Nena looks back

At 55, NENA has remained Germany’s queen of pop, probably the most recognisable German musician to this day. We chatted with her about her new album Oldschool, punk attitude, SO36 in the 1980s and much more.

Image for Nena looks back
Photo by Esther Haase

At 55, NENA has remained Germany’s queen of pop, probably the most recognisable German musician to this day. We chatted with her about her new album Oldschool, punk attitude, SO36 in the 1980s and much more.

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich?” may be the most famous German lyric in international pop-culture history. In 1983, Nena (real name: Gabriele Susanne Kerner), a 23-year-old brunette with bangs covering contemplative eyes, crashed MTV and radio stations across Europe and America with “99 Luftballons” – a smash hit that was to bring German New Wave to the rest of the world. The German-language song became a cultural touchstone both here in Europe and, surprisingly, in America (in England they preferred the English version). Although subsequent efforts to translate her songs proved unsuccessful, Nena remained popular in Germany – first with her band and then solo.

Why? I can’t answer that because there’s never been a why in my life.

Nena’s image as pop icon eclipsed her roots in the explosive West Berlin creative scene of the 1980s, where she made the acquaintance of punk luminaries like Gudrun Gut and Wolfgang Müller. Her new record Oldschool and accompanying club tour (with a recent sold-out show at SO36 [next chance to catch her is on November 6 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena]) sees her reconciling past and present. When we met Nena at Berlin’s Soho House, the punky grandmother – with her bubbly voice, uncontrollable laughter and slangy delivery – seemed as youthful as the twentysomething “balloon chick”.

Your new record is called Oldschool. Do you feel old school?

“Old school” is who I am, not a philosophy or anything… There’s definitely something great in getting older and becoming aware of everything that’s behind me. What’s behind me is obviously still there and it will be for my whole life. I can’t escape it! I tried for a while – telling myself, “Nope, I don’t care what happened yesterday.” But I gave up. Those are my experiences! [in English] “I cannot just fuck them!” I can’t just say I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Yeah, so I guess I do feel “old school”.

In what way?

When I started making music, with my very first band [The Stripes], I still sang in English. And I played lots of gigs with that band and helped set up the PA and take everything down, and now I’m really happy that I went through all that – that I didn’t just have a world hit overnight. It was all an organic process. And when I started with the band at the age of 17, I didn’t dream of gold records. “I didn’t even know that they existed, you know?” Really!

You simply had fun.

Yes! That was the zeitgeist. When I was 12, I started buying my own records: “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath was my first. Then came the Stones and David Bowie. The music back then carried me into the world, like, mentally. I suddenly had a completely different outlook. That’s why it was so cool for me that I had a band at 17, because that was already my plan to get out of [Hagen] and get to know the world.

So, back then it was all about ‘leaving the past behind’ and moving forward…?

Yes, funny thing is, back then I really believed that when you say you live in the present, this means you do have to leave your past behind. For a while I really had this far-out idea of life. It was authentic and real, but looking back I couldn’t live like this forever.

Was that in the 1980s?

It started in the 1980s. Actually it started with the hits [laughs]. Tschüß, Vergangenheit!

You moved to Berlin from Hagen before Nena (the band) got off the ground. Why Berlin? At the time it was an island, not so attractive to most Germans.

For me it was super attractive. But, like, I never thought about which city I was going to. It was always clear: Berlin. Why? I can’t answer that because there’s never been a why in my life.

But nobody warned you that Berlin was dirty or poor or…

Not at all! For me Berlin was… I don’t know. Maybe it started when I was 16, 17 in Hagen. I was into striped pants. They came from England and every time a friend went over to London, he brought me back a pair of striped pants. But you could actually buy them in Berlin too. Berlin also had striped pants! Berlin was always the only city I wanted to go to. In Hagen, I worked at several discos and I would always say, “In a year, I’m gone.” And my friends didn’t believe it and were always like “Sure, sure, alles klar.” And it happened exactly like that.

So, another year in Hagen and you were out?

Well, it still took two years. But my mom actually moved here before me. She suddenly had a lover in Berlin, she eventually married him and they’re still together. I thought it was really cool, because I’m into family and stuff. So my first time in Berlin I actually stayed at my mother’s – I was 16-17 and I had a boyfriend here… When I finally moved to Berlin, I didn’t actually live at hers, but with a friend. Carlo [Karges], he was the guitarist in Nena – the guy who wrote “Luftballons” and a lot of other songs. We all, like, slept at his. Right from the start, Berlin was a total kick. It tingled. No matter what, I knew I wanted to be here.

Where did you end up living after that?

Soon I had my own flat in Neukölln, Pflügerstraße. It was a bleak part of the city, at least the area near Kreuzberg. I already knew Kreuzberg because I had a boyfriend there. I was actually here a lot before I moved here. My boyfriend lived across the street from SO36 and I would go there on weekends.

What was SO36 like back then?

It used to be totally white. It was one long counter. I remember exactly how it looked – an unbelievable number of neon tubes. It was totally bright and uncosy. But there was that attitude there – that was like a present for me. That I could just breathe it all in. And back then I liked Blondie so much – and I still like Blondie – SO36 just belonged to that feeling.

What do you remember most from that time?

Just the feeling of clarity. And punks were just everywhere. Some took to the streets, some rioted, some only went to “SO” or just listened to certain types of music. It was a free and open feeling. I was raised to think that you couldn’t do anything as an individual. Adults around me would say: “What can you change as one person? I can’t do anything, so I won’t do anything.” And the feeling at the beginning of the 1980s was exactly the opposite. You could do something, and that really affected me.

And you were involved in that scene?

Yeah, my first job here was with [photographer] Jim Rakete. He’d take photos of bands who had no money. And so I had some contact with the scene. But even then, although I loved being together with people, I was really involved with my own stuff. Even back then my work and my projects were totally fulfilling.

How long after moving here did Nena the band get started?

It went really fast. In Hagen, The Stripes had fallen apart and I wanted to keep making music. And The Stripes had a record contract. We didn’t sell any records but we had a contract. With CBS… it just happened. And they said, “We’d like to introduce you to the Spliff people.” I knew it was the old Nina Hagen band and so on… and Jim Rakete was on board. And so I met them and that’s how it got going. We clicked right away. We wrote our own songs, got a rehearsal space, rehearsed every day. About a year and a half later, the record came out!

Nena exploded really fast… first with “Nur geträumt”.

Nur geträumt” was actually in the shops for three months, and nobody was interested. But then we had this one TV appearance, on Musikladen, and we sold 40,000 singles the next day. That was the beginning. Before that, “Nur geträumt” was just lying around in the shops – then it was more than just a dream! But with the band I never thought, “Now we have to have success.” That was never relevant. It was just nice that it happened.

How did you feel after you sold those 40,000 records?

It was like a lift to another dimension. From then on our life was different. Sometimes it was stressful. But at the end of the day I was just happy that my life was so fun. It’s really weird when the red carpet gets rolled out for you all of a sudden. You were suddenly important everywhere you went.

In Germany and then elsewhere…

It happened fast, through “99 Luftballons”. I don’t quite remember the chronology. Europe was already before “Luftballons”. We had a different image in every country. In America we were like the punk/indie band or something. In Germany some artists didn’t like us, we were the conformist teenie band.

How did you see yourselves: teenie or indie?

In America, I sometimes hear ‘Ah, you’re the balloon chick’ and that’s almost a compliment for me. I’m happy to be that.

Neither. But I always thought it was cool if people also saw the punk in me. That was always good, because it really matches my attitude towards life. For me punk isn’t about destroying a hotel room. That has happened, and I’ve been banned from a few hotels in this world… but rock ‘n’ roll and punk can express itself on many levels. For me it has a lot to do with inner freedom and openness.

Some of the West Berlin artists seemed to appreciate you for who you were… pop or indie, you were honest about what you did.

I had the feeling that in Germany people who weren’t so mainstream, who were more arty, could understand it much better than people like [singer-songwriters] Herbert Grönemeyer or Wolf Biermann, or [rock musician] Udo Lindenberg – with whom I became friends years later – who just dissed us in the press the whole time. That wasn’t a problem for us, but it was obvious that the successful artists in Germany wouldn’t grasp that we were successful in America and worldwide. It was a little difficult for them…

Aside from Marlene Dietrich, you’re the only German artist to have a German-language hit in America. Did you expect that?

I didn’t expect any of it. Back then we never played live in America. Next year I want to do a club tour there. But I was there back then to meet [LA radio DJ] Rodney Bingenheimer. I can thank him for the success of “Luftballons”. Do you know the story? Christiane F. brought a suitcase of her music on the promotional tour of the Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo film… Rodney Bingenheimer picked our record and played “Luftballons”. It was nuts. I remember when I was 12, I listened to records that opened up my world – and then suddenly I was there in the big wide world. That was indescribable.

Do you have an explanation for it?

I really don’t know. There are things in life that you just can’t explain. Maybe the content of the lyrics… but I think people in America liked the song in German more than in English. I don’t like the English version at all.

It’s a strange translation.

Back then there was this wave of pressure, like “Now we have to translate the whole record into English”. So I did it, but reluctantly. It hurt to do it. But half of my band is from America now, and sometimes I’m there and I hear [in English] “Ah, you’re the balloon chick” and that’s almost a compliment for me. I’m happy to be that. The Luftballons really carried me through the whole world. Maybe it was about the feeling for life that I radiated at the time.

Do you feel like a pop icon today?

What is that? Is there a clear definition of that? I would have to think about what that word means, how it vibes for me. Maybe I can answer that the next time we see one another. It’s totally irrelevant for me. Really. I just love making music.

How do you see Berlin today? Does it still have that feeling that you described?

It’s no longer that island. Of course it’s good that there’s no longer the Wall, but I’m still in that feeling from back then. I’m open to making that connection again, because I lost it a little. I have lived in Hamburg for 20 years but I’m here a lot, in and out. My mother still lives here. My brother, too. Three of my kids were born here. Now my kids are grown up, I have grandchildren, and we have a very tight-knit family in Hamburg. But we love Berlin. Berlin will always be a home for me.

NENA, Nov 6, 20:00 | Mercedes-Benz Arena, O2-Platz 1, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Warschauer Str.