Goddess of New Wave: A Conversation With Berlin's Terri Nunn

Photo by Matt Beard

It was in the midst of glam metal and punk rock in late 1970s Los Angeles that Terri Nunn, the queen of New Wave, emerged as the lead vocalist of Berlin. Nunn mesmerized with tantalizing appeal, encompassing the alluring glam of David Bowie combined with the powerful confidence of Grace Slick. Synthesizers and electronic beats drove hits including "The Metro," "Sex (I'm A...)," and "No More Words," making Berlin cultural innovators of electronic dance music.

Berlin recently released their seventh studio album, Animal, and while many artists have created long-lasting careers by changing their style incessantly, Nunn has maintained a distinct core sound while continuing to exude a strong and intriguing appeal. I recently spoke with Nunn about the US Festival, Grace Slick, childhood in a record shop, and the creation of Animal.

It was great seeing you last week at the Grammy Museum for the event surrounding Animal's release. It was also great to have Steve Wozniak make that little cameo appearance.

[Laughs] It sure was! That was out of the blue. I was actually interviewing Margaret Cho on our show the previous Saturday and we were talking about US Festival. She was talking about being there and what a huge thing it was for her, and Steve Wozniak called in! He was in Chicago and somebody called and told him that we were talking about US Festival so he got it up on his computer and streamed the show, and then he called in and we put him on the air. I told him about what was happening the following week and so he wanted to come to that. We're gonna do an US Festival show. He's gonna come into KCSN and we're gonna play all the artists that he pulled together and tell stories. It was just incredible for me. That one day was one of the best of my life.

That sounds incredible!

Yeah. You were probably 5 years old, right? In '83?

In '83? I was one.

You were one year old! [laughs]

So you grew up in L.A.?

Yeah, I grew up in and around here. I went to Santa Monica High School.

Were you raised in a musical household?

Yes, but much different music and in different times. When I was really young my dad was really into jazz and Louis Armstong -- played a lot of that because he was a classical violinist and he started in vaudeville up north in the Pacific Northwest and then he came down and became a huge child star. He was under contract at MGM and did movies with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Spencer Tracy. When I came along, he was out of that business and when the '60s happened my dad opened a record store and that was the hub of the family. I think we opened it in '66 and it was a huge music scene, I mean everything. When the Beatles records came out we had lines around the block - it was just an amazing time for music and I got to run the cash register. I was really little then, like 7, 8, 9 years old but they trusted me to run the register so people would bring their records up and I would get to play the music in the store because I was right next to the record player. While I was ringing up people, I could just take any album I wanted and stick it on in the store.

Do you remember one of the first albums you heard that really made you think, "maybe I'd like to give this a try?"

It was probably Jefferson Airplane, when I heard Surrealastic Pillow. That was one of their first albums and Grace Slick was on the cover with these guys and I heard "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" and I was like, "Holy shit. Who is this?" And I just thought, "wow," because you know it's mostly male dominated, the music business. So to see a woman doing that and sounding like that and looking like that I was like, "She is it for me." That's really one of the reasons that we covered "Somebody To Love" and put it on this album because she was the beginning of my destiny.

Have you met Grace Slick?

Yes, bless her heart. Well, twice. The first time, I couldn't even speak. I was in a show -- it was a charity event for an animal rights organization and her daughter China was hosting it, so she came and we were playing. It was a great bill -- it was Porno for Pyro's, Stone Temple Pilots, Tool, it was just an incredible bill. Anyway, I went upstairs and met her. She was sitting upstairs watching us at the Paladium here in L.A. and she shook my hand and said, "Hey bitch, you can sing!" [laughs]


I couldn't even speak. I'm sure she wasn't too impressed with my conversational abilities. So later -- this is like three years ago -- she was doing a single for the Hurricane Katrina victims and was trying to raise money to get them some help. She had a friend who was doing a song. She agreed to sing on it and somehow, somebody knew me and they wrote me in and she agreed if I sang on her song that she would let me interview her for my radio show. So she let us come to her house in Malibu and we did a two-hour interview. She's just amazing, she's smart, she's outspoken and says what she thinks and doesn't care if you don't like it. She was everything and more than I expected. She doesn't sing anymore, she doesn't want to, she doesn't care. She likes to paint now.

Aside from Grace, have there been any other consistent influences throughout your life? They don't even have to be musicians specifically, since influence can come from all mediums.

Another one for me then, if we're going outside the musical world is Isadora Duncan. For some reason, I really related to her and really resonated with her innovation. She was different, she was free. I read everything I could about her as a kid. There was just something about Isadora Duncan and her creation of modern dance and her life. You know, she was a rock star. She's like a rock star but in the dance world. She did what she wanted and she wasn't following the rules and she wasn't doing ballet like it should be done and any of that. She was her own free spirit and I wanted to be like her.

You had some good dance moves last week when I saw you sing "Sex (I'm A...)," and you even took your shoes off.

[laugh] Thank you. I don't really cultivate dance moves but I love to dance.

Going back to your album which was just released, Animal, what can you tell me about it and how it came to be?

So I was floundering around and then the music show came along a year and a half ago from KCSN and that really helped to kick-start me. I had to program 2 hours every week of my show and I was the electronic show. So I was forced to immerse myself in what's going on and whose playing. It was wonderful because I really got to listening to everything that electronic music's doing, and got so excited by so many of the artists like Skrillex and Armin van Buuren and Morgan Page.

I love electronic dance music, I love the innovations that are happening. So I was like, "Okay, I know what I want to do now. I've gotta find somebody." So I started really looking and a friend of mine, Marti Frederiksen, who writes more rock stuff, he said, "I know this kid. He just gave me this stuff and he comes from a band called Elogy and he wants to do what I think you're talking about." So he put on the music that later became "With the Lights On." When it came on, I was like, "Who is this guy? I wanna meet him today," and Marti set up the meeting and two days later Derek Cannavo showed up at my house. We started working, and the first song that we finished was Animal . I basically just tied him to my desk and said, "Look, I'm gonna feed you once in a while but you've gotta stay here for three months because I'm not letting you go. You're the guy."

What's coming next? What's planned -- any more events or a tour?

Exactly. More events and a tour, and we're going overseas too. So it's really busy, but I like it. I want it to be busy. I'm good with it, I'm committed to doing whatever it takes to make people aware of it. Because you know, I can't force them to like it, but I want them to know about it and if they're interested to hear it, then that's all I can do. So I'm absolutely committed to doing that because I love this music.

Animal is now available. For tour dates and more information on Berlin, visit: http://berlinpage.com/

"Unbound with Terri Nunn" airs on Saturday nights on KCSN from 10pm - 12 midnight. The "US Festival" episode with Steve Wozniak as special guest is slated to air on November 2nd.

Berlin - No More Words