Future Music March 1996

this is phil talking...

'I want to tell you, what I found to be true'…and after nearly 20 years of fronting The Human League, Phil Oakey has found
out a lot: about technology; about success; about failure; and now about success again. Andy Jones learns a lot too…

Analogue sounds are great. In this E-driven world of smiley faces, the sounds produced by a sweeping synth filter are enough to rush any self-respecting club goer into a world of manic delight, Four-on-the-floor beats from drum machines released over a decade ago are still pounding from the PA rigs within these under-watered and over-crowded happy places.
Analogue is in, digital is out.
But for some reason, the analogue thrill did not start with swallowing a pill back in 1987 with a thousand other funksters in a field in the middle of nowhere. It took root back in the 70s when Roxy Music and David Bowie were the nearest you could get to innovative, and electronic instruments were alien gadgets used by a bunch of clever German blokes or half hour solos artists from pomp rock.
Then a new breed of British artist picked up the crumbs from punk and plugged them into the mains, to inspire a completely new sound that would breed an altogether new era in music; an era that everybody from the techno acts of Detroit, the house acts of Frankfurt and the warp acts from Sheffield owe at least a passing nod of gratitude to.
But, while the Foxx-driven force of Ultravox and the Numan-angst of Tubeway Army made the transition to the synth over a respectable time period, there was only one
UK band that immersed itself, from conception, entirely in electronics for 'pop'. Enter The Human League. These four lads could give Kraftwerk a run for their money in the IQ stakes. Grabbing the synth by its knobs, they created two of the starkest, yet emotional, futuristic masterpieces ever recorded - Reproduction and Travelogue.
And so, in that confused world of late the late 70s, the forces of image and melody became the antidote to punk. The guitar was suddenly yesterday's spit-ridden corpse, lying under a sheen of disparate chords and mohicans. The synth was the new law and the crass haircutted, frilly-shirted pretty boys of New Romanticism were the sheriffs.
And The Human League were ready...
 

IT WOULD BE EASY TO SAY THAT THE REST IS HISTORY. The Human League had, by late 1981, lost two members to Heaven 17 and gained Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley who are still in the line-up today. After faltering slightly with the single Boys And Girls, success arrived in the shape of the mega-selling album Dare which firmly established the band as the side-parting of synth pop. They were massive - hit followed hit, and their success seemed assured. But towards the end of the 80s, a combination of changing musical fashion and the re-emergence of indie sent The Human League out into a wilderness where even thir record company seemed ashamed of them.
Today, you could say that the synth revival has saved them. You could say that the underground dance culture is now paying its respects. You could say that 30-something journalists, responsible for much of the band's initial criticism, are now harking back to their youth. Whatever the reason, The Human League are back, charting at no.6 in 95 with the Octopus album (on East West) and four top 40 singles: Tell Me When (no.6); One Man In My Heart (no.13); Filling Up With Heaven (no.36); and Stay With Me Tonight (no.40). And this re-found success has come by use of the technology the band started out with all those years ago.

 

In the Beginning…

So why the synthesizer back in 1978?

"The fact was," Phil Oakey remembers, "that we (the original line-up of Phil, Philip Adrian Wright, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh) really liked what pop had turned into with David Bowie - suddenly there were new sounds. I lived my life for Bowie and Roxy Music for four or five years - I don't think I could have got through my adolescence without them, but they were using traditional instruments because that's all there was. We were interested in innovation. Suddenly, there was the synthesizer and we were knocked out. Hearing Walter Carlois' soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange totally launced us in to it."
This early interest led Ohil to his first experiences in programming synths - more through necessity than choice…
"I had to learn it otherwise I'd be useless," he explains. "I went mad on it - did things like take DX7 books on tour. I can program DX7s and most people can't."
But despite the fact The Human League were one of a small minority of bands experimenting with
electronics, they weren't aware that they would be that influential.
"All we knew was that it was fantastic and that we liked it. Occasionally I get requests to hear those tapes and it still amazes me to hear what (Ian and Martyn) were doing.
"They could have made those tapes in 1977/8 for listening to as the dawn of the synthesizer sound in 1996 and they are exactly the same atmospherically as what we have now."

While we're on the subject, considering the current crop of dance pioneers, have The Human League ever felt left behind?
"Not really because we don't think anyone has ever used the stuff in a more up-to-date way than we did," challenges Oakey. "They've got nice tunes and they've got nice sounds, but then, so had we years before. It's only when someone takes it further that you fell left behind. I still think that we work harder on our synths than any of the people in dance. They've got that brave attitide and they bang it down in five minutes and that's brilliant,"
So if The Human League's early work is so similar to much of today's sound, what about revisiting it with the intention or re-working it for the 90s audience?
"I've got a compilation in mind of what we did before Dare, using stuff on Virgin and putting it on a good value CD. I had an idea to get a certain amount of remixing done with good packaging. Some of the originals did not have mastertapes. I've always wanted to (remix tracks) but that sort of went wrong with the Greatest Hits we have just done on Virgin Records. It cost a lot and although it was very good, it didn't really take off."
"People have got a love of the way things were. That wouldn't apply to the pre-Dare stuff. On Dare, it was much more chordy which makes it harder to remix. I would love to do it, but the people at Virgin probably aren't going to rush into it although they are very nice now - it's like the company is coming to life again."

But if those tracks were to be revisited, then surely this would mean consulting the members of the band that left before the world-wide success of Dare? Surprisingly though, Phil does not see this as a problem…
"Ian has still got some bits of gear in our studio. He's been in a lot. I've not seen Martyn as he sticks in London. He was amazing at what he did. The way he played the keyboard without any training was great. Ian is also a great programmer, our inticate programmer in the old days."
So, two eras of electronic music could be merged to produce stark new recordings. By this stage, you get the impression that Phil is much more interested in rough and experimental doodlings than the synth pop for which he and the rest of the team are now famous for. Why not producxe some then? He is, after all, only a stones throw away from Warp Records in Sheffield, home of Autechre. B12 et al.
"We don't have a choice of what we do," Phil reveals with some exasperation. "We do what is expected of us and it fills up the time. If you heard our demo tapes (for Octopus), they sound a lot like LFO or something. We have to layer it up and we have the chords and we have to turn it into a pop song. The bit that I really enjoy is making daft sounds from synthesizers."

It is a shame then that commercial concerns are standing in the way of artistic freedom…
"Who does what they want to do? You do what you want to do for a couple of years in your life if you are lucky."

But surely Phil Oakey, now the comeback king of synths, is in a better position than most to use his time in a way that he wants?
"No I'm not. I've got a mortgage and I can see the money running out all the time

Wrestling with technology

Over the years, The Human League have appeared to have had an on-off relationship with technology. For Dare they embraced it but then the aspects of playing and working as a band came to the fore while the electronics got pushed into third place.
"It was just that you lose your guts as you get older," reveals Phil. "You know everyone turns into a Tory. For three LPs we said, 'We are going to do it with synths, we are not even going to put a bass frum on', despite the fact that thousands of people stood in front of us and said, 'You can't have a dance record without a bass drum'. We said, "We are not going to, we are going to make our own or fail', and it didn't matter because we had no money anyway.
"But eventually you start giving a bit of respect to the people you work with which is a bit of a mistake. You make a compromise because you work with fantastic musicians and let them do what they want after a while."
So does Phil regret any aspects of the ensuing low period in the 80s?
"No, I don't regret anything. I didn't enjoy it but I don't regret it. In Christmas 1984 we really had no future left - it could easily have been all over - and in Christmas 1995 were at least there in the game. We had a really hard time but I think that's what happens to people when they succeed beyond their expectations,
especially when you are succeeding in an area that you have always thought of as being a bit silly."

 

And Now

…we get to Octopus, the album that has heralded a return to form for The Human League and, not perhaps by coincidence, a return to the technology, now given vintage status, that they started with. And as Phil Oakey explains, they do not have a problem with being seen as one of the late arrivals on the current analogue-hungry music scene.
"You can feel the pull of fashion. I tend to use fashion in a bigger sense than most people. I think everything we do is related to fashion and now that synths are the thing unless you want to be old-fashioned. To be honest we got back the bandwagon mainly because Vince Clarke was the first to go publicly back into analogue and we just sort of joined in."
Why worry about being late to the party when you started the party in the first place? Newer bands may have been using their analogue gear more in recent years, but The Human League used it first and kept most of it for this second phase.
"We expanded the things we've got. While Ian Stanley (the producer) was here he bought a Roland System 700 which we used a lot. We borrowed 808 State's (ARP) 2600 and that's when we got into Oberheims. Tony Wride brought over the SEM (an Oberheim module). Fantastic for your crisp old-fashioned sounds. Totally different filters and different from anything we'd used. We'd never had a synth with a 3-way filter - always low-pass - apart from the Yamaha CS30 which we never learned how to use."

 

The current fad

According to the popular music press, we are in-line for the rebirth of New Romanticism, In fact, along with a new breed of Romo bands, there are also rumours of new material from the likes of Heaven 17. All we need is Spandau Ballet and Adam And The Ants, and those haircuts will be back…
"It would be great to be able to resist it. I don't know if any of the bands who are in it want to be involved. We took a band on for the first half of the tour called In Aura who everyone told us were Romo but I think they said they weren't. But
they have some big shirts! They were really good - I'm listening to their demo at the moment. It's great if some good music comes out of it. I don't care what they look like anymore."
Still on the press topic, The Human League used to be ridiculed in some quarters. Now, however, they are very much the darlings of the weeklies…
"It's nice getting good reviews. You can really take a lot of notice of what people say. The worst thing you can do is try and please the fans. The journalists are probably right. They were probably kids when our biggest stuff was coming out so they have an affection for it. That's one thing. The other is that people are beginning to realise that whether they are good or not, the Oasises or the Blurs are still dinosaurs. If you really want to go and listen to folk music or go to a museum and see people playing a lute, you might as well go and see Oasis or Blur. It's old-fashioned, the instrumentation is old fashioned. If you've got a stupid interest in innovation, then it's no good. Synthesizer music is still the most up-to-date music and that includes almost throwing all the sampler stuff away that came along, because that is just a clever way of using old recordings."
And the next step?
"We've got to do the album that Octopus should have been. It's got to have more tracks. I think Ian Stanley wants to get more involved in the writing so he'll be a big component. We've all got the songs, the subjects and the titles, which is
how we start.
"It took four years to write the nine songs on Octopus. We gave them to Virgin and they said, 'Do you want to leave the label?'! That's alright though. They did us a favour, although we were a bit miffed at the time. They had a tape with Tell Me When on…it did so well, I still can't believe it. It was up there for weeks. Just brilliant."
It's this kind of almost naïve surprise that typifies The Human League of 1996. Susannne Sulley comes in as we are finishing off the interview. She and the rest of the band are at the end of an endless PR round for the latest single from Octopus and will soon be going straight back into the studio to start work on the next album. She talks as if it were 15 years ago and this is the first time 'round. What comes across is the renewed enthusiasm for the task ahead and the fact that nothing is taken for granted anymore. Fashions, dictated by the press and the pill, maybe more important than anything else in 1996, but it's always nice to

see and hear one band sticking to their guns and being genuinely surprised at

success, even after 15 years. And it seems that there's plenty more to come.

 

What Phil has found to be true…

 

On analogue synths

It's easy to program your standard stuff which people will say 'Oh yeah, Kraftwerk' which is in fact the sound of synths. It's harder to push it a couple of steps beyond this. I think Vince Clarke has cornered the market in not over-processing the synth sound, getting the pure sound of a synth out and accompanying it. He's a brilliant songwriter. There's no point in us doing that. We are synthing it but going a little bit harder taking it through two or three synths and two or three effects, and then putting it through a vocoder."

 

On S + S
"I'm not interested in samples. If it's got samples then forget it. The whole idea of The Human League, right from the start, is that we make the sounds and that we avoid the use of microphones. We don't record it, we make it."

 

On physical modelling
"We haven't found these synths very exciting. Even the new ones, like the Nord Lead, trying to reproduce the old sounds. As soon as it has a load of control things, and aftertouch and polyphony, I'm sort of turned off immediately. I've never tried programming (a physical modelling synth).
I'm not fond of software as a sound-producing thing. We've had too many bad experiences with software. It's a big cloudy area where you have an expert saying 'this is going to be better than anything else - it's in the software', and they are usually talking crap. The amount of times I've heard 'our next digital synth is going to sound like a Moog…'
"They say it's easy and that you can take the characteristics and turn it into software. That' is so naïve. I think they underestimate the depth of the analogue instabilities and how really random 'random' is.
"They also underestimate the psychoacoustic effects - joe public out there knows the difference between a good hi-hat and a bad one. It's the most tiny of details but they don't take that into account."

 

On sampling
"We use it as part of our recording process. If we have made a great bass drum which takes a bit of time then we are not going to put up with what we used to put up with where two beats would be good and three would be bad. We get the good one and record it using the sampler.. We don't take other people's recordings. We don't really use the sound of the real world, that's the thing."

 

The Oakey File

Describe each track on Octopus with the first word that comes into your head:
Tell Me When
: "Meaningless"
These Are The Days: "Marvin Gaye"
One Man In My Heart: "Unfinished"
Words: "Grease (the film)"
Filling Up With Heaven: "Satisfying"
House Full Of Nothing: "On-U Sound"
John Cleese: Is He Funny?: "Italian"
Never Again: "Frustrating"
Cruel Young Lover: "Exciting"

 

Albums
Reproduction: "Unfinished"
Travelogue: "Brave"
Dare: "Overrated"
Love And Dancing: "Favourite"
Hysteria: "Empty"
Crash: "Underated"
Romantic: "New Dawn"
Octopus: "A good plan"

 

Phil’s Top Synths

(In alphabetical order)

Exclusively Analogue: The Aviator (only 30 custom models in existence)

"It has a lot of Oberheim stuff in it. It has both the Oberheim and Moog filter which a lot of people are using at the moment."

Oberheim Xpander

"It is incredibly smooth. We have to be dense about what we do and this is full of modulations."

Roland Jupiter 6 "A compromise between the 4 and the 8. The 4 has a fantastic sound and the 8 you can do a lot with."

Roland System 100M

"Because you can build it forever. You can keep going and never run out of what you want to do."

Yamaha DX7

"It is interesting conceptually; it shows the difference between Japanese and Western instruments. We think that if things are defined then they are easier to use and the Japanese think it if they are all the same. The modulator and oscillator on the DX7 are the same and the Japanese thought this would make it easier. In fact it made it harder."

 

On Tour - it is live!

Phil Oakey…

"The Times said 'Go and see Phil and the girls with their backing tapes.'
There were no backing tapes on the 95 tour, of course. There was a little bit of sequencing but the majority was played. We had some terrific players and they worked themselves into the ground."

How easy were old songs such as Blind Youth and Being Boiled to rework?
"They were really easy and educational. To realise that in those days synths were so wide that all you needed was a bassline. I didn't even realise that Blind Youth was a bassline and that was it. We couldn't find anything for people to play!"
What other problems were there?

"I'm scared of my memory going because it is going and I had to learn one-and-a-half hours of songs and I didn't want to get the words wrong. It went surprisingly well. We are not particularly cocky anymore so we make a real effort to entertain."
What about the technical aspects?

"We took two OBMXs on tour - to take advantage of the way synth sounds were 10-15 years ago and also add programmability, polyphonics and so on but without a keyboard, so you don't end up with a guy who's got a grade whatever in piano coming along and taking over!"
Dave Beevers, the band's engineer takes up the story…

"We used the Bassstation rack for every bass sound - absolutely brilliant. The Vintage Keys, a bitch to programme but it saved a lot of work. We got into the Oberheim OBMX and that did a load of stuff. We know the Roland Super IX inside out and that also did a load - it's amazing. We took a Roland JD-800 for a remote keyboard and a few sounds. Neil Sutton took a JV-90 which he knows inside out. And that's about it.
"We didn't take computers, mainly because of the cost thing. I'm the eternal optimist - I didn't mind taking Macs as they are so easy to use. But the only thing sequenced on the tour was the bass drum. The hardest work was on the Octopus stuff because there is so much going on. It was a matter of taking it down so there wasn't much left - but keeping what was left recognisable."

 

That Big Kit List

 

Keyboards
ARP Axxe, Odyssey (White)
Casio CZ-1, CZ-101 (x2), VZ1
Korg 770, Mini 700S, Delta, Micro Preset, MS 10
Moog Minimoog
Oberheim 4 Voice
Roland: AX-1 Remotes (x3); JD-800; Juno 106 (x2); Jupiter 4; Jupiter 6; Jupiter 8; JX-3P; JX-8P x 2; SH-1000; SH-2000; SH-3A, SH-7; SH-101; System 100 Model 101 (x2); 180 3 -octave; 181 4-octave; 184 Poly 4CV
Yamaha: CS15; CS30; CS50; DX1; DX5 X2; DX7; PF 10

 

Drum machines
Boss: DR-P1 (x3); DR-P2( x2); DR-P3; DR-P4 (x2)
Linn 9000 (x2); LM-1
Roland: TR-727; TR-808; DDR-30; Drumatix (x2); PAD 5; PAD 8 (x2); R-8; R8-M
Simmons Analogue Drums
Yamaha DD10; MR10
Pearl SY-1 Syncussion

 

Guitar gear
Peavey Heritage amp
Roland Bolt 60 amp
Vox AC30 amp
Roland: GR-707 (x2); GR-303; GM-70; GR-33B; GR-300; GR-700 (x3)

 

Computers (Mac)
Quadra 650-32/500 CD; Quadra 650-24/500; IICX 24 /250; SE/30 ­ 10/100;
MacPlus; 5300 CS16/750
PowerBook
Audio Media II; Sample Cell II 32Mb; Sample Cell II 16Mb

 

Software
Blank Soft Alchemy
Digidesign Sound
Designer II
Galaxy Universal Librarian
MOTU Digital Performer
Opcode Studio Vision
Passport PRO 5
Steinberg Cubase Audio


Sequencers
ARP 1613
Doepfer MAQ 16/3
Roland MC-4B (x2); System 100104 (x3); TB-303
Yamaha QX1
Exclusively Analogue 16 STEP SEQ (x2)
 

Outboard (selected)
Akai: ME10D MIDI Delay; ME15F MIDI Dynamics controller; ME20A
MIDI Seq/ARP
Alesis: Enhancer; Alesis MICRO EQ (x2); Microverb (x2); S31Q
graphic (x2)
Aphex Aural Exciter
A + D Copyrite SCMS Stripper
Behringer Studio Parameteric (x2)
BSS DPR-402 compressor/
De-Esser
DBX 120X Boom Box, DBX X160 comp/limiter (x2)
Drawmer DL-241 compressor
Eventide H910 Harmonizer (x2)
Fostex 4030 controller (x2)
GB Spring Reverb
Kenton Pro 2 (x3); Pro 4 MIDI-CV convertors
Kepex 2 TR 804 8 Gates
Korg KMS30
Lexicon LXP 1 Multi effects
MXR Delay System 2 (x2)
Opcode Studio 5LX (x2)
Quantec Room Simulator
Roland: A110 MIDI Display (x2); MD-8 MIDI-DCB; MPU-101
SMS Jambox 4+
Urie 1176LN compressor
Yamaha: MEP4; MSS1; Q2031A Graphic; R1000 reverb; REV7 Multi effects

 

Studio
Technics SL1200 MK2 turntable (x2)
AMEK Angela 28 Input
Ampex A100 8-track
Fostex A-Series Desk, A80 8-track
Mitsubishi X-400 16-track
Otari: MTR 12 MK2 1/2"; MTR 90 24-track
Revox: B77 1/4"; PR99 1/4INC
Sony: TCD-D3 Portable DAT;, F1 PCM
Studiomaster 16:8:2
Tascam DA30 DAT
Trident Flexi Desk
Yamaha ProMix 01 (now Yamaha Programmable Mixer)