in America. John patterned it after Kraftwork in Germany and Ultravox in England. They were the 2 bands doing synthesiser music and John said, "I’m going to do that and bring it to America, put a girl’s voice on it, we’ll have something!" So they called me and it was like, fuck, what is this? It was great. I’d never heard anything like it. It gave us a lot of problems because people were like, what? Guitars were in, and power pop; The Knack and The Motels and The Go-Go’s were happening.

GM: I think there were a lot of 17 year olds who made "new wave" big because they loved the ‘60’s music like the Beatles and the Stones and thought in the ‘70’s a lot of music had degenerated into Uriah Heep-type bands. They were looking for something to distinguish their own generation.

TN: Disco fucking sucks! That just blew it for me.

GM: It’s ironic you say that because metal-heads in the early ‘80’s would call your music "Euro-disco" or "White disco", because it definitely had that beat. Well, actually it was more of a complicated beat; more like a pop version of Gary Numan or David Bowie, Kraftwork, Trio...

TN: Right, those are my influences. Bowie, Pink Floyd, T-Rex. The Glam Rock of the ‘70’s. When I was a teenager that was great, and then disco came in and FUCKED everything up, and it was AWFUL. And then punk came in and changed everything again.

GM: Punk was good, but was even better I thought was post-punk.

TN: Yeah! Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie! All those bands started coming out of New York and it was great!

GM: When they had those third albums... bands like Sham 69 couldn’t get out of it, but bands like The Jam and The Clash and The Damned evolved into something else.

TN: That changed everything, so that gave us an opening.

GM: The way the market’s now it must be tough to get airplay. I think it’s shaping up for another movement ready to break. Things are either very vulgar and hard on one side and very pop on the other.

TN: Is it like that here?

GM: There’s no underground, no real alternative.

TN: In L.A. we have a station called KROQ...

GM: 40 minutes! 40 minutes! 40 minutes of nonstop KROQ!

TN: Yeah! Yeah!

GM: Jed the Fish.

TN: Oh yeah!

GM: We have Live 105 up here.

TN: It’s just heavy balls to the wall. Metallica. Limp Bizkit. Tool. It’s too heavy for me now.

GM: They call that music "alternative" rock now, but to me that music sounds like the music that inspired bands like yourself and the Psychadelic Furs to go back to more of a pop consciousness as opposed to thrashing.

TN: I like some thrashing. I like Stone Temple Pilots.

GM: They actually got better.

TN: Oh, they’re so good! If he doesn’t die. A good band, just sexy, just male. All men. Just heavy. Ooh... so good.

GM: So you like Clark Gable over Cary Grant. That’s the kind of girl you are.

TN: (Laughs).

GM: Just like when guys are asked which girl do you like on "Gilligan’s Island"... Ginger or Mary Ann?

TN: Who do you like?

GM: Ginger. But now that I’m older I’d rather live with Mary Ann. Ginger would be too much of a pain in the ass. But I could tell you’re more of a Clark Gable girl than a Cary Grant girl. You like more of a manly guy.

TN: Yeah, I do. Yeah. I just love everything about men. That’s why I’m in this job because it’s great for me because I’m always around mostly men.

GM: How does your boyfriend feel about that?

TN: He’s fine with it. I’m a good girl.

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