Of the multitude of bands that rose to fame and vied for valuable airtime on MTV throughout the 1980’s, Berlin always stood out. The fresh, modern synth/guitar combo new wave outfit had plenty that set it apart from their contemporaries. Besides their penchant for crunchy guitars splashed amongst deep, thumping, seductive electronic beats, the California band had its own not-so-secret weapon: their frontwoman and focal point, the gorgeous, sultry, bold, and daring Terri Nunn.
Part of Nunn’s many charms were (and still are) the unadulterated and brutally honest sexually-charged aura she oozes while maintaining the picture of unabashed independence, power, and femininity. And, that voice…that sweet, sensuous voice that made hits like “Masquerade” and “No More Words” unforgettable. Switching from a longing coo to a forceful powerhouse within the same tune is what made Terri’s voice and Berlin resonate with so many young women and men throughout the decade in which the band blossomed.
Nunn, now 55, is in no race to quit or slow down. She’s out on the road with her band and still more than ready and able to deliver new music and continue to give loyal Berlin fans something to cheer about and rally around. Speaking to me from her home on the West Coast in between tour dates, Nunn sounded relaxed, refreshed, inspired and eager to chat. In one of the most enjoyable (and lengthiest) interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting, Nunn offered plenty of insight, wisdom and enlightenment into the world and the music of Berlin and about herself.
Charming, kind and accommodating, Nunn gladly offered to continue our lively chat a week later when we’d reached our allotted time limit for our first go-round. What follows is a transcript of the many highlights of our often funny, eye-opening and simply fascinating discussions.
Berlin appears as part of the Garden Rocks Concert Series at the 2017 Epcot® International Flower & Garden Festival on both Sunday, April 30 and Monday, May 1. Show times are 5:30 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. both days. Concert admission is included with Epcot® park ticket. Walt Disney World Resort is located at 200 Epcot Center Dr, Orlando, FL 32821. More information is available here.
What are you up to these days, Terri?
I’m home, writing with the original Berlin. I’m working with John Crawford and David Diamond and we’re working on the next album together.
That’s pretty exciting.
Yeah, it is exciting. It’s kind of out of the blue. It’s slower than we used to work but we all have different lives now. God, when we first started we had no other lives except each other and things moved a lot quicker! (laughs) But it’s very rewarding and exciting for me.
As far as touring, I read that you’ve just come off a successful tour through Australia.
Yeah, we hadn’t been there in a while. That place is great. Maybe it’s just that I can appreciate things more because, I remember liking it there initially. You know what it probably was? When we first went to Australia, it was…1984? But everything was such a whirlwind at that time and I was pretty much scared all the time and I was probably just trying to get everything to work right and too busy working to enjoy what was happening and to enjoy the country. And this time, I was a lot more relaxed so I liked that it was a lot calmer and easier in a lot of ways. We did eight cities and 10 shows; I really got to experience the country and the people. It was phenomenal for me and now it’s one of my favorite places next to Japan and Holland.
It sounds like you’re now experience this through a different set of eyes.
Yes! Thank goodness! (hearty laughter) A LOT happier and relaxed this time!
Do you still enjoy the work?
I enjoy it more now because I literally was scared. It took me 30-plus years to even think that I was good enough to keep this job and it was in my 40s..it was actually writing (2013 album) Animal that I realized that I’d been afraid of people my whole life and there was a lot of fear going on and covering it up with bravado and “I can do this…” and achievement and “I’m gonna achieve more” and covering up a lot of fear and that has dissipated with the help of people who love me and are patient with me and take the time with me to help me relax and enjoy life more.
I know you occasionally tour as part of 80s package tours that feature a lot of bands from that era on the same bill. Do you enjoy those?
I love them. I love package tours of just pretty much every type. I love seeing them, I love going to them…especially if I like maybe a couple of bands on a package. If I love a band enough to go as part of a package, I’ll go but if it’s a couple bands it’s even better because I like that I get a chance to see bands that I may not get to see by themselves but I’m curious.
I want to see what they’re all about. So I really enjoy going to them and potentially getting turned on to some new music and people that I might get to see if I’m there to see someone else that’s as an audience member. And then as a band member, I love it because it’s a lot easier! I don’t have to carry the whole show! It’s not that long of a show, it’s a lot of fun because we’re all in it together so it’s like a big circus and we’re there doing our thing, whatever it is, half-hour or 45-minutes, and then we move on to the next thing and it’s just easy.
It’s cool as a band member and it’s kind of cool to see other bands and hanging out with them. I still remember doing a show with The B-52’s and I was in my hotel room and they came over and I was sitting there with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider and getting them to tell me the story of what it was like to get the chance to be on Saturday Night Live the first time because I remember that! Do you remember seeing them on that?
I remember it. I was like, shit, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! It was SO incredible. Seeing these girls with beehive hairdo’s and Fred (delivers a dead ringer Fred Schneider impression) and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is just fantastic!’ and I couldn’t get over it. It was so good and getting to hear the backstory on that! I just think they’re so wonderful and that kind of stuff, for me, is like fan heaven and you get to do that a lot on package shows.
And you probably didn’t get a chance to do much of that when you were touring non-stop way back when.
Yeah, we didn’t have a chance to have a life! I had no life. My friends left me…I was never home. It’s very exciting but it’s lonely. I can’t blame anybody for not sticking around because I think I was too young and, besides not being there and not being home enough to be a friend, I didn’t know how to be a friend anyway. So, if I would have reached out and, in those days, there was no internet so e-mail was out and if sending a letter from wherever the hell you are, it was like months before anyone gets it anyway so it was just hard to keep a life going and relationships going while we were working like that.
Is there anyone from any recent package tours you’ve been on that’s really floored you?
Yes..Tears For Fears. I could not believe it. It wasn’t really a package tour, it was Tears For Fears, B-52’s and us. And we’d played with B-52’s before and I’ve already been very vocal about my love for them…anytime and anywhere, I’ll play with them for any reason. I love those guys and I love what they do…I think they’re completely unique. But Tears For Fears was the headliner on this one and I’d never seen them play live. Of course, I knew their music and I grew up with it, like everybody else did but I had never seen them. And, oh my god, it was so good.
Oh, they are great.
Yeah! They are! They’re dark, they’re deep and I mean, I got why these guys are still around and still rockin’ it because that music and hearing them do it live you kind of get what it’s really about and what they’re about and it’s like, wow, and they’re nice guys too but that show was a mind blower for me. Absolutely brilliant live.
(We continue to ramble on about our love and admiration for Tears For Fears for a while and discuss the timelessness of their music. I even feel comfortable enough to share an embarrassing story of camping out for TFF tickets alone while in high school and having the humiliation of having no one else show up to join the line throughout the course of the night)
Tell me about the ages of the audiences who are coming out to see you now because it seems like the original fans of bands like Berlin are really loyal. A lot of these fans have never stopped loving Berlin, or Tears For Fears for that matter, and I think they’ve kind of passed that on to their kids. I DJ from time to time and it seems like a lot of really young kids just lose their minds when they hear music from the 80’s and I’m curious to know why you think that is? Not only has the original audience stayed so loyal but that a younger generation is so turned on by the sound of what bands like Berlin were doing in the 80’s?
I think it’s for two reasons…two came up for me….one is that we got lucky as an era because we started, really, 80’s music was the start of electronic music. Punk was right before us and they were not electronic but it levelled the playing field enough to allow us to have a playing field at all…punk paved the way. But when we started, we started with electronic music and that hasn’t gone away yet.
So the kids are now listening to different versions, like with Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Bruno Mars, and all these people and artists and bands are doing, still, electronic music so, to them, it’s not ‘weird’ when they hear an 80’s song, it’s got a flavor but it’s not that different from what they're listening to now so it makes sense to them. It’s like, “Oh, ok…I can listen to this…I understand it…it sounds like what I’m listening to in a way so I’m gonna give it a chance” and that, I’m really grateful for because in my time, I would NEVER have listened to my parents’ music! Oh my god!! I was a 60’s and 70’s child and that was rock ‘n roll and my parents were like Louis Armstrong and, I don’t know, the music had changed so much that there was no way, there was no bridge to cross.
“Pleasure Victim”..that was a romantic song but it was about masturbation so it was kind of like romance with oneself.
I mean, we were like in two different camps as far as the music we listened to and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. I heard it because they played it but I didn’t want it. I didn’t pick it out myself or think it was really cool because I was listening to David Bowie and Roxy Music and the New York Dolls and that was nothing like what they were interested in so we had nothing in common musically and that’s another thing I’m grateful for because, like you said, I see families coming to our shows now! Parents bringing their kids..and the kids are into it!
They’re not getting dragged there..they want to come and dance and get into it…and that to me is new. I’ve taken my daughter to see Rihanna recently. I really like her music and she does a lot of electronic stuff in hers and I still love electronica, I love dance music and I love her voice. Sia- another one; love her. I love her voice I love a lot about her and she’s doing a lot of stuff that makes sense to me that I can understand and it’s taking electronic music in another direction…so I can go with my kid who is 12 and get off on it with her and not suffering through it for each other and we’re actually enjoying it together and that’s a whole new thing. This is great for me.
And your daughter probably isn’t coming from a place where it seems weird to go to a concert with her mom.
Right! Because other moms are there with their kids. I mean, she’s not gonna wanna be there with me forever, I mean I’m already ‘not cool’ and pretty soon, she’s not gonna wanna be seen with me at all but for now it’s really great that we can share music together.
(We ramble on some more about kids and Nunn asks me if I have kids; I tell her I don’t but that I have plenty of nieces and nephews so she suggests that I must be the “fun uncle” and I tell her I sure hope that’s how I’m perceived.)
So, back to touring are you able to successfully mix in your newer material with the older stuff? Has it been a seamless mix?
So far, I mean, not every song but, you know, part of honing a song is to just play them and get an instant reaction from the audience. Some of them go over instantly…like “Animal”, people go crazy over that one…they love it. It’s a dance song, it’s nasty, it’s sexy and it’s just great if I do say so myself…and I do. It always goes over. Another one that’s gonna be on the new album is called “All For Love” and that one always goes over well regardless of the audience. Old or young, they just love it. So we just try out things and sometimes it’s like “no..they’re not getting it” and then sometimes we revise it or throw it out or try it again a different way. It’s why the first album of every band is usually great. They’ve had years of trying out songs and changing them or writing new ones and to see what people respond to and to play live and that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.
I love the contemporary sound of one of your newer songs, “Animal”, and the video is pretty risqué. Speaking of videos, and in terms of your past work, a lot of words get tossed around to describe Berlin: provocative, sexy, racy. But, throughout it all, you always seemed like you held your own and you had a very strong persona. Was that the intentional dynamic the band was supposed to represent? Or was that something you decided to take the reins on? You are such a focal point of the band. Was that your idea?
Thank you. It must have been. I mean it was John’s (Crawford) band and when I joined, he had started the band in 1977 and he at the time time was working with Toni Childs and, while she was singing with Berlin, she wanted to leave and do her own thing and she did well! She was up for a Grammy with her first album and did wonderfully as a solo artist. She was a very strong woman and I was scared when I auditioned. I’d listened to the music that they were doing and her voice was just it was powerful and rich and I was thinking, “How am I gonna step in these shoes?”
But then I stepped in, yet another strong woman, and John doesn’t seem to be afraid of strong women. He didn’t ever push me around…it was always a democracy and sometimes too much so, I think, we tried to make the whole band the leaders but then if you don’t have anyone guiding the ship, it just takes too long to make decisions and it was to our detriment eventually to be as much of a democracy as we were trying to be. But Berlin was technically John and me…that’s who Geffen Records signed and as we completed each album, we brought in people to play it live. In those days, we didn’t have tracks, we didn’t have computers. We had to find people to play as much as possible what we had created in a studio on a stage and that wasn’t always so easy so he was very much a 50-50 partner with me so I guess it was always meant to be that way with him as a partner.
It was always captivating that, although you’re a petite woman, you’re a giant onstage in how you carry yourself and how you command an audience. Whether live or in recorded concerts or live footage, you just don’t take any shit from anyone.
(Laughs hysterically) Thanks!
I wanted to talk about some specific Berlin songs. I wanted to talk about 1982’s “Sex (I’m A…)” first and I wanted to know what the inspiration for it was and I wanted to ask about any flak you all took for it and they type of reaction you got for it at the time.
It was a personal come-from for me. I was in a relationship at the time and we were kind of in a rut sexually. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very exciting. It’s like we were just on a treadmill, doing the same thing over and over and I wanted to spice it up. I was talking to my girlfriends and I thought it might be fun to roleplay and we could take on some different personas and have fun with it.
So I talked to him about it and the conversation is what the song is about because I said, “We can try all these different things!” and he said, “Terri, that’s just not me..I’m just a guy. I like normal guy things. I’m not a pirate, I’m not a burglar..I’m just me and I don’t feel comfortable doing this” and that’s what I based the song in. In the chorus, I’m all these different things, and I’m having a great time and he’s just a man. So that was the inspiration behind the song. And I knew then…I mean now it’s nothing. We’ve so far gone past what that song talked about but at the time, that had never been talked about in a song before.
So I had a feeling that people might have different reactions to it; some positive, some not so positive and that’s what happened. It was very polarized. A lot of women loved it. I remember going into a lot of dance places and discotheques at the time and seeing a lot of women dancing with their men, singing the song to them, and then getting all inspired and hot from it. I thought it was great. And yet, there was also one place we were gonna play out here in our area, down here in Del Mar and it was our biggest show we’d ever been booked for at that time. It was 9,000 capacity and a priest took an ad out on television and ran this ad before this show and was just sitting there saying, “This Berlin band, they are the devil’s children…you should not listen to them, you should not listen to that type of music and you should not go to this concert.”
We could not have had better promotion than that. It (the show) was selling OK before that and then people saw that, and then it sold out in a couple of days. It was absolutely fantastic! I was like can we just do that everywhere? Hire someone to say he’s a priest and say “don’t go to the Berlin show!”
I hope you sent him a thank you note!
Yes! I should have! (Laughs)
I always thought of it as a very empowering and bold song. It always sort of reminded me of a new wave version of a Giorgio Moroder/ Donna Summer “I Feel Love” type of sexually charged song which is ironic because you later worked with Moroder on the huge hit “Take My Breath Away”.
Yes..and you’re very astute because another aspect of “Sex (I’m A…)” is that the bassline is the same bassline as in “I Feel Love” but inverted. The bassline in “I Feel Love “ is…(starts mimicking the tune…and singing Summer’s sexy lines) and our’s was… (mimics her own tune)..see ours goes up, his goes down. So yeah, we absolutely pilfered it and we changed it a bit because we loved the whole vibe of it and we loved him.
Oh, he was IT.
He was it! And he still is it! You know, he’s back out there playing and being a DJ. He’s great. He’s an amazing man.
Speaking of “Take My Breath Away”, I want to know what your first impression of it was. What was your first indication that it would end up being such a monster hit?
Hmm…(pauses) so, the first impression was that it wasn’t great and Giorgio is still a friend so I can say this without hurting his feelings. It was sent to me and the story is legendary now so if you’ve heard it before, just stop me but I was not the first choice…I wasn’t even the fourth choice. I think I was well down the line.
He was working with us at the time on “No More Words” for the second album and we were in the studio when he got that job to do the Top Gun soundtrack and he was huge at the time. He was so big that we couldn’t even afford him for more than one song so he tried a number of great, successful singers on that song before me. I mean we were nothing yet. Our first “hit” was the one we were working on with him which came out later but at the time we were nothing…especially to a big movie company like Paramount.
So he tried all these singers on it and the producers didn’t like any of them. They didn’t like the sound or the voice, they didn’t like the way it was sung.. so …he was kind of like, at the end of his tether and he said, ‘Well, what about Berlin? They’re a hot, new, edgy band. Wanna try Terri Nunn on it?’ They said, “OK,” so he sent it to me, and it sounded like a Japanese song…like a Japanese girl was singing it.
He sent me the demo and it was kind of stiff, kind of stilted, the way the singer had done it like (starts singing in short, abbreviated accentuation) and it sounded to me like Japanese pop. I’d heard songs with Japanese singers and it’s kind of how it sounded and to me, I was kind of young and dumb and thought I had something, thank goodness, because it propelled me but I thought I wouldn’t sing it that way and I’ve got nothing to lose here so I’ll sing it the way I wanna sing it and, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. It just didn’t flow to me especially as a song about romance so I kind of pulled the melodies out and elongated them over the music so it was more long and flowy (sings the opening line of the song in her distinctive style) and just kind of like taking a tower and just stretching it out over the music instead. So I just threw that on it and I thought it was wonderful! And then lucky for me, the producers thought it was wonderful too. Giorgio liked it and so that’s what they went with.
Did you feel like that song was a departure for Berlin?
Yeah! Because we hadn’t really any romantic songs. We had “Pleasure Victim”..that was a romantic song but it was about masturbation so it was kind of like romance with oneself. We just didn’t have a lot of ballads so yeah it was a departure at the time.
So what do you think is the appeal of electronica or electronic music in general? Was is it that draws you to it?
Well rock music in itself before electronic happened was exciting because it’s sexual and it’s very physical. It kind of gets me out of my head and gets into my body and into my primal self. So that was rock music but then electronic music and dance music was taking that relentless rock beat and adding more sounds to it. I love electronic music for the reason that it just never gets dull. You can do anything..and possible sound you can now recreate and put in a song. And that to me is why I still make electronic music because I’m not bored with it yet. It’s not like the beginnings of rock which were great but they were limited. You had guitars, and bass and keys sometimes and drums and vocal and that’s pretty much all it was for a long time and it was fun and great but then electronic music was all these sounds that no one had ever heard before and they’re still creating more. And I just love the diversity of it. I love the combinations that people are putting together with it. I think it’s still really exciting.
You’ve alluded to the fact that YouTube has taken the place of MTV for a lot of people these days. Is that because of the freedom people have to watch whatever they want whenever they want?
Yeah, because that’s where people put their videos now because MTV isn’t about videos anymore. It’s about other things now we kind of gave up on that domain and YouTube is now where we all put our videos so that people can see them because it’s very hard to get them to be seen anywhere else. There aren’t really a lot of outlets.
What’s coming up next for Terri Nunn and Berlin?
Potentially, a Christmas album will be coming out this year. We started it last year and we’ve been working on holiday songs of all kinds for a long time. My favorite holiday song of all time is “The Chanukah Song.” I think it is the greatest holiday song ever written. I love his modifications, I love his versions of it. I just love it. But each year we do a lot of holiday shows and we always add one or two new ones. We’ve been doing it the last seven or eight years so we have a lot of material and I think we’re at the point where we’re gonna do a compilation and put out a Berlin holiday album.
What do you personally feel the appeal of Berlin originally was? Berlin appealed to so many different types of people. You had a huge following that was made up of outsiders, you had a huge gay following. Why do you think Berlin spoke so clearly to those groups of people?
Well, we had a connection with the LGBT community in a way because our keyboardist David Diamond is gay and he was really open about it and, in those days, the early 80’s, people didn’t talk about it as much as they do now and I’m really happy about that progression from that time to now..throughout my whole life to now.
But is acceptable, it’s not going away, it’s wonderful…love is love between two consenting adults. It’s a beautiful thing. So he was pretty open in the early days about who he was and people loved it. So that along with the dance element of Berlin and the sexual element of Berlin was attractive to the LBGT community. We were innovative..in the beginning, there was nobody else doing what we were doing in America so we were one of the first. And people who like innovation were attracted to us. One of my goals with Berlin was to make it an adult experience. I wanted people to feel excited about being an adult I wanted kids to feel excited about being an adult because I grew up with a lot of adults around me who weren’t happy and didn’t make it look fun to grow up. You know stress, they didn’t like their jobs, or they had health issues, they had addiction issues or they had social issues or whatever but they blamed it all on growing up or being an adult and it just didn’t look fun.
But yet I had some other role models who’d say yes, it is fun and yes, you get to do stuff as an adult! So that’s why we always dressed up and wore tuxedos and dresses and our hair up and more formal than the normal rock band…it was because I wanted it to be a cool adult experience and I wanted it to be fun. So I think maybe that was appealing.
On a personal note, you all broke down a lot of doors and a lot of barriers that meant a lot to a lot of people. You always sent a very clear message that you were representing a lot of people that might not have been fully represented in pop music before, so thank you.
For those fans who haven’t seen you play in a while, what can longtime fans expect if they come see Berlin in 2017?
It’s a show. We’re a visual band besides obviously being music. It’s a full show. They can expect the hits, of course. They can expect who we are now. It’s a completely immersive experience. There’s a lot going on in a Berlin show.
Berlin appears as part of the Garden Rocks Concert Series at the 2017 Epcot® International Flower & Garden Festival on both Sunday, April 30 and Monday, May 1. Show times are 5:30 PM, 6:45 PM and 8:00 PM both days. (note: concert admission is included with Epcot® park ticket). Walt Disney World Resort, 200 Epcot Center Dr, Orlando, FL 32821