In 2003, Susanne Oberbeck saw a headline in the Sunday Sport referring to a member of S Club 7. “Rachel Stevens,” it said, “with no bra.” Oberbeck, who is German, was sufficiently intrigued by this sleazy tabloid prurience to name her own band No Bra.
Originally a duo, No Bra soon became known for Oberbeck’s habit of intoning sexually charged lyrics in a Nico-esque accent over industrial sounds while standing topless and wearing a moustache. No Bra’s single Munchausen – in which two hipsters try to outdo each other with extravagant boasts (“I used to share a squat in Camden with Nina Hagen and she used to make pizza out of dead cats”) – even got championed by the unlikely figure of BBC Radio 1’s Pete Tong when it was released in 2005.
Oberbeck is about to release the third No Bra album, Love and Power. In the video for the single Bangin, she’s still topless but the moustache has gone. She is lying surrounded by a posse of similarly disrobed, heavily tattooed people from New York’s queer underground performance scene, singing lyrics inspired by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari over stark electronic beats: “Rubbing our dicks together in the house of love / Rubbing our tits together in the house of love.”
While Oberbeck’s MO has barely changed, No Bra has found a new relevance in a time of gender fluidity. Oberbeck moved to New York in 2010 and found her tribe: people such as Shayne Oliver, former fashion designer for Hood by Air, now making records; rapper Mykki Blanco; and Björk and Kanye West collaborator Arca, on whose forthcoming album she appears.
“I’d played so many shows in London,” says Oberbeck, speaking by phone from New York. “I came here and the responses were so positive and it was seen as more avant garde. In Britain it was, ‘It’s really cool but it’s a bit funny, a bit page three humour.’ In America, they don’t have that.” What New Yorkers do have, though, is a downtown performance art tradition stretching back decades, and a habit of embracing eccentric misfits. No Bra fit right in.
“It definitely feels like a new moment of relevance for her,” says the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, who photographed Oberbeck standing topless in a multistorey car park for the sleeve of Love and Power, and who has known her for 20 years. “That is always fantastic for artists who just do their thing, don’t search to be in the zeitgeist, then end up just naturally in the midst of it or ahead of it.”
Long before gender-nonconformity became widely talked about, Oberbeck was living it. Growing up queer in the countryside north of Hamburg, she felt alienated from the family life expected of her, but found an answer in her father’s collection of existentialist and gay literature. “I was reading Simone de Beauvoir when I was about 15 and thought it was the only thing I could see that was remotely relatable, that you dedicate your life to your work and don’t sit with some guy in the same house every day.” Her other big inspiration was British style magazines such as i-D and the Face. “They opened up a world – ‘Wow, there are places where the women look cool, not everybody’s white and there’s a music culture.’”
She studied film at Camberwell School of Art in London and was drawn to the city’s alternative gay scene, which was “a lot more encouraging of unusual females”. It also influenced her focus on sexuality. As Tillmans says, Oberbeck “has a very particular way of including all sorts of sexual subjects in her work without it being either stereotypically German or titillating saucy English”. Sex Slaves in the White House is an unsettling diagnosis of Donald Trump’s unsatisfied urges and their consequences for the rest of us: “Tied up on a leash, the whole world is in peace, because now there’s sex slaves in the White House.” In 2016, she posted a video of herself and the Russian artist Slava Mogutin cruising for sex on London’s Hampstead Heath while singing a wobbly version of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.
Sex, she says, is the main thing her friends talk about: “There’s so much hypocrisy around female sexuality, you encounter it every day.” She’s determined to break down taboos while providing an alternative to a popular culture that she says just promotes consumerism. “It’s nice to have things that will make life easier but, at the end of the day, it’s directing your energy and desires in a way that’s soul-destroying.”
Oberbeck believes that identity politics are important, but too easily co-opted by capitalism. She prefers to explore how people relate to one another than who they are, imagining a non-binary, science-fiction world “where you’re not being assessed by your identity”. It all takes us back to her Bangin video, and its slightly sinister, multiracial, sexually indeterminate cast, with this deadpan presence at its centre – an outsider with whom the rest of the world is catching up.
Sometimes the best way to make money is when most people say you are wrong and nuts.