Musician September 1985
After his successful collaboration with Giorgio Moroder Philip Oakey is back as League leader. Will this be another two year epic for Sheffield’s favourite synthesizer combo? Is he really the teetotal pool champion of the world?
Interview by Tony Mills
“We’re just a Pop group who are going to make an album… and perform songs in a few places.” So says Philip Oakey, charismatic leading figure of a band who have single-handedly changed the face of popular music. When the first version of the Human League put out Reproduction and Travelogue they made the provocative claims that you didn’t have to be a musician to make successful singles, and that you could reach the top of the charts without a single guitar or drum kit in sight.
But nowadays it’s commonplace to have a hit with a synth-based single, the Human League are sporting a drummer and a guitarist, and their earlier claims about non-musicianship are being described by Oakey himself as a bit of kidding around. So what changed during the recording of Dare and Hysteria, what has Oakey himself learned from making a single and an album with Electro-Pop pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and what will be the new Human League album, due out soon-ish, have to offer?
For some of the answers we went down to producer Colin Thurston’s Unit 3 Studio in North London and spoke to Phil Oakey, with some occasional interjections from guitarist Ian Burden and drummer Ian Russell. With devastating originality, we started by asking how the album was coming along.
“We’re almost at the stage of doing the vocals now. We’ve been here for two weeks with another six weeks to go, and we did four weeks in Sheffield first on my bedroom 24-track Otari. We used to demo on the 24-track, but now we’re thinking of going back to 8-track demo’s because of the Linn 9000 – all the drums and keyboard parts can be done on the Linn, so you don’t need all those tracks, just one or two for vocals and guitar.”
But with a 24-track at home, weren’t you tempted to record the whole album there?
“We can’t monitor in Sheffield – we’ve only got the Otari and an Amek Angela desk. The desk is really good, it’s built in Manchester, and Amek have been very helpful, lending us modules and so on. But our monitoring is rotten and we certainly couldn’t do anything which relied on someone with a good ear being able to tell if it was really great – we coulnd’t do vocals there.
“But I’ve still got a Fostex 8-track which would certainly do us for demos. It was nice working in Sheffield though – all too often we work with a producer wherever he lives, and he wants to go home to his wife and kids while we’re stuck in a hotel; even if it’s a nice hotel, you’re stuck there, you don’t know what to do and you’d rather be working. So as soon as Colin said he was prepared to come to Sheffield we were interested.”
Getting up to the vocal stage in six weeks seems very fast work, compared to Dare for instance.
“No, Dare was relatively quick, although Ian says it wasn’t and he thinks we all look at it through rose-coloured spectacles. Hysteria took two years though; we got in a bit of a mess at that stage, we didn’t really write any songs before going into the studio, se we sat in Air Studio at a very high rate and tried to write songs. We felt really lazy, we had a bit of the star syndrome – “why are we the engineering when we could pay someone else to do it?” – and engineering’s not really very hard, you just plug things in and a couple of hours later it works.”
“The more I think of Hysteria the more I’m proud of it. It occurred to me the other day that the easiest thing would have been to make Dare 2, and we didn’t want that. But there were a lot of decisions not being made, we got too careful – I remember we got into linking 24-tracks pretty early on, and we had things like 24-tracks with just guitars. I don’t want to do that any more – I want to decide that something’s good enough to go down.
“I think we had an idea of perfection at the time, and music isn’t a matter of perfection. It’s a series of alternatives, and any of them will do; the producer, Chris Thomas, was working with The Pretenders at the same time, so he was no more decisive than us. We had Bill Price, who’s one of the top five engineers in the world, and guys like that don’t want to sit around in the studio while I mess around on a sequencer day after day.”
So were the rumours about Hysteria being delayed due to Oakey’s problems with the Synclavier synthesizer system justified?
“Well, I was under pressure because I can’t play anything, so I felt I had to do something and sequence programming on the Synclavier is really slow. It took up a lot of our time, and we didn’t do that any more. The Synclavier was the major difference between Dare and Hysteria; we did a lot of sampling for instance, and I don’t even really like that any more. It’s alright for percussion, but you can’t do anything with sampling that you can’t do very carefully with tape. It’s not creative – we’re a synthesizer band and we want to use synthesizers.”
So Dare was basically produced using analog synths?
“Yes, all Korg and Roland keyboards. We’re still using them – we don’t ever supersede equipment, I’ve still got my first synth, the Korg 770 which was a version of the 700 with a smaller keyboard, which was why I got it. I can still get sounds on it that I can’t get on anything else.”
In fact the Korg 770 is about the only synth the band didn’t have lying around in Unit 3. At the moment there’s a Yamaha DX7, a Juno 106, a Linn I and Linn 900, a Roland MC4 MicroComposer, a Yamaha TX816 FM synth rack, a Sycologic MIDI Matrix switcher, the Synclaiver II and a Roland TR800 drum machine. A PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm lay untouched – “that’s not ours, we’re looking forward to having a go with it at some stage though. But so far the Synclavier’s only been used for one item, dubbing cymbals onto tracks, because it has very high quality sampling up to 40 seconds. You can store a whole vocal track if you want – and if we had any way of replacing that we wouldn’t bother bringing the Synclavier with us, because it’s too complex. It’s really for one or two people to use, but not a group – the keyboard update is £11,000 and we haven’t got that kind of money because we spent all the money from Dare making Hysteria, and Hysteria only just broke even. That was partly because of the time spent on it, and partly because it didn’t sell a lot of albums, although the singles did well.”
So Hysteria was obviously a mixed success for the band. Did they have a title yet?
“We were thinking of calling it Crash because it had connotations of failure. But I like words that have a lot of different meanings – there’s the reference to computers, but a lot of people out there will think it’s based on JG Ballard’s book Crash, and it’s not. In fact, it’s from crash cymbal, because it’s a Disco album again with lots of cymbals. One day somebody said “what sort of cymbals do you want, a ride or a crash?”, and we thought “what a great title!”.
“Alternatively we were thinking of calling it No 1; it’s a very forceful title, and the Human League were always the band who said No. We said ‘No’ to a lot of things, and most bands say ‘Yes’ to everything.”
So we can now look forward to a Disco-oriented album from the League in time for Christmas. In fact the Phil oakey/Giorgio Moroder album which features Together In Electric Dreams has a whole side of segued disco tracks – can we expect anything similar?
“There may be a couple of segued disco tracks but we’re not working on that basis at the moment, as all the BPM’s are different. I hope there’ll be more of that though; we never did it on Hysteria which was just like a collection of singles. We’ve got 10 backing tracks down, with at least two more to go, and we’re working on at a phenomenal rate; we do like to give value for money and do lots of short songs on an album, but nowadays if a song is working out longer I prefer to keep it that way.
“As for the disco element – well, we are Disco, and on Hysteria we made a conscious decision not to do it; we moved away from production and away from the Disco side, because we didn’t want to do Dare 2. But now we’ve got a very good drummer as part of the band (Jim Russell used to play for Pete Shelley and The Associates) and of course Martin Rushent was a drummer first, and he’s a very good programmer, he’s very special.”
On the subject of producers; how were the band working with Colin Thurston?
“I think it will be a joint production, because most synth bands have already done so much of the production in making sounds. But I really hope this time round that I have the courage to leave it to the professionals on the mixdown; Colin’s got one of the best ears in the business, if you listen to his Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo stuff. Me and Ian have always sat in on mixes, but this time I really hope I can stay away – although sometimes your bottle goes and you’re afraid he won’t turn your bit up loud enough!”.
Andy Peake and Stephen Fellowes from the Comsat Angels, who were called in by Jim Russell to help the League with a Band-Aid style concert in Sheffield, have helped Adrian Wright, Phil, Ian and Jim to write some of the songs. The Sheffield concert boosted the band’s enthusiasm for live work (“we gave up backing tapes as soon as we could… I hate them, and I genuinely think it’s conning the public… they want to hear a live performance, not a record…) and Andy Peake’s keyboard playing was a great asset. “On top of that, we’ve been trying to keep the songs simple, and we’re determined to play in Wales, Scotland, a lot of the places other bands never go to.”
Ian Burden has a few words to say on the subject of touring.
“Bands don’t want to go out-of-the-way places, and they’re scared to go to Belfast. But at one stage we were the biggest band in Iceland for instance, and we had a great time in Belfast, although we were a bit scared as well – the audience were jumping around so much that they broke the floor! But I’ve toured in Europe before and I’m looking forward to playing live again.”
It’s at this point that I suggested that playing live, having a drummer and guitarist and using a two-handed keyboard player seemed to mean moving away from the idea of the Human league as a non-musician’s band. Oakey’s reply to this one had touches both of amusement and perhaps a little embarrassment.”
“It’s a real kind of arrogance when people say, as a lot of people in Punk said, that they weren’t musicians. If you make a living out of music you’re a musician, and we were only successful when we had a proper band, with Martin drumming, Ian on bass, and Jo who knows all about chords, and suddenly we were successful. We were kidding people when we said you could succeed through not being musicians.”
So much for one myth – and so much for another, about the importance of the lyrics to the content of the songs. In fact all the music is written first, and at the time we spoke Phil hadn’t written a word. Even the importance of the individual sounds is changing…
“We used to spend days just getting sounds on a Jupiter 8, but Giorgio Moroder showed me doesn’t matter – he just puts down any boring old synth really, and if sounds a bit low you put a bit of effect on it.”
Ian adds “sometimes we’d imitate a piano or some other instrument, but we’d like you to know it was still a synthesizer. Even on the TX816 rack you can still tell it’s not a piano.”
Phil comments:”On Dare we tried to imitate a lot of sounds and never quite got there – in fact you could say that about a lot of the songs, and even my vocals. I’ve tried for my whole life to imitate David Bowie, and just because I’m a rotten imitator no-one has pointed it out. But were certainly imitating bass guitars and things, and in fact Ian decided to play all synth bass on this album, because I’ve started getting really worried about real instruments again. I’d like to replace them all, but there are some places where you can’t replace the guitar.
“We’ve sampled guitars as well, but we’d just call that guitar, we don’t make any distinction. The difference is that a sampled guitar keeps time all the way through! The sound quality of the Synclavier is good enough to sample four whole bars and lay them through the whole song, and we’re really not now into sequencing with the Synclavier because the read-out is just so difficult to interpret – one person in the room knows what’s going on and all the others are just hanging around. On the Linn 9000 you set up a couple of bars and someone plays a keyboard, if he plays it wrong you say “you bleeder” and he does it again. Everyone know what’s going on, it’s just a mile better.”
Is the Linn 9000 approach the Human League are using very different from Giorgio Moroder’s approach?
“Giorgio’s approach is different to everybody’s. I don’t know what he does, and I can’t remember learning all that much from him, although I remember him saying we should get those little Yamaha R1000 reverbs because they’re as good as anything costing great deal more. He doesn’t use a Fairlight – he uses six Electro-Harmonix Instant Replays, which are about 400 dollars.
How did Phil and Giorgio Moroder (best known for his work with Donna Summer around the time of I Feel Love) get together in the first place?
“Steve Barrymore who made our videos was making Electric Dreams and he had the closing song, but the guy who sang it had a bit of an Italian accent. Steve said they ought to get me in to make it a bit more up to date, which seems strange to me because I’ve always thought I was a pretty old fashioned singer. So they sent me a tape. I wrote some new words for it and just sang it in a couple of hours. Next thing I knew it was No. 3 in the charts, so they asked us to do an album.”
“It was a real test, I took it totally as a robot: I just had to write lyrics and sing. For the LP I took a week to write lyrics and sang them in two or three days, and Giorgio says he wrote all the songs in two weeks. But he’s a terrific songwriter, just like Jo Callis, and he’s got a very casual attitude. I sang things a bit out of tune and he said it didn’t matter, the public just want to hear the tune, not Maria Callas or Placido Domingo. Goodbye Bad Times, the single, has the dodgiest lyrics on the LP – it’s got a rotten middle eight, a real Barry Manilow – basically it’s due to having only a week to some lyrics, although that can be good sometimes. I’m very proud of the words to Electric Dreams for fitting the film – I was given the chorus, Giorgio told me the tune, and Boy George insisted it was called Together In Electric Dreams in case anyone mixed it up with his song Electric Dreams. I’d only seen the film on a video on fast forward, but I enjoyed making the video with the leading lady in a supermarket in the States. I didn’t talk to her though – I wouldn’t talk to actresses!”
Phil’s eight vocals for the Moroder album took two days, working from 12 noon to 11 pm each day, with one correction on a line and one quick lyric-writing session when Phil was presented with a song no-one had bothered to play him before. Both Giorgio and Phil added some backing vocals, further confirming Moroder’s versatility.
“He’s an opportunist really – he went to see one of the first synths in West Germany, and the guy was doing esoteric Philip Glass-style music. Giorgio didn’t like the music, but he thought there was a Pop record in there somewhere – he knew he could have hits with it!”
Phil confirms that it was very easy to work with Moroder despite the fact that his Disco style more or less avoids the syncopation of the Leagueand sticks to simple 4/4 time. On Shake It Up, the closing and most blatantly Disco-oriented track of the album, Phil aimed at a Harry Casey (KC and the Sunshine Band) style, “technically the worst singer in the history of the universe, but I love his voice.” As for vocal treatments, Phil uses reverb of around one and a half seconds with the League, but noticed Moroder using four seconds or so and looks forward to the day when he can get away with it himself. A little harmoniser above and below the vocal pitch is used too – “I think everybody does that now, the more boring the voice the more harmoniser. My voice is pretty average – but people don’t want a great voice, they want to hear the song.”
On the subject of vocal effects, the band has taken their Quantec reverb into Unit 3, finding it easier to operate than the AMS delays which Colin Thurston uses to duplicate their favourite effects. Usually the effects are run in manual rather than Preset mode, as are the synths.
“We all work a bit differently though – Jim and Adrian tend to go through presets, but I always go to manual and make up my own sounds. On the DX7 we always use presets; we started to do programming but it’s difficult because there are six of everything and eight-stage envelopes. We have the Syco Logic MX1 board which holds 128 memories fitted in the DX7, and that’s 90% full – and we have the sounds from the TX7 Expander which we transfer into the TX816 one or two at a time.”
Ian points out that the band use effects pedals such as the Boss Distortion and Touch Wah on the DX7 as well – “that’s something most people seem to overlook if they’re not using guitars, and Colin doesn’t seem to have any trouble keeping the noise level down,” Phil adds, “the only problems we have are software problems on the Linn – we had one of the first and had to take the end cheeks off and point a fan at it to stop it overheating and crashing, but if you’re a Spectrum user you know to keep saving your programs. It’ll be a lot nicer when it has a disk drive, which is quite close now.”
On the subject of computers, Phil’s currently using an Apple Macintosh to word-process his lyrics and print track sheets, delay time tables marked in Beats Per Minute, and so on. They’ve heard a rumour that the Linn 9000 is based on an IBM Personal Computer, but generally have suffered few equipment problems with computerised instruments, even reloading a LinnDrum from tape in the middle of the set on one tour. But now the “rock-solid” MC4 is their master clock in the studio, with a 100mS delay on the clock signal making sure that they can pull back any instruments which are a little slow to respond.
Returning to the content of the album, Phil expressed some worry as to what he was going to write about because “there are only so many things to write about and even fewer people want to hear about. I’m afraid we’ve got an album full of singles again – you don’t get much relief on it, even the ‘sad ballad’ got sped up by Jim, and that now sounds quite like Al Green or something.”
Sampling is strictly limited so far because “it’s easier to integrate a record if everything is basically similar, it’s harder to make things sit in place if you have both real and sampled sounds”. Ian points out that “about three years ago we thought that sort sampling idea would be interesting, but Frankie did it in the end. At the same time as they put out Two Tribes with Reagan on it, we were doing a B-side with Norman Wisdom sampled and talking across it – doing familiar things but with different ends in mind.”
Phil adds “we did The Lebanon before Two Tribes came out, but even then we were more or less working from Jerry Dammers’ song War Chimes.”
When asked at what stage he was going to start on the lyrics Oakey answered “tonight – but I haven’t got a clue how to go about it. It’s always been this way, I just wish I was at home with the word processor. I only do the words when I have to – if there’s anything possible to do instead I’ll do that.”
But as for more long-standing plans?
“We like not having them, or at least not announcing them. I get tired of bands announcing these great plans when nothing happens in the end – we’re just a Pop group who write songs and make albums and perform them. I don’t like doing voices, they’re horrible things you have to do, and although we do script them I can’t understand the plot of any of them except Life On Your Own. I enjoyed doing the one for the Moroder stuff but Virgin said on-one would show it because they can’t understand why a synth record has all these people in Victorian costumes and is in black and white…
“We’d like to do more film work because the money comes in suitcases and there’s no chart – but the people are very duplicitous and work behind your back. When you’re known you get paid a fortune like Giorgio does – we were sort of offered 1984, but they turned round and said they’d got Bowie, then it was The Eurythmics. We went to see the producer and director and they told us they didn’t want any synths, and we thought it would have been really interesting to get our music played by an orchestra. We would have done it better than the Eurythmics as well!”
With the prospect of another six weeks in a hotel facing them, the idea of “going out for drinkies” that night began to exercise an undue influence over the band, “because I’m a teetotaller and Jim’s an alcoholic”, claimed Oakey. The other main pastime during the recording of Crash, seems to be playing pool, and Ian asked us to point out that “Phil Oakey’s a bastard because he beat me.”
But as he strode off into the distance proclaiming himself teetotal pool champion of the world, Oakey seemed to exude a new confidence coupled to an unselfconscious admission of the band’s past mistakes. Certainly the work rate on the new album and the enthusiasm for getting back on the road before Christmas are good signs that the Human league are back on course again…