Dare website 1st October 1996

Susan interview

Interview conducted by Mark Blackham, London, 1995.

I had been trying to secure an interview with the Human League over 1994, wanting to talk with them about the process of making the much-rumoured album. They were being guarded jealously by East West records, and it wasn't until early 1995 that I managed to get to talk with Susan Sulley. I began the chat by thanking her for drawing the short straw out of the three of them to talk with me.

Mark: Doing the publicity rounds must get pretty weird after a while -
talking with a media people you don't know, but who seem to know
you intimately.
 
Susan: I do it all the time - I'm used to it by now. I was talking with someone
from Brazil recently - so don't worry about it.
 
Mark: Is the album being released there then - in Brazil?
 
Susan: Well, the album will go worldwide. It doesn't come out in America for a
month or so, but it's going all over.
 
Mark: That must be strange - touching places you've never been - have
you ever been to Brazil?
 
Susan: No I've never been to Brazil unfortunately - there's a few places...
you're from New Zealand aren't you?
 
Mark: ...yes, that's right...
 
Susan: We've never been to New Zealand. We've been to Australia, but never
to New Zealand.
 
Mark: I remember about fifteen years ago, when you were touring the
world after "Dare" the visit to New Zealand was possible, but it never
happened...
 
Susan: You know, we would like to go to many places we don't end upgoing
to  - but there's always reasons why - you know - when the tour is booked,
you get committed to going certain places but then the rest of the time around
it gets filled in - and it means that even though you're only a stones throw away
from a country you can't get there - it's just how it goes.
 
Mark: So what are the plans for touring after "Octopus" is released?
 
Susan: Well, we hope to. It's something that we really want to do. We've sorta
just about got a new manager - we've not had a manager for about eight years
now - and he really wants to tour as well.
 
The old record company never wanted us to - they thought it was better to just
promote and not to tour. 
 
We've noticed that people whose careers have gone really well are people who
continually tour as well - so that's something we want to do.  But it's a case of
getting it together - so if it's going to happen it won't be until the end of the
summer at the earliest. (They toured in October / November 1995 - MB)
 
Mark: The career - you seem very determined that the Human League
and your music is going to be a long term career - after fifteen years it
must be - but I've noticed a new determination not to let it end, as it has
threatened to many times.
 
Susan: Well, we never saw the Human League as a short term thing. It was
never ever like that with any of us.
The people that we admired - the people like Roxy Music and David Bowie,
and people like that - were people that had long term careers - they didn't go
into it for just - you know - fifteen minutes of fame.
We never went into it for the fame aspect - that was always the secondary
thing. We've never courted publicity.
It's something that doesn't really interest me. That's why we're only in the
press when we've got something to promote. You won't find us in the press
when we haven't got any product out - you know?
 
But we always saw the Human League as a long term thing - and after fifteen
years we've proved that you can actually do it for that long. I think it get into
your blood.  Ten years ago I used to laugh when people would say the Rolling
Stones are doing another album, and I'd be thinking "Isn't it time they gave
up?" - but now I understand why they do it - they do it because there isn't
anything else like it - and no matter how much you try to go off and do other
things  the thing that gets you back together again all the time is the music  -
because it's what you really believe in.
 
Mark: So did you go off and do other things?
 
Susan: No - unfortunately, the Human League takes up all our time. Even
when we're not having records out - because we haven't had a manager, there's
all the business side of things to run.
We have a studio in Sheffield.
And you know, it's like, the time gets taken up. So no, we don't really do
anything else apart from be in the Human League.
 
Mark: I don't really want to go back over the past - I know you've
probably already talked about that quite a bit - but even in the bad old
days - the mid eighties, when Phil went and did that stuff with Giorgio
Moroder...
 
Susan: That only took two weeks - it didn't even take two weeks.Phil went over
to Munich and I think he sung for five days and then came home.
That was not a big... that was something that, you know, like Philip was just a
huge Giorgio Moroder fan.  That wasn't a bad period, that was a really good
period. I never could see that as a bad period.  It was like recognition to a
certain extent of what Philip had been saying for a long time - you know - that
Giorgio really wanted to work with him and everything.  That wasn't a bad 
period at all.
 
Mark: You didn't make it into Band Aid... I'm not sure whether you
wanted to...
 
Susan: What happened was, as per normal, all the time you get asked to do
things. And all the time you get people ringing up and saying "will you do this
record, David Bowie is going to do it... blah, blah, blah." And you always said
"oh yeah, we'll believe it..." and they never came off.
 
And the thing with Band Aid was that they only asked Philip to do it - and
Philip said that he wouldn't do it unless they asked me and Joanne. And
because they didn't ask me and Joanne... although as it turned out there were
crossed wires - they had apparently asked all of us to do it. That was why the
Band Aid thing got turned down. One of the mistakes, I think.
 
Mark: Have you got sick of being asked about the past? It's what
everyone seems to focus on.
 
Susan: Well I think it's about time that people - I mean -  there's a big sort of
revival thing going on in Britain at the moment and it's sorta making me fell a
bit sick now. 
You know, people, for some strange reason, and I'm sure other groups go
through it all the time, that they just can't accept you for what you are. You
know, they still want to lump us in 1980, but you know, it's 1995. We're back
with a top ten hit in Britain and most of Europe. That's not a bad thing.  We
obviously can't be just an eighties group, but they won't let us. I think that it's
just easiest for certain journalists who like to put you in little categories. We're
not a group of the past, we're a group of the future, and I think this album's
proved it.
 
Mark: It seems like everyone is pleased to have you back - even the
NME and Melody Maker are excitedly anticipating your return - like old
friends.  Is that the type of reaction you expected?
 
Susan: It probably sounds horrible to say this, but I don't think those things
matter. I think they're not important. I think the British music press used to be
very influential.  Its darlings of the press at the moment are Oasis and Blur,
who don't sell a record in America. They're not important - those newspapers
don't mean anything.  If they like ya, fine, but if they don't it really doesn't
matter because it ain't going to stop people buying your records.
For instance, you know, those sort of music papers, they hate groups like 2
Unlimited and Ace of Bass - Ace of Bass sold more albums world wide than
any other artist in 1994. So does it mean that those music-papers matter? -
I think not.
 
It's nice that people like us, and that people do have a soft spot for
us - that's nice - but ultimately, I really don't think it matters.
 
Mark: I was in my local newsagents the other day, and I heard the
shop-keeper humming to a Human League song on the radio. Despite
all the synthesizer / technology themes which are connected with the
Human League, youseem in many ways to be an everyday-person's 
sort of band. Is that deliberate, or does it just happen?
 
Susan: We always wanted to be a pop group. It was something that we all 
oved. We all were saying that we loved Abba before it was trendy. Now it's
sort of embarrassing to say it because people think you're jumping on the
bandwagon. But you know, I was buying Abba records when I was 14 and 15.
I love pop music. We always wanted to be like that. The thing about that sort
of music is that you reach a lot of people.
 
We reach people all over the world - and that's what's the most important thing. 
You know, we just use the technology to our advantage, and we've always
used the synthesizer because it's the only instrument that any of us
understand.
 
Mark: Is Philip trying to reclaim the synthpop crown? Because for a
while there in the late-eighties the Human League seemed  to be
disavowing  synthesisers...
 
Susan: Oh no, I don't think we've ever did. I think if anything, the  ate-eighties
was a time when we rediscovered them. What happened was we made Dare in
1980 - and we made a point of making an album with just synthesisers, drum 
machines and vocals. Then we made Hysteria, with loads of acoustic
instruments. Then we did the Jam and Lewis album in '86 (Crash) with Jimmy
and Terry - that was like an American-based soul album.  And we thought
"why are we doing this? Why don't we just get back to doing what we're good
at?  And what we're good at and understand, is synthesisers." And so by the
late 1980s we got back on that track. The last album that we made - Romantic
- which wasn't a commercial success - was actually good for us, because it
got us back to thinking and doing what we want to do.  We can't make a soul
album. We can do it, and we've proved that we can do it, but we ain't going to
do it any better than the SOS Band, or Janet Jackson - so why bother
competing? But in the same way that if Janet Jackson tried to do a
synthesizer album like we make, she probably wouldn't be able to do it as
well - although she'd make a bloody good job of it. We found a niche that we
think that we're good at.
 
Mark: Despite the glamour aspect that's promoted for the Human
League, you come across as very down-to-earth, even frank.
 
Susan: Well, we are - we live in Sheffield - you know -  what would you
expect? People have got a really wrong impression of us...
 
Mark: Well, you're the type of band that isn't afraid to say you are
terrified about the reaction you might get with this "come-back"...
that's not something your usual music star would ever say...
 
Susan: Well, I think they probably do to the pals. And even if they don't say it
to the pals - they think it to themselves. We all know it ain't going to last. We
don't live in cuckoo land. We understand. We've been doing this for fifteen
years. It could all collapse tomorrow. 
 
Most people have different ways of dealing with it. The glamour aspect isn't

important. The way that you look - to a certain extent - has to be slightly
important.You can't go on a video without any make-up or with dirty clothes. 
You're competing with Madonna and Michael Jackson - you have to make the
effort. You have to make the effort when you go on TV. You have to make the
effort when you have photos taken. 'Cause if you don't, you're not doing the
best that you can for your job, and the most important thing to us is for the
Human League to succeed. You know, if it became very trendy to stand in the
middle of the motorway on your head, we would probably do it. If we thought it
would help the long term career of the Human League, we would do it.
 
But we're not interested in self-publicity.  We don't go to show-biz parties. My 
friends are people that live in Sheffield. My friends aren't people that are in a
band who live in London.  I don't mix with those people - it's not because I don't
like them - I don't know them. How would I know if they were nice people or
not? They are probably fabulous. But I don't know them.  I mix with my friends.
I'm not interested in show-biz parties because that's not what the Human
League is about. The Human League is about communicating with people 
and that entails selling records and all the other things that go with it. It doesn't 
mean - you know - going down to the Ministry of Sound and having a few beers
with whoever... that doesn't interest me at all.
 
Mark: It seems as if you are increasingly becoming the front-person for 
he band. People used to concentrate on Phil.

 

Susan: No that's not true - I've always talked more than Philip! It's just that the media are so, erm, sexist - let's be truthful here. The media are so sexist they

just recall normally what Philip says. It's changing now. I hasten to add it's not quite the same anymore - although it's still a battle, and I presume it always

will be - because I'm a woman. For a long time the media just wouldn't accept me or Joanne. They didn't understand why we were there. They understood  why the lads were there - because the lads were the musicians - you know. They are starting to understand now - we're starting to get to them. They realise that after fifteen years, and we're still here, that we must have something.

 
Mark: Do you think you and Joanne had an influence on improving the
acceptability of women in music?
 
Susan: It's a really strange thing. It was the way I was brought up, and the way
that Joanne was brought up - was that everyone was equal. Joanne's family,
and my family, were run by our mothers, not our fathers. Our mothers ran all
the money side of things - just ran the whole household. Our fathers just did
the occasional bit of gardening. That's how it was.
 
When we joined the Human League I thing there was a slight twist in society -
and people were starting to accept women more... that they were equal... that
they did do as much.  I don't want to be more superior than a man - I just want
to be equally treated.   It's a hard job.  It's a hard task  I'm sure that you speak
to any female in pop music - I presume that if you're a black woman in pop 
music it's even harder. From my point of view, it's very very difficult. I'm from up
North as well. I've got a quirky accent, and they think that makes me stupid. I'm
a lot of things, but I ain't stupid.
 
People have ways of making you sound stupid - it doesn't bother me anymore -
it used to. I'm not as sensitive - I'm still very sensitive - but I'm not as sensitive
as I used to be.
 
Mark: Is that problem tied up in the London-centric music industry?
 
Susan: No, not just London - it's actually Western Europe. Certainly in places
in Germany and Scandinavia, they really can't understand why anyone would 
want to talk to me and Joanne. It is a big battle. It's much worse in Europe than
it is in England. I can't imagine what it will be like when we get to America.
Maybe America is more open about things like that - it always was before - but
we'll have to wait and see.
 
Mark: Do you get across to Europe often?
 
Susan: We're always there.  We're off again next week. This is like the first 
week where we've not actually been away. We just came back from Italy on 
Sunday, and we've got a week at home. But we'll be doing lots of interviews.
We did a TV thing here in the studio yesterday, and we've got a TV thing here 
tomorrow.
 
Mark: Do you enjoy intensity of media attention?
 
Susan: Ahhh, it's a bit of a shock at first. It's a bit of a shock when you haven't 
done very much for a long time. You just have to get into it. You know that the 
only way you're going to sell the record is for people to take a bit of notice of 
you. The only way they're going to take a bit of notice of you is if you go to
where they live - you know. You have to do it, it's part of the job. 
 
Now, promoting your record is as important as making it. It didn't use to be like
that, but it is now-days.
 
Mark: How long will you have to spend promoting the album?
 
Susan: We've got at least seven weeks in America. We've got to go to America 
the last week in April, the last week in May, all of June, and the first week in
July - so that's quite a hefty amount of promotion we've got to do in the US.
But you know, they've got very high hopes for the single and album in America,
and it has always been, surprisingly to us, one of our biggest markets. We've
always done really really well in America. We've had two number one singles in
the States - can't really knock it - we've got to do as much as we can to
promote it.
 
Mark: What have you been doing personally over the past couple of
years?
 
Susan: Nothing. The Human League is my whole life. I don't really have a life 
outside it. Everything I believe in is tied up in this group really. Everything else 
is secondary.
 
Mark: How does it work?  Are you always in the studio with Philip, or 
does he write the songs and you pop in later...?
 
Susan: What normally happens is someone tinkers about on one of the drum 
machines or one of the synthesizers, and someone else adds a bit, and then it 
gets put away, and then we think "oh, we've got to make an album now so we 
better get those few little bits of backing track out". There's never really a time
when someone comes in and says "here, this is a finished song".  The songs
that you hear on the finished CD don't end up being like that 'til right at the
mixing stage. They change continually.
 
The most significant thing with making this album was the producer. We had
the best producer for the Human League - someone who understood us, didn't
want to change anything about us - and he just made it the album that it is. It
wouldn't have been anywhere near as good if Ian hadn't been involved in it.
 
Mark: Your singing has vastly improved - you must have been working 
on that?
 
Susan: No , not at all. We've been doing it for a long time, and when you've 
been doing something for a long time you normally get better don't you? Both 
Joanne and I have got a lot more confidence.
 
Mark: I used to be able to easily distinguish between you two on the 
records - I can't anymore!
 
Susan: I don't understand how people say that - both Joanne and I are baffled.
It is so obvious to me when I'm singing, and so very obvious when Joanne's
singing. I sing "One Man in My Heart" - that's my song.
 
Mark: Are you looking forward to that one being released as a single?
 
Susan: No - I'm shit scared!  'Cause I'm scared, it's the biggest risk the Human
League have ever took. We've never had a single where Philip... what, he sings
four lines on it... and they're not even featured at all. It's a risk, it's a big risk.
 
It's a sort of little heart-rending song really - people are either going to love it or
they're gonna hate it. They're not going to like it because it's fantastically sung. 
They're not going to like it because it's musically wonderful. It's all very simple -
but that's all what it's about. It's still a risk - people just want the Human League 
to be all three of us - and not me featured more. You know what I'm saying? 
We don't know.  It is a risk. We didn't decide on it as a single  it was the record 
company - we've left everything up to them.
 
Mark: I hate to bring nostalgia back into the conversation, but I reckon
the start to "These are the Days" is, ironically, very similar to the first 
single you guys ever did together, "Boys and Girls".
 
Susan: God - I don't even...You know - that's the first time anyone's said that.
I'll have to put that to everyone when I see them all later on. It's not intentional.
But it [These are the Days] is a swipe at nostalgia. We are saying don't look
back, the past wasn't as great as you think, the future can be better, you can 
only make it better, but you can't make it better by sitting harping on how 
wonderful the past was.
 
Mark: As for the glamour, you and Joanne once said that Phil had
terrible dress sense and you needed to dress him - do you still do that?
 
Susan: No!  That probably wasn't true - we lie a lot you know...
 
Mark: I've become aware of that over the years...!
 
Susan: We tell an awful lot of bloody lies when we do interviews...! erm - no, no 
one's ever dressed Philip.  Philip wouldn't.... it's like Philip or Joanne trying to 
dress me - all hell would let lose! No Philip dresses himself - he always has
done!
 
Mark: You have always seemed to be yourself - not manufactured....
 
Susan: It wouldn't work you see.  We're not like that. We are what we are. The 
idea of someone trying to sort of choreograph us - make us dance in a certain 
way on TV - we'd all be laughing, because we couldn't do it. It's not what we're 
about. In the same way that if someone started to say "you've got to wear these 
sorta clothes" - we'd just be looking at them, like...!
 
It's funny because at the record company - you know that everyone now has a
stylist - and because we won't use one the record company now refers to it as
the "S-word" when we're involved.
 
What you see is what you get. If you see us on a night out in Sheffield you'd see
us looking exactly the same as you'd see us on the video. It's not contrived - it's
just the way that we are.
 
Mark: Getting back to the "lies in interviews" theme.... there's sometimes 
a perception that Phil never takes them seriously, talking off the top of
his head...
 
Susan: We all talk off the top of our heads sometimes -  you can't just pick on 
Philip - we all do it. Anyway, you can say something that you desperately
believe in that day, and the next day you might watch a TV programme which 
completely changes your mind on something.
 
Mark: Hey, thanks for your time.  I've really enjoyed speaking with 
you - good luck with the album and singles.
 
Susan: That's OK, thanks very much.